SUNDAY LAW CRISIS
5: Bringing Back the PAST
"We the people of the United States, in
order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure
domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the
general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves
and our posterity to ordain and establish this Constitution for the
United States of America."—Preamble to the United States
It was done! That grandest of all human documents.
But then our founders realized that something was missing! Thomas
Jefferson, writing from France, declared that the Constitution was
incomplete. A "bill of personal rights" must be added,
guaranteeing to each citizen certain inalienable rights that the
government could never be allowed to take from him! Other leaders
agreed. They knew past history well. Indeed, they had only but
recently come out of intense personal and religious persecution of the
American Colonies. They were the children not only of the persecuted
but also of those who had persecuted them.
The first Congress, meeting at its first session
(in New York City on September 25, 1789), wrote and submitted to the
states several amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Among the most
important of these was the first amendment, written, along with the
others, by James Madison:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof or
abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the
people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a
redress of grievances."
On November 3, 1791, at Philadelphia, the first ten
amendments to the United States Constitution became part of the
supreme law of the land.
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that
act of the whole American people which declares that their legislature
should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of
separation between church and state."—Thomas Jefferson,
quoted in Reynolds vs. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878).
At last, religious freedom could rule in America!
Only two years earlier George Washington had been forbidden to
continue his journey by horseback to New York City, to take the oath
as the first president of the United States. He had been stopped by a
Connecticut highway official because he was traveling on Sunday.
Fortunately he had left Mount Vernon early enough to make it in time.
A few days later, on April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall, New York City,
he was sworn in as the first president of the United States.
Yes, there were Sunday laws back in the colonies.
And, because all must obey them, a State church was the result.
The Virginia Sunday law of 1610 mandated that
attendance at "diuine seruice was required of all citizens,
religious or irreligious, every Sunday morning, and again in the
afternoon to diuine seruice, and catechising, vpon paine for the first
fault to lose their pronision, and allowance for the whole weeke
following, for the second to lose the said allowance, and also to be
whipt, and for the third to suffer death."—Peter Force,
Tracts Relating to the Colonies in North America, Vol. 3, No. 2,
In contrast with this effort to fill church pews
with the irreligious and irreverent, Roger Williams is recognized by
historians as the first man in modern history to fully recognize that
the only way to safeguard the individual conscience—and the church
as well—is to separate both from State coercion or control.
"At a time when Germany was the battlefield
for all Europe in the implacable wars of religion; when even Holland
was bleeding with the anger of vengeful factions; when France was
still to go through the fearful struggle with bigotry; when England
was grasping under the despotism of intolerance; almost half a century
before William Penn became an American . . Roger Williams asserted the
great doctrine of intellectual liberty. It became his glory to found a
state [Rhode Island] upon that principle . . He was the first person
in modern Christendom to assert, in its plenitude, the doctrine of
liberty of conscience, the equality of opinions before the law.
Williams would permit persecution of no opinion, of no religion,
leaving heresy unharmed by law and orthodoxy unprotected by terrors of
penal statutes."—George Bancroft, History of the
United States of America, Vol, 1, 254-255.
Later, in 1830, when a Federal Sunday Law was
urged, the matter was carefully studied by a special committee of the
House. The decision of that bipartisan committee deserves our careful
"Banishment, tortures, and death were
inflicted in vain to stop its [the Christian religion’s] progress.
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 dissenting sects of their own
religion, persecutions more aggravated than those which their own
apostles had endured."—Special House Report, U.S.
House of Representatives, March 4-5, 1830.
Think about that statement a minute—a long
minute. And this one also:
"The ten persecutions of Pagan [Roman]
emperors were exceeded in atrocity by the massacres and murders
perpetrated by Christian hands; and, in vain, we examine the records
of imperial tyranny for an engine of cruelty equal to the holy
Inquisition. Every religious sect, however meek its origin, commenced
the work of persecution as soon as it acquired political power.
"What did the Protestants, of Germany, or the
Huguenots, of France, ask of their Catholic superiors? Toleration.
What do the persecuted Catholics of Ireland ask of their [Protestant]
oppressors? Toleration. Do not all men in this country [America] enjoy
every religious right which martyrs and saints ever asked? Whence,
then, the voice of complaint? Who is it that, in the full enjoyment of
every principle which human laws can secure, wishes to wrest a portion
of these principles from his neighbor?"—Special House
Report, March 4-5, 1830.
But in 1848, eighteen years after that
Congressional report repudiating efforts to introduce Sunday
legislation, the Sunday law issue came up again. This time it was the
well-known William Lloyd Garrison that was fighting it. On the state
level, "conscientious and upright persons have been thrust into
prison for an act no more intrinsically heinous than that of gathering
in a crop of hay or selling moral or philanthropic publications."
In this, the Garrison-Burleigh document, Garrison also mentioned a new
interchurch organization that had just arisen, the American and
Foreign Sabbath Union, founded expressly for the purpose of
legislating and enforcing a National Sunday Law on all America.
Recalling the eventual results of Sunday laws in
earlier times, Garrison, in a later speech, commented on what would
result if such attempts succeeded:
"If you do not obey me, I will put my hands
into your pocket and take out as much as I please in the shape of a
fine; or if I find nothing there, I will put you in prison; or if you
resist enough to require it, I will shoot you dead." He also
added, "if it [Sunday observance] be of God, it does not need
legislation to uphold it."—William Lloyd Garrison, Speech
Upon the Foregoing Resolutions, quoted in American State Papers,
In violation of the first amendment to the
Constitution, a number of states continued to enact local and
statewide Sunday laws. The objective was religious, and frequently it
was stated to be such:
"Our Puritan ancestors intended that the day
should be not merely a day of rest from labor, but also a day devoted
to public and private worship and to religious meditation and repose,
undisturbed by secular cares or amusements. They saw fit to enforce
the observance of the day by penal legislation [imprisonment]."—Massachusetts
Supreme Court Decision, 1880, in Davis vs. Somerville, 128
Massachusetts 594 (1880).
An increasing number of arrests, fines, and
imprisonments began accruing from the passage of these State Sunday
laws. Mr. Judefind, of Rock Hall, Maryland, was arrested on November
20, 1892, for husking corn in his field, The sheriff, who patiently
hid in the brush near the road till Judefind began working, later
admitted in court that he himself regularly did the same kind of work
on Sunday. Judefind was imprisoned for 30 days; and the sheriff, safe
from prosecution, set out to find more violators.
Sunday laws were also used to persecute whomever
the local authorities wished to put the finger on, since most of the
citizenry frequently violated the local Sunday laws. In 1889, Day
Conklin, of Bigcreek, Georgia, was arrested and found guilty of
chopping wood on Sunday. The family had just finished moving to a
different house and a cloudburst had soaked much of their possessions.
Then the weather turned bitter cold, and Conklin chopped wood that
morning to provide some heat for his suffering family. The fine and
court costs amounted to $83. Yet, as soon as the trial was over, some
of those testifying and voting against him went home and, immune to
arrest by friends, chopped wood for themselves the following Sunday
In Tennessee, in the early 1890s, men were fined
and put into chain gangs for Sunday violations. W. B. Capps, of
Dresden, served ninety-seven days for doing ordinary farm work at home
If you were living in Arkansas in the 1880s, this
could have happened to you:
"[Mr. Swearingen and several others]
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 citizens of Arkansas
were dragged to the county jail and imprisoned like felons for
twenty-five days . . 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 afterward the sheriff came again, and
demanded thirty-six dollars—eleven dollars balance due on the fine
and costs and twenty-five dollars balance due for board for himself
and son while [caring for the old man] in jail. And when the poor man—a
Christian, mind you—told him with tears that he had no money, he
promptly levied on his only cow!"—Arkansas State Senator R.
W. Crockett (grandson of Davy Crockett), in an appeal to repeal the
State Sunday Law, printed in Weekly Arkansas Gasette, February 10,
But all through those tragic years, and in the
years since then, the Sunday laws that have been enacted have all been
on the local or state level. The key legislation had not been passed. That
legislation would be a clear-cut National Sunday Law.
But such Congressional legislation is on its way.
Recent events make that clear. And, when the United States of America,
the most influential nation in the world, mandates a common day for
rest and worship, the beginning of the end will be upon us.
"Every man, conducting himself as a
good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions,
ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his
own conscience."—Writings of George Washington, Vol. 30, 321.