14. A Law for Resting on Sunday
WE have now reached an important point in the consideration of the advance of the Sunday institution. We have seen it creeping stealthily into prominence in various ways, through one influence or another, until it has become quite generally recognized as a day for religious meetings. But hitherto it has never claimed Sabbath honors. Not a single instance can be found of any law given in its favor as a day of rest and no instance of its being observed as a Sabbath, of its taking that title, or being recognized in that character.
For three hundred years of church history the rulers of the Roman empire have been pagans. In the early part of the fourth century there came a change; Constantine the Great, so called, professed the Christian religion. Before this, because of persecution, the church had maintained some degree of purity, though many practices had been adopted for which there was no warrant in Scripture. But from this time on, most rapid changes were seen. To obtain favor with the emperor, with their own profit in view, vast multitudes of pagans embraced the Christian religion nominally, though at heart they remained unchanged. All Protestants admit that the age of Constantine and the one immediately succeeding were periods of great corruption. From this time forward the progress was most rapid, till it finally culminated in the full development of the Roman Catholic Church. We shall see that during this very time the most rapid advance of the Sunday institution also occurs.
In the year A.D. 321, Constantine issued the following edict:
“Let all the judges and town people, and the occupation of all trades, rest on the venerable day of the sun. But let those who are situated in the country, freely and at full liberty attend to the business of agriculture; because it often happens that no other day is so fit for sowing corn and planting vines. Lest, the critical moment being let slip, men should lose the commodities granted by Heaven.”
In no document, human or divine, can any command be found to rest on Sunday, the first day of the week, previous to this law by Constantine. Let the discerning reader note carefully the language of this famous law. It does not command us to rest on the Christian Sabbath, on the first day of the week, or the Lord’s Day, or on the day in which Christians generally meet to have divine worship; but it is the “venerable day of the sun” which is thus honored—“the wild solar holiday of all pagan times.” The reader will recall what has been stated in former chapters concerning the conflict between the two “memorials,” the one of the Creator’s rest, the other of the earliest form of idolatry—sun worship. Constantine, with the arm of civil law, now strikes the first heavy blow in behalf of the “venerable day of the sun,” thus strengthening the positions taken concerning the antiquity of the heathen custom of sun worship on the first day of the week. It was, then, a very “venerable” day in the year 321. Constantine was still a heathen when he put forth this decree. This edict went into effect on the seventh day of March. The day following, viz., March 8, 321, another heathen decree was issued, the purport of which was:
“That if any royal edifice should be struck by lightning, the ancient ceremonies of propitiating the deity should be practiced, and the hartispices were to be consulted to learn the meaning of the awful portent. The hartispices were soothsayers who foretold future events by examining the entrails of beasts slaughtered in sacrifice to the gods.” (Andrews’ History of the Sabbath, pages 347, 348, ed. 1887.)
Any one who has read heathen history knows this was a practice very common among them.
Constantine was a worshiper of Apollo, or the sun. Thus Gibbon says:
“The devotion of Constantine was more peculiarly directed to the genius of the sun, the Apollo of Greek and Roman mythology; and he was pleased to be represented with the symbols of the god of light and poetry . . . The altars of Apollo were crowned with the votive offerings of Constantine; and the credulous multitude were taught to believe that the emperor was permitted to behold with mortal eyes the visible majesty of their tutelar deity . . . The sun was universally celebrated as the invincible guide and protector of Constantine.” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap. 20, par. 3.)
Here we plainly discern the reason why the emperor put forth his decree in favor of the “venerable day of the sun.” He was an ardent worshiper of the sun. Mosheim places the nominal conversion of Constantine two years later than the edict. We say “nominal” conversion, for there is no good reason to believe that he was ever a genuine Christian. He was a tyrant, a murderer of many innocent persons, and gave evidence of being anything but a follower of the Prince of peace.
The first law for keeping Sunday as a day of rest, then, was a heathen law in favor of sun worship. This is admitted by many of the best Protestant historians and authors. Dr. Milman, the learned editor of Gibbon, says:
“The script commanding the celebration of the Christian Sabbath bears no allusion to its peculiar sanctity as a Christian institution. It is the day of the sun, which is to be observed by the general veneration. The courts were to be closed, and the noise and tumult of public business and legal litigation were no longer to violate the repose of the sacred day. But the believer in the new paganism, of which the solar worship was the characteristic, might acquiesce without scruple in the sanctity of the first day of the week.” (History of Christianity, book 3, chapter 1, page 396, edition 1881.) In a subsequent chapter he adds:
“In fact, as we have before observed, the day of the sun would be willingly hallowed by almost all the pagan world, especially that part which had admitted any tendency toward the Oriental theology.” (Idem, book 3, chapter 4, page 397.)
Thus it is fully admitted that the design of this decree was wholly pagan. It was a step in the great contest which had been going on for ages to crowd out the Sabbath of the Lord, and exalt the “memorial” of idolatry in its place.
Effect on the Church
How did this heathen decree affect the practice of the Christian Church? We have already seen that the two days, the seventh and the first, were balancing in popular favor, and that the Roman Church had been doing what it could to suppress the Sabbath and exalt Sunday. We shall now see that the so-called Church of Jesus Christ took advantage of this heathen decree in behalf of the “venerable day of the sun,” to complete the work already begun. This edict was a heavy blow to the Sabbath, and as great an aid to the Sunday. We quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica as follows:
“It was Constantine the Great who first made a law for the proper observance of Sunday, and who, according to Eusebius, appointed it should be regularly celebrated throughout the Roman empire. Before him, and even in his time, they observed the Jewish Sabbath, as well as Sunday . . . By Constantine’s law, promulgated in 321, it was decreed that for the future the Sunday should be kept as a day of rest in all cities and towns; but he allowed the country people to follow their work.” (Art. Sunday, seventh edition, 1842.)
Mosheim, who was a strong advocate for Sunday, says of this law:
“The first day of the week, which was the ordinary and stated time for the public assemblies of the Christians, was, in consequence of a peculiar law enacted by Constantine, observed with greater solemnity than it had formerly been.” (Ecclesiastical History, cent. 4, part 2, chapter 4, section 5.)
This is quite an admission for this historian to make. This heathen law, permitting those who followed the occupation of agriculture to plow, sow, plant trees, etc., but which forbade the town people to work, caused the Christians to observe Sunday more strictly than they had formerly. As the law required only a part of the people to rest on Sunday, while the others could freely work, we must conclude that before the issue of this edict, none of the people had refrained from labor on Sunday. This we have seen was the case, since there was no law in existence before this requiring it. Sir William Domville says:
“Centuries of the Christian era passed away before the Sunday was observed by the Christian church as a Sabbath. History does not furnish us with a single proof or indication that it was at any time so observed previous to the Sabbatical edict of Constantine in A.D. 32l.” (Examination of the Six Texts, page 291.)
This edict of Constantine’s greatly accelerated the current already setting strongly against the ancient Sabbath. It furnished some authority, if it was only heathen, in behalf of the Sunday. Every advance it made correspondingly depressed the Sabbath, inasmuch as keeping two days in each week as a rest-day would be absurd. An able writer thus expresses the result throughout the Roman empire:
“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 the Latin churches. There is no evidence, however, that either at 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.” (Cox’s Sabbath Laws, pages 280, 281.)
We see, therefore, that that which caused the Sabbath to be greatly neglected was the heathen decree of the emperor. Heathenism and corrupted Christianity united their forces in putting down the Sabbath and exalting Sunday in its place.
It might be said that this decree was the expiring act of heathenism. In one sense it was so; but the kind of Christianity which took its place really resembled heathenism more than it did the pure and humble religion of Christ and his apostles. This remark at first may seem harsh and incredible; but truly the reflecting, observing mind must admit its truthfulness.
Where is the Resemblance?
What resemblance is there between the plain, simple forms of worship observable in the ministry of Christ and the apostles, and the gorgeous, pompous ceremonials of the Catholic Church? What resemblance is there in the appearance, manners, and dress of the two, in our Savior going about on foot, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, healing the sick and benefiting all, clad in his seamless coat, the garb of the poor; and the lordly priest, clad in his official robes of purple and scarlet, bowing before images with his train of attendants, and exacting the highest homage? What resemblance is there in the doctrines of the two? Christ taught the need of repentance, faith, baptism, and the living of a humble, pure, holy life of obedience to the truths of God’s word and the principles of God’s law. But look at the Catholic ceremonials, the confessions to the priest, the prayers for souls in purgatory, the holy water, vows of celibacy, worshiping of images, elevating and adoring bread, believing it to be the actual flesh of our Lord and Savior! And what resemblance is there in the spirit of the two? Our Savior was ever seeking to alleviate suffering, to benefit all within his reach. He wept over the people of Jerusalem because they would not let him save them; he prayed, even for his enemies, while hanging on the cross in the greatest agony. On the other hand, look at the bloody Crusades, at the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s day, when the blood of poor Huguenots ran down the streets of Paris, when the papists surprised them through deception. And look at the poor Waldenses, butchered by thousands—men, women, children because they would not take the pope’s authority instead of the Scriptures as their rule of action. See the Inquisition with its horrors. Men and women tortured on the rack, or starved to death in deep dungeons. These things were done when the Roman Church had the power. What, we say, are the resemblance between their practices and the pure religion of Jesus?
But there is a striking resemblance on the other hand between heathenism and the ceremonies, manners, forms of worship, bowing to images, resplendent robes, and persecuting spirit of Catholicism; indeed, many Catholics themselves admit that many of their customs were derived from the heathen. On this interesting point we will venture to quote from two eminent Catholic writers. Cardinal Baronius, perhaps the most reliable writer in that church, says:
“That many things have been laudably translated from. Gentile superstition into the Christian religion, bath been demonstrated by many examples and the authority of the Fathers. And what wonder if the holy bishops have granted that the most ancient customs of the Gentiles should be introduced into the worship of thee true God, from which it seemed impossible to take off many, though converted to Christianity?”
Bervaldus, another Catholic writer, speaks as follows:
“When I call to mind the institutions of the holy mysteries of the heathen, I am forced to believe that most things appertaining to the celebration of our solemnities and ceremonies are taken thence. As, for example, from the Gentile religion the shaven heads of the priests, turning round of the altar, sacrificial pomps, and many such like ceremonies which our priests solemnly use in our mysteries. How many things in our religion are like the Roman religion? How many rites common!”
Truly our remark that Catholicism resembles the heathen worship more than it does the religion of Christ, cannot be denied. Catholicism is a system of mixed Christianity and heathenism, with the latter predominating.
A Heathen Union Consummated
The edict of Constantine, and the full adoption of the heathen Sunday by the church, marks the point where this heathen union was consummated. Constantine at this point represented the heathen, being an ardent sun-worshiper. Pope Sylvester, at that time bishop of Rome, represented the Catholic Church. In its efforts to elevate Sunday, this church joyfully accepted his heathen decree and heathen day, and thus fully blended the heathen system with their corrupted form of Christianity. From that point the barriers were broken down, and heathen and heathenism largely took possession of the church. At this point, so history informs us, many of the humble, God-fearing Christians withdrew into retired places, where they could still worship God according to the Scriptures.
Sunday First Called “Lord’s Day”
Pope Sylvester, by his apostolical authority, changed the name of the day, giving it the imposing title of “Lord’s Day.” (See “Ecclesiastical History of Lucius,” cent. 4, cap. 10, pages 739, 740.) It had been called by that title by a few writers before; but Sylvester, as head of the church, now officially decided that its title should be “Lord’s Day.” Thus Constantine elevated the Sunday as a heathen festival to be observed throughout the empire, while Sylvester changed it into a Christian institution, dignifying it by the title of “Lord’s Day.”
Concerning the grounds upon which Sunday stands, we will here give a quotation from Dr. Heylyn:
“Thus do we see upon what grounds the Lord’s Day stands: on custom first and voluntary consecration of it to religious meetings; that custom countenanced by the authority of the church of God, which tacitly approved the same; and finally confirmed and ratified by the Christian princes throughout their empires. And as the day for rest from labors and restraint from business upon that day, [it] received its greatest strength from the supreme magistrate as long as he retained that power which to him belongs. As after from the canons and. decrees of councils, the decretals of popes and orders of particular prelates when the sole managing of ecclesiastical affairs was committed to them.” (History of the Sabbath, part 2, chapter 3, section 12.)
Here we have truly set before us the authority on which the Sunday Sabbath rests. How different from that for the Sabbath of the Lord! The former is wholly human; the latter, wholly divine. The former originated in heathenism and idolatry, and was finally adopted as a rest-day by a corrupted church on the authority of a Roman tyrant. The latter began by the act of God himself, at the creation of the world, in resting, blessing, and setting apart the day for man to keep, and in commanding his people to observe it for all time.
Eusebius, who was a bishop, and a great flatterer and favorite of the Emperor Constantine, seems to admit that the change wrought in the Sabbath at this time was by human authority. He says:
“All things whatsoever that it was duty to do on the Sabbath, these we have transferred to the Lord’s Day.” (Cox’s Sabbath Literature, Volume I, page 361.)
We see at last a change of the Sabbath quite fully wrought, at least to this extent, that the Sabbath was degraded by a Catholic council, and denounced under a curse as heretical, and that the Sunday was generally considered a day for public worship, and for at least partial rest. We will next notice other steps by which the latter was rendered still more sacred in the eyes of the people.