NATIONAL SUNDAY LAW CRISIS
6: LEGISLATING Christianity
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 situation.
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 them all.
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 gathered there:
"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 was defeated.
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.
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