Home ] Up ] The Controversy ] Online Books ] Study the Word! ] GOD's Health Laws ] Religious Liberty ] Links ]


 Chapter 19

The History of Sunday Legislation


PERHAPS the most persistent form of religious coercion and the amalgamation of church and state, is seen in the history of the development of Sunday legislation. We are indebted largely to material provided by Doctor A. H. Lewis, Critical History of Sunday Legislation from 321 to 1888, New York, D. Appleton & Company, 1888, as summarized in William Blakely, American State Papers Bearing on Sunday Legislation, 1891.

The first Sunday legislation to be introduced into the Christian Church was a product of the pagan conception, fully developed by the Romans, which made religion a department of the state. This enactment was diametrically opposed to the principles of true Christianity as enunciated in the New Testament by Christ and the Apostles. Such a situation could never have pertained in a pure and faithful church. Indeed, it did not find favor in most of the Christian church until Christianity had been deeply corrupted through the influence of gnosticism and other pagan errors. While it is proclaimed that the Emperor Constantine had accepted Christianity, the truth of which is doubted by many, at least there is no question that his thinking was still that of the pagan.

Constantine issued the first Sunday legislation by virtue of his power as Pontifex Maximus—the Supreme Pontiff (see chapter 11 entitled "The Development of Christian Persecution"). The concept of Pontifex Maximus can be traced back to ancient Babylon, but in Roman times it has its origin during the reign of Caesar Augustus from 23 b.c. to a.d. 14. This emperor was the Caesar of the incarnation of Jesus. During his long reign, he strengthened very greatly the power of the Roman Empire, and maintained a high level of peace. The Senate, in its desire to honor him, bestowed upon him the title of Pontifex Maximus. Thereafter, each Caesar and emperor of Rome, no matter how strong or weak his reign, took the title, until the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.

In the dying embers of the Roman Empire, Emperor Justinian invested the title of Pontifex Maximus upon the Bishop of Rome (the Pope), John II in 533. However, it was not until the overthrow of the Ostrogoths, three popes later, that Pope Vigilius in 538 was able to exercise the civil power invested in the title Pontifex Maximus. Thus Vigilius became the first pope to hold not only ecclesiastical power but also to exercise political power. Thus while Constantine inaugurated state-church union in the Christian world, the Bishop of Rome was able to reverse this order and establish church-state authority, with the emphasis upon the power of the church authority dominant over the state, rather than the state authority dominant over the church. Now returning to Constantine’s Sunday Law, the pagan nature of the law is clearly noted in the fact that Constantine placed no Christian appellation upon the worship on the first day of the week, rather referring it to the "venerable day of the sun."

Let all judges and all city people and all tradesmen rest upon the venerable day of the sun. But let those dwelling in the country freely and with full liberty attend to the culture of their field; since it frequently happens that no other day is so fit for the sowing of grain or the planting of vines; hence, the favorable time should not be allowed to pass, lest the provisions of heaven be lost. Quoted in Blakely, p. 269

This was a difficult law for Christians, most of whom at that time were still seventh-day Sabbath keepers. It was difficult because Constantine had ended the terrible decade of persecution of Christians that had begun under Emperor Diocletian in the year 303. The Christians were greatly indebted to Constantine for their liberty, and when he confessed to have embraced Christianity their joys were even greater. Now they were in a particularly difficult situation. Constantine had one goal, and that was to unite the empire that was now split strongly between pagans and Christians. He believed that a unified day of worship would go a long way toward reducing the tension between pagans and Christians.

Thus it was that many Christians, in order to honor the emperor and hopefully not to violate their conscience as Sabbath- keepers, entered into the practice of keeping holy two days of the week, the seventh and the first. Commonly, one day was chosen as a feast day and the other one as a fast day. But this practice was one of compromise. It is a principle of faith that when a false doctrine is given equal validity with one that is true, inevitably it is the error which prevails, for truth can never abide with error, while error happily associates with truth, for it makes the error all the more deceptive. Thus it was predictable that the Sunday worship of paganism would eventually supplant Sabbath keeping enjoined by Scripture. History amply testifies to this result, a result which persists to our day. Soon Rome became the seat of those who advocated Sunday worship, proposing that it be the commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus. However, much of the rest of the western world advocated the seventh-day Sabbath as the primary day of worship, honoring the Creation of God as established in the words of Scripture. After the power of secular authority passed from the Roman Empire to Papal Rome there was a rapid increase in the enforcement of Sunday sacredness, to the disregard of Sabbath sacredness.

During the fourth to the sixth century, not only was the observance of Sunday, the pagan day of worship, incorporated into Christianity, but many other holidays, mostly pagan festivals, were "sanctified" with new names slightly modified and claiming to be Christian celebrations. Thus, in the seventh century, Spanish Christians accepted Sunday sacredness, as did also the English Christians except for a small minority who still believed in the biblical Sabbath. It was not until the twelfth century that the Welsh and the Scots were forced into Sunday observance.

In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo recorded Sabbath keeping among the large group of Chinese Christians in the western regions of China. The Syrian Christians of India upheld Sabbath-keeping until the sixteenth century Portuguese Inquisition stamped it out. The Christians of Ethiopia continued their Sabbath-keeping into the seventeenth century. (B. G. Wilkinson, Truth Triumphant, Pacific Press, 1944)

During the Middle Ages, Sunday legislation took on a more judaistic direction, claiming that, with analogy to the Jewish legislation in biblical times, civil authorities had the right to legislate in religious matters after the manner of the Jewish Theocracy. Thus, severe penalties were imposed on those who were not regular attenders at church on Sunday, including, in some circumstances, the death penalty.

The advent of the Reformation brought little change in civil legislation concerning Sunday sacredness and worship. For example, the English Reformation introduced a new theory and developed a distinct type of legislation. It was during this period that for the first time, the doctrine of the transfer of the fourth commandment to the first day of the week led consequently to legislation consistent with this theory. Thus, extensive theological treatises were written that were consistent with civil enactments.

The Sunday laws during the Colonial days in North America are the direct outgrowth of the Puritan legislation, notably of those laws that arose during the time of the Commonwealth in England under Oliver Cromwell. Thus, colonies such as Massachusetts and Virginia enforced very severe penalties upon those who failed to worship regularly in church on Sundays. After the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the new nation of the United States, the laws of colonial times were greatly modified. The whole tendency has been to set forth laws of a totally different character through the decisions of the courts.

In the Sunday law legislation of the Roman Empire, the religious element were wholly subordinate to that of the civil power. In the Middle Ages, and also under Cromwell as Lord Protector of England (1649–1658), and during the colonial period of American history, the church was supreme. After the amendments to the United States Constitution of the Bill of Rights in 1791, any form of Sunday law began to be challenged. Thus increasingly, claims were made that Sunday legislation is not based on religious grounds. Such argumentation was devised to maintain Sunday legislation by the power of the State without appearing to violate the First Amendment of the American Constitution. Some legislators and jurists were willing to accept such fragile arguments. However, other, more perceptive legislators and jurists strongly opposed such interpretations and recognized that any attempt to legislate a rest day for the first day of the week was indeed an effort to uphold a religious institution, something which was invalid in law based upon the Bill of Rights.

These claims for Sunday rest, based upon so-called secular reasoning, are clearly contradicted by the fact that for centuries every Sunday law sprang from a religious sentiment. Under Constantine’s legislation, the day was to be "venerated" as a religious duty owed to the god of the sun. As the resurrection festival concept was gradually combined with the pagan practice, religious regard for the day was also demanded in honor of Christ’s resurrection. In the Middle Ages, sacredness was claimed for Sunday because the Sabbath had been sacred under the legislation of the Jewish Theocracy. Sunday was held supremely sacred by the Puritans under the plea that the obligations imposed by the fourth commandment were transferred from the seventh-day Sabbath to the first-day, though no scriptural authority was found to sustain the change.

All these Sunday statutes enacted in the United States prohibited "worldly labor," and permitted only works of necessity and mercy on Sundays. There can be no valid meaning except as they are based upon religious foundations. Surely there can be no "worldly business" unless it is stated in contrast with religious obligation. Thus every Sunday law that has been enacted within the United States, and for that matter other countries of the world, is based upon the idea that it is wrong to do on Sunday the things prohibited in the fourth commandment. It must be acknowledged, then, that the theories men invent for the observance of Sunday on non-religious grounds have no logical value, unless it is understood that there is a covert religious motivation.

To claim that the present Sunday laws do not designate a day as a religious institution, is to deny every fact in the history relevant to such legislation. Any claim otherwise is surely a shallow subterfuge. If this were not so, advocates of a rest day would not focus exclusively upon Sunday. They might decide to offer Friday, the sacred day of the Muslims, as their proposed rest day. Or indeed they might choose a day that is sacred to no religion, such as Tuesday or Wednesday, to provide respite from labor in the middle of the week.

Religious observance legislation could not spring from Apostolic Christianity. Every element of New Testament Christianity forbade interference by the state in personal religious matters. Thus all basis for legislating religious practice has its roots in pagan practice. This is equally true for the observance of other religious days such as Christmas and Easter. We have cited the pagan character of the first Sunday legislation because in that legislation, Sunday is mentioned only by its pagan name, "the venerable day of the sun."

In that legislation enacted by Constantine, there is no inference that the legislation has anything whatsoever to do with Christianity. There is no trace of the resurrection idea in the legislation. No reference is made to the fourth commandment of the Decalogue nor anything connected with it. The law was made for all the empire. It applied to every subject alike, Christian or pagan or nonbeliever.

The pagan mentality of Constantine can be deduced from the fact that on the day following the publication of the edict concerning Sunday observance, another edict was issued ordering that the haruspices (soothsayers who especially use the entrails of slain victims to deduce the will of the gods) be consulted in cases of public calamity. Surely this practice demonstrates the thoroughly pagan mentality of Constantine and the attitude the emperor still retained, together with the influences which controlled him.

According to Doctor Lewis, all Sunday legislation is the product of pagan Rome. The Saxon laws were the product of the Middle Age legislation of the "Holy Roman Empire." The English laws are an expansion of the Saxon, and the American are a transcript of the English laws. (As quoted in Blakely, p. 270)

Lewis correctly points out that the Sunday law issued under King Charles II of England in 1676 was the law of the American colonies up to the time of the Revolution, and so became the basis of the American Sunday laws. Charles II’s law forbade any work whatsoever by tradesmen, laborers, and business men on the "Lord’s Day" (Sunday). The penalty for those over the age of fourteen breaching the law was a fine of five shillings. The law also provided for the confiscation of any goods that a merchant was offering for sale on Sunday. Anyone who could not meet the financial penalties was to be set in public stocks for the space of two hours.

Let it be understood, notwithstanding the enactment of the First Amendment to the American Constitution, the concept of Sunday law and the effort to regard Sunday sacredness was so ingrained in the history of the American people that it seemed almost impossible for them to understand that such legislation should cease to be enacted or to be enforced in the new nation. Thus it was that the nineteenth century became a battleground for and against Sunday legislation.


Back ] Up ] Next ]