Not too long ago we pulled the car up to our home after a morning at church and went to the entrance as usual. On the porch was a brown package complete with the usual abundance of bar coded slick paper and Times New Roman font. We knew what it was. We had ordered a coffee maker to replace the one that had died a particularly pungent death when the heating coil burned out. As I stood there with tie and jacket in hand, I thought, “What is this doing here? The United States Post Office does not deliver packages on Sunday.” But it seems that it does, which was a factor not taken into account when the new brew maker was ordered a few days earlier. Since experiencing our surprise package delivery, I have noticed postal vehicles on the roads on Sundays making deliveries. Thus, the box on the porch prodded my memory regarding a substantial controversy from the past involving Presbyterians and other Christians with the U. S Postal Service.
Mail delivery on the Sabbath was an issue that first came before the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1810. Mr. Wiley, who was the postmaster in Washington, Pennsylvania, was appealing the decision of the Synod of Pittsburg excluding him from “the special privileges of the Church” because he worked on the Sabbath and supported mail delivery on that day. Mr. Wiley’s appeal was denied and the decision of the synod was affirmed.
In 1812, the Sabbath and mail again appeared on the docket of the assembly. The presbyters sent a petition to the United States Congress concerning the “evils of Sabbath profanation,” and calling for changing the national law “relative to the mails as will prevent the profanation of the Sabbath which now takes place in conveying and opening the mail.” Also that year, Postmaster Wiley’s case returned to the assembly via a “petition signed by a number of persons in Washington, Pennsylvania, and its vicinity” desiring the overturn of the 1810 decision because he was such a fine and exemplary citizen. The assembly refused to overturn its judgment and reiterated its reasons for its decision. Then, in 1814, it appears that the action of the assembly of two years previous regarding petitions to Congress had been fruitless because the assembly moved that “each Presbytery [be] directed to take order that the same be circulated for subscription in all the congregations under their care, and forwarded to Congress by the first day of January next.” With apparent failure again in 1814, the 1815 assembly sent out another petition.
The undersigned, inhabitants of __________, and State of __________, beg leave to represent to the honorable Senate and House of Representatives of the United States, in Congress assembled, that in the opinion of your petitioners, the transportation and opening of the mail on the Sabbath day is inconsistent with the proper observance of that sacred day, injurious to the morals of the nation, and provoked the judgments of the Ruler of nations. We perceive from the report of the Postmaster General, at your last session on this subject, that it is his opinion that when peace shall arrive [i.e. when The War of 1812 ends], the necessity of carrying and opening the mail on the Sabbath day will greatly diminish. While, therefore, we congratulate you on the return of peace, we approach you with confidence, and beseech you to take this subject into your serious consideration, and enact such laws as you in your wisdom may deem necessary for the removal of this evil. And we, your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
Assembly actions reminding the government and congregations not to break the Sabbath continued to be delivered by the Presbyterian Church for several years. In 1819, the assembly considered an overture concerning receiving a person as a church member who owned and operated on the Sabbath a fleet of stage coaches that not only transported passengers but also mail. The assembly resolved the following regarding the case.
That it is the decided opinion of this Assembly that all attention to worldly concerns on the Lord’s day, farther than the works of necessity and mercy demand, is inconsistent both with the letter and spirit of the fourth commandment; and consequently all engagements in regard to secular occupations on the Lord’s day, with a view to secure worldly advantages, are to be considered inconsistent with Christian character, and that those who are concerned in such engagements ought not to be admitted into the communion of the Church while they continue in the same.
The subject appeared again in 1826, then 1828, then an extensive multi-point resolution was adopted in 1836 just before the division of the denomination into Old and New schools. Shortly thereafter the Old School General Assembly adopted a long resolution which included another condemnation of Sabbath mail. In 1840 there was more instruction to the churches about the Lord’s Day which included the appointment of a committee of nine members to “correspond with other evangelical denominations on the subject of measures for promoting a better observance of the Lord’s Day.” Moore’s digest notes that similar actions were repeated in 1840, 1843, and 1846. Then in 1853, a general resolution regarding the Sabbath without specific mention of mail delivery ended with a summary paragraph.
While, therefore, we earnestly entreat our fellow-citizens of every class to “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” the Assembly do hereby, in a special manner, enjoin it upon the church Sessions to watch over their brethren with tenderness and great fidelity in respect to the observance of the Sabbath; and to exercise wholesome discipline on those who, by travelling or other ways, presume to trample upon this sacred institution. And we further enjoin it upon the Presbyteries annually to institute inquiries of the eldership, as to the manner in which this injunction has been attended to in their respective churches.
A decade after this resolution by the Old School General Assembly the states were divided and at war. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America (PCCSA) was to convene in First Church, Columbia, South Carolina on May 7, 1863. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is legendary for his skill and strategy as an officer and military tactician, but some may not know that he was a Christian, a deacon, and he taught Sunday School in the Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Virginia. In 1892, Mary Anna Morrison, his widow, published a biography of her husband titled, The Life and Letters of Gen. Thomas J. Jackson. Included in the book is a letter written by Deacon T. J. Jackson to his friend and fellow member of the Lexington Presbyterian Church, Elder J. T. L. Preston, who served in the army as a colonel and had been honored by his selection to serve as a commissioner to the PCCSA General Assembly. The letter expressed Deacon Jackson’s concern regarding the delivery of mail by the Confederate Postal Service on the Sabbath.
Near Fredericksburg, Va., [Saturday] April 27th, 1863.
I am much gratified to see that you are one of the delegates to the General Assembly of our Church, and I write to express the hope that something may be accomplished by you at the meeting of that influential body towards repealing the law requiring our mails to be carried on the Christian Sabbath. Recently I received a letter from a member of Congress, the Confederate Congress at Richmond, expressing the hope that the House of Representatives would act upon the subject during its present session, and from the mention made of Colonel Chilton and Mr. Curry of Alabama, I infer that they are members of the committee which recommends the repeal of the law. A few days since I received a very gratifying letter from Mr. Curry, which was voluntary on his part, as I was a stranger to him, and there had been no previous correspondence between us. His letter is of a cheering character, and he takes occasion to say that divine laws can be violated with impunity neither by governments nor individuals. I regret to say that he is fearful that the anxiety of members to return home, and the press of other business, will prevent the desired action this session. I have said this much in order that you may see that Congressional action is to be looked for at the next meeting of Congress; hence the importance that Christians act promptly, so that our legislators may see the current opinion before they take up the subject. I hope and pray that such may be our country’s sentiment upon this and kindred subjects that our statesmen will see their way clearly. Now appears to me an auspicious time for action, as our people are looking to God for assistance.
Very truly your friend,
T. J. Jackson.
This letter was composed by Gen. Jackson just a few days before his involvement in the Battle of Chancellorsville where he was wounded by friendly fire and died on Sunday, May 10th, which seems an apropos day for his death given his concern for the Lord’s Day. His desire for the PCCSA General Assembly to petition the Confederate government regarding Sabbath mail carrying was granted by the commissioners, but by the time his letter came up on the docket, he had passed away.
After the war ended, debate regarding the Sabbath mails continued as the re-united states provided seven-day mail delivery as it had been doing for decades. In some locations mail was not only delivered on Sunday but sometimes more than once. Due to the closing of nearly all other businesses on the Lord’s Day, the private businesses that often acted also as post offices in smaller communities—sometimes they were saloons—were Sunday gathering places for socializing for those uninterested in piety. Late in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth the Christian denominations, including the PCUSA which had reunited in 1869 from their division in 1837, were particularly active regarding the Lord’s Day. There were interdenominational and denominational Sabbath day preservation societies. For Presbyterians, their sessions, presbyteries, synods, and general assemblies often passed resolutions rebuking congregants for their lack of Sabbath reverence while entreating the government to remember the day. When special events like the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago or the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 were open seven days a week, Presbyterians were reminded not to attend them on the Sabbath. The development and rapid growth of the railroad industry brought about new concerns for Christians as freight, people, and mail were transported on Sunday. For several years Presbyterian general assemblies had an annual sermon on keeping the Sabbath.
So, when did Sunday, the Lord’s Day, or Sabbath mail services cease? It was not until 1912 during the presidency of William Howard Taft. The Sunday mail issue came forth in the House of Representatives in H. R. 21279, which was the appropriations bill for the Postal Service budget through June 30, 1913. After some debate concerning the use of bill riders, finagling the rules, and raising points of order, the resolution was adopted by the House, then approved by the Senate after a conference with the House regarding some amendments, and then finally it was signed by President Taft. The part of the bill germane to the issue of Sunday mail is section 5.
That on and after July 1 next following the passage of this act, letter carriers in the City Delivery Service and clerks in first and second class post offices shall be required to work not more than eight hours a day: provided, that the eight hours of service shall not extend over a longer period than ten consecutive hours, and the schedules of duty of the employees shall be regulated accordingly.
That in cases of emergency, or if the needs of the service require, letter carriers in the City Delivery Service and clerks in first and second class post offices can be required to work in excess of eight hours a day, and for such additional services they shall be paid extra in proportion to their salaries as fixed by law.
That should the needs of the service require the employment on Sunday of letter carriers in the City Delivery Service and clerks in first and second class post offices, the employees who are required and ordered to perform Sunday work shall be allowed compensatory time on one of the six days following the Sunday on which they performed such service.
Churches that had vociferously pointed out to the government the error of Sabbath mail for over a hundred years had finally achieved their end and a righteous postal Sabbath would result. But, is that the case? It seems that the end or considerable limitation of Sunday mail is more likely attributable to the rise of organized labor unions and shorter work hours. National legislators had been hearing for years from the churches regarding Sabbath mail, but with the rise of unions and better defined hours for workers—two birds could be killed with one stone. Thus, if Sunday is pulled out of the work week the potential regular hours workers can labor have already been reduced by one seventh. The bonus for the lawmakers was that the Presbyterians and other churches would stop their letter writing and petitioning campaigns about the Sabbath. For the legislators, as might be said today, it was “a definite win-win situation.”
The Apostle Paul wrote in Romans 8:7,8, that, “the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” The church bears the sword of the Word of God, while the state bears the sword of government. The ministry of the church is spiritual and eternal; the ministry of the state—it is a ministry ordained by God—is physical and temporal. Yes, the church should judiciously address grievously sinful legislation and actions by the state, but it should also know when to cease while continuing to pray for change. The state bears responsibility for its own sins within its physical and temporal domain, just as the church bears responsibility for its sins within its spiritual and eternal realm.
BY BARRY WAUGH
Notes—For a brief biography on Presbyterians of the Past of James A. Lyon, moderator of the PCCSA General Assembly in 1863, click HERE, and for a brief explanation of the terms New School and Old School, click HERE. Note that the the Old and New schools divided for the Civil War, the Old School in the South became the PCCSA, but during the war the PCCSA and the New School in the South reunited. Confused? There is a flow chart of Presbyterian history that explains the divisions, name changes, and reunions of America’s Presbyterians iniside the cover of Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism, by John Muether and D. G. Hart, P&R, 2007.
Sources—The first two U. S. Stamps, the first, U. S. Postmaster, Benjamin Franklin, and the other one with a portrait of George Washington, were issued in 1847 and the images are from Wikimedia Commons.The book referred to above as “Moore’s digest” is, The Presbyterian Digest of 1898, A Compend of the Acts, Decisions, and Deliverances, of the General Presbytery, General Synod, and General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America 1706-1897, compiled by William E. Moore and published in Philadelphia by the Presbyterian Board of Education and Sabbath School Work, 1898; digests were also published in earlier and later editions. For a wonderful book on Stonewall Jackson read James I. Robertson’s magnum opus titled, Stonewall Jackson: The Man, The Soldier, The Legend, New York, 1997. The full bibliographic information for Mrs. Jackson’s book is, Life and Letters of General Thomas J. Jackson (Stonewall Jackson) by His Wife, Mary Anna Jackson, with an Introduction by Henry M. Field, D. D., Illustrated, New York: Harper Brothers, 1892 [the date on the title page is 1892, but the copyright date on the obverse is 1891]; the Jackson portrait is the frontispiece in the digital version on Internet Archive. Is it a bit ironic that Jackson’s biography was published in the heart of the North? The excerpt from the H. R. 21279 was pulled from a secondary source titled, The Postal Record, Edward J. Cantrell, editor, 25:5, May 1912, which was at the time of its coming to the floor of the House, but the passing of it was covered in issue 25:9 for September. A digital volume of The Postal Record is available on Google books; the term “H. R. 21279” can be searched to hit all the actions by Congress.