Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Religion, politics and the Sunday mail

By Claude Fischer

1890s post office (USPS)

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)

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)

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.