What did you do on Sunday?

Updated Feb. 14, 2022 to add the qualifier “English-speaking” to the second paragraph.

Did you watch the Big Game? Go out to eat? Maybe you had to put in a shift at work? Or did you just take a break and relax at home, gearing up for another week on the job? Perhaps you went to church on Sunday.

In Jonathan and Mary Clark’s era, many of their Mequon neighbors would honor the Sabbath by refraining from all work and worshiping privately at home with their families, or gathering with small groups of neighbors to pray and hear the Word. Beginning in the early-1840s, the English-speaking Protestant Christians living near the Clark House—including many members of the Clark, Bonniwell and Turck families—gathered at the new, one-room, Bonniwell School to worship together at Sunday services; these were often led by their neighbor, the farmer and evangelical Methodist preacher Rev. James W. Woodworth.

Rev. Woodworth has concerns…

We have talked about Rev. Woodworth previously and, as we have seen before, he was constantly concerned about the state of his neighbors’ souls. It seems that even though the nation was still riding the wave of several decades of the religious revival now known as the Second Great Awakening, the settlers of the young Wisconsin territory and state were not always very good at “keeping the Sabbath holy.” In his diary entry for August 10, 1855, the reverend lamented:

Aug. 10. The holy Sabbath in this place is most shamefully dese­crated. Hunting, fishing, playing at nine-pins, gambling and other guilty pleasures on this holy day of the Lord. I hope in God that­ he will overturn the kingdom of darkness, and leave them so comfort­less that they may gnaw their tongues for pain, till they return from- their evil ways to God, and do works meet for repentance.

Woodworth, James W., My path and the way the Lord led me, Milwaukee, 1878, p. 79.

Religion in 19th-century America

Many Americans have a nostalgic view of the role of religion in 19th-century America. To some folks, America was once an almost uniformly religious, pious, nation of generally like-minded believers. But, as Rev. Woodworth’s diary—and numerous other evangelical letters and memoirs —makes clear, there were many early Mequon and Milwaukee area residents that were not observant Christians. (And Rev. Woodworth—like many Protestants of his time—was equally suspicious of both unchurched “Americans” as well as Roman Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany. He had his doubts as to whether his new German Lutheran neighbors were proper Christians, too.)1

The fact is, a lot of 19th-century Americans were either completely without religion, or were “backsliders,” people born and baptized into a Christian denomination that had lapsed from regular religious belief or worship. Like their observant neighbors, these unchurched settlers led demanding lives. Crops and animals always need tending. Farmers and tradesmen often felt the need to work on the Sabbath. So on the rare Sunday when they could rest from their labors, they might choose stay home and relax, or go out and have a little fun.

Sunday fun in early Wisconsin

Woodworth’s disparaging diary entry dates from autumn, 1855. On the one hand, with no American football to watch in the 1840s and ’50s, the reverend didn’t have to worry about the Super Bowl distracting his neighbors and preventing them from honoring the Sabbath.2 But even without football, Mequon settlers could still find recreation in any season, including the winter months. As the reverend noted, his Mequon neighbors might:

Go hunting:

Unknown artist, Two Hunters and Their Dogs Resting After Hunting Rabbits and Birds, Place not identified: publisher not identified, between 1830 and 1860, lithograph. Library of Congress, public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

Or fishing:

Currier & Ives. Winter Sports – Pickerel Fishing, New York, 1872. Library of Congress. Public Domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

Or play at nine- (or ten-) pins:

Badger State Bowling Saloon, advertisement, Milwaukee Sentinel May 26, 1858, p 4, via newspapers.com. Click to open larger image in new window.

Or even gamble:

Woodville, R. C., [Untitled (Men playing cards)], 1851. Smithsonian Institution, Harry T. Peters “America on Stone” Lithography Collection. Public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

And what “other guilty pleasures” did our Mequon Sabbath-breakers indulge in? Did skating, sledding and sleigh-driving cross the line?

Palmer, Frances Flora Bond, American Winter Scenes. Morning, lithograph, Nathaniel Currier, publisher, New York, 1854. Yale Art Gallery, Mabel Brady Garvan Collection. Public domain. Click to open larger image in new window.

Hmmm… Perhaps a gentleman sharing a lane with Mrs. Bailey, the “most beautiful and graceful Female Bowler in the world,” at Milwaukee’s Climax Bowling Saloon was a bridge too far?

Climax Bowling Saloon, advertisement, [Milwaukee] Daily Free Democrat, April 26, 1851, p 2, via newspapers.com. Click to open larger image in new window.

Let’s just say the record is not clear about what those “other guilty pleasures” might have been.

What do you think? Send me your Clark House era “guilty pleasure” thoughts via Leave a Reply, below.

See you next time, with a more “respectable” post.



  1. Today’s post is focused on unchurched settlers and their relation to the religious beliefs and practice of their Christian neighbors during the early years of white migration and settlement in southeast Wisconsin. For the record, there were some Jewish settlers in the Milwaukee-Mequon area, too.

    Although the 1881 History of Washington and Ozaukee Counties, Wisconsin, does not have even a single mention of Jews in the area, Rev. Woodworth’s published diary records a handful of encounters with early Wisconsin Jews. More than many Christians of his era, Rev. Woodworth appears to have been generally sympathetic to the Jewish people, although as an evangelical preacher of his era he endeavored to lead them to salvation through Christ whenever he could.

    And for reference, none of the books and documents that I have seen (so far), make mention of any Muslim presence in early southeastern Wisconsin.

  2. According to Wikipedia, Rev. Woodworth would not have to worry about football distracting Americans from their spiritual pursuits until much later in the century:

    American football evolved in the United States, originating from the sports of soccer and rugby. The first American football match was played on November 6, 1869, between two college teams, Rutgers and Princeton, using rules based on the rules of soccer at the time. A set of rule changes drawn up from 1880 onward by Walter Camp, the “Father of American Football”, established the snap, the line of scrimmage, eleven-player teams, and the concept of downs. 

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