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Fighting Social Change, and Hiding Behind Religion

In 1810, Congress passed a federal law requiring postal clerks to circulate mail on the day it arrived, making no exception for Sundays. Once Congress entered into what some considered an entirely religious matter, church leaders from across the country sought to repeal the law. Sound familiar?
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Kentucky clerk Kim Davis made another star turn at the Republican candidates' debates last week, both the main attraction and the undercard. The questions her flouting of the law raises are not new. In fact, they are nearly as old as the Republic.

In the late 1820s, religious leaders across the United States were uncomfortable with some of the changes afoot in the new nation and the questions they raised. For Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, one of those questions was "perhaps the most important that ever was, or ever will be submitted for national consideration." According to Beecher, "[t]he present, undoubtedly, is the generation which is to decide the fate of this great empire."

The issue? Whether post offices could stay open on Sundays. Or, as Beecher's would proclaim, "whether the Sabbath of God shall be preserved or blotted out." Because "the temptations of the seaboard and of canals are immense, and are increasing most fearfully; and, unless public sentiment and law shall make a stand soon, we may as well attempt to stop the rolling of the ocean, or the current of our mighty rivers."

Today, as some lone government officials feel constrained by conscience to defy the Supreme Court by refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, social change is here, and, for some, is hard. It also cannot be stopped.

At the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, the postal system was the source of information about commercial activities for business interests, and for news about family and friends. The arrival of the post in a community was often announced by the blaring of horns or the tolling of bells as the stagecoach rode into town. As the main source of news in the new nation, the post was circulated seven days a week, including Sundays, when many town residents would be at religious services. When the men in a congregation heard the clamor arise announcing the arrival of the post, many would slip out of church and then find reason to spend a few hours at the post office. A day that was supposed to be spent in quiet reflection and with family might turn into an afternoon of business dealings, drink, and poker.

Tension arose as religiously observant postal clerks closed their office on Sundays. Local laws sometimes prohibited business dealings on that day of the week, in honor of religious principles. Since many of the post offices were located in local commercial establishments, the postal clerk's other business might be otherwise closed even if the post arrived.

In 1810, Congress passed a federal law requiring postal clerks to sort and circulate the mail on the day it arrived at the location, making no exception for Sundays. Once Congress entered into what some considered an entirely religious matter, church leaders from across the country, who would come to be known as Sabbatarians, sought to repeal the law.

Senator Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, who chaired the important Senate Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads (and who would later serve as Vice President under Martin Van Buren), stressed that the federal government should not get involved in a dispute over which day of the week should be recognized as the Sabbath, as the Jewish community and certain Christian sects honored Saturday as their day of rest. The report went on to say that the Sabbatarians had "no just ground of complaint, unless it be conceded that they have a controlling power over the conscience of others. If Congress shall, by the authority of law, sanction the measure recommended, it would constitute a legislative decision of a religious controversy, in which even Christians, themselves, are at issue." While such a decision might be decided appropriately by "an ecclesiastical council, it is incompatible with a republican legislature, which is purely for political, and not religious purposes."

With the advent of the telegraph and the spread of the railroads, interest in the Sabbatarian cause waned. The need for continuous mail service became less important as a commercial matter: business interests could receive critical information through the telegraph if necessary. It was not until 1912, however, that post office employees teamed up with religious leaders to lobby to have the post offices closed on Sunday, mostly to give workers a break.

Despite the protests of Beecher and others, the issue of mail delivery turned out to be not all that important in the end. History tells us now that what was perceived by some as a religious imperative, upon which the fate of the nation rested, was nothing more than discomfort with social change, and the arc of history.

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