THE various bills relating more or less directly to Sunday now before Congress and several of the State legislatures, render timely an examination of the origin and nature of Sunday “laws.”
The first “law” of this character, a copy of which has been preserved to us, is Constantine’s edict of A.D. 321. Sozomen says that it was “that the day might be devoted with less interruption to the purposes of devotion.” And this statement of Sozomen’s is indorsed by Neander. 594 This reason given by Sozomen reveals the secret of the legislation; it shows that it was in behalf of the church, and to please the church.
By reading the above edict, it is seen that they started out quite moderately. They did not stop all work; only judges, towns-people, and mechanics were required to rest, while people in the country might freely and lawfully work. The emperor paraded his soldiers on Sunday, and required them to repeat in concert the following prayer:—
Thee alone we acknowledge as the true God; thee we acknowledge as Ruler; thee we invoke for help; from thee have we received the victory; through thee have we conquered our enemies; to thee are we indebted for our present blessings; from thee also we hope for future favors; to thee we will direct our prayer. We beseech thee, that thou wouldst preserve our Emperor Constantine and his pious sons in health and prosperity through the longest life. 595
This Sunday law of A.D. 321 continued until 386, when “those older changes effected by the Emperor Constantine were more rigorously enforced, and, in general, civil transactions of every kind on Sunday were strictly forbidden. Whoever transgressed was to be considered, in fact, as guilty of sacrilege.” 596
Then as the people were not allowed to do any manner of work, they would play, and as the natural consequence, the circuses and the theaters throughout the empire were crowded every Sunday. But the object of the law, from the first one that was issued, was that the day might be used for the purposes of devotion, and the people might go to church. Consequently, that this object might be met, there was another step to take, and it was taken. At a church convention held at Carthage in 401, the bishops passed a resolution to send up a petition to the emperor, praying “that the public shows might be transferred from the Christian Sunday, and from feast days, to some other days of the week.” 597
And the reason given in support of the petition was, “The people congregate more to the circus than to the church.” 598
In the circuses and the theaters large numbers of men were employed, among whom many were church-members. But, rather than to give up their jobs, they would work on Sunday. The bishops complained that these were compelled to work; they pronounced it persecution, and asked for a law to protect those persons from such “persecution.” The church had become filled with a mass of people, unconverted, who cared vastly more for worldly interests and pleasures than they did for religion. And as the government was now a government of God, it was considered proper that the civil power should be used to cause all to show respect for God, whether or not they had any respect for him or not.
But as long as they could make something by working on Sunday, they would work rather than go to church. A law was secured forbidding all manner of Sunday work. Then they would crowd the circuses and the theaters, instead of going to church. But this was not what the bishops wanted; this was not that for which all work had been forbidden. All work was forbidden in order that the people might go to church; but instead of that, they crowded to the circus and the theater, and the audiences of the bishops were rather slim. This was not at all satisfying to their pride; therefore the next step, and a logical one, too, was, as the petition prayed, to have the exhibitions of the circuses and the theaters transferred to some other days of the week, so that the churches and the theaters should not be open at the same time. For if both were open, the Christians(?), as well as others, not being able to go to both places at once, would go to the circus or the theater instead of to the church. Neander says:—
Owing to the prevailing passion at that time, especially in the large cities, to run after the various public shows, it so happened that when these spectacles fell on the same days which had been consecrated by the church to some religious festival, they proved a great hindrance to the devotion of Christians, though chiefly, it must be allowed, to those whose Christianity was the least an affair of the life and of the heart. 599
Assuredly! An open circus or theater will always prove a great hindrance to the devotion of those “Christians” whose Christianity is the least an affair of the life and of the heart. In other words, an open circus or theater will always be a great hindrance to the devotion of those who have not religion enough to keep them from going to it, but who only want to use the profession of religion to maintain their popularity, and to promote their selfish interests. On the other hand, to the devotion  of those whose Christianity is really an affair of the life and of the heart, an open circus or theater will never be a particle of hindrance, whether open at church time or all the time. But those people had not enough religion or love of right, to do what they thought to be right; therefore they wanted the State to take away from them all opportunity to do wrong, so that they could all be Christians. Satan himself could be made that kind of Christian in that way: but he would be Satan still.
Says Neander again:—
Church teachers … were in truth often forced to complain that in such competitions the theater was vastly more frequented than the church. 600
And the church could not then stand competition; she wanted a monopoly. And she got it. And the “church” wants a monopoly to-day.
This petition of the Carthage Convention could not be granted at once, but in 425 the desired law was secured; and to this also there was attached the reason that was given for the first Sunday law that ever was made; namely: “In order that the devotion of the faithful might be free from all disturbance.” 601
It must constantly be borne in mind, however, that the only way in which “the devotion of the faithful” was “disturbed” by these things, was that when the circus or the theater was open at the same time that the church was open, the “faithful” would go to the circus or the theater instead of to church, and, therefore, their “devotion” was “disturbed.” And of course the only way in which the “devotion” of such “faithful” ones could be freed from all disturbance, was to close the circuses and the theaters at church time.
In the logic of this theocratical scheme, there was one more step to be taken. It came about in this way: First, the church had all work on Sunday forbidden, in order that the people might attend to things divine. But the people went to the circus and the theater instead of to church. Then the church had laws enacted closing the circuses and the theaters, in order that the people might attend to things divine. But even then the people would not be devoted, nor attend to things divine; for they had no real religion. The next step to be taken, therefore, in the logic of the situation, was to compel them to be devoted—to compel them to attend to things divine. This was the next step logically to be taken, and it was taken. The theocratical bishops were equal to the occasion. They were ready with a theory that exactly met the demands of the case; and the great Catholic Church Father and Catholic saint, Augustine, was the father of this Catholic saintly theory. He wrote:—
It is indeed better that men should be brought to serve God by instruction than by fear of punishment, or by pain. But because the former means are better, the latter must not therefore be neglected. Many must often be brought back to their Lord, like wicked servants, by the rod of temporal suffering, before they attain to the highest grade of religious development. 602
Of this theory Neander remarks:—
It was by Augustine, then, that a theory was proposed and founded, which … contained the germ of that whole system of spiritual despotism of intolerance and persecution, which ended in the tribunals of the Inquisition. 603
The history of the Inquisition is only the history of the carrying out of this infamous theory of Augustine’s. But this theory is only the logical sequence of the theory upon which the whole series of Sunday laws was founded.
Then says Neander: “In this way the church received help from the State for the furtherance of her ends.”
This statement is correct. Constantine did many things to favor the bishops. He gave them money and political preference. He made their decisions in disputed cases final, as the decision of Jesus Christ. But in nothing that he did for them did he give them power over those who did not belong to the church, to compel them to act as though they did, except in that one thing of the Sunday law. Their decisions, which he decreed to be final, were binding only on those who voluntarily chose that tribunal, and affected none others.
Before this time, if any who had repaired to the tribunal of the bishops were dissatisfied with the decision, they could appeal to the civil magistrate. This edict cut off that source of appeal, yet affected none but those who voluntarily chose the arbitration of the bishops. But in the Sunday “law” power was given to the church to compel those who did not belong to the church, and who were not subject to the jurisdiction of the church, to obey the commands of the church. In the Sunday “law” there was given to the church control of the civil power, that by it she could compel those who did not belong to the church to act as if they did.
The history of Constantine’s time may be searched through and through, and it will be found that in nothing did he give to the church any such power, except in this one thing—the Sunday “law”. Neander’s statement is literally correct, that it was “in this way the church received help from the State for the furtherance of her ends.” And it is “in this way” that the “church” is still demanding and receiving help from the State, and getting it only too often.