On Works of Necessity & Mercy on the Sabbath

“For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice;”

Hos. 6:6

“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them…  and continued his speech until midnight…  And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead.

And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, ‘Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him.’ When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed.  And they brought the young man alive, and were not a little comforted.”

Acts 20:7-12




On the Relations Between the 1st & 2nd Tables of the Law



Order of Contents

Article  1
On Taking the Necessary Means to Attend Public Worship  1
In a Time of Danger & Spreading Disease  5
What Constitutes Necessity?




Bownd, Nicholas – pp. 213-262  of The True Doctrine of the Sabbath…  (London, 1606)  This is ch. 12, ‘Works of Necessity and Mercy on the Sabbath’, pp. 225-254 in the reprint by Naphtali & RHB (2015)  Buy



On Taking the Necessary Means to Attend Public Worship

Walker, George – ch. 21, pp. 154-155  in The Doctrine of the Sabbath…  (1638)

Walker was a Westminster divine.



In a Time of Danger & Spreading Disease


Order of Material








Nicholas Bownd – The True Doctrine of the Sabbath…  Buy  (Naphtali & RHB, 2015), ch. 12, pp. 225-238.  This may be read in full in the 1606 ed. on p. 213 ff.


12. Works of Necessity and Mercy on the Sabbath

And Whatsoever the Present Time Requires May be Done, Though not to God’s Service

…what things soever the time present necessarily requires to be done for our own furtherance, the commodity of our brethren, or the preservation of any of the creatures, which cannot be deferred unto another day without loss or hindrance, neither could any ways be provided before (for the occasion was but now offered),, though they do no ways belong to any part of God’s service immediately…  though they do keep us from it, or call us away when we be at it, yet they are permitted unto us.  We may lawfully do them, though they be never so painful and full of labor, without any offense against the law of the Sabbath, wherein notwithstanding bodily rest is so straitly [strictly] required, as we have learned.  And therefore it is truly said, Opus corporale, “A corporal labor pertaining to the preservation of a man’s own body, life, or health, when it is necessary, breaks not the Sabbath (Thomas Aquinas, 2a 2ae quest. 123 [sic 122], art. 4).  Where he brings in the example of Elijah in this case, fleeing for the space of many Sabbaths together from the persecution of Jezebel, as it is set down more at large in the first book of the Kings.

“That And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.  Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time.  And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there.  But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.  And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat.  And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baken on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again.  And the angel of the Lord came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for thee.  And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.”  (1 Kings 19:1-8 [from the KJV, not Bownd])

Where we see that in this long journey of forty continual days and nights, which he undertook at the commandment of God, and that also for the safeguard and preservation of his live [life], he did flee and took great pains in traveling divers Sabbath days together [and was not attending public worship].  Such is the great liberality and mercy of God towards us, that all men might be left without excuse before His judgment seat, [who] will not observe ‘this rest of the Sabbath’; which when He required of them never so exactly for their good, gives unto them notwithstanding so great liberty of working and traveling to encourage them thereunto…  And this is that which is spoke in St. Matthew, That if the sheep be now in the ditch upon the Sabbath day, it must be presently helped out, lest it miscarry (Matt. 12:11).

An Example Hereof [of Battle]

Therefore that we might see the truth of this general rule in some few particulars, for our better edifying and instruction in godliness, though there may not be mustering and surveying of soldiers, training up of men in the feats of war ordinarily upon the Sabbath; yet if the enemy be now a coming, or be already in the camp, or has laid siege to the walls; then it is lawful with all force of men and munition of war, to meet with him, to fight against him, and to defend our country.  And to have continual watch and ward [prisons] in arms for these purposes; the present necessity requires it.  It cannot abide any delay.  And herein also the same doctor of school divinity (as they call it) says truly: “It is lawful to make war for the preservation of the commonwealth, and defense of the faithful”–Si tamen necessitas hoc postulat [exposcat]: “If necessity do require it”–where he gives this reason: “for this were to tempt God, if any should in such an imminent necessity abstain from war.”  Sed necessitate cessante: “But when this necessity does cease, it is not lawful to war.” (Thomas Aquinas, ibid. quest. 40, art. 4)

I will not say as he says, In diebus festis, “Upon the holy days,” but in diebus Dominicis, “upon the Lord’s Days.”  For as Bede says, Necessitas excusat, “Necessity does excuse the fact:” where he alleges the example of the Maccabees, who did well upon that day in defending themselves by arms against their enemies, and they made a decree at that same time (as it is set down in that history) saying, “Whosoever shall come to make battle with us upon the Sabbath day, we will fight against him, that we dies not all, as our brethren were murdered in secret places” (1 Macc. 2:40,41; 9:44)

Daneau says, Licet pugnare: “It is lawful to fight upon the Sabbath day, if by any necessity we be urged thereunto;” and so gives a good reason of it, even taken from the end of the Sabbath, which is the benefit and good of man, saying” Quia sanctificatio: “Because the sanctification of the Sabbath does not hinder those things which are ordained for the safeguard of man, either in body, or soul.” (Daneau, Ethic. Christian., lib. 2, cap. 10)  Where he brings in the example of Joshua (6:4), who with men armed did the commandment of God besiege and compass about Jericoh upon the Sabbath day.  And Zanchius showing in what cases men may labor upon the Sabbath, says, Quando inevitablis necessitas: “When that necessity, which could not be avoided, requires it;” and further expounding himself, he adds, Ita ut non possis vel anteuertere: “So that neither you could prevent the time by doing it the day before, nor defer it until the day following.”  To which purpose he alleges the example of the Israelites, who when Benhadad the king of Aram founght against Samaria, “They,” at the commandment of God, pitched against them seven days, and in the seventh day the battle was joined; and the children of Israel slew of the Aramites an hundred thousand footmen in one day” (1 Kings 20:29).

Thus in cases of necessity we see what liberty God has granted unto us.  And this is also that which Jonathan the Captain of the Jews did allege for himself, “when Bacchides their enemy did twice of purpose set upon them on the Sabbath day” (1 Macc. [9]:34,43), hoping then to surprise them, when they should be occupied in God’s worship, “he did fight in their defense, because” (as he said) “it was a case of necessity, the danger was so present.”  And this is that which has been practiced of all godly captains, as of Nehemiah (4:17,23), who in the building of the walls of Jerusalem after their return from the captivity, because their enemies did seek not only to hinder the building, but to pull it down, he cause them “not only to build with one hand, and to hold their weapons with another;” but also to keep watch and ward for the preservation of that which they had built, both day and night, “so that neither himself, nor his brethren, nor his servants, nor the men of the ward, which followed them, nor any of them did put off their clothes, save every one did put them off for washing.”  And not only the laws of God, but even of men also, do give this privilege to labor upon the Sabbath in such times of necessity…  Whereunto also in part may be referred that fact of Nehemiah, who “set his men to keep the gates of Jerusalem upon the Sabbath day,” that the merchants of Tyre and others might not bring in their wares into Jerusalem upon that day, as they had used to do in times past (Neh. 13:19).

Example 2 [of Sickness]

Again, if any person be dangerously sick, he ought to have all such comforts as are meet [suitable] for him, and therefore some must attend upon him, others run, or ride to the physician, apothecary, or chirurgian [surgeon], and all of them ought to travel or deal for him, when there is such need, and the disease be so great, that the longer it is deferred, the more shall the party be endangered, and the disease will grow more incurable.  For this very example is brought by the above name[d] schoolman: Opus servile ad salutem alterius, non violat Sabbathum, “A bodily labor that is taken in hand for the health of another does not break the Sabbath,” et inde est, “and hereupon it is lawful to give physic unto all men upon the Sabbath day.” (Thomas Aquinas, secunda 2. quest. 123)  and thus we read that our Savior Christ did heal many upon the Sabbath day (as it is set down by the evangelist): as “one that lay at the pool in Jerusalem and had been sick thirty-eight years.  Jesus said unto him, Arise, take up thy bed, and walk.  And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked.  And the same day was the Sabbath (John 5:5).  And also him that had a dried hand, to whom He said, “Stretch out thy hand, and he stretched it out, and it was made whole, as the other; and this was upon the Sabbath day (Matt. 12:13) for beforehand the Pharisees asked Him this question, “Is it sinful to heal upon the Sabbath day, that they might accuse Him.”  And at another time, as St. Luke says:

“And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.  And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself.  And when Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.  And he laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God.” (Luke 13:10[-13])

And thus by these and such like examples we wee, that whereas it has been said before that upon the Sabbath we may do necessary things, what kind of necessity is meant: not only that that is absolute, ad esse [to the being], as they say, even to the being and preservation of a man’s life, but ad bene esse [to the well being], to the preservation of his health, or recovering of it.  For so Christ healed many upon the Sabbath, as we have seen, who might have lived until the next day, but not so comfortably, and so might for the want [lack] of health have been hindered from the cheerful service of God, for which the Sabbath was first ordained.  And this is that which Tremellius observes in his notes upon the Syrian Paraphrase, that the rabbins, who were very strict in some cases to observe this commandment of the outward rest, even beyond the law, that yet they held this general principle, that Discrimen mortis pellit Sabbathum: “that the danger of death dispenses with the Sabbath,” which is a true position in divinity. (Tremellius, Matt. 12:5, Syriac…)  And again upon these words of St. Mark, The Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)…  And Bede does not restrain it unto life only, but to health, when he says, Major [est] cura omni sanitati: “There is more care to be had of the life and health of a man, than of the Sabbath.”  And his reason is this: “that we are so commanded to keep the Sabbath, that if there be any necessity, he shall be blameless that shall break it,” as our Savior Christ speaks in the gospel (Matt. 12:5). (Bede, lib. 1., Marc. 2…)

Example 3 [of Fire & Burglary]

And that I might not stand long in the particulars which are infinite, if there be any sudden eruption or breaking in of waters; if any casuality by fire upon men’s houses or goods; if any breaking into shops or houses by thieves, or such like; we ought so to meet with these present occasions, which by no wisdom could have been prevented at another time (for so they were now seen, nay they did but even now offer and show themselves), as may most serve for the benefit of men in preserving the creatures; which as they were made in the beginning, so are still to be preserved for his use.  Neither can they decay without his great loss and hindrance; in so much that upon these occasions men may not only be absent from the church, but also if they were now in the midst of God’s service, they might safely depart from it; yea, sometimes unto the leaving of no one person in the church.

And further, that in such cases of danger we may go all out of the church, and break off the chiefest parts of God’s worship for a time, we have the example of the apostle Paul:

“And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them… and continued his speech until midnight…  And there sat in a window a certain young man named Eutychus, being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead.  And Paul went down, and fell on him, and embracing him said, Trouble not yourselves; for his life is in him. When he therefore was come up again, and had broken bread, and eaten, and talked a long while, even till break of day, so he departed.” (Acts 20:7[-11])

Where we see that upon the Lord’s Day, when this casualty fell out even in the midst of God’s worship, and a little before the sacrament, that the congregation was for a time dissolved, and Paul the preacher, and the rest of the people, the hearers, came forth to succor this man, and then returned to perform the rest of God’s service that remained.

Many Things of Necessity Must be Done to the Cattle on this Day

And Zanchius rendered this reason why the ox that is fallen into a ditch may be helped out upon the Sabbath: “Because it cannot be deferred until tomorrow, for then either the beast would die, or at the leastwise be a great deal worse.” (Zanchius, ibid.)  And this is that which our Savior Christ means, when he says in the Gospel of Matthew, “I will have mercy and not sacrifice (Matt. 12:6 [sic 7]).  In the which place He does not refuse sacrifices (for they were commanded by God), but He speaks in comparison, as though He had said, “The Lord had rather have mercy shown to men, than sacrifice offered to Himself.”  So that comparing these duties, ‘mercy’ with ‘sacrifice’, He prefers the one before the other; and says He had rather have this than that, when both of them cannot be had together.  But if when the one be performed, the other must needs be neglected, then would He have us leave the sacrifice, and show mercy in helping others.

Thus Mercy is Preferred Above Sacrifice

…Even so here, the Spirit of God by sacrifice (as by one kind), meaning generally the whole worship of God, He would have us to offer it unto Him, as that in the mean season we neglect no occasion of showing mercy unto any of his creatures, which He offered unto us; but rather first of all to show mercy, and then to offer sacrifice.  As He says in another place, “First be reconciled to they brother, and then come and offer thy gift (Matt. 5:22).  For seeing that the whole service of God is ordained for this cause among many others, that we might be made more fit to help our brethren, and to show all duties of mercy unto them, all others must give place unto this, when necessity so requires.  According to that which Master Gualter says: Omnia externa: “All outward things must gives place unto love, lest we lay a snare upon them”–quos necssitas inevitabilis alio vocat–“whom inevitably necessity calls another way:” or at whose hands the present necessity, that cannot be avoided, requires another thing. (Gualter, Mark 2, hom. 22…)

And that this is the true meaning of the law of resting, appears more clearly by that which Christ Jesus speaks of it in the gospel after [by] St. Mark: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27).  That is, the day of rest was appointed for the benefit of man; and not only of him, but of all other creatures.  And therefore it must be so observed as may be most beneficial unto them; and the rest in it must give place to them, and not they to it.  So that it were against the meaning of the Law-giver to abuse the rest unto the hurt of them; and that men should under the pretence of resting, withdraw all their labor from them, who by present necessity did call for it, and require it at our hands.  But even as the King, because he is the greatest, when he comes in presence, all do give way unto him; so because to help others is greater than rest, and mercy greater than sacrifice, therefore these latter must always give place to the former.  So that it need be we must not rest, but labor upon the Sabbath, to do good unto men, or to the cattle.

To Preserve God’s Creatures is a Work of the Sabbath

Thus as we have seen the commandment of resting is so strait [strict] indeed, as it seemed best unto His wisdom, “who made all things for Himself” (Prov. 16:4); yet in giving it, He has had regard unto our good…  And here the old proverb of the heathen is true: Necessitas non habet ferias: “Necessity as it is without laws, so without holy days.”…

And in this respect Mattahias and the rest of the Jews justly condemned the fact of their brethren, who for lack of defense suffered themselves, their wives and children, to the number of 1,000 souls, to be slain of their enemies upon the Sabbath day (1 Macc. 2:34).  Concerning which fact of theirs, a learned man also says, Superstitio [potius] fuit ex ignorantia: “It was a superstition bred in them for want of true knowledge of the law of God.” (Petrus Ramus, Comment. de rellig., lib. 2. cap. 6…)  Whereunto agrees Lyra, Sine dubio: “Doubtess this proceeded of a certain devotion joined with simplicity; for it was lawful for them upon the Sabbath day to defend themselves.” (Lyra, 1 Macc. 2:23…)…  says of them as the apostle Paul did of others of their countrymen, “They had the zeal of God, but not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2)…

But others that had not the like knowledge [as Mattahias] fell afterwards into the same neglect of defending themselves upon the Sabbath, and so perished.  For Antiochus, after that he departed from Jerusalem with the spoil of the temple, left there Philip, of the county of Phyrgia, more cruel than himself, to vex the Jews; who defiled the temple, and would not suffer them to keep the Sabbaths.  “Whereupon to avoid his cruelty, some of the Jews met together in dens and caves of the earth, that secretly there they might keep holy the seventh day.  Who being bewrayed [revealed] unto Philip, were burnt, Quia relligio fuerat ipsis, because they made conscience to [did not] defend themselves then, for the honor” (as they call it) “of the most glorious day” (2 Macc. 6:11).

Therefore let us acknowledge the bountifulness of God even there, where it might seem unto us that we are most of all restrained, and let us not “break His bands, and cast His cords from us” (Ps. 2:3), but use His freedom well that He has set us in.  And seeing we have this liberty to do things of necessity, let us not venture upon them boldly, but first of all be sure that they be necessary, and therefore lawful.


…the Lord has put us in his room [stead] for the preservation of His creatures, and because He has cast the remedy upon us, for ministering to help, then may we use our liberty…

…And then having shown that all men ought to come to the church upon the Sabbath day, he [Zanchy] thus concludes: Summa, etc, “This is the sum of all: we must always be present with others at the holy assemblies.”–Nisi inevitabilis necessitas impediat: “unless such a necessity hinders us, as cannot be avoided.” (Zanchius, ibid., col. 716)


William Twisse

Of the Morality of the Fourth Commandment as Still in Force to Bind Christians  (1641), p. 241

“I do highly approve the distinction following of things commanded, and things permitted on the Lord’s Day, and the explication of each member; the object of the one, all actions advancing God’s service; the object of the other, such things as are no hindrance thereunto; As in the first place works of necessity; then works of charity; yet the permitting of these, is rightly to be understood; not so as if the works of necessity here mentioned, were in such sort permitted as left to a man’s liberty, whether he will perform them or no.

For undoubtedly we are bound as much as lies in our power, to quench a dangerous fire kindled in a town, on the Sabbath day, it being a work of mercy, necessarily required.  For if to return a pledge ere the poor pawner of it went to his bed, in case it were his covering, were a work of mercy, how much more to save a man’s house from burning, how much more to save a whole town from being consumed, whereby many might be driven to lie without doors, void of all comfort to the body?

So to draw the ox out of the ditch, and to lead cattle to watering, I take it to be a work of mercy, as tending to the preservation of life in a dumb creature.  In like sort the dressing [preparing] of meat for the health of man’s body, I take to be a work of mercy.

So that the performing of these in reference to the end whereto they tend, I take to be of necessary duty (as here they are called works of necessity) and consequently not permitted only, but commanded also in the general, though not in this [fourth] commandment; but in the Second Commandment of the Second Table only…”


Samuel Rutherford

A Peaceable & Temperate Plea...  (1642)

p. 47

Objection [of the opponent]:  Synods (says he) cannot be had ordinarily.

[Rutherford’s] Answer:  So neither public preaching at some times;  It follows not therefore that public preaching is not a mean[s] of edifying, because through accident, and iniquity of time the public preaching cannot be had.”


pp. 214-215

“[Rutherford’s] Answer:  [William] Whittaker says indeed universal synods are not simply necessary ([On Scripture] Controversy 1, question 1, pp. 22-23); and [Matthew] Parker [an Anglican] says no more: they are not absolutely necessary, necessitate medii [by a necessity of means], but they are necessary, necessitate praecepti [by a necessity of precept], and conditionally, if some politic-union were amongst all national churches;

But hence it follows not that they are not Christ’s ordinances, because they are not this way necessary, necessitate medii; for then baptism and the Lord’s Supper, public preaching of the Word, perfect discipline were not Christ’s ordinances, because in time of persecution, or universal apostasy, many, yea even whole Churches
may be saved without these.”


The Divine Right of Church Government...  (1646), p. 38

“…for Christ has given a commandment; ‘Take ye, Eat ye, Drink ye all of this’: Yet has He not tied us in the time of persecution to convene in public, and celebrate the Lord’s Supper; but the Church does not then change the Law, nor liberate us from obedience to a command given by God, but God liberates us Himself.”


A Survey of the Survey of that Sum of Church-Discipline Penned by Mr. Thomas Hooker...  (1658), p. 96

“2.  It is uncharitable and against the Word to teach [such as Thomas Hooker, an Independent seemed to teach] that when a church is dissolved, by no sin and scandal-visible, but by persecution or pestilence, that the dissolved members, though both real and visible converts, have no right to the ordinances…”


James Durham

The Law Unsealed, or a Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments...  (Glasgow, 1676),

p. 134

“4.  The manner of performing this worship of sanctifying the Lord’s Day in holy duties is required not only to be in public, nor only in secret, but [also] by the members of each family jointly, and apart from other families.

For 1. It [the 4th Commandment] cannot be understood to require worship only in public together, because:

1.  There may be in some cases no access to public worship, and yet the command of sanctifying the Lord’s Day lies still on, and no doubt by families.

2.  Waiting on public worship is but one piece of sanctifying the Lord’s Day, and that but in a part of it; therefore there must be some other thing included here.”


pp. 169-173

“We do then in this matter assert first, That there is a rest required here, which is extensive to a man’s words, thoughts, and actions, whereby many things lawful on other days become unlawful on this day.

Yet 2. we assert, That by this rest all sort of actions are not condemned, but only such as are in consistent with the end and scope of this command, as by other Scri­ptures, and the practice of Christ and the saints is clear: we conceive therefore these to be permitted:

4.  Good works, as Christ saith, Mt. 12:12.  It’s lawful to do good or well on the Sabbath, such are giving of physic [medicine] (when it is necessary), bringing of physicians, saving a man’s life, and taking pains for it, etc. Luke 13 (these good works may be classed either with works of mercy before, or with works of necessity that follow, both being good works as they are works of mercy or of necessity);

5.  Works of necessity, such as…  flying on the Lord’s day from a destroying enemy, and in other warranted cases, Mt. 24, defending ourselves against unjust vio­lence, etc.

6. Works of comliness, tending to honest or decent walking, as putting on of clothes honestly, making the house clean from any uncleanness [health damaging spill, infection, etc.] that may fall in it throughout the Sabbath, etc.

In these the Lord hath not straightened them, neither hath He pinched and pinned them up to absolute necessity, but hath left them to walk by Christian prudence (yet so as they may not exceed) for the disciples possibly might have endured that hunger, and not plucked the ears of corn, or beasts may live a day without water, and not be much the worse, or some sort of victuals may be provided to be set beside men on the Sabbath needing no dressing or preparing; yea, a man may live on little or nothing for one day: but the Lord hath thought good not to straighten them, so as to make his day and worship a weariness and burden unto them, seeing he hath made the Sabbath for man, to be refreshing to him, and not man for the Sabbath; nor will He have their conscien­ces to be fettered with inextricable scruples…

so here there is some latitude left to conscientious reason to walk by; for some may do something at one time, and not at another, yea, one man may take more pains in upholding his body than is called for from another who is stronger, so that its impossible to set particular rules which will agree to all, but men would look, 1. to their end, 2. to their need, 3. to what may conve­niently attain the end.

Yet it is needful here to add some qualifications or caveats, lest folk indulge them­selves too much, and exceed under the pretext of the former liberty, which the Lord hath condescended to leave men at,

1.  That men would see that the necessity be real, that real sickness keepeth at home, that real hazard maketh them fly, or maketh them bide at home; that it be such a necessity as they cannot contrive a way conveniently to evite [avoid/shun] when it co­meth, or could not foresee before it came.

2.  Men would see that, that necessity be not brought on by themselves.  If the thing might have been done at another, time that necessity will not excuse; though if the sin be taken with, and repented of, and Christ fled unto for the pardon of it, we may go about the doing that lawfully which sinfully we have necessitated ourselves unto; as suppose one had got warning to fly [flee] the day before, to bring such a physician, or to provide such drugs, etc., if he did it not, then he sinneth; yet when necessity cometh he may still do it, but not with a good conscience, till he first acknowledge the former fault of his neglect.

3.  It would be adverted, if that thing may be done, as well another time, or may not without prejudice (that is considerable) be delayed till the next day; Thus taking or giving of physic on the Lord’s day, making ordinary civil visits, beginning voyages, etc. will not sustain and bear weight before God, when folk do them that day, to have their own work day free, and so put by the proper duties of the Lord’s day, for some things that may be done the day or days following…

4.  Men would take heed that they have not a tickling complacency that such necessities fall on the Sabbath, and be not glad to have diversions from the proper duties of the day.  They would go about such works with a sort of sadness, though yet with clearness and peace of conscience as to their lawfulness:  Therefore Christ saith to his Disciples, Mt. 24:20, ‘pray that your flight be not on the Sabbath day,’ because it would be heavy to God’s people to fly on that day, though it was lawful.

8. We would beware of spending too much time in these things, but would en­deavor timely and quickly to expede and dispatch them, and rightly to tryst [gather] them: Dressing of meat, and trimming, adorning, and busking [playing or singing in public for donations] of folks bodies will not be found a well spent part of the Sabbath, when it shutteth out other duties and get­teth too much time, as it doth with many.


Samuel Willard

A Complete Body of Divinity…  (Boston, 1726), Sermon 172, Q. 60, pp. 584-8

“1. That we are to spend the whole time in public and private exercises of God’s worship.  2. Except so much as it be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.  The former directs us to that which is the main work of the Day, the latter to that which is subordinate and occasional.

…we are therefore to keep it [the Day] holy, as we are enjoined in the body of the [4th] Command, which we observed, includes in it something positive.

2. The duties of worship to be attended by us on this Day, are either Natural or Instituted…

1. The duties of natural worship, are such as are suited to the nature of man, and flow from the great End he was made for, viz. actively to glorify God.  And therefore the light of Nature directs men to practice them on all occasions, certainly then these are fitted for the Sabbath, according to the End and usefulness of it…

2. The duties of instituted worship.  And under these are contained all the positive ordinances and sacred ceremonies of God’s appointment.  In the days of the Law there were sacrifices appointed to be offered on these days…  But all these are not out of doors under the Gospel, being to give place to a more spiritual worship, which is adapted thereunto.  Nevertheless, there are appointments under the Gospel, which are positive, and these are either the way and manner, in which the duties of natural worship are to be attended, in the public assemblies, and the ministration of the Word, and preaching of it, which is also required on the Sabbath; or the dispensation of the sacraments of the Gospel, which we have before taken notice of, as belonging to the Sabbath.

4. That this whole time is, as far as may be, to be employed in some or other of these exercises.  That it cannot all of it be actually so attended, will be considered afterwards: Nevertheless because this is the principal and direct business of the Day, it is to have a very great regard had to it in all that we do.  And here I shall only offer a few general rules:

2. It is not necessary that all the duties of worship be solemnly attended on every Sabbath.  Though there are none that belong to, and are proper for that day, yet there is no obligation lying upon us to go through them all every time the Sabbath recurs; but there is a prudence to be used by the people of God on this account, though still there are some which should be more constantly attended, and others more intermittedly.  And here observe, that there are the duties of natural worship, which challenge the first place and more constant attendance, viz. prayer, and the dispensation of the Word of God, and holy meditation: whereas those which are ceremonial may have their particular times to be attended…

3.  That the public and private duties of worship, ought so to be ordered, that they may help and not thrust out one the other.  The whole Sabbath is not to be spent in public, nor yet in private ordinarily, except when the providence of God prevents the opportunity of public assemblies, which is wont [accustomed] to fall out in times of persecution…  the seasons of public worship must be ordered for edification, which naturally requires that all are agreed in it, else there will be no avoiding of confusion.

5. That whatsoever they do on that Day, ought to be with a suitable regard to the holiness of the time…

(2.) There is an exception made of so much time, as is to be taken up, in works of necessity and mercy: i.e. These may and must interrupt the other duties, so far as they do intervene.  And for a right understanding of this, let these things be observed:

1. That the Sabbath was appointed for man’s good, and not for his harm.  This is a general rule, but may be particularly accommodated with due caution.  Our Savior makes use of it, in reflecting upon the unjust censures of the Pharisees cast upon his disciples, for gathering and eating ears of corn on the Sabbath Day, Mk. 2:27, “And He said unto them, The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”  It was indeed to advance man’s spiritual interest, in giving him opportunity to sequester himself for communion with God in the way of mediate worship, but was never intended to hurt any of his interests in this world.

2. That as there are duties of worship to be performed on our days, so there are duties of righteousness to be done on God’s Day.  These duties, though they differ in the next object and end, the one belonging to the First, the other to the Second Table, yet they agree on the ultimate object and end, which is God and his glory; for this as well as that is to be done in obedience to Him; and when they are so done sincerely, we have communion with God in them:  The one belongs to our duty to man, but it is in order of serving God, and so they do not necessarily thwart one the other…  In like manner there are Second Table duties that may or ought to be done on Holy Time; and are either stated duties of the Day, or are occasionally called for by the circumstances: what these are will be presently considered.

3. In the doing of the duties of the Sabbath, we are to employ our body as well as our soul…  Nor can God’s people hold visible communion one with another, without the using of their bodies in it: We are therefore commanded, 1 Cor. 6:20, “Glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.  And the reason for it is cogent, viz. Christ has redeemed the whole man; and indeed the body is necessarily the soul’s organ in the working of its imperate [commanded] acts in which all outward worship of God is to be performed by man; and therefore a pretense to a spiritual communion to exclude the other is Enthusiastical.

4. Hence that the body may be fit to discharge  these duties aright, there is something to be done for it on that Day.  The body has a dependence on means for the maintaining of the vigor and activity of it, whereby it may be fit to attend the service it is appointed to, without tiring, fainting or giving in: and it stands in need of this as well for Sabbath service, as for the business of this life; for we are to do these with our might, as well as the other: whatsoever is requisite for this, must be very proper for the Day…

5. And there are duties which we owe to our neighbor on the Sabbath, as well as at any other time.  The duty of loving our neighbor as ourselves is an abiding duty, and uninterrupted:  It is not only a Week Day duty, and to be omitted on the Sabbath; though that be to govern us in the right discharge of it:  And he may, and very often does, stand in need of our affording it to him, not only for his soul, by counseling and instructing him in the things of God; but also in regard of his bodily and outward concerns, which are not in themselves the acts of worship, but of charity; but yet are not to be omitted, till this Day be over.

6.  These duties are usually distributed into the works of necessity and mercy.  It is true, the works of mercy here called for, are such as have a moral necessity on them, arising from the physical necessity of the subject, which makes it our duty, if we will not bring guilt of sin upon ourselves, to attend on: And the works of necessity here intended, may in a sense be called the works of mercy, because they succour the subject against that misery which they must otherwise undergo: But we look upon them under this distinct consideration. And then: (1.) Under the head of Necessity we rank two sorts, viz.

1. Such as are of Ordinary necessity or convenience.  For we are not to think the Precept is here tied up to things absolutely necessary; as if nothing might be done, but what the creature could not subsist without, but such things as are needful, for the comfortable serving of God.

2. Such as fall out Extraordinarily, or on special occasions, which put unavoidable necessity of intermitting the proper duties of the Day; and if we do not attend them, we shall be further exposed.  And of this sort are:

(1.) To fight or fly from an invading enemy: if not to be aggressors on such a Day, yet to stand on their own defense, when assaulted.  The law of self-preservation calls for it, and the thing itself puts by duties of worship, and if this were not a duty, but unlawful, we should by it become a prey to them that hate us.  And as to flying, when oppressed on a Sabbath by a prevailing foe, against whom we cannot defend ourselves, our Savior supposes it lawful, though afflictive, in Mt. 24:20, ‘Pray that your flight be not on the Sabbath Day.’

(2.) To quench fires that break forth, which otherwise would lay all waste before them.  That is a sudden emergency, and was not to be seen before, and calls for speed and expedition, and the least hindrance will soon make all attempts too late, for miracles are not in this case to be expected.  And hence any other thing of like importance, that falls out in the Day, and may not be delayed, comes within this verge.

(2.) Under the head of mercy, these things more especially do come;

(1.) To visit the sick.  That is in itself a duty of Christians, appears in that it is referred to Pure Religion, James 1:27.  And the reason of this is, because their necessity calls for it, and it is a work of mercy to do it, and to neglect it when needed is inhumane: and there are cases in which that will stand, Mt. 9:13, “I will have mercy, and not sacrifice.”

(2.) For a physician in times of sickness, to visit his patients, and to administer to them.  How often did our Savior do his cures on the Sabbath; and justified it against those that found fault with Him for it?  And that by proving it a proper Sabbath business.

(3.) Of the same nature and reason is that of nurses, to tend sick persons, who must else perish.  To which may be added the pulling of a beast out of a pit, that it occasionally falls into, which our Savior justifies the other by, in his defense of his healing men, from a commonly granted truth among the superstitious Jews themselves, Lk. 14:5.

(4.) The gathering of contributions in the Church assemblies, for the relief of the poor; which is a work of mercy for the needy:  And for this reason the apostle appointed this to the Church of Corinth, 1 Cor. 16, beg.  So that although the Sabbath itself comes under the precepts of the First Table, yet God hath seen meet to mix Second Table duties in the works that are to be done on it, as is evident.”



Articles, on a Time of Danger & Necessity

Bullinger, Henry – Decades, vol. 1, 5th Commandment, pp. bot. 291-93

Deals with not publicly assembling where it cannot be had in a land of persecution.

George Walker – pp. 156-7  of The Doctrine of the Holy Weekly Sabbath…  (London, 1641)

Walker was a Westminster divine.  He does not here speak of spreading diseases and plagues, but he does speak of other great dangers which would apply to plagues, and which take persons away from the public worship ordinances, or may diminish them.



What Constitutes Necessity?

George Gillespie

Pt. 1, ch. 3, ‘That the Ceremonies thus imposed & urged as things necessary, do bereave us of our Christian liberty, first, because our practise is adstricted’  in English-Popish Ceremonies…  (1637), p. 6

“‘David thought the feeding of his body was cause sufficient to break the law of the showbread.  Christ thought the satisfying of the disciples’ hunger to be cause sufficient to break the ceremony of the Sabbath: He thought also that the healing of the lepers’ bodies was a just excuse to break the law that forbade the touching of them…’ says Parker.


Francis Turretin

Institutes  (P&R), vol. 2, 11th Topic, Q. 14, ‘The Lord’s Day…’, p. 98

“XXV.  Here, nevertheless, are excepted [to the prohibition of servile work]:

(3) the works of common honesty, because as always, so on this day above others, we ought to carry ourselves and to act honestly and decorously;

(4) works of necessity, which are neither feigned nor designedly produced, but imposed upon us by providence (Lk. 14:5); not only absolute and simple, that may be called necessary only (which we can in no way be in want of), but modified and relative so that those things may be reckoned necessary not only which are required absolutely for the existence and support of life, but also those which conduce to our living better.  Hence some great advantage and emolument accrues to us or our neighbor if they are done or some great disadvantage and loss if they are omitted.  ‘The sabbath’ (as Christ testifies in Mk. 2:27) ‘was made for man and not man for the sabbath.'”




“When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation…  Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains…  But pray ye that your flight be not…  on the sabbath day.”

Mt. 24:15-20

“At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn and to eat.  But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day.  But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests?  Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?”

Mt. 12:1-5

“And it came to pass…  on the sabbath day…  behold, there was a certain man before him which had the dropsy.  And Jesus answering spake unto the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath day?…  And he took him, and healed him, and let him go; And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?”

Lk. 14:1-5




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