The Two-Kingdom Case for Blue Laws

Rendell and Eagles
(Not to be confused with the “Blue Letter.”)

In 1933, the years the Philadelphia Eagles football club started (thank you Dan Borvan), the state of Pennsylvania considered reforming its laws prohibiting commercial activity on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, so that football players and coaches could play in the afternoon. (How would the NFL make it without violating the fourth and eighth commandments?) J. Gresham Machen, then a resident of Philadelphia, wrote a letter to Gifford Pinchot, the governor of Pennsylvania and requested the retention of the Blue Laws as they were then written.

Machen’s reasoning in this letter is instructive for what it says about a recognition and acceptance of religious diversity, a commitment to religious freedom, and the tensions within a democracy between majority rule and minority protection. Perhaps most important for two-kingdom purposes is the place of an appeal to Scripture in public debate. In this case, Machen argues not for the magistrate to enforce divine law, but for the advantages that come to everyone when the law protects the practices of some citizens.

Not to be missed is what this letter says about the fourth commandment, and that keeping the whole day holy with two services is an occasion of Christian liberty. If only the Bible speaks to all of life crowd would take up the cause of the sanctity of the Lord’s Day. (Do we see a pattern here? Two kingdoms, two services?)

April 20, 1933

The Honorable Gifford Pinchot
Governor of Pennsylvania
Harrisburg, Pa.

Dear Sir:

Will you permit me to express, very respectfully, my opposition to the Bill designated “House Bill No. 1″ regarding permission of commercialized sport between the hours of two and six on Sunday afternoons?

It is clear that in this matter of Sunday legislation the liberty of part of the people will have to be curtailed. It is impossible that people who desire a quiet Sunday should have a quiet Sunday, while at the same time people who desire commercialized sport on Sunday should have commercialized sport. The permission of commercialized sport will necessarily change the character of the day for all of the people and not merely for part of the people.

The only question, therefore, is whose liberty is to be curtailed. I am convinced that in this case it ought, for the welfare of the whole people, to be the liberty of those who desire commercialized sport.

The curtailment of their liberty, through the existing law, does not, I am convinced, go beyond reasonable bounds. There is, it seems to me, a sharp distinction of principle between complete prohibition of some form of activity or enjoyment and reasonable regulation of it in the interest of other people. To ask that commercialized sport should dispense with one day out of seven for the benefit of that large part of our population that desires a quiet Sunday and believes that it is necessary to the welfare of the State does not seem to me to be unreasonable.

Of course it is perfectly clear that in a democracy the majority should rule in this matter as in other matters. I should be the last to advocate any attempt to make people religious or even to make people ordinarily moral or decent against their will by mere legislative enactment. I should also be the last to advocate any tyrannical imposition of the convictions of a minority upon the majority. But how shall the majority will be exercised? I think that it ought to be exercised through the ordinary processes of representative government. To allow commercialized sport on Sunday in Pennsylvania will be a radical change in the whole life of our people. It is a wise provision of representative government that such radical changes should not be hastily accomplished, as might be the case by the referendum vote, but that they should be accomplished only when it is quite clear that the majority of the people really and seriously and permanently desires the change. . . .

As to the merits of the question, I could hardly find words strong enough to express what my feeling is. It does seem to me that the profoundest dangers to our entire civilization are found in the constant rush of noise and jazz and feverish activity which is one of the great faults of the American people and which is a great barrier to true efficiency as well as to the cultivation of the deeper things.

Of course, my own cultivation of a quiet Sunday is based on considerations much more fundamental than these. I am a Christian, and it is quite clear that a commercialized Sunday is inimical to the Christian religion. There are many other Christians in Pennsylvania, and because they are Christians they do not cease to be citizens. They have a right to be considered by their fellow-citizens and by the civil authorities. But the reason why they can with a good conscience be enthusiastic advocates of the Christian practice in the matter of Sunday is that they regard it as right, and as for the highest well-being of the entire State.

Very truly yours,

J. Gresham Machen, Professor of New Testament in Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

Postscript: over at David Strain’s blog come a couple of helpful posts about sabbath observance. As a native Scot, Strain knows first-hand about patterns of sabbatarianism among Old World Presbyterians, both mainline and sideline. In fact, during a Hart expedition to Scotland a decade ago, Mrs. Hart and her husband were delighted to see that even the Church of Scotland congregations conducted morning and evening service. This contrasts with the practice of one service among conservative Reformed and Presbyterians in the United States where supposedly Reformed Christianity is doing better.

Strain also mentions one of the common complaints about sabbatarianism – that is it legalistic. Well here is one radical two-kingdom virus carrier who also fully supports the supposed legalism of sabbath observance. In fact, the critics of 2k ought to consider where the leading 2k voices are on matters like the fourth commandment and the regulative principle of worship (as in the second commandment). Antinomian? Reconsider.


39 thoughts on “The Two-Kingdom Case for Blue Laws

  1. … enthusiastic advocates of the Christian practice in the matter of Sunday is that they regard it as right, and as for the highest well-being of the entire State.

    There is an assertion that the Christian practice in the matter of Sunday is for the well-being of the State, but there is nothing there to say how or why. At best it comes off as a veiled threat that the governor will have large number of disgruntled Christians on his hands if the legislation is passed. All Machen says is that his and others’ liberty for a quiet Sunday will be curtailed. The only thing that having Pro football on Sunday does is curtail my watching it. My Sundays are not in any way disturbed by Sunday football, my liberty for a quiet Sunday is not impacted by what others do on Sunday — is yours? For all my respect for Machen, in this case his argumentation is quite specious. Since commercialized football doesn’t diminish my liberty (or really anyone else’s) for a quiet Sunday, your 2K argument for the Sabbath for the state is really an argument against it. Are Hindi, Buddhist, Atheist, Jewish and/or Muslims shopkeepers (or sporting promoters or players) not citizens too?


  2. Andrew Duggan, well there are laws still in place about when certain businesses may be open — like after 8:00 pm in some zoning districts — and about when professional sports may be played. Do you object to these laws too? And if you can’t appreciate the value of a day of rest for everyone, then you’re not listening to public radio stations that feature — on Sunday mornings, mind you — music that is mellow. And just to continue to stretch your moral imagination, perhaps we could experience a world free from the noise of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and electric hedge trimmers if Donovan McNabb and company did not work on Sunday.


  3. I would have to agree with Machen that the Sunday laws were “for the highest well-being of the entire State.” I would guess that he did not need to explain any hows or whys because of the times he lived in. Everyone knew what it meant for everything to be closed on Sundays.

    I grew up in a small town where the repeal of the laws did not begin to affect us until I was in junior high school. Sundays were amazingly peaceful. It was a day the town stopped working and shared a day off together (unless you worked in the tiny hospital, or the nursing home). People prepared for Sunday. Saturdays were the busiest shopping days, mostly for gas and groceries. If you forgot something you needed to purchase on Saturday, you did without it on Sunday or borrowed from a neighbor. There was an unspoken taboo about mowing your lawn on Sundays or doing any real yard work that day. On Sundays, the streets were mostly empty of cars and quietness enveloped the town. It was a day for going to church (only place open!) and for being a family at home, or reading, going fishing, and other such recreations. It was a different world.


  4. Here’s a bit of history about the U.S. Supreme Court and its ruling on the constitutionality blue laws. In 1960, when blue laws were still in force to some extent in almost every state, several department store employees challenged Maryland’s blue laws, which banned the sale of all but a very short list of items on Sundays. The employees argued that the laws violated both the Free Exercise and the Religious Establishment Clauses of the 1st Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

    By an 8 to 1 vote, the blue laws were upheld. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the majority opinion, which argued that even though blue laws were initially enacted to promote church attendance, the then-present blue laws were meant to promote secular ends–i.e. to improve the “health, safety, recreation, and general well-being” of citizens.

    Justice Felix Frankfurter, interestingly the only Jew on the Court at the time, wrote a separate opinion, concurring with the result reached by the Chief Justice. Frankfurter’s historical analysis went even deeper than Warren’s. Frankfurter found that theologians “from the time of the Reformation insisted that the Fourth Commandment itself embodied a precept of social rather than sacramental significance….” Frankfurter supports this claim by citing to some very familiar sources. The following two paragraphs are from footnote 20 of his concurrence:

    “Among Christian explicators of the Old Testament a social inspiration was early ascribed to this language [Deut 5:14]….Luther, in the Large Catechism, part I, Third Commandment, wrote: ‘. . . we keep holydays not for the sake of intelligent and learned Christians; for they have no need of it. We keep them, first, for the sake of bodily necessity. Nature teaches and demands that the mass of the people – servants and mechanics, who the whole week attend to their work and trades – retire for a day of rest and recreation.’ I Lenker, Luther’s Catechetical Writings (1907), 60. See also Luther’s Treatise on Good Works (1520), Third Commandment, XVII, in I Works of Martin Luther (1915), 241.”

    “Compare Calvin’s Institutes: among the three reasons for Sabbath observance, the Lord ‘resolved to give a day of rest to servants and those who are under the authority of others, in order that they should have some respite from toil.’ Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Battles trans. 1960), book II, c. 8, 28, at p. 395.”

    Though these theological citations were by no means dispositive of the issues by themselves, I think it interesting that they wound up in the opinion.

    Frankfurter did marshal plenty of other evidence in support of his contention that a common day of rest on Sunday promoted the common good. This evidence included a study commissioned by the Federal Government during World War I to determine how to maximize the efficiency of munitions workers; the researchers didn’t intend to focus on the issue of Sunday labor, but nonetheless concluded that “…[I]f the maximum output is to be secured and maintained for any length of time, a weekly period of rest must be allowed… On economic and social grounds alike this weekly period of rest is best provided on Sunday…”

    The case was McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S. 420 (1961).
    The full text of the opinion can be found here:

    Hope I didn’t bore anyone to sleep.


  5. RH- thank you for sharing this history re: McGowan v. Maryland. It was by no means boring. Rather, it was helpful. I plan on using it in my teaching in the future. Also thanks to Dr. Hart for posting Machen’s letter and for Lily’s thoughts about her growing up years and the beauty of the Sabbath as it was kept during those days.

    I have to confess, I was born in 1962… and it seems that it was around this time that America’s view of the Sabbath began to change. Churches don’t teach on it anymore, nor do they obey and treasure it, generally speaking. Thus, all my thinking and studying on the Lord’s Day has been like plowing rock hard ground. However, I have been blessed by studying it and my wife and I are making, by God’s grace, changes in how we approach this beautiful day.

    Three years ago, I went to the old Huguenot church in downtown Charleston, SC. The bells of Charleston were ringing out praise to God and the streets were quiet, except people walking to church. It was wonderful. It caused me to think that I had experienced a little slice of what it used to be like. Afterwards, the Huguenots invited us visitors to their fellowship room where they served us wine and cheese. No one was in a hurry.

    Anyway… these are my quick and random thoughts. Thank you everyone for writing about this.


  6. The social cost of abolishing blue laws should be fairly obvious. For instance, our 24/7 culture puts a great deal of strain upon family life. While not their initial intent, blue laws provided a day each week when most working people had a day of rest. This meant that husbands, wives, and children spent much of the day together. The lack of blue laws puts significant pressure upon the poorest and least skilled members of our society to work on Sunday. Laws designed to provide protection for those with religious scruples to working on Sunday (or Saturday) do not eliminate these pressures.


  7. Sorry to be the fly in the ointment, but how is it even possible for the NFL to violate the 4th and 8th commandments? I suspect my question is driven by an analysis of the situation in terms of a sharp distinction between the covenant of grace and the covenant of common grace. Though I am profoundly sympathetic toward and see many affinities with the the 2K doctrine, real examples like this seem to bring out some distinctions in my mind. I grant that ALL men (including everyone involved in the NFL) are guilty of violating the whole law in Adam, but I fail to see why the Sinai covenant is binding upon the recipients of the covenant God inaugurated in Genesis 3:16-19 and confirmed in 8:20-9:17.

    Also, I don’t understand Machen’s argument in his second paragraph. Why does it follow that if the State repeals “blue laws” that Christians cannot have quiet Sundays? Is his concern for Christians who work for the NFL? If so, I still don’t see why it follows. Such Christians, assuming their consciences are bound in the same way Machen’s was, could find other employment. The State permits all kinds of things that Christians believe is sin; simply because something is legal, does not mean we ought to participate in it.


  8. 1) The Sabbath is a creation ordinance. 2) See the comments above on the benefits for all people of a day of rest. Think as well about Christmas eve. Have you ever tried to find a restaurant that is serving dinner? Is that an impoverishment of our culture? Or is that night and the following morning something that many people enjoy, despite all the businesses closed and the lack of viewing options on ESPN.


  9. DGH, It is not point of what the State may or may not do, but rather if Machen made valid case for having the state retain the prohibition on commercialized Sunday sport. My point was the Machen didn’t really make an argument other than his liberty for a quiet Sunday would be curtailed. The affect of the slippery slope argument you make with the lawn mowers etc, doesn’t really help much in validating the original argument per se. That is especially true since he was arguing against commercialized sports, not against any or all sports. While the argument about the Sabbath being a creation ordinance, may have some value, the best you can get is that one day in seven should be the day off. There is nothing in natural revelation that would suggest which day should be the day off, and the case for Sundays off can only be made from Scripture and that’s just not available to the state is it? I know I would rather hear a noisy lawn mower on Sunday afternoon, than at 3AM on Wednesday morning. Since the state only has natural revelation to go by in trying to determine how to fulfil its mandate, we are again left with Machen’s threat of disgruntled Christians as the reason to limit commercialized sports on Sunday. I’m not sure that a minister threatening the state is really the kind of 2K argumentation that will help you sell your POV except to revolutionary theonomists.

    FWIW, radio stations broadcasting NPR mellow music or other stations playing head-banger heavy-metal rock ‘n roll doesn’t disturb my quiet Sabbath any more than the TV, since at my house, both radio and TV are powered off that day of the week anyway, as are my lawn mower, leaf-blower and hedge trimmer.

    Just imagine how well the Eagles might have done if McNabb hadn’t worked the most recent Sundays either, although the Eagles’ defence was crushed by Dallas, but then the offence produced hardly anything either week.

    Bottom line: I would love a return to the Blue Laws, but Natural Law just doesn’t supply any valid foundation for the day off being Sunday, except maybe to you. 😉


  10. dgh,
    1) Granted, but that is not the whole picture. The Sabbath is also a covenant ordinance and a theocratic ordinance. When all those elements are viewed together, the aspect of the creation ordinance means that Church will be observing the Sabbath until Christ returns.

    2) There certainly is a benefit for all people to have a day of rest. Perhaps my difference is philosophical. I’m not sure appealing to the coercive power of the State to effect a change in the culture is wise. Given Machen’s civil libertarianism, I would have expected him to write that letter to the Philadelphia Eagles, instead. I think of Lynden, WA – heavily populated by the Dutch. Even in the absence of blue laws, they still don’t go to work on Sundays. Maybe I’m still missing something.


  11. Chris & Andrew:

    I think a more complete understanding of the context of Machen’s letter, especially the content of the Bill at issue in the letter, may clear up some perceived differences between your ideas and Machen’s ideas. Though it’s hard to tell by looking at the letter alone, the Bill at issue didn’t repeal any of the state’s Sunday prohibitions. Instead, it allowed each local jurisdictions to determine by referendum (i.e. a popular vote) whether professional sports could take place within their jurisdictions on Sundays. Thus, under the Bill’s provisions, the issue of whether or not the NFL would establish franchises in Pennsylvania would not be determined by elected representatives from across the state, but by the citizens of just two cities in the state (Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania).

    Since the issue was a matter of political process rather than political substance, we shouldn’t demand from Machen a comprehensive defense of blue laws or even a defense of a more generalized notion of a common day of rest. What we should look for in the letter is an argument about which process (local referendum or state-wide representative democracy) is better suited to resolve disputes concerning this matter. I think this is precisely the argument found in the letter.

    It should also be noted that several attempts to lift these bans were defeated by the state house and senate throughout the 1910’s and 1920’s, as several different factions were attempting to expand professional baseball to Sundays.


  12. And my point was to consider Machen’s approach which did not thunder forth with appeals to special revelation or those norms pertaining to everyone, including magistrates. And if you think Machen sounded threatening, have you heard Sarah Palin lately?


  13. Machen wasn’t changing anything. He was asking for the state to maintain its practice of keeping at least some business closed on Sunday. That is why his observations about democracy are — at least to me — so interesting. He doesn’t want the change to happen until everyone has tried to consider the consequences and until there is a large democratic consensus. That strikes me as fundamentally Burkean.


  14. Fortunately we do not have to choose between Machen and Sarah Palin. There are other options (no bifurcation allowed).

    As Duggan points out, natural law does not tell me when to take off a day for some quiet. Maybe Fridays will do (a Muslim democratic majority will affirm). I can hardly wait to see what a large democratic consensus might do in the near future.

    If we lived in a truly pluralistic world (with no absolute truth, no true God, etc.) then the majority should determine everything, right? But–(thundering forth):”Now therefore, kings, be wise; be taught, ye judges of the earth: Serve God in fear, and see that ye join trembling with your mirth. Kiss ye the Son lest in His ire ye perish from the way, If once his wrath begin to burn: bless’d all that on him stay.” Ps. 4:10-12

    The King of Nineveh was wise (Ps. 4:10 & Jonah 3:7-9)) to enjoin a national fast upon his people. If he had taken the path of the 2K people, the inhabitants of Ninevah would have been doomed (credit due to Hugh Martin).


  15. And then there’s Daniel. But you’re saying the third way between Machen and Palin is Greg Bahnsen? As H.I. says in Raising Arizona, “okay, then.”


  16. Golly Eliza,

    Your 1st scripture reference should be corrected to Psalm 2:10-12. The next reference offers Psalm 4:10, it doesn’t exist. As for Jonah & Ninevah… who is Hugh Martin? Is he a pentecostal?


  17. And if you can’t appreciate the value of a day of rest for everyone, then you’re not listening to public radio stations that feature — on Sunday mornings, mind you — music that is mellow.

    Public Radio is always mellow! (Schwetty Balls anyone?)

    How would the NFL make it without violating the fourth and eighth commandments?

    Huh? Where does stealing come into it?

    Anyways, it seems to me that Machen’s argument is now useless, since we don’t have such a majority in our population, that wants quiet Sundays.


  18. You haven’t read A Secular Faith? Shocking. Daniel did sort of go a long with the Chaldean culture up until if conflicted with his cult. Strange how he didn’t try to impose Israelite laws on the Chaldeans.


  19. I get rather annoyed at the language and attitude (and logic, or lack thereof) of the 2K advocates. I’m not by any means a theonomist, but at least they’re reasonable, if in error.

    Before trotting out Machen as a exemplar of your incoherent 2K theology, did you read what he else he has said on the matter?

    What then is the remedy for the threatened disruption of society and for the rapidly progressing decay of liberty?

    There is really only one remedy. It is the rediscovery of the law of God.

    If we want to restore respect for human laws, we shall have to get rid of this notion that judges and juries exist only for the utilitarian purpose of the protection of society, and shall have to restore the notion that they exist for the purposes of justice. They are only very imperfect exponents of justice, it is true. There are vast departments of life with which they should have nothing whatever to do. They are exceeding their God-given function when they seek to enforce inward purity or purity of the individual life, since theirs is the business only of enforcing – and that in necessarily imperfect fashion – that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man. But they are instruments of righteousness all the same, and when that is not recognized, disaster follows for the state. Society will never be preserved by attaching savage penalties to trifling offences because the utilitarian interests of society demand it; it will never be preserved by the vicious practice (followed by some judges) of making ‘examples’ of people is spasmodic and unjust fashion because such examples are thought to have a salutary effect as a deterrent from future crim. No, we say, let justice never be lost from view – abstract, holy, transcendent justice – no matter what the immediate consequences may be thought to be. Only so will the ermine of the judge again be respected and the ravages of decadence be checked.

    -The Christian View of Man p. 193

    Machen did not view the 4th commandment as falling under “that part of righteousness which concerns the relations between man and man” so he did not appeal to God’s law in his letter to the governor. Was he inconsistent in his appeal to the governor with his statement here regarding utilitarianism? Yes.

    But at least he’s not incoherent. At least he doesn’t claim God’s law is “only for a redeemed people.”

    Consider for a moment, my friends, the majesty of the law of God as the Bible sets it forth. One law over all – valid for Christians, valid for non-Christians, valid now and valid to all eternity.

    If you want to refute theonomy, you’re going to have to be a little more biblical (and logical).

    Here’s my review of VanDrunen’s “A Biblical Case for Natural Law”. I welcome any critique

    Liked by 1 person

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