The history of the early Christian centuries reveals a definite anti-seventh-day-Sabbath, pro-Sunday movement, which got a bit boost in 321 A.D. with the Roman Emperor Constantine’s Sunday Law.
Early church councils took bold steps to enforce Sunday observance and to support desecration of the Biblical Sabbath. Some of their actions took on a definite anti-Jewish flavor.
Believers who continued to observe the seventh-day Sabbath were labeled “Judaizers” and excommunicated from the church.
This extreme position against the Sabbath, combined with a strong pro-Sunday stance, became a pillar of Roman Catholic teaching and a mark of Roman Catholic, or papal authority.
In 602 A.D. Pope Gregory identified Sabbath keepers with the antichrist. (1)
But while the Roman church installed Sunday as the new day of worship, churches in the East continued to keep the seventh day.
Over the following centuries, the campaign to establish Sunday as the substitute for the biblical Sabbath was only partially successful. But Roman church efforts to promote Sunday continued. One novel approach took the form of a letter – a letter that supposedly came directly from heaven – which said in part: “God has enjoined Sunday to be kept holy, for God’s own hand has written that command to men, lest they should do either work or servile labor on Sunday.” (2)
The Letter itself claims to have been written by Jesus and was said to have appeared on the altar of St. Peters in Rome as mass was being held.
It wasn’t uncommon in the middle ages for people to support their claims by a letter supposedly coming from heaven. What better way of supporting yourself than to have a letter from God?
Somehow the letter from heaven made its way to Ireland. Perhaps it was brought there by a monk who had visited the continent on pilgrimage. But we do know precisely what it said, because the whole letter was preserved as part of Irish law.
In Ireland, the Epistle of Jesus is one part of a larger collection of works about Sunday observance. The first two elements are quite brief and identify some of the punishments that one might receive for lack of adherence.
The third element is the letter itself. And lastly, there is a lengthy law tract, more detailed as to various punishments for violating the different provisions listed. (3)
Some of the threats in the Letter are quite fantastical, but probably were quite frightening to people in the middle ages. For example, the Letter states: “There are, moreover, in certain eastern parts beasts which were sent to men; and it is to avenge the transgression of Sunday they have been sent.” (4)
Locusts, massive rainstorms and hailstones, and flying serpents in the sky are also mentioned. In other words, people who violated the Law of Sunday ran the risk of enduring plague and catastrophe. (5)
Of course the Epistle of Jesus belongs to the massive body of apocryphal – that is, non-Biblical – literature and would not be taken seriously today. But it shows how determined medieval Roman church leaders were to replace the biblical Sabbath with Sunday. Similar schemes involving messages from heaven were used in other places, in other centuries.
In the year 1200 A.D., Eustace of Flay, a French abbot, arrived in England and started the medieval version of a revival campaign. He argued that folks shouldn’t buy and sell on Sunday. When his efforts had little effect, he returned to France. But the following year he returned, this time with a letter supposedly delivered from heaven and laid on the altar of St. Simeon Church in Jerusalem. The gist was that God himself threatened punishment to those who worked or bought and sold on Sundays. (6)
Attempts to enforce the abstinence from work on Sunday continued throughout the middle ages in church councils, papal rulings, canon law, and in the courts.
Although the mere fact that such lengths were taken to attempt to enforce Sunday Law indicates that it was not uniformly being obeyed, but generally speaking, the Church of Rome succeeded in establishing and enforcing Sunday observance. After all, emperors and kings during those years were under obligation to enforce church law. (7)
Besides that, except in a few isolated areas, the church controlled access to the Holy Scriptures, so for the most part the common people depended on the priests for their understanding of the Bible and its teachings.
However, in those few places where the Scriptures still existed in the language of the people, courageous groups resisted church authority and persisted in keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. (8)
In the mountains of northern Spain and Italy and southern France, there are entire groups of individuals who are legendary for their resistance to the power of Rome, people like the Albigenses, the Cathari, the Passagini, and the Waldenses. Reports from that era tell us that among these groups there were many who observed the seventh-day Sabbath. (9)
The Passagini kept the Sabbath because they believed it existed even before the Ten Commandments.
There is a 12th century account about a group of Cathari – four men and a child – who, while traveling near Cologne, France, were captured and burned at the stake for not attending church of the Lord’s Day, or Sunday. (10)
The church-state establishment had the power to impose its will, even by force of arms, and it did not hesitate to use persecution and coercion against the dissenters.
Then, in the 1300s, came John Wycliffe, the man whose life’s passion was to bring the Scriptures to all people. (11)
Born in Yorkshire, England, of a wealthy family, Wycliffe was educated at Oxford, which essentially became his home for the rest of his life. His passion was for the Word of God, and he sought to make that Word known to the English people, even if it meant standing against the authorities of the church of his day, and even at great loss to himself and personal risk. (12)
The view of the church hierarchy was that ordinary people were not intelligent enough to understand the scriptures, that it took someone with years of higher education to understand and explain them.
The church strongly opposed the Bible being available in the vernacular – to the average lay person – because this would circumvent the role of the priest and would give a certain power to the laity to interpret the Scriptures for themselves.
Wycliffe, however, thought that the teachings of the Bible were clear enough to be understood by the common people. If they could read it they could determine for themselves what to believe and how to behave.
Wycliffe, on the one hand, was highly respected. He was a professor of theology and philosophy at Oxford, and the best-known theologian of his day. But on the other hand, his views and intentions were seen as a threat by the Catholic Church.
Wycliffe might have lived a peaceful life if he had been willing to keep his views to himself. But he charismatically attracted loyal followers and supporters, who became known as Lollards. (13)
The term was a derisive adaptation drawn from the Dutch word “lullen,” which means “to mumble,” implying that the Lollards were “mumblers,” or religious fanatics.
The church claimed to have supreme authority and to be infallible, a status it said had been conferred on it by God. The Lollards, on the other hand, believed that ultimate authority was in God through the Scriptures.
Some of the Lollards became sabbatarians, believing that worship should take place on the seventh day, according to the Scriptures, because they were believers in the literal interpretation of the Bible. We know about the Sabbath-keeping Lollards chiefly from court records of their trials. (14)
In 1377 Pope Gregory the Eleventh issued formal statements accusing Wycliffe of heresy; but the Roman church could not effectively restrict the spread of Wycliffe’s ideas, which soon reached the educational centers of Europe.
The Church of Rome lashed out against all who believed that Scripture held authority over the church. Although Wycliffe died of natural causes, several decades after his death the church posthumously branded him a heretic, dug up and burned his body, and threw his ashes into the Swift River. (15)
Some who came after Wycliffe were not so fortunate.
To a very large extent, the government in England and other countries as well was administered by senior churchmen. The bishops of the church ran the government in England, and the English parliament enacted a statute in 1401 known as the act for the burning of heretics, aimed at the Lollards and others. (16)
John Oldcastle, one of many noblemen who were attracted to Wycliffe’s views, became a devout preacher of the superiority of the Scriptures, and after being arrested and warned, he was later burned at the stake. (17)
William Tyndale, who like Wycliffe graduated from Oxford, also devoted his life to translating the Bible into English. But while the source of Wycliffe’s earlier translations had been the Latin Vulgate, which was itself a translation, Tyndale’s object was to translate the scriptures anew from their original languages.
Pressured to depart England, Tyndale settled in Germany in 1524, and the following year completed his translation of the NT. Fifteen thousand copies, in six editions, were smuggled into England between the years 1525-1530. (18)
Church authorities did their best to confiscate copies of Tyndale’s translation and burn them, but they couldn’t stop the flow of Bibles from Germany into England. Tyndale himself could not return to England because his life was in danger. However, he continued to work abroad, correcting, revising, and reissuing his translation until his final revision appeared in 1535. Shortly thereafter, in May of 1535, Tyndale was arrested and carried off to a castle near Brussels. After being imprisoned for over a year, he was tried and condemned to death. He was strangled and burned at the stake on October 6, 1536.
Sadly, history is replete with records of religious institutions resorting to force when the power of persuasion failed, and this certainly was true of the Church of Rome in the Middle Ages.
If the supreme authority of the church could be maintained, the teachings of Scripture could lie unheeded and forgotten. But if the Bible came to be seen as the sacred source of doctrine and the sole legitimate guide for Christian practice, the power of the church and its traditions would greatly be diminished.
Thanks to John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and many others, that is precisely what happened in the centuries leading up to the Protestant Reformation. With the availability of the Bible in the language of the common people, the stage was set for the rediscovery of God’s original Holy day of rest, the seventh-day Sabbath.
(1) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 6. Gregory the Great, “Epistle I: To the Roman Citizens,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. xiii, p. 92.
(2) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 6. ERIU – The Journal of the School of Irish Learning, vol. II, edited by Kuno Meyer and John Strachan, (Dublin: School of Irish Learning, 1905), p. 201.
(3) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 6.
(4) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 6. ERIU – The Journal of the School of Irish Learning, vol. II, edited by Kuno Meyer and John Strachan, (Dublin: School of Irish Learning, 1905), p. 201.
(5) Ibid. p. 193.
(6) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 6.
(8) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 7. Rev. J.A. Wyliee, LL.D., History of the Waldenses (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association), p. 18. For examples see Schaff, History, Vol. 5, p. 488; J.N. Andrews and L.R. Conradi, History of the Sabbath and the First Day of the Week, 4th ed., (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1912), pp. 547-8.
(9) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 7. For examples see Peter Allix, D.D., Some Remarks upon the Ecclesiastical History of the Ancient Churches of the Piedmont (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1821), pp. 226-7; Allix, Some Remarks upon the Ecclesiastical History of the Albigenses (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1821), pp. 130,198.
(10) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 7. E.B. Elliott, Horae Apocaltypicae, Vol. 2 (London: Seeley, Jackson, and Halliday, 1862), p. 291.
(11) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 10.
(12), (13) Ibid.
(14) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 6. Ball, Seventh-Day Men (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), pp. 32-34; James Gairdner and James Spedding, Studies in English History, (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1881), p. 296.
(15) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 10.
(16) The Seventh Day. Revelations from the Lost Pages of History. LLT Productions, 2004. Transcript Part 3. Chapter 11.
(17), (18) Ibid.