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Reviewed by:
  • Holy Day, Holiday The American Sunday
  • Gary Cross
Holy Day, Holiday The American Sunday. By Alexis McCrossen (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2000. ix plus 209 pp. $39.95).

Time has always been at the center of social and cultural conflict. No more was this so than in the struggle for the use and meaning of Sunday. Running along the course of U.S. history, though focusing on the nineteenth century, Alexis McCrossen’s Holy Day, Holiday gives us a solid overview of the transformation of the Protestant Christian Sabbath to the contemporary American day of leisure and shopping. Although never for all a day of rest, much less of worship, early nineteenth century Protestants tried to impose the Puritan Sabbath in reaction to an increasingly culturally diverse country and in an economy whose competitive pressures and new technologies threatened a universal weekly day of rest. Despite lengthy efforts to enforce “rest,” Sabbatarian strictures slowly began to give way by the 1870s.

McCrossen sees this not as secularization, because some of the early militants against forced idleness were liberal Christians who favored a Sunday devoted, not just to church, but to cultural uplift, family life and even wholesome leisure. Thus, debates about library, museum, and fair openings on Sunday in the late nineteenth century were often within the religious fold. Even commercial resorts, sports, and other entertainments justified their Sunday enterprises by promising uplift and familialism in special programs. Blue laws had a surprising persistence, lasting in many places into the 1970s, and Sunday remains a special day for most, even today’s unchurched.

Of course, Sabbatarianism lost to the pressures of technology and economic change (continuous process industries and a service sector providing leisure and shopping for Sunday excursions). Shorter workdays became more important than rest on Sunday, and American courts and society found practically any commercial activity to be a necessity and thus exempt from blue laws. Nevertheless Sundays remained special thanks to special newspaper editions and radio/TV programming and an historic blending between the Sabbatarians’ quest for “rest” and the liberal defense of leisure on Sunday.

There is little quarrel with this broad analysis. The author is careful not to mock nineteenth century religious sensibilities, nor to denounce commercialization as an example of declension. The book is certainly balanced, well cited, and [End Page 233] thoughtfully illustrated. However, despite my appreciation of brevity and understanding that university presses must reduce cost by minimizing book length, this work of 154 pages of text (including ample illustrations) is too short to answer a number of questions the author raises. 1) More precisely, who were the Sabbatarians and why and how were they more successful in some regions than in others. There was not simply a division between the more secular, urban, or even Catholic areas and the more religious, rural, and Protestant regions. Towns like Pittsburgh, for example, kept out Sunday baseball much longer than other places. In a book about the struggles over the Sabbath, the movements in this fight could have been more fully sketched out. 2) Just how concerned were the Sabbatarians with the plight of Sunday workers relative to their demand that pleasures be banned on Sunday in the name of a strict (even questionable) interpretation of the Bible? This, of course, raises the question of the breadth of the appeal of Sabbatarianism in the nineteenth century. 3) How did Americans of different social classes and regions celebrate Sunday? The reader gets a small, rather arbitrary sampling, but not enough to really understand the change in the use of Sunday. 4) How was religious celebration of Sunday transformed as Sabbatarian sentiments lost out? 5) Why did blue laws last until the 1970s and why did their disappearance accelerate then? Of course, as McCrossen notes commercialization prevails, but isn’t the story more complex than this?

I very much appreciate this book’s breadth and quest for a broad analysis. Still too often historical monographs, especially revised dissertations, are narrow and overly cautious. Although an additional 50 pages would have helped make this book more definitive, most readers will find most of what they want and need to know in this study...

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pp. 233-234
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