Sabbatarianism, a movement devoted to preserving the sanctity of the Sunday Sabbath, emerged in the Anglo-American world in the seventeenth-century, but it gained force in the nineteenth century. Although multifaceted, Sabbatarians primarily focused their efforts on preventing the tumultuous and burgeoning worlds of recreation and leisure from interfering with the observance of Sunday in what they considered to be a biblically mandated manner, that is, as a day of rest. No single Protestant denomination accounted for all Sabbatarians. Rather, liberal Protestants tended to shy away from placing heavy restrictions on Sunday activity, a tendency that stood in striking contrast to traditionalists' (or orthodox) emphasis on prohibitions of all sorts. Sabbatarians dominated American religious and political approaches to Sunday through the nineteenth century, but with each decade of the twentieth century their power waned.
After the American Revolution, politicians wrote into state constitutions an array of Sunday laws that grew out of the Sabbatarian orientation that Puritan and Anglican colonists brought to North America; more important, however, a Sabbatarian bias against Sunday activity of any sort other than the religious had become customary by 1800. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, the Sabbatarian movement took institutional form, largely around the issue of transporting and delivering mail on Sunday. After the failure of their efforts to prevent the United States Post Office from functioning on Sunday, Sabbatarians turned to other depredations, mainly the unwillingness of many Americans to observe Sunday in such a manner that rest would be distinguished from work. They formed various organizations, sent petitions to elected officials, and published tracts urging the strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest. It is here that the pertinence of Sabbatarianism to the history of leisure and recreation comes into focus, for it was the inability of Americans to agree on what differentiated work from rest that animated controversies about not only Sunday observance but leisure and recreation in general.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, dominant meanings for rest (that is, the meanings written into law and shaping custom) precluded all activity outside the home on Sunday except for attending divine services. It was believed that rest could be obtained only through prayer, church attendance, and meditation upon religious themes. But throughout the century, new theories about how to rest were developing. Unitarians and liberal Protestants embraced natural and man-made delights on all days of the week, and they argued that what refreshed the body and spirit at once provided rest and created opportunities for uplift that could lead to spiritual awakening. Additionally, German immigrants brought with them an expansive view of rest, as did other immigrants steeped in Catholic and European traditions. Within cities, churches, and homes, debates were waged over what was restful, with German Americans arguing that Sunday afternoons at beer gardens were in keeping with the spirit of the day of rest, ministers urging congregants to bicycle Sunday afternoons, and mothers admonishing children to put away their weekday playthings and devote their energies to biblical toys and games. But Sabbatarians resisted the creep of these views: in insisting on the closing of saloons, public libraries, and museums on Sundays, in petitioning in favor of stilling world's fairs each Sunday, or in lobbying behind the scenes to prevent Sunday afternoon baseball games—just to name a few instances of their work—they hewed closely to a circumscribed meaning for rest.
Additionally, Sabbatarians pointed to the incontestable fact that most recreation and leisure activities depended on the labor of railroad men, ticket takers, stage performers, star athletes, concession operators, and many others. To be sure, numerous Americans also toiled on Sundays, as well as the other six days of the week. Work without rest was nearly as troubling as rest without work, and with boom-and-bust characterizing the American economy none could be assured of steady work, but unemployment was hardly restful. Few Sabbatarian organizations took on the industrial giants of the period who ran their plants continuously. Instead, they focused their energies on reforming amusements and recreations.
In the meantime, the development of networks of commercial amusements and recreations further challenged the prohibition against Sunday work; picnic grounds, beer halls, saloons, beach resorts, amusement parks, concert halls, theaters, world's fairs, and such relied on the labor of many to operate. The vast majority of Americans were able to patronize these venues only on Sunday, for they were either working the other days of the week or broke. Indeed, attendance figures support such a contention: Sunday business exceeded that of all the other days of the week put together. And increasingly, as Americans argued that such diversions were restful, a concept of leisure developed that pivoted on commercialized opportunities for rest. Sunday soon became a day for leisure rather than a day of rest; by the 1920s, when this transformation was irreversible, Sabbatarianism lost its valence.
Despite the diminished political and theological potency of Sabbatarianism in the twentieth century, many Sunday laws remained on the books and many customs associated with proscribing the sphere of Sunday activity continued to hold sway. One of the first set of Sunday laws to disappear were those that banned theatrical shows. Oregon and California led the way in the nineteenth century, and, by 1910, most states allowed certain kinds of theaters to open on Sunday, though the content of the spectacles was censored so as to showcase material in keeping with the sanctity of the day. World War I was a turning point in the diminution of Sunday laws, in part because entrepreneurs opportunistically linked Sunday opening with patriotic fund-raisers and morale boosters. Before the war, all but six states prohibited the screening of movies on Sundays, but a campaign led by the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry led to the granting of local option for movie palaces to open on Sundays. By the mid-1920s, all large cities, with a few exceptions such as Knoxville, Tennessee, allowed movie theaters, dance halls, roller-skating rinks, bowling alleys, and other commercialized recreation venues to open Sunday afternoons and evenings. It was only in the 1970s that prohibitions against Sunday morning openings dissipated, and then it was because the Sabbatarian impulse was vestigial at best.
Sunday as a widespread day of rest helped to shape professional baseball and football during their formative periods. Self-imposed Sabbatarian regulations helped baseball become the sport of the middle classes. In banning Sunday contests and the sale of beer in 1878, the National League sought to foster a family-oriented, respectable image. By the 1890s, it was no longer necessary to avoid play on Sunday. In order to appease the sensibilities of Sabbatarians, however, baseball's managers sponsored sacred concerts and other such exercises before the first pitch. Some states where Sabbatarians held significant political power, notably Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, banned Sunday games; during World War I, owners of teams in these states held exhibition games to raise monies for the war effort. Still, through the 1930s, Sunday baseball was illegal in Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and most southern cities. In the 1920s, semiprofessional football games were held on Sundays, mostly because players were not available at other times. As the sport took shape, a distinct calendar solidified, whereby high schools played on Fridays, colleges on Saturdays, and the pros on Sunday. Ironically, until the 1990s, Sunday—a day idealized as separate from the quest for profit—was solely the province of professional sporting contests, with amateur contests held at other times.
Although Sabbatarianism as a movement was on the wane during the first third of the twentieth century, the commercial aspect of theater and sports bothered enough Americans that Sunday laws remained on the books. While Americans had accepted the existence of multiple and conflicting styles of rest, and sought to accommodate them, the majority was uncomfortable about making Sunday into a day of gain, or in the words of one critic, in "putting the dollar mark on it." However, by the 1960s, most Americans were no longer discomfited with the rampant commercialization of every day life, and thus Sunday laws came to seem antiquated and anachronistic. Although the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Sunday laws in 1961, state legislatures began to repeal such laws. Americans wanted to be able to shop, play, and even work according to the dictates of their own consciences and the demands of their schedules. Today, the only proscriptions that remain in effect across the nation are against the sale of alcohol on Sundays. And so, a long period of Sabbatarian hegemony over Sunday recreation and leisure gave way to an age when only private sentiment regulates Sunday observance.
Evenson, Bruce J. "'Saving the City's Reputation': Philadelphia's Struggle over Self-Identity, Sabbath-Breaking, and Boxing in America's Sesquicentennial Year." Pennsylvania History 60 (1993): 6–34.
John, Richard R. "Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously." Journal of the Early Republic 10 (1990): 517–567.
McCrossen, Alexis. Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Marion, Forrest L. "Blue Laws, Knoxville, and the Second World War." Journal of East Tennessee History 68 (1996): 41–62.
Raucher, Alan. "Sunday Business and the Decline of Sunday Closing Laws: A Historical Overview." Journal of Church and State 36 (1994): 13–33.
Solberg, Winton. Redeem the Time: The Puritan Sabbath in Early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.
Sabbatarianism stems from two sources. The one, based upon the Mosaic Law, required, sometimes on pain of death, the rigid observance of the Sabbath (Saturday) as the Lord's day of rest. The Jews and Seventh-day Adventists follow the tradition of keeping Saturday as the Sabbath; there were also certain 16th-century Socinians and one or two now-extinct Baptist sects in the United States that kept this Sabbath. The other source is rooted in the Puritan reaction to pre-Reformation custom in holding the 7th day of the week, Sunday, as a day of recreation as well as worship. Sabbatarianism encompasses all those rigorists of several Protestant sects from the late 16th to the late 19th centuries (and, to a lesser extent, today) who scrupulously practiced and urged upon others the strict observance of Sunday as a day to be devoted solely to worship, and who would permit no work, travel, or any form of innocent exercise or entertainment on that day.
Although Elizabethan Puritans greatly advanced Sabbatarianism, the movement in the broadest sense did not originate entirely with them. Henry VIII forbade bowling and certain other recreations on Sundays, and Elizabethan Parliaments passed laws to suppress brutal sports such as bear-baiting among Lancashiremen in the 1580s. That these laws constrained largely Catholic recusants may have had something to do with the fervor with which the justices of the peace, Anglican clergy, and country gentry enforced them through fines, imprisonments, and social ostracism. By the late 1580s these Acts were extended throughout England among all sects. In the same decade the Puritans advocated the extension of these restrictions on Sabbath-keeping to more innocent activities. Puritan conferences in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk, and Middlesex discussed Sabbatarianism; Puritan clergy preached it at Oxford; and the leading Puritan spokesman, Thomas cartwright, upheld it in his writings. By the 1590s the strict observance of the Sabbath was common among Puritans, as is evidenced by the widespread publication of Nicholas Bound's True Doctrine of the Sabbath (1595). The movement continued to spread until it burst into a storm of indignation over James I's Book of Sports (1618).
The occasion for the issuance of this book was the attempt by Lancashire magistrates in 1617 to suppress morris dances, May games, and other sports done on Sundays after church. When the crown legally recognized the innocence of such activities throughout England and required that a proclamation to that effect be read in all churches, the Puritans provoked a major controversy. The royal order notwithstanding, such pastimes were stringently proscribed in congregations controlled by Puritans. A similar Puritan Sabbatarianism occurred in Somersetshire, where, customarily, annual spring "wakes" featured drinking, dancing, and sporting, occasionally leading to rowdyism, promiscuity, and even homicide. An outburst of Puritan criticism ensued, but, out of fear that worse evils might result, neither the Anglican hierarchy nor a majority of the clergy in that county would suppress the festivities. Against this adverse criticism by Puritans, Charles I issued an amended Book of Sports (1633), Abp. W. laud attacked Sabbatarianism, and his protégé, P. Heylyn, publicized his convictions in The History of the Sabbath (1636). As one might have expected, the Parliamentarians of the Civil War and Interregnum periods gave legal force to Sabbatarianism by passing laws enforcing it in 1644, 1650, and 1655; and the Presbyterian Westminster Assembly (1644) supported Sabbatarianism also. Charles II, in order to appease dissenters, allowed certain restrictions on Sunday travel, and Queens Mary II and Anne gave some support to Sabbatarians' ideals. In 1711, for instance, the Anglican hierarchy in convocation caustically criticized the upper classes for Sabbath-breaking.
Sabbatarianism continued in England and Scotland during the 18th century as a result of Presbyterian and Wesleyan Methodist pressure, although the first three Hanoverian kings, who regularly held council meetings, military reviews, and parties on Sundays, and the urban upper classes generally ignored it. Nevertheless, the movement had sufficient strength to restrict, and even to punish by fines, excommunication, and social ostracism some of those who broke the Sabbath by travel, recreation, or work. The Presbytery of Edinburgh in 1711 lamented the common practice of walking in the country after Sunday services, and in various parishes elders regularly roamed the streets searching for violators. Toward the end of the century the English reaction to the excesses of the French Revolution enhanced evangelicalism, which had already succeeded in having passed the Lord's Day Observance Act (1781), and various societies were formed for keeping a Puritan Sabbath. The spirit of this law is still alive in Scotland, England, Canada, and Australia, although 20th-century secularism is breaking it down. Today in England the Lord's Day Observance Society exerts considerable influence through pamphlets and the press.
Puritans carried Sabbatarianism to the American colonies in the 17th century when, in Massachusetts Bay Colony for instance, laws forbade all forms of work or exercise, even swimming. The movement declined in the 18th century, as it did in England, but during the 19th century, especially in the "burned-over district" of western New York, the rowdyism and drunkenness associated with the building of the Erie Canal provoked the Baptists into active opposition to the Continental Sunday of immigrant groups, as well as to Sunday travel. In New York City in 1828 Josiah Bissell organized the "General Union for promoting the observance of the Christian Sabbath in the United States," which enjoyed national membership.
Bibliography: r. cox, The Literature of the Sabbath Question, 2 v. (Edinburgh 1865). j. tait, "The Declaration of Sports for Lancashire (1617)," English Historical Review 32 (1917) 561–568. w. b. whitaker, Sunday in Tudor and Stuart Times (London 1933). g. davies, The Early Stuarts, 1603–1660 (2d ed. Oxford 1959). a. french, Charles I and the Puritan Upheaval (Boston 1955). w. r. cross, The Burned-over District (Ithaca 1950). U.S. Bureau of the Census, Religious Bodies: 1926, 2 v. (Washington 1929–30). a. m. mccrossen, "Sabbatarianism: The Intersection of Church and State in the Orchestration of Everyday Life in Nineteenth-Century America," Religious and Secular Reform in America, ed. d. k. adams and c. a. van minnen (New York 1999). b. w. ball, The Seventh-Day Men: Sabbatarians and Sabbatarianism in England and Wales, 1600-1800 (Oxford 1994). d. liechty, Sabbatarianism in the 16th Century: A Page in the History of the Radical Reformation (Berrien Springs 1993).
[m. j. havran]
Most early Americans regarded Sunday as a day of rest, but they disagreed about how best to observe the day. Some colonists, following popular custom dating back to the Middle Ages, passed the day with feasts, ales, dances, fairs, and sporting events. Puritans and the more pietistic colonists, in contrast, regarded Sunday as the biblical Sabbath, set apart for bodily rest and worship. Conflict between these traditions continued into the early national period, gaining increased urgency as Americans debated the duties of republican citizenship.
Like their Puritan forebears, Congregationalists and Presbyterians generally embraced covenant theology, insisting that liberty was a blessing enjoyed only by those people who faithfully obeyed the commandments of God. Assuming the binding force of the Mosaic Law upon Christians, they attached particular significance to the fourth commandment (on keeping the Sabbath), which they regarded as a sign of the perpetual covenant between God and his people. From this perspective Sabbath violations threatened the foundation of civil and religious freedom.
As the nineteenth century opened, ministers tirelessly decried the widespread desecration of the Sabbath. During the War of 1812, countless state and local morals associations appeared, often spearheaded by Congregational and Presbyterian leaders, to lobby for strict enforcement of state laws against intemperance, profanity, and Sabbath breaking. From 1810 through the 1830s this Sabbatarian impulse came to focus with special intensity upon the U.S. postal system, which had routinely transported and delivered mail on Sunday since the origins of the Republic.
In 1809 Hugh Wylie, the Presbyterian postmaster of Washington, Pennsylvania, was excommunicated from his church for sorting and delivering the mail on Sunday. Wylie, who had acted in conformity with the orders of Postmaster General Gideon Granger, appealed this action to the Ohio Presbytery, the Pittsburgh Synod, and ultimately the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, only to have his excommunication upheld. Wylie had to choose between his job and his church. His dilemma prompted Congress in April 1810 to enact legislation requiring all post offices receiving mail on Sunday to be open at least one hour for delivery during the day.
Sabbatarians regarded this action as a violation of the "rights of conscience" and an improper expansion of federal power into the local arena. A broad coalition of ministers, including Boston Unitarian William Ellery Channing, joined in urging Congress to repeal the new postal law. Soon, however, evangelical Sabbatarians broadened their goals to include not only repeal but also legislation prohibiting even the transportation of the mail on Sunday. During the following decade Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches sent hundreds of petitions to Congress demanding action to end Sunday mails.
Sabbatarian efforts intensified in 1826 when the Presbyterian General Assembly urged all members to boycott transportation companies that persisted in operating steamboats, stagecoaches, or canal packets on Sunday. The following year Josiah Bissell Jr., a Presbyterian merchant in Rochester, New York, launched a Sabbatarian stagecoach and canal packet company—the Pioneer Line—between Albany and Buffalo. Soon similar companies appeared in other parts of the United States. In May 1828 Bissell joined with Lyman Beecher, Arthur and Lewis Tappan, and several hundred other evangelical ministers and laymen, in founding the General Union for the Promotion of the Christian Sabbath (GUPCS), which spearheaded a second national petition campaign against Sunday mails and worked to transform American attitudes toward the Sabbath.
The Sabbatarian war on Sunday mails had less appeal than most other evangelical crusades of the era. Many Christians believed that in an expanding capitalistic society, transportation of the mail on Sunday constituted a reasonable and even necessary public service. The petition campaigns failed to gain congressional support, while the boycott of non-Sabbatarian businesses sparked deep resentments in many communities and helped to generate an anti-Sabbatarian backlash, especially in western states and inland commercial centers like Rochester. Anti-Sabbatarians, who tended to identify with the emerging Democratic Party, rallied around U.S. senator Richard M. Johnson from Kentucky, who in 1829 gained national fame for his widely reprinted report denouncing the petition campaign as an unconstitutional effort to transform Congress into a sectarian religious body.
Despite the failure of the petition campaign, the Sabbatarian movement helped generate the persistent devotion to the Sabbath that continued to characterize American society right through the Civil War era. Moreover, many Sabbatarian leaders later entered the ranks of the abolition movement, where they applied to the antislavery cause tactics first employed in the fight against Sunday mail. Sabbatarians like U.S. senator Theodore Frelinghuysen from New Jersey, former president of the GUPCS, helped to establish the Whig Party and shape the moralistic ideology that characterized Whiggism.
See alsoReform, Social .
John, Richard R. "Taking Sabbatarianism Seriously: The Postal System, the Sabbath, and the Transformation of American Political Culture." Journal of the Early Republic 10 (1990): 517–567.
McCrossen, Alexis. Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Rohrer, James R. "Sunday Mails and the Church-State Theme in Jacksonian America." Journal of the Early Republic 7 (1987): 53–74.
Solberg, Winton U. Redeem the Time: The Puritan Sabbath in Early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977.
Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. "Prelude to Abolitionism: Sabbatarian Politics and the Rise of the Second Party System." Journal of American History 58 (1971): 316–341.
James R. Rohrer
Revd Dr William M. Marshall