The Good Old Days

Rob Boston January/February 1999 The summer of 1886 was a bad time for Charles B. Reynolds. The iconoclastic religious skeptic (and former Methodist minister) took his
free-thought message to Boonton, New Jersey. If Reynolds expected Boontonians to abandon Christianity and embrace free thought, he must have been disappointed. Instead, an unruly mob pelted him with rotten eggs, tore down his podium, and tried to hurl him into a pond.

The following spring Reynolds appeared in Morristown, where he was jailed on charges of blasphemy based on his remarks in Boonton. Reynolds was found guilty by a local jury and fined $25.

Reynolds' ordeal came at an unusual time in American history; the
late-nineteenth-century, post-Civil War period is probably the time the United States came the closest to being a "Christian nation," an ideal looked upon with great fondness by today's Religious Right. Indeed, if America ever was "Christian," the late nineteenth century--when courts boldly declared the country a "Christian nation" and the tenets of Protestantism received government favor--was the time.

But just what was this period like, especially in terms of religious freedom? And, even more important, does it represent a model that America today should emulate?

To begin, a type of "generic Protestantism" reigned supreme in the late nineteenth century, often receiving favors and special treatment in the law. Blasphemy was a criminal offense in most states, and the laws were occasionally enforced. Religious leaders, working with government officials, had great sway over the types of public amusements allowed. Religiously inspired censorship was common. Mandatory Sunday-closing laws were the norm in most states. Protestant prayer and Bible reading saturated many public schools. Other religions, especially Roman Catholicism and Mormonism, were viewed with official distrust and suspicion.

Blasphemy Trials

Though blasphemy trials as such were not common in the latter half of "the good old days" of the late nineteenth century, a determined effort to revive old blasphemy laws existed, and there were some cases in which judges refused to recognize the principles of religious freedom. At Reynolds' trial, for example, Chief Judge Francis Child instructed the jury to keep in mind that Morristown was "a Christian community" and reminded it that New Jersey's blasphemy statute, though rarely invoked, had been revised as recently as 1874 and thus was not obsolete. The judge said that no one in New Jersey had the right to speak about God or Christianity "in a manner calculated to wound the religious sentiments of the community."

After the trial, the New York Times complained that the fine was too low, but celebrated the fact that New Jersey "had gone on record against blasphemy" and asserted that blasphemous literature should be "suppressed" while those who circulate it prosecuted for "a violation of public decency."

Scandalous Amusements

Closely aligned with blasphemy were often-successful campaigns by religious leaders to shut down public amusements considered "scandalous" or "sacrilegious." All through his career showman P. T. Barnum battled religious leaders determined to stop his displays. Barnum's huge American Museum in New York featured stage shows, which many clergy condemned as sinful.

Religious leaders frequently enlisted government authorities and newspaper editors in high-profile crusades against various forms of entertainment that today are considered benign. The theater was one frequent target. In 1879 an eccentric Jewish entrepreneur named Salmi Morse attempted to stage in San Francisco a theatrical version of Christ's passion. Insisting it was sinful and sacrilegious to put the life of Christ on the stage, outraged ministers besieged the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, which banned the play. Morse went to court, but lost when a local judge ruled that his Passion play offended Christianity, which government had a right--indeed, a duty--to protect: "The Board of Supervisors," wrote Judge Morrison, "has seen fit to prohibit the exhibition in question because such an exhibition is, in their opinion, against good morals, because it is calculated to bring religion, which is the foundation of all morality, into ridicule and contempt, and because the sacred mysteries of the passion and death of the Redeemer upon the cross are too solemn and sacred to be made the subject of a theatrical exhibition."

Morse had equally dismal luck in the supposedly cosmopolitan New York City. Egged on by a crusading newspaper editor named Harrison Grey Fiske, the city's Board of Aldermen drafted legislation banning the play. Three years later, when Morse was finally able to stage the Passion play briefly in New York, a state senator quickly prepared legislation to prevent "any attempt to personate or represent Jesus Christ, the Savior of Mankind, in any exhibition, show, play, dramatic or theatrical performance." Morse was effectively put out of business.

Censorship and Sunday Laws

Religiously based censorship was common in the late nineteenth century. Novels that contained a hint of sexuality were banned, along with birth-control devices and information about them. Government-run censorship boards persisted in some states until well into the twentieth century--all done at the behest of religious leaders intent on defending "morality" or protecting religion from "ridicule."

But religious leaders and their willing partners in government did more than just ban racy books and arrest blasphemers. A common problem in the "good old days" of late-nineteenth-century America was the fixation on banning commerce and work on Sundays. Most states had Sunday laws that were rigorously enforced, and always at the insistence of religious leaders intent on defending majority religious practices.

Many of the Sunday episodes today seem simply an absurd waste of government time and resources, such as the case of W. B. Capps of Weakley County, Tennessee. In June of 1894 Capps was arrested for repeatedly performing "common labor" on his farm on Sundays. Capps, a Seventh-day Adventist, was found guilty and fined $10 and court costs totaling more than $50. The Supreme Court of Tennessee later upheld Capps's conviction, increasing his courts costs and fines to $110.45.

Capps, unable to pay, was sentenced to more than 400 days in the local jail, to work off the debt at the rate of 25 cents per day--leaving his wife and four children without support. He was released after serving 97 days, but only because readers of a Jewish newspaper in New York had raised enough money to pay his fines.

Adventists and Seventh Day Baptists who--guilty of violating Sunday laws--refused to pay fines on grounds of conscience were frequently sentenced to serve time on chain gangs, shackled alongside drunks, brawlers, and bank robbers.
In May of 1892 four Adventists in Springville, Tennessee, were found guilty of cutting wood, plowing fields, and chopping down weeds on Sundays. In court all four refused to make a formal defense and were quickly found guilty and fined $25. When they refused to pay, three of the men were placed on a chain gang and made to work on a local road project. Noted one Adventist publication, "The chain gang was composed of three honest, sober, industrious Christian farmers whose only crime was that of doing farm labor on the first day of the week, and three men who had been convicted of drunkenness, discharging of firearms on the streets, fighting, and shooting at the city marshal."

Adventists and others doing free or charitable labor on Sunday still faced arrest. In January of 1886 J. L. James of Star of the West, Arkansas, was hauled into court after a local Baptist minister saw him doing carpentry work on the home of a local widow. Though James explained that he repaired the house in order to protect it from a rainstorm, he was convicted and fined. James refused to pay and was saved from prison only because friends paid the fine for him.

After a Maryland court upheld the state's Sunday law in 1894, zealous citizens in Shady Side formed a "Watchman's Association" to ferret out those who worked on the "Lord's day." One man was arrested for picking up sticks in his yard. In Queen Anne's County one especially active Sunday protector reported his own brother for hauling window sashes from the local dock to a nearby Seventh-day Adventist church.

Even the U.S. Supreme Court jumped on the "protect Sunday" bandwagon. In the 1888 case Bucher v. Cheshire Railroad Company, the High Court ruled in favor of a railroad company that sought to dismiss a case brought against it by someone injured while riding one of its trains. The company held that the man, Theodore P. Bucher, was not entitled to damages because he had been traveling on Sunday, in violation of Massachusetts law. The High Court also reversed a murder verdict in 1897, declaring it invalid for having been entered on a Sunday (Stone v. U.S.).

Religious Exercises

Aside from zealous enforcement of Sunday laws, mandatory participation in Protestant religious exercises in public schools was a common feature of the "good old days" in nineteenth-century "Christian America."

Few issues are as widely misunderstood in contemporary society as prayer in schools, and ignorance about its ugly history is widespread. That's unfortunate, because even a casual glance at nineteenth-century practices shows why so many religious minorities today are wary of plans to "bring God back to the schools."

The reigning religious majority in "Christian America" brooked little dissent over this question. Roman Catholics, Jews, and other minorities frequently complained about the compulsory religion in public schools, but their protests were ignored. Laws in many Southern and Eastern states mandated that schools begin the day with recitation of the Lord's Prayer and readings from the King James Bible, with no provision for students who wanted to be excused.

In 1859 an 11-year-old Catholic boy in Boston named Tom Wall was ordered by his teacher to read the Ten Commandments from the King James Version of the Bible. Wall, instructed by his parents not to read the Protestant Bible, refused. The teacher beat the boy until he relented. Wall's parents took the teacher to court, but the court dismissed the charges.

In Cincinnati in 1896 Catholic parents went to court to get their children excused from mandatory Protestant religious exercises in public schools, an act that led to anti-Catholic demonstrations. In 1854 a priest in Ellsworth, Maine, was tarred and feathered after advising a parishioner to fight legally a mandatory Protestant practice in the local public school.

Belief-Action Standard

The latter half of the nineteenth century also reflected a time when there was a poor understanding of the meaning of religious freedom in the courts. In a famous 1879 Supreme Court case dealing with polygamy, the justices formulated a judicial doctrine known as the "belief-action standard," which held that the First Amendment makes freedom to believe absolute but does not necessarily protect actions based on those beliefs.

The fallout was severe. The polygamy case--Reynolds v. U.S.--was followed by a virtual war between the U.S. government and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). Though the federal government may have had a legitimate interest in curbing plural marriage, subsequent governmental actions went way beyond that issue. What happened, in effect, was that U.S. officials tried to shut down an unpopular new faith.

In 1890 the Supreme Court in Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. U.S. upheld a law that voided the Mormons' charter in the Utah territory and allowed for the seizure of church-owned lands there. The court held that the Mormons were using the land to propagate their religious beliefs, including polygamy, which had already been declared illegal. In reality the law was designed to force the Mormons' hand on the plural marriage issue. It worked: church officials quickly issued a decree banning polygamy.

The federal government worked to tighten the screws on Mormonism in other ways, too. In 1879 the U.S. government sent a circular letter to American ambassadors in Europe instructing them to notify European governments that polygamy was unlawful in the United States and therefore they should ban Mormonism in their own countries and prohibit Mormons from emigrating to the United States.

Writes church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer, "The governments of the European countries to which the request was made replied to the country that gave the world the concept of religious freedom that they could not undertake to inquire into the religious beliefs of emigrants."

Christian Nation?

The latter half of the nineteenth century, with its blasphemy statutes, religion soaked public schools, and rigorous Sunday laws, would seem a poor model for contemporary U.S. society. Aside from Puritan Massachusetts, it is probably the closest to theocracy the United States ever came.

But, at least for now, the story ends happily. As the twentieth century progressed, and the Supreme Court began to "incorporate" religious freedom principles upon the states, the last of the blasphemy laws withered away, religiously based censorship lost its grip, and state courts began striking down mandatory religious practices in public schools. In 1962 and 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its famous school prayer decisions. Even blue laws, though upheld by the Supreme Court in 1961, have largely faded, though pockets of resistance remain.

But so does the discontent. Religious Right activists continue to issue calls for "Bible-based" or "godly" law in America. Religious Right leaders such as Pat Robertson, Gary DeMar, and the Reverend D. James Kennedy insist that America was founded to be a "Christian nation."

To bolster these views many Religious Right leaders point enthusiastically to an 1892 U.S. Supreme Court decision in which a High Court justice declared the United States a "Christian nation." Justice David Brewer's comment in Church of Holy Trinity v. U.S. is, however, considered "dicta"--legal writing that does not have the force of law--and the decision is an obscurity that set no precedent. Nevertheless, Brewer's comment has been cited constantly by activists eager for a "Christian America."

Last February a Christian Coalition activist in Brevard County, Florida, posted an essay on the local group's website, calling for theocracy in America and the establishment of a "Christian nation." According to Jay Rogers, who serves on the board of the Brevard branch of the Christian Coalition, democracy is "mob rule" that leads to tyranny. The proper model, Rogers argues, is "a Christian republic: a representative government which protects the God-given inalienable rights of minorities while recognizing biblical law as the basis for all legislation and civil authority."

What Rogers and his allies either don't understand, won't admit, or simply don't care about is that we've been there and done it--and it doesn't work. Basing civil law on one group's understanding of the Bible--even if it's a majority view--eventually crushes freedom.

Perhaps the "nineteenth centuryization" of America is what the Religious Right really wants. If so, let the movement's leaders, activists, and others who praise the days when America was a "Christian nation" say so. But if they are determined to take the country back to the "good old days," let them also say exactly what awaits the nation: censorship, public school teachers who force Jewish kids to recite the Lord's Prayer, farmers sitting in jail alongside murderers and bank robbers because they dared to pick potatoes on Sunday, and men like Charles Reynolds facing a trial on charges of blasphemy.

Rob Boston is the assistant editor of Church and State, published by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Article Author: Rob Boston