Thursday, July 29, 2010

Constantine: Defender of Religious Liberty

Adventists’ future teeters under the sunday law Sword of Damocles and therefore they have created the muscular arm of the General Conference called Religious Liberty to fend off the dreaded last-day blue laws. So, I find it a tragic twist of irony that Emperor Constantine gets a lot of bashing in Adventist textbooks and history. I would think Adventists would hail him a hero for championing religious rights for Christians.

What did this infamous Edict of Milan signed by the Emperor Constantine say that has all Adventist history flailing its hands in despair? What is it about this proclamation of religious tolerance that has Adventist teachers regurgitating generation after generation that it changed Sabbath into Sunday as the first legal code of “sunday worship.” It is the beginnings, say some Adventists, of a looming apocalyptic law that will coalesce all “apostate” Christianity into hunting them down, torturing and killing them?

Below it is copied in full:

Note: The Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense), signed by Emperor Constantine and Licinius in AD 313 following what was the worst of all Christian persecutions under Emperor Diocletian.

When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I Licinius Augustus fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule. And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence. Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the rescripts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wishes to observe Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship. When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases ; this regulation is made we that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.

Moreover, in the case of the Christians especially we esteemed it best to order that if it happens anyone heretofore has bought from our treasury from anyone whatsoever, those places where they were previously accustomed to assemble, concerning which a certain decree had been made and a letter sent to you officially, the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception, Those, moreover, who have obtained the same by gift, are likewise to return them at once to the Christians. Besides, both those who have purchased and those who have secured them by gift, are to appeal to the vicar if they seek any recompense from our bounty, that they may be cared for through our clemency. All this property ought to be delivered at once to the community of the Christians through your intercession, and without delay. And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law, you will order to be restored, without any hesitation or controversy at all, to these Christians, that is to say to the corporations and their conventicles: providing, of course, that the above arrangements be followed so that those who return the same without payment, as we have said, may hope for an indemnity from our bounty. In all these circumstances you ought to tender your most efficacious intervention to the community of the Christians, that our command may be carried into effect as quickly as possible, whereby, moreover, through our clemency, public order may be secured. Let this be done so that, as we have said above, Divine favor towards us, which, under the most important circumstances we have already experienced, may, for all time, preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state. Moreover, in order that the statement of this decree of our good will may come to the notice of all, this rescript, published by your decree, shall be announced everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, so that the decree of this, our benevolence, cannot be concealed. (From Lactantius, De Mort. Pers., ch. 48. opera, ed. 0. F. Fritzsche, II, p 288 sq. (Bibl Patr. Ecc. Lat. XI). Both texts translated in University of Pennsylvania. Dept. of History: Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European history, (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press [1897?-1907?]), Vol 4:, 1, pp. 28-30.)


Anonymous said...


This is really unfortunate. You have not accurately represented Adventists and in so misrepresenting them you make yourself less credible.

You wrote: ”What did this infamous Edict of Milan signed by the Emperor Constantine say that has all Adventist history flailing its hands in despair? What is it about this proclamation of religious tolerance that has Adventist teachers regurgitating generation after generation that it changed Sabbath into Sunday as the first legal code of “sunday worship.”

Adventist are quite capable of distinguishing between the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and his ‘Sunday law in 325 AD. I’m sure you rushed this out or didn’t reread this carefully, but it is a very sloppy misrepresentation, which you will no doubt correct.

Adventist do not disapprove of Constantine granting Christians freedom to worship (religious liberty is of course a key Adventist concern). What they are troubled by are some of his other subsequent actions. But reading your post gives a totally different picture to this.

Beginning with Constantine we have the sad sight of Christianity beginning to rely on and use state power to advance itself and act against others.


Anonymous said...

Continued ...

It’s not merely the Sunday law which is the problem (and most Adventist commentators understand the ambiguous ‘Christian’ and pagan associations in his law and are troubled equally by them both), Constantine started to especially favour Christians, promoted them to office, acted against other Christians (Arians), sometimes even persecuting other Christians. For example he lead an army against the Donatists – the first persecution of Christians by other Christians! Appalling! And all of this is only a few years after the edict of Milan. I could go on to mention other things (enforcing the ban on celebrating ‘easter’ on the 14th of Nisan and various actions against the Jews, etc) but I think the point is clear – Christianity genuinely changed here for the worst. It became an oppressive, intolerant, persecuting faith. Constantine began a process which would develop and lead to Christians engaging in the most horrific and unbelievable behaviour, so unlike Jesus. Adventists are rightly troubled by him and his actions.

The really sad part is that if you paused and reflected carefully on your Adventist past you could have said all I’ve just said and saved yourself the embarrassment of this post.


Anonymous said...

That is awesome. Thanks! St. Helena must be very proud of her son, don't you think?

Teresa Beem said...

Many Adventists students were taught that the "horrors" of Sunday Law legislation began with Constantine's Edict of Milan. If Adventists have corrected that misinformation in their teachings I apologize and am very happy to hear it. However, it must be a rather recent development as I have heard the same accusations rather recently--like two days ago, by an Adventist.

Teresa Beem said...

As I have said before, Constantine was no saint. But he did some amazing things for Christians--and newborn babies, and young women. He released the religious prisoners from life-sentences in the mines, he made it illegal to gouge out a person's eyes or de-limb them for their religious beliefs. He did quite a bit of good as well as the bad.

When you compare Constantine to Diocletian and place his life in context, you will find a Christian hero, tarnished of course, but a real one. I doubt your arguments would have made much of an impression on the contemporary Christians of the time, they thought him a hero too! Now they no longer had to fear attending church, having their sons and daughters, their parents, their bishops, taken away and thrown into the mines. It was a scary time for most Christians.

By the way, Constantine's sympathies were with the Arians most of the time.
God bless.

Anonymous said...


I would be interesting in seeing a reputable Adventist source which conflates the Edict of Milan with Sunday laws in the particular way you are claiming. A comment by an Adventist friend doesn’t really amount to any such evidence.

I looked through a few Adventist sources and found they were quite capable of distinguishing between Edict of Milan and the later Sunday law. They traced the history of his laws and understood the progressive nature of the history. However, I think it is fair to say that one would not think that from reading what you have wrote.

No one is saying Constantine never did any good, most rulers have, many pagan, Buddhist, Muslim leaders have done as well and many have done better. But Constantine gave tolerance to Christians, only to then later take it away from Christians who weren’t of the ‘orthodox’ stripe, exiled and persecuted them, even killing many. He began the terrible inter-Christian state sponsored violence. Many of Christianity’s ugliest and darkest behaviours begin with him.

I am aware of Constantine’s sometimes Arian leanings. At times he harassed Arians (those who wouldn’t sign up to Nicea) then at other times he harassed the Nicenes. Both illustrate the woeful mixing of church and state which confirm the problems that Constantine introduced.



Teresa Beem said...

Growing up in the SDA church schools, we were erroneously taught that the Edict of Milan was the great dreaded Constantine Sunday Law. I don't know if they still do it today, but I still hear it from older SDAs.