Friday, June 12, 2015

How Sabbath and ‘The Book of Sports’ drove 35,000 Puritans to America

© 2015 Christy K Robinson

 When we think of "Sabbath" today, we think of taking a break or a sabbatical. When our ancestors "remembered the Sabbath day to keep it holy," they took their lives in their hands.
The English Parliament of 1584-1585, on behalf of the growing Puritan movement, passed a bill requiring strict observance of the Sabbath (Sunday, the first day of the week), which forbade markets and fairs, and recreation such as bear-baiting, hunting, hawking, and rowing barges—during church services (either the afternoon wasn’t as much of an issue, or they intended to take up the matter of the entire day at a later time). It was discussed for eight days over two weeks before passing and being sent to the Queen.
That this Bill concerning the Sabbath, as hath been before observed, was long in passing the two Houses, and much debated betwixt them, being committed, and Amendments upon Amendments added unto it, which as appeareth in this place was the cause of some Disputation between the Lords and the said Commons.  

Queen Elizabeth I vetoed the bill, in line with her policy of religious tolerance in her realm. (Though Catholics were still on the Naughty List for decades to come.)
And yet at last when it was agreed on by both the said Houses, it was dashed by her Majesty at the last day of this Parliament, upon that prejudicated and ill followed Principle (as may be conjectured) that she would suffer nothing to be altered in matter of Religion or Ecclesiastical Government.

(That sounds like the parliamentary recorder/secretary disagreed with the Queen's decision!) 

Puritan Nicholas Bownde wrote a scholarly book in 1595, True Doctrine of the Sabbath, urging Christians to sanctify the Sabbath as a day of meditation and spiritual exercises (morning and afternoon preaching services). These Sabbaths were meant to follow the Old Testament verses about keeping the Sabbath holy by not working or “doing your own pleasure” on that special day, as it was a moral imperative. They were to be solemn and sober, with no secular speech or acts. Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury decreed that copies of the book be collected and burned in 1600 and 1601.

In 1601, the House of Commons passed a bill that only restricted markets and fairs on Sundays, but the House of Lords killed it. Queen Elizabeth died two years later, and King James I came to the throne. His authority was threatened by Puritans and other Calvinist dissenters (like the group who became the Pilgrims), whose influence was growing ever stronger and whose sermons and pronouncements conflicted with the King’s authority. One of his first acts was to commission a new version of the Bible which stressed the sovereignty of God and the hierarchy of worldly kings and princes, and the Authorized Version (or as many of us know it, the King James Version—KJV) was published in 1611.

However, those dissenters continued to agitate all over England. In 1617-18, the King went on a progress through the country, holding courts and meeting his subjects. One of the complaints he heard was that the usual work week being Monday through Saturday, from dawn to dusk, people needed time for recreation, markets, fun fairs, visiting family, and the like. People were required to attend services on Sunday morning, but needed the afternoon break. And the Puritans were stopping that by holding two long services on Sunday.

As answer to the problem of overwork and an unbalanced life—and that should he need soldiers for war, they’d be puny and weak—King James wrote The Book of Sports. In modern terms, it uses three pages of 12-point, single-space type, so it wasn’t large, but it was mighty! The book directed his subjects to go to church on Sunday morning and religious holidays as required, but to spend the afternoon enjoying life. He commanded that “no lawful recreation shall be barred to our good people,” and listed appropriate activities for those days:
such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used: so as the same be had in due and convenient time, without impediment or neglect of divine service: and that women shall have leave to carry rushes to the church for the decorating of it, according to their old custom; but withal we do here account still as prohibited all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull-baitings, interludes and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling.

Really? Bowling? That could be because one objective was to win the most points by knocking down the kingpin (was that seen as sedition?), or because of this:
The Character of a Bowling-Alley and Bowling-Green A Bowling-Green, or Bowling-Ally is a place where three things are thrown away besides the Bowls, viz. Time, Money, and Curses, at the last ten for one.  

Catholics and non-conformists were barred from Sunday recreation because they didn’t attend approved Church of England services. Further, the King commanded that The Book of Sports be read in every church, and held the bishops, ministers, and churchwardens accountable that it should be done “by the book.”

King James died in 1625, and the book was reissued several times by his son, Charles I. Charles and the Parliament were at odds over authority and taxation, and the Scots and English churches were in conflict with their respective archbishops, Spottiswoode and Laud. In an attempt to control the Puritan (and other non-conformists) uprising, King Charles decreed that The Book of Sports be read again in all churches, and churches must conform to CofE’s Book of Common Prayer—which was also a hated book. If Puritan ministers would not conform, they were “silenced” (removed from the pulpit and not licensed to preach) and some were put in prison. And prison could be a death sentence.
…the Bishop, and all other inferior churchmen and churchwardens, shall for their parts be careful and diligent, both to instruct the ignorant, and convince and reform them that are misled in religion, presenting them that will not conform themselves, but obstinately stand out, to our Judges and Justices: whom we likewise command to put the law in due execution against them.

However, there was a clause in Sports that many Puritan ministers latched onto.
...either constraining them to conform themselves or to leave the county.

Leave the country.

The thing is, the King didn't want them to leave the country because he would lose out on all that lovely tax base. If they sneaked out, they couldn’t go to Catholic France or Spain, and Lutheran (pretty close to Catholic!) Germany and Austria were at war with France, Italy, and Spain. Some, like the Pilgrims of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, went to the Netherlands for ten years before they sailed to Plymouth. One of their leaders, their pastor John Robinson, is my ancestor 12 generations back. His chapter on the first-day Sabbath, in his book, A Just and Necessary Apology, was published in 1625, the year he died.

For the vast majority of Puritans, though, there was no place to go but America, still under English rule, but a safe 3,000 miles by ocean journey away from the King and archbishops.

Some ministers escaped the long arm of the law by hiding with the help of sympathizers like the Earl of Lincoln—until the Earl was imprisoned. The senior pastor of the Boston St. Botolph’s, Rev. John Cotton, was one of the many ministers who had to hide before escaping to New England. Ten percent of the citizens of Boston, Lincolnshire, emigrated to Massachusetts Bay Colony with or shortly after John Cotton went there. (Cotton had been asked to come to Massachusetts several times, but declined until he was pushed out of England by fear of prison.)

William and Anne Marbury Hutchinson followed Rev. Cotton to Boston. William and Mary Dyer were married in the Anglican church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but in 1635 were admitted to the Puritan membership in Boston’s First Church (and they were exiled from it in 1638). 

Entire towns in Essex and many other counties emptied and sailed to the new Boston between 1630 and 1640. It’s estimated that about 35,000 people moved to New England during that decade. When the English Civil Wars began, with Puritans in ascendancy, thousands of the emigrants moved back to England. In May 1643, The Book of Sports was burned by angry Puritans. 

Puritans now controlled the government, and they burned the hated
"Book of Sports" in May 1643.

People who had had such a threat of persecution and death were deeply convicted of the truth of their beliefs. They followed the Ten Commandments and other Old Testament laws to the letter, to prove to God that they were worthy of salvation. The fourth commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy, was one of the factors that caused their persecution in the first place. Obedience to God was worth moving across the world, or dying for.

Both on the ships, and in New England, they followed their stringent regulations about Sabbath-keeping. The English church holidays like Christmas and Easter were prohibited, and people were expected to work as usual. Church services with required attendance were held morning and afternoon on Sundays. During the Sabbath there was no alcohol consumption, no unseemly walking, no court or corporal punishment, no work that could be done another day (like laundry or beer brewing), no swimming, no buying or selling, no games or dances, no unnecessary travel, no hunting or fishing. The music or literature was sacred, never secular. Sabbath began at sundown on Saturday evening and ended during the night before Monday.

I had ancestors in the Salem, Massachusetts, area who emigrated there as Puritans, fleeing The Book of Sports style of Christianity. But at some point they converted to Baptist beliefs and risked beatings, fines, and imprisonment. They moved to New Jersey and formed a town and congregation there. They became Sabbatarians (seventh-day/Saturday was their holy day) in the 1710s and shared their Baptist minister with a first-day congregation. That branch stayed Seventh-day Baptist from then until the 20th century.

Some people who are from, or still in, Sabbatarian denominations (Seventh-day Adventist, Seventh-day Baptist, Church of God, etc.) have experienced that list of prohibitions, and it doesn’t seem foreign at all. Some see that 17th-century culture and marvel at the legalism of the Puritans and their spiritual descendants. But perhaps we can look at that strength of character, that integrity, that obey-God-rather-than-men resolve, and admire them. We can remember that we carry the DNA of those godly pioneers in our bodies and that moral fiber in our culture.

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16 NIV.

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Christy K Robinson

is author of these books:
Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  
Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  
Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)
Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)
William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)
Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.) 


  1. Responses from Facebook:

    Stephen Lillioja—Very interesting discussion

    Ken Horn—Thoroughly enjoyed every word of this article.

    K W Hartwick—Good information, who knew that how you kept your holy day could start a new nation.

  2. Responses from Facebook:

    S DeVore—Very interesting article. I didn't know this about the Sabbath.

    Christy K Robinson—Other names for it were First Day and Lord's Day. They didn't want to call the days by pagan gods. But in my reading, it was most often called the Sabbath.

    S DeVore—It's amazing that they were willing to abide by the Roman change from the Biblical 7th day to the 1st day.

    Christy K Robinson—That was one of the big issues in both the Bownd book of 1595, and of the Rev. John Robinson book published in 1625. They bolstered their claims by saying that the resurrection, Pentecost, and the practice of the apostles meeting on the First Day were the New Testament Sabbath. It was also discussed at the Westminster theology convocation in the 1640s.
    (Rev. John Cotton longed to attend that Westminster conference in England, but wasn't allowed. I suspect that Winthrop and others were afraid Cotton wouldn't come back to Boston when it was over.)
    So why don't most modern first-day churches consider the whole day as sacred? They go to church, then work or play or have family time. Because they say that Sunday church attendance is biblical tradition for fellowship, study, and corporate worship, but it's not the new Sabbath, because the Sabbath of the New Covenant is resting--all the time, every day, *today*--in a completed salvation in Jesus Christ (Hebrews chapter 4, the better Sabbath).

  3. Responses from Facebook:

    C Brown—I read through the article. Now tell me if I'm interpreting this incorrectly: the Puritans rebelled b/c the King (& his church) gave the parishioners too much liberty on the Sabbath? And left the country over it? In today's world most people love to have liberty, but you have to try to think like a Puritan, it appears. The stricter & harsher they were on their church goers the better, right?? I cannot wrap my modern mind around suffering a torturous crossing of the Atlantic b/c some others were having too much fun on Sunday.

    Christy K Robinson—Yes, it was that, BUT also that the King was trying to force them to use the Book of Common Prayer, and use the Anglican liturgy. The Puritans weren't a separate denomination (that wasn't allowed). They were trying to purify the Anglican church as far away from Catholicism (the mother of the Anglican and Lutheran churches only a few decades before) as possible, and the BCP was too similar for their tastes. Further, they believed in the entire Sabbath commandment about not working, and keeping the day strictly reserved for sacred thoughts and activities, so a pleasurable half-day was horribly worldly. They believed that the King was forcing them to sin against God by breaking the holiness of the Sabbath. They were more worried about heaven and hell for eternity, than their short life on earth, so they followed the letter of Old Testament biblical law.


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