a Tennessee Chain Gang
Bill Burchard jerked his head up and peered quizzically from
among the cornstalks. What was that noise? He pushed a crumpled blue bandana
slowly across his brow and then stood scanning the underbrush forty yards away.
Seeing nothing, he moved to the next stalk and ripped the
blades off. His family of seven had long since consumed the last of the corn,
and now, early in September, 1894, he was salvaging the blades to feed his
Burchard worked five days a week in the Dayton Coal and Iron
Mine. He ascended from the brutal bowels of the earth to go to church on
Saturdays, and this schedule left Sunday as his only day to catch up on work
around his home.
He straightened up again. He had heard something. A
screeching jay betrayed two men about to disappear over a low ridge.
Burchard thought nothing more about the incident until one
evening a week or two later when he came home to find Sheriff Darwin sitting on
his front stoop. The sheriff rose slowly as Burchard approached.
"Help ya 't all, Sheriff?" Burchard asked.
Darwin looked down, slipping the four fingers of each hand
into his front pockets.
"I'm sorry, Bill," he mumbled, "but I got to
take ya in."
"Take me in!" Burchard's face paled in shock even
under the layer of coal dust. "But what in the world for?"
"Here," said the sheriff, slipping a long folded
piece of paper out from under his vest, "listen to this."
"State of Tennessee. To the Sheriff of Rhea County,
Greeting: You are hereby commanded to take the body of William S. Burchard, if
found in your county, and him safely keep, so that you have him before the
judge, of our Circuit Court ... at the Courthouse in the town of Dayton, on the
first Monday in March next, then and there to answer the state for violating
Sabbath. Herein fail not... C.G. Gillespie, Clerk."
By the time Burchard returned home late that night he
understood what his two secretive visitors had been doing that Sunday.
Burchard lived four and a half miles from Graysville,
Tennessee, in a little valley called the Cove. In Graysville, a town of
600, about 20 percent of the town of 600 kept the. seventh-day Sabbath. The
religious community had built up around Graysville Academy, a school begun two
years earlier by a Sabbath keeping minister named G. W. Colcord. (The school was
later moved and grew into what is now a college near Chattanooga.)
Not only Burchard had been arrested but also Colcord and two
of the Academy teachers, along with several other Sabbathkeepers, were under
indictment for violating Tennessee's Sunday law. Burchard was charged on two
counts-stripping fodder and helping to dig a well on Sunday. Others were charged
with such crimes as putting chicken wire around a garden or carrying a few
The trials made obvious that the chief instigator of the
trouble was an angry coal miner named Wright Rains, who had been refused credit
by the Sabbath-keeping proprietor of a local grocery store. Two of his friends
had slipped out of the services in their church just over the ridge from
Burchard's cabin to spy on him.
For more than 15 years Sabbathkeepers had been subjected to
sporadic persecution for Sunday-law violations in various states. They believed
at the time that to rest on Sunday was an admission of Sunday's sacredness. They
believed that that would be giving in to a false system of worship.
By the time of the Graysville cases, fifty-three
Sabbathkeepers had been convicted of Sunday violations and thirty had gone to
prison. Prior to the Supreme Court's "Christian Nation" decision in
1892, Sabbathkeepers had spent thousands on lawyers' fees to escape conviction,
usually without success. After 1892 they considered the cause hopeless, and
spoke the best they could in their own defense.
But though the beleaguered Graysville Sabbathkeepers had
little hope in the court, they had plenty of help outside. The American
-Sentinel, an eight year old journal of religious liberty, sent reporters to
cover the trials.
The three newspapers in Dayton, Tennessee, were outspoken in
defense of the Sabbathkeepers, and before the Graysville cases finally were
resolved, more than 250 newspapers across the country would side with the
Anyone arriving in Dayton by rail on Sunday, March 4, the day
before the trial began, could have gathered ample evidence that what
Sabbathkeepers faced was religious discrimination rather than simple prosecution
under the law.
The fact that one could get to Dayton on a Sunday train would
have been the first proof. Then walking down the street toward the courthouse,
doubtlessly one would see three small boys sucking hard candy in front of the
drugstore and hear the cash-register bell jangle periodically inside.
From the courthouse one could see the belching smokestack of
the Dayton Coal and Iron Company. Like a black flag, the smoke signalled that 400
or more workmen were keeping the furnaces hot on Sunday. The switch engine as it
coughed and whistled away with its load of slag could also be heard. But only
the Sabbathkeepers were charged with working on Sunday.
A little investigation by Dayton's local papers revealed that
members of the grand jury that indicted the Sabbathkeepers were hiring extra
help to pick their strawberries on Sundays just as on other days. (Colcord was
arrested, not for working himself, but for letting his students wash clothes and
saw wood on Sunday.)
Bill Burchard pleaded not guilty to the charges, saying he
had not violated the Sabbath, because the Bible says Saturday is the Sabbath.
Colcord-stoop-shouldered, aging, and wearing a giant patriarchal beard appealed
to the Declaration of Rights in the Tennessee Constitution, which said that
"no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with
the rights of conscience." The declaration also forbade any preference to
any religious establishment or mode of worship.
Judge J. G. Parks was sympathetic, but he said his was a
secular not a religious court. The only question for the jury, he said, was what
the law said and whether it had been violated. He pointed out that lie had a
sworn duty to enforce the law and ensure its respect.
Judge Parks then argued weakly that the Sunday law was not
one that protects a particular belief but one that "protects the unanimous
belief of nearly all Christian denominations."
Then he presented his dilemma: "But here we have a very
respectable element of Christian believers who are honest, inoffensive,
law-abiding people in all matters not conflicting with their sense of duty, who
believe they are under divine command to observe the seventh day as the
Sabbath.... If there were only one of them, he would be entitled not only to his
honest belief but to the exercise of that belief so long as in so doing he did
not interfere with some natural right of his neighbors.... Do the defendants in
keeping the seventh day and working on the first thereby interfere with any
natural right of their neighbors? Or is it an artificial right created by human
Judge Parks left his question unanswered, but it was clear
where he stood. He said in closing, "I have serious doubts as to the
justice of the law, but the remedy is not to be found in disobeying it, but in
having it repealed."
He fined the defendants $2.50 each, suspended the sentences,
but asked them to pay the court costs. The Sabbathkeepers refused to pay the
costs, choosing rather to go to jail. They explained their reasons by saying
that the State had taken them from their homes and work for no just cause, and
they simply submitted to the powers that be, but they refused to become parties
in any degree to the iniquitous proceeding by the payment of a fine.
They were given prison sentences of twenty to seventy-six
Bill Burchard left behind a note in his daughter's autograph
album: "Dear Hattie, This is the 6th day of March in the year 1895 A.D., in
the Cove in Rhea County, Tennessee, in the socalled free America. I go to Dayton
today expecting to go to jail for the crime (?) of believing the Bible. I was
found guilty by the court.... Yet these things and worse happened in all ages to
God's people-why not to us? Second Timothy 3:12 says 'all who live Godly in
Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.' I want you to be a good girl and live
for God and His truth. That is the only thing we can live for in this world,
that is worth living for. Read and meditate on Hebrews 11:32-40 (a brief history
o persecutions suffered by Old Testament heroes) and you can see what awaits us
only a little way in the future."
Jailhouse life was not severe, but there were hardships
involved in the incarceration. Several of the men were nearly penniless, and
their families were left without support. Then, too, with three key staff
members gone, Graysville Academy had to send its one hundred students home two
months early, some of them without the diplomas they had expected.
Sheriff Darwin was kind enough to put the men up in the
two-story house attached to the jail rather than in the cells. The quarters, the
Sabbathkeepers reported, were not "offensively dirty." They were
allowed to have visitors and were given access to the well in the front yard,
thus escaping the mucky water from the jail-yard pump.
The citizens of Dayton petitioned the court to release the
prisoners, but in spite of the uproar in the nation's press, the court denied
the petition by a narrow margin.
Judge Parks recommended to Governor Peter Turney that the
prisoners be pardoned, and finally the last two still serving sentences were
granted clemency even though they gave no evidence of repentance.
Scarcely had they returned home than twenty more indictments
were out for Graysville Sabbathkeepers. Burchard and Colcord were arrested
While they waited for the next session of the court in July,
the Sabbathkeepers. listened for developments in the Tennessee legislature. A
bill providing exemption from the Sunday law for those who observed a different
day had been introduced. It cleared the committee but lost on the floor by more
than two to one. Bill Burchard and his friends knew their chance of acquittal
this time was slim.
The court convened in July. Some of the cases were continued,
a few dismissed, but eight Sabbathkeepers-including Burchard and Colcord again
were convicted. This time, however, their enemies had succeeded in reinstating
the county chain gang-a practice that had not been followed for years.
Shortly before nine o'clock in the morning on July 16, 1895,
two heavy wagons lumbered out of Dayton loaded with picks, shovels, eighteen
prisoners, and an equal number of balls and chains.
Bill Burchard must have thought of his own family as he eyed
a fellow convict who had tried to slit his wife's throat. Guarding
Sabbathkeepers and assassin alike, Deputy Sheriff Jim Howard cradled a double barrelled
shotgun in his arms as he rocked back and forth on the high seat.
The wagons lurched for eighteen miles over the dusty road
that ran north from Dayton and stopped at an empty house near Spring City,
Tennessee. The afternoon was spent filling straw ticks, making crude tables, and
attaching old wagon wheels to the upstairs windows, "to keep the wild
prisoners in," as Burchard put it.
A black convict assigned to kitchen duty delivered cabbage,
onions, bread, and sugar for supper, and Bill Burchard settled down for fifty
days "on the hard rock ground." After cold biscuits and molasses for
breakfast ("and not enough of that") the Rhea County chain gang set to
work breaking up rock for the approaches to a nearby bridge.
The first full day of work was a Friday, so when the
Sabbathkeepers went to bed that night they doubtless had special prayer about
the events of the next day. They probably were waiting nervously when Deputy
Howard clomped into their room the next morning.
Spose this is the day y'all won't do no work," he said.
"That's right, sir," Pastor Colcord replied-as
politely as he knew how.
"Well, don't make no differences just won't count your
Saturdays against your sentence, and it wouldn't do to have ya work tomorrow
The deputy's arbitrary decision was obviously illegal, but it
was better to keep quiet than create a confrontation over working on Saturday.
Their short evenings, often enlivened by fights among the
other convicts, became almost too "exciting when one prisoner grabbed a
sleepy guard's gun, aimed it at another prisoner, and pulled the trigger.
Luckily, the gun failed to discharge. Perhaps emboldened by the incident, two of
the other prisoners slipped past the guard one night and escaped.
Meanwhile, the Sentinel kept up weekly reports on
every phase of the prisoner's plight, and newspapers round the country kept up
their barrage against the bigotry of Tennessee.
Once the Spring City job was done, the chain gang was moved
to a two story log house about a mile and a half from Graysville. Burchard noted
that this was really his first time behind bars since all the windows were
equipped with them. The weather was hot, though, so the guard left the front
door open at night and stood on the porch.
When the last of the cases came to trial, Sabbathkeepers
enjoyed the free legal assistance of a former Congressman from Tennessee and the
attorney for the Cincinnati Southern Railroad of Chattanooga. The combination of
their skill and the jury's weariness over the whole affair won acquittals in the
In Bill Burchard's last report he said: "We are all
well, healthy, and happy. The sun has been extremely hot today. One big fellow
got so hot this afternoon he had to stop, but none of us has done that yet.
"They furnish us plenty to eat now, and as Brother
Morgan is cook, it is well prepared. My time should be out in a week from today.
I must close as it is dark, and the workhouse is out of lamp oil."
What a privilege it is to be a citizen of these United States
today. How thankful we can be for the freedom we each have to worship God
according to our individual beliefs. It is actually a rare privilege seen in the
history of this earth. How carefully we need to guard that freedom. It has been
said that, "That freedom can be retained only by the eternal vigilance
which has always been its price." There have been times when that liberty
of conscience in this basically Christian nation has been denied to individuals
as you saw in the preceding story. According to Revelation, the time will come
when much more serious religious persecution will happen again as the whole
earth wonders after the beast.
May God bless you as you search the Scriptures for hidden
truths. May you be one of those that are blessed because they love God and keep
His commandments no matter what.