The Blair Sunday-Rest Bill

The Blair Sunday-Rest Bill

It is safe to say that the name of Senator M. W. Blair has, in a short space of time, become more familiar to the people of the United States than that of any other senator who has done no greater amount of work, and that the “Blair Bills” have been referred to oftener than any other measures that have been introduced into the Senate. People who easily pay attention to what goes on in Congress, have talked of the bills as familiarly as though it had been the business of their lives to watch legislation. Many have spoken thus familiarly of them, who have very little knowledge of what those bills are, when and why they were introduced, and what effect their passage would have. It is to answer those questions, and some others that would naturally grow out of them, especially in regard to the first bill introduced, that this is written. BSRB 3.1

On the 6th of April, 1886, the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Senator H. W. Blair, chairman, gave a hearing to the friends of the Sunday. That Committee is composed of the following ... Senators: Blair, of New Hampshire; Rowen, of Colorado, Pulman, of Michigan; Wilson, if Iowa Riddleberger, of Virginia; George, of Mississippi; Call, of Florida; Pugh, of Alabama; and Payne, of Ohio. Mrs. J. C. Bateham, Superintendent of the Sabbath Observance Department of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, opened the discussion by reading a paper setting forth the reasons which led them to ask for a Sunday law. Rev. W. F. Crafts, pastor of the First Union Presbyterian Church, New York City, then followed with an address. As some of the main points in this address were repeated at the second hearing, in December, they will be noticed in connection with that. Other addresses were given by the following persons: Dr. T. A. Fernley, secretary of the Philadelphia Sabbath Association; Rev. M. P. Nice, secretary of the Maryland Sabbath Association; Rev. Yates Hickey, secretary of the International Sabbath Association; and Rev. Dr. George Elliott, author of “The Abiding Sabbath.” The Union Signal (organ of the National W.C.T.U.), in its issue of May 3, 1888, after reciting the above facts said: “Senator Blair will now draft and present a bill for us.” BSRB 3.2

Before proceeding to a consideration of this bill, it will be well to have in mind what had taken place previous to this. While there has been a great deal of Sunday legislation by the various States, the record of attempts at National legislation is very brief. In 1828-29 petitions were laid before Congress, asking for the discontinuance of Sunday mails. Hon. Richard M. Johnson, of the committee to which the matter was referred, presented the following masterly address, which should be carefully studied, as it is a concise summary of the argument against Sunday legislation:- BSRB 4.1

“The committee to whom were referred the several petitions, on the subject of mails on the Sabbath, or first day of the week, report:- BSRB 5.1

“That some respite is required from the ordinary vocations of life is an established principle, sanctioned by the usages of all nations, whether Christian or pagan. One day in seven has also been determined upon as the proportion of time; and inconformity with the wishes of a great majority of the citizens of this country, the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, has been set apart to that object. The principle has received the sanction of the National Legislature, so far as to admit a suspension of all public business on that day, except in cases of absolute necessity, or of great public utility. This principle the committee would not wish to disturb. If kept within its legitimate sphere of action, no injury can result from its observance. It should, however, be kept in mind that the proper object of government is to protect all persons in the enjoyment of their religious as well as civil rights, and not to determine for any whether they shall esteem one day above another, or esteem all days alike holy. BSRB 5.2

“We are aware that a variety of sentiment exists among the good citizens of this nation, on the subject of the Sabbath day; and our Government is designed for the protection of one as much as another. The Jews, who in this country are as free as Christians, and entitled to the same protection from the laws, derive their obligation to keep the Sabbath day from the fourth commandment of their decalogue, and in conformity with that injunction pay religious homage to the seventh day of the week, which we call Saturday. One denomination of Christians among us, justly celebrated for their piety, and certainly as good citizens as any other class, agree with the Jews in the moral obligation of the Sabbath, and observe the same day. There are, also, many Christians among us who derive not their obligation to observe the Sabbath from the decalogue, but regard the Jewish Sabbath as abrogated. From the example of the apostles of Christ, they have chosen the first day of the week instead of that day set apart in the decalogue, for their religious devotions. These have generally regarded the observance of the day as a devotional exercise, and would not more readily, enforce it upon others than they would enforce secret prayer or devout meditations. BSRB 5.3

“Urging the fact that neither their Lord nor his disciples, though often censured by their accusers for a violation of the Sabbath, ever enjoined its observance, they regard it as a subject on which every person should be fully persuaded in his own mind, and not coerce others to act upon his persuasion. Many Christians, again, differ from these, professing to derive their obligation to observe the Sabbath from the fourth commandment of the Jewish decalogue, and bring the example of the apostles, who appear to have held their public meetings for worship on the first day of the week, as authority for so far changing the decalogue as to substitute that day for the seventh. The Jewish Government was a theocracy, which enforced religious observances; and though the committee would hope that no portion of the citizens of our country would willingly introduce a system of religious coercion in our civil institutions, the example of other nations should admonish us to watch carefully against its earliest indication. With these different religious views, the committee are of opinion that Congress cannot interfere. It is not the legitimate province of the Legislature to determine what religion is true, or what false. BSRB 6.1

Our Government is a civil, and not a religious institution. Our Constitution recognizes in every person the right to choose his own religion, and to enjoy it freely, without molestation. Whatever may be the religious sentiments of citizens, and however variant, they are alike entitled to protection from the Government, so long as they do not invade the rights of others. The transportation of the mail on the first day of the week, it is believed, does not interfere with the rights of conscience. The petitioners for its discontinuance appear to be actuated by a religious zeal, which may be commendable if confined to its proper sphere; but they assume a position better suited to an ecclesiastical than to a civil institution. They appear in many instances to lay it down as an axiom, that the practice is a violation of the law of God. Should Congress in legislative capacity adopt the sentiment, it would establish the principle that the Legislature is a proper tribunal to determine what are the laws of God. It would involve a legislative decision on a religious controversy, and on a point in which good citizens may honestly differ in opinion, without disturbing the peace of society or endangering its liberties. If this principle is once introduced, it will be impossible to define its bounds. BSRB 6.2

Among all the religious persecutions with which almost every page of modern history is stained, no victim ever suffered but for the violation of what government denominated the law of God. To prevent a similar train of evils in this country, the Constitution has wisely withheld from our Government the power of defining the divine law. It is a right reserved to each citizen; and while he respects the rights of others, he cannot be held amenable to any human tribunal for his conclusions. Extensive religious combinations to effect a political object, are, in the opinion of the committee, always dangerous. This first effort of the kind calls for the establishment of a principle, which, in the opinion of the committee, would lay the foundation for dangerous innovations upon the spirit of the Constitution, and upon the religious rights of the citizens. If admitted, it may be justly apprehended that the future measures of the Government will be strongly marked, if not eventually controlled, by the same influence. All religious despotism commences by combination and influence; and when that influence begins to operate upon the political institutions of a country, the civil power soon bends under it; and the catastrophe of other nations furnishes an awful warning of the consequence. BSRB 7.1

“Under the present regulations of the Post-office Department, the rights of conscience are not invaded. Every agent enters voluntarily, and it is presumed conscientiously, into the discharge of his duties, without intermeddling with the conscience of another. Post-offices are so regulated that but a small proportion of the first day of the week is required to be occupied in official business. In the transportation of the mail on that day, no one agent is employed many hours. Religious persons enter into the business without violating their own consciences or imposing any restraints upon others. Passengers in the mail stages are free to rest during the first day of the week, or to pursue their journeys at their own pleasure. While the mail is transported on Saturday, the Jew and the Sabbatarian may abstain from any agency in carrying it, on conscientious scruples. While it is transported on the first day of the week, another class may abstain, from the same religious scruples. The obligation of Government is the same on both these classes; and the committee can discover no principle on which the claims of one should be more respected than those of the other; unless it be admitted that the consciences of the minority are less sacred than those of the majority. BSRB 8.1

“It is the opinion of the committee that the subject should be regarded simply as a question of expediency, irrespective of its religious bearing. In this light it has hitherto been considered. Congress has never legislated upon the subject. It rests, as it ever has done, in the legal discretion of the Postmaster-General, under the repeated refusals of Congress to discontinue the Sabbath mails. His knowledge and judgment in all the concerns of that department, will not be questioned. His intense labors and assiduity have resulted in the highest improvement of every branch of his department. It is practiced only on the great leading mail routes, and such others as are necessary to maintain their connections. To prevent this, would, in the opinion of the committee, be productive of immense injury, both in its commercial and political, and also its moral bearings. The various departments of government require, frequently in peace, always in war, the speediest intercourse with the remotest parts of the country; and one important object of the mail establishment is to furnish the greatest and most economical facilities for such intercourse. The delay of the mails one whole day in seven would require the employment of special expresses, at great expense, and sometimes with great uncertainty. BSRB 8.2

“The commercial, manufacturing, and agricultural interests of the country are so intimately connected as to require a constant and most expeditious correspondence betwixt all our seaports, and betwixt them and the most interior settlements. The delay of the mails during the Sunday would give occasion for the employment of private expresses, to such an amount that probably ten riders would be employed where one mail stage would be running on that day, thus diverting the revenue of that department into another channel, and sinking the establishment into a state of pusillanimity incompatible with the dignity of the Government of which it is a department. BSRB 9.1

“Passengers in the mail stages, if the mails are not permitted to proceed on Sunday, will be expected to spend that day at a tavern upon the road, generally under circumstances not friendly to devotion, and at an expense which many are but poorly able to encounter. To obviate these difficulties, many will employ extra carriages for their conveyance, and become the bearers of correspondence, as more expeditious than the mail. The stage proprietors will themselves often furnish the travelers with those means of conveyance; so that the effect will ultimately be only to stop the mail, while the vehicle which conveys it will continue, and its passengers become the special messengers for conveying a considerable portion of what otherwise constitutes the contents of the mail. Nor can the committee discover where the system could consistently end. If the observance of a holiday becomes incorporated in our institutions, shall we not forbid the movement of an army; prohibit an assault in time of war; and lay an injunction upon our naval officers to lie in the wind while upon the ocean on that day? Consistency would seem to require it. Nor is it certain that we should stop here. If the principle is once established, that religion, or religious observances, shall be interwoven with our legislative acts, we must pursue it to its ultimatum. We shall, if consistent, provide for the erection of edifices for worship of the Creator, and for the support of Christian ministers, if we believe such measures will promote the interests of Christianity. It is the settled, conviction of the committee, that the only method of avoiding these consequences, with their attendant train of evils, is to adhere strictly to the spirit of the Constitution, which regards the general Government in no other light than that of a civil institution, wholly destitute of religious authority. What other nations call religious toleration, we call religious rights. They are not exercised in virtue of governmental indulgence, but as rights, of which Government cannot deprive any portion of citizens, however small. Despotic power may invade those rights, but justice still confirms them. BSRB 9.2

“Let the National Legislature once perform an act which involves the decision of a religious controversy, and it will have passed its legitimate bounds. The precedent will then be established, and the foundation laid, for that usurpation of the divine prerogative in this country which has been the desolating scourge to the fairest portions of the Old World. BSRB 10.1

“Our Constitution recognizes no other power than that of persuasion, for enforcing religious observances. Let the professors of Christianity recommend their religion by deeds of benevolence, by Christian meekness, by lives of temperance and holiness. Let them combine their efforts to instruct the ignorant, to relieve the widow and the orphan, to promulgate to the world the gospel of their Saviour, recommending its precepts by their habitual example; Government will find its legitimate object in protecting them. It cannot oppose them, and they will not need its aid. Their moral influence will then do infinitely more to advance the true interests of religion, than any measure which they may call on Congress to enact. The petitioners do not complain of any infringement upon their own rights. They enjoy all that Christians ought to ask at the hands of any Government-protection from all molestation in the exercise of their religious sentiments. BSRB 11.1

Resolved, That the committee be discharged from any further consideration of the subject.” BSRB 11.2

This recommendation was heartily concurred in by the Senate, and the matter was dropped. BSRB 11.3

In 1883, the “International Sabbath Association” petitioned Congress for a law against Sunday mails, Sunday railroad trains, and Sunday parades. Only a few thousand persons were represented in this petition, and nothing came of it. As the secretary, Rev. Yates Hickey, said, “The time did not seem to be ripe.” BSRB 11.4

In 1884, Rev. Wilbur F. Crafts prepared a petition to Congress for a law against Sunday work in the mail and military service, and in inter-State commerce. It was not till after this that the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union added a “Sabbath Observance Department” to its work, with Mrs. Josephine C. Bateham, of Ohio, as its superintendent. Mrs. Bateham immediately went to work in a systematic manner to secure legislation in behalf of Sunday observance, seeking first to secure signatures to the petition prepared by Mr. Crafts. Through her efforts, and those of her numerous assistants, the number of petitioners is said to have been increased to a million and a half. These were sent to the United States Senate, and were referred to the Committee on Education and Labor, before whom the hearing was soon had (April 6, 1888) by Mrs. Bateham and her fellow-workers, as related in the beginning. In response to these petitions and the appeals made to the committee at this time, and in accordance with his promise, as quoted from the Union Signal of May 3, Mr. Blair drafted the following, which is popularly known as the “Sunday-Rest Bill,” (Senate Bill, No. 2983) and introduced it into the Senate, May 21, 1888:- BSRB 11.5


Be it enacted in the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, That no person or corporation, or the agent, servant, or employ é of any person or corporation, shall perform or authorize to be performed, any secular work, labor, or business, to the disturbance of others, works of necessity, mercy, and humanity excepted; nor shall any person engage in any play, game, or amusement, or recreation, to the disturbance of others, on the first day of the week, commonly known as the Lord’s day, or during any part thereof, in any Territory, District, vessel, or place, subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States; nor shall it be lawful for any person or corporation to receive pay for labor or service performed or rendered in violation of this section. BSRB 12.2

SECTION 2. That no mails or mail matter shall hereafter be transported in time of peace over any land postal route, nor shall any mail matter be collected, assorted, handled or delivered during any part of the first day of the week; Provided, That whenever any letter shall relate to work of necessity or mercy, or shall concern the health, life, or decease of any person, and the fact shall be plainly stated upon the face of the envelope containing the same, the Postmaster-General shall provide for the transportation of such letter or letters in packages separate from other mail matter, and shall make regulations for the delivery thereof, the same having been received at its place of destination before the said first day of the week, during such limited portion of the day as shall best suit the public convenience and least interfere with the due observance of the day as one of worship and rest: And provided further, That when there shall have been an interruption in the due and regular transmission of the mails, it shall be lawful to so far examine the same when delivered as to ascertain if there be such matter therein for lawful delivery on the first day of the week. BSRB 13.1

SEC. 3. That the prosecution of commerce between the States and with the Indian tribes, the same not being work of necessity, mercy, nor humanity, by the transportation of persons or property by land or water in such way as to interfere with or disturb the people in the enjoyment of the first day of the week, or any portion thereof, as a day of rest from labor, the same not being labor of necessity, mercy, or humanity, or its observance as a day of religious worship, is hereby prohibited; and any person or corporation, or the agent or employé of any person or corporation, who shall willfully violate this section, shall be punished by a fine of not less than ten nor more than one thousand dollars; and no service performed in the prosecution of such prohibited commerce shall be lawful, nor shall any compensation be recoverable or be paid for the same. BSRB 13.2

SEC. 4. That all military and naval drills, musters, and parades, not in time of active service or immediate preparation therefore, of soldiers, sailors, marines, or cadets of the United States, on the first day of the week, except assemblies for the due and orderly observance of religious worship, are hereby prohibited, nor shall any unnecessary labor be performed or permitted in the military or naval service of the United States on the Lord’s day. BSRB 14.1

SEC. 5. That it shall be unlawful to pay or to receive payment or wages in any manner for service rendered, or for labor performed, or for the transportation of persons or of property in violation of the provisions of this act, nor shall any action lie for the recovery thereof; and when so paid, whether in advance or otherwise, the same may be recovered back by whoever shall first sue for the same. BSRB 14.2

SEC. 6. That labor or service performed and rendered on the first day of the week in consequence of accident, disaster, or unavoidable delays in making the regular connections upon postal-routes and routes of travel and transportation, the preservation of perishable and exposed property, and the regular and necessary transportation and delivery of articles of food in condition for healthy use, and such transportation for short distances from one State, District, or Territory, into another State, District, or Territory, as by local laws shall be declared to be necessary for the public good, shall not be deemed violations of this act, but the same shall be construed, so far as possible, to secure to the whole people rest from toil during the first day of the week, their mental and moral culture, and the religious observance of the Sabbath day. BSRB 14.3

This bill should not be confounded with the “Joint Resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States, respecting establishments of religion and free public schools,” which was introduced by Mr. Blair into the Senate, May 25, 1888, and which is known as the Blair Educational Amendment bill. As the Educational Amendment bill has nothing to do with the Sunday-Rest bill, we leave the examination of it for another time. BSRB 15.1

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the various “Sabbath Associations” already referred to, immediately began the work of circulating a petition asking Congress to pass the Sunday-Rest bill. That petition was addressed to each House of Congress, and reads as follows:- BSRB 15.2

“The undersigned, adult residents of the United States, twenty-one years of age or more, hereby earnestly petition your honorable body to pass a bill, forbidding, in the nation’s mail and military service, and in inter-State commerce, and in the District of Columbia and the Territories, all Sunday traffic and work, except works of religion and works of real necessity and mercy, and such private work, by those who observe another day, as will not interfere with the general rest nor with public worship.” BSRB 15.3

These petitions were circulated with great enthusiasm by the various churches of the land, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and an unprecedented list of names was secured. Of the methods by which these names were secured, we shall speak later on. BSRB 15.4