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§ 75. The Civil and Religious Sunday.


Geo. Holden: The Christian Sabbath. Lond. 1825 (see ch. v.). John T. Baylee: History of the Sabbath. Lond. 1857 (see chs. x.-xiii.). James Aug. Hessey: Sunday, its Origin, History, and present Obligation; Bampton Lectures preached before the University of Oxford. Lond. 1860 (Patristic and high-Anglican). James Gilfillan: The Sabbath viewed in the Light of Reason, Revelation, and History, with Sketches of its Literature. Edinb. and New York, 1862 (The Puritan and Anglo-American view). Robert Cox: The Literature on the Sabbath Question. Edinb. 1865, 2 vols. (Latitudinarian, but very full and learned).


The observance of Sunday originated in the time of the apostles, and ever since forms the basis of public worship, with its ennobling, sanctifying, and cheering influences, in all Christian lands.


The Christian Sabbath is, on the one hand, the continuation and the regeneration of the Jewish Sabbath, based upon God’s resting from the creation and upon the fourth commandment of the decalogue, which, as to its substance, is not of merely national application, like the ceremonial and civil law, but of universal import and perpetual validity for mankind. It is, on the other hand, a new creation of the gospel, a memorial of the resurrection of Christ and of the work of redemption completed and divinely sealed thereby. It rests, we may say, upon the threefold basis of the original creation, the Jewish legislation, and the Christian redemption, and is rooted in the physical, the moral, and the religious wants of our nature. It has a legal and an evangelical aspect. Like the law in general, the institution of the Christian Sabbath is a wholesome restraint upon the people, and a schoolmaster to lead them to Christ. But it is also strictly evangelical: it was originally made for the benefit of man, like the family, with which it goes back beyond the fall to the paradise of innocence, as the second institution of God on earth; it was “a delight” to the pious of the old dispensation (Isa. lviii. 13), and now, under the new, it is fraught with the glorious memories and blessings of Christ’s resurrection and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The Christian Sabbath is the ancient Sabbath baptized with fire and the Holy Ghost, regenerated, spiritualized, and glorified. It is the connecting link of creation and redemption, of paradise lost, and paradise regained, and a pledge and preparation for the saints’ everlasting rest in heaven.692692   For a fuller exposition of the Author’s views on the Christian Sabbath, see his Essay on the Anglo-American Sabbath (English and German), New York, 1863.

The ancient church viewed the Sunday mainly, we may say, one-sidedly and exclusively, from its Christian aspect as a new institution, and not in any way as a continuation of the Jewish Sabbath. It observed it as the day of the commemoration of the resurrection or of the now spiritual creation, and hence as a day of sacred joy and thanksgiving, standing in bold contrast to the days of humiliation and fasting, as the Easter festival contrasts with Good Friday.

So long as Christianity was not recognized and protected by the state, the observance of Sunday was purely religious, a strictly voluntary service, but exposed to continual interruption from the bustle of the world and a hostile community. The pagan Romans paid no more regard to the Christian Sunday than to the Jewish Sabbath.

In this matter, as in others, the accession of Constantine marks the beginning of a new era, and did good service to the church and to the cause of public order and morality. Constantine is the founder, in part at least, of the civil observance of Sunday, by which alone the religious observance of it in the church could be made universal and could be properly secured. In the year 321 he issued a law prohibiting manual labor in the cities and all judicial transactions, at a later period also military exercises, on Sunday.693693   Lex Constantini a. 321 (Cod. Just. l. iii., Tit. 12, 3): Imperator Constantinus Aug. Helpidio: “Omnes judices, urbanaeque plebes et cunctarum artium officia venerabili die Solis quiescant. Ruri tamen positi agrorum culturae libere licenterque inserviant, quoniam frequenter evenit, ut non aptius alio die frumenta sulcis aut vineae scrobibus mandentur, ne occasione momenti pereat commoditas coelesti provisione concessa. Dat. Non. Mart. Crispo ii. et Constantino ii. Coss.” In English: “On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Given the 7th day of March, Crispus and Constantinebeing consuls each of them for the second time.)” The prohibition of military exercises is mentioned by Eusebius, Vita Const. IV. 19, 20, and seems to refer to a somewhat later period. In this point Constantinewas in advance of modern Christian princes, who prefer Sunday for parades. He exempted the liberation of slaves, which as an act of Christian humanity and charity, might, with special propriety, take place on that day.694694   Cod. Theod. l. ii. tit. 8, 1: “Sicut indignissimum videbatur, diem Solis ... altercantibus jurgiis et noxiis partium contentionibus occupari, ita gratum et jocundum est, eo die, quae sunt maxime votiva, compleri; atque ideo emancipandi et manumittendi die festo cuncti licentiam habeant.” But the Sunday law of Constantine must not be overrated. He enjoined the observance, or rather forbade the public desecration of Sunday, not under the name of Sabbatum or Dies Domini, but under its old astrological and heathen title, Dies Solis, familiar to all his subjects, so that the law was as applicable to the worshippers of Hercules, Apollo, and Mithras, as to the Christians. There is no reference whatever in his law either to the fourth commandment or to the resurrection of Christ. Besides he expressly exempted the country districts, where paganism still prevailed, from the prohibition of labor, and thus avoided every appearance of injustice. Christians and pagans had been accustomed to festival rests. Constantine made these rests to synchronize, and gave the preference to Sunday, on which day Christians from the beginning celebrated the resurrection of their Lord and Saviour. This and no more was implied in the famous enactment of 321. It was only a step in the right direction, but probably the only one which Constantine could prudently or safely take at that period of transition from the rule of paganism to that of Christianity.

For the army, however, he went beyond the limits of negative and protective legislation, to which the state ought to confine itself in matters of religion, and enjoined a certain positive observance of Sunday, in requiring the Christian soldiers to attend Christian worship, and the heathen soldiers, in the open field, at a given signal, with eyes and hands raised towards heaven, to recite the following, certainly very indefinite, form of prayer: “Thee alone we acknowledge as God, thee we reverence as king, to thee we call as our helper. To thee we owe our victories, by thee have we obtained the mastery of our enemies. To thee we give thanks for benefits already received, from thee we hope for benefits to come. We all fall at thy feet, and fervently beg that thou wouldest preserve to us our emperor Constantine and his divinely beloved sons in long life healthful and victorious.”695695   Euseb. Vit. Const. iv. 20.

Constantine’s successors pursued the Sunday legislation which he had initiated, and gave a legal sanction and civil significance also to other holy days of the church, which have no Scriptural authority, so that the special reverence due to the Lord’s Day was obscured in proportion as the number of rival claims increased. Thus Theodosius I. increased the number of judicial holidays to one hundred and twenty-four. The Valentinians, I. and II., prohibited the exaction of taxes and the collection of moneys on Sunday, and enforced the previously enacted prohibition of lawsuits. Theodosius the Great, in 386, and still more stringently the younger Theodosius, in 425, forbade theatrical performances, and Leo and Anthemius, in 460, prohibited other secular amusements, on the Lord’s Day.696696   Cod. Theod. xv. 5, 2, a. 386: “Nullus Solis die populo spectaculum praebeat.” If the emperor’s birthday fell on Sunday, the acknowledgment of it, which was accompanied by games, was to be postponed. Such laws, however, were probably never rigidly executed. A council of Carthage, in 401, laments the people’s passion for theatrical and other entertainments on Sunday. The same abuse, it is well known, very generally prevails to this day upon the continent of Europe in both Protestant and Roman Catholic countries, and Christian princes and magistrates only too frequently give it the sanction of their example.

Ecclesiastical legislation in like manner prohibited needless mechanical and agricultural labor, and the attending of theatres and other public places of amusement, also hunting and weddings, on Sunday and on feast days. Besides such negative legislation, to which the state must confine itself, the church at the same time enjoined positive observances for the sacred day, especially the regular attendance of public worship, frequent communion, and the payment of free-will offerings (tithes). Many a council here confounded the legal and the evangelical principles, thinking themselves able to enforce by the threatening of penalties what has moral value only as a voluntary act. The Council of Eliberis, in 305, decreed the suspension from communion of any person living in a town who shall absent himself for three Lord’s Days from church. In the same legalistic spirit, the council of Sardica,697697   Can. xi. appealing to former ordinances, Comp. Can. Apost. xiii. and xiv. (xiv. and xv.), and the council of Elvira, can. xxi. Hefele: Conciliengesch. i. p. 570. in 343, and the Trullan council698698   Can. lxxx. of 692, threatened with deposition the clergy who should unnecessarily omit public worship three Sundays in succession, and prescribed temporary excommunication for similar neglect among the laity. But, on the other hand, the councils, while they turned the Lord’s Day itself into a legal ordinance handed down from the apostles, pronounced with all decision against the Jewish Sabbatism. The Apostolic Canons and the council of Gangra (the latter, about 450, in opposition to the Gnostic Manichaean asceticism of the Eustathians) condemn fasting on Sunday.699699   Can. Apost. liii. (alias Iii.): “Si quis episcopus aut presbyter aut diaconus in diebus festis non sumit carnem aut vinum, deponatur.” Comp. can. lxvi. (lxv.) and Const. Apost. v. 20. The council of Gangra says in the 18th canon: “If any one, for pretended ascetic reasons, fast on Sunday, let him be anathema.” The same council condemns those who despise the house of God and frequent schismatical assemblies. In the Greek church this prohibition is still in force, because Sunday, commemorating the resurrection of Christ, is a day of spiritual joy. On the same symbolical ground kneeling in prayer was forbidden on Sunday and through the whole time of Easter until Pentecost. The general council of Nicaeea, in 325, issued on this point in the twentieth canon the following decision: “Whereas some bow the knee on Sunday and on the days of Pentecost [i.e., during the seven weeks after Easter], the holy council, that everything may everywhere be uniform, decrees that prayers be offered to God in a standing posture.” The Trullan council, in 692, ordained in the ninetieth canon: “From Saturday evening to Sunday evening let no one bow the knee.” The Roman church in general still adheres to this practice.700700   Comp. the Corpus juris can. c. 13, Dist. 3 de consecr. Roman Catholics, however, always kneel in the reception and adoration of the sacrament. The New Testament gives no law for such secondary matters; the apostle Paul, on the contrary, just in the season of Easter and Pentecost, before his imprisonment, following an inward dictate, repeatedly knelt in prayer.701701   Acts xx. 36; xxi. 5. The council of Orleans, in 538, says in the twenty-eighth canon: “It is Jewish superstition, that one may not ride or walk on Sunday, nor do anything to adorn the house or the person. But occupations in the field are forbidden, that people may come to the church and give themselves to prayer.”702702   Comp. the brief scattered decrees of the councils on the sanctification of Sunday, in Hefele, l.c. i. 414, 753, 760, 761, 794; ii 69, 647, 756; Neale’s Feasts and Fasts; and Gilfillan: The Sabbath, &c., p. 390.

As to the private opinions of the principal fathers on this subject, they all favor the sanctification of the Lord’s Day, but treat it as a peculiarly Christian institution, and draw a strong, indeed a too strong, line of distinction between it and the Jewish Sabbath; forgetting that they are one in essence and aim, though different in form and spirit, and that the fourth commandment as to its substance—viz., the keeping holy of one day out of seven—is an integral part of the decalogue or the moral law, and hence of perpetual obligation.703703   See the principal patristic passages on the Lord’s Day in Hessey, Sunday, etc., p. 90 ff. and p. 388 ff. Hessey says, p. 114: “In no clearly genuine passage that I can discover in any writer of these two [the fourth and fifth] centuries, or in any public document, ecclesiastical or civil, is the fourth commandment referred to as the ground of the obligation to observe the Lord’s Day.” The Reformers of the sixteenth century, likewise, in their zeal against legalism and for Christian freedom, entertained rather lax views on the Sabbath law. It was left for Puritanism in England, at the close of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, to bring out the perpetuity of the fourth commandment and the legal and general moral feature in the Christian Sabbath. The book of Dr. Bownd, first published in 1595, under the title, “The Doctrine of the Sabbath,” produced an entire revolution on the subject in the English mind, which is visible to this day in the strict observance of the Lord’s Day in England, Scotland, the British Provinces, and the United States. Comp. on Dr. Bownd’s book my Essay above quoted, p. 16 ff., Gilfillan, p. 69 ff., and Hessey, p. 276 ff. Eusebius calls Sunday, but not the Sabbath, “the first and chief of days and a day of salvation,” and commends Constantine for commanding that “all should assemble together every week, and keep that which is called the Lord’s Day as a festival, to refresh even their bodies and to stir up their minds by divine precepts and instruction.”704704   De Laud. Const. c. 9 arid 17. Athanasius speaks very highly of the Lord’s Day, as the perpetual memorial of the resurrection, but assumes that the old Sabbath has deceased.705705   In the treatise: De sabbatis et de circumcisione, which is among the doubtful works of Athanasius. Macarius, a presbyter of Upper Egypt (350), spiritualizes the Sabbath as a type and shadow of the true Sabbath given by the Lord to the soul—the true and eternal Sabbath, which is freedom from sin.706706   Hom. 35. Hilary represents the whole of this life as a preparation for the eternal Sabbath of the next. Epiphanius speaks of Sunday as an institution of the apostles, but falsely attributes the same origin to the observance of Wednesday and Friday as half fasts. Ambrose frequently mentions Sunday as an evangelical festival, and contrasts it with the defunct legal Sabbath. Jerome makes the same distinction. He relates of the Egyptian coenobites that they “devote themselves on the Lord’s Day to nothing but prayer and reading the Scriptures.” But he mentions also without censure, that the pious Paula and her companions, after returning from church on Sundays, “applied themselves to their allotted works and made garments for themselves and others.” Augustine likewise directly derives Sunday from the resurrection, and not from the fourth commandment. Fasting on that day of spiritual joy he regards, like Ambrose, as a grave scandal and heretical practice. The Apostolical Constitutions in this respect go even still further, and declare: “He that fasts on the Lord’s Day is guilty of sin.” But they still prescribe the celebration of the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday in addition to the Christian Sunday. Chrysostom warns Christians against sabbatizing with the Jews, but earnestly commends the due celebration of the Lord’s Day. Leo the Great, in a beautiful passage—the finest of all the patristic utterances on this subject—lauds the Lord’s Day as the day of the primitive creation, of the Christian redemption, of the meeting of the risen Saviour with the assembled disciples, of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, of the principal Divine blessings bestowed upon the world.707707   Leon. Epist. ix. ad Dioscurum Alex. Episc. c. 1 (Opp. ed. Ballerini, tom. i. col. 630): “Dies resurrectionis Dominicae ... quae tantis divinarum dispositionum mysteriis est consecrata, ut quicquid est a Domino insignius constitutum, in huius piei dignitate sit gestum. In hac mundus sumpsit exordium. In hac per resurrectionem Christi et mors interitum, et vita accepit initium. In hac apostoli a Domino praedicandi omnibus gentibus evangelii tubam sumunt, et inferendum universo mundo sacramentum regenerationis accipiunt. In hac, sicut beatus Joannes evangelista testatur (Joann. xx. 22), congregatis in unum discipulis, januis clausis, cum ad eos Dominus introisset, insufflavit, et dixit: ’Accipite Spiritum Sanctum; quorum remiseritis peccata, remittuntur eis, et quorum detinueritis, detenta erunt.’In hac denique promissus a Domino apostolis Spiritus Sanctus advenit: ut coelesti quadam regula insinuatum et traditum noverimus, in illa die celebranda nobis esse mysteria sacerdotalium benedictionum, in qua collata sunt omnia dona gratiarum.” But he likewise brings it in no connection with the fourth commandment, and with the other fathers leaves out of view the proper foundation of the day in the eternal moral law of God.

Besides Sunday, the Jewish Sabbath also was distinguished in the Eastern church by the absence of fasting and by standing in prayer. The Western church, on the contrary, especially the Roman, in protest against Judaism, observed the seventh day of the week as a fast day, like Friday. This difference between the two churches was permanently fixed by the fifty-fifth canon of the Trullan council of 692: “In Rome fasting is practised on all the Saturdays of Quadragesima [the forty days’ fast before Easter]. This is contrary to the sixty-sixth apostolic canon, and must no longer be done. Whoever does it, if a clergyman, shall be deposed; if a layman, excommunicated.”

Wednesday and Friday also continued to be observed in many countries as days commemorative of the passion of Christ (dies stationum), with half-fasting. The Latin church, however, gradually substituted fasting on Saturday for fasting on Wednesday.

Finally, as to the daily devotions: the number of the canonical hours was enlarged from three to seven (according to Ps. cxix. 164: “Seven times in a day will I praise thee But they were strictly kept only in the cloisters, under the technical names of matina (about three o’clock), prima (about six), tertia (nine), sexta (noon), nona (three in the afternoon), vesper (six), completorium (nine), and mesonyctium or vigilia (midnight). Usually two nocturnal prayers were united. The devotions consisted of prayer, singing, Scripture reading, especially in the Psalms, and readings from the histories of the martyrs and the homilies of the fathers. In the churches ordinarily only morning and evening worship was held. The high festivals were introduced by a night service, the vigils.



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