Should Seventh-day Adventists fight for the right to be free to worship God according to conscience? Or, given that they want Jesus to come back, should they nudge along a national Sunday law to trigger earth’s final events and His return?
These are some of the questions Adventist pioneers and members in the second half of the 19th century often asked themselves. Ultimately, the answer to these questions would shape and inform the church’s longstanding commitment to advocacy efforts on behalf of freedom of conscience, Adventist historian Dr. David Trim said while presenting at the ninth International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA) World Congress in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States, on August 22, 2023.
Trim, director of Archives, Statistics, and Research for the General Conference, shared with religious liberty supporters the advocacy efforts of Adventist pioneers, which in 1893 resulted in the launching of IRLA. “It is worth exploring this history,” Trim said, “to understand the DNA of the IRLA.”
Forcing End-Time Events?
Trim first discussed the often ambivalent thoughts among early Adventist church leaders and members regarding the issue of religious liberty. Should Adventists get involved or just let events play out as they thought Bible prophecy had predicted them? He answered by quoting John Graz, former IRLA secretary general, who, in the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, wrote that “the young Seventh-day Adventist Church, in spite of its apocalyptic vision of the future, decided to firmly oppose any legislation in favor of a religious day of rest.”
According to Trim, the tension to which Graz alludes was “between Seventh-day Adventist corporate prophetic schema, in which enforcement of a Sunday law by the United States would be one of the markers of the final eschatological scenario, and the need, on the other hand, of Seventh-day Adventists to be free of Sunday laws as part of their normal lives.”
Some pioneers thought Adventists should, by provocation, bring on a national Sunday law. This “would basically oblige Christ to inaugurate the millennium by His second advent,” Trim explained, adding, “This was one of the extreme ideas that Seventh-day Adventists, as a whole, never accepted.… The idea that one could compel Christ to action was, to put it mildly, an idiosyncratic one.”
Effect of Sunday Legislation
At the same time, early Adventists had more practical considerations when faced with the sanction of local and state Sunday laws, Trim said, “Most Seventh-day Adventists lived in rural areas, and by not working on their farms on Saturdays, it became essential for them to work on their farms on Sundays,” he said. Toward the end of the 19th century, “while in many cases Sunday laws were not enforced, in many cases they were.”
Trim explained that in several cases, Adventists were fined and went to prison as a result of those Sunday laws, and in one case, a Seventh-day Adventist man even died in jail after being held in rigorous conditions. “Thus, there was a natural incentive for Seventh-day Adventists to become advocates for religious freedom,” Trim said, and they did so.
Trim recounted how, in the 1880s, an early campaign to have the U.S. Congress pass a national law to keep Sunday as sacred was met with concrete advocacy efforts by Adventist pioneer Alonzo T. Jones and others against the bill. “Despite the Adventist apocalyptic scenario, Adventists decided to oppose the national Sunday law,” Trim said. In 1888, Jones testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor. Ultimately, that law was never passed.
IRLA Is Born
In this context, IRLA was founded in 1893, Trim reminded event attendees. In its March 1893 “Declaration of Principles,” IRLA members stated, “We believe in supporting the civil government and submitting to its authority,” but at the same time, “we deny the right of any civil government to legislate on religious questions.” The document added, among other stipulations, “We believe it is right, and should be the privilege of every man to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
After the IRLA organized, its work became international as it opened offices on several continents and, in 1906, launched Liberty magazine, which is still published.
Trim also discussed the role of other key Adventist players in the history and development of IRLA, including Charles Longacre and Jean Nussbaum, who testified before the League of Nations at Geneva (Switzerland) in the 1930s to oppose a 13-month calendar and a 13-month plan that would have affected the days of the week.
Extending Its Reach
Other developments included IRLA’s legal incorporation in 1946, which extended the reach of the organization beyond any denominational plan, Trim said. “Following this strategy, the IRLA actively appealed … to all those who shared their view and philosophy on religious freedom for all and the separation of church and state.”
IRLA was very active during the 1950s and 1960s, Trim said. He specifically referenced a 1958 meeting with the president of the UN General Assembly. The first IRLA Congress took place in Amsterdam, Netherlands, in March 1977. Trim quoted Graz again, who wrote that after that first congress, “the IRLA was reactivated, and during the next decades, a new period of activities began. A series of public events made the IRLA one of the major international associations for religious freedom.”
According to Trim, the organization’s revitalization was supported by the 35-year leadership of Bert B. Beach, elected IRLA secretary-general in 1980, and John Graz, IRLA secretary-general from 1995–2015. “Starting in 1977, regional IRLA congresses were organized in the five continents, [and] more than 40 international congresses and symposiums were held from 1996–2015,” Trim reported.
In 1999, IRLA created its Board of Experts, which, according to Trim, has become a major think tank on religious liberty, and its influence transcends the Adventist Church. The Board of Experts has prepared several major international statements and guiding principles on religious freedom, proselytism, and education.
A 130-Year Passion
Trim concluded by emphasizing that during IRLA’s 130 years of existence, the organization has demonstrated a passion for freedom of religion and belief. Despite being born out of the activism within the Adventist Church, he added, “the organization has long reached out beyond the denomination that gave rise to it, and contents for freedom of religion and belief for people of all faiths and none.”
In this context, Trim said, “As new challenges emerge for religious liberty, there will be a need for the IRLA.”