"On the Seventh Day You Shall Rest": Religious Minority Sabbaths and American History

Solicited by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History (S-USIH). Endorsed by the Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (SHGAPE)

Sunday, April 18, 2021, 2:15 PM - 2:45 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Intellectual; Politics; Religion


Our panel embodies a central takeaway from Volk’s book: moral minorities matter in the history of a democracy. There is more scholarship on religious minorities in recent history than in the early republic. But panelist Shari Rabin bridged the gap between Jewish Studies scholarship and early American religious historiography with her 2017 book Jews on the Frontier. For this panel, Rabin explores the Jewish Sabbath in early America from coast to coast as an example of the separation of religion and state being limited for religious minorities. Panelist Michel Sun Lee’s paper analyzes the Seventh-day Adventists and other observers of Saturday Sabbath who opposed Sunday laws in California from 1858 through 1883. Finally, Rebecca Brenner Graham approaches this conversation from the perspective of her dissertation on Sunday mail delivery. Most scholarship on Sunday mail focuses on the early republic, but her paper for this panel addresses the end of Sunday mail in 1912, particularly implications for the Saturday Sabbath. This panel includes a full professor, an associate professor, an assistant professor, a lecturer, and an advanced doctoral candidate who simultaneously teaches high school and works in public history. Four out of five members of this panel are women, demonstrating diversity in the field of American intellectual history and epitomizing that women also know history. We take a stand on the religion-state problem, which refers to the challenge of structuring moral authority in a secular democratic polity. Together, our scholarship challenges supposed separation between religion and state in a capitalist democracy because Saturday and Sunday Sabbaths are necessarily unequal.  

Papers Presented

Between Saturday and Sunday: Jews and the Sabbath in Nineteenth-Century America

One of the key vectors by which Jews reckoned with American life in the nineteenth century was that of time and temporality. Jews had distinctive ways of marking time, including, perhaps most dramatically, a Sabbath that lasted from sundown on Friday night to sundown on Saturday night and that was marked by abstention from thirty-nine categories of work outlined in the Talmud. As Jews entered the United States in large numbers in the decades before the Civil War, they faced unfriendly conditions for Sabbath observance. Six-day workweeks were de rigeuer, especially for the many Jews who worked as peddlers and merchants. And the efforts of what David Sehat has called “the moral establishment” led to the widespread adoption of Sunday closing laws by many American states and localities. In this context, Jews struggled to, and in many cases ceased to, observe the Saturday Sabbath. One peddler in New England in the 1840s wrote that in the United States, “one must profane the holy Sabbath, observing Sunday instead.” Others, under the influence of an ascendant movement for religious reform, transformed how they marked the Sabbath, for instance, by playing organs in their synagogues (musical instrumentation was traditionally understood as forbidden on the Sabbath). This paper will consider the transformation of Jewish Sabbath practices and the advent of Sunday closing laws not as straightforward cases of assimilation or anti-Semitism, but as part of a broader encounter of divergent religious temporalities in the expanding American continent.

Presented By
Shari Rabin, Oberlin College

Sacred Timekeeping and American Democracy in California, 1858–1883

Despite vast differences in Sabbath-keeping practice and belief between nineteenth-century Jews and Protestants, this paper argues that the issue of weekly sacred time has formed ad hoc coalitions that cross religious, theological, and practical distinctions. I focus on one example of this historical phenomenon. In the mid-nineteenth century, Protestant Sunday-keeping found perhaps its most visible public expression, enforcement, and opposition via the institutions of law and police power. The efforts of Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, labor advocates, and the religiously unaffiliated together posed a serious challenge to this dominance of a Protestant majority advocating for Sunday laws in the American frontier. Beginning with the arrest of Jewish tailor Morris J. Newman in Sacramento, I focus particularly on developments between 1858 and 1883. During this period, California was caught in a boom-and-bust cycle of Sunday laws and contestations of these laws. While much has been written about Jewish and Protestant sacred timekeeping, there are few narratives that integrate these two histories. This paper, therefore, considers how an array of individuals and communities came together in unlikely ways to challenge and successfully strike down one state’s Sunday laws.

Presented By
Michel Sunhae Lee, Independent Scholar

The End of Sunday Mail, 1888–1912

The end of Sunday mail delivery represented a significant loss for people who observed their Sabbath on Saturdays. In 1911, Congress passed legislation encouraging postmasters to award compensatory time to clerks and carriers for Sunday labor. And then in 1912, Sunday mail delivery officially ended in the United States, signifying a federally implemented Sunday closing law. My paper argues that the end of Sunday mail consisted of gradual policy changes on the ground that spawned negotiations of political and moral authority, varying dramatically across the country. I draw primarily on a series of overflowing folders of correspondence between First Assistant Postmaster General Grandfield with local postmasters across the nation in 1911 and 1912, as well as congressional records, petitions, and published sources from the time. Historians such as Richard R. John, Alexis McCrossen, and Kyle G. Volk analyzed the early republic’s Sunday mail controversy, and my paper addresses the end of this story.

Presented By
Rebecca Brenner Graham, American University

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Kyle G. Volk, University of Montana
Kyle G. Volk is a history professor at the University of Montana. His research and teaching focus on the history of democracy; the problem of dissent and difference in American public life; capitalism, law, and the American state; civil rights, civil liberties, and the changing meaning of freedom in American society. Volk's research has been supported by the American Society for Legal History, the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Antiquarian Society. His first book, Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2014), explores the pioneering popular struggles over minority rights that developed out of conflicts over race, religion, and alcohol in nineteenth-century America. Moral Minorities received the OAH’s Merle Curti Prize for Best Book in American Intellectual History and honorable mention for the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for the Best First Book in American History. He has received the University of Montana’s Helen and Winston Cox Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 2015, the University of Montana nominated him for CASE Professor of the Year and named him a Provost's Distinguished Faculty Lecturer. He is the Director of Graduate Studies in Montana’s History Department. His current research explores the problem and politics of personal liberty in United States History.

Presenter: Rebecca Brenner Graham, American University
Rebecca Brenner Graham is a PhD candidate in history at American University in Washington, DC. Her dissertation analyzes American religion-state relations through the lens of Sunday mail delivery from 1810 through 1912, emphasizing the perspectives of religious minorities and disenfranchised persons. Rebecca currently teaches history at an all-girls college-preparatory boarding school in Northern Virginia, and she also works as a consulting public historian in the greater Washington, DC area. She is the outgoing Secretary of the Society for United States Intellectual History, which she has served for the past three years, as well as a United States Intellectual History (USIH) blogger. Rebecca’s work has appeared three times in the “Made by History” column at The Washington Post.

Presenter: Michel Sunhae Lee, Independent Scholar
Michel Sun Lee is currently a lecturer in the Department of History at the University of California, Riverside. She received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies (Religion in the Americas) from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on the history of Sabbath-keeping among Protestants, Jews, and Catholics in what was formerly Alta California. She also holds a BA in History and East Asian Studies and an MA in History, both from Stanford University. 

Presenter: Shari Rabin, Oberlin College
Shari Rabin received a PhD in religious studies from Yale University in 2015 and is currently assistant professor of Jewish studies and religion at Oberlin College. A historian of American religions and modern Judaism, she is the author of Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-century America (New York University Press 2017), which won the National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies and was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature. She is currently working on a survey of Jews, race, and religion in the American Sough from 1669 to 2017.