"All That Is Pure in Religion and Valuable in Society": Presbyterians, the Virginia Society, and the Sabbath, 1830-1836

By Marion, Forrest L. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

"All That Is Pure in Religion and Valuable in Society": Presbyterians, the Virginia Society, and the Sabbath, 1830-1836


Marion, Forrest L., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Presbyterians, the Virginia Society, and the Sabbath, 1830-1836

ON the evening of 9 November 1830, a meeting of some eighty men and women convened at Trinity Church in Richmond, Virginia, for the purpose of promoting the sanctification of the Christian Sabbath, or Lord's day. A number of local ministers, lay leaders, and men of various commercial and business interests attended. Meeting in the aftermath of a failed nationwide petition campaign to halt the transportation of mail and to close post offices on Sundays, the group proceeded to organize the "Virginia Society for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath." Over the next six years, the Richmond-based society proved itself the most active organization in the South on behalf of Sabbath reform until its apparent demise on the eve of the 1837-38 schism in the Presbyterian church in the United States, the denomination most often represented among the society's leadership. A study of the activities of the "Virginia Sabbath Society" or, simply, the "Virginia Society," as it was also known, reveals that observance of the Sabbath was, primarily, a spiritual concern, and, secondarily, a socioeconomic one. Moreover, analysis shows that two characteristics of Virginia Sabbatarianism set it apart from its better-known northern counterpart, thereby offering a corrective to the prevailing view of this moral reform movement during the early Jacksonian era.1

Historian Winton U. Solberg notes that the evolution of the Puritan Sabbath in England, which was soon transplanted to colonial America, resulted from a number of influences: the Protestant Reformation's emphasis on Scripture and its placing of the Bible into the hands of ordinary people; reformers' desires to eliminate the numerous special, but unscriptural, days sanctioned by the church; the related development in England of capitalism, the Puritan work ethic, and the rationalization of time, all of which facilitated industrialization; Puritan disapprobation of Sunday labor, sports, and amusements; and, most important, Calvinist theology, which emphasized obedience to the moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, as the means of keeping the covenant established by God with his people. According to Solberg, "the Puritan doctrine of the covenant and the Puritan theology of the Sabbath were born twins." By 1740 in America, a modified form of the Puritan Sabbath had been established, "a pattern of observance...remarkably similar from colony to colony (at least legally) and which remained highly stable throughout the rest of the century."2

Among British colonists in America, the Calvinist influence was strongest among Presbyterians. Foremost among the early dissenting groups in colonial Virginia, by the early nineteenth century Presbyterians were influential well beyond their small numbers by virtue of their many schools and publications. The church's Westminster Confession of Faith and associated catechisms, which defined its understanding of biblical teaching, promoted Lord's day or Christian Sabbath observance and helped make the sect the most active Sabbatarians outside New England.3

The literature of Sabbath observance and reform efforts in the antebellum South is limited. Ernest Trice Thompson's magisterial work addresses the reverence of southern Presbyterians for Sundays and briefly treats the Sabbath mails petition campaigns of the 1810s and late 1820s. Fred J. Hood focuses on the attempt by southern denominations that embraced Calvinist doctrine, mainly Presbyterians, to ensure the national government's comPresbyterians dominated the Sabbatarian movement in Virginia, and Union Theological Seminary was the most important training ground in the state for the sect's clergy. Established by the Synod of Virginia in 1823, Union Theological was located at Hampden-Sydney College in Prince Edward County. Under the leadership of the Reverend John Holt Rice (1777-1831), the seminary turned out pastors, many of them Sabbatarians, to minister to Presbyterian flocks in Virginia and throughout the South. …

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