11. The Sabbath in the Early Centuries after Christ

THE seventh day continued to be kept for several centuries after Christ, but with a sacredness gradually decreasing in proportion to the rising influence of Sunday, until the Roman Catholic Church became so powerful that, wherever it had sway, it put down the Sabbath, and exalted the first day of the week to its place in the observance of the people. This, as we shall see, was a gradual work, taking several centuries for its accomplishment.

Says the learned Mr. Morer, of the Church of England:

“The primitive Christians had a great veneration for the Sabbath, and spent the day in devotion and sermons. And it is not to be doubted but that they derived this practice from the apostles themselves, as appears by several scriptures to that purpose.” (Dialogues on the Lord’s Day, page 189.)

A learned English writer of the seventeenth century, William Twisse, D. D., thus states the early history of these two days:

“Yet for some hundred years in the primitive church, not the Lord’s Day only, but the seventh day also, was religiously observed, not by Ebion and Cerinthus alone, but by the pious Christians also, as Baronius writes and Gomarus confesses, and Rivet also, that we are bound in conscience, under the gospel.

To allow for God’s service a better proportion of time than the Jews did under the law, rather than a worse.” (Morality of the Fourth Commandment, page 9. London, 1641.)

The learned Geisler also states the same fact, and that this practice of observing the seventh day was not confined to the Jewish converts:

“While the Jewish Christians of Palestine retained the entire Mosaic law, and consequently the Jewish festivals, the Gentile Christians observed also the Sabbath and the Passover, with reference to the last scenes of Jesus’ life, but without Jewish superstition.” (Ecclesiastical History, Volume I, chapter 2, section 30.)

These statements are certainly very explicit proof of the continued observance of the Sabbath in the centuries immediately succeeding the apostolic age, and they come from those who could have no prejudice in favor of the seventh day.

But we notice others of similar import. Coleman speaks as follows:

“The last day of the week was strictly kept in connection with that of the first day for a long time after the overthrow of the temple and its worship. Down even to the fifth century the observance of the Jewish Sabbath was continued in the Christian church, but with a rigor and solemnity diminishing until it was wholly discontinued.” (Ancient Christianity Exemplified, chapter 6, section 2.)

In this extract, the writer speaks of the first day’s being observed also. In the same chapter he tells us how it was regarded in these early ages:

“During the early ages of the church it was never entitled ‘the Sabbath,’ this word being confined to the seventh day of the week, the Jewish Sabbath, which, as we have already said, continued to be observed for several centuries by the converts to Christianity.”

He tells us again in a few words how the first day of the week, which he, like many other first-day writers, calls “the Lord’s Day,” though without good authority for so doing, came gradually to work its way into the position of the true Sabbath:

“The observance of the Lord’s Day was ordered while yet the Sabbath of the Jews was continued; nor was the latter superseded until the former had acquired the same solemnity and importance which belonged, at first, to that great day which God originally ordained and blessed . . . But in time, after the Lord’s Day was fully established, the observance of the Sabbath of the Jews was gradually discontinued, and was finally denounced as heretical.”

We shall see that the facts of history fully sustain the statement of this first-day writer. The Sunday festival at first only asked toleration; but as it gradually gained strength, it undermined the Sabbath, whose adherents were finally denounced as heretical.

Bishop Jeremy Taylor, of the Church of England, a man of great learning, also bears testimony incidentally to the same fact, the observance of the Sabbath for centuries after Christ, though he was a decided opponent of Sabbath obligation:

“It [the Lord’s Day] was not introduced by virtue of the fourth commandment, because they for almost three hundred years together—kept that day which was in that commandment.” (Ductor Dubitantium, part 1, book 2, chapter 2, rule 6, section 51.)

We quote another testimony from a member of the English Church, Edward Brerewood, Professor in Gresham College, London:

“The ancient Sabbath did remain and was observed, together with the celebration of the Lord’s Day, by the Christians of the East Church, above three hundred years after our Savior’s death. And besides that, no other day for more hundreds of years than I spoke of before, was known in the church by the name of the Sabbath but that.” (Learned Treatise of the Sabbath, page 77, Oxford, 1631.)

These testimonies should certainly satisfy reasonable minds of the continued observance of the Sabbath of the Lord for a long time after the death of the apostles. As will be shown when we consider the growth of the Sunday institution, it gradually increased from several causes, till it became a rival of the ancient day. By the end of the third century it had acquired almost an equality with the Sabbath itself in the regard of many of the Gentile Christians. In the same ratio, the latter was decreasing in relative importance in the minds of many.

In the beginning of the fourth century an event occurred which vastly accelerated this process, and raised the first day and correspondingly depressed the seventh day in the balancing scale of esteem in the minds of the people. This was an edict of the emperor Constantine, issued A.D. 321, which required all trades-people and towns, people to rest on “the venerable day of the sun,” though it did not forbid labor in sowing or planting in the country. This is the first law commanding rest on the first day of the week, which can be found on record in all history, either human or sacred. We shall fully consider it when we notice the steps by which the first day rose to authority. The effect of this law upon the ancient Sabbath was greatly to decrease the regard of the people for it, and to turn the tide of influence strongly in favor of its rival. On this point an able writer, Mr. Cox, remarks:

“Very shortly after the period when Constantine issued his edict enjoining the general observance of Sunday throughout the Roman empire, the party that had contended for the observance of the seventh day, dwindled into insignificance. The observance of Sunday as a public festival, during which all business, with the exception of rural employment, was intermitted, came to be more and more generally established ever after this time, throughout both the Greek and Latin churches. There is no evidence, however, that either in this, or at a period much later, the observance was viewed as deriving any obligation from the fourth commandment. It seems to have been regarded as an institution corresponding in nature with Christmas, Good Friday, and other festivals of the church; and as resting with them on the ground of ecclesiastical authority and tradition!” (Sabbath Laws Examined, pages 280, 281.)

However, even with this powerful influence of the great Roman emperor thrown into the scale against the ancient Sabbath, it still continued to share public esteem for a long time. It took a strong combination of influences, secular and religious, entirely to obliterate from the public memory this grand ancient institution, the Sabbath of creation; but the gradual disintegrating influences continued to wear away its God-given sanctity. A heathen Roman emperor, a tyrant, a murderer, one who killed his own wife and his own son and many other innocent persons, took one prominent step to debase it. The Sabbath never fully recovered from this blow, although it was still regarded as a day for religious meetings. Dr. Heylyn, speaking of the Sabbath in Constantine’s time, says:

“As for the Saturday, that retained its wonted credit in the Eastern churches, little inferior to the Lord’s Day, if not plainly equal; not as the Sabbath, think not so; but as a day designed unto sacred meetings.” (History of the Sabbath, part 2, chap. 3, sec. 5.)

After Constantine’s time, there seems to have been in a measure a revival of interest in, and reverence for, the Sabbath in the minds of many Christians, at least in the Eastern churches, where the influence of the Roman Church was less powerful.

Professor Stewart, in speaking of the period from Constantine to the Council of Laodicea, A.D. 364, says:

“The practice of it [the keeping of the Sabbath] was continued by Christians who were jealous for the honor of the Mosaic law, and finally became, as we have seen, predominant throughout Christendom. It was supposed at length that the fourth commandment did require the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath (not merely a seventh part of time). And reasoning as Christians of the present day are wont to do, viz., that all which belonged to the Ten Commandments was immutable and perpetual, the churches in general came gradually to regard the seventh-day Sabbath as altogether sacred.” (Appendix to Gurney’s History, etc., of the Sabbath, pages 115, 116.)

Christianity Becomes Popular

The church had by this time become greatly corrupted. When Constantine professed Christianity, it became the popular religion. In order to serve in the army or in the courts, or hold any official position, men had to profess to be Christians; and Gibbon declares that many did this, but continued to worship their idols in secret. Vast numbers joined the church. The bishops sought high positions, wealth, and place, dressing in gorgeous attire, and there was very little resemblance indeed between religion then and in the days of persecution.

Council of Laodicea

What did this great Catholic Church now do, when they saw the Sabbath once more gaining some of its former sanctity, and an interest in it reviving?—They held a great council at Laodicea, and, among other things, passed a decree that Christians should not rest on the seventh day Sabbath, and pronounced a curse upon all who should do so. We present the following statements of eminent authors on this point.

Mr. James, in addressing the University of Oxford, used this language:

“When the practice of keeping Saturday Sabbaths, which had become so general at the close of this century, was evidently gaining ground in the Eastern Church, a decree was passed in the council held in Laodicea [A.D. 364]. That members of the church should not rest from work on the Sabbath day, like Jews, but should labor on that day, and preferring in honor the Lord’s Day. Then, if it be in their power, should rest from work as Christians.” (Sermons on the Sacraments and Sabbath, pages 122, 123.) Prynne thus testifies:

“It is certain that Christ himself, his apostles, and the primitive Christians for some good space of time, did constantly observe the seventh-day Sabbath . . . the Evangelists and St. Luke in the Acts ever styling it the Sabbath day . . . and making mention of its . . . solemnization by the apostles and other Christians . . . it being still solemnized by many Christians after the apostles’ times, even till the Council of Laodicea, as ecclesiastical writers and the twenty-ninth canon of that council testify, which runs thus: ‘Because Christians ought not to Judaize and to rest in the Sabbath, but to work in that day (which many did refuse at that time to do). But preferring in honor the Lord’s Day (there being then a great controversy among Christians which of these two days . . . should have precedency), if they desired to rest, they should do this as Christians. Wherefore if they shall be found to Judaize, let them be accursed from Christ.’ . . . The seventh-day Sabbath was . . . solemnized by Christ, the apostles, and primitive Christians, till the Laodicean Council did in a manner quite abolish the observation of it . . . The Council of Laodicea . . . first settled the observation of the Lord’s Day, and prohibited . . . the keeping of the Jewish Sabbath under an anathema.” (Dissertation on the Lord’s Day Sabbath, pages 33, 34, 44, ed. 1633.)

We also quote from an old English writer, John Ley:

“From the apostle’s time until the Council of Laodicea, which was about the year 364, the holy observation of the Jews’ Sabbath continued, as may be proved out of many authors; yea, notwithstanding the decree of that council against it.” (Sunday a Sabbath, page 163, ed. 1640.)

From this time onward the general disregard of the ancient Sabbath was a foregone conclusion. It did continue, as we shall show, in some localities where the Catholic Church had not the power to abolish it. But the influence of that church was so great, its jurisdiction so extensive, its hatred to the Sabbath of the Lord so bitter, and its efforts in behalf of the Sunday Sabbath so active, that for centuries the ancient Sabbath made but little figure among Christian communities. We charge plainly and squarely upon the corruption of that Christianity which developed into the Roman Catholic Church, the change of the Sabbath, and the abolition of the ancient Sabbath of the Lord, contrary to the practice of the church of Jesus Christ. The influences which hastened this result dwelt in Rome itself in a special sense, far more than in other sections. The bishops of Rome manifested their enmity against the Sabbath far more than those of any other city.

The Sabbath a Fast Day

About the year A.D. 200, the Church of Rome turned the Sabbath into a fast day, evidently to make the Sabbath disreputable. Says Mr. James, before the University of Oxford:

“The Western church began to fast on Saturday at the beginning of the third century.”

Dr. Charles Hase, of Germany, says:

“The Roman Church regarded Saturday as a fast day in direct opposition to those who regarded it as a Sabbath. Sunday remained a joyful festival,” etc. (Ancient Church History, part 1, div. 2, A.D. 100-312, sec. 69.)

Says the great German historian, Neander:

“In the Western churches, particularly the Roman, where opposition to Judaism was the prevailing tendency, this very opposition produced the custom of celebrating the Saturday in particular as a fast day.” (Neander, page 186.)

By Judaism is doubtless meant the observance of the Sabbath. Fasting is never popular, and of course, seeing the Sunday was made as joyful a day as possible, the Sabbath was disliked. The Eastern churches did not follow in this practice of fasting on the Sabbath for a long time, and censured the Roman Church for doing it.

The Roman Church made the first edict in behalf of Sunday. It required the observance of the Passover on the Sunday following Good Friday, while the great majority of the other churches celebrated it on the fourteenth day of the first month, no matter what day of the week this might be. Victor, bishop of Rome, in the year 196, tried to impose this upon all the churches; that is, to compel them to observe it on Sunday. Dowling calls it the “earliest instance of Roman assumption.” The churches of Asia Minor would not comply with his wishes. Bower says that upon receipt of their letter saying this, Victor, giving way to an impotent and ungovernable passion, published bitter invectives against all the churches of Asia,” etc. (History of the Popes, under Victor.)

Constantine’s edict in behalf of the “venerable day of the sun” went forth backed by the whole influence of Rome, A.D. 325, through the powerful influence of Constantine, where, indeed, it had its source. At the Council of Nicaea, the position of the Roman Church concerning the celebration of the Passover on Sunday, was carried through. Thus Rome secured a victory in behalf of Sunday.

One special reason urged by the emperor in behalf of Sunday was this: “Let us, then, have nothing in common with the most hostile rabble of the Jews.” This hatred of the Jews was one of the strongest causes why the Sabbath was suppressed. Sylvester, bishop of Rome at this time, and Eusebius, the historian, were special favorites of the emperor, and doubtless used their utmost influence with him to bring about these results.

We see, therefore, the Roman influence in all these moves to suppress the Sabbath. They culminated in the Council of Laodicea, A.D. 364, when the keeping of the Sabbath was denounced, and those who observed it were placed under a curse. Who can fail to see the leading spirit in this movement? Whenever the Roman Church has had authority, the Sabbath has been degraded. It continued much longer in the Eastern churches than in the Western, where the Roman influence was paramount. After the removal of the capital city from Rome to Constantinople by the emperor Constantine, there was quite a struggle on the part of the bishop of the latter city for the mastery. But to no purpose, though it finally resulted in the separation of the Roman and Greek Catholic churches. But throughout the Western churches the adherents of the Sabbath had little favor; though we find here and there traces of Sabbath-keepers in retired places all through the Dark Ages. Of these we will speak hereafter.

Thus we see that the Roman Catholic Church, with the pope at its head, “exalted” itself “above God” by setting aside his law. Thus he fulfilled the prophet’s prediction, “he shall think to change the times and the law.”

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