Home » Articles » Case » Noise Regulations » Sparhawk v. Union Passenger Railway Co. (Penn. S.C. 1867)

Written by John R. Vile, published on April 30, 2024 , last updated on April 30, 2024

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in 1867 that the noise of trains running through Philadelphia was not enough to create a nuisance and did not significantly interfere with Sunday worship. (iStock: This 1894 engraving shows a train running through New York City)

Before the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1868, courts made decisions regarding matters related to the First Amendment and other amendments within the federal bill of rights based on their own laws and constitutions. One notable case involved trains running through Philadelphia on Sundays, where plaintiffs sought to enjoin them from doing so, citing violation of local laws about noise nuisances.

Trial decision and background

At the trial court, Judge William Strong ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. (Strong, a Presbyterian judge with strong ties to the American Bible Society and other evangelical organizations, would later serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.) 

However, the state supreme court in Sparhawk v. Union Passenger Railway Co. (1867), reversed this opinion in a decision written by Chief Justice James Thompson, questioning the evidence of noise infractions justifying an injunction. His opinion alluded to numerous scripture passages.

This decision modified an earlier decision in Commonwealth v. Jeandelle, 2 Grant 50 (Pa. 1859), in which it had upheld the conviction of a railway employee on the basis that the noise from his car had disrupted worship services. 

Legal issues in train noise case

An injunction is considered to be an exercise of the court’s equitable jurisdiction, limiting future harmful behavior rather than, as with other legal matters, punishing infractions of the law. But in this case Justice Thompson questioned where there was adequate evidence of noise infractions to warrant an injunction against such a private nuisance. 

Indeed, as in other cases involving city noises, he found that evidence as to whether the noise caused by train cars had actually interfered with Sunday worship was highly contradictory and was, in any event, not measurable. Any action “is not of a temporal nature; it is altogether of a spiritual character for which no action lies.” 

The noises from train cars operating on Sundays were no greater than those on any other days when they and their accompanying noises are routinely accepted as a necessary concomitant to progress. If laws are inadequate in stopping commerce on Sundays, citizens should work to change them rather than seeking judicial injunctions. 

Reaching back into Pennsylvania history, the court observed that William Penn had founded the former colony without a state religion but on the principle of “liberty of conscience to all men.” Moreover, Thompson quoted numerous scriptures and Protestant theologians to prove that the commandment to keep the Sabbath was directed specifically to the Jewish nation (part of its “judicial” rather than its “moral” law) and no longer applied to Christians. Cities had recognized this by repealing earlier laws that had blocked off traffic on streets around churches during worship services. 

Moreover, the installation of rail lines has permitted individuals who could not afford housing in Philadelphia to commute in and out of the city and had enabled them to attend church services in other parts of the city to which they might be unable to walk. Thompson noted that some of the greatest evangelists of England depended upon trains to bring congregants from London to their tabernacles. 

Justice Thompson considered the operation of Sunday trains to come within traditional restrictions on Sunday travel for “necessity and charity.” Pointing out that trains traveled on iron tracks, he further observed that they provided no greater distraction than the sound of carriages arriving at churches to transport more well-heeled congregants. Referencing the idea that the Sabbath was a day for rest and relaxation as well as for worship, he further noted that train travel enhanced Sunday relaxation by allowing families to visit Fairmount Park and other public places.

Future cases about noise regulation and worship

The case influenced future decisions, such as in Harrison v. St. Mark’s Church (1877), where the regulation of church bells in Philadelphia was treated similarly to other noises in the city. Courts continue to uphold blue laws that regulate businesses that can operate on Sunday, but they do so on the secular basis that that provide a day of rest rather than on enforcing of biblical law.

John R. Vile is a professor of political history and dean of the Honors College at Middle Tennessee State University.

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