Corliss On the Breckinridge Sunday Bill

American Sentinel, April 3, 1890, Vol 5, No. 14

Why Can They Not See It?

WE here present an extract from the speech of Mr. J. 0. Corliss, made at the late hearing before the Committee on District of Columbia, on the Breckinridge Sunday bill. It contains good points:—

This bill, instead of having a civil character, is a purely religious document, as you will notice by an examination of it. A civil bill can make provision for only civil matters; but this one enjoins the observance of a day, the non-observance of which is no incivility to any one. Sunday observance originated in religious worship, and has ever been regarded as a purely religious rite. Civil offenses are those which invade the rights of property or person; but if one labors on Sunday, he invades
the rights of no human being. He robs no one of any property or of a single personal right. His neighbor may observe the day if he chooses, just the same as if the other man were doing so.

It is not the day on which the act is performed which makes it civil or uncivil. It is just as wrong to strike a man in the face on Monday, as to do it on Sunday. It is just as wrong to drink whisky on Monday, as to drink it on Sunday. If it were true that the day itself could constitute an act a civil offense, then it might be argued that labor on Sunday is a civil offense. But just as soon as the position is assumed that labor is a civil offense (no matter on what day it is performed), then labor is made a crime. Therefore; “by the terms of this bill, honest labor becomes a crime, for it expressly forbids any one to perform honest labor.

It may be said that labor becomes a crime by being performed on Sunday. But if labor is a crime when done on one day of the week, it is a crime on every day of the week, since it is not the day on which a deed is done that constitutes a crime, but the deed itself must be the crime (if crime it is) on whatever day it is performed. So then, if the courts of the country recognize the principle that labor done on one day is a crime, when on all other days of the week the same labor would be lawful, then they really legalize crime on every day of the week except that one. This shows the falsity of the claim that this bill is a civil one.

But it may be said that it is the disturbance to others, by the performance of Sunday labor, that constitutes it a crime. But why should Sunday labor disturb another any more than that which is done on any othor day of the week? Manifestly, only because it is thought to be religiously wrong. In other words, such disturbance can only be of a mental character. For instance, when I go out into my garden and quietly work, or even go out on the street and work on Sunday, I have taken nothing from any man. I do not deprive him of his right to keep the day. Then wherein is the disturbance? Certainly not in the deprivation of rights. It must then only be a mental disturbance. Upon this point, allow me to cite the decision of Judge Walton, of Lewiston, Maine, in a case where a man was prosecuted for drawing cordwood through the streets on Sunday. In his charge to the jury the Judge said that his impression was that the complaint could not be maintained, for the defendant had quietly and in an unobtrusive manner hauled his wood, without coming into the immediate neighborhood of a meeting. The prosecuting attorney suggested that it might have been where people were returning home from church. But the Judge decided that that would be but a mental operation, a matter of the mind, of conscience, because they thought it wrong, that it did not look right. “For my part,” he says, “I do not see why any one driving quietly along with his load on one day of the week should cause any more disturbance than on any other day of the week. It only disturbs people because they think it wrong.” And this is the basis of all Sunday legislation. People think Sunday work to be wrong, and are therefore disturbed because some one else does not believe just the same as they do in the matter.

But if. mental disturbance constitutes a civil offense, then the preaching of opinions diverse from those of the majority of people is also a civil offense, and is indictable in the courts of the country; for, as you have seen to-day by the personalities indulged in, there are men who are more or less disturbed by such work. It is thus easy to see that such reasoning would quickly deprive the minority of all their religious rights. Let such a bill as this pass and it would be but another step to make all mental disturbance on Sunday a crime. Then woe betide the man who dared publicly to proclaim any religious views on that day not in harmony with his neighbor!

There is danger in taking the first step in religious legislation. It is every one’s privilege to keep the Sabbath, —not as a civil duty, but as a religious duty. That is, however, a matter belonging, wholly to individuals as a right of conscience, with which the courts have nothing to do, except to protect each one from disturbance in his devotions. But this bill is not necessary for that purpose, for every State and Territory in this Union has already a law providing that religious meetings, held on any day of the week, shall be protected from disturbance.

I wish here to reiterate the statement, that; Sunday was set apart only for a religious reason; and I will submit, on this point, an extract from the argument of Rufus King, made before the Superior Court of Cincinnati, in the well known case which was tried to decide the question as to whether or not the Bible should be taught in the public schools of that city. Mr. King was attempting to show, in support of having the Bible taught as part of the public education, that it was the province of the State to enforce religion. And to prove his position true he cited the Sunday law of that State, saying:—

The proviso of the Sunday law exempts those only who conscientiously observe the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath. Why are they exempted? Why, but because they religiously observe another Sabbath? Why, then, does the law of Ohio enforce the observance of Sunday?—Manifestly because it is religious.

Then he says, upon the same point: “The same law makes it a penal offense to profanely swear by the name of God, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Ghost.” This last statement of his is to show that the Sunday law of Ohio is wholly religious.

In this connection let me say, gentlemen, that the District of Columbia has just the same kind of Sunday law as that of Ohio. This law of the District of Columbia was in force when this book was issued which I hold in my hand, which was April 1, 1868; and I am told that this law (which I will read) was reenacted in 1874. I quote from the law. Section 1 provides that—

If any person shall deny the Trinity, he shall, for the first offense, be bored through the tongue, and fined twenty pounds, . . . and for the second of- fense, the Offender being thereof convict as afore- said, shall be stigmatized by burning on the fore- head with the letter B, and fined forty pounds, . . . and for the third offense, the offender being thereof convict ,a$ aforesaid, shall suffer death, without the benefit of the clergy.

, Section 10 of the same law has this:—

No person whatever shall do any bodily labor on the Lord’s day, commonly called Sunday, . . . and that every person transgressing this act, and being thereof Convict by the evidence of one sufficient witness, or confession of the party, before a civil magistrate, shall forfeit two hundred pounds of tobacco. ‘

Now, gentlemen, that law has never been repealed. • ‘ •

Mr. GROUT: Don’t you think it ought to be repealed ?

Mr, COELISS: I think all Sunday laws are unconstitutional, and should not exist. But I was about to say that this law does still exist; and by reference to the statutes of the District of Columbia it will be seen that the police of the city of Washington are obliged to enforce that law. I read:—

It shall be the duty of the Board of Police, at all times of the day or night, within the boundary of said Polices District, to see that all laws relative to the observance of Sunday are promptly enforced.

Now, why has not this law been enforced ? Certainly not because there is no such law, but because it is part of a stat- ute savoring so strongly of the Dark Ages as to make every one ashamed of it. But it is this kind of company in which Sun- day laws’were originally found; and that is where they belong, for they are but a relic of the old system of Church and State. Indeed, this law now in force in the District Is as near to representing a Church and State power as it could well be.

Again: if this bill contemplates only a civil law, what right has it to exempt from its penalty a person, simply because he may hold a certain religious faith? According to the provisions of this bill, a man who has a certain religious faith may do what another man without such a religious .faith cannot do. This shows that it is re- ligious, and not civil. It matters not what a man’s religious faith is, it cannot exempt him from the penalties provided by law against civil offenses, for the reason that a man’s religious faith cannot determine his innocence in such a case. It is just as wrong for a professed Christian to be found fighting in the street as for an avowed in- fidel; and it is no greater offense for an infidel to be thus engaged than for a Chris- tian. These things are recognized by the courts.

Take, for example, the law against po- lygamy. It does not exempt a man who happens to have a peculiar religious faith in relation thereto., Not by any means. One who believes it right, religiously, to violate that law, finds no favor because of his religious belief. Why is this ?—Simply because the law against polygamy is held to be purely a civil law. In fact, a civil law can do nothing else than to hold every offender guilty, whoever he may be, or whatever may be his religious faith. Any exemption in a law in favor of a certain religious belief immediately stamps the law as religious. , But according to this bill, a law may be enacted which will rec- ognize one man as a criminal because he lacks certain elements in his religious be- lief, while another man having these ele- ments may be considered a good citizen, even though he has done the very same act by which the other man was adjudged guilty; and the framers of this bill must – be marvellously dull of comprehension not to be able to see it. ‘ -.


2 Responses to “Corliss On the Breckinridge Sunday Bill”

  1. ML Hurst Says:

    Can you tell me weather JO Corliss was of the Seventh-Day Adventist faith or was he a Seventh=Day Baptist??

    Thank you,

    ML Hurst

  2. newsman777 Says:

    Hi ML Hurst,

    The J. O. Corliss quoted here was Seventh-day Adventist at the time of writing the article. I believe he was SDA for the duration of his life. There may be another JO Corliss who was Seventh-day Baptist, I don’t know. I have been intrigued with Corliss’ career because he has not been cited as an Adventist leader very much.

    A few things I recall from my studies: Corliss grew up with the pioneers of Adventism. He assisted A. T. Jones in his religious liberty efforts. He was one of three Adventists who sailed for Australia to begin the Adventist work there. He had a kindly regard for Ellen White; referring to her as “Mother”. I think this was common at the turn of the century. Ellen White understood his idiosyncrasies and recommended that he be given certain kind of tasks based on that. Her advice re: imperfect ministers, is worth studying further.


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