- The Protestant Voice in American Pluralism
This well-written study of Sunday in the United States provides a fascinating cultural history of rest in America. Historically most Americans have ceased working on Sunday, but as Alexis McCrossen demonstrates, the meaning of this day of rest has been constantly contested by differing groups with conflicting theologies, social visions, and political agendas. This text excels in showing how these battles reflect broader changes in American society from the early nineteenth century to the present. [End Page 572]
The first seven chapters of McCrossen's study focus upon evolving public policies concerning Sunday. She probes in depth the efforts of early republican sabbatarians to institutionalize Sunday as the biblically mandated Sabbath, and the countervailing forces that encouraged broader understandings of rest and leisure that supported a wider range of acceptable diversions on Sunday. Subsequent chapters probe the influence of the frontier and of war upon Sunday customs, Sunday in the industrial city, and the impact of consumerism in the late nineteenth century. McCrossen shows how battles over the meaning of Sunday reflected perceived differences "between holy day and holidays, between secular and sacred, between rest and work" (p. 110), but makes it clear that the move away from the once dominant evangelical sabbatarian construction of the Sabbath was never a simple matter of secularization. Nineteenth-century Protestant liberals and Catholic immigrants, for example, advanced theological rationales for broadening the meaning of Sunday. For them, holy day and holiday were not opposed but mutually reinforcing categories.
In her final two chapters McCrossen moves from public policy to private experience, probing how shifting patterns of race, class, and gender as well as changes in institutional practices shaped the Sundays of individuals and families. The history of Sunday revolves around "the tremendous struggles for control over time—between parents and children, employers and employees, clerics and co-religionists, politicians and citizens, and many others" (p. 154), and McCrossen tells the story of these struggles in compelling prose.
Although McCrossen's book is clearly the best starting point for anyone interested in the history of Sunday in America, she would have done well to explore more fully the way that Americans and early modern Europeans contended over the meaning of rest and the Sabbath before 1800. She notes that Puritans and Anglicans often disputed the proper way of keeping Sunday during the colonial era, and that antebellum evangelicals created a "traditional Puritan Sabbath" that was more myth than reality; yet she chooses to begin her story with nineteenth-century controversies over Sunday mail delivery. The reader is left to wonder what disputes over Sunday emerged from the particular constellation of forces triggered by industrialism and demographic expansion, and what conflicts had more ancient roots? Nonetheless, what McCrossen has done is superb. This book will richly reward students of American religion and culture, gender, and family. Gracefully written and well illustrated, it will also appeal to a broader general audience.