Arts, Culture & Humanities

Religion, politics and the Sunday mail

Claude Fischer

Saturday mail delivery may in the near future be a thing of the past. All the more surprising that Americans once had not only Saturday delivery but Sunday mail delivery as well.

1890s post office (USPS)

1890s post office (USPS)

The century-long struggle that ended postal service on the Sabbath, a campaign to protect both the Lord’s Day and American workers from the ceaseless demands of commerce,  illuminates the complex political alliances and conflicts among churches, business, and organized labor in American history. Protestantism’s political alliances used to be quite different than they are today.

Churches resist free enterprise

In the early 19th century, the U.S. Post Office operated as the nerve system of America to an extent hard to imagine now. The nation’s key roads were postal highways; newspapers arrived in most readers’ hands via mail; critical financial transactions closed by post; and businessmen depended on the mail to learn of prices, market conditions, and shipments. Post offices themselves were important community centers, where townsfolk met, heard the latest news read aloud, and just lounged about. (There was no home delivery, even in large cities, until after 1860.) On top of that, postmaster jobs comprised a major part of the federal government and of the national political spoils system.

Sunday postal service had been customary in early America, but in 1810 Congress passed a law explicitly requiring that local post offices be open at least one hour on Sundays. In the 1820s, established church leaders, notably New Englanders and Presbyterians, campaigned to close post offices on Sundays. Doing business desecrated the Sabbath, required postal employees to violate their beliefs, and generally undermined the Lord’s day of rest. Moreover, in some communities, the post office was the only place other than church that was open on Sundays, so men would rush there as soon as the mail had arrived, staying on to drink and play cards.

However, the campaign to end Sunday mail foundered on the strong resistance of businessmen who felt that they needed the Sunday correspondence. The businessmen found allies among some evangelical ministers, particularly Baptists, and among secular laymen who saw the sabbatarian drive as a power grab by high-status, eastern churchmen.

The struggle over Sunday mail periodically flared up over the century. It was part of the churches’ wider efforts to enforce a “Puritan Sabbath” against the demands of Mammon and against worldly temptations like those card games  (see this earlier post). The conflict became further inflamed with the increasing immigration of Catholics, many of whom celebrated “Continental” Sundays which included all sorts of secular pleasures – picnics, even beer halls – after (or instead of) church.

A new alliance

Toward the end of the 19th century, churchmen found new allies for the fight against Sunday mail. The ministers tried again to appeal to businessmen’s Christian sensibilities, but the importance of Sunday commerce and the efficiency of seven-days-a-week factories outweighed any guilt most businessmen felt. The ministers found their allies instead in organized labor. For labor, closing post offices on Sundays was part of  a larger struggle to gain workers at least one day a week off. (The church-labor alliance did have its limits. Protestant ministers and the union men disagreed on how the Lord’s day of “rest” should be spent – in religious devotion or in play.)

Mailmen, 1888 (USPS)

Mailmen, 1888 (USPS)

By the early twentieth century, the campaigners against Sunday mail were winning. They had gotten the Postmaster General to end some Sunday post office services and Sunday deliveries to businesses had tapered off. Then, in 1912, Congress added, without debate, a rider to a funding bill ordering that post offices no longer conduct ordinary business on Sundays.

The victory showed the power of organized religion and organized labor, but also reflected the fact many businessmen had lost interest in defending Sunday delivery. Telegraphs, telephones, and trains had made postal delivery less critical. Still, upon passage of the law, the Postmaster General had to reassure some businessmen, especially traveling salesmen, that urgent mail would be accommodated. In New York, the head of the letter-carriers’ association and the General Secretary of the Lord’s Day Association could both express satisfaction with their saving of the Sabbath (“Sunday Mail Law,” New York Times, August 28, 1912).

Today, when we see organized religion largely aligned with organized business in opposition to organized labor, we might assume that this is a normal partnership. The political alliances have, however, been complex, conditional, and fluctuating over centuries. The story of Sunday mail, with the opposition of Protestant churches to business demands, is one case that upends our conventional impressions.

(The key sources are here, here, here, and here.)

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

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Comments to "Religion, politics and the Sunday mail":
    • lee

      This same advice also applies to subjects from global warming, climate changes, declining water and food supplies to the subject of the survival of the human race.

      All civilizations before ours failed due to lack of communication and many other social failures and one overwhelming common denominator that we are still experiencing today is that political and academic leaders failed to deal with the challenges of change, as documented by Will and Ariel Durant in their “Story of Civilization.”

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      Indeed, there are no answers to my QUESTION because we are simply unable to produce long-term solutions to protect our civilization due to our wired-in brain limitation that only allows us to focus on short-term problems without regard for destructive consequences of our immediate actions to the survival of future generations.

      This problem is well documented in the CALIFORNIA alumni magazine article “Can We Adapt in Time?”
      http://alumni.berkeley.edu/news/california-magazine/september-october-2006-global-warning/can-we-adapt-in-time

      Thus we cannot solve our gravest long-term problems in time to prevent global warming and population growth consequences from destroying our civilization, especially since the Obama administration has just stated that they do not foresee a paramount priority to prevent climate change catastrophes for at least the next four years because of the overwhelming “higher priority” short-term problems we are unable to solve first.

      Even Energy Secretary Chu has been unable to do anything about global warming for at least the four years he has already been in Washington. Fusion power plants are the solution to meeting the long-term energy needs of our civilization without further CO2 production, but they are nowhere in sight.

      [Report abuse]

    • Anthony St. John

      In the Sunday LA Times Berkeley.s Dr. Martha Campbell published an Opinion “A strange silence” which emphasized:

      ‘A key reason we haven’t made more progress in curbing population growth is that for the last 20 years, almost no one has talked about it. — We must never again be silent.”

      This same advice also applies to subjects from global warming, climate changes, declining water and food supplies to the subject of the survival of the human race.

      All civilizations before ours failed due to lack of communication and many other social failures and one overwhelming common denominator that we are still experiencing today is that political and academic leaders failed to deal with the challenges of change, as documented by Will and Ariel Durant in their “Story of Civilization.”

      As Dr. Campbell emphasized, silence never works, and as you say, we cannot afford to lose any method of communication that inspires and incites people to unite by discussing, thinking and acting to prevent our failures from overwhelming us again.

      QUESTION: Dr. Fischer, I ask you, what can our leading social scientists do differently today to teach our leaders and citizens how protect our civilization from the failure modes of the past?

      [Report abuse]

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