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.

U.S. Mail
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]

“[C]ompelling 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.” Post­mas­ter Gideon Granger

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?”[4]

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,” they wrote, “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.

[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] The 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

Creative Commons License photo credit: Ksayer1


Michael Peabody is the edi­tor of Reli​gious​Lib​erty​.TV.