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Book Review


Stephen Miller, The Peculiar Life of Sundays. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008. 310 pp. $27.95 (hardcover).


Figure 1


     If you spend your Sunday watching a movie, decide to take a Sunday drive, or even listen to U2's Sunday Bloody Sunday, your Sunday is uniquely your own. Yet, societies also share Sundays, making them public as well as private. An old topic has become the current subject of Stephen Miller's latest book, The Peculiar Life of Sundays. Here, Miller attempts to uncover how historical figures have enjoyed, and in many instances loathed their own Sundays. In this sociopolitical history, Stephen Miller asks the question "Why write a book about the transformation of Sunday?" (21). The conclusion Miller reaches is that Sundays are both familiar and strange and in many ways "a cultural war between the religious and irreligious" (22). He acknowledges this book is not a comprehensive study of the history of Sunday observance, but rather a look into the Sunday habits of "Western Christendom." His focus is exclusively England, Scotland, and the United States, which makes the work ambitious and in many ways cumbersome for the reader.

     From the birth of Christianity in the first century C.E., Sundays were a time set aside for Christians to reflect on their Lord and observe the Sabbath, but in the United States and in Western Europe, Sunday has become a battle ground of chariot races, blue laws, Sunday school verses, and the National Football League. In order to make Sunday more of a holy day rather than a holiday, Christians have attempted to enforce blue laws and even bring people to church via the Internet using the video games such as Second Life. This allows Christians to merge their desire to observe the Sabbath, without leaving their homes and computers. Miller points out that Sunday observance has gone through many periods of strictness and laxness throughout the two thousand years since the crucifixion of Jesus. The inconsistency of the Sabbath veneration will complicate for students how Christians in Western Europe and the United States have observed the day intended by God for rest, and how the concept of rest was heavily debated within Christian communities.      

     Miller has brought together many varied memoirs and secondary sources recounting how a wide variety of people have viewed Sundays. Miller's strongest examples on this point are St. Augustine, Samuel Johnson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. For many, Sunday should be observed as a holy day rather than a holiday, but increasingly more and more Christians have observed it as both. Miller's strongest contribution to the history of Sunday is his ability to draw out the complexity of what for many is just another day of the week. From earliest days of Christianity, there has been no conclusive answer on how people should spend Sundays. Miller also looks at how non-Christians, including those without religious affiliation, have viewed Sundays, although this is largely carried out through the lens of paganism and nature worship.    

     While the first chapter is interesting, it is also largely anecdotal. Miller jumps around from the mid-twentieth century to the twenty-first century and back, examining the good and bad associated with Sundays. Many Christians found little happiness in the observance of Sundays with many others finding the Sabbath a "gloomy" day. The first chapter would be difficult to use in the classroom because it lacks a historical anchor. 

     This is not the case for Miller's second chapter, which would be very useful for world history and world civilization teachers. The chapter looks at Roman culture following the Edict of Milan and sheds light on as well as complicates an issue students tend to oversimplify. This chapter borrows heavily from biographies of St. Augustine and Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Miller explains that even in the sixth century C.E., one bishop—Caesarius—felt Sundays were becoming too lax and "a meeting place for people to conduct secular business" (48). This is a common issue for Christians in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but many students will be surprised to learn how early Christians faced similar problems regarding Sundays.    

     Chapters three through six will be useful for high school European History teachers. Miller discusses how contentious the issue of Sunday was for the English, especially following the attempts by Mary Tudor to re-Catholicize England in the sixteenth century. This continued to be a problem for her half-sister Elizabeth and especially for the Stuarts, who were dealing with a powerful and vocal Puritan movement that sought a stricter Sabbath; one without sports, gambling, theatre, and dancing. In discussing James Boswell, Miller explains how many who lived in that time may have felt about Sundays. "Boswell had three ways of dealing with a gloomy Sunday: going to church, having sex, and drinking heavily" (115). Miller, however, does not begin the section with any sort of biographical explanation, and readers will only learn later in the chapter that he was Samuel Johnson's biographer. A separate problem for readers is why they should be concerned with how Boswell viewed and spent his Sundays. Miller does not provide the reader with a strong argument as to why this book should be treated as anything more than anecdotal evidence regarding the Sunday habits of a handful of Western Europe's lesser known authors and biographers.       

     Chapters seven through nine deal with Sundays in the United States. Miller again examines familiar figures like Jonathan Edwards and Henry David Thoreau, as well as lesser-known writers Wallace Stevens and Robert Lowell. These examples show that, much like their sixteenth and seventeenth century counterparts in England, Americans have also had to negotiate how Sundays should be observed. Few readers will be shocked that Jonathan Edwards pushed for a more strict Sabbatarian view of Sundays, while Emerson and Thoreau wanted Sundays celebrated in their own way and hoped "Americans will spend their Sundays outdoors rather than in church" (198). Miller does include some interesting information regarding why Americans have had such divergent views of Sundays:   

     If the way people spend their Sunday afternoons and evenings has become more uniform, the way people worship on Sunday morning has become less uniform because the American religious marketplace has expanded dramatically in the past century. "In 1900 there were 300 different religious groups [in the United States]; now there are over 2,000." The United States, a leading historian of religion said in 2005, is "a nation growing ever more diverse in belief and practice." (256)

     Miller often makes these pronouncements and references that require the reader to take his word that these sources are sound. It does not seem to be Miller's intention that The Peculiar Life of Sundays be accepted as an academic work of history, and therefore the reader should approach the book as a interesting argument, but one that would require much more rigorous study to be considered a history.

     Many readers will struggle with Miller's style, which is difficult for readers to follow. Miller often jumps from one time period to another and with little reason and even less explanation. For instance, in the second chapter, Miller discusses St. Augustine and Caesarius, Bishop of Alres, just before discussing Evelyn Waugh's 1932 trip to Brazil. Another example appears in the final chapter entitle "Sunday Now," where Miller begins with Edith Wharton in 1840 before jumping forward to a Newsweek article in 2005 and--on the same page--moving back to Emily Dickinson in 1860. These, and many other, examples make it difficult to recommend this book for classroom use of on any level. The exception would be for teachers to use excerpts for anecdotal evidence as to how some people have viewed and lived their own arbitrary Sundays.

     Stephen Miller's Peculiar Life of Sundays is an interesting work that complicates the very nature of Sundays in the United States and Western Europe. Sundays are a contradiction of emotions for most people. Sundays bring both happiness and sadness and are at once strict and liberating. The book has some flaws as an academic work, but if the reader accepts it for what it is, a series of anecdotes with little insight or analysis, it is a pleasurable experience. It would best be enjoyed as light reading, perhaps on a Sunday morning.    

Zackry T. Farmer received his M.A. in history from Georgia State University in 2006. He currently teaches history at George Walton Academy in Monroe Georgia focusing on world history, twentieth century history, and A.P. European history. He can be reached at


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