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Thou shalt not

It was a perfectly ordinary business deal, in Vermont in October of 1830. A man named Lyons bought a horse from a man named Strong.

Vt.SabbathLyons had ridden and tried the mare out, and Strong had said the mare was perfectly sound in every way. He only wouldn’t warrant her against gravel — a type of hoof abscess. Just about evening, the two finished up the bargain, with Lyons paying an ox and a cow and three dollars in money for the mare.

But the deal went sour. It turned out the mare really did have gravel. And Lyons wanted damages for the breach of warranty.

Strong’s defense to the suit?

The deal had gone down on a Sunday… and Vermont law didn’t look kindly on business deals on Sunday.

The case of Lyons v. Strong went all the way to the Vermont Supreme Court where, in 1834, Chief Judge Charles K. Williams took the parties — and readers of his opinion even today — through a history lesson:

The constitution of this state, (and herein it is a transcript from the first constitution of government established in this state) while it carefully protects and guards religious freedom, and asserts that the conscience of no one can be controlled, declares, “that every sect or denomination of christians ought to observe the Sabbath or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.” To carry into effect the spirit of this constitution, to enable each religious sect to keep up religious worship on the Sabbath, and to enable all to enjoy the benefits to be derived from a day of religious retirement and rest, the legislature, among their first laws, made provision for the prohibition of secular labor on that day; and in the statute which they passed in 1779, and which has in substance been continued to this time, embraced all the provisions which are contained in the English statutes of the first and second Charles. Aware of the benefits to be derived from stated periods of rest from manual labor, of the importance of having the same day observed by all, and recognizing that every denomination of christians among them regarded the Sabbath as a day set apart for moral and religious duties, they determined that every one should be protected in the enjoyment of his religious privileges and in the performance of his religious duties, and have made provision that those who are thus disposed may on that day perform those great and necessary duties which they believe are required of them, without disturbance from the secular labor of others; and further, that all, whether high or low, prisoner or free, master or servant, shall be permitted to rest, and that none shall compel them to labor on that day; and lest through avarice or cupidity, any one should be disposed so to do, they have enacted that the day shall be observed as a day of rest from secular labor and employment, except such as necessity and acts of charity shall require.1

The language Williams quoted from the Vermont Constitution — that “every sect or denomination of christians ought to observe the sabbath or Lord’s day, and keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God” — was actually language from a 1786 amendment to Vermont’s constitution.2

The very first Constitution of Vermont, adopted 8 July 1777, had been slightly more ecumenical, providing that “every sect or denomination of people ought to observe the Sabbath, or the Lord’s day, and keep up, and support, some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of GOD.”3

Now the statute of 1779, still in effect in 1830 when the horse trade was bargained for, didn’t expressly say you couldn’t barter for a horse on Sunday. What it did say, though, left pretty much no room for argument:

no tradesman, artificer, labourer, or other person whatsoever, shall, upon land or water, do or exercise any labour, business, or work, of their ordinary callings, or any kind whatsoever, (works of necessity and mercy only, excepted) nor use any game, sport, play, or recreation, on the Lord’s day, or day of public fasting, and thanksgiving, …
That no person shall drive a team, or droves of any kind, or travel on said day, (except it be on business that concerns the present war, or by some adversity they are belated, and forced to lodge in the woods, wilderness or highways the night before ; and in such case, to travel no farther than the next inn, or place of shelter, on that day) …4

There were other provisions imposing penalties, and particularly penalties for disturbing a worship service by things like “shouting, hollooing, screaming, running, riding, dancing, jumping, blowing of horns, or any such”,5 but the bottom line of the whole act was to keep the Sabbath day. It even went so far as to require that:

all and every assistant, justice of the peace, constable, grand-juryman, and tything man, are hereby required to take effectual care, and endeavour that this act, in all the particulars thereof, be duly observed ; as also to restrain all persons from unnecessary walking in the streets, or fields, swimming in the water, keeping open their shops, or following their secular occasions or recreations, in the evening preceding the Lord’s day, or on said day, or evening following.6

When the Court had to apply the law to the Lyons-Strong horse trade, the Chief Judge noted that “the subject under consideration is one which is liable to be viewed too much on either side through the medium of feeling; and any judicial investigation of it may be regarded as treading upon forbidden ground. A decision one way may be regarded as promoting irreligion, licentiousness and immorality; and a decision the other way be considered as encroaching upon religious freedom.”7

But, even with that concern, Williams didn’t hesitate. He held, first, that there wasn’t any doubt that a horse trade was a secular labor of employment covered by the statute. Then, he held, “a court will not lend its aid to carry into effect a contract made in contravention of a positive statute, particularly if the statute was made for the purpose of protecting the public, for promoting peace, good order, or good morals.”8

In other words, he ruled, “when there is a sale or exchange of horses made on Sunday, and a contract of warranty thereon, no action can be maintained on such warranty, it being a violation of the statute of this state.”9

Now one Supreme Court Judge, John Mattocks, disagreed, and wouldn’t have held the contract was illegal:

I believe to adjudge contracts void made on that day will not tend to the better observance of the day; that neither the common nor statute law, nor any former decisions in this state authorize, nor does sound policy require, the decision which my learned brethren have made in this cause, from the best of motives most certainly. But for myself I am not able to view the subject as they do; and I hope it is not for lack of respect for religion, or its institutions; for I believe with the Scotch covenanters, in my own neighborhood, that the law as well as a man “may like the kirk well enough without riding in the rigging.”10

But because the law was what it was, and the Court ruled what it ruled, we all know more about what our ancestors might have done — or not done — and why, at least in Vermont (and anywhere else there was a similar statute, which, by the way, was just about everywhere for a very long time in America11).

Why didn’t our Vermont ancestors do business on Sundays?

Because the law said “thou shalt not… Or else.”


  1. Lyons v. Strong, 6 Vt. 219, 221-222 (1834).
  2. Chapter I, §III, Vermont Constitution of 1786, in Francis Newton Thorpe, The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and Other Organic Laws of the States, Territories, and Colonies Now or Heretofore Forming the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1909), 6: 3749, 6:3752; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 27 May 2015).
  3. Ibid., Chapter I, §III, Vermont Constitution of 1777, 6: 3737, 6: 3740.
  4. “AN ACT for the due observation and keeping the first day of the week as the Sabbath or Lord’s day ; and for punishing disorders and profaneness on the same,” February 1779, in William Slade, ed., Vermont State Papers… (Middlebury, Vt. : J. W. Copeland, printer, 1823), 313; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 27 May 2015).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., at 315.
  7. Lyons v. Strong, 6 Vt. at 221.
  8. Ibid., 6 Vt. at 222.
  9. Ibid., 6 Vt. at 229.
  10. Ibid., 6 Vt. at 237, (Mattocks, J., dissenting).
  11. See generally Wikipedia (, “lue laws in the United States,” rev. 25 May 2015.
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