A Brief History of Sunday Laws in Arkansas
Arkansas’ first blue laws, also called Sunday-closing laws, were enacted in 1837, only a year after Arkansas’ statehood. Though no blue laws have been in effect since 1982, they influenced the state’s culture and commerce for nearly a century and a half.
The first blue law in Arkansas prohibited not only all sales on Sunday, but also all labor on Sunday with some minor exceptions for acts of daily necessity and charity. However, a person who wasn’t a Christian could open a store on Sunday if he closed it on another day of the week. Legislative revisions in the 1850s added prohibitions against card games, hunting, horse racing, and baseball on Sunday. Although some gradually were done away with, much of the statewide blue laws remained on the books until they were repealed in 1957 (Henry, 2018).
However, in 1885, the effort was made to repeal the statute exempting those who closed their business on a different day of the week from the penalties of the Sunday law. Purportedly, the sole object of those who secured the repeal was, they said, to close the saloons. It was claimed that under cover of that exemption section, certain saloon keepers successfully defied the law. Accordingly the section was repealed, but the saloons were not affected.
Senator Tillman’s Bill
Senator Tillman, the author of the bill repealing the statute, taking the floor in favor of his bill, said in part, “that the first day of the week is the Christian Sabbath. The Christian Sabbath is an institution of God Almighty, and should be respected as such….” He went on to state, “I want to ask senators who vote against the bill if they would like to have their children raised in a community where they would be compelled to see the Christian Sabbath desecrated? What effect would it have on a child to pass, on the way to church or Sunday-school, plowing or reaping in the fields, when you are doing all you can to bring it up in the way it should go?… If you lived in Springdale for a few months your opinions on the religious liberty function would undergo a radical change. Those Seventh-day Adventists are generally good citizens, but…our people are getting very tired of them. The senator from Independence suggests that if this bill should pass it will drive these people from the State. That would not be a serious loss. There would be fewer Sabbath breakers to deal with.” The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 16 to 11 (The American Sentinel, 1889).
At the 1885 fall term of the Circuit Court held at Fayetteville, James A. Armstrong, of Springdale, was summoned before the Grand Jury. He was asked if he knew of any violations of the Sunday law. He said he did.
Grand Jury—-Who are they?
Armstrong—-The Frisco Railroad is running trains every Sunday.
G. J.—-Do you know of any others?
A.—-Yes; the hotels of this place are open, and do a full run of business on Sunday, as on other days.
G. J.—-Do you know of any others?
A.—-Yes, sir; the drug stores and barber shops all keep open, and do business every Sunday.
G. J.—-Do you know of any others?
A.—-Yes; the livery stables do more business on Sunday than on any other day of the week.
After several repetitions of this same form of questions and answers, in much the same manner, in relation to other lines of business, this question was reached—
G. J.-–Do you know of any Seventh-day Adventists who work on Sunday?
After getting from the witness the names of his brethren, indictments were found against five persons, all of whom were Seventh-day Adventists. Elder James W. Scoles was one of the five. From the above you will notice that special pains were taken to indict only those who had conscientiously observed the seventh day. A more marked instance of deliberate persecution could not be imagined.
Out of twenty-one cases of indictment for Sunday work, only one person was not an observer of the seventh day, and that one person was not convicted, although it was clearly proved that he worked. A few of the cases are presented below, to show that Sunday laws almost invariably hit observers of the seventh day, whether they were aimed at them or not. These are also in chapter seven of the book “Civil Government and Religion,” by A. T. Jones. For the sake of brevity, not all cases are reported here, and we omit, in some cases, the record of fines, etc.
FIRST CASE. “Elder J. W. Scoles, a Seventh-day Adventist minister, had gone from Michigan to Arkansas in June, 1884, to assist Elder D. A. Wellman in holding some meetings at Springdale, Washington County. As the result of these meetings, quite a number of persons adopted the faith of that body, and practiced accordingly. In August (it was actually September 2) 1884, Elder Wellman died, and Elder Scoles continued the work in that place. In the winter of 1884-85, Elder J. G. Wood went from Appleton City, Mo., to assist Elder Scoles at Springdale. A church was organized in that place early in 1885, and the erection of a meeting-house was begun at once. In addition to his subscription to the enterprise, Elder Scoles agreed to paint the house when it should be ready. Further than this, we have the words of Elder Scoles himself; He says:—’I volunteered to do the painting as my share of the work, in addition to my subscription. I worked away at the church at odd times, sometimes half a day and sometimes more, as I could spare the time. The last Sunday in April, 1885, in order to finish the work so I could be free to go out for the summer’s labor with the tent, and expecting to go the next day twenty miles, I went over to the church, and finished up a small strip of painting on the south side of the house, clear out of sight of all public roads; and here I quietly worked away for perhaps two hours, in which time I finished it, and then went home. It was for this offense that I was indicted.’ Mr. Scoles was convicted, and an appeal was taken to the Supreme Court, where the decision of the lower court was sustained.”
SECOND CASE. Mr. Edward L. Meeks “had been a resident of Arkansas since 1856, with the exception of one year. He had held the office of justice of the peace for a number of years both before and after the war. When he became a Seventh-day Adventist he refused to hold the office longer, because its duties conflicted with his observance of the Sabbath. ‘Mr. Meeks was indicted at the July term of the Circuit Court, 1885, for Sabbath breaking. He was arrested in November, 1885, and held under bonds of $500 for his appearance in January. The offense for which he was indicted was planting potatoes on Sunday—the third Sunday in March, 1885. The work was done near Mr. Meeks’ own house, and not nearer than two and a half miles to any public road or any place of public worship. On the day referred to, Mr. La Fever and his wife went to visit Mr. Meeks at his home, and found Mr. Meeks, planting potatoes. Mr. Meeks quit his work, and spent the rest of the day visiting with Mr. La Fever. La Fever afterward reported Mr. Meeks to the Grand Jury; and as the consequence, Mr. Meeks was indicted, as stated.’ The fourth Monday in January, Meeks appeared before Judge Herne. His case was laid over to await the decision of the Supreme Court in the Scoles case.”
FIFTH CASE. “James M. Pool, a Seventh-day Adventist, was indicted for Sabbath breaking, at the fall term of the Circuit Court held at Fayetteville, beginning the first Monday in September, 1885., He waived his right to jury trial. The only witness in the case was J. W. Cooper. Cooper was a member of the Presbyterian Church, and professed sanctification. He went to Pool’s house on Sunday morning, to buy some tobacco, and found Pool hoeing in his garden; so testified before the court, Judge Pittman presiding.” The judge sustained the indictment, pronounced Pool guilty, and fined him one dollar and costs, amounting to $30.90.
SIXTH CASE. “Mr. J. A. Armstrong moved from Warren County, Indiana, to Springdale, Arkansas, in 1878. In September, 1884, he joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church at Springdale. November, 1885, he was indicted by the Grand Jury for Sabbath breaking. On the 13th of February, 1886, he was arrested by William Holcomb, deputy sheriff for Washington County, and was held under bonds of $250 for his appearance at the May term of the Circuit Court. The particular offense upon which the charge of Sabbath breaking was based, was for digging potatoes in his field on Sunday. Millard Courtney was the prosecuting witness. Mr. Armstrong had a contract for building the school-house at Springdale. Mr. Courtney, with a friend, went to Armstrong’s house on Sunday, to negotiate a contract for putting the tin roof on the school-house. From the house they went into the field where Mr. Armstrong was digging potatoes. There the business was all talked over, and the contract was secured for putting on the tin roof. Then this same Courtney became the prosecuting witness against Mr. Armstrong for working on Sunday.” On the first Monday in May, Mr. Armstrong appeared before Judge Pittman, Circuit Judge of the Fourth Judicial District, at Fayetteville; and, waiving his right to jury trial, submitted his case to the court for decision. Judge Pittman sustained the indictment. Fine and costs, amounting to $26.50, were paid, and Mr. Armstrong was released.
NINTH CASE. “Mr. James, a Seventh-day Adventist, was indicted by the Grand Jury in January, 1886, for Sabbath breaking. The particular offense was for doing carpenter work on Sunday. The indictment was founded on the testimony of Mr. Powers, a minister of the Missionary Baptist Church. Mr. James was working on a house for a widow, near the Hot Springs Railroad. The work was done without any expectation of receiving payment, and wholly as a charitable act for the poor widow, who was a member of the Methodist Church. Mr. James worked in the rain to do it, because the widow was about to be thrown out of the house in which she lived, and had no place to shelter herself and family. Powers, the informer, lived about six hundred yards from where the work was done, and on that very Sunday had carried wood from within seven rods of where Mr. James was at work, and chopped up the wood in sight of Mr. James.”
TENTH CASE. “At the January term in 1886, Mr. Edward L. Meeks was indicted the second time. July 13 he was arrested on a bench warrant in the hands of William La Fever. Meeks gave bonds for his appearance at the July term of court. The offense was for fixing his wagon-brake on Sunday. He was reported to the Grand Jury by Riley Warren. Warren had gone to Meeks’ house on the Sunday referred to in the indictment, to see Mr. Meeks about hiring a teacher for their public school, for both of them were members of the School Board of their district. In the course of their conversation, Mr. Meeks incidentally mentioned having mended his wagon-brake that morning. This was reported to the Grand Jury by Mr. Warren, and the indictment followed.”
ELEVENTH CASE. “John A. Meeks, aged fourteen years, son of Edward L. Meeks, was indicted by the Grand Jury at the January term of the Circuit Court of 1886, for Sabbath breaking. The offense was for shooting squirrels on Sunday. The place where the squirrels were shot was in a mountainous district entirely away from any public road, or any place of public worship. He was reported by a Mr. M. Reeves. The sons of Mr. Reeves were hauling wood with a team on that same Sunday, and were present with the Meeks boy in the woods, and scared the squirrels around the trees for the Meeks boy to shoot. When the sport was over, the Meeks boy divided the game with the Reeves boys. Then the father of the Reeves boys reported the Meeks boy and he was indicted. His case was held over to await the decision of the Supreme Court in the Scoles case. At the January term in 1887, the boy confessed judgment, and was fined $5.00, and $3.00 county tax was assessed, and the costs, amounting in all to $22. The fine was paid, and the boy released.”
FOURTEENTH CASE. “William H. Fritz was indicted at the April term of the Circuit Court in 1886, for Sabbath breaking, and held under $250 bonds for his appearance at the September term, at Huntsville. Mr. Fritz is a wood-workman, and the offense charged was for working in the shop on Sunday. The shop was in the country, and two hundred yards from the public road. The indictment was sustained. The defendant was fined $1.00 and costs, amounting to $28. Mr. Fritz was a Seventh-day Adventist.”
SIXTEENTH CASE. “I. L. Benson was not at that time a member of any church, made no pretensions to religious faith, and did not observe any day. He had the contract for painting the railroad bridge across the Arkansas River at Van Buren, Ark. He worked a set of hands on the bridge all days of the week, Sundays included. In May, 1886, Mr. Benson and one of his men were arrested on the charge of Sabbath breaking. They were taken to Fort Smith, and arraigned before a justice of the peace. The justice did not put them through any form of trial, nor even ask them whether they were guilty or not guilty, but read a section of the law to them, and told them he would make the fine as light as possible, amounting, with costs, to $4.75 each. They refused to pay the fines, and were placed in custody of the sheriff The sheriff gave them the freedom of the place, only requiring them to appear at the justice’s office at a certain hour. Mr. Benson telegraphed to the general manager of the railroad in regard to the matter. The general manager telegraphed to his attorney in that city to attend to the cases. “Mr. Benson and his men appeared before the justice for a hearing in their cases. It was granted, with some reluctance. The attorney, Mr. Bryolair, told the justice it was a shame to arrest men for working on the bridge at the risk of their lives to support their families, when the public work in their own town was principally done on Sunday. A hearing was granted, and the trial set for the next day. “They were not placed under any bonds at all, but were allowed to go on their own recognizance. The following day a jury was impaneled and the trial begun. The deputy sheriff was the leading witness, and swore positively that he saw them at’ work on Sunday. The jury brought in a verdict to the effect that they had agreed to disagree.’ This was on Wednesday. The following Monday was set for a new trial. No bond was even at this time required. The defendants appeared at the time appointed, and pleaded not guilty. The justice, after giving them a brief lecture, dismissed the case.”
TWENTIETH CASE. “In August, 1886, Mr. P. Hammond, a member of the Baptist Church, appeared before the Grand Jury in Hot Spring County, and charged J. L. Shockey with hauling rails and clearing land on Sunday, the first day of the week, July 11, 1886. The Grand Jury presented an indictment. On December 14, 1886, Mr. Shockey was arrested and taken to Malvern, locked up until the next day, when he gave the usual bond for his appearance at court, and was released. . The work for which Mr. Shockey was indicted was done on a new farm which he was opening up in the woods, three-fourths of a mile from any public road, and more than a mile from any place of public worship, and not in sight of either. The witness, Mr. Hammond, passed by where Mr. Shockey was at work, and after he had gone some distance, returned, and spoke to Mr. Shockey about buying from him a Plymouth Rock rooster. The bargain was then made, Hammond agreeing to pay Shockey fifty cents for the rooster. “Shockey was indicted, and his case set for trial February 7, 1887. This case, with the one before mentioned, and some others that had been held over to await the decision in the Scoles case, was called, and February 11 fixed as the day of trial for all” (The American Sentinel, 1889).
Relief for the Sabbath Keepers in Arkansas
Early in February 1887, when the Arkansas State Senate met, Senator Robert H. Crockett, grandson of Davy Crockett, gave a speech in behalf of a bill which he had introduced into the Legislature, granting immunity from the penalties of the Sunday law to those who observe the seventh day. The speech itself explains the situation which made the bill a necessity. Happily the eloquent plea for liberty and justice was successful, as the bill passed both Houses of the Legislature by a large majority (The American Sentinel, 1889).
The principal part of Crockett’s speech was published in the January 15, 1889, The Sentinel Library. Click here to download and read Crockett’s speech. Some of his stories are quite interesting.
We are most thankful to be able to announce to the readers of the Review, that the Sabbath-keepers of Arkansas, who have been so distressed by persecution in that State for months past, are now relieved from further arrests for Sunday labor. A law that exempted seventh-day observers from prosecution for Sunday labor, has passed the Legislature by a large majority, twenty-six to two in the Senate, and fifty-five to sixteen in the House, and has now become a law, and is in force from the time of its passage (Butler, 1887).
Despite this victory, ten years later a black couple, Chester Gordon and his wife, Rebecca, were arrested for plowing their field on Sunday. They served a weeks’ penal servitude at the county farm and the community signed a petition stating they had been punished enough. They were fined $5 plus court costs and released (Gazette, 1896).
More History of Sunday Laws in Arkansas
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1961, the Arkansas General Assembly again adopted Sunday-closing laws in Act 135 of 1965, which specified that the purpose of the act was to provide for a uniform day of rest. It prohibited the sales of many commodities, ranging from clothing, house wares, and building materials to radios and televisions.
Arkansas’ first blue law “prohibited not only all sales on Sunday, but also all labor on Sunday with some minor exceptions for acts of daily necessity and charity.” However, a person who wasn’t a Christian could open a store on Sunday if he closed it on another day of the week. Legislative revisions in the 1850s added prohibitions against card games, hunting, horse racing, and baseball on Sunday. Although some gradually were done away with, much of the statewide blue laws remained on the books until they were repealed in 1957. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of 1961, the Arkansas General Assembly again adopted Sunday-closing laws in Act 135 of 1965, which specified that the purpose of the act was to provide for a uniform day of rest. It prohibited the sales of many commodities, ranging from clothing, house wares, and building materials to radios and televisions.
During the 1960s and 1970s, and throughout the period until the act was struck down in 1982, the Arkansas Gazette and other newspapers argued on their editorial pages against the state blue laws and local ordinances that allowed the arbitrary sale of items such as fishing hooks but not light bulbs; in some instances, one could buy film but not cameras. Prohibited items were covered by cloth or restricted by signs.
Blue laws have been part of American history since people began emigrating from Europe, where the laws were common. Virginia established the first blue law in the American colonies in 1610. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbidding the establishment of religion may have called into question the legality of Sunday-closing laws, but it did not stop nearly all states from adopting them.
Historically, courts have ruled that state legislatures could proclaim a weekly day of rest for laborers for the promotion of the public welfare, and that it was appropriate for that day to be the one preferred by the majority of the state’s citizens. In 1961, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in McGowan v. Maryland, that state legislatures could enact blue laws so long as they had a secular purpose and would not advance any particular faith. A legislature could make such regulations in pursuit of the health, safety, and welfare of the public.
Act 135 was struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 1982 in the case of Handy Dan Improvement Center Inc. v. Charles G. Adams on the issue that it was constitutionally vague. The bottom line was that the blue laws were not enforced equitably, and that lack of parity led to unfair competition, causing some to prosper and others to suffer. After the ruling, an editorial in the Arkansas Gazette commented thusly: “Let the free market govern. The hours of opening and closing on Sunday or any other day should be set by decisions made in the marketplace, not in the legislature.”
Arkansas Code, however, allows the city council or board of directors of any city to have the authority to create ordinances that regulate the operation of businesses within such cities on Sundays, which some still do, particularly in the area of liquor sales.
The End of Most Sunday Laws in Arkansas
Two socio-economic factors have been credited for bringing an end to most of the laws and making Sunday the second-busiest shopping day of the week—the labor movement and women entering the workforce. Although the state legislature is free to adopt blue laws again, Arkansas currently has no state blue law. Local communities are free to pass their own blue laws, but much of what remains is simply tradition. Many stores, for instance, voluntarily will not open on Sunday until after noon to allow their employees time to attend church or rest.
The state still maintains separate laws that control the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday as well as throughout the week, though many have been loosened. Although they might be labeled “kissing cousins” to blue laws that regulated commerce, alcohol laws are regulated by a commission that establishes its own regulations apart from the blue laws.
In July 2018, the city of Fort Smith repealed a 1953 ordinance that prohibited a person or business from operating a dance hall or other establishment that allowed dancing on Sundays. Police records showed that no one had been charged with Sunday dancing in Fort Smith for the previous twenty years, illustrating some blue laws may remain on the books long after active enforcement has ceased. (Henry, 2018)
(1896, Apr. 21). Punished Enough. Daily Arkansas Gazette, p. 8.
(1889, Jan. 15). The American Sentinel, p. 2.
(1889, Apr. 17). Ibid., pp. 100-101.
Butler, G. I. (1887, Feb. 22). Review and Herald, pp. 122, 123.
Henry, John. (2018, July 16). Blue Laws. Retrieved from encyclopediaofarkansas.net.