Sally Feldman's pages from New Humanist, September/October 2009Protests, demonstrations and bitter rows rocked the normally serene Scottish islands of Lewis and Harris this summer. What could have caused such turbulence? Had the pubs run out of whisky? Had Gordon Brown made a surprise visit? No – the fuss had erupted over the decision to launch a Sunday ferry service from the mainland. These Western Isles had for centuries resisted any dilution of their strict observation of the injunction to keep the Sabbath holy. Strong feelings reached meltdown when the very first Sunday ferry suffered a breakdown due to a faulty exhaust. Immediately admonishing fingers pointed to the incident as proof of divine disapproval. The Reverend Angus Smith called the breakdown a reminder of “God’s providence” while another veteran campaigner, Iain Bain, said: “Anyone who works on a Sunday is making a mockery of God and His laws, but God says He will not be mocked. He has power to sink a Sunday ferry.”

The ferry fandango may seem a quaint throwback to earlier times – an anachronistic attempt to cling to a vanishing way of life – but it also demonstrates a kind of continuity. We may nowadays spend Sundays as just another free day, shopping, watching football, going to the cinema or the pub, seeing live music, walking, visiting friends – all activities proscribed in earlier times – but according to Stephen Miller, author of The Peculiar Life of Sundays, the vestiges of Sunday specialness are still with us. Sunday lunch, Sunday drives, putting on our Sunday best or longing for a month of Sundays may have disappeared, but the Sunday-ness of Sundays is carved deep into our psyches and is still emotionally charged.

Sunday can be bleak and depressing. That mood is conjured up poignantly in Billie Holiday’s most desolate song. “Gloomy is Sunday, with shadows I spend it all/My heart and I have decided to end it all.” The singer was not the only one. In the early part of the last century Sunday was considered the most common day for suicides, and therapists named a psychiatric disorder after it. Sunday neurosis was thought to result from the disjunction that occurs on a day when there is no routine, nothing that is required.

The more mundane miseries of endless dreary Sundays were perfectly captured in an edition of Hancock’s Half Hour on BBC Radio. “Doesn’t the time drag?” grumbles Hancock. “I do hate Sundays. I’ll be glad when it’s over. It drives me up the wall, just sitting here looking at you lot. Every Sunday it’s the same, nowhere to go, nothing to do. Just sit here waiting for the next lot of grub to come up.”

But Sunday also inspires feelings of pleasure, relaxation and conviviality. In his hit country song “That’s What I Love About Sunday”, Craig Morgan extols the delights of a day that begins with churchgoing in the morning, followed by barbecuing, catnapping on a porch swing, playing football and fishing. John Major famously summed up the timeless nature of an English Sunday with his evocation of “spinsters cycling to evensong”, wobbling no doubt past the languid cricket spectators dotting the village green and the peaceable neighbours deadheading their hollyhocks.

Much of this joy, like the ennui, stems from religion, even down to the very sound of Sunday. “It is so pleasant to hear bells on Sunday morning,” the American poet Wallace Stevens wrote to his fiancée. By long usage, we have become accustomed to bells turning this ordinary day into a holy one. In 1942 Winston Churchill decided to reinstate the ringing of church bells on Sunday because he missed the familiar sound of an English Sunday. Michael Green, former Controller of Radio 4, remembered the wave of distress that greeted his – he thought rather mild - decision to move the Sunday church bells a little earlier in the schedule.

But the sound of church bells can also invoke misery. Keats writes of their melancholy sound – “still, still they toll” – a sentiment echoed a century later when in the opening scene of Look Back in Anger Jimmy Porter rails against “those bloody bells”.

So church bells are clanging evidence that Sunday is the most visible and obvious declaration of religion. In America in the 19th century, Sunday legislation was the second most debated subject after slavery. Throughout Europe over the centuries opinions differed wildly on how to approach and celebrate the Sabbath, reflecting not just the different and emerging forms of Christianity but also national and political divides. For Sunday is a tool for demonstrating distinctiveness, devotion, divinity – but also for wielding power.

Indeed, the very choice of Sunday as the Christian day of worship was a calculatedly political one. It was in AD 321 that the Emperor Constantine decreed that Sunday (dies Solis) should be a public holiday, but he fought shy of declaring it the “Lord’s day” because so many of his soldiers were sun-worshipping Mithraists. So the English Sunday, German Sontag and Dutch Zondag are throwbacks to a canny act of incorporation. Rather than completely subdue the pagans, Constantine simply accommodated their habits.

The choice of Sunday was also a deliberate gesture of separateness. The Jews had already bagged Saturday as their Sabbath, on the logical grounds that this was the day God rested, which is why the fourth commandment decreed it to be a day of rest. So Christians chose Sunday instead – claiming that it was sanctified because this was the day Christ rose from the Cross.

But once that was agreed, there was then the matter of deciding what should and should not constitute appropriate behaviour for the Sabbath. Sundays, it was agreed, should be designated for worship and rest. There should be no weekday activities and certainly no games. This injunction was clearly going to cause trouble among the Romans, who loved sports like throwing Christians to lions and watching gladiators hack each other to death. Constantine agreed yet another compromise. Fighting was out, but the favourite sport, chariot racing, was allowed. And that’s a tradition that’s never gone away. Today, our Sundays are still dominated by its souped-up successor, Formula One.

Sport was by no means the only subject that plagued the consciences of early Christian commentators, who endlessly debated what should and should not be allowed on Sundays. They were no doubt influenced by Jewish orthodoxy, which developed a detailed litany of Sabbath prohibitions with a plethora of Talmudic disagreements.

Orthodox Jews are still forbidden to carry anything on a Saturday – even their own children. So to get round this stricture devout communities erect an eruv – a demarcation inside which dangerous activities like, say, pushing a pram are allowed. You can’t use electricity, you can’t employ tools and you most certainly are not allowed to drive. And the force of this rule was felt keenly this summer in Jerusalem, when hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews – or Haredim – staged a weekly protest each Saturday against the opening of a Jerusalem car park on Shabbat. On one occasion, a small group of them tried unsuccessfully to block the entrance to the Carta parking lot near the old city, while a counter-demonstration of around 50 people collected to denounce “religious coercion”.

The campaigners, mostly from the ultra-Orthodox Toldot Aaron sect opposed to the state of Israel, say the decision by Jerusalem’s secular mayor Nir Barkat to open the car park on Saturdays profanes Shabbat by boosting traffic and encouraging Jewish shop-owners to open to serve tourists. Antagonism between secular and orthodox Jews reached frenzy point when three Haredim were stabbed during one of these weekly fracas.

As so often happens, the rituals of religion were being privileged over its principles and real values. Adherents to faiths or creeds may cling to the rules as an expression of devotion. But also, the rules themselves are a form of discipline, a means to control wayward congregants or lax believers. Medieval English churches often contained murals depicting what was known as the “Sunday Christ”, explains Craig Harline in his book Sunday. These would show Jesus suffering on the cross, surrounded by everyday tools such as knives, nails, scythes and fishing hooks, each connected, sharp end first, by a red line to a fresh wound somewhere on Christ’s body, a reminder that if these were used on the Sabbath the Saviour’s wounds would be even more agonising.

Moreover, preachers would castigate their congregations about the pitfalls of breaking the Sabbath strictures. By the 1300s , according to Harline, stories of Sunday violators were rife. ”Did they know of the fellow who missed Mass to go hunting and ended up having his arrows fly back at him? Or of the peasant who picked peas on Sunday and had them stick to his hand so tightly that only by going to church and praying did they come unstuck? Or of the terrified peasant who felled a tree and watched blood flow from its stump? Or of the baker who drew his batch of bread from the oven on a Sunday and saw blood flow from a broken loaf?”

So the belief that the Isle of Lewis breakdown was a punishment from God has a noble ancestry, particularly in Scotland. When the Tay Bridge across the Firth of Forth collapsed one Sunday in 1879, killing 75 railway passengers, it was widely believed that the Lord had sent a warning to the irreligious British. For Scottish Sabbatarian restrictions were far more severe than those in England. Scottish Sunday, writes Harline, “was supposedly marked by little conversation, much study of the Bible, not a single trifling word, the locking-up of swings, sharp rebukes for whistling, and especially long sermons.”

The severity of these proscriptions was if anything hardened after the Reformation when Scottish Presbyterians sought to emphasise their separation from and indeed their superiority to what they saw as the decadence and laxity of the Roman Catholicism. Once again, religious devotion became the outward symbol of political struggle.

Tudor England also needed to emphasise its distinctiveness from the Catholic Church. At the same time, though, it was politically expedient to remain distant from the strict habits of Scotland. So Elizabeth tended to resist too much state intervention in religious affairs. Several attempts during her reign to restrict tavern opening and Sunday trading were unsuccessful, to the consternation of the increasingly orthodox Puritans who, like the Presbyterians, advocated strict and joyless Sundays devoted to worship and reflection.

by the 18th century different factions were taking hold, with the rise of the evangelical movement on the one hand and on the other the emergence of more progressive, Enlightenment thinking. So there were increasing tensions between those who saw Sunday as a holy day and those who preferred to see it as a holiday. The Sabbatarians were inspired by the bestselling tract A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, published in 1728, by the Anglican divine William Law. This work had a strong influence on Dr Johnson, who told Boswell he became religious after reading it. But although Johnson claimed to recommend the strict observance of Sunday he rarely went to church. Boswell, on the other hand, attended services frequently but couldn’t help his thoughts turning to the women he hoped to enjoy later on. “What a curious, inconsistent thing is the mind of man,” he confided in his journal. “In the midst of divine service I was laying plans for having women, and yet I had the most sincere feelings of religion.”

Boswell’s friend Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom he dedicated his Life of Johnson, never went to church. Instead, he painted. He believed that serious artists should not abandon their practice for a single day – those who chose church instead would never make great painters. He was forced out of the habit by Johnson, who, on his deathbed, asked Reynolds to read the Bible regularly and not to paint on Sunday.

While England and Scotland were derided by visiting Europeans in the 18th century as unnecessarily strict in their Sunday observance, France was considered to be the height of sophistication. Cafés, replete with live music and dance, would throb with life, the parks would be filled with picnickers, every form of entertainment would be available. Sundays in Paris epitomised the glorious, decadent abandon of La Belle Epoque.

English purists at that time may have looked down on the “continental” Sunday but by the 19th century a series of laws relaxed many of the Sabbatarian strictures, particularly opening up the museums and the parks for Sunday enjoyment. During this Victorian age the split between the fundamentalists and the progressives became more extreme. While the evangelical reformer Hannah More was busy establishing the Sunday School movement, and exhorting her wide circle of intellectuals to support her efforts, other, freer thinkers were advocating liberation from the old constraints. Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, established the Sunday Tramps, whereby friends would defy the old restrictions on recreational walking. They’d take long walks in the country and end up at someone’s house for a convivial dinner – another habit not quite accepted by strict observers. One person they visited after a Sunday jaunt, according to Stephen Miller, was Charles Darwin.

This was an age of campaigners and lobbyists, giving rise to a plethora of Sabbatarian movements such as the Central Committee for Securing the Cessation of Sunday Excursion Trains and, perhaps most influential of all, the Lord’s Day Observance Society. But at the same time a number of equally passionate liberationist groups emerged. The Sunday Society, established in 1875, included leading intellectuals like Herbert Spencer, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens, who in the 1830s had covered parliamentary debates over Sabbatarian legislation.

His revulsion at the privations and gloom of the traditional English Sunday are given voice by Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit. “There was the interminable Sunday of his nonage; when his mother, stern of face and unrelenting of heart, would sit all day behind a Bible . . . There was the resentful Sunday of a little later, when he sat down glowering and glooming through the tardy length of the day . . . There was a legion of Sundays, all days of unserviceable bitterness and mortification, slowly passing before him.”

Another enthusiastic member of the Society was John Stuart Mill, who in On Liberty argues that the Sunday laws are an “illegitimate interference with the rightful liberty of the individual”, and a form of religious persecution.

But one liberty which was enshrined by the Sunday laws was that of working people. For them, Sunday was their only respite from the hard, relentless drudgery of the working week. And even though the fun and festivity of French Sundays had to be supported by a small army of workers, France, along with the rest of Europe, had for centuries still honoured at least the principle that Sunday should be a day of rest and an entitlement for everyone. It was ironically the Revolution itself that threatened this fundamental freedom, heralding as it did an era of industrialisation and urbanisation. “With efficiency-driven shop and factory owners determining most of France’s laws after 1830,” writes Harline, “there was little to prevent them from requiring hungry, poorly paid workers to labour seven days a week. An 1814 Sunday law that restricted both labour and play was largely ignored for decades.”

Gradually the seven-day work week in French cities crumbled. But it was not until 1906, writes Harline, that “despite the opposition of small shop owners, and under pressure from unions, religious groups, and violence against stores that refused to close, France became one of the last European nations to pass a law that guaranteed workers the right to have 24 hours off every seven days.”

No wonder, then, that the French were so exercised at Nicholas Sarkozy’s decision, earlier this year, to push through a bill allowing more stores to open on Sundays. The move was met with rebellion in his own centre-right party, with an outcry from the Catholic Church, and protests from socialists that he was destroying the fabric of French society and family life by killing the weekend.

A similar coalition of trade unions and the church opposed the lifting of Sunday trading bans in Britain in 1994, the unions motivated by a desire to protect their workers, the Church by an equally passionate commitment to protecting their Sundays, and both united against the forces of commercialisation which are behind the relentless, inevitable drive towards deregulation.

But while there is every reason to support the protection of proper days of rest for employees, is there any real value to that day being the same for everyone? Judith Shulevitz, an Israeli secularist, thinks there is. In her forthcoming book The Sabbath World she argues for a collective day of rest not connected with religion at all. In a world of non-stop commerce, she believes that shutting down businesses for one day a week would allow for contemplation, quiet enjoyment, family and community life.

And according to Terry Eagleton, these are the very values that Jesus intended, too. “He respects the Sabbath not because it means going to church but because it represents a temporary escape from the burden of labour,” Eagleton writes in Faith, Reason and Revolution. “The Sabbath is about resting, not religion. One of the best reasons for being a Christian, as for being a socialist, is that you don’t like having to work, and reject the fearful idolatry of it so rife in countries like the United States. Truly civilized societies do not hold pre dawn power breakfasts.”

So why not a new form of Sunday – a humanist day of rest? We shouldn’t be too proud to reject the positive values intended by the great religions. Instead, let’s expropriate and improve on them by establishing a keep Sunday special movement to promote real ideals: a collective day when everyone can visit and meet, read and reflect, enjoy the parks and sport and culture – but without for once any pressure to shop or spend, and away from the everyday sweat and fray.

We could call it Darwin Day – just to show how very far we’ve evolved.

The Peculiar Life of Sundays by Stephen Miller (Harvard) and Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl by Craig Harline (Doubleday) are out now