Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


Sunday Legislation.


It is a melancholy reflection, that however perfect any system of government may originally be, and none is more so than the general constitution of the United States, and the state organic laws of Virginia, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and other states, there will always occur in the process of time, something to warn one that no man can sit down quietly under the assumed security which the laws give him; but that, on the contrary, it is his business to watch carefully the executors of the law, if he wishes to have his liberties preserved, untouched, so that they be not taken from him little by little. At the first blush on reading the constitution of the United States, and of most of the individual states, one would be led to suppose that no religion had received a precedence over the other in this country; that Christianity no more permitted Judaism by toleration, than that Judaism tolerated Christianity. In the fundamental charter, not even the existence of God is mentioned, as the basis of the laws; not that the sages of the American Revolution did not acknowledge a Supreme Ruler, for they were, most of them, men of piety and sterling integrity; but because, the constitution they were about to frame should be a civil not a religious compact. The strong religious party should not have power to ask for protection, nor should the weak need the arm of the civil rulers to extend its influence. All religions standing alike on one platform, they were left at perfect liberty to extend themselves by persuasion or by the strength of their principles; and this was made the boast of all public speakers, that in America all men were alike free and equal.

But the love of power inherent in large masses, has ever and anon made itself perceived by the lover of liberty, in the endeavours to fasten on the community some laws favouring particular creeds; for instance, those on the compulsory keeping of the Sunday, and blasphemy, by which is understood the public exposure of alleged errors in Christian dogmas. It is not the question now, what would be the Jewish practice under a Jewish civil ruler, governing in the spirit and letter of the law of Moses; whether Jewish judges would punish offences against the Jewish Sabbath, and the Majesty of Heaven; for there is no Jewish state now in existence, and then Israelites only are amenable to punishment, even under the Mosaic dispensation. But the question is, “Is it within the spirit of the original federal compact, and the several state constitutions which declare universal equality, that any dogma of religion should be sanctioned by special legislation or favoured jurisdiction?” There may be a qualification required according to some, about the credibility of witnesses in a court of law; but to our view every man should be permitted to give his evidence, except near relatives of an accused or a defendant party in a civil suit; and his want of moral principle, might then be offered in evidence by the opposing party, and then let his credibility stand or fall by the apparent truth or falsehood of his testimony. But a positive enactment as to what is religiously lawful for a man to do or believe, we deem to be no part of a republican legislation, and this, with our present conviction, we would say, should there be tomorrow an overwhelming majority of Jews in this or any other country, the polity of which is not based on the Mosaic code.

We have always looked with apprehension to every and any public manifestation or combination for the purpose of enforcing Sunday keeping by the potent arm of legislative enactments, or the still more powerful one of “Public Opinion,” a tyrant greater in power over the mind of men in a free country, than is the will of the Czar in his dominions. We can easily conceive how a legislature may be led to sanction a bill for the better observance of the Sabbath, (Sunday,) especially as there are never any remonstrances presented against it by dissentients. These latter are perhaps afraid of being marked as counteracting Public Opinion; and the legislators themselves are perhaps religiously persuaded that it is the identical day of the Ten Commandments, the essence of the moral law, they are upholding, whilst they are unawares toiling in the meshes of a religious party net, preventing the free movement of their limbs. And even many who are absolutely indifferent to all moral or religion, may lend their aid to enact such a law, either because they have been accustomed to look upon Sunday as a day of relaxation, or because they wish to obtain favour with their constituents. And all who know any thing of public life, know what a powerful attraction the favour of the people is to the mere politician; it is the life of his life, and the very breath that animates his nostrils. It is to be sure, assuming a mere supposed fact, that the people wish penal laws to be enacted for the observance of the day under question, and that, if even the principles of the constitution are violated, it is of no moment so the people are gratified. But this is the danger we spoke of at first; under the guise of pleasing their constituents, i. e. the majority of them, laws are passed which place the minority in the painful position of defying the laws and suffering the penalty, or of appealing to the chief authority of the law, the various highest courts, for a reversion of the unrighteous judgment of the inferior tribunals. But even in this latter case, they are not sure of a more favourable decision. The judges may think that in its letter, at least, a Sunday-law is a mere municipal regulation, intended to give the labourer a chance of resting one day in the week from his compulsory toil, But it is evident that this reason has never been the motive of the persons who have of late urged on the stoppage of the Sunday mails and other measures; or that it could be by any possibility a valid reason for annulling any contract made on the first day of the week. The motives for both must be sought for in a religious idea of its being a day differing essentially from any other, and that it hence demands a protection from the law, to prevent the transaction of business or labour by those who but for such an enactment, would either transact business or labour at their vocation. Now we contend, that common sense must detect at first sight, that such legislation is favouring one class of the citizens, more than the other; it violates the freedom of conscience, and subverts the fundamental principle that one shall not be questioned by any other for his religious opinions, either by the citizens at large, or a judge in his official capacity. The worst feature in all this is, that the whole agitation is presupposed to rest upon the will of the majority; when there can be no doubt, that were the vote taken throughout the country, and each man were to answer without the fear of his neighbours upon him, it would be “Let those keep Sunday who will, and let others do as they like.” It is in truth, a movement of the clergy of various denominations, and of those immediately favouring them, who endeavour by all means to foster an artificial state of public opinion, for the purpose of crushing those who differ from them. Whether religious liberty will perish, in fact, under this outward pressure, or whether it will reassert its rights against the attempted oppression remains to be seen; in the mean time, we thank our friends in Richmond, for having refused to comply with a city ordinance compelling them to rest on the Christian Sabbath, by altering the fine imposed by an old, unheeded state law of, we think, $1.33, to one of from five to ten dollars. The subjoined petition was, as we learn, presented about three months ago, to the Common Hall of Richmond; but though referred to a committee, it had not been replied to at the latest account. What its fate may be, we of course, cannot tell. But we shall report to our readers, and recur to the subject hereafter, more at length than at present.

To the worshipful, the members of the Common Hall of the City of Richmond:

The petition of the subscribers, Israelites, residing within the limits of the City, humbly sheweth:

That your petitioners are members of a religious community, the object of whose constant endeavour it has always been to demean themselves as order-loving and law-obeying citizens, and they aver, that they may favourably compare with any other portion of the community, in respect to honesty, fair-dealing, and moral deportment. They ascribe this general evidence of good citizenship to the religion which it is their happiness to profess, which has descended to them from a long line of virtuous ancestors, and which in this free State of Virginia, which knows no distinction among its children, secured to them without molestation or hindrance from any religious or political quarter, by those blessed instruments of freedom of body and of conscience, the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of our venerable Commonwealth. The Israelites in Virginia have been long known for their sterling character, few indeed have been subjected to arrest and trial for any crime, and the prisons and penitentiaries, they confidently assert, will exhibit but a small portion of their inmates as belonging to their co-religionists. Your petitioners may with pride refer to the names of some of their predecessors who have descended to an honoured grave, some of them in extreme old age, rarely reached except by the pursuit of the strictest temperance and virtue; and they claim that such men as Moses Myers, of Norfolk, Israel and Jacob I. Cohen, Samuel Myers, Jacob Mordecai, Solomon Jacobs, Joseph Marx, Zalma Rehine, Baruch and Manuel Judah,* and many others, have left their examples in many respects as merchants and citizens, to be safely followed by others. In times, too, when the country was in danger from invasion by a foreign foe, the Israelites of Richmond snatched up arms at the first alarm, and at the memorable attack on the frigate Chesapeake, they were found foremost amidst those who hastened forward to be ready at the call of their country. They felt themselves blessed that their limbs were free and their hands unshackled to serve the country which looked upon them as children, dear alike with all other persuasions; and they were rejoiced, that feeble as might be their aid, small though their numbers were, they could strike at least one blow against the enemy who threatened the peace of their fireside; for the country, too, was theirs—they were part of the legislative power, alike in the eye of the law, not distinguished by any disqualification because of their belief or religious conduct.

* The writer, in thus noting down some of the prominent Israelites of Virginia, by no means has exhausted the number; there have been, it may be freely said without being invidious, among the Jewish inhabitants of Virginia, more men of sterling character, than among the same amount of persons elsewhere. To the above might be added the Reverend Messrs. Judah, Seixas, and Cohen, Marcus Elkan, the Messrs. Block, and others; not to mention those who are still living. The State of Virginia has no truer ­sons than those of Jewish origin.

Your petitioners have for their part always entertained the highest affection for the soil of the State, which is their, either by birth or adoption, and they mean that should—which God in his mercy forefend—the enemy threaten again our beloved country, to be the foremost among its defenders, and to lavish treasure, blood, and counsel, to insure its safety.

With these feelings animated, your petitioners have perceived, with unfeigned regret, that your honourable body, by its ordinance entitled, “An Ordinance for the more effectual suppression of Sabbath-breaking,” passed August 11th, 1845, has endeavoured to abridge their constitutional rights to labour, unobtrusively and within doors, on the first day of the week, called Sunday. The Israelites have no conscientious scruples, which could in any wise make labour on that day appear to them as sinful.—They, however, feel bound, by the dictates of their religion, to observe sacred as a day of worship and abstinence from labour the seventh day of the week, commonly called Saturday; and hence they think that a compulsory rest on the first likewise, would materially injure them in the pursuit of happiness, which is the natural and inalienable right of every man. They are ready to submit to any municipal law which looks towards the preservation of the peace, and upholding of the rights of any, even the humblest individual: hence they would not, against the law of this State, though they might question its authority, compel or induce their domestics of another persuasion, to do the usual amount of day’s labour on the Sunday, should they deem resting from labour a religious obligation. They do not wish to enter into an inquiry as to the necessity of any Sabbath or day of rest, on moral grounds: they are satisfied that the institution, as revealed in the Bible, is of paramount importance to man, to reinvigorate him for renewed toil by a day of calm, of rest, and of reflection;—but they contend that they are justly entitled to choose for themselves what day they wish to rest, whilst they do not interfere with any other person. The Bible speaks to your petitioners in emphatic terms of a day of rest on the seventh day of every week, and they deem themselves compelled by their understanding of the Scriptures, to hallow this day as it Sabbath, and no other. They themselves ask for no legislative enactment to require others to rest on their Sabbath, and they contend that no class of citizens has a right, on constitutional grounds, to require them to rest on the first or any other day. It is not evidently an observance without which society could not exist: hence they deem that society at large has no concern with the observation of a Sabbath, as is the case with compulsory honesty, the abstinence from homicide and incest, which infractions, if tolerated, would subvert the structure of civil government, by undermining the basin on which society rests for its security. Your petitioners are perfectly well aware that there is a strong tide setting in favour of keeping more strictly than formerly the first day of the week as a Sabbath, and they know that the term “Lord’s Day,” formerly in vogue, has latterly given way in must cases to the Jewish term Sabbath, which signifies rest—by which perversion of terms the heads of the dominant churches have endeavoured to make it appear that their adopted day of rest and worship is indeed the biblically ordained day of rest.—Now, your petitioners mean to assert, that even if this assertion were true, and that Sunday­keeping is a portion of the decalogue enactment, it would still be one of those religious observances over which, of right, the civil power in this happy republic has no control any more than over Jewish circumcision, infant baptism of the Episcopal and Presbyterian Churches, the immersion of adults of the Baptists, or the confession and extreme unction of the Roman Catholic body. The policy of the State of Virginia was never intended to favour any religious dogmas; these were left to individuals to choose at their pleasure; and only by implication as against good morals, can any system of worship, even the absurdities of Paganism, be prevented through the legitimate enactments of Legislatures or City Councils.

If, now, it is in the power of your worshipful body to step aside out of the usual course of conservators of the public peace to enact a compulsory keeping of the Sunday, by declaring it to be Sabbath: your petitioners see no limits why next you might not deem infant or adult baptism, the confession or extreme unction, the partaking of the sacrament, or the frequenting of churches, or of all of these acts combined, as legitimate subjects of your vigilance, and to enforce them or any one of them, by an imposition of fines and imprisonment. Your petitioners are well aware that no such attempt against the liberty of conscience is dreamt of; but they especially, since they are in the minority, they will admit immensely so, if compared with the Christian population, feel themselves impelled to raise their voice respectfully but solemnly against this first breach of their right by your legislating for a class, not the whole of the community, which you represent. Your petitioners would respectfully call your attention to one fact, that there are many Christians even in Virginia, who conscientiously reject the Sunday, and keep the Jewish Sabbath, as a day of rest. If, therefore, many Christians observe the first day of the week, there are others who attach no sacredness to it: how then can your worshipful body attempt to fix with certainty, the proper day of the Sabbath, upon the mere clamour of those who profess to be the sole expounders of religion? Your petitioners, indeed, do not see how any one can defend, upon the broad ground of equality, under the law, the wholesale condemnation of one portion of the citizens, for differing upon the propriety of resting on any given day. Suppose the Israelites and Seventh-Day Baptists would be the majority in any community in this slate, would not the hue and cry of persecution be raised against them, through the whole length and breadth of the land, for compelling Catholics, Episcopalians, and Methodists, to close their places of business and retire from the field and workshops at sundown of the sixth day of the week? Your petitioners admit that such an act would be an outrage upon the rights of those classes, and with their present mode of thinking, much as they honour the day ordained to them as sacred by their blessed religion, they would raise their voice against those of our fellow-Israelites, who should attempt so to outrage the rights of their Christian neighbours.

Your petitioners see with sorrow the manifestation of the sectarian spirit, which deems it paramount to bring every one to its own mode of thinking. The American United States are the bulwark of liberty, whither the oppressed of all parties have for many years been enabled to come, to be secure against the wiles and tyranny of political and religious oppression. They see, however, with deep regret, that a new spirit is abroad: that the rulers of Churches, and their adherents, are not satisfied with the equal portion of liberty which is theirs in common with all other citizens, but must invoke the aid of civil power to enable them to propagate their doctrines and practices. They feel that this is but the beginning of a revolution backwards, to abridge the rights of individuals, which have been opened as wide as the gates of mercy, by the sages of the Revolution. They believe that your legislation is in contravention of the Constitution and Bill of Rights of this State, by assigning to Sunday-keeping Christians more legal protection than is accorded to Jews and the Seventh-Day Baptists; they therefore feel almost confident, that if an appeal were properly brought before the highest judicial authority of the State, your ordinance would be annulled. But they love peace, and wish to pursue it in the genuine spirit of their religion; they love their fellow-citizens, and are proud of the good sense of the republic; they believe that freemen, when correctly informed, are always willing to act rightly, and repair any wrong which they may have accidentally committed. Your petitioners are therefore anxious to avoid an appeal to the legal tribunal, and they come before your worshipful body as humble petitioners, who crave of your wisdom and sense of justice, not to abridge them in the enjoyment of their religious liberty. They claim to be Israelites from conviction; they claim to remain so unmolested, from the security guaranteed unto them by the fundamental laws of the State, and they appeal to each and all of you, from your own knowledge you have of them, whether they do not deserve, from their uniform good conduct, to be left ín undisturbed enjoyment of all the liberties and privileges of freemen, which they have hitherto enjoyed in common with their fellow-citizens.

Your petitioners wish also to state, that it is not for the sake of any profit Sunday labour might bring them, that they ask for the revocation, of the to them obnoxious ordinance; for if this were all, they would cheerfully submit. But it is because it acts as a bounty to other persuasions, as an acknowledgment on the part of the city of a particular system or systems of religion, that they complain; and they sincerely think that any unprejudiced person will come to the same conclusion—that the keeping of the Sunday is no subject for municipal regulation, but ought to be referred to the exclusive action of the various ministers of the gospel, who may, if they can do so by persuasion, induce every inhabitant of the land to rest on this day. It is indeed an anomaly in a free and equal country, for the ministers just mentioned to invoke the aid of the civil power to enable them to get their day of rest universally respected; and your petitioners hope that your honourable body will clearly distinguish that in granting such a request, you take away, by so much as it is granted, the rights of those who entertain different views with regard to the necessity of keeping another day, or of those who deem it immaterial to keep any day of rest at all. Virginia has always been foremost in the upholding of liberal principles. The resolutions of ‘98 are justly the boast of our beloved Commonwealth. Your petitioners earnestly call upon your worshipful body to aid them in making a stand against the spirit of sectarian domination, which is now threatening, by slow degrees, to foist itself upon our country, and to restore them to the rights they would constitutionally enjoy, were it not for the late ordinance and the old State law, which is a dead letter upon the statute book.

And your petitioners, will, as in duty bound, ever pray.