SUNDAY LAW CRISIS
Benjamin Franklin had been through a lot. He grew
up in the American Colonies, was a leading statesman in the founding
of the United States government; and, during his service as a special
ambassador to France, had extensive opportunity to view the political
quagmires of Europe. The writings of few men in his time carried the
weight of wisdom to be found in his. Here is what he said about the
usefulness of a State church:
"When a religion is good, I conceive that it
will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself and God does
not take care to support it, so that its professors are oblig’d to
call for the help of the civil power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of
its being a bad one!"—Benjamin Franklin, Vol. 8, 154.
By the mid-nineteenth century, a number of highly
placed church leaders were becoming very dissatisfied with the
It was true that the Constitutional framework
guaranteed religious freedom for them—but, at the same time, its
restrictions kept them from imposing their views on others. Something
obviously needed to be done to "help" America become more
religious more quickly. So far, individual denominational leaders had
been unable to push Congress into passing such religious laws; so the
lobbying power of a joint church organization would have to be added.
In 1863, representatives of eleven Protestant
denominations met together and established an interchurch
organization, the National Reform Movement. After careful discussion,
it was recognized that a series of religious laws would be needed in
order to get the scoffers, atheists, and discontents to attend church.
After still further study, it was clearly seen that first
Congressional law would have to be one which both the religionists and
nonreligionists could agree on: a weekly Sunday holiday. So the
National Reform Movement set, as its express objective, the enactment
of a mandatory National Sunday Law for all America.
A classic example of these "blue laws"
(as local and statewide Sunday laws came to be called), occurred in
1882, when the ministers of San Francisco demanded that the police
crack down on violators of a California State Sunday Law. Police Chief
Crowley promised the arrest of persons who may violate this law next
Sunday. Fearful of the heavy political pressure being brought to bear
upon him by the church pastors, he set to work—and, in less than a
month’s time, nearly 1,600 lawbreakers had been arrested and the
municipal court dockets were filled to overflowing with cases!
The ministers were obviously happy, for all kinds
of people were now coming to church—secular activists, grumbling
dissidents, the criminal minded, and lots more, all eager to have a
part in running the local churches. But the city officials were not as
happy about the situation. They had so many "one-day-in-the-week
criminals" on their hands that they did not know what to do with
A few months earlier in California, meetings by
various denominations laid the groundwork for subsequent criminal
arrests. At one of these meetings (of the Methodist Conference of
California in its 1882 San Francisco convention), a resolution was
passed declaring that the Methodist Church should throw its entire
weight behind the enactment of a civil Sabbath in local and
state-level balloting. Part of the official resolution explains why a
"civil Sabbath" was considered so important:
"That any attempt to abolish or change the day
is an attempt to destroy the national life; that the civil Sabbath in
the state depends upon the ballots of the citizens; that it is the
duty of the Christian citizens to cast his free ballot where it will
best promote the highest interests of the Christian Sabbath."—News
article, Methodist Conference, in San Francisco Morning Call,
September 27, 1882.
But now, let us go to the national level. Delegates
to the 1888 Convention of the National Reform Association expressed
their thankfulness that, by the laws which they intended to coerce
Congress into enacting, they would be instrumental in bringing "a
quicker religion" to the people of America. Before that august
assembly of church representatives from all over the continent, David
McAllister, their leading spokesman, proclaimed the objectives of all
"Those who oppose this work now will discover,
when the religious amendment is made to the Constitution, that if they
do not see fit to fall in with the majority, they must abide the
consequences or seek some more congenial clime."—Dr. David
McAllister’s speech before the National Reform Movement, Lakeside,
Ohio, August 1887.
As can be seen from the above paragraph, the
ultimate objective was not merely a Congressional law but a rock-solid
Constitutional amendment! Talk among the association delegates was
that, once the amendment was enacted, it could be followed by
Congressional legislation of specific religious doctrines. What would
those doctrines be? It was understood that they would very likely be
those of the most politically active of the various denominations.
Yet the delegates, as they assembled at these
yearly association conventions, recognized that they would have to
carry on their program one step at a time. It is a solemn
responsibility for church leaders to be able to help direct the work
of a denomination; but some would consider it a better fulfillment of
their calling to link the church with the state—and help direct the
affairs of the nation!
In 1888, at the urging of lobbyists for the
National Reform Movement, the Blair Bill was introduced into Congress.
It would have brought the desired federal Sunday edict to the United
Sates. One of those who opposed it, Alonzo T. Jones, a Michigan
history professor, testified against the bill in December of that
year. Amid all the talk of a "weekly holiday" for the
people, Jones clearly saw what was behind all the contention to enact
a nationalized Sunday rest.
"It is the religious observance of the day
that its promoters, from one end of the land to the other, have in
view. In the convention, now in session in this city working in behalf
of this bill, only yesterday Dr. Crafts said: ‘Taking the religion
out of the day takes the rest out.’
In the ‘Boston Monday Lectures,’ 1887,
Joseph Cook, lecturing on the subject of Sunday laws, said:
" ‘The experience of centuries shows,
however, that you will in vain endeavor to preserve it as a day of
worship. Unless Sabbath observance be founded upon religious reasons,
you will not long maintain it at a high standard on the basis of
economic and physiological and political reasons only.’ In the
Illinois State Sunday Convention, held in Elgin, November 8, 1887, Dr.
W. W. Everts declared Sunday to be ‘the test of all religion.’
"—Alonzo T. Jones, The National Sunday Law, in The American
Sentinel, 1892, 117.
The Blair Bill died in committee. But Senator
Blair, at the urging of his backers, determined that he would yet get
it passed; later, he stripped it of its religious wording and
resubmitted it in December 1889, as a new bill. But, once again, those
who recognized the inherent dangers in mandatory Sunday legislation
were able to successfully defeat It.
In 1892, another Sunday enactment was presented to
Congress. This one was designed to legislate only the rest day of a
single national fair (the forthcoming Columbian Exposition in Chicago)
instead of the entire nation. Senator Hiscock, of New York, urged the
importance of closing the fair on Sundays. Here is his reason:
"If I had charge of this amendment in the
interest of the Columbian Exposition, I would write the provision for
the closure in any form that the religious sentiment of the country
demands."—Transcript of Senator Hiscock’s speech, in
Congressional Record, July 13, 1892, 675.
But, once again, the National Reform Movement and
the church leaders, anxious to "Christianize America
overnight," met with a setback. The Columbian Exposition rider
In our own time, there is a growing awareness that
the secret to introducing radically different legal precedents to
America is to do it through the Supreme Court. And, since the 1950s,
this has repeatedly occurred.
An outstanding example was the impact of the 1973
Roe vs. Wade and Doe vs. Bolton decisions by that court. Legalized
abortion, something that Congress feared to directly enact itself came
from two rapid-fire Supreme Court decisions. It is true that a
mandated National Sunday Law would be beyond the scope of the Supreme
Court, but the official rulings on its part (that such a law if
enacted by the Congress would be legal and not in violation of the
Constitution) could pave the way for that law. Such a high-court
ruling would make it much easier for Congressional enactment of a
National Sunday Law.
Near the end of the nineteenth century came the
first of two precedent-shattering Supreme Court decisions. The second
one came in the mid-twentieth century.
"Neither be ye called masters; for
one is your Master, even Christ."—Matthew 23:10.