Church, State, and the Postal Service: The Contentious History of Sunday Mail Delivery


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For 81 years, the United States Postal Service accommodated Loma Linda, California’s largely Seventh-day Adventist population by delivering the mail on Sundays instead of Saturdays. This ended on April 23, 2011 when the Postal Service, citing economic considerations, brought this rare accommodation to an end.

The delivery of mail on Sundays in the United States has a fascinating history, and most people do not know that until 1912, the Postal Service routinely delivered mail on Sundays. It was only under pressure from religious and labor organizations that the USPS gradually transitioned to the now-familiar Monday through Saturday schedule.

The Postal Service is as old as the nation itself, beginning with the kite-flying, bifocal inventing, and noted Renaissance man Benjamin Franklin who organized the USPS at the direction of the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775. The founders then gave Congress the power to establish and maintain the postal service as one of the enumerated powers in Article One of the Constitution. The mail was the sole communication lifeline of the newly formed nation, and the Postmaster a cabinet position and the final position in the presidential line of succession until the USPS was reorganized in 1971.

Between its inception in 1775 and 1912, postal employees delivered mail seven (7) days a week. In the early 1800s, religious leaders became concerned that employees were forced to work on the “Christian Sabbath,” or Sunday, and began to petition Congress to use its Article I powers to disallow Sunday delivery. This concern reached a fevered pitch in 1810 when Congress required post offices to open at least one hour on Sunday [1]. Outraged that Congress had thus “enforced Sunday desecration,” religious leaders began to clamor for legislation that would outlaw Sunday operations.

This stemmed, in part, from the fact that prior to the passage of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which was one of the post-Civil War Amendments which applied the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the states, state and local governments were able to regulate Sunday closings of businesses and even regulate what private activities a person could participate in on Sundays. The post office, however, was Federal territory and people could go there and conduct business, or socialize and the local religious leaders had no jurisdiction to interfere.

In response to the petitions, in January 1811, Postmaster Gideon Granger issued a report to Congress describing his approach to the law requiring at least one hour of postal operations and expressing his concern that it might compel his employees to violate Sunday sacredness. Writing in the third person, he stated, “to guard against any annoyance to the good citizens of the United States, he carefully instructed and directed the agents of this office to pass quietly, without announcing their arrival or departure by the sounding of horns or trumpets, or any other act calculated to call off the attention of the citizens from their devotions . . . .” After describing additional methods whereby he intended to mitigate Sunday desecration, the Postmaster concluded on a religious note, “that compelling the Postmasters to attend to the duties of the office on the Sabbath, is, on them, a hardship, as well as in itself tending to bring into disuse and disrepute the institutions of that holy day” [2].

In 1815, the United States House in Committee of the Whole held hearings on the petition of citizens from five states to prohibit Sunday transportation and opening of mail. After reviewing the petitions, the committee responded that communication was necessary, particularly since the nation was at war, and resolved that, “at this time it is inexpedient to interfere and pass any laws” prohibiting mail transportation and opening on Sundays [3].

The debate continued and in 1830, 75-year-old John Leland, a prominent Baptist minister who had championed liberty of conscience at the founding of the nation, addressed the issue. After describing America’s religious diversity, ranging from Islam to Judaism, paganism to Christianity, he stated that he believed that in deciding to close on Sunday, Congress would be making a theological decision in deciding which day was holy. After all, he reasoned, Congress should also recognize that Saturday was holy to Jews and “Sevendarian Christians.” Leland concluded:

The powers given to Congress are specific-guarded by a ‘hitherto shalt thou come and no further.’ Among all the enumerated powers given to Congress, is there one that authorizes them to declare which day of the week, month, or year, is more holy than the rest-too holy to travel upon? If there is none, Congress must overleap their bounds, by an unpardonable construction, to establish the prohibition prayed for. Let the petitioners ask themselves the question. If Congress should assume an ecclesiasticopolitical power, and stop the mail on the seventh day, and let it be transported on the first, would that satisfy them? If not, are they doing as they would be done by?

A group of citizens from Salem, New Jersey, including some Saturday-Sabbath keepers also wrote to Congress in 1830, concerned that the proposed Sunday closing would favor some religions over others, and called for the continued separation of church and state.

We cannot be too thankful that the Constitution of the United States guarantees to every one the rights of conscience and religion; . . . the proposed [Sunday closing] measure would operate as a violation of these rights . . . would pave the way to a union of church and state, against which our horrors are excited by the awful admonitions of history; which would be the death blow to our civil and religious liberties . . . and end in the worst of all tyranny ‘an ecclesiastical hierarchy [5].

Near the turn of the century, religious leaders once again sensed the need for greater observance of Sunday sacredness, and pushed for legislation that would prohibit various types of work on Sunday. On August 24, 1912, President William Taft signed H.R. 21279 (Mann) into law, closing all post offices on Sundays an introducing a six-day work week for postal clerks and letter carriers. The bill provided “that hereafter post offices . . . shall not be opened on Sundays for the purpose of delivering mail to the public" [6].

The bill was put into effect on September 1 of that year, and although it was hailed as a victory for workers’ rights by the American Federation of Labor, Sunday sacredness advocates viewed it as a spiritual victory. Among the many religious groups who claimed victory, the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, in its quadrennial report noted that “it is gratifying to know that through the co-operation of the associations of letter and postal clerks, under the leadership of the Lord’s Day Alliance of the United States, a bill passed the last Congress, which closed to the public all the first and second class post-offices in the United States on Sunday [7].

However, the Postmaster cited scheduling difficulties, particularly the requirement that those employees fulfilling necessary work on Sunday be granted compensatory time in the next six days, and said that the new law “has greatly increased the difficulties of efficient post-office service” [8]. This would seem to indicate that religion, not efficiency, was the primary reason for closing on Sundays.

Today, all United States Post Offices are closed for Sunday delivery except for two: Angwin, California and Collegedale, Tennessee where a significant percentage of people observe the Sabbath on Saturday and where private post offices, owned by the Seventh-day Adventist Church which operate universities in these towns, have contracts that guarantee no Saturday deliveries.

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Michael Peabody is the editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV which this article first appeared.

  1. “11th Congress, 2nd Sesssion, An Act Regulating the Post-Office Establishment, Enacted April 30, 1810.” American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, Revised and Enlarged Edition, compiled and annotated by William Addison Blakeley, Revised Edition edited by Willard Allen Colcord, The Religious Liberty Association, Washington, D.C. 1911, 176.
  2. Harmon Kingsbury, The Sabbath: A Brief History of Laws, Petitions, Remonstrances and Reports with Facts and Arguments Relating to the Christian Sabbath, S.W. Benedict, Printer, New York, 1840, 26.
  3. Blakeley, 393.
  4. Writings of John Leland, Edited by L.F. Greene, Arno Press & The New York Times, New York, 1969, 564-66.
  5. Blakeley, 298.
  6. American State Papers and Related State Papers on Freedom in Religion, compiled and annotated by William Adison Blakeley, Published for the Religious Liberty Association by the Review and Herald, Washington, D.C., 1949, 273.
  7. Christian Unity at Work, The Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America in Quadrennial Session at Chicago, Illinois, 1912, Published by the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ, edited by Charles S. Macfarland, 1913, 242.
  8. Post Office Department Annual Reports for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1914: Report of the Postmaster General, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C., 1914, 143.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3165