Refuting the “Pagan Origins of the Lord’s Day” Myth Part 1: Did Pagans Celebrate a Weekly Festival on Sunday?

There are three primary groups of people that propagate the myth that the historical Christian tradition of corporate worship on Sunday is rooted in paganism and foisted upon Christendom by the Roman Catholic Church. They are: 1) Seventh Day Sabbatarians; 2) atheists; and 3) pagans.

It’s quite simple to understand why the second and third groups would prefer this particular line of revisionist history. Atheists look for any excuse at all to dismiss the validity of Christianity. So, the argument that it evolved in its entirety from pre-existing pagan traditions is certainly appealing. Various pagan groups seek to assert the same claim albeit for a different reason- to establish the superiority of their particular belief system over traditional Christianity.

The first group, however, is so out of place in this list that one wonders how they came to be included in it. Encyclopaedia Brittanica provides this definition of Seventh Day Sabbatarianism:

[the] doctrine of those Christians who believe that the Sabbath… should be observed in accordance with the Fourth Commandment, which forbids work on the Sabbath because it is a holy day… Those Christians who believe that the weekly holy day should still be observed on the Hebrew Sabbath, or Saturday…and…upholds the continuing validity of the Saturday Sabbath for Christians.”

This category encompasses a multiplicity of groups whose beliefs vary so widely that for some, this particular view is the only commonality. Notable sects include: Seventh Day Adventists, Seventh Day Baptists, Church of God (Seventh Day), and the modern day Hebrew Roots movement.

In this article, we’ll be specifically refuting this myth as it is presented by the various Seventh Day Sabbatarian groups. Former Seventh Day Adventist pastor D.M. Canright describes the teaching as follows:

They say that the pagan nations, especially the Romans, regarded Sunday as a holiday, or festival day: a day of worship of their heathen gods, particularly the sun, on every Sunday, hence Sun-day. When these pagans professed Christianity they gradually brought into the Church this pagan custom of a Sunday festival day. Then the apostate Roman Church adopted it from these heathens. So now we are keeping a pagan, papal day, hateful to God.”

D.M. Canright

In the first installment of this series, we’ll address the first claim: Did the Romans regard Sunday as a weekly festival on which they worshiped the Sun (or Sun god/s)?

What Proof of this Practice is Presented?

The first step in a proper refutation is to cite the sources by which Seventh Day Sabbatarians corroborate their claims in order to adequately address them. However, this is barely possible for the primary reason that this particular claim- which is foundational to the rest of the argument- is almost never supported by a source citation. Unfortunately, this detail does not hinder these groups from repeating it ad nauseum.

A couple of examples:

Prominent Seventh Day Adventist, Elder J. H. Waggoner, writes: “I only take it upon me to fully and clearly show that the Sunday has its origin as a day of regard and observance in paganism and the Papacy…I shall show that the authority, the name and the sacredness of Sunday are entirely of pagan origin…Sunday is in every feature a heathen institution.” (Replies to Canright, pp. 125, 126,133)

Seventh Day Baptist, Abram Herbert Lewis, writes: “Sunday, already a festival among the heathen.” And, “The sun’s day had been a leading weekly pagan festival for many centuries.” (“History of the Sabbath and Sunday”)

What’s the problem? In keeping with the tactics of the vast majority of Seventh Day Sabbatarian literature I have scoured, citation of sources to corroborate these statements is conspicuously absent. Instead, this information is declared to be historical “fact” and the respective authors move on to another facet of their argument entirely.

On the odd occasion that a source is cited, it is usually Arthur Weigall’s 1928 work “The Paganism in Our Christianity,” in which he states that the church made Sunday sacred “largely because it was the weekly festival of the sun; for it was a definite Christian policy to take over the pagan festivals endeared to the people by tradition, and to give them a Christian significance.” (p. 136)

Of greater interest is what else Weigall says in his book. Here is a small sampling:

  • the virgin birth is of pagan origin (p. 44)
  • Jesus’ miracles are of pagan origin (p. 58)
  • Jesus didn’t really die (p. 93)
  • the Jewish Sabbath is of pagan origin (p. 136)

Did you catch that last one? Individuals who cite Wiegall as an authority attesting that Sunday worship was derived from the “weekly” pagan ritual of the sun must simultaneously reject his assertion that the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) is also of pagan origin.

If this is the “proof” that exists it is understandable why Seventh Day Sabbatarians frequently fail to cite sources to corroborate this claim.

Roman Weekly Sunday Worship Soundly Refuted

I have found that the most exhaustively airtight refutations of a particular belief are often supplied by individuals who once held them. Such is the case with prominent former Seventh Day Adventist pastor D.M. Canright. He renounced Seventh Day Adventism for good in 1887 and became one of its most outspoken critics. He addresses the above claim (as well as the others we’ll get to in this series) in his writing, The Lord’s Day From Neither Catholics or Pagans.

In this work, he published the responses of four Greek and Roman history scholars to ten questions that he submitted to them separately. These scholars were: 1) F.N. Pryce of the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, British Museum; 2) R. Rathborn of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington; 3) George F. Moore, Professor of Ancient Roman and Greek History, Harvard University in Cambridge; and 4) Prof. W.H. Westerman of the University of Wisconsin. The unbiased, historically correct answers to these questions unequivocally demolish the case for a pagan weekly observance on Sunday. Canright writes:

All four of these specialists in ancient history agree in answering these questions though neither one knew that they had been submitted to the others; yet all four exactly agree in every particular, though widely scattered, London, Washington, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin. Such a unanimous agreement would settle any question in a court of law.”

The scholars unanimously agreed on the following:

  1. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks ever had a regular weekly day of rest from secular work.
  2. Neither did they have a regular weekly festival day.
  3. They did not have a regular day of the week on which they gathered for pagan worship.
  4. They did not have a regular day of the week on which they went to their temples to pray or make offerings.
  5. Although the name of each day of the week is derived from a particular deity, the diety for which the day of the week is named was not specifically worshiped on the day that bore its name. (Therefore, the sun was not specifically worshiped on Sunday, or the Moon on Monday, or Saturn on Saturday, etc.)
  6. The seven day week did not become commonly used in the Roman calendar until the 3rd century.
  7. The Romans first learned about the seven day week from the Jews, Assyrians, and Babylonians.
  8. The Greeks never adopted the seven day week for common use into their calendar.
  9. The sun god was never worshiped weekly on a specific day of the week. Rather, he was worshiped annually.
  10. Alleged pagan reverence for Sunday had no influence on the Christian selection of that day for worship.

The subject of Constantine will be addressed in the next article, however, it is necessary to mention the following: Seventh Day Sabbatarians uniformly allege that Constantine’s 321 edict combined his worship of the sun with Christianity. This is hardly possible since “weekly” worship of the sun was not Roman tradition and Constantine’s edict is indeed the very first Roman legislation dividing the month into seven day weeks.

F.N. Pryce provides the following description of the Roman calendar prior to Constantine’s edict:

The Romans reckoned from three fixed points in the month, the Kalend or first, the Nones fifth or seventh, the Ides thirteenth or fifteenth. These subdivisions in themselves had no religious significance. Also in the Roman calendars were nundinal, or market days, at periods of eight days, or, as the Romans reckoned time. On these days farm work, etc., stopped and citizens flocked into the town markets. To some extent this may be a regular stoppage of secular work; but it had no religious significance, except that it was considered an evil omen when the nundinal coincided with other festival days, e. g., the: Nones. The nundinal period seems derived from a blundering reminiscence of a quarter of a lunar period, and there seems no connection with the later seven days’ week.”

Prof. George Moore writes:

There are two seven-day weeks: the Jewish week, with a Sabbath on the seventh day; and the Astrological week, with days named after the sun, moon, and five planets, in our order determined by the theories of astrology, but without any day of rest. The combination of the two is Christian. The Astrological week first appears in Greek and Latin writings about the beginning of the Christian era. Its antecedents are unknown. It had no use in ordinary life. Abstinence from labor on the seventh day, or on one day in seven, is a distinctively Jewish institution. The edict of Constantine (321 A.D.) closing the courts on Sunday and prohibiting some kinds of labor on that day, is the first recognition of a seven-day week in Roman law. The ancient Romans had a market day every eight days, when the peasants came to town to market, but it was in no sense a day of rest. In the old Roman calendar there were many days when the courts were closed and other public and private business was not done. They had also many festivals on which the people left their ordinary occupation to take part in the celebrations, but these have no periodicity like that of the week.”

Where Did This Myth Masquarading as Fact Come From?

With no historical leg to stand on, one might legitimately ask how this myth ever came to be accepted by such a broad group of individuals united under the banner of Seventh Day Sabbatarianism? Most would not accuse these groups of intentionally manufacturing this narrative. Incidentally, a fifth scholar writing to Canright after learning of his research provides some very interesting information.

In 1915, J.W. Montcrieff was the Associate Professor of Church History at the University of Chicago. He happened to have a particular interest in the study of Seventh Day Adventism and wrote to Canright:

Seventy years ago, when Seventh-Day Adventism was born, when people possessed a very meager amount of information concerning the ancients, and when even the great Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary contained the statement that ‘The division of time by weeks hath been universally observed in the world, not only amongst the civilized, but likewise among the most barbarous nations’ (I quote from the edition of 1819), it was excusable in Seventh-Day Adventists to relate Sunday observance to pagan Roman Sunday observance. But in the last fifty years an enormous amount of research into antiquarian life has been accomplished by reliable, competent historians, and when, with one accord, they proclaim the previously held notion to be a myth, pure and simple, with no support in well-ascertained facts, it is high time some one is bringing these facts which are to be found in every recent standard encyclopedia in the articles on ‘Calendar’ and ‘Week’ to the minds of the uninformed who are confused by a doctrine wholly at variance with now ascertained historical fact.”

Conclusion

As Canright amply demonstrated, the testimony of history itself is the proverbial “nail in the coffin” to the myth of the pagan commemoration of a weekly Sunday. Since Sunday had never been a weekly day of worship dedicated to Apollo (or Sol Invictus, etc.) in the first place no one can reasonably be accused of adopting it- much less “Christianizing” it.

In essence, the case for a “pagan Sunday,” no matter what subsequent evidence is provided, is an abject failure since the foundation on which it is built- the existence of a weekly Sunday pagan observance- is a demonstrably false assumption. In the following articles we will examine the equally historically untenable claims revolving around the controversial Constantine, the Roman Catholic Church, and various ecumenical councils.

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