How 'First Day Sabbatarianism' Entered the Church...

A consideration of that peculiar form of First Day Sabbatarianism which developed from Bullinger, Scottish Presbyterianism and Puritanism and went on to undermine the believer's liberty in Christ in many countries.

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he New Testament makes it plain that strict and legalistic sabbath-observance could never be part of the life of the New Covenant Church of God (Matthew 11:28-30; Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:27; Romans 14:5-17; Galatians 4:10; Colossians 2:16-17; Hebrews 1:1-2; Hebrews 8:13), nevertheless (and perhaps inevitably) Sabbatarianism has affected many Christians. But what are the hows/whys/wherefores on this? And how did an approach which would have been anathema to the Apostle Paul enter the Church?

Now we initially need to tie our own colours to the mast! Where are we coming from? The intention (as in every single article which you will find on this website) is to come from a wholly biblical perspective. I am part of no specific denomination and under the jurisdiction of no 'church council.' Moreover, no religious body pays me a salary just as long as I continue to agree with their teachings– No. I simply wish to make biblical teaching plain in a position in which I am subject to no pressures or, hopefully, prejudices.

Now right at the start let me say that the principle of setting aside one day in seven in order to meditate on the spiritual things of God, including, perhaps, to contemplate the beauty of His Creation and the desire to meet with other Christians for worship of our Lord has clear biblical support - nobody can ever deny this even for one moment. Indeed, the writer of the Book of Hebrews (Hebrews 10:25) encourages us not to forsake the practice of assembling ourselves together in order to learn more of biblical teaching and to worship. The problem occurs when a particular group of believers insist that sabbath-observance, including the need to abstain from all physical work, remains a legal requirement for Christians, (that is, just as it had been for the Israelites who received the Old Covenant at Mount Sinai).

Regarding Sunday, it seems somewhat unpalatable for a few to face the biblical truth that Sunday – the first day of the week – never was the Sabbath and that all attempts to claim it as 'the new Sabbath' or, 'the Christian Sabbath' are inherently flawed. No. We must first of all substantiate that the Sabbath was that period of time from Friday sunset until Saturday sunset. It is not hard to substantiate this, in fact, the Jews substantiate it for us through their meticulous preservation of the Hebrew Bible and of their own traditions to be found in the Talmud and various other sources. There is no need to argue on this point.

Now regarding how and why Christians came to assemble for worship on a Sunday (the first rather than the seventh day of the week), the internet itself is replete with information on this subject (though one needs to carefully avoid articles which come out of the seventh day observance camp since, sadly, they appear to be as commited as ever to the misappropriation of Christian history. I exclude the new-style 'Worldwide Church of God' from this charge since their website has articles which face up to the truth on this matter). I myself set out the main points on this in my article Why Worship on a Sunday?

Constantine's Influence; Exaggerated?

any have claimed that the 4th century AD Roman emperor Constantine was responsible for the teaching that Sunday should be 'The new sabbath' but this simply is not correct. Constantine had no tradition of any kind of 'sabbath' – new or old! However, he did encourage Sunday to be looked upon as a rest day in the Roman Empire, but to what degree this was carefully observed none of us can say. Most likely observance of this principle was very patchy - after all, slave labour was the 'norm' in that society and can we really see all those affluent and spoiled Romans giving their slaves the Sunday off every single week?? I don't think so! More likely, Constantine simply got the ball rolling in the right direction and provided a law which Christians who wanted to assemble with other believers on the Lord's Day could point to.

Through the Edict of Toleration, (313 A.D), Constantine granted to "Christians and to all others full liberty of following that religion which each may freely choose." This has been described as the 'first act of Christian ecumenism' but I think that is more than a little harsh. Constantine was strongly attracted to Christianity but did not finally fully commit himself to it until his deathbed, yet despite this man's flaws the Lord undoubtedly started working through him to relieve the pressure of the continual persecution of Christians in the 4th century.

So in 321 AD Constantine introduced the first legislation concerning Sunday: "Let all the judges and town people, and the occupation of all trades rest on the venerable day of the sun." In 325 A.D., Constantine issued a general exhortation to all his subjects to embrace Christianity. He ordered 50 Bibles to be prepared under the direction of Eusebius, on the finest vellum and by skillful artists. So Sunday became a rest day which was there for the early Christians to use. From that point, people who practiced their trade on the First Day probably risked becoming very unpopular yet there is no reason to assume blanket observance of Sunday right across every Roman province and, as we have already suggested, probably few indeed would have allowed their slaves to observe this one day rest. Yet if Christians were determined to assemble on the First Day, the legislation was now in place to allow them to do so, for who would dare contradict Constantine?

In his zeal to institute a universal creed in order to fight Christianic heresies (which very soon arose), he presided over the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. By the way, these early heresies included Arianism (which stated that Jesus was not God but the highest creation of God) and Arianism is still 'alive and kicking' in the teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses.
Constantine died in 337 after being baptized as a final act. But nothing here suggests that Constantine brought in a new sabbath legalism.

Did the “Catholic Church” Change the Sabbath Day?

here is much needless confusion around on this point. On one website I read the following,

Picture of John Knox

John Knox, although a noble and courageous man, did much to further Sabbatarianism in Scotland

It is true that the Catholic Church through the authority of Christ replaced the Hebrew Sabbath (Saturday) with the Lord's Day (Sunday); however, this occurred very early - well before the time of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century...”

There is a sense in which that statement is perfectly correct – however, we must understand that the term 'Catholic Church' refers there simply to the early Church! This is the organised form of the very Church which Jesus founded! This is not (I repeat NOT) a reference to what we all know now as the 'Roman Catholic Church', sometimes known as the 'Church of Rome' with headquarters based in that city. Seventh Day people are especially prone to misunderstanding on this point but extremist Protestants (especially those influenced by the writings of Alexander Hislop) also frequently slip into error here. Truth is, the 'Roman Catholic Church' did not even exist in the third, fourth or fifth centuries! Writers used the term 'catholic' (meaning universal) to separate the early, organized church from heretical groups including the Arianists, Donatists and so on.

The Church Fathers

very careful study of the 'church fathers' will reveal that, almost to a man, they also did not support any sort of legalistic approach to “Sabbath” or Lord's Day observance.

The Testimony of Ignatius is typical here:

The Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 8-10 (c. 110 A.D.):
"Do not be deceived by strange doctrines or antiquated myths, since they are worthless. For if we continue to live accordance with Judaism, we admit that we have not received grace. For the most godly prophets lived in accordance with Christ Jesus. This is why they were persecuted, being inspired as they were by His grace in order that those who are disobedient might be fully convinced that there is one God who revealed Himself through Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word which came forth from silence, who in every respect pleased Him who sent Him. If, then, those who had lived in antiquated practices came to newness of hope, no longer keeping the Sabbath but living in accordance with the Lord's day,...”

Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, Book 1, Chapter 5 (c. 315 A.D.):
"For as the name Christians is intended to indicate this very idea, that a man, by the knowledge and doctrine of Christ, is distinguished by modesty and justice, by patience and a virtuous fortitude, and by a profession of piety towards the one and only true and supreme God; all this no less studiously cultivated by them than by us. They did not, therefore, regard circumcision, nor observe the Sabbath, neither do we; neither do we abstain from certain foods, nor regard other injunctions, which Moses subsequently delivered to be observed in types and symbols, because such things as these do not belong to Christians." (13)

In the same work, Eusebius' criticism of the heretical legalist sect of the Ebionites also shows us that he was commited to the Lord's Day – but not to the Sabbath and he had no doubt that the Sabbath and the Lord's Day were two entirely separate matters:

Eusebius Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 27 (c. 315 A.D.):
"The Ebionites cherished low and mean opinions of Christ. For they considered Him a plain and common man, and justified only by His advances in virtue, and that He was born of the Virgin Mary, by natural generation. With them the observance of the law was altogether necessary, as if they could not be saved, only by faith in Christ and a corresponding life. These, indeed, thought on the one hand that all of the epistles of the apostles ought to be rejected, calling him an apostate from the law, but on the other, only using the gospel according to the Hebrews, they esteem the others as of little value. They also observe the Sabbath and other disciplines of the Jews, just like them, but on the other hand, they also celebrate the Lord's days very much like us, in commemoration of His resurrection." (14)

Philip Schaff writes in the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge 1891 Ed., vol.4 article on Sunday,

"Sunday… was adopted by the early Christians as a day of worship.. . Sunday was emphatically the weekly feast of the resurrection of Christ, as the Jewish Sabbath was the feast of creation. It was called the Lord's day, and upon it the primitive church assembled to break bread. No regulations for its observance are laid down in the New Testament nor, indeed, is its observance even enjoined. Yet Christian feeling led to the universal adoption of the day, in imitation of the apostolic precedence. In the second century its observance was universal...”

One may search the 'church fathers' and note how widespread is this view that legalism should be kept away from the observance of the Lord's Day.

The Creeds – Early (But Patchy) Indications of Creeping Legalism

he great Christian creeds of the 4th century onwards did much to keep heresy out of the Church, but lamentably, some of their references to the Lord's Day did tend to encourage Legalism in the observance of the Lord's Day. Let us consult just a few examples to see how the topic of the Lord's Day is handled:

The Period of the Reformers

Picture of John Calvin

Jean Calvin, whose approach towards the Lord's Day rejected any hints of legalism. Calvin stressed the dangers of seeing the Lord's Day as a sabbath. Unfortunately the later "Calvinism" chose to follow Bullinger rather than Calvin on this point

y the time of the Reformation, the Lord's Day had deteriorated into either a mere holiday or into a commanded observance of countless oppressive and ritualistic laws and ceremonies. Martin Luther (1483-1546) insisted that the believer was not to be bound by such legalism, and advocated revolt against it. In his Table Talk he says,

"If anywhere the day is made holy for the mere day's sake---if anywhere anyone sets up its observance on a Jewish foundation, then I order you to work on it, to ride on it, to dance on it, to feast on it, to do anything that shall remove this encroachment on Christian liberty."

It is true to say that the Reformers were determined to make the Lord's Day a celebration of the resurrection yet again and to free it from being the burden which it had rapidly been becoming, this is especially true of the German/Swiss Reformation as influenced by Luther and Calvin, though less so of the later English/Scottish Reformation, especially of John Knox in Scotland.

For his part, Calvin was determined to return Lord's Day observance to the view and practice of the early church:

I am obliged to dwell a little longer on this, because some restless spirits are now making an outcry about the observance of Lord's day. They complain that Christian people are trained in Judaism, because some observance of days is retained. My reply is, That those days are observed by us without Judaism, because in this matter we differ widely from the Jews. We do not celebrate it with most minute formality, as a ceremony by which we imagine that a spiritual mystery is typified, but we adopt it as a necessary remedy for preserving order in the Church. Paul informs us that Christians are not to be judged in respect of its observance, because it is a shadow of something to come (Col 2:16); and, accordingly, he expresses a fear lest his labour among the Galatians should prove in vain, because they still observed days (Gal 4:10-11). And he tells the Romans that it is superstitious to make one day differ from another (Rom.14:5). But who, except those restless men, does not see what the observance is to which the Apostles refers? Those persons had no regard to that politic and ecclesiastical arrangement, but by retaining the days as types of spiritual things, they in so far obscured the glotry of Christ, and the light of the Gospel...It was, I say, against his preposterous observance of days that the Apostle inveighs, and not against that legitimate section which is subsevient to the peace of Christian society. For in the churches established by him, this was the use for which the Sabbath was retained. He tells the Corinthians to set the first day apart for collecting contributions for the relief of their brethren at Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:2). If superstition is dreaded, there was more danger in keeping the Jewish Sabbath than the Lord's day as Christians now do. It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holyday was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, order, and peace, in the Church, another day was appointed for that purpose.

It was not, however, without a reason that the early Christians substituted what we call the Lord's day for the Sabbath. The resurrection of our Lord being the end and accomplishment of that true rest which the ancient Sabbath signified, this day, by which types were abolished, serves to warn Christians against adhering to a shadowy ceremony. I do not cling to the number seven as to bring the Church under bondage to it, nor do I condemn churches for holding their meetings on other solemn days, provided they guard against superstition.”

(Taken from The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by Jean Calvin, translated by Beveridge, Book II, Chapter VIII, p342-343, Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, 1995 Reprint, paperback).

The Sabbatarian Influence of the Puritans

ccording to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "puritan" came into usage about 1556 during the middle of the reign of Queen Mary I. The word was originally used as a form of literary criticism applied by Catholic writers to other fellow writers who argued over rather narrow points of biblical concern.

The Westminster Confession (1643) stated this:

"As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in His word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, He hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto Him; which, from the beginning of the world to the Resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and from the Resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord's Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath."

The Westminister Confession is a truly great Protestant confession - how very sad, therefore, that it erred in giving authority and authenticity to the wholly unbiblical teaching that the Lord's Day became the “Christian Sabbath.” This was the product of English Puritanism. There is much to admire in Puritanism but there can be no doubt that this movement tended to be legalistic in approach and – in short order – this led to a very legalistic approach to Lord's Day observance. The Puritan teachings also affected other countries. The Parliament of Scotland accepted them, for example, and in 1618 they were incorporated into the Synod of Dort in Holland. The Puritans also brought their strict and uncompromising "Christian Sabbath" to America, where it became the prevailing view for many centuries.

The Puritans land at Plymouth Rock in 1620

The Puritans land at Plymouth Rock in 1620.

The Puritans enacted certain laws ("Blue Laws") to insure the strict observance of Sunday. These laws were claimed to be even more strict than those formulated by the ancient Jews to enforce the observance of the mosaic Sabbath! The influence of Puritanism on American religious life cannot be overemphasized, it was very profound. The 'Christian Sabbath' of the Puritans, so much a part of their religious life, worked itself into the hearts and minds of the American people, and became a standard of the ideal Sunday of America for many generations. One can admire a certain zeal in such people yet still despair that they brought themselves under legalistic burdens which would have caused the Apostle Paul huge exasperation! Let us just remind ourselves at Paul's anger when discovering that the Galatians were adopting a highly legalistic approach to the Gospel:

'Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God – or rather are known by God – how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, lthat somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.' (Galatians 4:8-11, NIV).

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith contains this somewhat flawed view that Sunday is the “Christian Sabbath”:

...he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath to be kept holy unto him, which from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ was the last day of the week, and from the resurrection of Christ was changed into the first day of the week, which is called the Lord's day: and is to be continued to the end of the world as the Christian Sabbath, the observation of the last day of the week being abolished. (Exod. 20:8; 1 Cor. 16:1, 2; Acts 20:7; Rev. 1:10) (Reformed Baptist Church, The Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689 AD, Chapter 22, Article 7)

So First Day Sabbatarianism is the doctrine of those Christians who believe that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath, to be observed in accordance with the 4th commandment. In its strictest form, this was largely (but not entirely) the creation of the Scottish and English Reformers, especially John Knox. The Scottish Presbyterians and the Puritans brought their views to the New World colonies, where rigorous sabbath laws were enacted (as we have seen) and penalties were often severe.

Picture of Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger, who was probably the main figure responsible for Sabbatarianism becoming normative in the later Calvinism.

I stated earlier that this form of Sabbatarianism was more English/Scottish than Swiss/German and that is generally correct and yet it was the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger (who came from Bremgarten, near Zurich) whose 'high view' of the law and the sabbath was to greatly influence the view which would become normative within the later Calvinism.
For Bullinger, Sunday was to be observed the same way in principle that the Sabbath was, with Sunday actually becoming the Sabbath for the Christian. Calvin, on the other hand (as we have seen), had clearly held that Sunday is not the Sabbath.
The Puritans would follow Bullinger on this point. This approach went straight into the Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism of the 17th-19th centuries, yet non-Calvinists were also highly influenced - John Wesley, for example, was clearly legalistic in his approach to Lord's Day observance, often condemning those who worked (and especially those who took part in sports!) on what he quite often referred to as the “Sabbath.”.

The irony of all this is that English/Scottish Calvinism would not have gone into error on this point if they had closely followed the teaching on this topic by Jean Calvin himself!


o we may observe that First Day Sabbatarianism which not only made Sunday a new Christian Sabbath day but often applied all kinds of legal sanctions and regulations to it (apparently refusing to learn the lessons from the Pharisees making the mosaic Sabbath Day a burden), is largely the product of the Scottish Presbyterianism and English Puritanism of the 16th-18th centuries. These men and women were undoubtedly sincere but their views were sadly tainted with the sort of legalism which has always tended to undermine the vital Christian doctrine of Justification By Faith Alone. They lost sight of the fact that our works cannot save us, taking their eyes off the warnings of Scripture, especially in the epistles, on this vital subject. Unsurprisingly, this often led to an eager judgmentalism of others and to an unbalanced approach. But I do not criticize them beyond that because it remains the case that those men and women were sincere and zealous for our Lord and – without doubt – many thousands of them have inherited the kingdom of God!

Robin A. Brace, 2006.

Other articles which may be of interest:

(The comment has been made to us that this is the best single article to give to a cult member who is starting to have doubts about their beliefs)

(We really must challenge certain unbiblical claims made within Seventh Day Adventist Theology!)


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