Friday, January 15, 2010

Religious Liberty, the Sabbath, and the Philadelphia Eagles

J. Gresham Machen the founder of Westminster Seminary did not believe the state should run the church nor did he believe that the church should run the state. Machen, one of the greatest biblical scholars of the 20th century gave us some of the most scintillating thoughts on the role of the church within the state.

I found this gem posted by Darryl Hart over at
Old Life:

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?)

Dr. Hart then includes the letter by Dr. Machen which reads in part:

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.

Read the whole thing HERE.


TUG said...

I feel compelled to point out that this probably had more to do with the fact that two Pennsylvania cities would be fielding professional teams in 1933.

While it's true the Eagles, as they are now known, began play in 1933 the city of Philadelphia had been home to a professional football team, the Frankford Yellow Jackets, since 1924. (I have no idea if the state considered repealling the blue laws during '24-'31) In 1933 the NFL awarded Bert Bell what was left of the Yellow Jackets franchise, which he renamed the Eagles.

Art Rooney was also awarded a franchise out in Pittsburgh, the Steelers, in July of 1933. So for the first time PA would have two pro teams violating the existing blue laws.

As is my way, I'm inclined to blame Pittsburgh for the fact that pro football has taken over Sundays in popular American culture. I also blame Pittsburgh for all forms of piracy, global warming, and disco.

I can't draw a direct correlation to that last one, but I'm certain they were involved.

Todd Pruitt said...


You are absolutely right. Pittsburgh is more than likely the cause of most of what is wrong in the world today.