13. Other Reasons Why Sunday Was Favored
THE general observance of memorial days in the second and third centuries of the Christian era, was also another reason why Sunday was exalted. Doubtless the practice was innocent at first, and originated from the best motives, being prompted by reverence for Christ. The same principle in the human heart which has always led people to commemorate important events in which they have felt a deep interest, by celebrating with appropriate services the special days upon which these events occurred, led the disciples, after the apostles’ death, to regard with more or less interest the days of Christ’s betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. To this day, Good Friday, Holy Thursday, etc., are considered as quite sacred in the state churches of Europe, especially in the Roman and Greek Catholic Churches. “Holy week,” as the week connected with the last scenes in Christ’s life is called, has been regarded with great reverence for ages in the Catholic and other national churches, and is really becoming popular in many Protestant churches. But all such services and observances have no authority in Scripture; they are derived from tradition alone. It was in this way that Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, first became prominent among Christians. At first it was little, if any, more prominent than Friday, the day of his crucifixion. Mosheim says:
“It is also probable that Friday, the day of Christ’s crucifixion, was early distinguished by particular honors from the other days of the week.” (Ecclesiastical History, cent. 1, part 2, chap. 4, note to sec. 4.)
He says of the second century:
“Many also observed the fourth day of the week, on which Christ was betrayed; and the sixth, which was the day of his crucifixion.” (Idem, cent. 2, part 2, chapter 1, sec. 12.)
Dr. Peter Heylyn says of those who chose Sunday:
“Because our Savior rose on that day from among the dead, so chose they Friday for another, by reason of our Savior’s passion, and Wednesday, on the which he had been betrayed; the Saturday, or ancient Sabbath, being meanwhile retained in the Eastern churches.” (History of the Sabbath, part 2, chapter 1, sec. 12.)
Of the comparative sacredness of these voluntary festivals, the same writer testifies:
“If we consider either the preaching of the word, the ministration of the sacraments, or the public prayers, the Sunday in the Eastern churches had no great prerogative above other days, especially above the Wednesday and the Friday, save that the meetings were more solemn, and the concourse of people greater than at other times, as is most likely.” (Idem, part 2, chap. 3, sec. 4.)
But the fact that Sunday was a general public holiday of the heathen world around them, and that the Church of Rome made persistent efforts to give it precedence, and, above all, the effect of Constantine’s decree in its favor, gave the Sunday at last a great superiority over these other voluntary festival days, as well as over the Sabbath itself. The efforts of the Church of Rome, and those in sympathy with it, in behalf of Sunday, making it a day of joy and gladness, freedom from fasts, etc., at the same time turning the Sabbath into a fast day, as we have seen, did much toward giving prestige and dignity to the former.
First Instance of Sunday Observance
The first recorded instance of Sunday observance which has any claim to be considered genuine, is mentioned by Justin Martyr, A.D. 140 in an address to the Roman emperor. He states in substance that the Christians met together on Sunday, when the writings of the apostles and prophets were read, a discourse was given, prayers offered, the consecrated elements—bread and wine and water distributed to, and partaken of by, all that were present, and sent to the absent by the hands of the deacons, a collection taken up, etc. We here see some innovations introduced, such as sending the emblems to the absent, and using water in connection with them. He does not intimate that this day has any divine authority from Christ and the apostles, or any command whatever for its observance. It would seem to be a purely voluntary practice. Neither does he hint that the day was regarded as a Sabbath, or that it was wrong to work on that day. He only states that they held a religious meeting on it. Sunday had not, up to this time, acquired any title of sacredness. It bore simply its old heathen title. He does not call it the Lord’s Day, nor the Christian Sabbath. It was more than fifty years later before a recorded instance can be found where it was called by the former, and many years elapsed before it was called by the latter title.
Perhaps it will be proper at this point to introduce the testimony of Neander, the greatest of Church historians. This German author speaks as follows of Sunday observance in the early Church:
“The festival of Sunday, like all other festivals, was always only a human ordinance, and it was far from the intentions of the apostles to establish a divine command in this respect, far from them, and from the early apostolic Church, to transfer the laws of the Sabbath to Sunday. Perhaps at the end of the second century a false application of this kind had begun to take place; for men appear by that time to “have considered laboring on Sunday as a sin.” (Neander’s Church History, translated by Rose, page 186.)
This statement truly gives the origin of Sunday observance; it was purely voluntary, standing solely upon human authority.
Sir William Domville states the same fact:
“Not any ecclesiastical writer of the first three centuries attributed the origin of Sunday observance either to Christ or to his apostles.” (Examination of the Six Texts, Supplement, pages 6, 7.)
The authors living nearest the days of the apostles never heard of the arguments put forth at this remote day for the change of the Sabbath. For hundreds of years no hints, even, were given that Christ or the apostles changed the Sabbath. We have seen before that Victor, bishop of Rome, A.D. 196, made an edict in behalf of Sunday, trying to compel the other churches to celebrate the Passover on that day. Also that the same church turned the Sabbath into a fast day, to place a stigma upon it.
Sunday a Festival
We will next notice the efforts of the Roman Church and its sympathizers to make Sunday a very joyful festival, in opposition to the Sabbath, which it had thus stigmatized as a day of sorrow and fasting. It was considered a sin to fast on Sunday; and on that day they must stand, not kneel, during prayer, this act of standing in prayer being a symbol of the resurrection.
Tertullian, the oldest of the Latin Fathers, who wrote about A.D. 200, says: “We devote Sunday to rejoicing.” (Apologeticus, paragraph 16.)
Dr. Heylyn says:
“Tertullian tells us that they did devote Sunday partly unto mirth and recreation, not to devotion altogether. When in a hundred years after Tertullian’s time there was no law or constitution to restrain men from labor on this day in the Christian Church.” (History of the Sabbath, part 2, chapter 8, section 13.) Tertullian himself says:
“We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s Day to be unlawful. We rejoice in the same privilege also from Easter to Whitsunday.” (De Corona, section 3.)
From Peter of Alexandria, another Father, we quote the following:
“But the Lord’s Day we celebrate as a day of joy, because on it he rose again, on which day we have received it for a custom not even to bow the knee.” (Canon 15.)
We could give many other similar statements, but it is not necessary. We will not, however, omit one statement from Tertullian. In speaking of “offerings for the dead,” the manner of Sunday observance, and the use of the sign of the cross upon the forehead, he gives the ground of these observances as follows:
“If for these and other such rules you insist upon having positive Scripture injunction, you will find none. Tradition will be held forth to you as the originator of them, custom as their strengthener, and faith as their observer.” (De Corona, section 4.)
Truly, this is a frank statement, which cannot be disputed. In this statement we have presented, clearly and boldly, one of the reasons why Sunday gradually advanced in sacredness in the popular view, the acceptance of tradition instead of the word of God being the real ground of first day observance, as well as of a vast number of other doctrines and customs which came into the church at this, time. Tradition versus Scripture is the great point of difference between Catholicism and Protestantism. The moment we admit tradition as a proper authority for religions duty, we step down from the Protestant rock, and can find no good reason why we should not receive all the heterogeneous practices of the Catholic Church.
We close this part of the subject, relating to the authority for Sunday keeping previous to the edict of Constantine, by giving the conclusions of one who has spent many years in investigating the writings of the early Fathers. He gives the substance of their testimony concerning the earliest observance of Sunday as follows:
“We shall find, 1. That no one claimed for first-day observance any divine authority; 2. That none of them had ever heard of the change of the Sabbath, and none believed the first-day festival to be a continuation of the Sabbath institution; 3. That labor on that day is never set forth as sinful, and that abstinence from labor is never mentioned as a feature of its observance, nor even implied, only so far as is necessary in order to spend a portion of the day in worship; 4. That if we put together all the hints respecting Sunday observance which are scattered through the Fathers of the first three centuries (for no one of them gives more than two of these, and generally a single hint is all that is found in one writer), we shall find just four items. (1) An assembly on that day in which the Bible was read and expounded, and the supper celebrated, and money collected. (2) The day must be one of rejoicing. (3) It must not be a day of fasting. (4) The knee must not be bent in prayer on that day.” (Andrews, History of the Sabbath, pages 285, 286.)