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Sabbath Legislation


God, Man, and the Sabbath


Who made the Sabbath?


“For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:11.


To whom does the Sabbath belong?


“But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God.” Verse 10.


To whom, then, should its observance be rendered?


“Then Jesus said unto them, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Mark 12:17.


Note – When men make Sabbath laws, therefore, they require Sabbath observance to be rendered to the government, or, presumably, to God through the government, which amounts to the same thing.


In religious things, to whom alone are we accountable?


“So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” Romans 14:12.


Note – But when men make compulsory Sabbath laws, they make men accountable to the government for Sabbath observance.


The Nature of Sabbath Laws


How does God show the holiness of the Sabbath day?


“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8. “The seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, a day of sacred assembly.” Leviticus 23:3.  Since the Sabbath is holy it is to be kept holy and is a day for holy assembly, it must be religious. 


What, then, must be the nature of all Sabbath legislation?


It is religious legislation.


When the State Enacts Religious Laws


What has generally been the result of religious legislation, or union of church and state?

Religious intolerance and persecution.


What was the first Sunday law?


Constantine’s Sunday law of March 7, 321 A.D. 


Note – “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 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 Constantine being consuls each of them for the second time.)”

- Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3; translated by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3 (1902), p. 380, note.


What church council required Sunday observance and forbade Sabbath observance?


The Council of Laodicea decreed that Christians should keep the Sunday, and that if they persisted in resting on the Sabbath, “they shall be shut out from Christ.” (See Hefelle, A History of the Councils of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 316.)


Was there further imperial Sunday legislation?


“Constantine’s decrees marked the beginning of a long, though intermittent series of imperial decrees in support of Sunday rest.” – Ibid., p. 29.


Note – “By a law of the year 386 A.D. [In the reign of Theodosius I], those older changers effected by the emperor Constantine were more rigorously enforced, and, in general, civil transactions of every kind on Sunday were strictly forbidden…

“In the year 425 A.D. [In the reign of Theodosius the Younger], the exhibition of spectacles on Sunday, and the principle feast-days of the Christians, was forbidden, in order that the devotion of the faithful might be free of disturbance….

“In this way, the church received help from the state for the furtherance of her ends… But had it not been for the confusion of spiritual and secular interests, had it not been for the vast number of more outward conversions thus brought about, she would have needed no such help.” – Neander, General History of the Christian Religion and Church, Vol. 2 (1852 ed.), pp. 300, 301.

The decrees of later emperors between 364 and 467 added other prohibitions and exemptions from time to time. Justinian’s code collected the laws of the empire on the subject, and from time to time when Charlemagne, king of the Franks, was crowned emperor (800 A.D.), this code was in effect all over what later became the “Holy Roman Empire.” The medieval decrees and canons of popes and councils concerning Sunday observance were enforced by the civil power. (See The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 11, p. 147.) 


Later the church councils had an influence to some extent throughout the former Roman Empire, for church maintained a large degree of unity. The council of Laodicea (fourth century) ordered men to work on the Sabbath and rest if possible on Sunday. “The council of Orleans (538), while protesting against excessive Sabbatarianism, forbid all field work under the pain of censure; and the council of Macon (585) laid down that the Lord’s day ‘is the day for perpetual rest, which is suggested to us by the type of the seventh day in the law and the prophets,’ and ordered a complete cessation of all kinds of business. How far the movement had gone by the end of the 6th century is shown by a letter of Gregory the Great (pope 590-604) protesting against prohibition of baths on Sunday.” – Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. 12, pp. 105,106, art. “Decrees of the Church Councils.”

Law of Charlemagne, 789: “And, we decree according to what the Lord commanded also in the law, that servile work shall not be done on the Lord’s day, and just as my father of blessed memory commanded in his synodal edicts, that is, that men shall not carry on rural work, neither in cultivating the vine, nor in plowing in the fields [ect.] … Likewise the women shall not do any weaving [ect.] … In order that in every way the honor and rest of the Lord’s Day may be kept.

But let them come together from everywhere to the church to the celebration of the mass, and praise God in all the good things which He has done for us on that day.” –Translated from Charlemagne, Admonitio Generalis, in Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Leges, sec. 2, tom. 1, p. 61, par. 81.

In England, according to Lord Mansfield (Swann vs. Browne, 3 Burrow, 1599), William the Conqueror and Henry II declared the codes of Justinian on Sunday observance to be the law of England. A succession of Parliamentary acts regulated Sunday observance in England. (See The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Vol. 11, pp. 147, 148.) The first Sunday law promulgated in America, Virginia, 1610:

“Every man and woman shall repair in the morning to the divine service, and sermons preached upon the Sabbath day, and in the afternoon to divine service, and catechizing, upon pain for the first fault to lose their provision and the allowance and also be whipped, and for the third to suffer death.” For the Colony in the Virginia Britannia, Lavves, Morall and Martiall & c, in Peter Force, Tracts Relating to the Colonies in North America (Washington, 1844), Vol. 3, No. 2, p. 10.

Law of Charles II, 29th year, 1676-77: “Be it enacted… that all and every Person and Persons whatsoever, shall on the Lord’s Day apply themselves thereon in the Duties of Piety and true Religion, publicly and privately; and that no… Person whatsoever, shall do or exercise any worldly Labor, Business, or Work of their ordinary Callings, upon the Lord’s Day, or any part thereof (Works of Necessity and Charity only excepted;)… and that no Person or Persons whatsoever, shall publicly cry, show forth, or expose to Sale, any Wares, Merchandizes.” – British Statutes at Large, 29th year of Charles II, chap. 7.  

Modeled somewhat after the Puritan laws of 1644 to 1658, but mush shorter and milder, it further forbids travel, but does not mention sports and pastimes, and makes the same exception for food and milk. The importance of this act is that it stood, with modifications, as the basic Sunday law of England for nearly two hundred years (see Encyclopedia Britannia [1945 ed.], Vol. 21, p. 565), and was followed as a model for many of the subsequent Sunday laws in various American colonies, and thus somewhat set the pattern for our State laws.

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