Aims of the Founding Fathers – On Sunday Legislation



Portrait of Saint Augustine
Portrait of Saint Augustine

The influential pen of Augustine, fifth-century church father, proclaimed,  “It is , indeed, better that men should be brought to serve God by instruction than by fear of punishment, or by pain.  But because the former means are better, the latter must not therefor be neglected.”  He thus reasoned that many require “the rod of temporal suffering, before they attain to the highest grade of religious development.” — Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950), Vol. 3, Section 27, pp. 144, 145.

John Calvin added the arm of the state to his arsenal of weapons to be used in spiritual coercion, maintaining that “godly princes may lawfully issue edicts for compelling obstinate and rebellious persons to worship the true God and to maintain the unity of the faith.” — Charles M. Snow, Religious Liberty in America (Washington, D.C.:  Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1914), p. 37.

This germ of the Dark Ages arrived in America by way of the Puritans who inherited this paradox, vigorously enforced a doctrine of “love” by civil laws, with their accompanying threats and punishments.

As a young man in the Old World, Roger Williams, had observed the atrocities of the Star Chamber.  “He had been particularly shocked by the treatment given Alexander Leighton, a celebrated Scottish physician and clergyman, who had been tried for religious nonconformity.  Leighton had been sentenced to life imprisonment, fined 10,000 pounds, and facially disfigured, his ears being cut off, his nose slit, and his face branded with a hot iron.” — William L. Roper, Roger Williams, The Man and His Dream, Liberty Vol. 58 (1963), No. 1, p.27.

Once in Salem, Williams boldly mounted the pulpit to condemn the “practice of punishing those who failed to attend Sunday church services.  Civil magistrates, he declared, had no right to enforce church discipline.” — Ibid.

Roger WilliamsIn the fall of 1635, a court in Salem, Massachusetts  finally and formally charged Roger Williams with denying that individual conscience lies within the sphere of government. Governor Winthrop, in the first volume of his 1631 journal, had observed:  “As a court holden at Boston…Mr. Williams…had declared his opinion that magistrate might not punish a breach of the Sabbath, nor any other offense [that was religious], as it was a breach of the first table [of the law of God].” — Winthrop’s Journal, Vol.1, pp. 52, 53.  In American State Papers, Third Revised Edition (Washington, D.C.; Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1943), page 57.

A Medieval Cage
A Medieval Cage

In colonial Massachusetts, as  late as 1783, “the tithing-man still arrested Sabbath breakers and shut them up in the town cage in the market place; he stopped all necessary riding or driving on Sunday, and haled people off to the meeting, whether they would or not….The men of Boston strove hard to secure the repeal of these barbarous laws and the disestablishment of the Congregational Church, but but they were out voted by the delegates from rural towns.” — The Critical Period of American History, 1783-1789, John Fiske, pp.76, 77.

Six years later The Massachusetts Centinel of December 16, 1789, entitled The President and the Tithing-man, wrote this:

washington“The President [George Washington], on his return to New York from his late tour through Connecticut, having missed his way on Saturday, was obliged to ride a few miles on Sunday morning in order to gain the town at which he had previously proposed to have attended divine service. Before he arrived, however he was met by a tithing-man, who commanding him to stop, demanded the occasion of his riding; and it was not until the President had informed him of every circumstance and promised to go no further than the town intended that the tithing-man would permit him to proceed on his journey.”


In The Chain Gang With Common Criminals For Working On Sunday
In The Chain Gang With Common Criminals For Working On Sunday

In Rhea County, Tennessee, Seventh-day Adventists were sentenced to the chain gang for Sunday-law violation.  All in this old photo above, except the three in front are Adventists.  The man on the front right (#12) is the armed guard.  The man on the wagon at the upper left (#1) is an ordained minister.  His offense was allowing some young students who were boarding with him to split wood for heating on Sunday, in a back shed.  Similar “criminal” arrests for Sunday-law infraction occurred in several Southern states during the late 1800’s.

Today we take for granted our religious freedoms.  The historians have very properly spoken of Sunday legislation as barbaric.  It is just such laws that some religious “reformers” are today endeavoring to foist upon various countries including the American people.  Our history books are replete with portraits of legislative folly such as this—religious “reformers” bent on making men religious by civil enactments.  When professed “Christian” institutions pressure the state to invade the realm of conscience, it attempts to wield the scepter where God alone should rule.  Separation of the state from the church does not mean opposition to Christianity.  It means recognizing the divine principle enunciated by our Maker and Master, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Matthew 22:21.

 Here are some who yielded to these important principles above.

Chief Justice Clark1, of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, in declaring a contract made on Sunday valid, said:

clark“The first Sunday law, the edict of the emperor Constantine, was the product of that pagan conception developed by the Romans, which made religion a part of the state…. In the New Testament we shall look in vain for any requirement to observe Sunday…. The Old Testament commanded the observance of the Sabbath,…and it designated Saturday, not Sunday, as the day of rest…. As late as the year 409 two re-scripts of the emperors Honorius and Theodosius indicate that Christians then still generally observed the Sabbath (Saturday, not Sunday)…. What religion and morality permit or forbid to be done on Sunday is not within our province to decide.” – North Carolina Reports, Vol. 134, pp. 508-515.

William Lloyd Garrison2, noted editor, and president of the New England Anti-Slavery Society3, said:


“I am ashamed of some Christians because they have so much dependence on Parliament and the law of the land.  Much good may Parliament ever do to true religion, except by mistake!  As to getting the law of the land to touch our religion, we earnestly cry, ‘Hands off!  leave us alone!’ Your Sunday bills and all other forms of act-of-Parliament religion seem to me to be all wrong.  Give us a fair field and no favor, and our faith has no cause to fear.  Christ wants no help from Caesar.”

The Rev. Arthur C. Baldwin, pastor of the Chestnut Street Baptist church of Philadelphia, said:

300px-Publicledger“Religious observances should not deny that the Jews may do it with Saturday, or the Mohammedans, if there were enough of them, with Friday.  But that would soon be persecution for somebody.  There should rather be a separation of church and state…. Let each use the day according to his conscience and with liberty so long as he does not interfere with another’s rights…. Give us a movement within the churches to put more int the day, more faith, love, and devotion.  We shall not redeem it by making it a vacuum.  Not laws, but Christian conscience, is the remedy.  Only as the day means more to us will it mean more to the world.” – Philadelphia Public Ledger, Nov. 29, 1920.

In 1929, Bishop William T. Manning, of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of New York, strongly opposed a “church-civic movement to enforce strict observance of Sunday,” as follows:

Portrait_of_William_T._Manning“This proposed campaign for stricter laws is one of those well-meant but misguided efforts which do harm instead of good to the cause which they are intended to serve.  It is impracticable, wrong in principle, and based on a narrow and imperfect conception of the Christian religion.  Such a method of securing the observance of Sunday would do far more to drive religion out of the hearts of the people than to draw them toward it…. The Christian religion does not stand for petty restraints and restrictions, but for gladness and freedom and all that adds to the goodness of life.  It is this which we need to help our young people and to bring them near to God, and not any revival of the Puritan Sunday.” – Interview Given the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Nov. 29, 1929.

Bishop William Andrew Leonard, of the Protestant Episcopal Church diocese of Ohio, denounced the Sunday blue laws in a sermon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., to the members of the Sons of the Revolution, as follows:

waleonard1929“We have lately heard much concerning the revival and reenactment of the blue laws in this country, and our min immediately reverts to New England, for we have been impressed with the tradition that there was great rigidity and severity in the usages there.  But Virginia also compelled attendance of divine service, and made it a fundamental rule of life that every one should respect religious observances.

“But the law in neither of these sections worked.  You cannot concert souls by law.  There were many a continued infractions.  Normal persons would not submit, and liberty-loving souls rebelled.  Many of the laws remain on the statute books, and remnants still survive, but they increasingly became what were expressly styled ‘dead letters,’ mute relics of an age, the extreme repressions of which had proved their own inevitable undoing.

“We may consider ourselves in one sense fortunate that we do not live in such an atmosphere as that which surrounded our forefathers either in Virginia or in New England, because disabilities were enforced which positively shacked the freedom of consent or the liberality of assent, in both sections of the land.  Some good men and women, being disgusted, gave up religion entirely, and at last there was the entire discarding of such medieval methods.” – Reported in the Washington Herald, Feb. 23, 1921.

In Senator Robert H. Crockett’s speech4 against Sunday Laws in Arkansas,  in the spring of 1887, he emphatically stated:

108292011_136614369237“Sir, I take shame to myself as a member of the general assembly of 1885, which repealed the act of religious protection [to Sabbatarians] which this bill is intended to restore.  It was hasty and ill-advised legislation, and like all such, has been only productive of oppressive persecution upon many of our best citizens, and of shame to the fair fame of our young and glorious State.  Wrong in conception, it has proved infamous in execution; and under it such ill deeds and foul oppression have been perpetrated upon an inoffensive class of free American citizens in Arkansas, for conscience’ sake, as should mantle the check of every lover of this State and country with indignant shame.” – Senator Robert H. Crockett, Arkansas Legislature in 1887

John A. Fitch, expert in the New York Bureau of Statistics, made an exhaustive study of superior court decisions bearing on Sunday legislation. His investigations were published in the New York State Department of Labor (Bulletin), September 1910.  Of colonial times, he says:  “The legislation of those times bore marked evidence of the extreme religious sentiments then prevailing, and Sunday laws were enacted, not to protect man, but to protect a religious institution.

“Accordingly, these laws, religious in the beginning, have maintained their religious characteristics down to the present time. Forty-five States, besides Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, have Sunday laws on their statute books, and it needs but a brief examination to convince one that their spirit is still primarily religious. In many of them it is apparent in the reference to the day of rest as the ‘Sabbath,’ the ‘Lord’s day,’ or the ‘Lord’s day, commonly called the Sabbath.'”

Pennsylvania Court ReportsPennsylvania Superior Court Reports record:   “All Sunday legislation is the product of pagan Rome; the Saxon laws were the product of middle-age legislation of the “Holy Roman Empire.”  The English laws are the expansion of the Saxon, and the American are the transcript of the English.  The first Sunday law, the edict of the emperor Constantine, was the product of that pagan concept developed by the Romans which made religion a part of the state.  The day was to be venerated as a religious duty owed to the god of the sun.” — Pennsylvania Superior Court Reports, Vol. XXV, p. 134.

Campbell_AlexanderAlexander Campbell, was “instrumental in the Restoration Movement, which resulted in a new direction for American Christians and founding of numerous new, non-denominational churches (the Christian church, Disciples of Christ) He wrote:   “There is not a precept in the New Testament to compel by civil law any man who is not a Christian, to pay any regard to the Lord’s day [Sunday], any more than to any other day.    Therefore to compel a man who is not a Christian to pay any regard to the Lord’s day, more than to any other  day, is without the authority of the Christian religion.  The gospel commands no duty which can be performed without faith in God.  “Whatever is not of faith is sin.”  But to compel men destitute of faith, to observe any Christian institution, such as the Lord’s day, is commanding a duty to be performed without faith in God.  Therefore to command unbelievers, or natural men, to observe in any sense the Lord’s day is anti-evangelical, or contrary to the gospel. — Alexander Campbell’s “Memoirs,”  Vol. I, p. 528.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon 1834-1892C. H. Spurgeon said:  “As to getting the law of the land to touch our religion, we earnestly cry, ‘Hands off! leave us alone!’  Your Sunday bills, and all other forms of Act-of-Parliament religion, seem to me all wrong.  Give us a fair field and no favor, our faith has no cause to fear.  Christ wants no help from Caesar.  I should be afraid to borrow help from government; it would look to me as though I rested on the arm of flesh, instead of depending on the living God.  Let the Lord’s day [Sunday] be respected by all means, and my the day soon come when every shop shall be closed on the Sabbath; but let it be by force of conviction, and not by force of policeman; let true religion triumph by the power of God in men’s hearts. not by the power of fines and punishments.

BrintonHeyburnSenator Weldon B. Hayburn of Idaho said in a short speech before the Senate:  I am not a theologian.  It may be fortunate for all except myself that I am not.  I have due regard for the observance of the Sabbath, and I believe that it should be observed, but I do not believe in legislation compelling one to do it….No man has a right to set himself up as the moral standard of all the community, or of any part of the community except himself.  As to the use of the Sabbath day, every man, so far as personal acts that do not include any acts of lawlessness are concerned, should be the guardian of his own morals. — Congressional Record, pp. 1569-1571, May 26, 1911.


David_S._TerryChief Justice Terry, of the supreme court of California, in declaring enforced Sunday observance unconstitutional, said:  “The enforced observance of a day held sacred by one of the sects, is a discrimination in favor of that sect, and a violation of the freedom of others….Considered as a municipal regulation, the legislature has no right to forbid or enjoin the lawful pursuit of a lawful occupation on one day of the week, any more than it can forbid it altogether.” — 9 California, 502


1  For an excellent bio on Chief Justice Clark, entitled “Walter McKenzie Clark, 1846-1924”,  see –



4  For Senator Crockett’s full speech see – (coming soon!)

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