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 Chapter 20

Sunday Laws in the United States in the Latter Part of the Nineteenth Century


BY 1890, most of the states of the United States had strong Sunday laws prohibiting secular labor on Sunday. It is amazing that one hundred years of dialogue and debate since the enactment of the first amendment of the Constitution had not convinced most American legislatures that any form of coerced Sunday observance, whatever the proffered reason, was wholly inconsistent with the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution.

In 1890, the only states which did not have Sunday laws were Arizona, California, and Idaho, three western states. It is amazing that almost all the other states enacted Sunday laws during the 1880s. It was at this time that strong religious groups, including such organizations as the Christian Women’s Temperance Union, together with several religious organizations, fought vigorously to have Sunday laws enacted, in the expectation that such laws would greatly increase the moral and spiritual tone of the nation. Eventually, Senator Henry William Blair led the crusade for the enactment of a strong Sunday law.

In a letter to the New York Mail & Express, April 19 1890, Senator Blair expressed strong opinions concerning his conviction that the United States of America must maintain a government and a system of education that was distinctively Christian. In the letter he claimed that only a homogeneous people could be great. He claimed that no nation could exist with more than one language, one religion, and one general form of education for the masses of the people. He expressed the opinion that in a short period of time, Americans would demand that only the Christian religion be retained in America. He said,

I do not believe that it is possible that the American nation will develop in the direction of toleration of all religions—that is, so called religions. Whether the general public conviction shall be right or wrong, I yet believe that instead of selecting and finally tolerating all so-called religions, the American people will, by constant and irresistible pressure, gradually expel from our geographical boundaries every religion except the Christian in its valid forms. New York Mail & Express, April 19, 1890, quoted in William Blakely, American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation

Senator Blair’s convictions formed the basis of his crusade to institute a national Sunday law that would prohibit all citizens of the nation from any form of work, commerce, or other secular pursuits on the first day of the week. His proposed Sunday legislation led to vigorous, and often bitter debate.

The proposed legislation was especially repugnant to Sabbatarian groups in the United States. The opposition to the proposed legislation was led by a Seventh-day Adventist minister, Professor Alonzo Jones. Jones, a thorough student of history, proved more than a match for the senator. Jones’ powerful and persuasive arguments eventually won the day, and the strong thrust for the introduction of a national Sunday law was derailed.

The defeat of the national Sunday bill did much to weaken the hand of the states who had previously legislated prohibitions on certain secular activities on Sunday. However, this was not before significant numbers of American citizens had been imprisoned or fined for carrying out secular work and other activities on the first day of the week. An example of the tragic consequences of Sunday legislation is offered in a speech delivered by Senator Robert H. Crockett, grandson of David Crockett, the famous frontier man who opened up great stretches of the western part of the United States, including the territory of Arkansas. Speaking before the State Senate of Arkansas in 1887, Senator Crockett supported a bill introduced into the legislature that would grant immunity to Sabbatarians from the penalties inflicted for working upon Sunday. In his famous address, he spoke in glowing terms of the pioneers who opened up the territory of Arkansas through hard labor and honest toil, and who had cleared the land, raised up industries, and begun to make the state prosperous. He spoke of his tour through the northwest of the state, lecturing and seeking to increase the immigration to that part of Arkansas. As a result of his and others’ efforts, he said,

Many came and settled up our wild lands and prairies, and where but a few years ago we heard in the stillness of the night the howl of the wolf, the scream of the panther, and the wail of the wildcat, these people for whom I am pleading, came and settled. . . . Instead of the savage sounds incident to the wilderness, now are heard the tap, tap, tap of the mechanics hammer, the rattle and roar of the railroad, the busy hum of industry, and softer, sweeter far than all these, is heard the music of the church bells as they ring in silvery chimes across the prairies and valleys, and are echoed back from the hill-side throughout the borders of our whole state. Blakely, p. 210, 211

And then Senator Crockett presented his plea for the sabbatarians.

These people are, many of them, Seventh-day Adventists and Seventh-day Baptists. They are people who religiously and conscientiously keep Saturday, the seventh day, as the Sabbath, in accordance with the fourth commandment. They find no authority in the Scripture for keeping Sunday, the first day of the week, nor can anyone else. All commentators agree that Saturday is and was the Scriptural Sabbath, and that the keeping of Sunday, the first day of the week, as the Sabbath, is of human origin, and not by Divine injunction. The Catholic writers and all theologians agree in this.

These people understand the decalogue to be fully as binding upon them today as when handed down amid the thunders of Sinai. They do not feel at liberty to abstain from their usual avocations, because they read the commandment, "six days shalt thou labor," as mandatory and they believe that they have no more right to abstain from labor on the first day of the week than they have to neglect the observance of Saturday as their Sabbath. They agree with their Christian brethren of other denominations in all essential points of doctrine, the one great difference being upon the day to be kept as the Sabbath. They follow no avocations tending to demoralize the community in which they live. They come among us expecting the same protection in the exercise of their religious faith as is accorded to them in the states of Europe, in South Africa, Australia, the Sandwich Islands [Hawaiian Islands], and every State of the Union except, alas! that I should say it, Arkansas! Sir, under the existing law, there have been in Arkansas within the last two years, three times as many cases of persecution for conscience’s sake as there have been in all the other States combined since the adoption of our national Constitution. Blakely, p. 211, 212

Senator Crockett then offered tragic examples of religious persecution in the courts of Arkansas. In his own words, here is an example.

Let me, sir, illustrate the operation of the present law by one or two examples. A Mr. Swearingen came from a Northern State and settled a farm in Benton county. His farm was four miles from town, and far away from any house of religious worship. He was a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and after having sacredly observed the Sabbath of his people (Saturday) by abstaining from all secular work, he and his son, a lad of seventeen, on the first day of the week went quietly about their usual avocations. They disturbed no one—interfered with the rights of no one. But they were observed, and reported to the grand jury—indicted, arrested, tried, convicted, fined; and having no money to pay the fine, these moral Christian citizens of Arkansas were dragged to the county jail and imprisoned like felons for twenty-five days—and for what? For daring in this so called land of liberty, in the year of our Lord 1887, to worship God!

Was this the end of the story? Alas, no, sir! They were turned out; and the old man’s only horse, his sole reliance to make bread for his children, was levied on to pay the fine and costs, amounting to thirty-eight dollars. The horse sold at auction for twenty-seven dollars. A few days afterwards the sheriff came again and demanded thirty-six dollars—eleven dollars balance due on fine and costs and twenty-five dollars for board for himself and son while in jail. And when the poor old man—a Christian, mind you—told him with tears that he had no money, he promptly levied on his only cow, but was persuaded to accept bond, and the amount was paid by contributions from his friends of the same faith. Sir, my hearts swells to bursting with indignation as I repeat to you this infamous story. Quoted in ibid., p. 212, 213

Concluding his plea for Sabbatarians and the passage of the bill that would exempt Sabbatarians from the Sunday laws of 1885, he said,

On next Monday, at Malvern, six as honest, good, and virtuous citizens as live in Arkansas are to be tried as criminals for daring to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their own consciences, for exercising a right which this government, under the Constitution, has no power to abridge. Sir, I plead, in the name of justice, in the name of our republican institutions, in the name of these inoffensive, God-fearing, God-serving people, our fellow citizens, and last, sir, in the name of Arkansas, I plead that this bill may pass, and this one foul blot be wiped from the escutcheon of our glorious commonwealth. Quoted in Blakely, p. 213

Senator Crockett’s plea found favor with the Arkansas senators and the Sunday law of 1885 was repealed.

William Blakely provided brief accounts of others who suffered in other states of the Union, including Tennessee, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. He details one case where a Sabbath keeper died due to fever he contracted from the unsanitary conditions in the prison.

It is a sober reality that such violations of individual conscience are again returning to the United States. Vigilance in the light of past history is the only hope for freedom. The majority opinion in Smith vs. the State of Oregon (detailed in chapter 7 entitled "Erosion of the First Amendment") has greatly limited the protection under the first amendment. The July 2 1997 Supreme Court decision which cut down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, emphatically demonstrated the Court’s determination to limit religious freedom under the first amendment.


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