Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/November 1886/Origin and Results of Sunday Legislation

972881Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 November 1886 — Origin and Results of Sunday Legislation1886A. H. Lewis


By Rev. A. H. LEWIS, D. D.

THE times demand a reconsideration of our Sunday laws. They are practically inoperative. There must be some essential reason for this, in the character of the people or in the character of the laws; perhaps both. Either the laws have a false basis, and can not rightly claim public regard, or the people are wickedly indifferent to rightful authority. This is true of the Church as well as the "world." To know the origin of these laws will help to solve the problem.

Sun-worship is the oldest and most wide-spread form of paganism. It reaches back to the prehistoric period. Under various phases it has always been the persistent foe to the worship of Jehovah. It was the prevailing and most corrupting form of idolatry which assailed the Hebrew nation. Its lowest form, Baal-worship, produced the deepest social and moral degradation. As the period of idolatry passed away, sun-worship assumed a less materialistic form, without losing the virulence of its poison. It lay in waiting, like a beast of prey, to corrupt Christianity, as it had already corrupted Judaism. Transferred from the East, and from Egypt, to Greece and Rome, it became popular, and great efforts were made under Heliogabalus and others, in the third and fourth centuries, to exalt it above all other religions. Indeed, Mithraicism came near gaining the field and driving apostolic religion out of the Roman Empire. It did corrupt it to an extent little understood.

Pagan Rome made religion a part of the state. Long before the advent of Christianity, the emperor, as head of the state and therefore of the Church—Pontifex Maximus—was accustomed to legislate upon all religious matters. He had supreme power in this direction. Scores of sacred days were set apart, under the pagan empire, upon which judicial proceedings and certain forms of work were prohibited. It was the settled policy of the empire for the emperor thus to determine concerning ferial days. Apostolic Christianity forbade all appeal to the civil law in matters of Christian duty. Christ and his apostles sought only the rights of citizenship at the hand of civil government. When these were refused, they gladly yielded, suffering persecution, unto death, if need be. Christ repeatedly declared, "My kingdom is not of this world." New Testament Christianity could not have instituted such a cultus as that which gave rise to Sunday legislation, the union of church and state, under an emperor or an emperor-pope. "Old Mixon" peach-trees can not bear crab-apples. All civil legislation concerning religious faith and practice, such as obtained in the Roman Empire, was the product of paganism. It was not an off-shoot of Christianity, or of the Hebrew theocracy.

The first civil legislation concerning Sunday appears in the edict of Constantine the Great, 321 A.D. Nothing appears in history as demanding the legislation, or as wishing it, except the will of the emperor. He was a well-known devotee of the sun-god, as were his predecessors. His attitude toward Christianity, both before and long after the issuing of the Sunday edict, was the attitude of a shrewd politician; toward his rivals it was that of an unscrupulous, bloody-handed monarch. He gained power by intrigue, deceit, and murder. No accurate historian dares call him a "Christian emperor." Romish tradition and superficial literature have misnamed him the "first Christian emperor." The facts relative to his life and character forbid every such claim. He refused to unite with the Christian church until he lay on his death-bed, in 337 A.D., when he received baptism, hoping thus to make the most of both worlds. The text of his Sunday edict, and the surroundings, all show it to have been purely heathen. The text is as follows:

"Let all judges, and all city people, and all tradesmen, rest upon the venerable day of the Sun. But let those dwelling in the country freely and with full liberty attend to the culture of their fields; since it frequently happens that no other day is so fit for the sowing of grain or the planting of vines; hence the favorable time should not be allowed to pass lest the provisions of Heaven be lost.

"Given the 7th of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls, each for the second time."—("Codex Justin.," lib. iii., tit. 12, 1. 3.)

If the foregoing law were associated with Christian laws, the testimony against it would be less damaging. But the following shows that on the next day Constantine issued another edict, which, like the above, is unmixed paganism.

Edict concerning haruspices:

"The august Emperor Constantine to Maximus:

"If any part of the palace or other public works shall be struck by lightning, let the soothsayers, following old usages, inquire into the meaning of the portent, and let their written words, very carefully collected, be reported to our knowledge; and also let the liberty of making use of the custom be accorded to others, provided they abstain from private sacrifices, which are specially prohibited.

"Moreover, that declaration and exposition written in respect to the amphitheatre being struck by lightning, concerning which you had written to Heraclianus, the tribune, and master of offices, you may know has been reported to us.

"Dated the 16th, before the kalends of January, at Seridica (320), Ace. the 8th, before the ides of March, in the consulship of Crispus II and Constantine III, Caess, Coss., 321 A.D."—("Codex Theo.," lib. xvi, tit, 10, 1. 1.)

The reader will note that nothing appears in the law, neither does anything appear in the accompanying evidence, showing that Christians desired the law, or were in any way interested therein. It applied to all the subjects of the empire alike. The day is not mentioned, except by its heathen title. There is nothing in the restrictions placed upon it unlike the restrictions which already existed concerning many other pagan days. The following extract, from the work of an English barrister, is pertinent at this point:

"That the division of days into juridici et ferati, judicial and non-judicial, did not arise out of the modes of thought peculiar to the Christian world, must be known to every classical scholar. Before the age of Augustus the number of days upon which, out of reverence to the gods to whom they were consecrated, no trials could take place at Rome, had become a resource upon which a wealthy criminal could speculate as a means of evading justice; and Suetonius enumerates, among the praiseworthy acts of that emperor, the cutting off from the number thirty days, in order that crime might not go unpunished nor business be impeded."—("Feasts and Fasts," p. 6, by Edward V. Neale.)

After enumerating certain kinds of business which were allowed under these general laws, Mr. Neale adds, "Such was the state of the laws with respect to judicial proceedings while the empire was still heathen." Concerning the suspension of labor, we learn, from the same author, that—

"The practice of abstaining from various sorts of labor upon days consecrated by religious observance, like that of suspending at such seasons judicial proceedings, was familiar to the Roman world before the introduction of Christian ideas. Virgil enumerates the rural labors which might on festal days be carried on without intrenching upon the prohibitions of religion and right; and the enumeration shows that many works were considered as forbidden. Thus it appears that it was permitted to clean out the channels of an old watercourse, but not to make a new one; to wash the herd or flock, if such washing was needful for their health, but not otherwise; to guard the crop from injury by setting snares for birds, or fencing in the grain; and to burn unproductive thorns."—(Ibid., p. 86.)

Sir Henry Spellman, speaking of the origin of English "court terms," says:

"I will, therefore, seek the original of our terms only from the Romans, as all other nations that have been subject to their civil and ecclesiastical monarch do and must.

"The ancient Romans, while they were yet heathens, did not, as we at this day, use certain continual portions of the year for a legal decision of controversies, but, out of superstitious conceit that some days were ominous and more unlucky than others (according to that of the Egyptians), they made one day to be fastus or ferii day, and another (as an Egyptian day) to be vacation or nefastus; seldom two fast or law days together; yea, they sometimes divided one and the same day in this manner:

"In modo fastus erat, mune nefastus erat.

"The afternoon was term, the morning holy day. Nor were all their fasti applied to judicature, but some of them to other meetings and consultations of the commonwealth; so that, being divided into three sorts, which they called fastos proprie, fastos endotercisos, and fastos comitiales, containing together one hundred and eighty-four days, through all the months of the year there remained not properly to the prætor, as judicial triverbial days, above twenty-eight."—(Works, from original MS., in Bodleian Library, book ii, p. 74.)

Church historians have been obliged to recognize the purely heathen character of this legislation. Schaff says: "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 worshipers 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."—("Church History," vol. iii, p. 380.)

Milman says: "The rescript, indeed, for the religious observance of the Sunday, which enjoined the suspension of all public business and private labor, except that of agriculture, was enacted, according to the apparent terms of the decree, for the whole Roman Empire. Yet, unless we had direct proof that the decree set forth the Christian reason for the sanctity of the day, it may be doubted whether the act would not be received by the greater part of the empire as merely adding one more festival to the fasti of the empire, as proceeding entirely from the will of the emperor, or even grounded on his authority as supreme pontiff, by which he had the plenary power of appointing holy-days. In fact, as we have before observed, the day of the sun would be willingly hallowed by almost all the pagan world, especially that part which had admitted any tendency toward the Oriental theology."—("History of Christianity," vol. ii, pp. 396, 397.)

No other legislation concerning Sunday appears for the next sixty-five years. Meanwhile, the Church was becoming paganized, the papacy was developing, the empire was tottering, and all things were getting ready for the dark ages. From the close of the fourth century to the close of the fifth the legislation was enlarged, including scores of other days, most of them pagan festivals, christened by new names, and but slightly modified in the manner of their observance. As church and state became more thoroughly united, the pagan idea that the civil law ought to regulate religious actions and religious belief was so fully developed that the state determined not only what men should do, but what men should believe. Civil law practically decided what Christianity was. It defined orthodoxy and heresy, thus involving the whole realm of religious conscience in the meshes of political intrigue.

As the Holy Roman Empire grew upon the ruins of the pagan empire, it continued to secularize and corrupt Christianity. Civil legislation relative to Sunday and other festivals and fasts prevailed during the dark ages. Our Saxon ancestors, converted under this empire, received this inheritance, and transmitted through the Saxon and English laws the entire genius of Sunday legislation to our own time. The chain is unbroken which binds the Sunday law of to-day to the first pagan Sunday law of 321 a. d.

There was little or no development of the Sabbatic idea, as drawn from the fourth commandment, until the time of the Puritan reformation. Under the theory that the fourth commandment might be transferred from the seventh to the first day of the week, Sunday legislation took on the more distinctively Sabbatic type which has prevailed in America. The theocracy of the New England colonies, which made the civil government subservient to the Church, instituted the most rigorous Sunday legislation. These early colonial laws were not only rigid, but were rigidly enforced. Their power was short-lived. As the colonial governments gave way to the States, and the States became united in the nation, Sunday legislation was continually modified and its influence steadily declined. The laws still exist, but are disregarded by all classes of society, according to choice or convenience. Religious men assemble in conventions, speak through resolutions, and editorials bewail the state of things and talk of the necessity of a more rigid enforcement of the Sunday laws. No one heeds such talk, and no law is enforced. Year by year we drift further away from a religious regard for Sunday. The most cogent arguments driven into the public mind are like a nail driven into the weak mortar of a thin wall; it looks well till you attempt to hang a weight upon it, when it gives way, deepening the sense of failure. Hence we say, as at the beginning, either the Sunday laws are not grounded in Christianity, or the public conscience has become wickedly indifferent.

Why thus?

The real philosophy of the situation is this: Sunday laws, coupled with the false no-Sabbath theories which were developed in the second century, have depraved the public conscience and produced the very results over which good men now mourn. Granted, for sake of the argument, that Sunday has rightfully taken the place of the Sabbath, and ought to be observed in accordance with a Christian interpretation of the fourth commandment. The fact remains that the civil law, assuming control of religious actions, places itself between the human heart and God. It shuts out the divine authority. It forbids the conscience to rise above the human authority. The result is, no conscience. If, on the other hand, the observance of the Sunday, or the enforcement of the law, be urged upon grounds of policy and expediency, each man instantly claims the right to judge for himself as to what is expedient or necessary. Divine authority alone can give a Sabbath. Human authority can give no more than a holiday.

The results which confront us indicate an underlying philosophy against which it is useless to fight. They show that the pagan conception, which makes the state the source of authority in religious matters, the arbiter of disputes, or the regulator of acts, is not only foreign to the true Christian conception, but is destructive of it. The Christianity of the fourth century was widely removed from the Christianity of the apostles. No one element did more to create this degeneracy than the interference by the state in matters of religion. No form of interference affected the life of the people more than legislation concerning holy-days and religious festivals. The effort which Puritanism made to lift the whole question to a higher level has failed because it persisted in the fundamental error that the state may justly legislate concerning religious duties. Religious sabbatizing is a duty which men owe to God alone. Civil law can make a holiday, can institute a day on which business and labor will cease; it can never make a Sabbath any more than it can make an honest man. All appeal to civil law concerning Sabbath-keeping is necessarily degrading, and opposed to the genius of Christianity. The Sunday laws have not become obsolete because men are comparatively more wicked than before, but because men have steadily risen above the pagan conception which permits the state thus to interfere. He who complains of the decline in regard for Sunday laws complains of an unavoidable fruitage which has always appeared and always will appear when the state interferes with religious matters.

Another result has developed in connection with our Sunday laws whereby the vilest and most nefarious business known to our civilization has intrenched itself behind them, and at the same time defies them. The enforced leisure which the Sunday laws and the customs concerning Sunday have brought about make Sunday the great harvest-day for the saloons and their associate evils. The Sunday laws prohibit many forms of legitimate business which our Christian civilization has come to allow, and any persistent effort to enforce the Sunday laws against the saloon is met by the saloonist with the counter-effort to enforce the laws against legitimate business. In the absence of any struggle with the saloon, nobody thinks of enforcing the laws against legitimate business, or against popular amusements. Meanwhile the rum-traffic, content to close the front door, if that be really insisted upon, goes forward, and will continue to go forward, unchecked. Legitimate business can not afford to be interfered with, and the liquor power, holding the club in its own hand, says, "Permit me to go forward, through the side-door at least, or I will give you endless trouble through the same law whereby you seek to interfere with me." In many places, as in our Western cities, the liquor power is strong enough to openly defy every effort, and to push its business through the front door, regardless of law. Between the two methods, the rum-traffic has taken full possession of Sunday, and the larger half of its profits are gathered in on that day.

A still more deplorable evil has come upon the Church itself, through reliance upon the Sunday law, and through the acceptance of Sunday, which has neither Scriptural authority nor standing-room on the law of God. It has ceased to appeal to the law of God—except in a very weak way—as the source of authority in matters relative to the Sabbath, and has thereby become shorn of all real strength. Year by year the Church drifts further into the stream of Sunday desecration. The pulpit talks of the terrible disregard for Sunday which prevails, while the pews hasten out on Monday morning to pocket the profits of Sunday business and Sunday revelry. Thus, dependence on the civil law, and false theories concerning the abrogation of the Sabbath, have turned the heart of the Church itself away from the law of God, and left it to lean on a broken reed which is piercing it through.

The results are sad, but terribly real. They are legitimate, unavoidable, but none the less ruinous.