16. Attitude of the Reformers Toward Sunday

THOUGH the position the Reformers took in relation to the first day of the week is not directly connected with the main object of these articles, we cannot forego a brief chapter on this subject. Our investigation of the rise of Sunday to prominence as a sacred day in the church, has thus far been wholly connected with the apostasy, which finally developed into the papacy. The rise of Sunday kept even pace with the work of corruption in the church, so that the highest point of Roman apostasy was contemporary with the highest degree of Sunday sacredness. The inquiring reader will be anxious to know what ground the great Reformers took relative to this institution. We will answer briefly.

The great Reformation of the sixteenth century arose in the bosom of the Catholic Church itself. Many of the Reformers were priests of that church before the Reformation commenced. All of them had been trained up in its communion, and were accustomed to observe its festivals, and had, at first, full respect for its authority. They were, in short, good Catholics when they began the work of reform. From their earliest infancy they had reverenced the institutions of the church, and at first never dreamed of leaving the church or of rebelling against the pope. They doubtless would have remained in the bosom of the church had they not been so pressed by their enemies that, driven to the wall, they had to take their stand.

Under such circumstances it could not be expected that these men in that age of reverence for the hoary past would be able to see all the errors into which the church had drifted, or come back at once to the complete purity of apostolic religion. These men are deserving of high honor for the great advance out of darkness which they did make, and God greatly blessed their labors. But reformation since their time has still continued, and doubtless will continue till the close of time. No men of any one generation are entitled to all the credit for the blessed light of our age. It has been gradually dawning. Mosheim well says:

“The vindicators of religious liberty do not discover all truth in an instant, but like persons emerging from long darkness, their vision improves gradually.”

Dean Stanley says:

“Each age of the church has, as it were, turned over a new leaf in the Bible, and found a response to its own wants.” (History of the Eastern Church, page 79, ed. 1872.)

The Protestants of the present day would not accept all that the early Reformers believed. It is well known that Martin Luther and many others held fast to the doctrine of consubstantiation, that is, “to a real and corporeal presence of the body and blood of Christ, in, under, or along with the bread and wine.” (Mosheim.) Many things were held and tolerated which we would not now think consistent. It causes no surprise, therefore, that most of the Reformers did not see all the truth of God’s word concerning the ancient Sabbath. After a thousand years of such gross darkness, while tradition was generally reckoned to be of supreme authority, this would have been too much to expect.

But what was the position taken by them concerning Sunday sacredness? Did they regard it as the day which Christ had set apart as the Christian Sabbath? Did they consider there was any scriptural authority for it? That it was sin to do ordinary work upon it? Or that there was and command of God that it should be kept holy? Or did they consider it merely a festival day, like Christmas, Good Friday, or other days appointed by the church? We quote as follows:

“In the Augsburg Confession, which was drawn up by Melanchthon [and approved by Luther], to the question, ‘what ought we to think of the Lord’s Day?’ it is answered that the Lord’s Day. Easter, Whitsuntide, and other such holy days ought to be kept, because they are appointed by the Church, that all things may be done in order; but that the observance of them is not to be thought necessary to salvation, nor the violation of them, if it be done without offense to others, to be regarded as a sin!” (Cox’s Sabbath Laws, page 287.)

The Confession of the Swiss churches says on this point:

“The observance of the Lord’s Day is founded not on any commandment of God, but on the authority of the Church; and the Church may alter the day at pleasure.” Idem. Tyndale, the great English Reformer, said:

“As for the Sabbath, we be lords over the Sabbath, and may yet change it into Monday, or into any other day as we see need, or may make every tenth day holy only if we see cause why!” (Tyndale’s Answer to More, book 1, chapter 25.)

Zwingle, the great Swiss Reformer, regarded it thus:

“For we are no way bound to time, but time ought so to serve us, that it is lawful, and permitted to each church, when necessity urges (as is usual to be done in harvest time), to transfer the solemnity and rest of the Lord’s Day, or Sabbath, to some other day.” (Hessey, page 352.)

John Calvin said respecting the Sunday festival:

“However, the ancients have not without sufficient reason substituted what we call the Lord’s day in the room of the Sabbath . . . Yet I do not lay so much stress on the septenary number that I, would oblige the Church to an invariable adherence to it; nor will I condemn those churches which have other solemn days for their assemblies, provided they keep at a distance from superstition.” (Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by John Alien, book 2, chap. 8, sec. 34.)

These words from Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, the strictest observers of Sunday, perhaps, of any denomination, may surprise many. But we shall find that their views of Sunday strictness were of later origin. Certainly Calvin did not share in them; for it seems he himself was not particularly strict as a Sunday-keeper. Dr. Hessey says:

“Knox, the intimate friend of Calvin, visited Calvin, and, it is said, and on one occasion found him enjoying the recreation of bowls on Sunday.” (Hessey’s Bampton Lectures on Sunday, page 201, ed. 1866.)

Calvin had Servitus arrested on Sunday. John Barclay, a learned man of Scotch descent, whose early life was spent near Geneva, published the statement that Calvin and his friends at Geneva:

“Debated whether the reformed, for the purpose of estranging themselves more completely from the Roman Church, should not adopt Thursday as the Christian Sabbath,” one reason assigned by Calvin being, “that it would be a proper instance of Christian liberty!”

These statements have been credited by many learned Protestants, and we are not aware that they have ever been disproved. Knox was not such a believer in the sacredness of Sunday as Presbyterians now are. Thus we see the leading Reformers were not believers in Sunday sacredness, as many modern Protestants are. They considered it a church festival, and not as receiving its authority from the fourth commandment.

Carlstadt, the German Reformer, kept the seventh-day Sabbath. He was a leading Reformer, one who went farther in opposition to the Roman Church than Luther and many others. His position was in some respects more consistent than Luther’s. He insisted on rejecting everything in the Catholic Church not authorized by the Scriptures, while Luther was determined to retain everything not expressly forbidden. Had Carlstadt’s position been taken, the Protestant churches would have come much nearer the truth of the Bible on the Sabbath question than it has.

Many will doubtless be surprised at these evidences of the low regard these early Reformers had for the Sunday Sabbath, admitting, as they did, that it was wholly an institution of the Church, and not required in the Scriptures. It is well known that this is not now the general position of many of the Protestant churches. They consider Sunday the Sabbath by divine appointment, and would highly resent such sentiments as history records concerning the opinions of the leading Reformers. Some may doubt the truthfulness of these statements; but we assure them that there are no facts better attested, and that we could present much evidence on this point substantiating what we have already said.

The real facts are these: In the great controversy in England between the Episcopalians and the Presbyterians, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, the Presbyterians rejected the authority of the church and most of its festivals, while the Episcopalians required men to observe all the festivals of the Church. Hence it was clearly seen that in order to maintain the authority of Sunday, which the Presbyterians kept, they must find some other arguments in its behalf than those which had sustained it for so many ages. They had therefore either to give up Sunday, or try to find arguments for it in the Bible. They chose the latter course.

The Seventh Part of Time Theory

Lyman Coleman, a first-day historian, thus states the promulgation of the modern opinion:

“The true doctrine of the Christian Sabbath was first promulgated by an English dissenter, the Revelation Nicholas Bound, D. D., of Norton, in the county of Suffolk. About the year 1595 he published a famous book, entitled Sabbathum Veteris et Novi Testamenti, or the ‘True Doctrine of the Sabbath.’ In this book he maintained ‘that the seventh part of our time ought to be devoted to God; that Christians are bound to rest on the Lord’s Day as much as the Jews were on the Mosaic Sabbath, the commandment about rest being moral and perpetual. And that it was not lawful for persons to follow their studies or worldly business on that day, nor to use such pleasures and recreations as are permitted on other days.’ This book spread with wonderful rapidity. The doctrine which it propounded called forth from many hearts a ready response, and the result was a most pleasing reformation in many parts of the kingdom. ‘It is almost incredible,’ says Fuller, ‘how taking this doctrine was, partly because of its own purity, and partly for the eminent piety of such persons as maintained it. So that the Lord’s Day, especially in corporations, began to be precisely kept; people becoming a law unto themselves, forbearing such sports as yet by statutes permitted; yea, many rejoicing at their own restraint herein.’” (Coleman’s Ancient Christianity Exemplified, chapter 26, section 2.)

This new doctrine “spread with wonderful rapidity,” and has since been substantially adopted by many of the Protestant churches, but not by all. It is now the popular doctrine of the change of the Sabbath which is generally held. Scattered hints of this doctrine in parts have been held before by a few; but it had never been put forth as a whole in the form of a system. During some fourteen centuries of first-day Sabbath agitation, such a doctrine had never been promulgated. The Christian Fathers, to whom Sunday elevation is remotely traced, never heard of such a doctrine. The change they wrought was for an entirely different reason. It was founded upon “custom,” “tradition,” “voluntary choice,” but never upon any Bible authority, never upon the fourth commandment.

A Preposterous Claim

Of all the arrogant, preposterous claims—and they have been many—put forth in behalf of the “venerable day of the sun,” the most preposterous is reserved for the last that of claiming for it the authority of the fourth commandment. It took some fourteen centuries to invent this claim, so contrary to the Bible record. If it is not “stealing the livery of heaven,” for the first day of the week to shield itself under and clothe itself with the commandment of God.” Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” “the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God,”—then we know not what would be. The command requiring us to observe the day of Jehovah’s rest which he blessed and set apart for a sacred use at the creation of the world, for man to keep ever holy, is now sanctimoniously appropriated to bolster up another day entirely, the one on which he began his work of creation. We do not know how mortal man could go farther in doing despite to the rest-day of the great God.

Here is where first-day observers have entrenched themselves for some two hundred years past. Here is where we find them today. The great heathen “memorial” of idolatry entrenched in the sacred temple of the memorial of the Creator! The first day of the week claiming as its fundamental authority the commandment of God which was given to enforce the observance of the seventh day, an entirely different day!

Well does J. N. Andrews say concerning this last step taken to save Sunday:

“Such was the origin of the seventh-part-of-time theory, by which the seventh day is dropped out of the fourth commandment, and one day in seven slipped into its place, a doctrine most opportunely framed at the very period when nothing else could save the venerable day of the sun. With the aid of this theory, the Sunday of ‘Pope and pagan’ was able coolly to wrap itself in the fourth commandment, and then, in the character of a divine institution, to challenge obedience from all Bible Christians. It could not cast away the other frauds on which its very existence had depended, and support its authority by this one alone. In the time of Constantine it ascended to the throne of the Roman empire, and during the whole period of the Dark Ages it maintained its supremacy from the chair of St. Peter; but now it had ascended to the throne of the Most High. And thus a day which God commanded not nor spoke it, neither came it into his ‘mind,’ was enjoined upon mankind with all the authority of his holy law.” (History of the Sabbath, pages 479, 480.)

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