Sunday Driving

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Sunday Driving

A catchphrase that made specific reference to people who broke the Sabbath by driving their automobiles, especially during church services, Sunday driving stood as a metaphor for what many believed was a nationwide decline in morality. For many Americans, the twentieth century marked an irreversible decline in everything they held dear. Uncontrollable "outside forces" seemed to be tearing apart families, destroying tight-knit communities, and eroding the foundations of morality on which previous generations had built their lives. Ministers around the country railed against these changes and identified the accoutrements of modernity as prime culprits: telephones, radios, movies, and professional sports all received a measure of blame for corrupting the American spirit. To many people, however, nothing symbolized the degeneration of the modern era quite as well as the automobile. And to ministers facing declining church attendance, a particular cause for alarm was the increase in Sunday driving.

Ministers were not the only ones who believed that Sunday driving was cause for public concern. In a 1922 article in Scribner's magazine, Allen Albert claimed that "in good motoring weather I have attended Sunday-morning services from Waycross, Ga., to Manistee, Mich., and it would be hard to find any pews emptier anywhere." Ruth Suckow also illustrated the concern that the growing popularity of Sunday driving caused in her novel, Country People (1924): "It was a wonder to Emma to sit on the porch on Sunday afternoons and count how many vehicles went by. But grandpa wouldn't even try to count. ' Ach, no! no! no!' was all that he would say. This was all so wicked on Sunday!" In Nashville, a 1923 ordinance forbade any business to sell gasoline, oil, or automobiles on Sundays, and prohibited automobile service facilities from operating as well. "Everyone wanted to enjoy a Sunday outing in the automobile," editorialized the Tattler in 1929, "but realized he was taking a big chance. He might run out of gas, have a puncture or break down miles away from home. Then the whole family would have to walk back."

Despite protests against Sunday driving, however, the practice always had many more advocates than opponents. Some people pointed out that automobiles could just as easily carry people to church as away from it. As Motor Age commented in 1919: "Even the farmer in the remotest rural district may wait until the last minute, jump into his car and go to church, attend services and be home in less than the time it used to take him to get there alone." Others, such as a writer for the Christian Advocate in 1920, rationalized that automobiles might encourage "many immoral practices," including "desecration of the Sabbath," but that "all good things are liable to abuse." Some believed the freedom and mobility of automobiles would encourage religious celebration. "He … would take his religion out of doors, where God smiled and spoke to burdened business men," wrote a writer for Christian Century in 1928. "In serene solitude he would drive his car over smoky and smelly roads, oblivious of all but the deeper invisible realities. To the care-free accompaniment of the motor he would raise hymns of joy to the God of breeze and field." And of course there were all of the Americans who took to the roads on Sundays, disregarding protests from those who held onto older notions of morality. For better or for worse, Sunday driving became a standard feature of American culture—more notable for its unremarkable regularity than for the emotionally charged controversy it once provoked.

—Christopher W. Wells

Further Reading:

Berger, Michael. The Devil Wagon in God's Country: The Automobile and Social Change in Rural America, 1893-1929. Hamden, Connecticut, Archon Books, 1979.