Why Adventists Oppose Religious Legislation

Seventh-day Adventists have long been champions of religious liberty in the United States of America. When Senator Henry Blair of New Hampshire proposed legislation in the US Senate in 1888 to limit secular activities on Sundays, Seventh-day Adventists vehemently opposed the proposed legislation, while other Christian groups were otherwise very supportive of the legislation.

1888 was also an important year for Seventh-day Adventists. It was the year of the historic Minneapolis General Conference, as well as the first publication of Ellen White's Great Controversy. Understanding the religio-political climate of 1888, with Sunday laws (also known as Blue Laws) on the books and enforced in many states gives a better understanding of why a "National Sunday Law" was so prominent in Ellen White's writings.

But why did Adventists oppose religious legislation? Was it merely because Sunday laws would limit their own freedoms to worship on Saturday? The following clip shows some highlights from Seventh-day Adventist Alonzo T. Jones's arguments before the 1888 US Senate Committee on Education and Labor.1

The separation of church and state has always been a point of conversation among people of faith. For many years, Islamic nations looked to the same person as both a spiritual and a political head.

Render to Caesar

In Christ's day, the Jews came to Christ in order to trap him in his words. They believed that they could present to him a question that was impossible to answer.

And they send unto him certain of the Pharisees and of the Herodians, to catch him in his words. And when they were come, they say unto him, Master, we know that thou art true, and carest for no man: for thou regardest not the person of men, but teachest the way of God in truth: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?
—Mark 12:13-14

If Christ said that it was lawful to give money to Caesar, then the authorities would claim that Christ would not be the Messiah, since the Messiah was expected to deliver Israel from under the Roman yoke. However, if Christ said that it was not lawful to give money to Caesar, the Jews would turn Christ into the Roman authorities as being a rebel.

But he, knowing their hypocrisy, said unto them, Why tempt ye me? bring me a penny, that I may see it. And they brought it. And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? And they said unto him, Caesar's. And Jesus answering said unto them, Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's. And they marvelled at him.
—Mark 12:15-17

Christ's answer has long been the basis of establishing the separation of church and state, and was also the basis of Paul's arguments for respecting secular authority in Romans 13:

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing. Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour. Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
—Romans 13:6-9

In this text, not only does Paul reference Christ's admonition to pay taxes to whom taxes are due (Caesar), but also expands Christ's admonition to comment on the Christian duty to render to civil authority obedience to laws that pertain to civility. Paul explicitly lists several of the ten commandments, specifically Exodus 20:14, Exodus 20:13, Exodus 20:15, Exodus 20:16, Exodus 20:17, and then states "if there be any other commandment," referencing Exodus 20:12. Paul only lists commandments in the second half of the ten commands, those commandments that fall under our commitment to love our neighbor as our self. Paul does not list any commandments that fall under the category of "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God." (c.f. Mark 12:28-31, Matthew 22:35-40)

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God
  1. Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.
Love thy neighbor as thyself
  1. Honor your father and your mother.
  2. Thou shalt not kill.
  3. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  4. Thou shalt not steal.
  5. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  6. Thou shalt not covet.

Thus, the question may be raised, "Is it expedient for a government to legislate Biblical principles?" The answer to this question is a qualified "yes." The Bible can legislate on Biblical principles insofar that their scope remains between man's relationship with his neighbor. However, a civil government does not have the prerogative to legislate in the realm of man's relationship with God.

In Mark 12:15-16, Jesus asked the Jews to bring him a denarius, the coin that was used to pay the tax. Jesus asked the Jews, "whose likeness and inscription is this?" to which they responded, "Caesar's."

Suppose on the other hand, that the Jews asked whether it was legal for Caesar to legislate a law requiring people to keep the Sabbath. Jesus would have asked, "whose likeness and inscription is this?" The Jews would have thought back to Exodus 20:11, and would have responded, "God's." This would clearly fall outside of the scope of legislation that Caesar could mandate.

As another example, consider the following series of events:

  1. I make an idol
  2. I worship this idol
  3. I worship this idol on Wednesdays
  4. I blaspheme God before this idol
  5. The idol tells me to take the life of a fellow man for a sacrifice
  6. I attempt to murder someone, but am caught in the act

For which one of these actions does the civil government punish me? Only the sixth, because it is only at this commandment where I violate my relationship with my neighbor. Although I break four of the ten commandments in the first four actions, because these relate to my duty to "love my God with all my heart," these infringements are only punishable by God—no civil authority can discipline me for these acts.

A Man-Made Theocracy is Dangerous

In 1888, there were widespread movements seeking to make Christianity the official law of the land. For example, consider the following quote:

Resolved, that Christ and his gospel, as universal king and code, should be sovereign in our Government and political affairs.
—National Women's Christian Temperance Union Convention, 1887

Would such a resolution work? Among other things, Christ's gospel requires the following:

Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him.
—Luke 17:3-4

In modern terms, if somebody got arrested for stealing cars at 7:00 am, was brought into court, and told the jury that he was really sorry, Luke 17:3-4 would require that the jurors (consistent with the Biblical counsel) would have to forgive him. The car thief would then be released. Then the car thief went to the same parking lot and stole more cars at 8:30 am, was brought to the same jury, and was forgiven a second time. This process repeated again at 10:00 am, 11:30 pm, 1:00 pm, 2:30 pm, and 4:00 pm.

Jesus' commandments on forgiveness, (a duty that God asks of us) would ruin civil government if forgiveness was a requirement that we Caesar demanded of us.

Arguing against such a hypothetical modern theocracy, A. T. Jones clarified

This is not saying anything against the government or its principles. It is only illustrating the absurd perversion of its principles by these people who want to establish a system of religious legislation [in American government]. God's government is moral, and he has made provision for maintaining his government with the forgiveness of transgression. But He made no such provision for civil government. No such provision can be made, and civil government be maintained. The Bible is God's method of saving those who sin against His moral government. Civil government is man's method of preserving order. It has nothing to do with sin, and the salvation of sinners. If the government arrests a thief or a murderer, and finds him guilty, the penalty must be executed, though the Lord does forgive him.
—A. T. Jones, 18881

In summary, religious legislation is wholly wrong. It is subversive of American principles. While on the surface religious legislation makes the claim to make people more obedient to their omnipotent creator, it instead appeals to the so-called omnipotence of the legislation branch over God's government. "There is no foundation in justice, in right, or even in expediency, for any Sunday laws, or Lord's-day laws, or Sabbath laws, under any government on this earth."1