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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 49

Part II. — The History of Sunday Observance. — Sunday in the Church. — The History of Sunday Observance.—Sunday in the Church

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Part II.

The History of Sunday Observance.

Sunday in the Church.

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The History of Sunday Observance.—Sunday in the Church.

My topic is to give some account of what Sunday has actually been since the closing of the New Testament record,—that is, Sunday in the Church.

I certainly am not in favor of the abolition of Sunday. Just as we need some time to devote to our material welfare, so we need some time to devote to our religious welfare. If you should find a man who professed to be about his business seven days in the week, and yet you should be unable to catch him at it on any particular one of the seven days, you would have a suspicion that it was not looked after very closely. So I believe that people who look after their religious affairs always, and never do it at any particular time, leave them somewhat neglected, to say the least.

If we go back to the founding of the Church, we find that the most marked feature of that age, so far as the Church itself is concerned, is the grand division between the "Jewish faction," as it was called, and the followers of Paul. This division was so deep, so marked, so characteristic, that it has left its trace all through the New Testament itself. It was one of the grand aspects of the time, and the point on which they were divided was simply this: the followers of Peter, those who adhered to the teachings of the Central Church in Jerusalem, held that all Christians, both converted Jews and Gentiles, were under obligation to keep the Mosaic law, ordinances, and page 22 traditions. That is, a Christian, according to their definition, was first a Jew; Christianity was something added to that, not something taking the place of it. We find this controversy raging violently, all through the early churches, and splitting them into factions, so that they were the occasion of prayer and counsel. Paul took the ground distinctly that Christianity, while it might be spiritually the lineal successor of Judaism, was not Judaism; and that he who became a Christian, whether a converted Jew or Gentile, was under no obligation whatever to keep the Jewish law, so far as it was separate from practical matters of life and character. We find this intimated in the writings of Paul; for we have to go to the New Testament to find the origin of that which, we find, existed immediately after the New Testament book was written. Paul says, "One man esteemeth one day above another; another man esteemeth every day alike." (Rom. xiv. 5-9.) He leaves it an open question; they can do as they please. Then, "Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain." (Gal. iv. 10, 11.) And if you will note this Epistle of Paul to the Galatians, you will find that the whole purpose of his writing it was to protest against what he believed to be the viciousness of the Judaizing influences. That is, he says, "I have come to preach to you the perfect truth, that Christ hath made us free; and you are going back and taking upon yourselves this yoke of bondage. My labor is being thrown away; my efforts have been in vain." Then he says, in this celebrated Epistle to the Colossians, that has never yet been explained away or met, "Let no man therefore judge you any more in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days" (Col. ii. 16, 17),—distinctly abrogating the binding authority of the Sabbath on the Christian Church.

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So that, if Paul's word anywhere means anything, if his authority is to be taken as of binding force on any point whatever, then Paul is to be regarded as authoritatively and distinctly abrogating the Sabbath, and declaring that it is no longer binding on the Christian Church.

I hinted, a moment ago, at a council. We find that this breach in the early Church, this controversy, resulted at last in Paul's going up to Jerusalem to meet James, and the representatives of the Jerusalem Church, to see if they could find any common platform of agreement,—if they could come together so that they could work with mutual respect and without any further bickering. What is the platform that they met upon? It was distinctly understood that those who wished to keep up the observance of Judaism should do so; and the Church at Jerusalem gave Paul this grand freedom, substantially saying to him, "Go back to your missionary work, found churches, and teach them that they are perfectly free in regard to all Mosaic and Jewish observances, save only these four: Abstain from pollutions of idols, from fornication, from things strangled, and from blood." (Acts xv. 20.) The point I wish to ask your attention to is, that the question of Sabbath-keeping is one of those that is left out. The point that Paul had been fighting for was conceded by the central church at Jerusalem, and he was to go out thenceforth free, so far as that was concerned, in his teaching of the churches that he should found.

There is no mention of the Sabbath, or the Lord's day, as binding, in the New Testament. What, then, was the actual condition of affairs? What did the churches do in the first three hundred years of their existence? Why, they did just what Paul and the Jerusalem Church had agreed upon. Those who wished to keep the Jewish. Sabbath did so; and the Judaizing faction, and the con page 24 verts from the Gentiles, both, were accustomed to meet together some time, morning or evening, on the first day of the week, and to hold their public religious services to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and to eat together the Lord's Supper. But there appears nowhere any least, slightest, smallest hint that on this day they were to abstain from labor, or that they were to be hindered in doing anything they pleased, or going anywhere they pleased,—that is, there is no trace of their confounding this first day of the week with the Jewish Sabbath. The Judaizing faction kept both: they kept the Jewish Sabbath, and they also met the other Christian brethren on the Lord's day. The Gentiles simply met on the Lord's day, and usually left the Jewish Sabbath entirely one side. This, I say, is the fact of history.

There are one or two things I wish to speak of in connection with this, before passing to the next point,—two or three omissions, well known, which are very significant. The writers of the New Testament, in several places, catalogue at length all kinds of sins and offences against Christian character. They are so long, so exhaustive, that it is apparent, on the part of the writer, that he wishes substantially to cover the whole ground. Now, it is very remarkable that nowhere is there any mention of Sabbath-keeping, of Sunday-keeping, of Lord's day-keeping, as binding; and that nowhere is any fault found with anybody for neglecting to keep any of these days. Now, if you remember that a large part of the Christian Church were converted heathen,—people who had been swept in under the influence of the preaching of the apostles, who were not accustomed to keep any such day, who had no idea of it,—you would suppose that that would be one of the first points in which they would be most likely to step over Christian observance, providing that that was a Christian observance. Yet there is no trace of it anywhere.

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One other thing, which is more conclusive than this: During the persecutions under the emperors of the Roman Empire, during the first centuries of Christianity, we know that this was true: that there were sons and daughters of heathen tyrants who were Christians,—there were officers in the Roman army, there were common soldiers in the Roman army, those representing all its ranks from the lowest to the highest, who were Christians. There were members of Ccesar's household in Rome, even, who were Christians,—Christians at a time when to be known as a Christian was certain death; and yet they were able for weeks and months and years to keep perfectly secret the fact of their Christianity. Consider for a moment how utterly impossible any such concealment would have been, if they had felt themselves bound to keep every seventh day, after some certain public fashion, as an observance of Christian rules and laws. Particularly if this was a distinguishing mark of Christianity, and they were under obligation to keep it publicly as the Christians' Lord's day, not a single one of these men or women or children would have been able to conceal their Christianity for more than six days at a time. Yet they did conceal it for weeks and months and years; and a striking thing is that there is no apology from anybody for being under obligation to conceal it to save his life. There is no dispensation on the part of the Church permitting it to be done; there is no explanation of it; there is no mention of it at all. This seems to be a pretty conclusive argument that the thing never was thought of as binding, during the times of this persecution on the part of the Roman emperors.

The first legislation we come to on this subject very naturally is under Constantine; because Christians, not having gained recognition until this time, they had no power, if they wished, to make or enforce any legislation. page 26 But when we come to the year 321, we find this edict of Constantine. I have not found a translation of it, except one that I have made myself. It is a very free translation. If any of you should accuse me of not knowing much about Latin, I shall do as a certain class of politicians do when they have been caught stealing: I shall fall back on the fact that my "heart is sound on the main question," and offer no other excuse. The edict is dated in the year 321, and is substantially as follows:—

Let all judges and inhabitants of cities, and all craftsmen, rest on the venerable day of the sun. But countrymen may freely and lawfully attend to the cultivation of the fields, lest by delay the opportunity granted by the favor of heaven should be lost; seeing that it frequently happens that the grain and the vine cannot be so fitly planted on any other day.

The manumission of slaves, however, was excepted from this sweeping edict, that the judges should be free from all labor and occupation on that day. One or two points about this I would like to have you notice. In the first place, Constantine does not say anything about the Lord's day or Sunday. Everybody admits that he means that day which we call Sunday to-day: but when you remember that Constantine, at the best, after all his whitewashing, was rather a poor kind of Christian; and when we remember that he was a worshipper of the sun, an adherent of the old pagan religion, before he found it for his interest to adopt and patronize Christianity,—it is a question how much love for the Lord's day is to be found in this edict. And then it is very strange, if there was any general public opinion on the part of the Church that it was wicked to do any work on Sunday,—it is very strange that he should have made this grand exception, leaving all countrymen free to go about their daily avocations. And it is very strange, if page 27 he believed the Almighty God had absolutely forbidden all labor on this day,—it is very strange, I say, that he should make such a curious reference as he does when he says that countrymen are permitted to go about their daily avocations, "lest by delay the opportunity granted by the favor of heaven should be lost;" as if the very heaven that had forbidden such a use of the day was liable to give them special opportunities and chances to do their work, in direct contravention of its own orders and law !

Additions were made to this edict under various emperors. In the year 425, under Theodosius II., games and theatrical exhibitions were first forbidden; in 528,. the third council of Orleans forbade all labor on Sunday. We find this, then, is a fact, that up to the time of Constantine even courts were held, and all the usual work of the city, as well as of the country, went on; after his time, half a century or more, agricultural labor still went on as usual; only in 425 were theatres forbidden; and in 528, for the first time, all labor. This, then, for the legislation.

I come now—and this is some of the most important testimony I have to offer—to consider the opinion of certain great fathers on this subject. Of course they, being accounted in their time orthodox, standard authorities, and being so accounted still, cannot be accused of' having any bias or prejudice in the matter. They must have known what were the actual practices, and they must have been aware as to what was the ideal practice which the Church demanded and desired. I give you only a few specimens. In the year 345, after Constantine's edict I wish you to notice, St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem, says this,—and you will notice that it is implied that his Christian followers were inclined to turn out of the really true way of Christianity and go after their old ideas, just as Paul found his inclined. He page 28 says, "Turn thou not out of the way to Samaritanism or Judaism; for Jesus Christ hath redeemed thee. Henceforth reject all observance of Sabbaths, and call not meats, which are really matters of indifference, common or unclean."

This is St. Cyril, twenty or thirty years after Constantine's edict. In the year 392, still later, St. Jerome—pretty good ancient authority—says, "On the Lord's day, they went to church; and, returning from church, they would apply themselves to their allotted works, and make garments for themeslves and others." And again : "The day is not a day of fasting, but the day is a clay of joy; the Church has always considered it a day of joy, and none but heretics have thought otherwise."

I skip from that time till we come to Luther. What does Luther say about it? Luther says, "If anywhere the day [Sunday] is made holy for the mere day's sake,—if anywhere any one sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation,—then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to feast on it, to do anything to remove this encroachment on Christian liberty." And Calvin—he certainly was no looser on the Sunday question, or any other, than his flock—even went so far as to propose to change the day from Sunday to Thursday, as a distinct assertion of the Christian principle that one day was just as good as another; and one day, when John Knox visited Calvin on Sunday afternoon, he found him playing at a game of bowls. Now, John Calvin is almost worshipped in our modern orthodox churches; and yet, if he were consistently living to-day after the pattern that he followed when he did live, there is not a church in Boston that would not discipline him.

Beza, another great reformer, advocated work on Sunday. Bucer insisted that abstinence from labor could not possibly be pleasing to God.

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We come, now, then, to the Puritan reaction, and to notice its causes. I must be very brief in all this. The first cause, it seems to me, apart from that which Mr. Whipple has stated, was this: Here the Catholic Church had had almost an innumerable number of festival days or church days—holy days—one of them, so far as the ordinary Catholic was concerned, being just as holy as the other. These had based themselves on their traditions. The authority of the Church was sufficient for keeping Sunday or any other day; but the Protestants protested against the authority and the power of the Church, and distinctly placed themselves on the foundation of the word of God. What they could not find there, they didn't claim to find anywhere. They wished, and it was a necessary part of their system, that they should continue the observance of the Lord's day. It was a day when they met together to preach,—a day, it is fair to say, without which the existence of the Church itself would almost be an impossibility. Since they had thrown away the Pope and the authority of the Church, they must find greater authority for the clay, or else they must give it up; and so of course they took the best sacred authority they could find, whether it was very good or not. They didn't attempt to find much in the New Testament. They went back distinctly and directly to the fourth commandment, and said, "Here is divine authority for keeping the Sabbath day; and no matter if it is now the first day of the week, instead of the last, we don't know but that the apostles of Jesus, in some unrecorded saying or institution, or conversation, made the change." So that the Church simply switched off from one track to the other, and has since that time come down the centuries on the first-day track instead of on the seventh. They read this fourth commandment in their service every Sunday, and based here the keeping of the Lord's day.

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But another important influence was the Puritan revolt from the rude sports of the time. The young men were accustomed to practice all sorts of rude, half-barbarous sports on Sunday. Of course they interfered not only with the purity necessary to the highest civilization,—and it was well they were abolished,—but they shocked the religious spirit of the time. As an illustration of what they were, Thackeray says: "An Englishman is not necessarily a brute; but an English brute is the worst sort of brute." You can judge from a passage like that as to what the nature of these sports might have been, and how they shocked the really high sentiment of Puritan theology and purity of principle; while on the other hand the Puritans carried their opposition to worldliness, to worldly pleasure, to worldly joys so far, that to their minds it was wicked to be frivolous on Sunday, and perhaps on all the other six days beside,—but at any rate on Sunday, whether they could stop it at any other time or not. So Macaulay, hitting at the extreme repugnance of the Puritans to popular sports, says a thing on the other side that perhaps is something of an exaggeration, and no more just than Thackeray's statement on the first. He says, "The Puritans opposed bear-baiting on Sunday, not because it gave pain to the bears, but because it gave pleasure to the people."

But the Puritan Sunday (and here I come to another important division) has been called "Sabbatizing," or a going back to the Jewish Sabbath. This is popularly supposed to be true, and the day has come to be called the Sabbath; but let us see whether it is true or not. I have said, and I have admitted, and I wish to refer to it,—they did go back to the fourth commandment as the fundamental law on which they built their divine demand that the Sabbath, or the Lord's day, should be kept; and it is popularly supposed, and no doubt they supposed, page 31 that the kind of Sabbath which they instituted, the Puritan Sabbath as it has come to be called, was really the resurrection of the old Jewish Sabbath,—that they had gone back and picked up again the genuine thing. Now let us see if that were true. What was the Jewish Sabbath? What kind of a day was it? Was it anything like the Puritan Sabbath? I quote the late Emanuel Deutsch, a librarian of the British Museum, and one of the most learned Orientalists of his day, author of remarkable articles on Islam, the Talmud, &c. He was one of the best authors on this subject, probably, the world contained at that time. He says, "We cannot refrain from entering an emphatic protest against the vulgar notion of the Jewish Sabbath being a thing of grim austerity. It was precisely the contrary, a clay of joy and delight, a feast day, honored by fine garments, by the best cheer, by wine, lights, spice, and other joys of pre-eminently bodily import." That is his authority as to what the Jewish Sabbath really was. You will notice, he does not say they labored on that day: that one thing is left out.

Take a more ancient authority still. Nehemiah, in the eighth chapter, tenth verse (and remember that he was building the city again, that he was restoring the ancient religion of the Jews to what he supposed to be its pure and original condition), says to the people who were sobbing and weeping when they found what laws of God they had broken, and how they had fallen under his wrath, "Go your way. Eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to them for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord. Neither be ye sorry, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." And the twelfth verse adds, "And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, and to send portions, and to make great mirth." That was not the Puritan way, certainly, of keeping Sunday.

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Now only ignorance can possibly talk of the Puritans as Judaizing, or of going back to the original Bible idea when they were making their Sunday. There is no day in modern times that people are familiar with, that can so fitly and properly be spoken of, in comparison with the old Jewish Sabbath, as our Thanksgiving clay. Simply leave out the element of labor, and then, in this gathering of children and friends about their festal boards, the joy and lights, and the good time, the happiness and mirth of all this, you might look upon as almost a perfect literal resurrection of the old Jewish Sabbath. The Puritan Sabbath, then, was not the resurrection of anything. It was an outright creation of something that never existed in the world before.

Now as to whether this is the fourth commandment, and as to the Church's attitude to-day in going back to the fourth commandment as authority for Sunday-keeping, I wish to say one word, and this is my last. I wonder if it ever occurs to ministers, before preaching on the Sunday question, and to their people while they are listening to them, or afterwards,—I wonder if it ever occurs to them to read the fourth commandment, with the distinct purpose of seeing just what it says. "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy;" and "holy" there, as everybody knows, means simply, according to its ancient significance, something sacred, set apart, to a particular and special use, which particular and special use was, the command goes on to define, simply this : Thou shalt do no labor. The whole of the fourth commandment, without any evidence of any reservation whatever, the totality of the fourth commandment, is simply abstinence from labor. Now I dare assert, without fear of contradiction, that except in some few special cases there is not an Orthodox minister or church-member in Boston, unless he is sick so that he cannot move easily, who ever thinks of page 33 obeying the fourth commandment, or ever does it. What is it they do? Why, they have invented a whole round of duties,—church-going, Sunday-school, everything,—against which, mark me, I have no word to say; but I say they have invented a whole round of duties, a whole curriculum of obligations, lasting from sunrise to sunset, in many cases, that neither the fourth commandment nor the Bible anywhere has ever said one single word concerning. And then, on the basis of the fourth commandment, they demand that you shall religiously be bound to keep all their observances. Because the fourth commandment commands certain people, on a certain day, to abstain from labor and to do a certain thing, therefore all people, in all ages, on some other day, shall be under divine obligation to do something else. That is the whole of it.

Now for this Christian nation to assume the position which it did concerning the Centennial Exhibition being open on Sunday, and to claim that they did it because of the divine authority of Christianity or of the Old Testament, one or the other, I say they are guilty before the enlightened intelligence of this country and of the world of one of two things: either of such gross ignorance as unfits them to be teachers of the intelligence of the nineteenth century, or else they are guilty of the grossest hypocrisy—hypocrisy that claims goodness and character on the score of doing something that God has never asked anybody to do. The very minister who preaches the gospel to-day in Boston, by as much as he is faithful to the needs and wants of his parish, is breaking the Sabbath, according to the fourth commandment, every single Sunday,—that is, admitting the transfer from Saturday to the first day of the week. It simply says, "Thou shalt not labor;" and there is not a man who felicitates himself on the faithfulness with which he discharges his Christian obligations who is not going right square in the page 34 face of the fourth commandment every hour of the Lord's day, from sunrise to sunset; and yet they come to us, and charge us with infidelity, with lack of reverence for God and his word and truth, because we can't possibly see how an obligation of the Jews to do one thing is obligation on us to do another thing.