"Ellen White Was Wrong About Who Changed the Sabbath"

This accusation comes to us from the web sites of both Dirk Anderson and www.bible.ca. Since their charges cover quite a bit of ground, we'll break down their points into several sections:
  1. First we'll look at the alleged source of Ellen White's ideas.
  2. Next we'll look at whether Adventists have refuted their own prophet, as www.bible.ca puts it.
  3. Then we'll examine Ellen White's claim that "all Christians" in the first centuries kept the Sabbath.
  4. Lastly, we'll look directly at her contention that the popes changed the Sabbath to Sunday.
At the same time we'll try to avoid getting bogged down with the question of which day Christians should worship on, and just examine the facts surrounding this criticism of Ellen G. White.
Charge A: "Little-known" Joseph Bates & the "Heretofore Unrecognized Heresy"
We'll quote from Dirk Anderson for this first part. While Dirk later discusses where he felt that Ellen White got things wrong, he first makes the case that Ellen White's ideas originated with an obscure sea captain in the 1840's named Joseph Bates:
The Protestant Bible scholars, like Huss, Jerome, Luther and Zwingli, were all men of great learning, church leaders who were received by princes and kings. They had all distinguished themselves in the universities, they were fluent in the original Biblical languages, and they were recognized by both friend and foe for their scholarly achievements. Contrast these great leaders with Joseph Bates. He was a little-known sea captain. He had no knowledge of the original Biblical languages. . . . He declared that a single heretofore unrecognized heresy, Sunday-worship, was the dreaded Mark of the Beast.—bold in the original.
Perhaps it is true that Joseph Bates knew less Greek and Hebrew than Dirk knows. We don't really know for sure. But we do know that Dirk is wrong when he credits Joseph Bates with pointing out this "single heretofore unrecognized heresy."
Bates got the idea that Sunday worship was contrary to Scripture from former Baptist preacher Thomas M. Preble in 1846. Preble apparently got that idea in 1844 from a Methodist minister named Frederick Wheeler. And Wheeler picked up the idea that same year from a Seventh Day Baptist named Rachel Oakes. How long have Seventh Day Baptists been around? They arrived in America from England by 1665, and organized their first church here in 1671.
Unlike Bates, Seventh Day Baptists weren't all nobody sea captains, if we stoop to making such characterizations. For example, Dr. Peter Chamberlen (1601-1683) served as the English court physician for King James I and Queen Anne, King Charles I and Queen Mary, and King Charles II and Queen Katherine. His tombstone goes on to say that he also served foreign princes, "having travelled most partes of Europe, & speaking most of the Languages."
Other examples of distinguished Seventh Day Baptists would include father and son Richard and Samuel Ward, both of whom served as governors of Rhode Island. Samuel also was a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774-1776, and would likely have signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4th if he had not died the previous March. Samuel's other accomplishments include being a trustee of Brown University from 1764-1776, as well as one of its founders, and serving as chief justice of Rhode Island in 1761 and 1762.
Dr. Chamberlen's views are particularly interesting. By 1677 he had written Archbishop Sheldon about "the Little Triple Crowned Horn's Change of Times and Lawes," mentioning at the same time, "Escape the Mark of the Beast: & Return to the Keeping of the Lawes of God."—Leroy Froom, Prophetic Faith, vol. 4, p. 913.
Chamberlen was not the only Seventh Day Baptist to sound such an alarm. In seeking to refute the views of these Seventh Day Baptists, Edmund Warren wrote in 1659:
[Thomas Tillam] would fain perswade silly people, That Antichrist Changed the Sabbath, and goes about to prove it from Dan. 7. where we read of a little horn that thought to change Times and Laws; and with this little horn he makes a loud noise up and down his Book.—Ibid., p. 916.
Joseph Bates wasn't born until 1792, well after Richard and Samuel Ward, Dr. Chamberlen, and Thomas Tillam had long been dead. Even without investigating the various sabbath-keeping groups that preceded these American and English Seventh Day Baptists, we know for certain that what Joseph Bates taught about the popes' change of the Sabbath to Sunday was not "heretofore unrecognized."
But notice Thomas Tillam's use of Daniel 7:25. Like almost all other Protestants of his day, Tillam identified the little horn of Daniel 7 as being the Roman papal power. Verse 25 says:
And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time. (Dan. 7:25)
Since the only one of the Ten Commandments that has to do with time is the Sabbath commandment, and since the only one of the Ten that the popes thought they had changed was that very one, Tillam's position of the 1650's does seem logical. After all, the Lutherans more than a century before him in 1530 had already noted:
They refer to the Sabbath-day as having been changed into the Lord's Day, contrary to the Decalog, as it seems. Neither is there any example whereof they make more than concerning the changing of the Sabbath-day. Great, say they, is the power of the Church, since it has dispensed with one of the Ten Commandments!—The Augsburg Confession, art. 28.
Charge B: "Adventists Have Refuted Their Prophet"
Continuing with Dirk Anderson:
Bates had a difficult task on his hands to try and convince people that the Mark of the Beast was no longer allegiance to the teachings of Rome as a whole, but only one teaching-Sunday-worship. . . . Bates turned to the young prophetess Ellen White who saw the following in vision:
I saw that God had not changed the Sabbath, for He never changes. But the pope had changed it from the seventh to the first day of the week; for he was to change times and laws. (Early Writings, p. 32) . . .
Unfortunately for Ellen White, the theory that the Pope changed the day of worship was later refuted by one of their own scholars, Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi in his ground-breaking book, From Sabbath to Sunday. In the 1970's, Bacchiocchi was the first and only non-Catholic to ever be allowed to study at the Catholic Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. . . . his research showed that the change from Sabbath to Sunday worship occurred far earlier in history than had been previously admitted by Adventists. In fact, the change happened long before the papacy was established in power. These findings cast considerable doubt on whether Sunday worship could be considered allegiance to the papacy since the practice was well established throughout Christianity centuries before the first Pope arose.
On February 8, 1997, Dr. Bacchiocchi, wrote in an E-mail message to the "Free Catholic Mailing List" catholic@american.edu:
I differ from Ellen White, for example, on the origin of Sunday. She teaches that in the first centuries all Christians observed the Sabbath and it was largely through the efforts of Constantine that Sundaykeeping was adopted by many Christians in the fourth century. My research shows otherwise. If you read my essay HOW DID SUNDAYKEEPING BEGIN? which summarizes my dissertation, you will notice that I place the origin of Sundaykeeping by the time of the Emperor Hadrian, in A.D. 135.
Emperor Hadrian, A.D. 135 was nearly half a millennium removed from the first pope who began serving in A.D. 606.—bold in the original.
Thus Dirk maintains that the Sabbath was changed to Sunday long before Constantine's time, that the first pope didn't come along until 606 AD, and that therefore Ellen White's attributing of the change to the popes and Constantine is wrong.
Initial Observation
Most folks of any and all persuasions would disagree with Dirk's assertion that the first pope began serving in 606 AD.
We aren't quite sure that Adventists have really refuted their prophet on this point. While Dirk and Bacchiocchi seem to be talking about conducting worship services on Sunday, Ellen White is talking about resting on Sunday as if it were the Sabbath of the the fourth commandment. Thus, to compare the statements of Bacchiocchi and Dirk with those of Ellen White is like comparing apples to oranges.
That Bacchiocchi must have been referring to Sunday worship rather than Sunday rest can be seen from the following quotes from his book, From Sabbath to Sunday. Notice how Bacchiocchi agrees with Rordorf's position, which he cites:
4. W. Rordorf, Sunday. The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church, 1968 (hereafter cited as Sunday), p. 296, holds that "right down to the fourth century the idea of rest played absolutely no part in the Christian Sunday." Since in Rordorf's opinion Sunday rest was not an original or indispensable component of Sunday worship but an imperial imposition (p. 168), . . . .—p. 12.
In fact, the complete application of the Sabbath commandment of a bodily rest to Sunday was not accomplished before the fifth and sixth centuries.—p. 314.
What we and Dirk must find in order to refute Ellen White's position is evidence that Sunday was considered a day of rest prior to at the very least Constantine's time. Has anyone found such evidence? If not, then Ellen White's position has not yet been refuted as to when the change she was referring to occurred.
There are basically three different possible attitudes regarding the Sabbath of the fourth commandment:
  1. Saturday, the seventh day of the week, is the Sabbath for today.
  2. There is no Sabbath for today.
  3. Sunday, the first day of the week, is the Sabbath for today.
Only option three constitutes the type of change Ellen White, Joseph Bates, Peter Chamberlen, and Thomas Tillam believed occurred. Does Dirk or anyone else have any evidence whatsoever that Sunday was considered a Christian day of rest instead of Saturday prior to at least Constantine's time?
If such evidence exists, it wouldn't only be Ellen White that would be proven wrong. Consider the following:
It was Constantine the Great who first made a law for the proper observance of Sunday; . . . Before him, and even in his time, they observed the Jewish Sabbath, as well as Sunday; both to satisfy the law of Moses, and to imitate the apostles who used to meet together on the first day. By Constantine's law, promulgated in 321, it was decreed that for the future the Sunday should be kept as a day of rest in all cities and towns; but he allowed the country people to follow their work.—"Sunday," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1842 ed.; as quoted in J. N. Andrews, History of the Sabbath, p. 342.
The first day of the week, which was the ordinary and stated time for the public assemblies of the Christians, was in consequence of a peculiar law enacted by Constantine, observed with greater solemnity than it had formerly been.—Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, c. iv, part ii, ch. iv, sect. 5; as quoted in J. N. Andrews, History of the Sabbath, p. 343.
These two authorities when put together seem to deny that Christians rested on Sunday prior to Constantine's Sunday law. As Andrews summarizes the situation, "This law gave to the Sunday festival, for the first time, something of a Sabbatic character."—p. 356.
Of course, encyclopedias and historians aren't always right. Thus we should endeavor to find some indication that Christians did indeed rest on Sunday instead of the Sabbath prior to 321 AD. But, having perused early Christian writings quite extensively, we honestly have no idea where to look. We are unable to find any such evidence.

Further Analysis

"Had Been Kept by All Christians"

According to Dirk Anderson, Bacchiocchi claimed that Ellen White "teaches that in the first centuries all Christians observed the Sabbath." We did a little digging and found out where she said that:
In the first centuries the true Sabbath had been kept by all Christians. . . . That the attention of the people might be called to the Sunday, it was made a festival in honor of the resurrection of Christ. Religious services were held upon it; yet it was regarded as a day of recreation, the Sabbath being still sacredly observed.
In the early part of the fourth century the emperor Constantine issued a decree making Sunday a public festival throughout the Roman Empire. . . . The day of the sun was reverenced by his pagan subjects and was honored by Christians; . . . But while many God-fearing Christians were gradually led to regard Sunday as possessing a degree of sacredness, they still held the true Sabbath as the holy of the Lord and observed it in obedience to the fourth commandment.
The archdeceiver had not completed his work. . . . Through half-converted pagans, ambitious prelates, and world-loving churchmen he accomplished his purpose. Vast councils were held from time to time . . . . In nearly every council the Sabbath which God had instituted was pressed down a little lower, while the Sunday was correspondingly exalted. Thus the pagan festival came finally to be honored as a divine institution, while the Bible Sabbath was pronounced a relic of Judaism, and its observers were declared to be accursed.—Great Controversy, pp. 52, 53, bold added.
This is really quite interesting. In the very quotation Bacchiocchi alludes to, Ellen White admits that many Christians were holding worship services on Sunday prior to the time of Constantine. Thus she admits to be true the very point that Dirk and allegedly Bacchiocchi are contending for. Yet Ellen White did not feel that this constituted the change of the Sabbath since Christians at that time were still keeping the seventh day of the week as the Sabbath.
Of course she has to be correct on this one. If Christians were still keeping Saturday as the Sabbath, they were not yet keeping Sunday as the Sabbath, and thus the Sabbath of the fourth commandment had not yet been changed to Sunday.
Take a look if you wish at the quotes from the Apostolic Constitutions, written around 300 AD, that we cite on our page about www.bible.ca. Those quotes command Christians to keep the Sabbath. If Christian leaders in 300 AD felt that Christians should keep the Sabbath, then certainly by 300 AD Sunday had not yet replaced Saturday as the Sabbath day of rest. Thus, Adventists have yet to "refute their prophet."

Was She Wrong in Saying "All Christians"?

Ellen White did say, "In the first centuries the true Sabbath had been kept by all Christians." Was she right or wrong?
First we should determine whether she meant "all" in an absolute sense or in a general sense. For example, we might say that all Christians in the first centuries kept the seventh commandment that says, Thou shalt not commit adultery, even though everyone knows that there were some exceptions. Some Christians stumbled and succumbed to temptation, while others, of whom Peter spoke about, lived a life of blatant immorality and apostasy (2 Pet. 2:14). Still, we would not be wrong in saying in a general way that all Christians kept the seventh commandment back then.
This seems like the most charitable and logical way to take Ellen White's statement that "all" Christians in the first centuries kept the Sabbath. Certainly she would not have been so naive as to think that every last Christian everywhere in the world for more than a century never ever violated the fourth commandment.

The Testimony of Socrates and Sozomen

That generally all Christians did indeed keep the Sabbath in the first centuries is evident from the Apostolic Constitutions, and from two additional sources that Bacchiocchi cites in his book, From Sabbath to Sunday, on page 179. The first of these two was written sometime after 439 AD, while the second was written sometime between 443 and 450 AD. Thus these two references demonstrate the attitude of Christians in the mid-fifth century, and give us an inkling of what their attitude might have been in the first two centuries:
For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, have ceased to do this. The Egyptians in the neighborhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebais, hold their religious assemblies on the sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their offerings they partake of the mysteries.—The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus, bk. 5, ch. 22.

. . . it so happened that all the senators came to the church to visit him on the sabbath day . . . .—Ibid., bk. 7, ch. 48.

The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria. There are several cities and villages in Egypt where, contrary to the usage established elsewhere, the people meet together on Sabbath evenings, and, although they have dined previously, partake of the mysteries.—The Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, bk. 7, ch. 19.
If Christians in the mid-fifth century had not yet substituted Sunday for Saturday as the weekly day of rest and worship, we can be fairly certain that they had not yet done so prior to Constantine's time.
Notice that while Socrates and Sozomen testify that those of Rome and Alexandria no longer met for worship or partook of the Lord's supper on the Sabbath, they stop short of saying that those Christians no longer rested on the Sabbath. Thus we cannot tell from these quotes whether the Christians of Rome and Alexandria were no longer keeping the Sabbath.

Socrates on Colossians 2:16

Quite interestingly, in the same chapter as the first quote above, Socrates also quotes the following from Colossians 2:16: "Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of any holy-day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath-days; which are a shadow of things to come." While many Christians today assume that Paul thus taught that we can break the fourth commandment, Socrates, according to what he goes on to say, probably did not.
The whole question of Colossians 2:16 revolves around whether Paul is talking about keeping or breaking the weekly Sabbath or about the seven annual ceremonial sabbaths of Leviticus 23. The seven ceremonial sabbaths fell on different days of the week each year, not just Saturday or Sunday. There were three in the spring and four in the fall. The first of the three in the spring fell on Nisan 15, which would be roughly sometime in our April. The Passover lamb was slain on Nisan 14, and was eaten on Nisan 15. On the 15th the Jews were commanded to rest from all their labors (Lev. 23:6, 7).
Socrates applies Colossians 2:16 to the Easter or Paschal controversies of his era, which consisted of debates over what day Christ's death and resurrection had to be remembered on. He felt that no one should be condemned over when they decided to keep Easter. In the process of explaining the situation, he appears to call Nisan 15 a "sabbath," thus suggesting that he believed the sabbath days of Colossians 2:16 were the ceremonial sabbaths, not the weekly sabbath.
In Asia Minor most people kept the fourteenth day of the moon, disregarding the sabbath: . . . . others in the East kept that feast on the sabbath indeed, but differed as regards the month. The former thought the Jews should be followed, though they were not exact: the latter kept Easter after the equinox, refusing to celebrate with the Jews; 'for,' said they, 'it ought to be celebrated when the sun is in Aries, in the month called Xanthicus by the Antiochians, and April by the Romans.' In this practice, they averred, they conformed not to the modern Jews, who are mistaken in almost everything, but to the ancients, and to Josephus according to what he has written in the third book of his Jewish Antiquities.—bk. 5, ch. 22.
That probably needs some explanation. Socrates is referring to two groups of Christians in Asia Minor. The first group ate the Lord's Supper on Nisan 14, which isn't exactly ("not exact") like the Jews, since the Jews ate the Passover on Nisan 15. Thus this first group was "disregarding the [ceremonial] sabbath" of Nisan 15.
In contrast, the second group ate the Lord's Supper on the sabbath of Nisan 15, but they started Nisan a month later than both the first group and the Jews did. Why? Because the Jews of that era were commencing Nisan a month earlier than they used to, and that sometimes put Easter before the equinox. The second group thought it was wrong to do that.
Though Socrates applies the "sabbath days" of Colossians 2:16 to Nisan 15, he gives no hint that he thought Colossians 2:16 sanctioned the breaking of the fourth commandment. We may thus infer that Socrates, and much of Christendom at that time, had a high regard for the Sabbath, for if he had been anything like the anti-sabbatarians of today, he would not have interpreted Colossians 2:16 in the way that he did.

Justin Martyr an Exception

Of course, there were exceptions to this general attitude. Justin Martyr, who wrote sometime around 140 AD, was against the keeping of a Sabbath of any sort, be it Saturday or Sunday. Yet even he admits in chapter 47 of his Dialogue with Trypho that not all Christians held such a view. Given all the evidence we can find, it would appear that Justin's view was held by relatively few Christians of the second century, and that generally all Christians of that time period still kept the Sabbath of the fourth commandment.

The Testimony of Tertullian

Tertullian wrote the following sometime between 207 and 220 AD. He attacks the heretic Marcion for wanting to keep a different day as the Sabbath than the seventh day of the week.
Thus Christ did not at all rescind the Sabbath: He kept the law thereof, . . . in each case intimating by facts, "I came not to destroy, the law, but to fulfill it" . . . . imparting to the Sabbath-day itself, which from the beginning had been consecrated by the benediction of the Father, an additional sanctity by His own beneficent action. For He furnished to this day divine safeguards, — a course which His adversary would have pursued for some other days, to avoid honoring the Creator's Sabbath, and restoring to the Sabbath the works which were proper for it.—Against Marcion, bk. 4, ch. 12.
Obviously, Tertullian was unaware that Sunday had replaced Saturday as the Sabbath.

The Testimony of Origen

Origen viewed Scripture in a more allegorical fashion than is best. He was from Alexandria, one of only two localities that, according to Sozomen as cited above, had ceased to meet for worship on the Sabbath by about 450 AD. Origen died in 254 AD.
Did Origen of Alexandria feel that the Sabbath had been replaced by Sunday as the new day of rest for Christians?
But what is the feast of the Sabbath except that of which the apostle speaks, "There remaineth therefore a Sabbatism," that is, the observance of the Sabbath by the people of God? Leaving the Jewish observances of the Sabbath, let us see how the Sabbath ought to be observed by a Christian. On the Sabbath day all worldly labors ought to be abstained from. If, therefore, you cease from all secular works, and execute nothing worldly, but give yourselves up to spiritual exercises, repairing to church, attending to sacred reading and instruction, thinking of celestial things, solicitous for the future, placing the Judgment to come before your eyes, not looking to things present and visible, but to those which are future and invisible, this is the observance of the Christian Sabbath."—Homily on Numbers 23, Origen's Opera, Tome 2, p. 358; as quoted in J. N. Andrews, History of the Sabbath, p. 323.
Thus Origen did not think that Sunday had replaced the Sabbath as the new day of rest for Christians. Whether the Alexandrians of 450 AD felt the same, even though they no longer met for services on the Sabbath, we do not know.

Further Analysis (Cont.)

Which Pope Changed the Sabbath to Sunday? 

While Ellen White felt that Constantine's Sunday law was a step in that direction, she couldn't give him all the credit, since his Sunday law was, because of its wording, in honor of the Sun instead of the Son.
Thus the ultimate question is, which pope made the change? Ellen White said that the pope changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and we must find out if such a claim can really be substantiated.
Come to think of it, though, it would appear that only someone like the pope could really make such a change. We're talking about one of the Ten Commandments given by God Himself, written with His own finger on tables of stone, a law that Scripture says nothing about being changed. If anyone other than the pope suddenly claimed that he had changed one of the Ten Commandments, the entire world would call him an absolute nut. Who would he think he is? Who gave him the authority to change a law of God? You'd have to be God to change God's law.
But the popes are different than everyone else. They claim that they take the place of Christ on the earth. The triple crown that they wear signifies that they rule as king over heaven, earth, and the lower regions ("Papa," Ferraris' Prompta Bibliotheca, col. 1826). Now if this claim really be true, then the popes and only the popes could legitimately change the Sabbath commandment, because of all the people on earth, they alone claim to hold the place of God on earth.
We turn first to Catholic sources, which sometimes give the credit of the change of the Sabbath to Sylvester I, the pope that lived during Constantine's reign.
Sylvester the pope first among the Romans . . . ordered that the rest (otium) of the Sabbath would better be transferred to the Lord's day, so that we should leave that day free of worldly works in order to praise God.—Rabanus Maurus, De Clericorum Institutione, bk. 2, ch. 46; found in Bible Student's Source Book, entry 1765.
We're inclined to think that while Sylvester may have gotten the ball rolling, it was other popes of later centuries that completed the change. This would explain why Socrates and Sozomen a century after Sylvester still didn't know anything about Sunday being the new Sabbath instead of Saturday. As Daniel Augsburger puts it:
Of special interest is that for the first time [i.e., in the 9th century] we begin to sense a clear consciousness of a substitution of Sunday for Sabbath—a change justified by the authority of tradition rather than scriptural command.—"The Sabbath and Lord's Day During the Middle Ages," in Kenneth Strand, ed., The Sabbath in Scripture and History, p. 202.
Be that as it may, it was Pope Sylvester that got the tradition going. As Ellen White put it:
In the early part of the fourth century the emperor Constantine issued a decree making Sunday a public festival throughout the Roman Empire. . . . He was urged to do this by the bishops of the church, who, inspired by ambition and thirst for power, perceived that if the same day was observed by both Christians and heathen, it would promote the nominal acceptance of Christianity by pagans and thus advance the power and glory of the church.—Great Controversy, p. 53.
She thus agrees with what Catholic writers have said on the matter. They attribute the change of the Sabbath to Sylvester I, bishop of Rome in the time of Constantine, and she connects bishops of that time period with the very first Sunday law, the one passed by Constantine. This harmonizes with Bacchiocchi's own research:
Mosna finds a "fundamental reason" in the fact that the Church "influenced Constantine's decision to make Sunday a day of rest for the whole empire, and this undoubtedly in order to give to the Lord's day a preeminent place above the other days."—From Sabbath to Sunday, p. 315.


  1. Critics of Ellen White charge that the idea that Sunday worship is a heresy was something new in the 1840's. We have discovered that that idea was at the very least two centuries old by that time.
  2. Critics claim that Ellen White was mistaken about giving any credit to Constantine for helping to change the Sabbath, since some Christians were already worshipping on Sunday by then. Yet we have failed to find any evidence that any Christians were resting on Sunday as if it were the Sabbath prior to Constantine's day. Thus the change of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday had not yet occurred by that time.
  3. Ellen White alleges that all Christians kept the Sabbath in the first centuries. Taking this in a general sense, the extant literature does seem to support this conclusion.
  4. Catholic writers themselves like to credit Pope Sylvester I with making the change. This coincides with Ellen White's claim that certain bishops urged Constantine to pass the very first Sunday law.