The book of Exodus preserves the Ten Commandments, including “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). From an early period, the meaning of the fourth commandment has been discussed and debated. Fortunately Craig Harline, history professor at BYU, has written a history of the efforts to set apart a special day each week. The book is titled Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
Harline’s story begins on a particular Super Bowl Sunday, focusing on his ninety- year-old grandmother’s reaction to the televised event as the family gathered to watch it. She finally left the room wondering how society had arrived at this point. He reveals his concern too, but for a different reason. Harline recalls that he was “struck by the Sunday part of ‘Super Bowl Sunday.’ How did that happen?” (viii). The book answers that question.
The author is an excellent writer and a thoughtful observer of people and places, including texts, both ancient and modern. He not only tells the story and history of important words like Sabbath and Sunday but also weaves in the life experiences of real people who have attempted to make sense of special time—holidays and holy days. He provides word-pictures of life in the ancient Mediterranean basin; medieval and modern Europe; and nineteenth- and twentieth-century England and the United States.
Among the hundreds of insights, here are two that helped me reconstruct the past so that I could appreciate the present.
First, the creation of the “free Saturday afternoon” in England was the beginnings of the “weekend.” Many “countries adopted both the term and the [English] practice of a ‘weekend’” after World War I (217). This reconstruction of the week, from a six-day workweek, provided additional opportunities to rest and to engage in leisure activities. Some people claimed the purpose of a free Saturday afternoon was to allow people to do what they need to do on Saturday, leaving Sunday for worship and quiet meditation, the traditional English “quiet Sunday” (218). Instead, “those who wished to broaden the English Sunday held that, despite an increase in free time, new leisure opportunities and facilities were not enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to take advantage of them, unless these were available on Sunday too” (218).
Second, for some, engaging in sports on Sunday grew from a noble idea that sports “could be the bearer of moral virtues” like “team spirit, discipline, unselfishness, and more” (261). In one sense, participating (not watching) in “good games” was better than playing cards or wasting time in the pub, as one Englishman argued, “Our games keep us healthy, and mean abstaining from habitual drinking, late hours, etc.” However, participating in Sunday sports for some “meant more work for others” (261). This was specifically true following the shift from participating in sports to watching sports on Sunday.
Harline demonstrates that Sabbath practices continue to change over time, adding, “It seems safe to say that this process will continue: Sunday will change as the world around it changes.” Nevertheless, he opines, “It also seems safe to say that, whatever the changes, Sunday will retain its extraordinary character, however one might understand that” (381).
I have learned a lot from my colleague and will use some of the cogent insights in my Honors New Testament class when I teach the Sabbath controversies between Jesus and the Pharisees as recorded in the Gospels and when I teach the modern revelation (section 59) on the Lord’s holy day in my Honors Doctrine and Covenants class this coming fall semester at BYU.