The Lord's Day, and the NFL's
Stephen Miller on the history of Sunday
A History of the First Day From Babylonia to the Super Bowl.
By Craig Harline.
Doubleday. 464 pp. $26
Sunday was nothing more special than the first day of the week for second-century Romans. They marked time according to a calendar originated by the Babylonians and organized by the Hellenistic Greeks into seven days named after the sun, the moon, and the five planets closest to the earth. For early Christians, however, Sunday was the Lord’s Day—the day Christ was resurrected. When the Roman emperor Constantine proclaimed Sunday a public holiday in ad 321, Christians faced a question that was debated for the next 2,000 years: Should they observe it in Sabbatarian fashion, as the Jews did their holy day, in keeping with the Fourth Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy”? Or should Sunday be observed less strictly—as a holiday as well as a holy day?
For roughly a millennium after Constantine’s reign, as Brigham Young University historian Craig Harline recounts in this well-written and informative study, the Church of Rome took a moderate view of Sunday. Church officials often disagreed about the details of Sunday observance—especially about how much to tolerate pagan customs—but they all condemned work (with some exceptions for agricultural laborers).
With the onset of the Reformation, the Sabbatarian question became more important than ever—especially in England, where hundreds of pamphlets were written about Sunday observance. Puritans, who espoused a rigid form of Sabbatarianism, were so angered by King Charles I’s non-Sabbatarian views—and by the monarchy’s presumption to dictate Sunday observance—that many broke with the Anglican Church and left for Holland or the New World.
Sabbatarianism in England waned in the 18th century, but it returned during the Victorian era, owing to the evangelical revival. Continental Europeans (both Protestant and Catholic) complained that an English Sunday was dull and gloomy. A Scottish Sunday was even more severe, Harline writes. “It was supposedly marked by little conversation, much study of the Bible, not a single trifling word, the locking up of swings, sharp rebukes for whistling, and especially long sermons.”
Harline focuses on Sunday observance in five countries during six different periods: 14th-century England, 17th-century Holland, late-19th-century France (mainly Paris), early-20th-century Belgium before and during World War I, England in the interwar years, and mid-20th-century America. He shapes an immense amount of material into a coherent and readable narrative, and his scholarship is impressive: The 53-page bibliography includes books and articles in German, French, Dutch, and Flemish. We learn how people prayed, what they ate for dinner, and especially what they did for recreation. In 17th-century Holland, for instance, ice skating and dancing were popular; Belgian men and boys before World War I enjoyed dove racing.
In his concluding chapter, Harline argues that most Americans now see no conflict between worshiping on Sunday and playing or watching sports. As the notion took hold that sports, as well as religion, promote good character, Harline says, sports underwent a sacralization. Professional football, which has always been played on Sunday, developed in midwestern cities “where Catholics and more liberal Protestants dominated the population.” Sabbatarianism retained its hold longest in the South; Sunday sports were not legalized there until well into the 20th century.
By then, Sunday baseball and football games were popular everywhere. So too was Sunday stock car racing. And by the end of the century, Sunday was the second most popular shopping day of the week, a sharp change from the era of Closed on Sunday store signs. Harline himself doesn’t regret the decline of Sabbatarianism. The Sunday of his childhood was a “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.” Yet Sunday is likely to “retain its extraordinary character,” he concludes, if only because of its long history as a day apart.