Last month, Indiana residents gained the ability to buy packaged alcohol on a Sunday for the first time in more than two centuries. Idiosyncratic Sunday laws regulating alcohol, commerce and personal behavior have peppered American history since the nation’s founding and are commonly viewed as relics of bygone religious Puritanism or hypersensitive moral codes. After all, Indiana’s laws began in 1787 (before Indiana even became a state), with the direction that “the Christian world” should abstain from any work, except that of “necessity and charity,” to honor the Sabbath. But it didn’t take long for Sunday laws to become tools for various political interests, which may or may not harbor any religious conviction on the matter.
In fact, those most committed to Indiana’s Sunday ban were not religious groups but the state’s powerful liquor store lobby. It long safeguarded its members’ ability to remain closed on Sundays while their competitors (grocery and convenience stores) remained open without being able to sell booze on those days. Lifting the ban required striking a deal with big-box retailers to protect liquor stores’ virtual legal monopoly on selling cold beer.
The prominence of economic concerns regarding such laws should come as no surprise. In Indiana and other states, Sunday advocacy (or Sabbatarianism) began as a tool to root out vice and immorality but wound up serving economic and political purposes above all else. While the Christian origins of the laws remain apparent — they apply only on the Christian Sabbath, after all — over the past two centuries the laws have largely lost their overt spirituality.
Early Sunday laws throughout the country invoked religious values to control the behavior of ordinary citizens, who, lawmakers feared, tended toward drunkenness and greed. Using the government to ban business transactions, recreation or alcohol consumption on the Sabbath encouraged church attendance and responsible commerce, they believed. According to a 1797 Massachusetts law, the prohibition gave workers a necessary day of rest from the burdens of labor. Blocking alcohol consumption further curbed drunkenness and criminal behavior.
Organized Sabbatarian politics, often led by evangelical Protestant ministers, ramped up as the 1800s progressed. They successfully pressured politicians into passing Sunday restrictions on commerce and recreation around the country, though enforcement varied greatly. When Sabbatarians failed to pass the laws they wanted, they pressured business owners to voluntarily abstain from operating on Sundays.
The largest Sabbatarian cause of the era, however, was the Sunday delivery of mail. Congress first enacted Sunday mail delivery in 1810 in hopes that efficient communication would better integrate the far-flung western territories into the national economy. Some evangelicals, believing this betrayed the nation’s manifest commitment to Christian principles, including the sanctimony of Sunday rest, began campaigning against the law.
And so, between 1828 and 1831, they sent over 900 petitions calling on Congress and the Post Office to fulfill the nation’s obligation (in their view) to the fourth commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. Their campaign failed, and Sunday delivery continued in the short term. But economic shifts came to the rescue. The railroad and telegraph soon integrated national commerce without sole reliance on the mail, allowing many local jurisdictions to quietly end Sunday mail delivery during the 1850s and ’60s.
Alcohol restrictions further exposed how Sunday laws mirrored political trends, not church attendance or religious zeal. The Indiana General Assembly tweaked the state’s alcohol regulations, such as the requirements for a liquor license and exemptions from the ban on Sunday sales, in nearly every legislature between 1816 and 1979. The relative stringency of such laws, however, closely paralleled the political fate of the temperance and later Prohibition movements. Laws tightened when temperance reform gained political traction during the 1850s but loosened again when the impending Civil War turned national attention to more urgent issues.
Elsewhere, Sunday alcohol laws sometimes served as a weapon against undesirable aspects of secular society, such as crime. In Chicago, temperance and Sabbatarian reformers, galvanized by the murder of a police officer in a whiskey saloon, clamored for the enforcement of a Sunday ban in 1872. Arguing that most violent crime resulted from weekend drinking, they persuaded the city council to pass the ban. It provoked an immediate backlash, however.
Some saloons remained defiantly open. Newspapers attacked the law viciously, and other saloon owners marched through city streets in protest, distributing free beer (which was allowed under the law). The ban crumbled after two years of protest and chronic disregard.
Public debates like those in Chicago took place throughout the country and divorced themselves more and more from their religious underpinnings. Secular justifications for Sunday laws, once mere appendages to religious reasoning, now featured more prominently. Consumer demands for products and leisure experiences — newspapers to read or operating streetcars so they could go to favorite restaurants — ultimately triumphed over the Fourth Commandment.
Legal shifts also prompted the change. With the passage of the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court began incorporating the Bill of Rights (meaning states laws could no longer violate the Constitution any more than federal laws) and therefore applied the First Amendment’s establishment clause to the states. In an 1884 case, Soon Hing v. Crowley, the court held that even though such laws could not privilege one religion over others, the government did have policing power to protect the health, safety and morality of its citizenry. The majority opinion stated that “laws setting aside Sunday as a day of rest are upheld, not from any right of the government to legislate for the promotion of religious observances, but from its right to protect all persons from the physical and moral debasement which comes from uninterrupted labor.”
By the 1880s, some states and cities began rolling back their Sunday laws, or else simply ignoring them, but others doubled down. Back in Indiana, courts began extending the police powers argument to other regulations of the alcohol industry that applied throughout the week, such as saloon operating hours. The state legislature systematically scrubbed its Sunday ban of any spiritual connections and, with public support, carried the law well into the 20th century. Bans unrelated to alcohol faced similar protections using police power rationales, allowing laws such as Virginia’s Sunday hunting ban to persist.
Despite their legislative and legal cover, Sunday laws suffered from repeated public debate and conflicting business interests. Those that survived depended on their total legal separation from any religious justifications. New York City successfully passed a fair sabbath law in 1963 to exempt non-Christian store owners from its closing law, and public opinion throughout most of the nation swayed against Sunday restrictions altogether. By 1986, only 18 states retained general Sunday closing laws, though enforcement greatly depended on local opinion.
Indiana was one of the 18. Until 1977, for example, hunting was prohibited, but playing baseball or ice hockey was allowed (so long as it took place after 1 p.m. and at least 1,000 feet away from any house of worship). That year, however, the General Assembly began rolling back portions of the closing law and allowing limited Sunday sales of alcohol, such as on-premises drinking at restaurants. Thereafter, the state’s legal authority to regulate Sunday alcohol sales became far shakier and all the more dependent on political will and lobbying efforts by interest groups.
Although early support for Sunday closing laws emanated from church steeples, the religious justifications for such bans long ago gave way to the almighty dollar. Today they might represent commercial interests, partisan footballs or statements about legislative authority — but testifying to their political foundation has never been a matter of faith.
Brian Alberts is completing his doctorate in history at Purdue University, and researches 19th-century German immigration to the Midwest through the lens of the brewing industry.