In 1892, The Chicago Tribune reported that a judge in Racine, Wisconsin had fined several athletes for playing baseball on the previous Sunday. It went on to whet the readers’ appetite by speculating that the “Sunday observance law war is expected to be more exciting than last summer, as outdoor sports and picnics will be strictly prohibited within city limits on the Sabbath day.”
Modestly-sized Racine, divided between strict Lutherans and more liberal Catholics, was far from the only city to discourage public entertainments on the Sabbath. Even big, bad Chicago: In 1895, a judge fined “Cap. Anson” – who had led his team to five N.L. pennants in the 1880s – “and eight of his ‘Colts’” –- later to be the Cubs – “$3 and costs each for disturbing the peace . . . . They were found guilty of ‘noise, rout, or amusement’ on the Sabbath,” reported the Tribune. The issue of Sunday observance was not always so amusing. In some cities, it came to violence, with vigilantes attacking Catholic immigrants’ Sunday beer-halls.
About 70 years later, on a Sunday in February, 2012, GOP presidential candidate and observant Mormon Mitt Romney visited the running of the Dayton 500 NASCAR race. He described the event as “quintessentially American.” (Because of rain, the race had to be delayed two days.) Indeed, the Daytona Speedway was first opened on a Sunday in 1934.
The story of the two sorts of Sundays may be that America became irreligious between Cap Anson’s time and the Daytona Speedway’s – but the story is actually more complex than that.
One of the complexities in understanding this history is that America did not steadily abandon Sunday restrictions; those rules waxed and waned and waxed again. The Puritan Fathers in 17th- and 18th-century Massachusetts pressed a stern, spare, and sacred Sabbath on villagers. But colonists outside of New England typically conducted business or amused themselves on Sundays after (or just outside of) church services. Nineteenth-century immigrants brought with them the “continental Sunday” devoted to pleasure, including those beer-hall festivities. On 19th-century Sundays, the U.S. Post Offices were open for business and processed mail. Over the century, some Protestant denominations campaigned to shut down Sunday mail, but they succeeded only when labor unions joined the fight for a restful Sabbath. (For studies of American Sundays, see, for example, here, here, and here.)
During periods of enthusiastic religious revival, Sunday prohibitions increased. For example, in the 1840s some town fathers put chains across streets to bar carriages on Sundays; and toward the end of the nineteenth century, “blue laws” closed down many businesses on Sundays. But this was a fluctuating battle – not some steady, inevitable drop in official, public religion.
And the word “public” is important.
Public and Private
The Sabbath struggles were largely about the public power of organized religion. At one extreme, the Puritan ministers and town elders enforced Sunday church attendance. Somewhat less extreme, state and local authorities enforced – or at least, tried to enforce – Sunday bans on outside-church activities. Many local governments followed the guidance of church leaders on other issues as well, such as prohibiting alcohol; resisting laissez-faire market wages and prices; having a religious test for elective office; closing brothels; and requiring Bible-reading and prayer in schools. (In my public high school, at least into the 1960s, the day had to start with class recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.) These public expressions – some might say public enforcements – of religion have certainly waned in the last one hundred or so years.
Sociologist of religion Mark Chaves, in an important essay entitled “Secularization as Declining Religious Authority,” argues that the secularization which has occurred is specifically of that kind, religious authority. Organized religion now exercises less command over American society through politics and law than it once did; churches have less control over what happens outside their doors. However, secularization in the sense of individuals losing faith and piety has not happened here (see this earlier post). Religion still has sway inside churches and inside Americans’ hearts.
The Sunday sports-and-beer-halls story tells us about one dimension of religious history in America: the weakening of clergies’ public authority, such as their eventual failure to stop Sunday baseball. Meanwhile, the benedictions that commence the Daytona 500 Sunday and, for that matter, that start off Superbowl Sunday, the prayer huddles before football games (not to mention Tom Tebow), ballplayers pointing to heaven after a base hit, and so on tell us about another dimension of religious history: continuing public expressions of Americans’ continuing private faith.