Book Review—Sunday

Reviewed by Todd Wood.

Harline, Craig. Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Hardcover, 450 pages. $26.00.

Purchase: Random House | CBD | Amazon

Special Features: Biographical Notes, pp. 383-436, Acknowledgments, Index
Read an excerpt.

ISBN: 9780385510394

LCCN: BV111.3.H37

DCN: 263.3

Subjects: Sunday, U.S. Social Life & Customs

(from the cover) Craig Harline, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, is the author of A Bishop’s Tale, The Burdens of Sister Margaret, and Miracles at the Jesus Oak. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Philosophical Society, the American Council of Learned Societies, and other granting agencies. He lives in Orem, Utah.

I picked up this book basically out of curiosity to see how the Christian Sabbath is viewed through the lens of a Mormon historian. In an external sense, Mormons have been strict Sabbatarians in all that you would envision a traditional Sunday to be: Sunday dress, families sitting together in pews, abundance of hymns, sacraments, testimonies, ward potlucks, and classes regulated by the Church Educational System. In the old days, Sunday afternoons used to be a conservative, quiet affair (probably no TV viewing for some). Today, many morning and evening services have been blocked together for one main ward gathering, thus allowing for more personal and family pursuits other than just church on any given Sunday.

Do Latter-Day Saints (LDS) relish their Sunday rituals? In honesty, Craig confesses at the beginning,

As a boy in California in the 1960s, I wondered why most of my friends seemed to enjoy Sunday more than I did. It wasn’t a dreadful day, because my own family was pleasant and church had its helpful and even light moments (such as when we children, after another record-setting prayer by Brother Hill, turned to each other with wide-eyed giggles and practically shouted in disbelief, “Seven minutes!”—to the mortification of our parents). Rather, Sunday was a nondescript, rather sterile day, characterized partly by long hours in church but mostly by a constant, low-grade anxiety over what should be done—or more precisely not done—during those precious hours outside of church. Should we see friends, buy an ice cream, turn on TV, and play or watch our beloved sports? Even when we did engage in these activities, there was enough uncertainty about their propriety that we might feel guilty anyway (VIII-IX).

For a contrast, Craig highlights the sunshine opposite—

In France it was a day for memorable family dinners and exuberant outings, and in Belgium a day for sugar bread at breakfast, fine meals, games, adventure, youth groups, music, and visiting at homes or in cafes—so pleasant that the novelist Ernest Claes could define his childhood vision of heaven as a “month of Sundays” (IX).

In effect, I believe the author endeavors to slowly loosen the reader from the grips of a tyrannical, Calvinistic “Puritan Sunday” while encouraging him toward a more festive “Continental Sunday.” Of course, this is all under the guise of exploring one central question: “Just how did Sunday get to be exactly where it is, in this place or that?” (XIII).

While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints still clings in many ways to outward forms of traditional Sunday observance, Craig Harline presents a story of the utter transformation of the American Sunday culturally. This presentation makes the book both interesting and sad from my perspective.

He travels through Western Europe and the United States, taking us on a detailed biographical, chronological journey from “Sunday Ascendant” (ch. 1) to “Sunday Middle-Aged” (ch. 2) to “Sunday Reformed” (ch. 3) to “Sunday A La Mode” (ch. 4) to “Sunday Obscured” (ch. 5) to “Sunday Still” (ch. 6) and to the final conclusion of “Sunday All Mixed Up” (ch. 7).

Opening with a quote by Eugene Laverdiere that would make all higher textual critics smile with glee, Craig explores the “origins of Sunday.” As early Mormonism taught the idea of planets governed by gods outside of our solar system, in contrast ancient Babylonians “tracked seven heavenly planets, or ‘wanderers,’ moving about the Earth…. Each planet was believed to be governed by a god or goddess who exerted influence upon earthly events” (p. 2)—Saturn Day (1st day), Sun Day (2nd day), Moon Day, Mars Day, Mercury Day, Jupiter Day, and Venus Day (p. 3).

From pagan origins, we have the emergence of the Lord’s Day. Augustine, John Chrysostom, and church councils sought to stamp this beautiful and separated day right over the top of pagan “commemorative days” and the Jews’ “carnal Sabbaths.” (No wonder dancing LDS don’t like Augustine, especially with his proverb: “It was better to spend the whole day digging than dancing” (p. 63).) But things soon became quite bizarre, like the Council of Rouen in 650 commanding “a twenty-four-hour Sabbath-like Lord’s Day” and specifying no physical relations among husbands and wives (p. 22). This is whacked!

Craig then delves into the views of Aquinas, mass, meat, and murals of “Sunday Christ”—pictures of Christ surrounded by tools. To use these tools on Sunday would inflict more suffering to Jesus (p. 37).

And though the doctrine of Calvinists is at the opposite end of the theological spectrum for LDS (who are off the chart past Arminianism), I am glad Craig designated a whole chapter to “Sunday Reformed.” The author tells a story of this era through the journals of Dutch schoolteacher David Beck.

Craig got it right! “The Reformed focused on hearing the Word” (p. 70). Clear out the Eucharist and put front and center the pulpit for “a lengthy sermon on a biblical verse or two” (p. 71). “This sort of focused, intense preaching demanded much energy from both preacher and listener, even more than in the ancient and medieval Sunday” (p. 73).

I appreciated the author’s touching on the various Reformed perspectives on the Christian Sabbath: from Martin Luther to John Calvin’s “moderate Sabbath” to the “strict English Sunday,” referencing Nicholas Bownd’s The Doctrine of the Sabbath (p. 93).

From the days of the Reformation, everything broke loose: the decadence and vanity of Parisian Sundays and the mutilation and shell shock of War Sundays. This made Ernest Claes question, “Did pastors really need to emphasize that sorrow and misery were punishment from God for sins?” (p. 197). I found that slam on preachers pretty much throughout the book. The author, Craig Harline, had a knack for drudging up illustrations to reveal disfavor with preachers. I suppose preachers are easy targets for criticism.

But things revved up during the evangelical religious revival in England. In 1831, the Lord’s Day Observance Society (LDOS) was created (p. 220). Craig ticks off the legalistic rules and explores how extremely boring Sundays were to those who differed in England. He quotes Eileen Elias description of Sunday services: “really quite tedious and the prayers incomprehensible” (p. 234). And who wants to think “big, overwhelming, transcendent, uncomfortable thoughts” on Sundays? (p. 226). Well, I am one of those guys.

I am amazed by this statistic: “By 1800, at least 200,000 working-class children alone in England were enrolled [in Sunday School]. And by 1888, an impressive three-quarters of all English children attended Sunday schools. That number fell by the 1920s, but masses of children still attended” (p. 246). We know that the Downgrade Controversy during Spurgeon’s time destroyed much in the way of real faith.

And soon everything crowded in on Sunday worship—Sunday newspapers, radio in 1919 (p. 251), cycling (p. 257), golf, cricket, greyhound racing, and then football.

Today, it is “Sunday all mixed up.” Sabbatarians lost ground in England and eventually lost it in America as well. With all the secularization, “One American observer in 1926 implied just such a decline in his lament that ‘our forefathers called it the Holy Sabbath; our fathers called it Sunday; we call it the week-end’” (p. 285).

But don’t forget the 1950’s. “Historians have called the 1950s the ‘Fourth Great Awakening’ in American religious history…. $26 million was spent on new church construction in 1945, and $935 million in 1959” (p. 290). “Beyond membership and building figures, a 1955 Gallup Poll showed that 97 percent of all Americans considered themselves to be ‘religious,’ that 94 percent believed in God, 95 percent in prayer, and 90 percent in the divinity of Jesus. Tellingly, it was in 1955 that ‘In God We Trust’ was added to U.S. coins and in 1954 that the phrase ‘under God’ was added to the Pledge of Allegiance” (p. 291).

To pick up on “Protestant strains on Sunday” during the 50s and 60s, Craig recounts the stories from Methodist minister Lyn Cryderman’s memoir, No Swimming on Sunday. All the church attendance motivations he shared in the book looked like a textbook description straight from the incubator of zealous Independent Baptists.

The drawback to the book is that the LDS author spends only one and a half pages on Mormonism (pp. 309-310). I would have enjoyed reading more through Harline’s eyes on the comparisons between the Mormon Sunday and Cryderman’s Methodist Sunday. But, of course, both of those types of Sundays are highly unpopular in today’s American culture. Sunday is now more holiday than holy day. When everything is about football, fun, and physical rest, maybe some day LDS general authorities will move Sunday church to Saturday night.

What will the future hold for Sundays in America? And how will churches accommodate to the culture? We will see.

Todd WoodTodd Wood is pastor of Berean Baptist Church (Idaho Falls, ID). He received his B.A. in Missions, M.A. in Theology, and M.Div. from Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC). But more than anything he hungers for the A.I.G. degree affixed to Apelles (Rom. 16:10). He also operates a blog called Heart Issues for LDS.
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