The Origin and Growth of Sunday Observance in the Christian Church



As decisive as is this evidence, it is not the strongest that we have to offer. Historians, early and late, of all beliefs, have made much mention of the action of the Council of Laodicea, A. D. 364. McClintock and Strong make the following statement:- OGSO 39.1

“Chrysostom (A. D. 360) concludes one of his Homilies by dismissing his audience to their respective ordinary occupations. The Council of Laodicea (A. D. 364), however, enjoined Christians to rest on the Lord’s day.” OGSO 39.2

This puts it very mild indeed. In regard to the influence of the decisions of this council, they say:- OGSO 39.3

“Sixty canons were published, which were accepted by the other churches.” OGSO 40.1

In their synopsis of these, they say:- OGSO 40.2

“Canon 29 forbids Christians observing the Jewish Sabbath.” OGSO 40.3

In these two statements we get the whole truth: 1. It enjoined the observance of the first day of the week. 2. It forbade the observance of the Sabbath. Let it be remembered that this council was held in less than half a century from the time when Constantine issued his first decree, for the first observance of the venerable day of the sun as a day of rest from labor. As the historian says, it was taken from the hands of the emperors by Popes and councils, and rest enforced upon it as a Christian festival. I will here copy the original, as given by the council itself, in Latin:- OGSO 40.4

“Quod non oportet Christianos Judaizare, et in Sabbato otiari, sed ipsos eo die operari: diem autem Dominicum preferentes otiari, si modo possint, ut Christianos. Quod si inventi fuerint Judaizantes sint anathema apud Christos.” OGSO 40.5

The following is a translation:- OGSO 40.6

“Christians ought not to Judaize, and to rest in the Sabbath, but to work in that day; but, preferring the Lord’s day, should rest, if possible, as Christians. Wherefore if they shall be found to Judaize, let them be accursed from Christ.” OGSO 40.7

There is no necessity that I should take another step to fully establish my propositions. It is abundantly, proved, beyond all chance of denial, that the first law of any kind for resting from worldly labor on the first day of the week, was that of Constantine, who commanded only certain classes to rest upon it as the venerable day of the sun, in conformity with his worship of Apollo, the sun-god. And in less than half a century after that time, a Catholic council enacted a canon which was accepted as orthodox, which not only contained the first formal church law for the observance of the Sunday, but likewise forbade the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath, under penalty of being accursed from Christ! Now, if anyone can imagine what would be changing the Sabbath if this is not, I would be extremely happy to learn what it could be. In less than half a century after Constantine’s first Sunday decree, we find this sweeping canon of the Council of Laodicea. In less than a century after the publication of this canon, Leo the Great gave his decision in the most emphatic terms, that the Sunday was the day specially honored of the Lord, and ought to be specially honored by Christians. And in less than a century after Leo’s decision, Justinian subjected all, whether Jews, Gentiles, or Christians, to the Catholic faith, of which the substitution of the Sunday for the Sabbath was a prominent part, of which they had to make a public profession within three months, under penalty of being declared infamous, excluded from all employments, rendered incapable of leaving anything by will, and having their estates, of whatever nature, confiscated. OGSO 40.8

Now, it being clearly shown that a part of the Catholic faith to which they were subjected, under such severe penalties, was that people should not rest on the Sabbath, and that they should not work on the Sunday, is it a wonder that, under the canons of councils, the decision of Popes, given under penalty of being accursed from Christ, and enforced by the edicts of emperors, under such penalties as were rigorously inflicted by Justinian,-is it a wonder that the observance of Sunday became so prevalent throughout the empire? Is it not rather a wonder that so many clung to the Sabbath of the Lord, even in those perilous times, as history attests there did, in spite of the terrible persecutions to which they were subjected? And is it not still more wonderful that Protestant ministers, with all these facts of history within their reach, will gravely point to this prevalence of Sunday-keeping as evidence of the united faith of the Christian church in favor of the first-day Sabbath? And most wonderful of all, a minister comes forward and informs the public, in all apparent seriousness, that he has left the Sabbath of the fourth commandment for a more pious observance, because that, after very extensive research for more than a score of years, he has learned that Sabbatarians have never been able to produce an item of reliable history to prove that the Catholic Church changed the Sabbath; that all we have to offer to prove or to defend our faith, is the evidence of the Catholic catechism! Who can add a comment worthy of such an occasion as this? OGSO 41.1

While I have fully proved my proposition, I have presented but a tithe of the evidence that is ready at my hand. In “Ancient Christianity Exemplified,” p. 531, Coleman says, in reference to the decrees of the Council of Laodicea:- OGSO 42.1

“Christian emperors confirmed and extended these decrees. All public shows, theatrical exhibitions, dancing, and amusements, were strictly prohibited. Similar decrees were also passed by various councils, requiring a faithful attendance upon public worship, and a strict observance of the day, by solemn suspension of all secular pursuits, and abstinence from amusements and vain recreations. The Council of Laodicea, canon 29, about the same time forbade the observance of the Jewish Sabbath.” OGSO 42.2

Coleman is an ardent advocate of Sunday, but he has presented the most incontestible proof of the truthfulness of our position. And in these statements he has but spoken in Harmony with all history. Let us mark well the words of Coleman. Speaking of the imperial decrees, he adds: “Similar decrees were also passed by various councils, requiring a faithful attendance upon public worship, and a strict observance of the day,” etc. These were church laws, compelling the strict observance of Sunday, and faithful attendance upon public worship on that day, and holding an ecclesiastical curse over those who kept the Sabbath; and this action was taken by various councils. OGSO 43.1

It is a historical fact that the edict of Constantine, and the imprecation of the Council of Laodicea, and the letter of Leo, and the cruelties of Justinian, and other like contemporaneous acts, all together were not successful in entirely overthrowing the observance of the Sabbath, and in making the observance of the Sunday universal. Against this almost overwhelming tide of worldly power and influence and wickedness, witnesses for God’s downtrodden commandment were constantly rising up. This is made clear by the action of subsequent councils, even if we had no other testimony. But for the present we will notice further the interesting period from Constantine to Justinian. OGSO 43.2