Things that Aren’t on Enough Church-State Syllabi — Part II: Never on Sunday?

The first major nationwide battle over church and state didn’t take place when the First Amendment was adopted.  It happened decades later in the 1830s, and it involved the agency employing 75% of the U.S. government’s civilian workforce – the Post Office.  Congress required mail delivery seven days a week, and a coalition of prominent Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Baptist and other churches led the charge to make sure that the nation (in their view, a Christian nation) lived up to its obligations under the 4th Commandment.  Richard John’s beautifully written, Spreading the News (1995), tells the story brilliantly.

The Sabbatarian side can best be found in Jasper Adam’s essay, “On the relation of Christianity to civil governments,” found in Daniel Dreisbach’s excellent, Religion and Politics in the Early Republic: Jasper Adams and the Church-State Debate (1996):  In light of the “close relation between religion and Government that had always  existed” in the states, Adams concluded that it was “unlikely” that the Founders would “lay aside all connection with Christianity in the general institutions to which they gave birth . . . Though a strong aversion had arisen to the national establishment of any one form of Christianity, none had grown up against a  distinct recognition of Christianity itself as a religion of the nation.”

Colonel (later, Vice President) Richard Johnson chaired the relevant congressional committees, and he released sharply worded, largely anticlerical, reports that don’t really talk about the establishment clause or any other specific part of the Constitution.  The spirit of the Constitution, however, is clearly stated:  “The Constitution regards the general government in no other light than that of a civil institution, wholly destitute of religious authority.”  In a nice bit of irony, the official congressional reports were actually ghostwritten by Johnson’s Washington landlord, a Baptist minister named Obadiah Brown.

Here was the big church-state fight that we sometimes pretend happened when the establishment clause was adopted.  When it finally occurred forty years later, the first round went to the separationists.  But, the Sabbatarians never gave up, and they shut down the Sunday mails for good in 1912.  American’s competing church-state views seem to be so deeply rooted that these kinds of disputes – perhaps like the 20th century school prayer arguments – can literally endure for generations, if not centuries.

Don Drakeman

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