A Brief History

The Adventist Church and Religious Liberty

For more than 150 years, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has been committed to promoting freedom of belief for all people. “Religious Liberty is in the DNA of the Adventist Church,” is how Elder Ted Wilson, president of the General Conference, describes Adventists' deep commitment to the the idea that religious freedom is a God-given gift. In 2012, at the church's 7th IRLA World Congress on Religious Liberty in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, Elder Wilson called on attendees to "instill in young people the love for preserving religious liberty and freedom of conscience.”

“Let us encourage them” he said, “to join in this vitally important pursuit of freedom of conscience for all.”

Since the beginning of its history, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has focused on religious liberty for several reasons. Adventists see the history of the world as a great conflict between God and Satan. Freedom of choice is an expression of God’s character of love. It also explains the fall of the angels and the fall of our first parents, recorded in the first book of the Bible. All people were created with the freedom to love and to serve God, or to reject Him. There is no love without the freedom to love. On the contrary, the father of lies, Satan, does not respect free choice. He persecutes people who are faithful to God.

Persecution is Satan's trademark and he has practiced it throughout the history of our world. He changed his name and he dressed differently, based on the context and cultures; but at the end, he always used the same methods—coercion and persecution. He did it from the beginning, and he will do it until the end of the world. Jesus told His disciples that they would be persecuted before His return. He said, “ You will be persecuted and put to death; you will be hated by all nations because of me.”

For Adventists, religious freedom has a strong biblical, historical, and theological foundation. It also has an important eschatological dimension. The first article on this topic was written by John N. Andrews in 1851. He understood the importance of religious freedom in the context of the end time. In 1864, facing the problem of Adventists in the armies during the Civil War, and their position as noncombatants, Andrews made the link between religious freedom and what we could call today a “human right.” A few years later, when Adventists opposed the program of the National Reform Association to pass religious legislation, including Sunday Laws, freedom of conscience was mentioned.

Ellen White, who had a great influence in the organization and working methods of the Adventist Church, stated that: “ We are not doing the will of God if we sit in quietude, doing nothing to preserve liberty of conscience … Let there be more earnest prayer; and then let us work in harmony with our prayers.”

Beginnings

In the late 1880s, the small Adventist Church made a difference in the USA by opposing Sunday laws. As people who observe the Sabbath on Saturday, they see any action from the State to impose another day of rest as a strong violation of religious freedom and a betrayal of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The State should not impose a day for religious observance. It is a matter of conscience. In this battle, Adventists saw themselves as defending the biblical truth that the seventh day of the week is the Sabbath day of rest. They also saw themselves as defenders of the heritage of the American founding fathers like Jefferson and Madison: The State should not interfere in the religious life of its citizens.

In 1884 they published the Sabbath Sentinel, and 500,000 copies were circulated. It became the American Sentinel in 1886. Three years later, in February 1889, the Church appointed a “State Press Committee” which published books and brochures on religious freedom issues under the name of “The Sentinel Library.”

Very active years led up to the 1889 launching of the National Religious Liberty Association. It was done during a meeting held in the Tabernacle at Battle Creek, Michigan. In the declaration signed by 110 charter members, we read: “ We deny the right of any civil government to legislate on religious questions. We believe it is the right, and should be the privilege, of every man to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience. ” The understanding of religious freedom is strongly based on the concept of Church-State separation. In 1890, the association collected 250,000 signatures against religious legislation presented both in the Senate and in the House. As the activities of the association spread to other countries around the world, in 1893 the National Association became the International Religious Liberty Association (IRLA). It was in existence until the creation of the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department. The best outcome of the IRLA at this time was to integrate work for religious freedom in the Church structure. It was the best way to keep this ministry alive. The IRLA survived, but not as an independent identity. The concept of an independent association, opened to all, didn’t begin until 1946.

An Official Ministry

The Department of Religious Liberty was organized in 1901, by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. A few years later, in 1906, the department began publishing Liberty, A Magazine of Religious Freedom. It became the only magazine on religious freedom in the Americas.

In the 1920s, the Sunday law issue came back to the US Congress in Washington, DC and to several states. In 1926–1927, the Department of Religious Liberty secured eight million signatures to petition against various bills. According the head of the department, C. S. Longacre, it was “the most vigorous and intensive campaign for signatures on petitions which had ever been launched in our history.” In the year 1927, there were approximately 250,000 Seventh-day Adventist members in the world (1930:314,253).

In one year 9,351,000 books, magazines and leaflets were distributed by the Liberty Library.

A few years later in 1931, the issue of the Calendar Reform was brought before the League of Nations. A change in the calendar would have created a lot of problems for Sabbath-keepers. So 220,000 signatures were secured in the USA against the proposal, and 236,000 signatures came from other countries. Neither the Sunday laws nor the Calendar Reforms were implemented. Before World War II, the IRLA encouraged the creation of national and regional associations in Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and in Europe. During the period of the war, the activities of the department were no longer very visible.

The International Religious Liberty Association: The Second Breath

In 1946, after the Second World War, the IRLA wrote a new page in its history by opening its membership to those who were not Seventh-day Adventists, but who shared the vision of religious freedom. It also facilitated the organization or the reorganization of partner associations around the world, like the International Association for the Defense of Religious Freedom (AIDLR) in Europe. Under the leadership of Dr Jean Nussbaum, then Pierre Lanares, the AIDLR published in French the journal Conscience et Liberte which was translated into several languages and became one of the best resources in this field. AIDLR received the support of Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt who agreed to be its first President of Honor in 1946, followed by Dr Albert Schweitzer, then in 1966 by the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rene Cassin. Both had played a major role in the redaction of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

With the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, then the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief, proclaimed in 1981, and several international documents which followed, religious freedom received the official label of human rights. It facilitated and encouraged the work of the IRLA and AIDLR. They got credibility and visibly at the United Nations Human Rights Commission and were able to welcome a number of non-Adventists in their ranks.

After 1980, the PARL Department guided by the charisma and talent of Dr Bert Beach developed a new and successful activity, Interchurch Relations, without neglecting the diplomatic work with government and embassies. The General Conference Council of Interchurch Relations was organized in 1980. The work of the PARL Department went beyond the borders of religious freedom and became the de facto External Affairs Department, which dealt with the diplomatic work of the World Church.

The IRLA succeeded in building a tradition on the IRLA World Congress. The three IRLA World Congresses, in Amsterdam 1977, Rome 1984, London 1989, were intentionally held in Western Europe. They offered the possibility of inviting government officials from the East. They also gave opportunity to develop a diplomatic activity and to make the Adventist Church more visible in the communist regime’s territories.

In 1997, the IRLA decided to hold its 4th World Congress in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It was at this time the largest congress organized by the IRLA. Experts came from Europe, Russia, the USA, and, of course, South America. Officials from new European democracies attended and Cuba sent one of its Religious Affairs Vice-Directors. The media was interested in this event, as was the government of Brazil which sent its Minister of Justice who read a message from his President.

Since 2006, 25 festivals have been held on five continents, gathering thousands of people and leaders from all religions. They have attracted ministers of governments, ambassadors, and reporters. Some festivals were held in big cities like Cape Town, South Africa; Jakarta and Manado, Indonesia; Saint Petersburg, Russia; Honolulu, Hawaii; Bucharest and Bacau, Romania; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Guatemala City, Guatemala; and Caracas, Venezuela. They were also held in Suriname, Guyana, Tobago, and North and South Mexico. The largest ones were held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (13,000); Bogota, Colombia (15,000); and Luanda, Angola, (40,000).

Conclusion

The interest of Adventists in religious freedom probably has no equivalent in the Christian world. It has to do with our eschatological vision, our reading of history, and, of course, our theology; but also with our experience as a religious minority facing challenges as we try to live our beliefs and, among them, resting on the Saturday Sabbath. It gives to Adventists openness to those who also experience persecution and discrimination.

Important dates

  • 1864 First Public Affairs and Religious Liberty action led by J.N. Andrews. The outcome was the recognition of the noncombatancy position of the Church during the civil war.
  • 1883 Resolutions of the General Conference on Religious Liberty (Resolutions 26-28)
  • 1884 Sabbath Sentinel 500,000 copies of it were circulated
  • 1886 American Sentinel
  • 1888 Press Committee which was focused on the Sunday law issue;
  • 1889 The Press Committee became the “State Press Committee”.
  • 1889 July 21 National Religious Liberty Association, with 110 charter members. The Sentinel Library which became in 1893 the Religious Liberty Library.
  • 1893 International Religious Liberty Association
  • 1901 Religious Liberty Department

Interesting Facts

First director: A. T Jones

Current director: Ganoune Diop

Sunday Laws Campaigns

  • 1890: 250,000 signatures to petition against religious legislation; 4 million pages of tracts and pamphlets
  • 1927: 8 million signatures to petition opposing Sunday legislation. 9, 351,000 books, magazines, and leaflets on religious freedom were distributed.
  • 1931: 220,000 signatures to petition were secured in the USA and 236,00 overseas, opposing the reform of the calendar
  • Results: No Sunday Law was implemented and no new calendar was issued.

United Nations Recognition

As result of PARL interventions the General Conference received the United Nations Consultative Status of Non-governmental Association by ECOSOC.

Activities

  • PARL supports the work of the IRLA which organizes congresses, symposiums, forums, meetings of experts, an annual religious liberty dinner in Washington, D.C., and festivals of religious freedom around the world.
  • The First IRLA World Congress was held in Amsterdam in 1977.
  • The 7th IRLA World Congress was held in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic in April 2012. With 900 participants and 50 guest speakers, experts, officials and religious leaders it became the largest congress on religious liberty ever organized. The 8th World Congress will be held August 22-24 in Hollywood, near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA.
  • The PARL Department has helped inspire the Festival of Religious Freedom movement. From 1997 to 2016, more than 30 festivals have been organized around the world. The largest festivals were held in Sao Paulo with 12,000 people, in Luanda, Angola with 40,000, Bogota, Colombia with 15,000, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic with 13,000. The first world festival was held in Lima, Peru in June 2009. It included three forums, a march for religious freedom, and a gathering in the National Stadium with 45,000 people. It became the largest event for religious freedom ever organized.
  • PARL also coordinates with Liberty magazine and the North American Religious Liberty Association each year to hold the Annual Religious Liberty Dinner in Washington DC. Among recent key note speakers: Hillary Clinton, John McCain, John Kerry, US Ambassador John Hanford, US Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Canada, John Baird.