Tag Archives: Sabbath

- First Freedom: The Great Sabbath Debate, Part 2


Arrest Warrant, Charles Bibbins, 1909, Commonwealth v. A. Berson, et. als., Norfolk County (City of Chesapeake), Court Records, Criminal Papers, Local Government Records Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

In last week’s blog post, we learned about the efforts of two Richmond businessmen who lobbied to add an exception for non-Christians to Virginia’s Sabbath breaking law. An early 20th century criminal cause found in the Norfolk County (Chesapeake) court records illustrates that even this exception did not fully clarify the crime of violating the Sabbath.

Charles Bibbins and 27 other Norfolk County men employed by the Eustis Smelting Works were found guilty by a justice of the peace for violation of the Sabbath (Commonwealth v. A. Berson, et. als.). They appealed their convictions to the Norfolk County circuit court. The defendants were not being accused of “laboring at [their] own, or any other trade, or calling” on a Sunday, as Messrs. Levy and Ezekiel were in 1837. Rather they were convicted of being “engaged in business as merchandise merchants […] after sunset on Saturday and during the day commonly known as Sunday.” In essence, they were accused of violating “the exemption as to the Jews” by resuming their work on Saturday night rather than waiting for Sunday.

The case resulted in a ten-page opinion from the ironically named Judge J. T. Lawless, written in the form of an abbreviated dissertation on the history of the Sabbath. His Honor contended that prior to the enactment of the 1779 law by the General Assembly, “[a]t … read more »

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- First Freedom: The Great Sabbath Debate, Part 1


 Broadside, Sabbath Breakers, London, William Miller, 1671. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Source: WikiCommons.

The passage of the Statute for Religious Freedom by the General Assembly in 1786 guaranteed religious freedom to people of all faiths. However, Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, and other religious minorities continued to have concerns about worshiping freely. Their religious beliefs and practices did not conform to the mainstream Protestant beliefs and cultural customs of the day. They felt it necessary to file petitions with the General Assembly in an attempt to safeguard their religious practices.

The topic of the petitions could be something seemingly mundane as with one filed by Quakers from Surry County seeking permission to keep their hats on when greeting another person. They believed the custom of removing one’s hat to greet someone “originated in pride and superstition and that it [hat removal] is a mark of honor due only to the Supreme Being.” Other petitions were more controversial such as ones filed by a group of Quakers, Mennonites, Dunkards, and Tunkers asking to be exempted from military duty on religious grounds.

Some petitions filed by religious minorities were more easily accommodated than others. One religious tenet that proved difficult to accommodate was observance of the Sabbath. On 26 December 1792, the General Assembly passed a law entitled “An act for the effectual suppression of vice, and punishing the disturbers of religious worship, and Sabbath Breakers.” The portion of the act related … read more »

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