The Origin and Growth of Sunday Observance in the Christian Church



1. Among all the traditions and human innovations in the Christian church, there is none that can so clearly and positively be traced to paganism as the Sunday. OGSO 17.2

2. Among all the institutions which have been foisted upon the church by the Papal power, there is no one that is so clearly marked, so definitely outlined in its origin and enforcement, as the festival of the Sunday. OGSO 17.3

I wish here to have it understood that I shall not take the time or the space to examine all the other traditions and superstitions that obtained a foothold in the church, and passed for Christian doctrines and ordinances, so as to draw the comparison and show which is the most distinctively Pagan and Papal. I only take it upon me fully and clearly to show that the Sunday has its origin as a day of regard and observance in Paganism and the Papacy. If any wish to have the comparison more fully traced, and think that they can show that other traditions have a better OGSO 17.4

2 right to the claim of such origin, I shall be willing to carry the investigation further, for, though I hope to satisfy every reasonable requirement and every candid mind, I do not propose to exhaust the proofs which are in reach. OGSO 17.5

1 Is it a fact that the observance of Sunday as a day of rest from secular employment is distinctively and only of pagan origin? OGSO 18.1

To all true Protestants, who take “the Bible and the Bible alone,” who do not believe that their Christian character can be correctly formed by any standard but that which God has revealed, who do not believe there is any obedience where there is no precept or requirement,-to all such the plea of custom and tradition can have no weight. In regard to any custom, our inquiry is not, Did it exist? but, By what authority did it exist? We have little regard for what men have done; that does not reach our consciences; for that we go to history, and then we are often misinformed. We ask what they ought to have done, and to settle this we go to the Bible, and are never deceived. And none can be deceived in going there, unless its testimony is covered up with inferences and traditions. I wish the reader to bear in mind what justly belongs to the examination of duty in regard to laws and institutions. The only question admissible is, What does the commandment of God say? Has it been as plainly amended or repealed as it was enacted? If not, no amount of tradition, custom, precedent, or reasoning can set it aside. But we are constantly going beyond what can be reasonably asked of us, and proving that their traditions and customs are vain and their conclusions are unjust. OGSO 18.2

In answering the question I have asked on the first proposition, I shall show that the authority, the name, and the sacredness Sunday are entirely of pagan origin. OGSO 19.1

Everyone who has read the debate between Campbell and Purcell must have been struck with Mr. Campbell’s perfect familiarity with church history. The bishop appeared to be unusually fair for an advocate of “the church,” but on one point he was either inclined to take unjust advantage, or Mr. Campbell excelled him in a knowledge of church history and the writings of the Fathers. Mr. Campbell was an advocate of Sunday-keeping; in his theology, Sunday was the Lord’s day. But his learning often led him to make statements with which his theology was not in harmony. He was president of Bethany College, in Virginia, a denominational institution. Before a graduating class in the year 1848, he used the following language:- OGSO 19.2

“Was the first day set apart by public authority in the apostolic age?-No. By whom was it set apart? and when?-By Constantine, who lived about the beginning of the fourth century.” OGSO 19.3

These words I copied from the Proclamation and Reformer, at that time published in Cincinnati, the lecture having been revised by Mr. Campbell himself before its publication. According to this, Constantine was the one-the first one-who set apart by authority the first day of the week. Constantine’s Sunday decree was issued in 321. Dr. Heylyn, in his “History of the Sabbath,” an extensive and reliable work, speaking of their holding meetings on Sunday, said:- OGSO 19.4

“For three hundred years there was neither law to bind them to it nor any rest from labor, or from worldly business required upon it.”-Part 2, chap. 3, sec. 12. OGSO 20.1

In a subsequent section of the same part (2) of his work, he said:- OGSO 20.2

“Tertullian tells us that they did devote the Sunday partly unto mirth and recreation, not to devotion altogether; when in a hundred years after Tertullian time, there was no law nor constitution to restrain men from labor in this day, in the Christian Churches”-Id. chap. 8, sec. 13. OGSO 20.3

These testimonies are exactly in harmony with that of Mr. Campbell. He says that Constantine was the first to set apart the first day of the week. This was in 321. Heylyn says there was no law for three hundred years. This would throw it forward to the time of Constantine. He also says it was a hundred years after Tertullian’s time. This is not definite, nor is the time of Tertullian’s death known. Authorities point to about 221, or not long after, as the date of Tertullian’s death; and this again points to the time of Constantine for the first Sunday law. OGSO 20.4

Bishop Jeremy Taylor, who, with Heylyn, was a Church of England writer, said:- OGSO 20.5

‘The primitive Christians did all manner of work upon the Lord day, even in the times of persecutions, when they were the strictest observers of all the divine commandments; but in this they knew there was none; and therefore, when Constantine, the emperor, had made an edict against working on the Lord’s day, yet he excepts and still permitted all agriculture or labors of the husbandmen whatsoever.”-Ductor Dubitantium, Part I, book 2, chap. 2. OGSO 20.6

The “Encyclopædia Britannica,” ninth edition (art. Sunday) says:- OGSO 21.1

“The earliest recognition of the observance of Sunday as a legal duty is a constitution of Constantine in 321 a. d., enacting that all courts of justice, inhabitants of towns, and workshops were to be at rest on Sunday (venerabili die Solis), with an exception in favor of those engaged in agricultural labor.” OGSO 21.2

“Chambers. Encyclopedia” says of Sunday:- OGSO 21.3

“Unquestionably the first law, either ecclesiastical or civil, by which the sabbatical observance of that day is known to have been enjoined, is the edict of Constantine, 321 a. d.”-Art. Sabbath. OGSO 21.4

These are a very few of the very many testimonies at hand which definitely state that the law of Constantine was the first law which set apart the first day of the week, or required rest from secular work on Sunday. More are not necessary to quote, from the fact that not a single authority can be produced that gives any other date or authority for the first Sunday law. If anyone takes exception to this statement, will he please name a single historian who has ever given any other date, or any other authority? Until he does at least this much-until he shows that there is some difference of opinion, some disagreement among learned and reliable authors, on the subject, I shall claim that this part of my proposition is fully and sufficiently proved. The value of these testimonies is better appreciated by considering the fact that the witnesses were all friends and advocates of Sunday-keeping. OGSO 21.5

Having thus fixed the origin of the authority, we will next look for the origin of the name of the institution that Constantine set apart. It is found in the law itself, which is as follows:- OGSO 21.6

“Let all the judges and towns-people, and the occupation of all trades, rest upon 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.” OGSO 22.1

Thus in the first law for the observance of the day, it was designated the day of the sun. Not a very high or honorable title. How came this title to be given to it? The “Religious Encyclopædia” says:- OGSO 22.2

“The ancient Saxons called it by this name, because upon it they worshiped the sun.” OGSO 22.3

According to this, the title originated in heathen idolatry. Do authorities agree upon this? Yes; there is not an author in all the rounds of history or literature who dissents from this. Webster says:- OGSO 22.4

“The heathen nations in the north of Europe dedicated this day to the sun, and hence their Christian descendants continue to call the day Sunday.” OGSO 22.5

The Sunday-school “Union Bible Dictionary” says:- OGSO 22.6

“Sunday was a name given by the heathen to the first day of the week, because it was the day on which they worshiped the sun.” OGSO 22.7

Worcester, in his dictionary, says:- OGSO 22.8

“Sunday; so named because anciently dedicated to the sun or its worship.” OGSO 22.9

These authors give an ancient origin to the name. Constantine was not the originator of the title which he gave to the day. Another historian, Morer, says:- OGSO 22.10

“It is not to be denied but we borrow the name of this day from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and we allow that the old Egyptians worshiped the sun, and, as a standing memorial of their veneration, dedicated this day to him.”-Dialogues on the Lord’s Day, p. 22. OGSO 23.1

Thus it is shown that the title that Constantine gave to the day in the first Sunday law, is an ancient one, and is entirely of heathen origin. From this statement, also, there is and can be no dissent. The advocates of Sunday sacredness must stand silent before these evidences. OGSO 23.2