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Adventists in American Courts—The Sunday Law Cases


Beginning in the late 1870s, state Sunday laws in the U.S.—which had long been unenforced—received renewed attention and execution. After failing to get a national Sunday law passed in Congress, the National Reform Association (a coalition of Christian abolitionists, temperance promoters, and morality advocates seeking to prevent further secularization of American society and advance public morality based on Christianity) successfully led a campaign in Pennsylvania in 1879 for the passage of an expanded and strengthened Sunday law—as well as for the defeat of an exemption clause for Saturday observers. Leading the counter-campaign against Sunday laws were liberals, including liquor industry reps whose business was significantly impacted by Sunday laws.

The two sides clashed in California after a Mr. Koser, a saloon owner, was arrested in November 1881 for violating California’s Penal Code § 300, which exacted fines to those who opened on Sunday “any store, workshop, bar, saloon, banking-house or other place of business for the purpose of transacting business therein.” After his arrest, Koser filed a habeas corpus petition to the Supreme Court of California, challenging the legitimacy of the statute under the state constitution. A key argument by Koser was that the statute represented an impermissible religious regulation. The state’s main argument was that the Sunday law was only a public welfare statute, which the state had the right to enact. In March 1882, the Court, in a 4-3 decision, held that the law was constitutional.

This legal battle provided the backdrop to (Ellen White’s son) W. C. White’s arrest in the same year for violating the same statute by operating the Pacific Press (in Oakland, California) on Sundays.* In response to prosecutions such as this and the Republican Party’s support of the Sunday law, Adventists in California deserted the GOP en masse and voted for Democrats who fought against Sunday laws in the state’s general election in November 1882. The Democrats won every major state office in that election, gained control of the state legislature, and repealed the controversial Sunday statute in 1883.

Scoles v. State (1886)

Unlike in California, in many Southern states, new Sunday laws were enacted and existing Sunday laws strengthened with unwelcome consequences for many Adventists. The first legal opinion involving a Seventh-day Adventist criminalized by a Sunday statute appears to be the Arkansas Supreme Court’s decision in Scoles v. State, 1 S.W. 769 (Ark. 1886). In that case, five Adventists, including James W. Scoles, a minister, were arrested for violating the state’s Sunday law in the spring of 1885, after a neighbor testified to the Washington County grand jury six months later that he knew of Seventh-day Adventists who work on Sundays. The state’s Sunday law criminalized “laboring and performing other services” that were more than “customary household duty, of daily necessity, comfort, or charity.” The criminal act in question was painting the exterior of their church building on Sunday, May 3, 1885.

The Arkansas state law under which the Adventists were arrested was the Revised Statutes of 1838, which until 1884 contained the following clause: “Persons who are members of any religious society, who observe as Sabbath any other day of the week than the Christian Sabbath or Sunday, shall not be subject to the penalty of this act, so that they observe one day in seven agreeably to the faith and practice of their church or society.” But on March 3, 1885, the state legislature removed this exception, and Scoles and his parishioners appear to have been among the first to be arrested under the exception-less Sunday statute.

Eventually, Scoles and two others were tried in the fall of 1885 in the county circuit court. Representing the Adventists was James David Walker, who had previously served as a U.S. senator from Arkansas and as a state judge. He argued that the Sunday law was unconstitutional because it infringed: (1) the Adventists’ free exercise of their religion—to refrain from observing what they believed to be a false Sabbath; (2) their property right to time—time to work; and (3) their God-given right to labor six days each week. But the presiding judge ruled that the law was constitutional because it applied equally to all people without favoring or disfavoring any religions and no citizen had a right to insist on exercising individual conscience in opposition to the laws of the state.

After indicating his ruling and convicting the three defendants, the judge gave Scoles an opportunity to speak. For over forty minutes, Scoles held court, speaking about the biblical grounds of Adventism’s Sabbath observance with a Bible in his hand. The crowd that had gathered from different parts of Washington County sat in “perfect silence” while Scoles spoke, reported one observer. The sentence issued against the Adventists was either a fine or jail time; they chose jail to make a public statement as did Adventists who were prosecuted elsewhere for Sunday law violations (1). 

On appeal to the Supreme Court of Arkansas, Scoles made three key contentions: (1) the 1885 repeal of the exception clause to the Sunday statute (exempting non-Sunday observers) was “ineffectual” since the statute was not re-enacted as required by the state constitution; (2) if the repeal of the exception clause was valid, the remaining law violates the state constitution, which forbids giving preference to any religious group; and (3) the law violates the equal protection guarantee of the U.S. Constitution.

In the Scoles v. State decision announced on October 30, 1886, the Court held that (1) the Arkansas constitution does not require each amended law to be formally re-enacted (that Scoles was engaging in an “absurd construction” of the state constitution); and (2) the law, which is “essentially a civil regulation, providing for a fixed period of rest in the business, the ordinary avocations, and the amusements of the community,” is “a valid exercise of legislative power,” which is “derived from [the state’s] general authority to regulate the business of the community, and to provide for its moral and physical welfare.” Because the rationale for the Sunday law is purely secular and does not impose “any religious ceremony or attendance upon any form of worship,” the Court ruled, the law does not violate either the federal or the state constitution. In its sharply worded closing, the Court declared: “[Even if Scoles] conscientiously believes that he is permitted by the law of God to labor on Sunday, he may [not] violate with impunity a statute declaring it illegal to do so. . . . [A] man’s religious belief cannot be accepted as a justification for his committing an overt act made criminal by the law of the land.”

In re King (1891)

Tennessee was another state in which Adventists found themselves prosecuted for Sunday law violations. Several Review and Herald issues in 1886 report on the case involving three Adventists indicted for Sunday labor in Tennessee—W. H. Parker, James Stem, and William Dortch. Apparently, their case also reached the supreme court of their state. But their convictions were summarily affirmed without an opinion. Like Adventists in Arkansas, rather than pay fines, they served time in jail to protest the law.

The first Tennessee case yielding a judicial opinion was In re King, 46 F. 905 (C.C. Tenn. 1891), which was also the first-ever federal opinion of any kind involving a Seventh-day Adventist. In that case, R. M. King, an Adventist farmer in Obion County, was charged with common law nuisance for working his field in violation of the state’s stringent Sunday law (which also did not have an exception for Saturday observers). Initially, King chose to pay $3 fines each time he was cited and kept working on Sundays. Annoyed, his neighbors got him indicted on the more serious charge of common nuisance, which came with a $75 fine and jail time until the fine was paid in full.

After being placed in jail and losing his appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court, King brought a federal habeas corpus suit against the Obion County officials for holding him in custody in violation of his due process rights guaranteed by the federal constitution. In the main, King asserted that working on Sunday did not constitute nuisance under Tennessee’s statutory or case law. Thus, he argued, he was wrongly convicted and incarcerated.

On August 1, 1891, the U.S. Circuit Court issued its decision in this case. Much of Judge Eli Shelby Hammond’s long opinion is what is called dicta – i.e., non-binding portions of judicial opinions that do not represent the formal decision or reasoning of the court. In his dicta, Judge Hammond revealed his personal view that King was wrongly convicted of common law nuisance. But in the decisional portion, the judge ruled that federal courts do not have the power to intervene in this matter. He explained that state courts are where determinations about the common law definition of nuisance were to be made. Since the Tennessee courts had reviewed and decided that Sunday labor constituted nuisance, Judge Hammond held that King had been accorded “due process of law.”

Proliferation of Sunday Law Prosecutions

Helped by decisions such as Scoles and King, Sunday law prosecutions flourished in Arkansas, Tennessee, and many parts of the United States. As one website notes, Scoles was the first of at least twenty-one Sunday law prosecution cases in Arkansas alone in the late 1880s. Almost all of the defendants appear to have been Adventists. Many more Adventists in Tennessee were convicted of Sunday law violations, placed in chain gangs and subjected to hard labor. One early 20th century author counted “over one-hundred Seventh-day Adventists in the United States and about thirty in foreign countries [who were] prosecuted for quiet work performed on the first day of the week, resulting in fines and costs amounting to $2,269.69, and imprisonments totaling 1,438 days, and 455 days served in chain gangs” (2). 

A survey of legal opinions issued since Scoles and King shows that Sunday law prosecutions of Seventh-day Adventists persisted well into the 20th century, despite continuing constitutional objections raised by Adventists. After Scoles and King, at least twelve additional opinions involving Adventists were issued between 1894 and 1963 by courts in Illinois, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Washington. 

The “Final Word” by the U.S. Supreme Court

In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion that settled the question of the constitutionality of state Sunday laws. The opinion came as part of the decisions made in a cluster of four cases from Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The leading case among the four was McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961), which was brought by seven employees of a large department store prosecuted for selling merchandises on Sundays.

The Court ruled that Maryland’s Sunday law did not violate either the religion clauses of the First Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Earl Warren acknowledged that Sunday laws in history originated with religious aims, but he insisted that these laws were no longer religious in character. He found contemporary Sunday laws to be completely secular statutes that apply equally to people of all religions—only incidentally advancing the aims of certain religions and burdening the practices of others. Thus, these laws did not violate the First Amendment. Chief Justice Warren also held that these laws did not violate the equal protection and due process guarantees of the Fourteenth Amendment because the laws were designed for the purely secular purpose of improving the “health, safety, recreation, and general well-being” of state residents. He thus concluded: “The present purpose and effect of most of them is to provide a uniform day of rest for all citizens; the fact that this day is Sunday, a day of particular significance for the dominant Christian sects, does not bar the State from achieving its secular goals.”

Observations on the Sunday Law Cases

1. The denominational leadership established the “Committee on Sunday Prosecutions” and received its report at the annual General Conference session in December 1886. Heading the committee was General Conference President G. I. Butler. In its report, the committee recommended that the Scoles case, which had been decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court just a month earlier, be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and that proper counsel and education be given to individual Adventists facing Sunday law prosecution. But it does not seem that Scoles was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court (3). 

2. In what appears to have been one of General Conference’s earliest amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court, the church filed a brief in support of the challengers to various Sunday laws that resulted in the McGowan opinion. The brief argued that the Sunday laws in question impose a religious obligation, create severe economic hardship on non-Sunday observers, and result in unequal treatment of religions. Asserting that states must exercise “complete neutrality” on this issue, the church suggested that granting general exemptions for those requesting religious accommodation and one-in-seven-days-of-rest laws that provide options would be reasonable alternative measures to the Sunday laws at issue.

3. Published in 1884, Ellen White’s Spirit of Prophecy, volume 4, included a greatly expanded section on 19th century America and the end-time. The chapters commenting on the Sunday law movement and predicting its future (which did not exist in the book’s precursor, Spiritual Gifts, volume 4) were composed as the National Reform Association saw its early successes in pushing for more restrictive state Sunday legislations—and as White’s own son, W. C. White, and dozens of other Adventists were arrested, fined, and imprisoned for Sunday labor. Ellen White and other authors writing for Adventist publications throughout the 1880s and 1890s saw the Sunday law movement as representing the dangerous and persecutory apocalyptic core of American Christianity. 

4. Unlike the conservative Christians of the late 19th century who saw Prohibition and Sunday laws as deeply interconnected public morality and community health issues, Adventists separated the two and joined those Christians only on the Prohibition/temperance issues. Adventists saw the Sunday law movement as arising from an oppressive majoritarian impulse, but did not view the push for the prohibition of alcohol under the same light.

5. What other observations do you have?

Julius J. Nam works as a judicial clerk in the Central District of California of the U.S. District Courts. He is also an associate professor of religion at Loma Linda University School of Religion. He holds a Ph.D. in Church History/Adventist Studies from Andrews University and a J.D. from UCLA School of Law. In 2011-12, he served as editor-in-chief of UCLA Law Review.

  1. Review and Herald, November 17, 1885, 712-13.
  2. Richard Schwarz, Light Bearers to the Remnant, p. 252 (quoting W. Blakely, ed., American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation (1911), pp. 733, 734). See also Warren L. Johns, Dateline Sunday, USA (1967).
  3. See Review and Herald, December 14, 1886, 779.

Image: Tennessee Adventists in a chain gang for Sunday-law violations.

*Correction: The article originally misstated the location of Pacific Press as Mountain View, Calif., in 1882. It was Oakland, Calif.

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