Two centuries before there were debates over insurance coverage for contraception or cakes for gay weddings, Congress spent two decades — off and on — debating religious freedom in a somewhat more esoteric context: delivery of the mail on Sunday.
That debate began with a man named Hugh Wylie, a shopkeeper and postmaster in the frontier town of Washington, Pa. Postmaster was a great job when Wylie got it in 1803. He was paid $1,000 a year, more than three times what a typical workingman could expect to earn. Like any good patronage employee, Wylie helped out his family and installed his son, David, as deputy postmaster. Wylie was also a pillar of the community, serving as an elder in the Presbyterian church.
In 1808, Wylie was ordered by Thomas Jefferson’s postmaster general, Gideon Granger, to open the post office on Sunday for the sorting of mail — but not for its distribution.
Tending to his customers’ needs, Wylie — acting on his own — soon began opening the post office so those who lived in the countryside and came to town for church on Sundays could pick up their mail.
This seemed to pose little problem at first. But as the population grew, the hours of Wylie’s mail distribution began to expand until they overlapped with the Sunday church service. This posed a conflict for Wylie as an elder of the church, because when his distribution duties began to encroach on the hour of worship, he tended to his duties at church and left his son in charge at the office.
That Solomonic solution didn’t solve his problem. Someone complained to both Granger and the Presbyterian hierarchy about Elder Wylie distributing the mail on Sundays.
Civil authorities stood by Wylie’s decision to keep the post office open on the Sabbath. Granger wrote that he found it unlikely that sorting the mail on Sunday would be “offensive to heaven.”
The ecclesiastical authorities disagreed.
The Synod of Pittsburgh ruled that Wylie could not be an elder and would be barred from communion. Wylie appealed to the Presbyterian General Assembly, but lost there, too.
In 1810, the 11th Congress took up consideration of a new postal law, and included a provision to require postmasters to open their offices on Sundays.
Delivery of the mail was central to the life of 19th century Americans, particularly those living in what was then the West — staying in contact with people in the East, getting the news, conducting business with anyone who didn’t live within a short day’s walking distance. The mail packet was the Internet, cable news and the telephone all rolled into one, only slower. The mail was civilization. And civilization was expanding.
So Congress wanted the mail sorted and available for pickup every day. Lawmakers knew this provision would conflict with laws in every state, to say nothing of the customs and consciences of their constituents. But slowing the mail, proponents argued, would hurt the economy. Giving in to religious zealots would, they argued, amount to theocracy.
The bill was debated throughout much of April 1810, bouncing back and forth between chambers as each added amendments and struck provisions. The Senate twice rejected the Sunday mail requirement, but in the end the Jeffersonian/Madisonian majority had its way and postmasters were legally obliged to choose between their consciences and their jobs.
Confronted with the final judgment from the church authorities and this new mandate from Congress, Hugh Wylie opted to stay on as postmaster. The price he paid was expulsion from the church.
A Redress of Grievances Passage of the post office law at the end of April 1810 was among the last acts of the second session of the 11th Congress, which adjourned shortly thereafter. When it returned in December for the post-election lame-duck session, lawmakers were greeted by a deluge of petitions demanding repeal of their springtime handiwork.
On Sept. 25, 1810, the Synod of Pittsburgh — the organization that had barred Wylie from Presbyterian communion — appointed a committee to draft a petition to Congress “praying them to revise and alter the law respecting Post office establishments, so that the Sabbath may not be violated by the mail being carried, and Post masters opening their offices on that sacred day.”
Dozens of others followed, from all across the country and from a diverse set of denominations.
A Boston petition was particularly notable because it included the signature of William Ellery Channing, a leading liberal theologian and one of the leading early lights of Unitarianism. Channing was about as far from the fire-and-brimstone of evangelical Christianity as one could get in 19th century American religion. But he stood with all those who saw in the 1810 law a usurpation by the federal government of the individual right to conscience guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Nothing like the flood of petitions sent to Congress on the issue would be seen again until abolitionists began protesting the gag rule, which barred the consideration of anti-slavery petitions in Congress, in the late 1830s. The Sabbath mail crusade was a training ground for that movement and other social reform efforts that followed.
But the petition movement fizzled out in the face of the patriotic fervor of the War of 1812 — national security concerns trumped religious fervor as the need for speedy communication took precedence.
A renewed petition movement arose at the end of the war, only to finally be thwarted by the demise of the Federalist Party in the election of 1816.
A third round came about in the late 1820s, and the matter was put before a congressional committee, which sustained Sunday mail delivery.
The petitioners had diverse goals, not all of them in keeping with even the narrowest view of the separation of church and state, some that even the most conservative modern observer would reject. But their underlying premise — that the government was violating their rights of conscience — mirrors the modern arguments of those opposed to the contraceptive mandate and supportive of religious freedom statutes.
And, in the broader sense, the arguments of those who wrote and supported the law mandating Sunday mail delivery in 1810 have been disproven by events.
When Sunday mail delivery finally ended a hundred years later — in response to demands by labor, not for religious reasons — the economy did not grind to a halt and theocracy did not descend.
John Bicknell is a former editor for CQ Roll Call and author of “America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation.” The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.