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Publisher’s Synopsis

The mere mention of “Sunday” will immediately conjure up a rich mix of memories, associations, and ideas for most anyone of any age. Whatever we think of—be it attending church, reading a bulky newspaper, eating brunch, or watching football—Sunday occupies a unique place in Western civilization. But how did we come to have a day with such a singular set of traditions? This book examines Sunday from its ancient beginnings to contemporary America in a fascinating blend of stories and analysis. For the earliest Christians, the first day of the week was a time to celebrate the liturgy, observe the Resurrection, and work. But over time, Sunday in the Western world took on still other meanings and rituals, especially in the addition of rest to the day’s activities, and long controversies over whether “rest” included various forms of “play.” Harline illuminates these changes in enlightening profiles of Sunday in medieval Catholic England, the Reformation, and nineteenth-century France—home to the most envied and sometimes despised Sunday of the modern world. He continues with moving portraits of soldiers and civilians trying to observe Sunday during World War I, examines the quiet Sunday of England in the 1930s, and concludes with the convergence of various European traditions in the American Sunday, which also adds some distinctly original habits of its own, such as in the realms of commerce and professional sports. With engaging prose and scholarly integrity, Sunday is an entertaining and long-overdue look at a significant hallmark of Western culture.

Author’s Note

This is my only book that didn’t start with the discovery of some fantastic document. Instead an editor just asked whether I was interested—and I surprised myself by blurting out Yes(!). I realized in that moment that I’d been thinking about Sunday my whole life, mostly with a lot of anxiety, and writing a book about it might be a good way to figure out why. Why had Sunday been a day that I both dreaded and looked forward to? Why did Sunday seem to be such a fun day in some places, and not in others?

This was also the only book I’ve written that wasn’t completely drafted before I approached a publisher; I just sent along a proposal instead. Actually I should have done that more often: as a friend of mine says, the proposal is always better than the real thing! It worked, but it also made me nervous: now I had to do all the stuff I said I was going to do. I didn’t know much about the ancient world (when Sunday began), or for that matter the recent world (where most of the chapters would fall). Where would I find material? I wouldn’t have time for my usual sniffing-around in archives, now that I had a deadline and so many countries involved, but I still wanted to work with as many original sources as possible from the various periods under consideration, to make things feel immediate.

I shouldn’t have worried, because the more I looked, the more sources I kept finding, in all periods of time. I soon realized that it would be pretty easy to write a history of all the arguing that had gone on over Sunday, but it would be really hard to make all that arguing interesting. So I decided instead to go with what always interests me: stories of what people actually did, more than what they thought they or others thought they should do, organized in flesh-and-blood snapshots of Sunday at different places and times.

I also decided to focus on the parts of the Sunday world I knew best, which were western Europe and the US. The first chapter covers the longest span of time, as it treats Sunday’s long and slow and wide origins, but the others are all set in very specific times and places featuring breathing characters. The whole process did indeed go a long way toward helping me, and perhaps others in my shoes, understand what had made Sunday so anxious for some, and so pleasant for others.


Listed among the Best Religion Books of the Year, by Publishers Weekly, for 2007

Listed on the Top Ten Summer Spiritual Reading List for 2007, by the Detroit Free Press

Listed among the Top Five Books on Sunday and the Sabbath, by Christianity Today

“A conversational and well-researched cultural history about the first day of the week…the book is stuffed with forgotten history.”

-USA Today

“A shrewdly selective survey of a vast subject…an enjoyable read…. The effect is a bit like reading an excerpt from a novel, full of color and detail, with well-described characters…a set of charming, Thurberesque vignettes.”

-Jamie Malinowski, Washington Monthly

“…surprised me, held my attention, taught me things I didn’t know and made me think…. The story is fascinating…. We touch down at intriguing moments in history and walk around to feel what Sunday was like….I found myself entirely caught up in each period. The gritty realism of the account is compelling.”

-Christian Century

“Harline, an acclaimed historian,…adopts a brilliant day-in-the-life strategy to explore the history of the Christian Sabbath in various cultures and times. Rather than attempting a sweeping and methodically exhaustive approach, Harline investigates the topic episodically…. Harline is a marvelous storyteller…[bringing] the people and their times to life…. Harline’s engaging and wonderfully written popular history deserves a wide readership.”

-Publishers Weekly—starred review

“In a fascinating mix of historical research, cultural commentary, and selected quotes from fiction and nonfiction alike, Harline takes us on a journey through what could seem to be the daunting history of Sunday observance…. Especially in the well-chosen quotes from diaries and other first-person accounts, Harline offers insight into a culture’s private and public norms. Although not a comprehensive history, this book is thoroughly entertaining.”

-Library Journal

“In this delicious study of Sunday as a concept, Harline contrasts the various ways that Western cultures have looked on the seventh (or first) day of the week, emphasizing Sunday observances, not Sunday rules…. Fine popular social history for the general reader.”


“A well-written and informative study.”

-Wilson Quarterly

“Harline takes moments in history and anecdotally paints that time’s relationship to the first day of the week. The writing style is conversational, the historic details interesting. Read this book on a Sunday. It seems only right.”

-Susan Campbell, Hartford Courant

“Social history, which can be in the wrong hands a dreary recitation of statistics, comes alive in Sunday because the author gives it flesh and blood that makes one feel it is happening to real people. It is an interesting read…full of delightful tidbits.”

-David Crawley, Anglican Journal

“…a new and interesting historical book…. Well notated with a long bibliography, Harline has put together an impressive collection of information. Maybe you can put this on your Sunday reading list—if that’s the kind of thing you do on Sunday.”

-York Young, Today’s Catholic

“A fascinating study that revisits the holy day from medieval Catholic England to America in the 1950s.”

-New York Daily News

“A very engaging and enjoyable text, with all Harline’s usual qualities of empathy and richly-textured description. The range is remarkable.”

-Diarmaid MacCulloch, Oxford University

“Craig Harline, a prolific and careful scholar, has examined the “rich mix” of interpretations that contribute to the categorization of Sunday as historically unique…. Harline has made a memorable and valuable contribution to understanding both [Sunday’s] history and culture.”

-Dennis Lythgoe, Deseret News

“In Sunday, history professor Craig Harline takes the scenic route from prehistory to the present. The outcome of enormous research, this book is a comprehensive social history of the Western world.”

-Free Online Library

“If history is, for you, the story of how we got to where we are today, then Sunday is the book for you. Craig Harline’s engaging take on the ways and customs of the celebration of our ‘day of rest’ ranges across the ages and cultures of Western civilization…. The myths and mysteries of Sundays through the centuries are described through individuals who lived in each of the times. I think his technique is distinctly original.”

-NA Books Daily

“Harline’s book is well written with a nice collection of stories, anecdotes and information all relating to Sunday…. While this book is oriented to the general public, it can be used by students of history and historians interested in the various aspects of this subject…. This book provides a good perspective of selected cultural and religious aspects of Sunday, through various historical accounts, primarily of western Europe and the United States.”

-J. Sherman Feher, Association for Mormon Letters

“The book reads like a novel, replete with concrete examples of people’s experiences and myriads of anecdotes, carefully vested in thorough research. The reading is made particularly pleasant by a semi-literary, conversational style…. All in all, a fascinating book…. I warmly recommend reading Harline’s book to better understand the cultural roots of the Sunday choices made over time, and to discover a large number of captivating individuals in their experiences with the first day of the week – dreading it, just undergoing it, or loving it.”

-Wilfried Decoo,

“Harline is a historian at Brigham Young, but he writes in a way that is incredibly accessible to any audience.”

-Jasmine Wilson, Englewood Review of Books

“Trained in European religious history, Craig Harline practices his craft with breathtaking skill. Sunday has exactly the right balance of overview and contextual detail. Intriguing “close-ups” offer the reader tangy characters and vivid situations, breaking up denser explanatory and technical material into more appropriable units. Both specialized and general audiences are bound to profit from this fine work.”

-Magill’s Literary Annual 2008