Reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information about the history of Sabbath-keepers can be of great benefit to us today. The Sabbath is under attack. The inspiring story of others who have likewise struggled to maintain their faith can help us to strengthen our commitment to the commandments of our Creator and the faith of our Savior.
Dr. Benjamin G. Wilkinson (1871-1967), an eminent Seventh-day Adventist scholar, who was fluent in six languages, in 1942 produced an exceptional history of the Church in the Wilderness (A.D. 538-1798), entitled Truth Triumphant, the Church in the Wilderness. His splendid bibliography and footnotes demonstrate rigorous scholarship. The history he relates is unknown to most Sabbath-keepers today, to their detriment.
The worldwide extensive scope of Sabbath-keeping for many hundreds of years is truly astounding. Lucian of Syria (ca. A.D. 250-312) upheld the commandments of God and preserved the text of the New Testament (minus the spurious apocryphal books). Vigilantius Leo (A.D. 364-408), not Peter Waldo, was the first leader of the Waldenses in northern Italy and southern France. He influenced Patrick, the Sabbath-keeping saint of Celtic Ireland. Columba (b. 521), Columbanus (A.D. 543-615) and other Celtic Sabbath-keepers evangelized Europe and maintained the highest standards of scholarship and learning during the Dark Ages.
In A.D. 285, Papas was chosen head of the Church of the East (also called Assyrian Church, or wrongly called Nestorian Church). Excommunicated by Victor I, bishop of Rome in the late second century, the Church of the East flourished, and kept the Sabbath for hundreds of years, in spite of opposition from Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. The thrilling story of the Church of the East, including the St. Thomas Christians in India, and the profusion of Sabbath keepers in China and Japan, is tempered with the awful persecution in the 1500s of Sabbath-keepers by the Jesuits.
Wilkinson’s thorough treatment of the Waldensians in the Alps should be enough to bury the false idea that the Waldenses did not begin until about 1160, and the wrong theory that most of the Waldenses never kept the Sabbath. He cites the fourth century church historian Socrates, who wrote, “For although almost all the 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.” Sozomen, another historian and contemporary of Socrates, declares, “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.”
The council held at Elvira, Spain, ca. A.D. 305, upholds the Sabbath. Spanish Sabbath-keepers of the Pyrenees influenced the Waldenses. The Latin word for “valley dweller” is vallis. It is Vaudois in French, Valdesi in Italian, and Valdenses in Spanish. Spanish Sabbath-keepers were also called Sabbatati. Wilkinson maintains, “A large portion of the Waldenses, whether called by that name or by other names, believed the observance of the fourth commandment to be obligatory upon the human race. Because of this, they were designated by the significant title of Insabbati, or Insabbatati. Farmers or townsmen going on Saturday about their work were so impressed by the sight of groups of Christians assembling for worship on that day that they called them Insabbatati.”
Some Bohemians of the fourteenth century held “that none of the ordinances of the church that have been introduced since Christ’s ascension ought to be observed, being of no worth; the feasts, fasts, orders, blessings, offices of the church and the like, they utterly reject.” They were in contact with the Waldenses of the Alps. Erasmus testified that as late as about 1500, these Bohemians kept the seventh day scrupulously, and were called Sabbatarians.
Wilkinson reports on Aba (ca. A.D. 500-575) and the Church in Persia, Timothy of Baghdad (A.D. 700-824), how the Apostle Thomas established a long-lived Sabbath-keeping community on the west coast of India, and how Sabbath-keepers flourished during the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) in China.
It appears that the key to the long term survival of Sabbath-keepers in diverse groups scattered around the world was the fact that they were relatively independent. As Wilkinson notes, “It was the purpose of the Celtic Church to plant many centers rather than to concentrate numbers and wealth in some ecclesiastical capital.” Wilkinson relates how many geographically diverse groups nevertheless maintained contact with their brethren in other lands. Today it is true that there is strength in a diversity that nevertheless maintains frequent contact among the scattered groups of brethren. Although Wilkinson’s excellent book, Truth Triumphant, ends in 1798, the story of the Sabbath-keeping Church continues. We should be inspired to maintain the faith, and to continue to support the scattered brethren, around the world.
Truth Triumphant, 424 pages, by Dr. B.G. Wilkinson, is available for a donation of $12.95 (plus $2.00 postage) from The Bible Sabbath Association, 3316 Alberta Drive, Gillette, WY 82718.