Pagan Sunday Observance

QUERY COLUMN: Pagan Sunday Observance

Was Sunday generally observed as a day of rest by sun worshipers throughout the Roman Empire prior to March 7, A.D. 321, the date when the emperor Constantine issued the first civil law forbidding labor on that day?

Editor, Philippine Publishing House.

Was Sunday generally observed as a day of rest by sun worshipers throughout the Roman Empire prior to March 7, A.D. 321, the date when the emperor Constantine issued the first civil law forbidding labor on that day?

Our survey of the history of Sunday in connection with paganism in the Roman Empire before March 7, A.D. 321, does not show that the devotees of the sun generally kept that day by rest after the manner in which the seventh-day Sabbath was observed by the Jews and early Christians. In fact, it was apostate Christianity, and 'not paganism, which foisted upon the world a Sabbatic concept of Sunday. The civil law issued by Constantine on March 7, A.D. 321, was one of a series of steps by which men were led to celebrate Sunday as a day of rest after the manner in which the Sab bath was kept by the people of God. The research that we have made on the subject thus far has revealed that:

1. Sunday was named after the sun by the heathen because this orb was widely believed by them to be the astrological deity who pre sided over that day.

2. Sunday was assigned by the heathen to the presidency of the sun in the astrological calendars widely used by them throughout the Roman Empire.

3. Sunday was generally regarded by the heathen as the sacred day of the sun, which they, worshiped as the chiefest of the astrological deities.

4. On Sunday prayers were recited to the sun by his devotees, because they considered that day as especially holy to him.

5. In one inscription Sunday is called "the Lord's day of the sun," probably because the invincible sun was widely adored by the heathen as Sol Dominus Imperii Romani (the Sun, the Lord of the Roman Empire), and because he was commonly referred to by them as "the Lord, the Sun."

6. In Constantine's law of March 7, A.D. 321, Sunday is hailed in heathen terminology as "the venerable day of the sun." And in the law is sued by him in June of that year the day is called "the day of the sun, noted for its veneration." This indicates that Sunday was highly and widely regarded as a very sacred day by reason of religious, historic, or other associations.

7. Sunday was merely a religious festival, not a legal holiday, observed by the heathen of the Roman Empire prior to March 7, A.D. 321.

8. Sunday was not generally observed throughout the Roman Empire by strict cessation from labor. The civil edict of March 7, A.D. 321, was expressly issued by Constantine to command that "all judges and townships and all occupations of trade rest on the venerable day of the sun." Even in this the emperor specifically provided that "those who are situated in the rural districts" might "freely and with full liberty attend to the cultivation of the fields." This implies that up to that date Sun day was not generally kept by a cessation from labor after the manner in which the Jews and early Christians were wont to observe the seventh-day Sabbath.

9. In a treatise specifically addressed to the pagan population of the Roman Empire, Tertullian' (about A.D. 200) complains that some even of the more cultured "think the Sun is the god of the Christians, because it is known that we pray toward the east and make a festivity on the day of the Sun. Do you do less? Do not most of you, in affectation of worshiping the heavenly bodies, at times move your lips toward the sunrising? You certainly are the ones who also received the Sun into the register of the seven days, and from among the days preferred it, on which day you leave off the bath, or you may defer it until the evening, or you may devote it [the day] to idleness and eating." Ad Nationes, book I, chap. 13.

This passage from Tertullian shows

(a) that the sun-worshiping population of the Roman Empire had a calendar, or "register," in which a week of "seven days" played a role;

(b) that one of those seven days was called "the day of the sun";

(c) that the heathen "preferred" Sunday above the other days of the week;

(d) that the devotees of the sun made "a festivity" on Sunday, which was similar to that then observed by Sundaykeeping Christians;

(e) that some of the heathen did not deem it proper to take a bath on Sunday;

(f) that some of them devoted Sunday "to idleness," which implies that there was some cessation from regular work on their part;

(g) and that some devoted the day to "eating," which implies that it was to them a day of recreation and pleasure.

10. Roman Catholic tradition declares that in the time of Miltiades, bishop of Rome from A.D. 311 to 314, the heathen observed Thursdays and Sundays somewhat "as a "sacred fast." We are not specifically told just what the nature of this abstinence was.

In the writings of Mrs. E. G. White we have not found any statement saying that the heathen of Rome kept Sunday as a day of rest after the manner in which the seventh-day Sabbath was observed by the people of God. She speaks of Sunday as "the festival observed by the heathen as 'the venerable day of the sun.' " The Great Controversy, p. 52. Here she quotes a phrase from the Sunday civil law issued by Constantine on March 7, A.D. 321. She says also, "The day of the sun was reverenced by his pagan subjects." Ibid., p. 53. On the same page she refers to Sunday as "the pagan festival."

According to Mrs. White, in the early centuries Sunday was not kept in a Sabbatic sense by even the Christians who observed that day in honor of the resurrection of the Saviour. Here are her words:

"In the first centuries the true Sabbath had been kept by all Christians. They were jealous for the honor of God, and believing that His law is immutable, they zealously guarded the sacredness of its precepts. But with great subtlety, Satan worked through his agents to bring about his object. That the attention of the people might be called to the Sunday, it was made a festival in honor of the resurrection of Christ. Religious services were held upon it; yet it was regarded as a day of recreation, the Sabbath being still sacredly observed." Ibid., p. 52. (Italics ours.)


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Editor, Philippine Publishing House.

May 1950

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