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 Chapter 18

The Post Office and Sunday Regulations


T all began when the Second Session of the Eleventh Congress on April 30 1810, enacted a law,

That every postmaster shall keep an office in which one or more persons shall attend on every day on which a mail, or bag, or other packet, or parcel of letters shall arrive by land or water, as well as on other days, at such hours as the Postmaster-General shall direct, for the purpose of performing the duties thereof; and it shall be the duty of the postmaster at all reasonable hours, on every day of the week, to deliver, on demand, any letter, paper, or packet, to the person entitled to or authorized to receive the same. William Addison Blakely, compiler and annotator, Ameri- can State Papers bearing on Sunday legislation, 1890, p. 58

Very early this legislation was challenged by a Mr. Findley presenting a petition of the Synod of Pittsburgh, PA., praying that,

The laws governing the post office establishment might be altered or amended to prohibit mail stages and post riders from traveling and post-offices being kept open on Sunday. Ibid.

During the same month of January, other petitions were sent to the Postmaster-General from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Ohio. The Postmaster-General reported to Congress, January 31 1811, that,

By virtue of the ninth section of the act of the Congress that he felt bound to compel the postmasters to receive letters and deliver letters on the Sabbath day. Ibid., p. 60

For twenty years the controversy over the delivery of mail and the opening of post offices on Sunday raged. This may be surprising to present-day Americans, who have long ago become accustomed to, and reconciled to the fact that post offices are closed, and the mail deliveries do not take place on Sundays. But after that year a further petition was made, plainly stating the reason for the call for postal services to cease on Sunday:

Your memorialists cannot, in justice to their own feelings, refrain from observing the violation of known and universally received precepts, when sanctioned by the most powerful influence in Union cannot fail of having a tendency to justify every species of breach of the laws made for the strict observance of the first day of the week, as set apart by the command of God for His more immediate service. Blakely, p. 61

Blakely comments upon this petition as follows,

That is the real foundation of all Sunday-rest movements; though for clandestine purposes, reasons are often given of a very different nature, as, solicitude for the public health,—as though the people were so devoid of common sense as not to know enough to rest when they are tired, without being compelled to do so by law! Mr. Chief Justice Ruffin, of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, in the case of the State versus Williams, for Iredell, 403, said: "The truth is, that it offends us, not so much because it disturbs us in practicing for ourselves the religious duties, or enjoying the salutary repose of recreation, of that day, as that it is, in itself, a breach of God’s law, and a violation of the party’s own religious duty." Sabbath laws are the remnant of religious legislation; and it was only to appear to escape the fourth of incontrovertible arguments that such a shallow subterfuge as the "civil" sabbath was invented. Ibid.

On January 3 1812, Mr. Rhea, Chairman of the Committee on Post-Offices and Post-Roads, made it plain that there could be no alteration in the legislation requiring post offices and postal services to continue on Sunday. This was the first of a series of adverse decisions against similar petitioners. However, this did not reduce the number of petitions that were made. Indeed,

As the petitions increased and the demands of the clergy became more strenuous, the adverse reports were more decided. Again and again they refused to run the government according to the dictates of the ecclesiastical power; and, finally, when the question had been one of national interest, adverse petitions also coming in, and the best statesmen of the times opposing the "reform" movement, Senator Johnson wrote his celebrated reports which have received such general approbation. Blakely, ibid.

These reports were so well written, and treated the subject so thoroughly, that the movement was killed. Johnson would later become Vice-President of the United States.

The early petitions were presented by the Presbyterian Church, but they were resolutely rejected. However, the issue was obviously a very lively one. In 1815, again petitions came before the Postmaster-General and/or Congress. In the height of the controversy, Thomas Jefferson, then former President of the United States, wrote to Francis W. Gilmer, June 7 1816,

Our legislators are not sufficiently apprised of the rightful limits of their power; that their true office is to declare and enforce only our natural rights and duties, and to take none of them from us. No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another; and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him; every man is under the natural duty of contributing to the necessities of the society; and this is all the law should enforce on him; and, no man having a natural right to be the judge between himself and another, it is his natural duty to submit to the umpirage of an impartial third. When the laws have declared and enforced all this, they have fulfilled their functions; and the idea is quite unfounded, that on entering into society we give up any natural right. Ibid., pp. 69, 70

The issue of postal services on Sunday emerged strongly again in the middle of the 1820s. The Second Session of the Eighteenth Congress, March 3 1825, reaffirmed that the postal services should be conducted on every day of the week. It is helpful in our understanding of religious liberty for us to investigate the reasons Richard Johnson gave for his opposition to legislation that would close the postal services on Sunday. Johnson pointed out that, while he had no doubt that the motives of the petitioners were pure, nevertheless, he referred them to the proceedings of a meeting at Salem, Massachusetts,

That the petitioners did not consider the ground they had taken as being purely that Sabbath was the day of rest; they assumed that it was such by a law of God.

Johnson made this perceptive statement.

. . . some denominations consider one day the most sacred, and some looked to another, and these petitions did, in fact, call upon Congress to settle what was the law of God. The Committee has framed their report upon policy and expediency. It was but the first step taken, that they were to legislate upon religious grounds, and it made no sort of difference which was the day asked to be set apart, which day was to be considered sacred, whether it was the first day or the seventh, the principle was wrong. It was upon this ground that the Committee went in making their report. Blakely, pp. 87, 88

Here are some of the reasons Richard Johnson gave for the position of Congress in refusing to designate Sunday as a day for the cessation of the postal service:

(1) While agreeing that it was widely accepted that one day in seven was necessary for citizens to refresh and rest (a principle not only sanctioned by Christians but also by non-Christians), he also acknowledged that most Christians chose Sunday as that day that was set apart for the purpose of rest. But he said,

The proper object of government is to protect all persons in the enjoyment of their religious as well as civil rights, and not to determine for any whether they shall esteem one day above another, or esteem all days alike holy. Ibid., p. 90

(2) Johnson declared that Congress was aware of a variety of sentiments existing among the good citizens of the nation on the subject of what was the Sabbath day. He pointed out that the Jews were provided by the Constitution the same freedom as the Christians and entitled to the same protection from the law.

The Jews, who in this country are as free as Christians, and entitled to the same protection from the laws, derive their obligation to keep the Sabbath day from the fourth commandment of their decalogue, and in conformity with that injunction pay religious homage to the seventh day of the week, which we call Saturday. Ibid., p. 91

Then Johnson pointed out that one Christian denomination, also known for their piety, agree with the Jews on the moral obligation to keep the seventh-day Sabbath and to observe the same. It is most likely he was referring to the Seventh Day Baptist Church, for, as of the time of his presentation, other now-known sabbatarian churches, such as the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of God Seventh Day, and the World-wide Church of God, had not been established.

(3) Johnson warned against enforcement of the beliefs of the majority Sunday keepers, pointing out that the Jewish government which had enjoined the observance of the seventh day of the week, was a theocracy, and he hoped that the citizens of the United States would not willingly introduce a system of religious coercion into our civil institutions.

(4) He also admonished all to be careful watchers of other nations so that the United States did not follow their example in religious coercion, for,

It is not the legitimate province of the legislature to determine what religion is true, or what religion is false. Blakely, pp. 92, 93

(5) Johnson emphasized that the United States government is a civil and not a religious institution, reaffirming the time-honored principle:

Our Constitution recognizes in every person the right to choose his own religion, and to enjoy it freely without molestation. Whatever may be the religious sentiments of citizens, and however variant, they are alike entitled to protection from the government, so long as they do not invade the rights of others. The transportation of the mail on the first day of the week, it is believed, does not interfere with the rights of conscience. The petitioners for its discontinuance appear to be actuated by a religious zeal, which may be commendable if confined to its proper sphere; but they assume a position better suited to an ecclesiastical than a civil institution. They appear in many instances to lay it down as an axiom that the practice is a violation of the law of God. Should Congress in legislative capacity adopt this sentiment, it would establish the principle that the legislature is a proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God. It would involve a legislative decision on a religious controversy, and on a point on which good citizens may honestly differ in opinion, without disturbing the peace of society or endangering its liberties. If this principle is once introduced it will be impossible to defend its bounds.

Johnson followed with a very profound statement,

Among all the religious persecutions with which almost every page of modern history is stained, no victim ever suffered but for the violation of what government denominated the law of God. To prevent a similar train of evil in this country, the Constitution has wisely withheld from our government the power of defining the divine law. Blakely, pp. 93–95

(6) Johnson then stated,

Under the present regulation of the Post-Office Department the rights of conscience are not invaded. Every agent enters voluntarily, and it is presumed conscientiously, into the discharge of his duties, without intermeddling with the conscience of another. Post offices are so regulated that but a small proportion of the first day of the week is required to be occupied in official business. In the transportation of the mail on that day, not one agent is employed many hours. Religious persons enter into the business without violating their own conscience or imposing any restraints upon others. Passengers in the mail stages are free to rest during the first day of the week, or to pursue their journeys at their own pleasure. While the mail is transported on Saturday, the Jew and the Sabbatarian may abstain from any agency in carrying it, on conscientious scruples. While it is transported on the first day of the week, another class may abstain, from the same religious scruples. The obligation of government is the same on both these classes; and the committee can discover no principle on which the claims of one should be more respected than those of the other; unless it be admitted that the conscience of the minority are less sacred than those of the majority. Ibid., pp. 95, 96

It will be seen here that Johnson was concerned for the protection of the rights of the minority. The majority normally require no such protection.

(7) Quoting the opinion of the committee, Johnson said that they had come to the conclusion that the continuation of postal services on Sunday was an expediency irrespective of religious bearing.

(8) Johnson also explained that if mail coaches were not permitted to carry mail on Sunday, then those who were travelling by coach would be forced to stay over a day wherever the mail coach stopped before continuing their journey. Johnson thus drew the following conclusion,

If the principle is once established that religion, or religious observances, shall be interwoven with our legislative acts, we must pursue it to its ultimate. We shall, if consistent, provide for the erection of edifices for worship of the Creator, and for the support of Christian ministers, if we believe such measures will promote the interest of Christianity. Blakely, p. 98

(9) Johnson pointed out that,

to legislate even one act which involved the decision of a religious controversy would be to pass legitimate bounds of Congress. The mistake that had been made consistently in the Old World. Ibid., p. 100

Finally, Johnson urged that the Constitution recognized no other power than that of persuasion for enforcing religious observances, and he gave counsel to those who were of a deeply religious conviction, suggesting that their moral influence will do infinitely more to advance the interests of their religion than any measure that could be enacted by Congress.

A submission to the Senate January 19 1829, ended with the resolution that the committee be discharged from any further consideration of the subject. The Senate concurred.

On March 4 and 5, 1830, the reports of the Post-Offices and Post-Roads Committee were carried by Mr. Johnson to the House of Representatives. Here, in different language, he presented many of the same reasons that he had given to the Senate the year before. But here he made some stronger assertions. For example,

With the exception of the United States, the whole human race, consisting, it is supposed, of eight hundred million of rational beings [the estimated population of the earth in 1830], is in religious bondage; and, in reviewing the scenes of persecution which history everywhere presents, unless the committee could believe that the cries of the burning victim, in the flames by which he is consumed, bear to heaven a grateful incense, the conclusion is inevitable that the line cannot be too strongly drawn between church and state. Blakely, p. 111

Johnson further points out that it was a kiss by which Judas betrayed his divine Master. He stated that the Christian religion made its way into the world in opposition to all human government. Banishments, tortures, and death were inflicted in vain to stop its progress. But then Johnson correctly concludes,

But many of its professors, as soon as clothed with political power, lost the meek spirit which their creed inculcated, and began to inflict on other religions, and on dissenting sects of their own religion, persecution more aggravated than those which their own apostles had endured. Ibid., pp. 111, 112

In his presentation to the House of Representatives, Johnson reminded all that primitive Christians did not ask governments to recognize their observances, but to provide toleration and freedom from persecution. He provided the examples of the Protestants of Germany; the Huguenots of France, who asked toleration of their Catholic superiors; and the persecuted Catholics of Ireland that in that time asked toleration of their oppressors. Then he asked the question,

Do not all men in this country enjoy every religious right which martyrs and saints ever ask? Whence, then, the voice of complaint? Who is it that, in the full enjoyment of every principle which human law can secure, wishes to wrest a portion of these principles from his neighbor? Ibid., p. 116

Johnson followed with a series of questions.

Do the petitioners allege that they cannot conscientiously participate in the profits of the mail contracts and post-offices, because the mail is carried on Sunday? If this is the motive, then it is worldly gain which stimulates to action, and not virtue or religion. Do they complain that men less conscientious in relation to the Sabbath obtain advantages over them by receiving their letters and attending to their content? Still their motive is worldly and selfish. But if their motive be to induce Congress to sanction, by law, their religious opinions and observances, then their efforts ought to be restricted, as in their tendency fatal both to religious and political freedom. . . .

Why have the petitioners confined their prayers to the mails? Why have they not requested that the government be required to suspend all its executive functions on that day? Why do they not require us to enact that our ships shall not sail; that our army shall not march; that officers of justice shall not seize the suspected or guard the convicted; they seem to forget that government is as necessary on Sunday as on any other day of the week. The spirit of evil does not rest on that day. It is the government, ever active in its functions, which enables us all, even the petitioners, to worship in our churches in peace. Blakely, p. 117

Johnson concluded with an exhortation of the great blessings that come via the mail.

It is the duty of this government to afford all—to Jew or Gentile, Pagan or Christian, the protection and the advantages of our benignant institutions on Sunday as well as every day of the week. Although this government will not convert itself into an ecclesiastical tribunal, it will practice upon the maxim laid down by the founder of Christianity—that it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day. Ibid., p. 122

At the end of his presentation, it was resolved that the committee be discharged from the further consideration of the subject.

While here we have detailed the petitions that were made to Congress, we desire to add that it was not only by petition that some of the strong supporters of legislation to eliminate postal services from Sunday sought to enforce their convictions. The members of several religious denominations were prominent in demonstrations. For example, in Philadelphia, chains secured by padlocks were stretched across the streets on Sundays to prevent the passage of the mail coaches. However, the reasoning of Richard Johnson seems to have won general approval by 1830.

The authors also have not investigated how the decisions made there in the earlier part of the nineteenth century were changed, so that today there are no major postal services available to the public on Sunday, but that would make interesting research.


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