On the doom of Sabbath breakers

Sabbath Breakers, 1671An oft-recalled feature of nineteenth-century life in Scotland was reverence for the Lord’s Day. This, of course, in itself, was no new phenomenon. It had long been part of Scottish (and indeed British) Christianity. Nor was it either particularly distinctly Presbyterian, or even Protestant. But this reverence took on new passion and legal seriousness in Victorian society. And the unearthing and recalling of such stories – in their various incarnations and evolutions – makes teaching church history a heap of fun. Consider, for example, the horrifying testimony of Robert Wallace (who had been minister of two Edinburgh parishes, professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University, editor of The Scotsman, and Member of Parliament) from his Life and Last Leaves:

It would be impossible for me to describe the feeling which was created in my mind by the weekly recurrence of our Sabbatic observances. All of a sudden everything that I had been doing last week had become wicked. Latin, Greek, Mathematics, were now wicked; so were marbles, ‘tig’, and races; so were walking, except to church, laughing, singing, except psalms, playing the flute, ‘fiddle’, or any instrument of music, reading newspapers (specially wicked), or anything except the Bible and ‘good’ books. There was scarcely anything that was safe to do from our rising in the morning until our going to bed at night, except reading the Bible, singing psalms, saying or joining in prayers, hearing sermons preached in church or at home. Breakfast, dinner and tea were permitted, because they were necessary to the execution of the sabbath programme; but even during these meals we were not to speak our own words or think our own thoughts. To me the day was a terror, it was so difficult to keep it perfectly; and I knew the doom of sabbath-breakers … On Sundays we were usually engaged for fifteen hours in round numbers, directly or indirectly, connected with the special avocations of the day. Of these, fully seven were devoted to exercises of Biblical worship, including the reading of ‘good’ books, tracts, sermons, and other literature having a Biblical reference; three hours and a half to conversation on the sermons, services, and other religious topics; two hours and a half to preparations for worship, dressing and changing our dress, and walking to and from church; and two hours to meals. I am distributing the conversation, of course, over the journeying and the meals, and allowing each its strict quota.

And we might add further examples: of using only one beater instead of two; of only washing the face, of the fact that the Free Presbyterian website doesn’t operate on the Sabbath, etc. Or that delightful story recalled by George Mackay Brown, in Letters from Hamnavoe, about John Louttit, Kirk Officer of the Secession Church and ‘Sabbath Breaker’:

Last week we followed the Rev Peter Learmonth through Stromness, to find out the number of ale houses along the street in the year 1839. He was somewhat shocked and shaken to discover that there were 38.

This week, we will take a sideways glance at another ecclesiastic figure from the early nineteenth century. There he stands, John Louttit, Kirk Officer of the Secession Church, appointed 22nd March 1814, with a harpoon in one hand and the big Kirk bible under his other arm.

The Kirk Session had given long and anxious consideration to the appointment of its first Kirk officer. They debated the matter for six months and more. He must above all be a pious and good-living man. The election fell upon John Louttit. His salary was to be one guinea a year, plus threepence at every baptism.

For more than eight years we must assume that John Louttit performed his office faithfully and well: carrying up the bible to the pulpit on the Sabbath, keeping the new building above the Plainstones swept and garnished, touching his forelock to the elders in the kirk door.

Then, suddenly, a dreadful thing happened. On 15th October 1822, John Louttit was charged with Sabbath profanation. It was as if a thunderbolt had fallen into the sheepfold.

What had happened, it seems, was that early one Sunday morning John Louttit was lighting his blink of fire in his house at the pier (and it was a terrible job sometimes to get those red peats from the side of Brinkie’s Brae to take light) when he heard folk running along the street, and the sound of boats being pushed down the nousts. ‘Tutcut,’ said John Louttit. He made his breakfast, a poor meal of bread and buttermilk. (You could hardly live like a king on a guinea a year.)

More young men ran past his window. Oars splashed in the harbour. The women – who should have been putting on their best grey shawls for the morning service – were clucking like hens in every door. John Louttit heard the word ‘whales’. That was the cause of all the excitement. There was a school of whales somewhere in the west. The pagans of Stromness were setting forth – Sabbath or no – for the great round-up and slaughter.

John Louttit, putting on his stiff white collar, debated the matter seriously. He was one of the best whale hunters in Orkney. Nothing delighted him more than to yell and clash metal behind a blundering panic-stricken herd; until at last, in blind panic, they hurled themselves to death on the beach at Warbeth or Billia-Croo. Then it was time for the knives and the barrels. John Louttit saw in his mind’s eye, with great vividness, the red whale steaks. Well salted, a man could live off them all winter. He could sit up late, over a yarn and a dram, by the light of a tallow candle that came out of the whale also.

Sabbath profanation was a serious matter. On the other hand, a man was permitted on such a day to do ‘works of necessity and mercy’. Winter was coming on and John Louttit’s cupboard was not overstocked. A guinea a year was not a princely salary … John Louttit removed his stiff, high, white collar. He took the sharp flensing knife from the cupboard. He put on his oldest moleskin trousers; they were likely to be well spattered with blood before sundown. John Louttit took down the oars from the rafters. He went gravely down the steps to his dinghy.

The minister had to carry the bible up to the pulpit himself that Sabbath. A week after the original charge, John Louttit made a second appearance before the Session. It is recorded that, at the meeting of 22nd October, ‘he did not express that sense of the evil of such a notorious profanation of the Lord’s day as was wished or expected. It was agreed that he should be rebuked before the congregation on Saturday first.’

That is the one brief tantalising glimpse that we have of John Louttit. There is no end to the story. We have no idea whether he was sacked in disgrace, or reinstated; if so, perhaps he had to give all his whale meat and tallow to the poor, and go on living piously and poorly on his salary of fourpence a week.

Now it is all very well for us ‘moderns’, for whom Sunday has all-too-often come to be little different from other days of the week, to respond to such Sabbatarianism with a polite smile, but it is worth asking ourselves whether an institution like the Evangelical Sabbath could have persisted so long as it did if it were not at least partially successful in meeting the religious and other needs of God’s people during the late nineteenth century.


  1. Jason, that begs the question of what exactly the needs were that their Sabbath observance met. No doubt there was a sense in which it was a day of “rest” and perhaps even “gladness.” But so often, it seems there was a presumption then that the Sabbath could be kept in way that the other commandments couldn’t. And the result was that it ended up being a kind of day where wrongs and rights were carefully measured.


  2. I look forward to reading your next post. Like you, I’m a Presbyterian minister, and while I take exception to the Divines’ articulation of Sabbath observance, I do see and even feel the need for the Lord’s Day to be the Lord’s Day – but not a ledger day.


  3. Reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s insistence on the need for sabbath observance, although of course he’s moved to it from very different theological commitments and concerns.


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.