Unlikely Controversy . In 1808 Hugh Wylie faced an unexpected dilemma. Wylie was the postmaster of the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania. He was also an elder of his Presbyterian church, one of the leading lay people of the congregation. As an elder Wylie had to obey the biblical rules about observing the Sabbath, which forbade doing any unnecessary labor. But as postmaster, some Sunday work was required. Mail had to be sorted the day it arrived, and mail arrived in Wylie’s office every day of the week, including Sunday, on the coaches that traveled from the East Coast, through Washington, to the developing western states and territories. Wylie had also taken to opening the post office on Sunday so people could pick up their mail since he was working there anyway and they were in town to attend church. One of Wylie’s neighbors complained about this desecration of the Sabbath to Postmaster General Gideon Granger. The postmaster refused to change the Post Office rules, citing among other reasons the need to keep communication easy and quick all through the country, given that war with England seemed imminent. Wylie was caught between his sincerely held religious obligations and his job; he was also caught between neighbors who divided over his behavior, as the entire nation soon did as well.
Church and Congress. The controversy grew as Wylie’s church censured his behavior. In October 1809 the local Presbyterian governing body, the synod of nearby Pittsburgh, barred him from receiving communion. This was a serious punishment for a man of his beliefs and position, but when he appealed to the church’s national General Assembly, he was expelled. In April 1810 the affair took on a national dimension, as Congress passed a new Post Office Act. For the first time all postmasters were required by federal law to open their offices and deliver mail every day it was received, even Sunday. This national standard provoked protests from around the country.
Sabbatarian Opposition . A broad coalition opposed the delivery of mail on Sunday. It included orthodox Congregationalists such as Lyman Beecher of Connecticut and liberal Unitarians such as William Ellery Chan-ning of Massachusetts. The Presbyterians led the way in organizing a petition drive against the Sunday mail, and by the time the controversy ended in 1817, three hundred petitions signed by a total of more than thirteen thousand people had reached Congress. People opposed the Sunday mail for many reasons. The Bible’s command to honor the Lord’s Day was reason enough for many opponents, called Sabbatarians for their desire to observe the Sabbath properly. Others were against the War of 1812, and opposing the Sunday mail, which was justified in part by the need to secure communication to aid the war effort, was another way to express that feeling. Still others were ambivalent about commercial development. To them Sunday mail represented an intrusion of greed and selfishness into the sanctity of the day of rest. Some saw it as an example of how the rich oppressed the poor, since it was coachmen and other workers who had to give up their day of rest while merchants and professionals benefitted most from daily mail.
Religion and the State . Probably the most important issue the Sunday mail raised was the relation of government to religion. The Presbyterians and other opponents thought the government had a duty to uphold fundamental religious values, and they stated this position forcefully in the petition they sent to Congress in 1812. Requiring people to work on the Sabbath meant forcing them to sin, and even allowing them to work meant undermining the social order, which rested on the rules of the Bible. Many Americans sincerely believed that this was inviting punishment from God in the form of social disorder and decay and urged reform to avoid this fate. A few years later this same rationale would support anti-slavery arguments, as abolitionists (many of whom had opposed Sunday mail) began to say that the government had a duty to end slavery in order to preserve America’s blessings from God.
Supporters. Despite the strong opposition, mail continued to be delivered on Sunday. The pressures of wartime made Congress fear a change, and business needs were also important considerations. The postmaster general also defended the practice effectively on grounds of efficiency and cost. After the end of the war the issue died away, only to resurface in 1826. Then an even more vehement popular protest started as part of a widespread religious reform movement that swept the United States during the Jacksonian era. This movement did curtail Sunday mail, but only with the help of business. After 1840 railroads carried mail, and they found it unprofitable to run mail trains on Sunday, when there was little other demand for transportation. Their opposition, together with the development of the telegraph to deliver the most urgent news, helped the Sabbatarians prevail. Even without carrying the day alone, the Sabbatarian reform movement demonstrated how many Americans were convinced that the federal government had an important role in ensuring the moral order of the nation. The Post Office may seem an odd place to learn that lesson, but it was the only significant federal bureaucracy of the time and the only contact most people had with central government. It should not surprise us that it was the touchstone for much anxiety about questions of order and power in an age of rapid social change.
John G. West Jr., The Politics of Revelation and Reason: Religion and Civic Life in the New Nation (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996).