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HOME > Religious Fiction > Paganism Surviving in Christianity > CHAPTER XI. CONSTANTINE’S LEGISLATION CONCERNING THE PAGAN SUNDAY.
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All his Tolerative Legislation Essentially Pagan—Christians did not Seek for Sunday Laws—The first Sunday Law, 321 A.D., Pagan in Every Particular—Essentially Identical with Existing Laws Concerning Other Days—Legislation against Heathen Religions Feeble and Unenforced—Constantine not a “Christian Prince.”

The representative legislation of Constantine, with reference to Christianity, was pagan both as to its genius and form. The various edicts in favor of Christians contained little or nothing of true liberty of conscience. They were the steps by which Christianity, already paganized, was recognized, and gradually raised to a dominant place among the legal religions. This accorded with the prevailing syncretism, and the policy which Rome had always exercised toward foreign religions. On the other hand, the Emperor, still acting as Pontifex Maximus, and long before he was baptized into the fellowship of the Church, became its dictator. He convened and controlled the famous council at Nice (325 A.D.)[218] while his hands were red with the blood of his kindred, whom he slew lest they might come between him and his ambition to be sole emperor.

The decisions of the Council of Nice mark the beginning of centuries in which imperial law determined what should be called Christianity, what orthodoxy, and what heterodoxy. The Bible was not the standard of faith, or practice. Traditions, imperial decrees, the decisions of councils called and dictated by the imperial power, determined the practice of the Church, and formulated her faith. This will be shown more in detail farther on. Meanwhile we pause to examine the character of one of Constantine’s earliest laws, which has left a lasting influence on all Christian history—his “Sunday Edict” of 321 A.D. It is the more important to do this, since the question of Sunday laws and their enforcement is now at the front, and it is well that the reader understand the source from which Sunday legislation sprung. This edict of Constantine is the beginning of Sunday legislation, and it is not difficult to determine the influences which gave it birth. There is no evidence that such legislation was either sought or desired by Christians. They formed but a small fragment of the population of the empire, and in so far as the principles of New Testament Christianity remained, they forbade all such legislation.


The power to appoint holy days rested in the Emperor. His voice was supreme in all such matters. Although history has been carefully searched, there is no trace that any influence was brought to bear upon Constantine, by any person, any event, any custom which represented the Christians, or in which they were interested, to induce him to enact a Sunday law. There is every evidence that he acted in his proper capacity as Pontifex Maximus, and whatever notions may have entered into his determination to promulgate the edict, they could not have been Christian. On the other hand, there were abundant reasons why he should begin legislation in favor of Sunday. It was Apollo’s day. Apollo was the patron deity of Constantine. He was the beautiful Sun-god, and Constantine was proud of his own personal beauty, because of which his fawning courtiers were accustomed to liken him to Apollo. The sun-worship cult had been popular for a long time. Any favor shown to it would strengthen his influence with the “first families” of the empire. It was the settled policy of the emperors to overcome the discontent of the masses, under increasing taxation and burdens, by increasing holidays, games, and enjoyments. To exalt the day of the Sun at such a time was a stroke of policy wholly in keeping with the universal practice[220] of Constantine. The general character of the man, his personal devotion to the Sun-god, and the surrounding demands, furnish all needful reasons for an act of legislation which was pagan, as we shall see, from centre to circumference. This famous edict runs 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.”[194]

This was issued on the seventh of March, A.D. 321. In June of the same year it was modified so as to allow the manumission of slaves on Sunday. The reader will notice that this edict makes no reference to the day as a Sabbath, as the Lords day, or as in any way connected with Christianity. Neither is it an edict addressed to Christians. Nor is the idea of any moral obligation or Christian duty found in it. It is merely the edict of a heathen emperor, addressed to all his subjects, Christian and heathen, who dwelt in cities, and were tradesmen, or officers of justice, commanding them to refrain from their business on the “venerable day” of the god whom Constantine most[221] adored, and to whom he loved in his pride to be compared. There are several distinct lines of argument which prove that this edict was a pagan rather than a Christian document.

On the following day Constantine issued an edict with reference to consulting the pagan soothsayers in case of public misfortune, which, like the Sunday edict, is so purely heathen that no “Christian Emperor” could have conceived or issued it. It runs as follows:
Edict Concerning Aruspices.

“The August Emperor Constantine to Maximus:

“If any part of the palace or other public works shall be struck by lightning, let the sooth-sayers, 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 this 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 amphitheater 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 calends of January, at Serdica (320) Acc. the 8th, before the Ides of March, in the consulship of Crispus II. and Constantine III., C?sars Coss. (321).”[195]


There is abundant evidence, beyond the above, that the Sunday-law was the product of paganism.

The language used speaks of the day only as the “Venerable Day of the Sun,” a title purely heathen. There is not even a hint at any connection between the day and Christianity, or the practices of Christians.

Similar laws concerning many other heathen festivals were common. Joseph Bingham bears the following testimony, when speaking of the edict under consideration:

“This was the same respect as the old Roman laws had paid to their feri?, or festivals, in times of idolatry and superstition.... Now, as the old Roman laws exempted the festivals of the heathen from all judicial business, and suspended all processes and pleadings, except in the fore-mentioned cases, so Constantine ordered that the same respect should be paid to the Lord’s day, that it should be a day of perfect vacation from all prosecutions, and pleadings, and business of law, except where any case of great necessity or charity required a juridical process and public transaction.”[196]

Bingham states correctly that such prohibitions were made by the Roman laws in favor of pagan festivals, but adds, incorrectly, that Constantine made the same in favor of the “Lord’s day.” It was not the Lord’s day, but the “Venerable Day of the Sun,” which the edict mentions; and it is impossible[223] to suppose that a law, made by a Christian prince, in favor of a Christian institution, should not in any way mention that institution, or hint that the law was designed to apply to it.

Millman corroborates this idea as follows:

“The earlier laws of Constantine, though in their effect favorable to Christianity, claimed some deference, as it were, to the ancient religion, in the ambiguity of their language, and the cautious terms in which they interfered with paganism. The rescript commanding the celebration of the Christian Sabbath, bears no allusion to its peculiar sanctity as a Christian institution. It is the day of the sun which is to be observed by the general veneration: the courts were to be closed, and the noise and tumult of public business and legal litigation were no longer to violate the repose of the sacred day. But the believer in the new paganism, of which the solar worship was the characteristic, might acquiesce without scruple in the sanctity of the first day of the week....

“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 rea............
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