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Corliss And God

April 2023
1min read

Lynne Vincent Cheney’s article on the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in our April, 1974, issue prompted Henry F. Lippitt H, of Los Angeles, to write us about an extraordinary controversy that surrounded the fair: The article mentions that the Exhibition’s Machinery Hall was powered by the magnificent steam engine built by George Corliss of Providence, Rhode Island, shown on pages 24-25 [and in a drawing below]. Mr. Corliss was a man of profound religious convictions. His code of moral ethics was one of arch puritanism, both in theory and in practice. This was strikingly illustrated by the great controversial issue that attended the Exhibition.

It was proposed to open the Exhibition on Sundays in order that the working people might have an opportunity of attending. This was bitterly fought by George Corliss and a faction which contended that Sunday was a day of rest and that the sanctity of the day should be preserved.

Now, nearly a hundred years later, it seems inconceivable that a contention of this character should create such a furor and should grow to such magnitude in the minds of men. There were charges and countercharges, debates and rebuttals, and the voices of both factions were raised in great tumult. The Centennial Committee was deluged with letters, telegrams, and petitions from groups all over the country. Both factions held mass meetings in Philadelphia and in other cities. Even the clergy took sides, and the Annual Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church held in Philadelphia was largely devoted to a denunciation of the proposed Sabbath Day openings.

In all of this Mr. Corliss took a leading part and made several public appearances condemning the entire plan. The Centennial Committee voted to close the Exhibition, but this action failed to still the demands of those who wanted the Sunday openings. The feelings of the people were aroused to such a pitch that finally the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant, interceded and asked the members of the committee to reconsider their action and open the Exhibition on Sundays. The committee agreed and voted favorably on the matter.

This was the cause for great rejoicing by the liberal element, but the rejoicing was short-lived. They had forgotten to reckon with Mr. Corliss and his engine, and it must be remembered that the engine was the sole source of power for the Exhibition. Mr. Corliss, deaf to the pleadings of the committee and utterly disregarding the request of the President of the United States, calmly stated: “Gentlemen, my contract was to provide power and start the machinery in motion. It is my right and privilege to suspend it at pleasure. Open these gates to desecrate the Sabbath, and I will dismantle my engine and withdraw the power. You can do as you please with the Exhibition, but the engine will not run on Sunday.”

As one editorial writer of the day expressed it, “That settled the question as sunset settles the day.”

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