In our technologically-evolving twenty-first century world, a centuries-old communications medium is suffering: postal mail delivery this year continues a decades-long pattern of slumping volume and declining revenue. While able to withstand and thrive through changes in modes of mail transportation over the centuries – from horse to automobile, boat to airplanes – the challenges facing today’s postal service come in the form of tiny electronic bytes that collectively make first class letters increasingly rare.
One proposed solution to restoring profitability to the U.S. Postal Service is the cessation of Saturday mail delivery. The concept seems to be gaining little traction thus far.
Two hundred years ago this year, the Post Service faced a different weekend problem: Sunday mail delivery.
At the time of America’s founding, Sunday mail delivery was common practice. In a nation separating church from state, Sunday was treated like other days from the perspective of government. Post offices – first established in 1775 in the Second Contintental Congress – were typically open for at least part of the day both Saturday and Sunday. Mail sorting and delivery was a seven-day-a-week job, and it was not uncommon for church folks to drop by the post office after church on Sunday to pick up their mail.
During the 1780s, few Americans actually attended church. Historians estimate that roughly 7-10% of Americans were church folk, a trend that did not change until after the beginning of the Second Great Awakenining at the turn of the nineteenth century. The revivals characterizing the Awakening, made possible by the free marketplace of religion ensured by religious liberty for all and the separation of church and state, increased public interest in Christianity. At the same time, this newfound religious fervor provided an opportunity for Christian leaders – many of whom remained angry over America’s founding as a secular nation – to Christianize the culture in a way that the government refused to do.
Against this backdrop of revivals seeking to Christianize American culture, in 1809 in Washington, Pennsylvania, a Presbyterian elder was expelled from his church. Just what was Hugh Wylie’s sin? As the town postmaster, he followed the custom of Sunday mail delivery.
Wylie’s expulsion from church signaled the first popular backlash against Sunday mail delivery, with Presbyterians at the forefront of the charge. None other than Timothy Dwight, president of Yale University and one of the most prominent Presbyterians in America, had stirred up the sentiment that led to the 1809 incident.
In order to quell the controversy in Washington, Pennsylvania from spreading, U.S. Postmaster General Gideon Granger in 1810 enacted federal legislation officially forbidding the nation’s 2,300 post offices from closing on Sundays.
Yet instead of putting a stop to the controversy, the 1810 Postal Service act eventually unleashed the anger of many more Christians. By 1815, the government had received over one hundred petitions from angry Christians demanding the cessation of Sunday mail delivery. While the petitions were relativley few in number at that time, they typically voiced a new – and false – argument kindled by the revival fervor of the early nineteenth century: America was a Christian nation, and the U.S. government a Christian government.
As revival fires spread throughout New England, upstate New York and to the Western frontier, church attendance increased dramatically, while opposition to Sunday mail delivery grew proportionally. In 1828, the General Union for the Promotion of the Christian Sabbath was formed in New York City for the purpose of boycotting businesses that operated on Sundays. Within a year, nearly 500 petitions against working on Sundays had been submitted to Congress.
Politicians and many citizens, alarmed by the religious backlash, charged that a new Christian political party was forming with the intent of seizing control of the government and making America a Christian nation. Congress felt the heat, and by 1830 individual states began filing petitions opposing a repeal of the 1810 Sunday mail delivery act.
Ultimately, a combination of state petitions and the strong leadership of a few notable Baptists helped provide the U.S. Congress with the fortitude to stand up to the anti-Sunday mail delivery crowd. The Chair of the Senate Committee on the Post Office and Post roads was none other than General Richard M. Johnson, a national hero of the War of 1812, and a committed Baptist. In January 1829, Johnson and fellow minister Obadiah Brown – pastor of Washington’s First Baptist Church – led in the formation of the Senate’s “Report on the Transportation of Mails on Sunday.” The report opposed efforts to repeal the 1810 law, and reiterated the nation’s founding upon a secular Constitution and the strict separation of church and state.
In part the Report declared:
“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. 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. Our Constitution recognises 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 Savior, 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 measures which they may call on Congress to enact.”
Thanks in large part to Johnson’s leadership at a pivotal time in 1829, United States postal operations continued for many more decades, with the Sunday movement of mail continuing until after the Civil War and Sunday post office operations continuing until 1912. Brought about because of opposition from a coalition of non-Baptist ministers and postal clerks who wanted one day a week off of work, the 1912 closing of all post offices on Sundays precluded a new era of Civil Religion in the decades following.