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In Defense of Civil and Religious Liberty: Anti-Sabbatarianism in the United States before the Civil War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 May 2013


The decades before the Civil War witnessed a series of battles over the meaning and legal status of the American Sabbath. Scholarship has focused on the Sabbatarian movement, a cluster of evangelical churches that sought to institutionalize the Sunday Sabbath. This article takes a new approach by investigating the anti-Sabbatarian movement. In a series of controversies, from Sunday mail in the Jacksonian era to the running of Sunday streetcars on the eve of the Civil War, anti-Sabbatarians rallied against Sabbath laws as an infringement of civil and religious liberty. Though diverse in orientation, anti-Sabbatarians agreed that religion and politics should be kept apart, and that the United States was not, in constitutional terms, a Christian nation. A study of anti-Sabbatarianism is thus of rich significance for the history of Church-State relations in the United States.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 2013 

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1 The Sabbatarian campaign to ban Sunday mail has attracted most analysis. See John, Richard R., “Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously: The Postal System, the Sabbath, and the Transformation of American Political Culture,” Journal of the Early Republic 10 (Winter 1990): 517567CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, “Prelude to Abolitionism: Sabbatarian politics and the Rise of the Second Party System,” Journal of American History 58 (September 1971): 316341CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rohrer, James R., “Sunday Mails and the Church-State Theme in Jacksonian America,” Journal of the Early Republic 7 (Spring 1987): 5374CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fuller, Wayne E., Morality and the Mail in Nineteenth-Century America (Urbana: University of Illinois, 2003)Google Scholar; John, Richard R., Spreading the News: The American Postal System from Franklin to Morse (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998)Google Scholar; West, John G., The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996),137–70Google Scholar; McCrossen, Alexis, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000), 2526Google Scholar. For a general survey, see McCrossen, Alexis, “Sabbatarianism: The Intersection of Church and State in the Orchestration of Everyday Life in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Religious and Secular Reform in America: Ideas, Beliefs and Social Change, eds. Adams, David K. and Van Minnen, Cornelis A. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 133158Google Scholar.

2 See Fuller, Morality and the Mail, 33–34; John, “Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously,” 548–54; McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday, 26–30; Wyatt-Brown, “Prelude to Abolitionism,” 334–36.

3 There is a vast literature on the Second Great Awakening, but works of most relevance to this study are Noll, Mark A. and Harlow, Luke E., eds., Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the Present (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Carwardine, Richard, Evangelicals and Politics in Antebellum America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Abzug, Robert, Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994)Google Scholar; Smith, Timothy L., Revivalism and Social Reform: American Protestantism on the Eve of the Civil War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1980)Google Scholar; McLoughlin, William L., Revivals, Awakenings and Reform: An Essay on Religion and Social Change in America, 1607–1977 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978)Google Scholar; Johnson, Curtis D., Redeeming America: Evangelicals and the Road to the Civil War (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993)Google Scholar.

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6 North American and United States Gazette [Philadelphia], April 30, 1850.

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11 On calls for rational recreation, see Lewis, Robert, “‘Rational Recreation’: Reforming Leisure in Antebellum America” in Adams and Minnen, Religious and Secular Reform, 121132Google Scholar. There is a larger British scholarship on rational recreation. See, for example, Bailey, Peter, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830–1885 (London: Routledge, 1978)Google Scholar.

12 Laws and Regulation for the Government of the Post-Office Department (Washington: Alexander & Barnard, 1843), 78Google Scholar.

13 The bulk of petitions on both sides of the Sunday mail question are contained in the legislative files of the 20th and 21st Congresses in the National Archives (Washington, D.C.), Records of Committee on Post-Offices and Roads, Series H.R. 20A-G14.2 and H.R. 21A-G.15.3. For an extended analysis of anti-Sabbatarianism in the battle over Sunday mails, see Verhoeven, Tim, “The case for Sunday Mails: Sabbath Laws and the Separation of Church and State in Jacksonian America,” Journal of Church and State (forthcoming, Winter 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 HR20A, G14.2, December 10, 1828.

15 Ibid., December 16, 1828.

16 HR 21A-G15.3, February 22, 1830,

17 West, Politics of Revelation, 261n10.

18 HR 21A-G15.3, January 8, 1830.

19 HR 21A-G15.3, n.d.

20 Ibid.

21 HR 21A-G15.3, February 22, 1830.

22 Ibid., January 1830.

23 [untitled newspaper clipping], HR 21A-G15.3.

24 HR 20A-G14.2, January 1829.

25 HR 21A-G15.3, January 16, 1830.

26 HR 21A-G15.3, January 4, 1830.

27 HR 21A-G15.3, January 20, 1830.

28 HR 20A-G14.2, December 1828.

29 HR 20A-G14.2, n.d.

30 Blakely, William Addison, ed., American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation (New York: National Religious Liberty Association, 1891), 93Google Scholar.

31 Ibid., 95.

32 Ibid., 98. On Johnson, see John, Spreading the News, 198–200, 201–204.

33 Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, vol. XV (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1859), 534Google Scholar.

34 McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday, 30–32.

35 Abstract of the Proceedings of the National Lord's Day Convention held in the City of Baltimore on the 27th and 28th November 1844 (Baltimore: Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1854), 35Google Scholar.

36 “Church, Ministry and Sabbath Convention,” Liberator, October 16, 1840, 176.

37 William Lloyd Garrison to Samuel May, September 8, 1838, Internet Archive,

38 “The Late Sabbath Convention,” Liberator, February 5, 1841, 23.

39 The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 10, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), 374Google Scholar.

40 Letter to Wendell, Ann Elizabeth in The Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier, vol. 1, ed. Pickard, John B. (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1975), 469Google Scholar.

41 Phelps, Amos A., The Sabbath (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1844)Google Scholar.

42 Ibid., 21.

43 Ibid., 20.

44 Cited in Kyle G. Volk, “Majority Rule, Minority Rights: The Christian Sabbath, Liquor, Racial Amalgamation, and Democracy in Antebellum America” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2008), 108.

45 Statutes at Large of the State of New York: Comprising the Revised Statutes, vol. 4 (Albany: Weed, Parsons and Company, 1863), 45Google Scholar.

46 Spechtvs Commonwealth, 8.Pa 312.

47 Petition reproduced in Occident and Jewish American Advocate [Philadelphia], February 1846.

48 Ibid., April 1846.

49 Ibid., March 1847.

50 Proceedings of the Anti-Sabbath Convention, held in the Melodeon, March 23rd and 24th (Boston: 1848), 31Google Scholar.

51 Ibid., 47.

52 Ibid., 138.

53 Ibid., 12.

54 Ibid., 11.

55 Ibid., 90–91.

56 Ibid., 48.

57 Hamburger, Philip, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002)Google Scholar.

58 HR 20A-G14.2, n.d.

59 Proceedings of the Anti-Sabbath Convention, 54.

60 Ibid., 20–21.

61 Ibid., 6.

62 For an overview of the introduction of streetcars, McShane, Clay and Tarr, Joel A., The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2007)Google Scholar.

63 Spiers, Frederick W., “The Street Railway System of Philadelphia, Its History and Present Condition,” Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Fifteenth Series, III-IV-V (1897), 17Google Scholar. For more on the streetcar system in Philadelphia, see Cheape, Charles W., Moving the Masses: Urban Public Transport in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, 1880–1912 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), 157–62Google Scholar. On the effects for urban development, Cutler, William W., “The Persistent Dualism: Centralization and Decentralization in Philadelphia, 1854–1975,” in The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800–1975, eds. Cutler, William W. and Gillette, Howard (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980), 251253Google Scholar; Hepp, John Henry, The Middle-Class City: Transforming Space and Time in Philadelphia, 1876–1926 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 2930Google Scholar.

64 Noble, John, Facts Concerning Street Railway: The Substance of a Series of Official Reports from the Cities of New York, Brooklyn, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Providence, Newark, Chicago, Quebec, Montreal, and Toronto (London: P.S. King, 1866), 56Google Scholar.

65 Annual Census Reports of Railroads, November 1861 (Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg), Record Group 14, Series 15.

66 German Reformed Messenger [Chambersburg, Pa.], July 27, 1859.

67 Agnew, John Holmes, A Manual on the Christian Sabbath (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1852), 150Google Scholar.

68 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 6, 1857. See also McShane and Tarr, The Horse in the City, 99–100.

69 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 25, 1857.

70 The only study of the controversy to date is an article written several decades ago: Cox, Harold E., “‘Daily except Sunday’: Blue Laws and the operation of Philadelphia's HorsecarsBusiness History Review 39 (Summer 1965), 228–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Westcott, Thompson & Schard, Thomas J., History of Philadelphia, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: L. H. Everts, 1884), 731Google Scholar; Spiers, “The Street Railway System of Philadelphia,” 18–23.

71 Sunday Dispatch [Philadelphia], July 10, 1859.

72 Public Ledger [Philadelphia], July 11, 1859.

73 Evening Bulletin [Philadelphia], July 21, 1859.

74 Ibid., July 19, 1859.

75 North American and United States Gazette [Philadelphia], July 18, 1859.

76 Ibid., August 1 1859.

77 Public Ledger [Philadelphia], August 1, 1859.

78 Morais, Henry S., The Jews of Philadelphia: Their History from the Earliest Settlements to the Present Time (Philadelphia: Levytype, 1894), 412Google Scholar.

79 Fisher, William Logan, History of the Institution of the Sabbath Day (Philadelphia: T. B. Pugh, 1859), 9Google Scholar. On Fisher, see Fisher, William Logan and Wainwright, Nicholas B., “Memoir of William Logan Fisher (1781–1862) for His Grandchildren,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 99 (1975), 92103Google Scholar.

80 Ibid., 137.

81 Ibid., 211.

82 Sunday Dispatch [Philadelphia], December 4, 1859.

83 Sunday Atlas [Philadelphia], July 10, 1859.

84 Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, July 28, 1859.

85 Journal of the Common Council, of the city of Philadelphia, for 1858–1859 (Philadelphia: Inquirer, 1859), 343Google Scholar.

86 The occupational breakdown is as follows: 2 printers, 2 carpenters, 1 cordwainer, 1 bootmaker, 1 plumber, 1 tailor, and 1 gas-fitter.

87 Journal of the Common Council, of the City of Philadelphia, for 1858–1859 (Philadelphia: Inquirer, 1859), 30Google Scholar. Unfortunately the petition, along with the records of the municipal committee on street railways, has disappeared.

88 Sunday Dispatch [Philadelphia], July 24, 1859.

89 Public Ledger, July 13, 1859.

90 Ibid., July 14, 1859.

91 Lazerow, Jama, Religion and the Working Class in Antebellum America (Washington: Smithsonian Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Sutton, William R., Journeymen for Jesus: Evangelical Artisans Confront Capitalism in Jacksonian Baltimore (University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1998)Google Scholar.

92 Schultz, Ronald, The Republic of Labor: Philadelphia Artisans and the Politics of Class, 1720–1830 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 218219Google Scholar. See also Laurie, Bruce, Working People of Philadelphia: 1800–1850 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1980), 3352Google Scholar.

93 Lazerow, Religion and the Working-Class, 219–220.

94 Public Ledger, August 1, 1859. Ken Fones-Wolf found similar working-class hostility to Sabbatarianism in the 1870s and 1880s. See Trade Union Gospel: Christianity and Labor in Industrial Philadelphia, 1865–1915 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 4950, 56Google Scholar.

95 Public Ledger, July 18, 1859.

96 Ibid., October 19, 1859.

97 Journal of the Common Council, of the City of Philadelphia, for 1859–60 (Philadelphia: Inquirer, 1859), 295Google Scholar.

98 Philadelphia Sabbath Association, 19th annual report (Philadelphia: William P. Geddes, 1860), 6Google Scholar.

99 Sparhawk et al. v. Union Passenger Railway Company, 54 Pa. 401 (1867). On the legal significance of this decision, see Green, Steven K., The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 238CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

100 Concurring opinion, Sparhawk et al.

101 Philadelphia Sabbath Association, 27th annual report (Philadelphia: William P. Geddes, 1868), 3Google Scholar.

102 New York Herald, September 12, 1859, 4.

103 McGarvie, Mark, One Nation Under Law: America's Early National Struggle to Separate Church and State (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004), 15Google Scholar.

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