A Brief History of Sunday Legislation


   Such Legislation Demonstrates Itself a Menace to the State, to the Church, and to the Individual.   

Let us take a brief look into the genesis and progressive history of Sunday laws, by inquiring what is embraced in Sunday legislation.  The first Sunday law recorded in history is the edict of Constantine, A. D. 321:

“Let all the judges and town people, and the occupation of all trades, rest on 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 com or planting vines;  lest, the critical moment being let slip, men should lose the commodities granted of Heaven.”1

Of this mildly meddlesome law, the Encyclopedia Britannica article on “Sunday,” declares:

“It was Constantine the Great who made a law for the proper observance of Sunday; and who, according to Eusebius, appointed it should be regularly celebrated throughout the Roman empire.”

Could it be any plainer that this was a religious decree?  It was enacted that society might rest on the “venerable day of the sun.”  Glancing upon antiquity, no honest individual will question that Constantine the Great was honoring the day of the sun as an act of religious veneration or worship.  How did the common people of that time regard this intrusion?

Dr. Hesse, in his “Bampton Lectures,” pages 60-64. says:

“He [Constantine] had an empire of strangely jarring elements which required to be consolidated.  The best bond of union was obviously agreement in religion.  Accordingly, he may have had in view the formation of a hybrid creed, which should embrace the common points, and carefully suppress the differences of heathenism and Christianity.”  “His enactment, then, though a political and a politic one, was not Sabbatarian, nor an advance toward Sabbatarianism. . . . Eusebius well describes his policy.  lt was to effect the turning of mankind to God by gentle means, and any more decided declaration would have defeated that policy.”

Here, dear reader we find the same theory advanced today in regards to the object of obtaining the passage of our modern Sunday laws.  Not only Dr. Hesse, but the historian Milman declares that the passage of this Sunday edict was purely religious legislation. Milman reminds us that Constantine held two pompous titles, one representing his civil, and the other his ecclesiastical authority.  Emperor was his civil title, and Pontifex Maximus was his religious title.  Milman also states it was by virtue of his religious title that the Sunday law of A. D. 321 was enacted.

 Sunday Legislation Religious 

We may therefore safely conclude that from their very birth, Sunday laws were religious statutes, and not merely civil ones.  In the light of weak human nature, we shall now see how, once this precedent was set, the intolerant ecclesiastical floodgates were wedged open.   In the fourth century, many thought such legislation inoffensive.  But the Sunday law enacted by Constantine was but a silent step in a series of aggressive acts of parliament that logically followed.  The next senatorial step was shutting the amusements down on Sunday.  Games, theatricals, and merrymaking were outlawed.  Then followed an edict suppressing heretical teachings.  Overzealous priests admonished the people to attend worship on Sunday in the Catholic church.  From Eusebius’s  “Life of Constantine,” pages 175, 176, I quote:

“Forasmuch, then, as it is no longer possible to bear with your pernicious errors, we give warning by this present statute that none of you henceforth presume to assemble yourselves together.  We have directed accordingly that you be deprived of all the houses in which you are accustomed to hold your assemblies; and our care in this respect extends so far as to forbid the holding of your superstitious and senseless meetings, not in public merely. but in any private house whatsoever.  Let those of you, therefore who are desirous of bracing the true and pure religion, take the far better course of entering the Catholic Church, and uniting with it in holy fellowship, whereby you will be enabled to arrive at the truth.  ln any case, the delusions of your perverted understanding must entirely cease to mingle with, and mar the felicity of, our present times; I mean the impious and wretched double-mindedness of heretics and schismatics.  For it is an object worthy of that prosperity which we enjoy through the favor of God, to endeavor to bring back those who in time past were living in the hope of future blessing, from all irregularity and error to the right path, from darkness to light, from vanity to truth, from death to salvation.  And in order that this remedy may be applied with effectual power, we have commanded (as before said) that you be positively deprived of every gathering-poìnt for your superstitious meetings; l mean all the houses of prayer (if such be worthy of the name) which belong to heretics, and that these be made over without delay to the Catholic Church; and that any other places be confiscated to the public service, and no facility whatever be left for any future gathering, in order that from this day forward none of your unlawful assemblies may presume to appear in any public or private place.  Let this edict be made public.”

Portrait of Saint Augustine
Portrait of Saint Augustine

lt was, afterward, necessary that the people be compelled to attend to things divine. The Catholic St. Augustine proposed this intolerant theory:

“It is indeed better that men should be brought to serve God by instruction than by fear of punishment or by pain.  But because the former means are better, the latter must not therefore be neglected…Many must often be brought back to their Lord  like wicked servants, by the rod of temporal suffering, before they attain to the highest grade of religious development.”  Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, sec. 27.

 The Inquisition “Germ Virus” Spreads 

Of this theory Neander says:

“It was by Augustine, then, that a theory was proposed which . . . contained the germ of that whole system of spiritual despotism of intolerance and persecution, which ended in the tribunals of the Inquisition.”  Church History,  Vol. II, page 217.

Neander also adds:  “In this way the church received help from the state for the furtherance of her ends.”  Neander’s statement is correct.  But these edicts which had been issued were only the introduction of what was to follow.

The Historian Edward Gibbon writes:

“And as the emperor ascended from the holy fount. still glowing with the warm feelings of regeneration, he dictated a solemn edict, which proclaimed his own faith, and prescríbed the religion of his subjects. . . . We authorize the followers of this doctrine to assume the title of Catholic Christians; and as we judge that all others are travagant madmen, we brand them with the infamous name of heretics, and declare that their conventicles shall no longer usurp the respectable appellation of churches.  Besides the condemnation of divine justice. they must expect to suffer the severe penalties which our authority, guided heavenly wisdom, shall think proper to inflict upon them.” 2 

And still further in the fifth Council of Toledo, can. 3d, the holy Fathers say:

“We, the holy council, promulge this sentence pleasing to God, that whosoever hereafter shall succeed to the kingdom, shall not mount the throne till he hath sworn among others to permit no man to live in his kingdom who is not a Catholic.”

This is the history of the first Sunday legislation, which in its inception was considered so harmless. It is perfectly safe to conclude that history is repeating itself today.  The logic of Sunday legislation is the same today as in the fourth century.  Like causes still produce like results.  Human nature has not changed.  If statesmen are justly the guardians of the faith of the citizens of the state, then the persecutions of the dark ages were justifiable, and the statesmen of France were justified in legislating against the worship and service of any god in that state except the goddess of reason.  At that time infidelity was the faith of the statesmen.  Why should they not enforce their faith if that is the duty of men who hold official positions as members of parliament?  Every sane man must see the inconsistency of such a theory.

The theory that we are at liberty to compel others to accept our faith is the logical result of the theory that Sunday legislation is legitimate legislation.  That step taken, and the rest follows; and parliament itself committed to a policy of legislation which compels it to accept dictation from churchmen as to further acts of parliament.  It was so from the fourth century forward, and it will be so in our time.

 Pernicious Results 

The spirit to dictate to others in matters of religion has often brutalized the kindliest natures.  Men of genius are as susceptible to this weakness as the more ignorant and depraved.  St. Francis Xavier was a man of evident personal piety, yet he was the man mostly responsible for the Spanish Inquisition.

John Calvin was one of the most profound thinkers of age, yet under the influence of the theory that he was responsible for the faith of his fellow men, his otherwise fair name is linked with the most unreasonable persecution of Baptists.  Milton, whose matchless intellect could conceive so vividly the gloríes of paradise lost, had no pity for the sufferings of the Irish.  lt was the theory that the government has the right to assume the responsibility of the faith of its subjects that corrupted these men, and filled their hearts with base passions.  Therefore when bigotry reigns, the public offices are filled with the worst of men.  Men who are true, men who can not be bribed nor induced to belie their profession, will not conform to a state-made creed.  They will become martyrs before they will swerve from principle.  Such men are forced from service, and banished or martyred as a sacrifice upon the altar of a state creed.

The state was organized as a civil institution, not a religious one.  It is its legitimate work to deal with incivility and crime, but not with religion.  Spurgeon, the great English clergyman, was right when he said :

Charles Haddon Spurgeon 1834–1892
Charles Haddon Spurgeon 1834–1892

“As to getting the law of the land to touch our religion, we earnestly cry, ‘Hands off!  leave us alone!’ Your Sunday bills, and all other forms of Act-of-Parliament religion, seem to me to be all wrong. Give us a fair field and no favor, and our faith has no cause to fear.  Christ wants no help from Caesar.  I should be afraid to borrow help from government; it would look to me as though I rested on an arm of flesh, instead of depending on the living God.  Let the Lord’s day be respected by all means, and may the day soon come when every shop shall be closed on the Sabbath; but let it be by force of conviction, and not by force of policemen; let true religion triumph by the power of God in man’s hearts, not by the power of fines and punishments.”3

The Word of God in the hands of a godly clergyman, accompanied by the Holy Spirit, is a mighty argument to draw souls to Christ; but the fagot and the rack will be as convincing an argument in favor of Mohammedanism or infidelity as they are in favor of Christianity. The only safety for both church and state lies in their total separation.

1  Issued March 7, 321 A.D., Corpus Civilis Codicis, lib. 3, tit. 12, 1. 3.

2  Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. XXVII, p. 443, 1830 ed.

3  Liberty, Vol. 2, Issue 4, p. 21, 1907

 Religious Liberty Wisdom 

When any man has more privilege accorded him by law than his neighbor enjoys, that neighbor has been, by law, robbed of his natural and inalienable rights.  That condition exists wherever Sunday laws are enforced upon those who observe another day.

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