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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 17. Legal Sanction of Sunday.


7. The civil sanction of the observance of Sunday and other festivals of the church.

The state, indeed, should not and cannot enforce this observance upon any one, but may undoubtedly and should prohibit the public disturbance and profanation of the Christian Sabbath, and protect the Christians in their right and duty of its proper observance. Constantine in 321 forbade the sitting of courts and all secular labor in towns on “the venerable day of the sun,” as he expresses himself, perhaps with reference at once to the sun-god, Apollo, and to Christ, the true Sun of righteousness; to his pagan and his Christian subjects. But he distinctly permitted the culture of farms and vineyards in the country, because frequently this could be attended to on no other day so well;166166   This exception is entirely unnoticed by many church histories, but stands in the same law of 321 in the Cod. Justin. lib. iii. tit. 12, de feriis, l. 3: “Omnes judices, urbanaeque plebes, et cunctarum artium officia venerabili die Solis quiescant. Ruri tamen positi agrorum culturae libere licenterque inserviant: quoniam frequenter evenit, ut non aptius alio die frumenta sulcis, aut vineae scrobibus mandentur, ne occasione momenti pereat commoditas coelesti provisione concessa.” Such work was formerly permitted, too, on the pagan feast days. Comp. Virgil. Georg. i. v. 268 sqq. Cato, De re rust. c. 2. though one would suppose that the hard-working peasantry were the very ones who most needed the day of rest. Soon afterward, in June, 321, he allowed the manumission of slaves on Sunday;167167   Cod. Theodos. lib. ii. tit. 8. l. 1: “Emancipandi et manumittendi die festo cuncti licentiam habeant, et super his rebus actus non prohibeantur.” as this, being an act of benevolence, was different from ordinary business, and might be altogether appropriate to the day of resurrection and redemption. According to Eusebius, Constantine also prohibited all military exercises on Sunday, and at the same time enjoined the observance of Friday in memory of the death of Christ.168168   Eus. Vit. Const. iv. 18-20. Comp. Sozom. i. 8. In our times military parades and theatrical exhibitions in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and other European cities are so frequent on no other day as on the Lord’s day! In France, political elections are usually held on the Sabbath!

Nay, he went so far, in well-meaning but mistaken zeal, as to require of his soldiers, even the pagan ones, the positive observance of Sunday, by pronouncing at a signal the following prayer, which they mechanically learned: “Thee alone we acknowledge as God; thee we confess as king; to thee we call as our helper; from thee we have received victories; through thee we have conquered enemies. Thee we thank for good received; from thee we hope for good to come. Thee we all most humbly beseech to keep our Constantine and his God-fearing sons through long life healthy and victorious.”169169   Eus. Vit. Const. l. iv. c. 20. The formulary was prescribed in the Latin language, as Eusebius says in c. 19. He is speaking of the whole army (comp. c. 18), and it may presumed that many of the soldiers were heathen. Though this formula was held in a deistical generalness, yet the legal injunction of it lay clearly beyond the province of the civil power, trespassed on the rights of conscience, and unavoidably encouraged hypocrisy and empty formalism.

Later emperors declared the profanation of Sunday to be sacrilege, and prohibited also the collecting of taxes and private debts (368 and 386), and even theatrical and circus performances, on Sunday and the high festivals (386 and 425).170170   The second law against opening theatres on Sundays and festivals (a.d.425) in the Cod. Theodos. l. xv. tit. 7, I. 5, says expressly: “Omni theatrorum atque circensium voluptate per universas urbes ... denegata, totae Christianorum ac fidelium mentes Dei cultibus occupentur.” But this interdiction of public amusements, on which a council of Carthage (399 or 401) with reason insisted, was probably never rigidly enforced, and was repeatedly supplanted by the opposite practice, which gradually prevailed all over Europe.171171   As Chrysostom, at the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, often complains that the theatre is better attended than the church; so down to this day the same is true in almost all the large cities on the continent of Europe. Only in England and the United States, under the influence of Calvinism and Puritanism, are the theatres closed on Sunday.



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