In the last 45 years, America has watched the gradual erosion of blue laws. The Rev. Samuel Peters of Connecticut was the first to use the term “blue laws” in the 18th century. In his day, the term “blue” was used disparagingly for anything rigidly moral. From the time of colonial America, blue laws enforced observance of Sunday as a day of Sabbath rest.
The earliest laws from Virginia in 1610 mandated both the closing of businesses on Sunday and attending a church service. Under the so-called “blue laws” of the 1700’s, whippings and fines were considered just punishments for breaches of the Sabbath rest. By 1961, when the Supreme Court decided its first modern Sunday case, most states had already granted exemptions on the Sunday closure laws. Today, stores in most municipalities do business as usual on Sunday.
Constantine issued the parent law of all blue laws. In March of 321, he decreed that Sunday should be a day of rest and no labor. Under Constantine, the Catholic faith became the official religion of the Roman Empire and Sunday received civil protection. Thus, by the fourth century, with a few exceptions, Jews kept the Sabbath as the day of rest. Christians kept Sunday holy.
Some writers have argued that the change from the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, to Sunday, the first day of the week, was an attempt on the part of the Church to accommodate Christianity to the pagan masses. Just as the Church took over the pagan Pantheon, a temple to all the gods, and made it a Christian Church in honor of all the martyrs, so, too, the Church took over Sunday, a festival in honor of the sun, and made it the day to honor the Son of God (cf. A. Weigall
, The Paganism in Our Christianity,
Such an argument completely bypasses history. It ignores the witness of Scripture.
Within the life time of the apostles, Gentiles were accepting the Christian faith. Their entrance into the Church composed of Jewish Christians raised the question of their obligation to observe Jewish laws and rituals as the Jewish Christians were doing. In the Council of Jerusalem, Peter spoke with the authority given him by Christ as Head of the Church (cf. Mt 16: 18-19). He declared that the Gentiles did not have to take on the burden of the Mosaic Law (cf. Acts 15:7-10).
Paul, the great champion of the Gentiles, argued for freedom from the Mosaic Law. Since the Gentile Christians had received the Spirit without observing Jewish law, they were not obligated to Jewish observance (cf. Gal 3:2-3). In 1 Corinthians 16:2, he alludes to the importance of the Sunday for Christians. He urges the Corinthian believers, “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper.”
At the beginning of the second century, Pliny the Younger was the pagan governor of Bithynia. In a report to the Emperor Trajan, he noted the Christians’ practice “of gathering together on a set day before sunrise and singing among themselves a hymn to Christ as to a god” (
10, 96, 7). At the same time, St. Ignatius, the disciple of the Apostle John and the bishop of Antioch, wrote: “those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord's Day (
Letter to the Magnesians
, 9). With strong emotion, Saint Jerome said: "Sunday is the day of the Resurrection, it is the day of Christians, it is our day” (
In Die Dominica Paschae II
The Sabbath finds its deepest meaning in Christ. On the Sabbath, God’s Chosen People celebrate the joy of Creation as a gift from God and their freedom from slavery. On the first day of the week, Christ rose from the dead. His Death and Resurrection ushers in the New Creation in which we are given the freedom of the children of God (cf. Rm 8:18-25). Thus, on the Lord’s Day, the day of Christ’s Resurrection, we celebrate the joy of the New Creation and our freedom from sin.
Christ is the perfect fulfillment of the Sabbath. Saint Gregory the Great rightly stated that Christ himself is the true Sabbath for us (cf.
. 13, 1: CCL 140A, 992). The purpose and meaning of the Old Testament precept concerning Sabbath is “fully revealed in the glory which shines on the face of the Risen Christ (cf. 2 Cor 4:6). We move from the ‘Sabbath’ to ‘the first day after the Sabbath,’ from the seventh day to the first day: the
!” (Pope John Paul II,
Because of the increased pluralism in American society, the imposition of a civil law mandating rest and church on Sunday has come into question. With the disappearance of the remaining blue laws, the very idea of a special day for the Lord, even for Christians, is being eroded. The growing secularism of our society continues to push religious concerns from the public forum. But, in the end, the lack of a day of rest and worship of God can bring no good to society as a whole, even less to the Christian community.
Over a century ago, J. C. Ryle, the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, made a very dire prediction. He said, “There is not too much religion in the land now. Destroy the sanctity of the Sabbath, and there would soon be far less.” His prediction need not come true. In America today, we are free to observe the Lord’s Day. We can reclaim the Lord’s Day as sacred.
To be continued.
This is the second article in a series of four articles on ‘Reclaiming the Lord’s Day as Sacred.’