Within Seventh-day Adventist discussions on the origin of Sunday-keeping within Christianity and the abandonment of Saturday-Sabbath observance, there is generally an emphasis on the “pagan” origins of Sunday observance. No doubt there were pagan influences, but the focus on paganism is associated with an under-emphasis of the anti-Jewish motives that played a large part in the change.
At least one early issue of the Review and Herald (Vol. 1, No. 10, May 5, 1851) brought out the anti-Jewish factors that lead to the change.
Prejudice against the Jews was another influence against the Sabbath, and in favor of the first day. This was very strong, and directly calculated to lead the Gentile Christians to fix a stigma upon every religious custom of the Jews, and to brand with Judaism whatever they supposed had any connection with the Mosaic religion. Hence it was in those times, as it often occurs in our own, that to produce disaffection and disgust to the seventh day as the Sabbath, they spoke of it and reproached its observance as Judaizing. This general feeling in relation to Judaism led Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, in Egypt, in the fourth century, who with his people then observed the Sabbath, to say, in his Interpretation of the Psalms, .‘ We assemble on Saturday, not that we are affected with Judaism, but to worship Jesus the Lord of the Sabbath." In a community of Christians whose religion was formal, and whose celebrations were designed more to act upon the passions and senses than to improve their hearts or to conform them to divine requirements, a more powerful argument could not he used against the Sabbath day, which was kept by the Jews, or one that could more effectually promote the observance of the first day, which was raised up as its rival. Dr, Neander says distinctly, "Opposition to Judaism introduced the particular festival of Sunday very early.”
The observance of the Passover, or Easter, by the early Christians, aided the introduction of the first day as a religious festival in the church, if it was not indeed, the direct cause of it. This feast was held by the Asiatic Christians, who began it at the same time the Jews began their Passover, and ended it in like manner, without regard to the particular day of the week when it began or closed. The church of Rome does not appear to have observed it until the latter part of the second century, when in the time of Victor, Bishop of Rome, it seems that it was observed by the Roman and Western churches. Victor insisted upon the fast being closed on the first day of the week, on whatever day it might commence; and he claimed the right, as bishop of Rome, to control all the churches in, this matter.— "'Hence," says Eusebius, "there were synods and convocations of the bishops on this question, and all (i. e. the western bishops) unanimously drew up an ecclesiastical decree in which they communicated to all the churches in all places, that the mystery of our Lord's resurrection should be celebrated on no other day than the Lord's day; and that on this day alone we should observe the close of the paschal feasts." The bishops of Asia, however, persevered in observing the custom handed down to them by apostolic tradition for a considerable time, until, either by the threats of excommunication which were made, or by a desire for union, they were induced partially to adopt the custom of the western churches. This change was made, as we are told, "partly in honor of the day, and, partly to express some difference between Jews and Christians.”
The question, however, does not appear to have been fully settled, for we find Constantine, in an epistle to the churches, urging them to a uniformity in the day of the celebration, wherein, after a strong invective against the practice of the Jews, he says, "For we have learned another way from our Saviour, which we may follow. It is indeed most absurd that they should have occasion of insolent boasting on account of our not being able to observe these things in any manner, unless by the aid of their instruction." "Wherefore let us have nothing in common with that most odious brood of the Jews.”
By this contest an important point was gained for the first day, although it was but an annual celebration. The Sabbath does not yet appear to have been laid aside in any place, but continued to be the principal day of religious worship throughout the whole Christian church.
The authors and editors of this 1851 issue of the Review and Herald are primarily, and rightly, interested in the question of the Sabbath. They acknowledge that anti-Jewish factors played a role in the changes that took place, but apparently see them as a tool used to enact the change rather than as the motive for the change. The Review article points out that by the fourth century there was “a stigma upon every religious custom of the Jews”. A careful reading of the historical sources, in English translation, demonstrate that the anti-Judaism was both the motive and the means for sweeping changes in Christian practice, of which Sabbath changes were only a part. The Sabbath change is rightly seen as primary in significance, but it is a distortion of history to see this change in isolation and not as part of an entire package of anti-Jewish rejection— of an abandonment of many Biblical customs that would later come to be regarded as exclusively Jewish and not Christian.
The Life of Constantine by Eusebius (around 260 A.D. to 340 A.D.) is the primary historical source on the life and times of Constantine, although it is deeply flawed by the almost worshipful adoration that Eusebius expresses towards the emperor. That Constantine had anti-Jewish motives for his enactments is clearly brought out in this primary source.
Life of Constantine
We should note first that the Christian world was divided over whether the resurrection of Jesus should be celebrated according to the lunar calendar that the Bible uses to determine the time for Passover, when Jesus was crucified, and thus falling on various days of the week, or according to the first day of the week and a date independent of the Biblical calendar. The issue is defined from the very start as either with or against Jewish custom, and neither side was an insignificant minority— each side was supported by a large portion of the Christian world.
CHAPTER V: Of the Disagreement respecting the Celebration of Easter.
But before this time another most virulent disorder had existed, and long afflicted the Church; I mean the difference respecting the salutary feast of Easter. For while one party asserted that the Jewish custom should be adhered to, the other affirmed that the exact recurrence of the period should be observed without following the authority of those who were in error, and strangers to gospel grace.
Accordingly, the people being thus in every place divided in respect of this, … no one appeared who was capable of devising a remedy for the evil, because the controversy continued equally balanced between both parties.
Constantine then set about to convene a council— at Nicaea— in order to establish uniformity of option within Christendom on this and other questions.
… he at once aroused the energies of his mind, and declared that he must prosecute to the utmost this war also against the secret adversary who was disturbing the peace of the Church.
THEN as if to bring a divine array against this enemy, he convoked a general council, and invited the speedy attendance of bishops from all quarters, in letters expressive of the honorable estimation in which he held them.
Although there were several subjects that the council addressed, this account by Eusebius suggests that the question about Easter was a leading if not the principle motive for convening the council. It is important that we connect the dots on this— a primary motive for the council of Nicaea was to suppress the “Jewish custom” of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus according to the Jewish calendar at the time of Passover. To put it bluntly, the council of Nicaea was convened with anti-Jewish motives. This will become much clearer from other material that we will look at next.
CHAPTER XVIII: He speaks of their Unanimity respecting the Feast of Easter, and against the Practice of the Jews.
"AT this meeting the question concerning the most holy day of Easter was discussed, and it was resolved by the united judgment of all present, that this feast ought to be kept by all and in every place on one and the same day. For what can be more becoming or honorable to us than that this feast from which we date our hopes of immortality, should be observed unfailingly by all alike, according to one ascertained order and arrangement? And first of all, it appeared an unworthy thing that in the celebration of this most holy feast we should follow the practice of the Jews, who have impiously defiled their hands with enormous sin, and are, therefore, deservedly afflicted with blindness of soul….
For how should they be capable of forming a sound judgment, who, since their parricidal guilt in slaying their Lord, have been subject to the direction, not of reason, but of ungoverned passion, and are swayed by every impulse of the mad spirit that is in them? …
CHAPTER XIX: Exhortation to follow the Example of the Greater Part of the World.
"Since, therefore, it was needful that this matter should be rectified, so that we might have nothing in common with that nation of parricides who slew their Lord: and since that arrangement is consistent with propriety which is observed by all the churches of the western, southern, and northern parts of the world, and by some of the eastern also: for these reasons all are unanimous on this present occasion in thinking it worthy of adoption.
Their motives are clearly spelled out in this last paragraph. It is an anti-Jewish motive based on erroneous understanding of who was responsible for the death of Jesus and an unjustified assignment of guilt to Jewish people generally, for all time, for the deeds of a few in the corrupt government of Roman occupied Judea. The motive is all-inclusive— they sought to have “nothing in common” with the Jewish people. This of course, would have included a rejection of Sabbath observance but also many other customs. Within Adventism, we pay great attention to the Sabbath rejection but tend to neglect all the other distinctively Jewish customs that were rejected at the same time. It was nothing less than the rejection of the Jewish people and consequently it became impossible for Jewish believers to remain in fellowship with the Gentile church that was now rejecting them. After Nicaea the Jewish-Christian church was destined for extinction.
Constantine began life as a pagan, but he grew progressively less tolerant of pagan practices and began to persecute pagans late in his life. The following portions from The Life of Constantine provide some context for understanding Constantine's motives in the changes he fostered in the church.
CHAPTER XLVIII: How he built Churches in Honor of Martyrs, and abolished Idolatry at Constantinople.
And being fully resolved to distinguish the city which bore his name with especial honor, he embellished it with numerous sacred edifices, both memorials of martyrs on the largest scale, and other buildings of the most splendid kind, not only within the city itself, but in its vicinity: and thus at the same time he rendered honor to the memory of the martyrs, and consecrated his city to the martyrs' God. Being filled, too, with Divine wisdom, he determined to purge the city which was to be distinguished by his own name from idolatry of every kind, that henceforth no statues might be worshiped there in the temples of those falsely reputed to be gods, nor any altars defiled by the pollution of blood: that there might be no sacrifices consumed by fire, no demon festivals, nor any of the other ceremonies usually observed by the superstitious.
CHAPTER LIV: Destruction of Idol Temples and Images everywhere.
ALL these things the emperor diligently performed to the praise of the saving power of Christ, and thus made it his constant aim to glorify his Saviour God. On the other hand he used every means to rebuke the superstitious errors of the heathen. Hence the entrances of their temples in the several cities were left exposed to the weather, being stripped of their doors at his command; the tiling of others was removed, and their roofs destroyed....
Lastly, whatever part of the material appeared valuable they scraped off and melted in the fire to prove its worth, after which they secured and set apart whatever they judged needful for their purpose, leaving to the superstitious worshipers that which was altogether useless, as a memorial of their shame. Meanwhile our admirable prince was himself engaged in a work similar to what we have described. For at the same time that these costly images of the dead were stripped, as we have said, of their precious materials, he also attacked those composed of brass; causing those to be dragged from their places with ropes and as it were carried away captive, whom the dotage of mythology had esteemed as gods....
CHAPTER LVII: How the Gentiles abandoned Idol Worship, and turned to the Knowledge of God.
HENCE it was that, of those who had been the slaves of superstition, when they saw with their own eyes the exposure of their delusion, and beheld the actual ruin of the temples and images in every place, some applied themselves to the saving doctrine of Christ; while others, though they declined to take this step, yet reprobated the folly which they had received from their fathers, and laughed to scorn what they had so long been accustomed to regard as gods.
There is much more material that can be found in The Life of Constantine on the destruction of heathen temples. I don't have any doubt that heathen elements slipped into the church, but the motives for the changes that Constantine enacted do not seem to be derived from a desire to promote paganism but rather to reject Judaism.
The following link discusses persecutions of pagans that began in the reign of Constantine.