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 Was Sabbath breaking a crime?

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  • According to the Bible, breaking the Sabbath or not observing the day of the Lord was an offence punishable by death (Exodus Ch.31 v15).
  • To many Christians, observing the Sabbath has a two-fold meaning, comprising not working on a Sunday and attending Church.
  • In Britain, attending Church on a Sunday was made compulsory in Tudor Times. The Act of Uniformity passed by Edward VI in 1551 made it an offence not to attend Church on a Sunday. A further Act of Uniformity passed in 1559, soon after Elizabeth I ascended the Crown, also made it a crime not to attend but added that transgressors could be fined 12d for non-attendance.
  • Further restrictions on what people could do on a Sunday were passed in the 17th century. In 1618 it was decreed that you could participate in dancing, archery, leaping, vaulting, May games etc (although only after evening service) but bear and bull-baiting and other sports were forbidden. The Commonwealth era (1649-1660) was less permissive. Ordinances passed in 1650 and 1656 banned travelling and 'vainly and profanely walking' on a Sunday.
  • Nor was this the end of legislation. In 1780 the Sunday Observance Act was passed. This was an act "for preventing certain abuses and profanations of the Lord's Day, called Sunday." Amongst its measures were restrictions on who could work and at what trade, and rules governing places of entertainment. Some of these clauses are still in force today which is why pubs and clubs have to have a special licence for opening at certain times on a Sunday.
  • By the mid-19th century non attendance at Church was no longer an offence. Protestant Dissenters, Jews and Roman Catholics received a specific exemption in 1846 but the Act of Uniformity was still meant to be binding on Anglicans (those attending the Church of England). However, the punishment was now 'ecclesiastical censure'.
  • The use of stocks and the pillory was traditionally reserved for transgressors of what were deemed more minor offences and were most commonly used to punish vagrants. Their use was outlawed in 1837.

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