The Sabbath Eve (1851) by A. Johnson. >[Click on image to enlarge it.]


Strict sabbath observance or Sabbatarianism became a class-based source of conflict during the reign of Victoria, since to many, like the cartoonists of Punch, laws enforcing it seemed to apply only to the working classes who could not evade its restrictions by access to private men's clubs or homes with overworked servants. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word Sabbatarian, which was used in English at least as early as 1619, has three basic meanings: (1) Jewish observance of Saturday as a day or rest and prayer (its original meaning); (2) “A member of a Christian sect founded towards the close of the sixteenth century, the members of which maintained that the Sabbath should be observed on the seventh and not on the first day of the week; a Seventh-day Baptist.” (3) “A Christian who regards the Lord's Day as a Sabbath, deducing its obligation from the Fourth Commandment. Also, and more commonly, one whose opinion and practice with regard to Sunday observance are unusually strict.” [emphasis added].

The Sabbath as a divine (not human) institution and its benefits

As the article on Sabbath observance in John M'Clintock and James Strong's Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (1880) explains, because “the Sabbath is of Divine Institution it is be kept holy unto the Lord.” Christians observe many other days as holidays — that is, as occasions for religious services — but human beings designated them as such. “Not so the Sabbath. Hence the fourth commandment is ushered in with a peculiar emphasis — ‘Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.’” Having emphasized the divine origins of Sabbatarianism, M'Clintock and Strong explain its purpose — “that God may be worshipped, man instructed, nations benefited, and families devoted to the service of God.” Citing biblical texts, they point to seven advantages of Sabbath observance, for “to sanctify this day, we should consider it — ”

  1. a day of rest; not, indeed, to exclude works of mercy and charity, but a cessation from all labor and care;
  2. as a day of remembrance; of creation, preservation, redemption;
  3. as a day of meditation and prayer, in which we should cultivate communion with God (Rev. i, 10);
  4. as a day of public worship (Acts xx, 7; John xx, 19);
  5. as a day of joy (Isa. Ivi, 2; Psa. cxviii, 24);
  6. as a day of praise (Psa. cxvi, 12-14);
  7. as a day of anticipation, looking forward to that holy, happy, and eternal Sabbath which remains for the people of God.

Thus, the sabbath turns out to be, among many other things, a divinely created type of that eternal Sabbath — the afterlife in Heaven.

The effects of violating the Sabbath

Therefore, abandoning its strict observance, they claim, “would be unreasonable, unscriptural (Exod. xxxi, 13), and every way disadvantageous to the body, to society, to the soul, and even to the brute creation” — this last a point to which I shall return shortly. Nonetheless,

it is, however, awfully violated by visiting, feasting, indolence, buying and selling, working, worldly amusements, and travelling. "Look into the streets," says bishop Porteus, "on the Lord's day, and see whether they convey the idea of a day of rest. Do not our servants and our cattle seem to be almost as fully occupied on that day as on any other? As if this were not a sufficient infringement of their rights, we contrive, by needless entertainments at home and needless journeys abroad, which are often by choice and inclination reserved for this very day, to take up all the little remaining part of their leisure time.

In other words, the violation of the Sabbath, particularly by the wealthy, violates both human and animal rights! In fact, travelling on Sunday “add[s] one day more of torment to those generous but wretched animals whose services they hire; and who, being generally strained beyond their strength the other six days of the week, have, of all creatures under heaven, the best and most equitable claim to suspension of labor on the seventh.”

The evils arising from Sabbath-breaking are greatly to be lamented: they are an insult to God, an injury to ourselves, and an awful example to our servants, our children, and our friends. [IX, 197]

Attempts to enforce Sabbath observance

Although M'Clintock and Strong place particular emphasis on the way ignoring Sabbath observance by the wealthy violates the rights of both servants and animals, those who attempted to legislate on it mid-Victorian England ignored such matters, producing obviously class-based oppression — something the satirical magazine Punch quickly observed.

Three cartoons from Punch: Hypocrisy denouncing music and Sunday Finery?. Sunday Music as Cant Would Have it. Circumstances Alter Cases. Click on thumbnails for larger images.

In Hypocrisy denouncing music and Sunday Finery? a dissenting minister (identified by clothing) fulminates against violating Sabbath observance while in the background appears a carriage with driver and footmen that boasts the heraldic arms of its noble occupants. The class-based nature of attempts to enforce Sabbath observance appears much more clearly in a cartoon published a week later: Sunday Music as Cant would have it. A series of satirical cartoons identify the Archbishop of Canterbury solely as “Cant.” Here we see him (identified by his ecclesiastical robes and Oxbridge graduate's hat) beating a beer cask accompanied by an evangelical with a tract in his pocket and a red-nosed puritan with a liquor bottle in his. Finally, we see the obsequious Archbishop hat in hand with Queen Victoria, who unhappily tells him, “Well, My Lord — Then I suppose my Sunday band must be given up, too” Cant. responds, “Oh de-ar no, Your Majesty! That's quite a different thing!” As Punch saw it, the Church and its usual enemies, the Evangelicals, had banded together to violate the Sabbath and the rights of the working class.

As Philip V. Allingham has pointed out in his comments on a series of three Punch cartoons that appeared in July 1855, the magazine had earlier mocked “Lord Grosvenor's Revenge,” a parliamentary bill intended to prohibit the sale of beer on Sundays. “It gave rise to large meetings in Hyde Park and elsewhere, followed by riots. The Bill was subsequently repealed.“ Punch did its part to fan the flames.

Punch on the class implications of a law prohibited the sale of beer on Sundays, each “Dedicated to my Lord Robert Grosvenor”: Club. The Roadside Inn (I). The Roadside Inn (II).

The caption of the Club continues “Just a sandwich and a Nice Glass of Hock [a kind of wine] and Seltzer Water,” emphasizing how the legislation did not affect in the slightest the rich and powerful who belonged to private clubs. The other two cartoons, in contrast, show the effect upon the average Briton. In the first a policeman stands guard at “The Roadside Inn,” preventing two women with three small children from obtaining beer. Instead, they have only “A Mouthful of Dust and a Pull at the Pump.” The third quotes a London jurist:

Mr. Hall, Chief Magistrate at Bow Street, cannot discover any “inconvenience” in the present working of the Act, but recommends that the poor Sunday excursionist should “Strap a Knapsack on his Back, with Two or Three Bottles of Beer, and the Child to boot, sooner than the Sunday should be desecrated by Opening the Public-House.”

The cartoon depicts a working man's family on a Sunday excursion as the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street would have it: the overburdened husband holds an umbrella in his left hand, one child in his right, and a baby, picnic basket, and what seems to be a hat on his back while a small daughter walks beside him carrying a bottle. In the distance we catch sight of the mother pulling a wagon holding one or two children up a hill at the top of which tantalizingly appears a forbidden roadside inn (indicated by its freestanding sign).

Related Material


M'Clintock, John, and James Strong. Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (1880). New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894.

Last modified 4 October 2013