The Pennsylvania legislature enacted the Sabbatarian Act of 1794 specifically to prohibit business transactions and sporting events on Sundays. The statute was a concerted movement on the part of Philadelphia church congregations—of several denominations—to strengthen religion by enforcing the observance of Sunday worship. This law, and the Chain Act discussed below, shows how much influence and power that Philadelphia’s clergy had two centuries ago, as well as how generally religious the city was back then.
The Sabbatarian Act was the genesis of Pennsylvania’s “blue laws,” which persisted well into the 20th century, and one could argue, to the present day considering our liquor laws. Among other things, the act provided that “If any person shall do or perform any worldly employment or business whatsoever on the Lord’s Day, commonly called Sunday (works of necessity and charity only excepted)… every such person so offending shall, for every such offense, forfeit and pay four dollars… or suffer six days imprisonment.”
A particular goal of the Sabbatarian Act was to reduce the amount of vehicular traffic on city streets on Sundays, as the resulting noise and commotion interfered with church services. Carts, wagons, and carriages—all drawn by horses—were the wooden and iron-tired vehicles in that era. Along with men riding on horseback, these carriages made a terrible racket on Philadelphia’s cobblestoned thoroughfares. The horses made quite a clamor too. Even unpaved dirt lanes produced much noise as horses trotted over them.
Soon after the passage of this law, it was found that there was still plenty of street noise on Sundays. The congregations felt that they needed a special ordinance to prevent traffic from disturbing weekly services and prayers, one that would permit them to close the streets near their churches during the hours of worship.
Representatives of fifteen congregations submitted a petition to this effect to city authorities in July of 1797. The request quoted from the law of 1794 and further stated:
We represent that our religious assemblies are incommoded and disturbed by the noise and confusion occasioned by the passage of carriages through the streets of the city during the time of public worship, to so great a degree, as not only to interrupt our peace and quiet, but in some measure to defeat the very ends for which our worship is instituted. We therefore respectfully petition the Corporation of the city to be allowed to extend a chain or chains across the street or streets of the city, opposite to our several places of public worship, during the hours of its continuance, on the first day of the week, commonly called the Lord’s Day, so as to prevent the passage of all carriages during that time.
This solicitation was the result of a unique bit of early denominational cooperation in the United States. Signatories included representatives of several Presbyterian congregations (including First Presbyterian Church and Third Presbyterian Church—now known as Old Pine Street Church), eleven Protestant denominations (including Christ Church, St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s), as well as St. Mary’s Roman Catholic church and the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas (with Absalom Jones and James Forten as signatories). Methodist, German Reformed, Lutheran, Swedish, and Moravian churches were part of the movement, as was even the Free Quaker Meeting.
The city government rebuffed this appeal, so the congregations presented it to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. On April 4, 1798, the “Chain Act” of Pennsylvania was enacted at the State House (Independence Hall) at a time when Philadelphia was the state capital. (Note that a similar chain act had been decreed previously in New York state.) Applying only to Philadelphia, it empowered authorities of each religious society to fasten heavy chains across the street or streets in the vicinity of their churches and meeting houses so that no horseman or vehicle could pass during the hours of divine worship.
Quoting from the Pennsylvania Bill of Rights, the legislature reasoned that the complete attainment of an individual’s right to worship God as he pleased must surely include the right to worship with no distracting noise. People were supposed to stay quietly at home or to sit quietly in their pews on the Sabbath day and not to drive profanely through the silent city.
“Sunday chains” were affixed between building walls or from curb to curb by way of sturdy iron or stone posts. No chain could be stretched out more than twenty feet away from church property, and they could only be attached on Sundays. Responsibility for putting up the chains usually fell on church sextons, who would do so at least five minutes before Sunday services commenced, and would remove the chains after the congregation was dismissed. Additionally, sextons sometimes stood guard to prevent horsemen and carriage drivers from jumping the barriers or going around them by riding on the sidewalk. (Pedestrian traffic was still permitted on the sidewalks.) The fine for each instance of violating the Chain Act was thirty dollars—a hefty penalty in that day. Money collected went to support poor residents of Philadelphia.
Most houses of prayer took advantage of the privilege and the practice was widespread two hundred years ago. In 1816, the law’s scope was extended to other districts around Philadelphia, including the District of Northern Liberties.
Presbyterian congregations spearheaded the overall effort. (In the 18th century and during much of the 19th century, Philadelphia was virtually the capital of American Presbyterianism.) Consider that First Presbyterian Church moved to the south side of Washington Square in 1820—where it remained for about a hundred years—because the site was calm and peaceful. According to a 1876 issue of Potter’s American Monthly, it was said that “[the location] will be the most quiet situation because a chain across towards the square and another across Seventh street will prevent any carriages from coming within a square on the northern eastern or western sides.”
English writer Frances Trollope was bewildered at how religious the city was when she visited in the 1820s. She observed in her travel book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, that “The religious severity of Philadelphia manners is in nothing more conspicuous than in the number of chains thrown across the streets on a Sunday to prevent horses and carriages from passing.”
Sunday chains eventually became so numerous that it was difficult for people driving vehicles to reach their destination without taking circuitous routes. Walnut, Chestnut, Market, Arch, and Race Streets from Front to Ninth Street were so chained up on Sundays as to be totally impassable. The same was true, to a lesser extent, for most lanes running north and south through Philadelphia.
Citizens began protesting Sunday chains as an interference with their right to use public roads. In addition, the chains engendered fights on the Lord’s Day in front of the very churches they were supposed to shield. Impatient men would break through the barriers and sextons were often beaten when they resisted. Worse still, children and mischief makers would knock over the posts during the week when the chains were down.
Furthermore, travelers in stagecoaches grumbled over the inconvenience of waiting for the Sunday chains to be lowered or of being obliged to pass through the streets indirectly to hotels and other points of interest. And volunteer firemen maintained that it was just as important for them to save property as it was for pastors to preach sermons. Public sentiment usually approved whenever firemen disregarded church sextons and took down the chains.
Doctors also asserted that they could not quickly reach patients who lived far away on Sundays because of the chains. A Dr. Casper Morris cut a chain that obstructed him and was arrested and taken before the mayor. Morris complained so indignantly about the law and the fine that the mayor also fined him for “disrespect to the court.”
On another occasion, a man drove his carriage into town to find a physician for some dying member of his family. While attempting to return home, time was lost as the frantic driver tried to get free from the maze of chains blocking the streets. This affair was witnessed by one John Moss, who was so angered by what he saw that he immediately dismantled the chain at Locust and Seventh Streets, which guarded the aforementioned First Presbyterian Church. A 1880 issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography contains this account by John Samuel:
It was my grandfather, the late Mr. John Moss, who was the immediate means of the removal of the last chain which blockaded the streets in front of the churches in Philadelphia. The chain in question was stretched across Locust Street at Seventh, guarding the Presbyterian Church there… [Mr. Moss’s] feelings were so excited by what he considered the injury done the ill man and his friends, that he tore down the chain with his own hands, and took such measures to have the law or ordinance abrogated that it was never replaced.
Drivers of U.S. mail coaches were the most serious enemies of the Sunday chains. (Perhaps surprisingly, mail was transported seven days a week until 1912, when pressure from religious and labor leaders led to the end of Sunday delivery.) The question as to whether Pennsylvania’s Chain Act or federal mail delivery laws should be supreme became a point of contention not only in Pennsylvania but throughout the nation. Congress was petitioned in 1828 to cease postal transport on Sundays, but the Tammany Society of New York City condemned this movement as unreasonable, and other societies around the country joined this effort. The experience of mail coach drivers in Philadelphia on Sundays—when they would see chain after chain on city’s main streets—was given as a reason why mail delivery should have the right of way everywhere without local interference.
When opponents of Pennsylvania’s Chain Act appealed to the General Assembly to rescind it, the controversy was centered over the issue of Sunday religious observance. The act’s defenders offered several rationales: the law was necessary for the proper respect due to religion; eliminating it would be a blow to Christianity; and those who opposed the act were not good citizens. Petitions on each side of the argument were sent to the Pennsylvania legislature and to the governor in 1828. One supporter was the elderly Bishop William White of Christ Church, who had lobbied for the statute decades before.
Thirty-some years after its enactment, the state legislature repealed the Chain Act on March 15, 1831. Lawmakers declared that Philadelphia had become so large and populous that the statute could no longer be properly enforced. They also felt that the law had, indeed, become a nuisance and that it was simply a matter of common sense to void it. Conversely, those who wished to retain the act felt that a great wrong had been committed and that the religious objectives of morals and virtue had fallen on evil days.
The repeal was widely reported across the nation. One who hated the chains—and Presbyterian clergymen—was Anne Royall, by some accounts the first professional female journalist in the United States. She rejoiced when the General Assembly invalidated the Chain act and wrote (quite vehemently) in Mrs. Royall’s Southern Tour, or Second Series of the Black Book (1831):
[G]lory to the Pennsylvania Legislature, we have given Dr. [Rev. Ezra Stiles] Ely’s good sound Presbyterianism another good broadside. The Legislature has passed an act forbidding chains to be drawn across the streets on Sunday, in Philadelphia, and I believe throughout the State. Those tyrants, not satisfied to chain the consciences of the citizens, clapt chains on the carriages, and the next step would be to chain us hand and foot. It must be known that both in Philadelphia and New York these infamous swindlers, who rob the country under a cloak, of millions of dollars, the better to make themselves heard on Sunday, to enforce this money from the city people, had stopped all the carriages by drawing chains across the streets. The friends of liberty must rejoice at this bold and manly stand against clerical tyranny, and as for God, any fool might know He could make money if He wanted it.
Keeping with this mindset, an editorial appeared in the December 17, 1831, issue of Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate:
Cannot something be done to repeat the unconstitutional laws which authorize religious societies, in the cities of Albany and New York, to extend chains across the streets on first day of the week? This anti republican and injurious practice was abolished by repealing the law which authorized it in Pennsylvania last winter—one of the blessed effects of the attempt to stop Sunday mails. Will not New York, and other States, follow the example?
So the Sabbatarian chains of Philadelphia were soon removed. But the prohibition of traffic in front of houses of worship still persisted informally. Churches and meeting houses would not allow the city’s new streetcar lines to run on Sundays for years into the nineteenth century. (It was lamented that “the poor man must walk, while the rich can drive with impunity.”) Even as late as 1849, there was a call to prohibit the Pennsylvania Railroad from running on Sundays during religious services. The Pennsy’s board of directors actually passed a resolution to this effect that November and it was carried out until April of 1850, when the railroad’s stockholders had their say and ended the practice.
About the author
Harry Kyriakodis, author of Philadelphia's Lost Waterfront (2011), Northern Liberties: The Story of a Philadelphia River Ward (2012), and The Benjamin Franklin Parkway (2014), regularly gives walking tours and presentations on unique yet unappreciated parts of the city. A founding/certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides, he is a graduate of La Salle University and Temple University School of Law, and was once an officer in the U.S. Army Field Artillery. He has collected what is likely the largest private collection of books about the City of Brotherly Love: over 2700 titles new and old.
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