37 Q. May servile works be done on the Sabbath, though they hinder duties of piety?
A. Yes. “But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Mat. 12:7; c.f. Hos. 6:6).
God doth not so strictly tie us, as fall what will, or can fall out, we must go to Church. This phrase, “not sacrifice” (Hos. 6:6) implies that there may be cases, wherein God doth not expect sacrifices, that is, external duties of piety to be performed by us.
38 Q. What are those servile works which may be done though they hinder duties of piety?
A. Such as are of an absolute necessity.
This absolute necessity hath relation to mans need, namely, that it is necessary that such and such things be done, or else some great damage or prejudice will come to man.
39 Q. How may that absolute necessity be known?
A. If that which must be needs be done could not be done the day before, nor can be put off to the day after.
This implies a necessity of the present performance, even upon the Sabbath day. This first is laid down as a ground, that is must needs be done: then it is taken for grant, that it could not be done the day before, and also, that it cannot be put off to the day after: therefore it remains that it must be done on the Lord’s day. For instance, a tile falls on a man’s head and sorely wounds him on the Lord’s day. It is necessary that succour be afforded to this man. The day before nothing could be done for his cure, because no man knew he would be hurt. Succour must not be put off to the day after, lest the man perish for want of succour. Such therefore as are able to help him, must do it, though thereby the duties of piety be hindered. Note for this purpose, “If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?” (John 7:23).
40 Q. Of what sorts are those works of absolute necessity?
A. 1. Ordinary.
Ordinary are such as for the most part happen every Sabbath, and somewhere or other are performed on that day.
Extraordinary are such as may fall out, and sometimes do fall out, but very seldom, and it is a lamentable accident when any of them do fall out.
41 Q. What instances may be given of ordinary servile works which hinder duties of piety?
A. 1. Tending young children.
2. Keeping sick and impotent persons.
3. Helping women in travail [i.e. child labor].
Most families have some young children which cannot look to themselves nor be brought to Church without disturbance of the whole Congregation.
Very oft it falls out in every city and town that some be sick, or otherwise impotent by age, or some casualty, so as they cannot go to Church, but require some to tarry with them, and to attend upon them. And in what day of the year doth it not fall out that some women in one place or other fall in travail [i.e. go into labor]? If every day, then also every Lords Day. But it is requisite that more than one or two assist them in their travail.
All these therefore are ordinary servile works whereby some are kept from duties of piety, and yet are blameless. Instance Hannah who tarried from the Temple till her child was weened (1 Sam. 1:22) and was blameless.
42 Q. What instances may be given of extraordinary servile works which hinder duties of piety?
A. 1. Quenching fire on houses.
2. Making up breaches of water.
3. Withstanding enemies.
4. Freeing living creatures out of present danger.
The three first of these concerning fire, water, and enemies, are so violent, that if present help be not afforded against them, irrecoverable damage may soon follow thereupon. If therefore, in any cases that rule hold, mercy and not sacrifice (Hos. 6:6; Mat. 12:7) most of all in these.
As for freeing living creatures out of danger, we have Christs express warrant, “And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days” (Mat. 12:11-12; c.f. Luke 14:5).
If unreasonable creatures are instantly to be pulled out of danger, much more reasonable. “The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:15-16).
By these particulars which are permitted, we may see that a conscionable observing of the Sabbath is not so heavy a yoke as many imagine it to be.
William Gouge, The Sabbath’s Sanctification, pp. 18-21.