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Automobiles, Sunday postal service hurt church attendance

Published August 04. 2012 09:01AM

By jim zbick

@$: During the summer of 1912, a writer for the Tamaqua Courier reflected on the "old fashioned" sabbath when church congregations had three services a day.

"Nothing short of colic could provide an alibi for the child of God-fearing parents," he stated. "Such a thing as a summer vacation was unheard of."

On hot days, he reminisced how "every pew was fortified with palm leaf fans, nearly a yard wide." He said the fans kept small children entranced.

"There was a fascination about the incessant motion, from the long sweep of the elderly matron to the young nervous flutter of the young housekeeper," he wrote.

He also related how more people were favoring an automobile ride to cool off and this was affecting church attendance.

"It takes a $1,000 automobile instead of a five-cent palm leaf fan to get cooled off with now," he said. "Actually a church shut up during the week is about as comfortable a place as you can find on a hot Sunday morning. But the majority of people seem to prefer the dust and glare of the automobile crowded roads."

Churches could expect an attendance drop during the summer, even from regular participants such as choir members.

"The choir, exhausted by the labor of singing praises unto God, has broken up for two month's vacation," one writer observed. "The choir later endeavors to rally by the congregational singing about some familiar hymns. But even if the room were full of Carusos you could not make it sound like anything with the people sprinkled all over the auditorium."

He felt that the low church attendance was "contagious."

"There is a dreariness about echoing walls that keep people at home," he stated. "If they knew their neighbors were going, they would go too."

One pastor who made the newspaper during the summer of 1912 was Rev. John Isaac Smith who had erected what one writer called "a most unconventional church" in Schuylkill County.

Rev. Smith wrote his own hymns, including one which had these lyrics:

"Some people go to church sing and about,

In six months time they are all kicked out.

You can't got to Heaven by the baseball route

For Jesus, the Umpire, will rule you out.

There is no lock on the door and any one can enter at any time."


According to the Courier, Smith was "forced out" of the Evangelical Church in Drehersville because "he shouted too loud and too often." He then constructed a 50-by-50 foot building "with his own hands" a short distance away. Furnishings included benches for about 50 people and an old box for a pulpit. In back of the room was a bed for fatigued and wayward visitors.

"He furnished at his own expense and became both pastor and congregation, except that occasionally a visitor drops in," one writer joked.

The Courier, however, stated on Aug. 8 that the "deposed evangelical preacher" was packing the pews, with services "crowded on both Sunday and weeknight." It said Rev. Smith "still insists upon his right to shout if he wants to and keep right on writing new and novel hymns." Another one of his lyrics was:

'The devil is a sly old fox.

If I had my way, I'd put him in a box.

I'd lock that box and lose that key.

For all the tricks he played on me."


Another church-related issue that affected residents during the summer of 1912 was the closing of all post offices on Sundays, which was seen as a spiritual victory for those who advocated keeping the sabbath day sacred. As the postal service grew in popularity in the 1800s, local religious leaders were noticing a decline in Sunday morning church attendance since local post offices often doubled as gathering places. Church leaders appealed to the government to intervene and pushed for legislation that would close post offices on Sundays.

On August 24, 1912, President William Taft signed the bill into law, closing all post offices on Sundays and introducing a six-day workweek for postal clerks and letter carriers. The bill provided "that hereafter post offices ... shall not be opened on Sundays for the purpose of delivering mail to the public."

The Courier supported the bill.

"It hardly seems necessary that a post office employee should be kept from his family on the world's weekly holiday, while he's distributing picture post cards and advertising circulars into private boxes," it stated in an opinion on Aug. 31.

He said the businessman whose office remains open on Sunday would also be well served to take a rest.

"If unfavorable news comes Sunday he rarely can take steps on that day to save himself from disaster," the Courier stated. "If good news comes, it will be just as good Monday morning.

"It will do the business man good to dodge his ledgers and letters. Let him listen to songs of the choir instead of reading the howls of customers because goods are not delivered. Or, if he is not a church goer, the voice of the birds in the woods will be much better than the grumbling of patrons."

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