North America

Adventists and Religious Liberty Go to the Fair

Sunday laws were very popular in the 1800s, and courts blatantly leaned on Christianity for justifying the legislation.

Amy Sheppard Ratsara
Adventists and Religious Liberty Go to the Fair

The 1893 World’s Fair, hosted in Chicago, Illinois, United States, commemorated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus arriving in North America. In the decades leading up to the World’s Fair there was a large Sunday Law movement in the United States. Sunday laws were very popular in the 1800s, and courts blatantly leaned on Christianity for justifying the legislation. 

Sunday laws were used as tools of religious intolerance in multiple American states. Sabbathkeepers would be prosecuted for doing labor on their own property on Sunday, when Sundaykeepers guilty of the same conduct were not prosecuted at all. 

With Sunday’s popularity, it’s no surprise the question arose: What about Sundays at the fair? The construction of the World’s Fair was a massive endeavor, requiring a significant amount of capital. As the fair grew closer, the board of directors needed more money to finish in time, and they petitioned the U.S. Congress. In late 1892 Congress authorized funding for the fair, with the condition that it would be closed on Sundays. 

Inherent Problems

The Sunday movement had been well organized in securing this outcome, and it seemed to catch most off guard when the provision passed. Protests arose, and Congress held hearings January 10-13, 1893, to determine whether it should revoke the Sunday closing position. 

Those who supported the closure of the World’s Fair on Sunday did so because they envisioned a particular type of national community whose political identity was inextricably linked with religious belief. This runs contrary to what both the Bible and Spirit of Prophecy teach.

“Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, . . . but now My kingdom is not from here’” (John 18:36). “Not by the decisions of courts or councils or legislative assemblies, not by the patronage of worldly great men, is the kingdom of Christ established, but by the implanting of Christ’s nature in humanity through the work of the Holy Spirit,” noted Ellen White.1 

Many recognized the inherent problem with a legislative body dictating the fair’s being closed on Sunday, based on religious reasons. Among them was Seventh-day Adventist pastor, editor, and educator Alonzo T. Jones. 

When Congress signaled it was willing to reconsider the concerns to the condition of the provision, Jones appeared to testify before Congress. He criticized the Sunday closure as the result of Congress interpreting Scripture and imposing that interpretation on the nation, at the expense of communities outside the majority. It was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. 

This was not his first time testifying before Congress on the issue of Sunday laws. In 1888 there was a national Sunday rest law pending before a committee in Congress where he testified. There, rather than rely on constitutional arguments for religious liberty, he relied on biblical arguments. 

Jones suggested that Christ’s admonition in Matthew 22:21 to render unto God what is God’s and render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s established a hard and fast rule that civil government could not violate. He argued that through this statement there are areas of life over which the civil government has jurisdiction, just as religion has jurisdiction over other areas of life. In no way, however, do these two spheres overlap. Civil government could not legislate in any way religious observances. Drawing the line between what the civil state can regulate and what it cannot, Jones argued, “In the things which pertain to our duty to God, with the individual’s right of serving God as one’s conscience dictates, society has nothing to do.”

The civil government, according to Jones’s theory, could make laws regulating things that pertain to a person’s relationship between them and their fellow individuals. Jones cited the structure of the Ten Commandments as the support for this feature of his argument. The first four commandments deal with a person’s relationship with God. In contrast, the last six commandments have to do with a person’s interaction with other humans. Jones argued that if the conduct that the government desired to regulate fell within the last six commandments, then the legislation was appropriate. If the legislation was akin to anything in the first four commandments, though, it would be illegitimate, and a civil government could not pass such laws. 

Jones then made arguments that could have come out of only an Adventist understanding of Revelation 13. He pointed to early Christianity as being persecuted by Rome, only eventually to have the two unite, to a disastrous effect, and the development of the Papacy. He warned that if Congress followed through with a Sunday law, it would follow in the same footsteps and establish a similar power. 

Why Bother?

Why did Jones, as an Adventist looking for Jesus’ soon return, bother testifying before Congress in 1888 and 1893? A few days before Jones’s 1888 testimony, Ellen White wrote in the Review and Herald: “We have been looking many years for a Sunday law to be enacted in our land; and now that the movement is right upon us, we ask, What are our people going to do in the matter? . . . We should especially seek God for grace and power to be given His people now. God lives; and we do not believe that the time has fully come when He would have our liberties restricted.”3 

Scripture, Spirit of Prophecy, and the experience of early Adventists illustrate that opportunities to advocate for religious liberty may arise in unexpected arenas. But we can be prepared and equipped to do so, and it is a prophetic duty to advocate for religious freedom as long as possible. 

1 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 509.

2 Senate Miscellaneous Document No. 43, 50th Congress, 2nd Session, 1888, p. 74; see also The National Sunday Law: Argument of Alonzo T. Jones Before the United States Senate Committee on Education and Labor, in Washington, D.C., Dec. 13, 1888

3 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, Dec. 11, 1888.

Amy Sheppard Ratsara