The Magazine

The Sacred Weekend

Remember the Sabbath day? To keep it holy was the norm.

Feb 9, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 19 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Peculiar Life of Sundays

by Stephen Miller

Harvard, 320 pp., $27.95

Stephen Miller lifts his title from a letter by Wallace Stevens. What makes Sunday "peculiar"? If we take our cue from the origin of the word--meaning "of one's own property"--what belongs to Sunday does not belong to any other day of the week. In the past it has claimed spatio-temporal uniqueness--the intersection of heaven and earth--set apart for religion, rest, and reflection. Miller's cultural history of Sunday observance in the Christian West becomes relevant reading because this day is now being subsumed by commercialization and secularization.

The story he tells is from a postsecular viewpoint, neither for nor against the church. Instead, he explores the oddity of Sunday with a mixture of curiosity and nostalgia, much like a visitor who wanders into Chartres Cathedral and stares at the West Rose window, trying to make sense of its biblical narrative.

The Peculiar Life of Sundays is a stained-glass window of Sunday lives. The outer circle of the window is lapsed Christians like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Wallace Stevens; the middle circle is nonobservant Christians like John Ruskin and Robert Lowell; and the inner circle--most removed from our own experience--is observant Christians like George Herbert, Hannah More, and Jonathan Edwards. By recounting these Sunday lives, Miller reaches the center of the window: the human need for what the Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel describes as "a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord."

Antiquity colors the window with its contrast between pagan veneration of the sun god and Christian veneration of the Son of God. When Constantine altered the Roman calendar by decreeing that Sunday, the "day of the Sun," should be a public holiday for sun-worshipers, Christians rested on what they called the "Lord's Day." During a transitional period, early Christians often fused Jesus with the sun god, naming him the Sun of Righteousness. Augustine and Boethius severed this fusion, arguing that worship of the sun god is idolatrous because God made and controls the sun.

Jews regarded the Sabbath as a celebration of the created world, whereas Christians regarded it as a celebration of the resurrected Jesus. Augustine moved the Sabbath from the seventh to the eighth day by noting that the command of circumcision and the event of the resurrection occurred on the eighth day. Thus, he redefined Sunday as the new Sabbath--evacuating its Jewish content.

When their pagan neighbors found Sunday diversion in "gladiatorial contests, obscene plays, and chariot races," Christians found delight in worship, prayer, almsgiving, confession of sins, and sexual abstinence. Miller claims the calendar is one of the reasons Christianity triumphed over paganism. The church transformed winter solstice into Christmas, "days that venerated pagan gods into days that venerated Christian martyrs," and chronos (clock time) into kairos (holy time). With the Christianization of time, Sunday persisted in the West as the "Lord's Day" for over a millennium, punctuated by spasmodic revivals of pagan thought.

Before the Reformation, the church inveighed against paganism; after the Reformation, Protestants inveighed against the Church of Rome as a variety of paganism. Miller focuses his account on Protestant Sundays in Great Britain and America, where sabbatarian debates prescribed and proscribed nearly every activity under the sun, occasionally to expel "the evils of popery" but mostly to promote sanctification over recreation.

Sabbatarians believed that the health of civilization depended on how it observed Sunday. Serving as associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1830 to 1861, John McLean asserted: "Where there is no Christian Sabbath, there is no Christian morality; and without this free institutions can not long be sustained." The force of sabbatarianism--faint to contemporary ears--preceded and outlasted the spirited debates over slavery and temperance, waning at the end of the 19th century when figures like John Stuart Mill argued that sabbatarian legislation was an "illegitimate interference with the rightful liberty of the individual."