What should be our Attitude to the Sunday Law Question: Lessons from 1888
Editorial | Advent Messenger
Towards the end of the 19th Century there was a religious movement that felt compelled to launch a campaign to formally recognize Christianity in the U.S. Constitution. Their desire was to bring the United States out of spiritual decline caused by the Civil War. They wanted to unite the country and strengthen morality by establishing several “moral” Christian laws. Different Protestant churches, reformed groups, and temperance movements mobilized together into a political/religious coalition. They found a champion to lead their cause—U.S. Republican Senator from New Hampshire Henry W. Blair. Senator Blair, a staunch prohibitionist and ardent Christian, proposed a National Sunday Rest Bill to Congress, Senate Bill 2983, on May 21, 1888.
The proposed Sunday Law was ingenuously “cloaked” under the guise of a “Christian Education” Amendment, Senate Resolution 86. This would have amended the US Constitution and established Sunday as the mandatory day of rest for everyone under the jurisdiction of the United States in the name of Christian Education. Commercial transactions would have cease, public amusements would be closed, and labor would be restricted to acts of mercy and humanity. Interstate commerce would be suspended, as would all festivities, secular activities, parades, and military drills. This bill would have empowered the federal government to preserve the nation’s Christian identity through Sunday rest.
After Senator Blair introduced his legislation to Congress, his fellow lawmakers deliberately referred both the Sunday Rest Bill and the Christian Education Amendment to the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, which was chaired by Senator Blair himself! Testimony was heard by the committee from both sides—from those who supported the bill and those who opposed it. Alonzo T. Jones, a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, professor, editor, and administrator lodged the strongest protest against this Sunday measure.
Jones spoke boldly and clearly before the US Senate Committee for the first time on December 13, 1888 at 1:30 p.m.: “There is a limit to the lawmaking power. The government has no right to make any law relating to the things that pertain to God, or offenses against God, or religion. It [government] has nothing to do with religion” (The National Sunday Law, Argument of Alonzo T. Jones, Dec. 13, 1888, p. 32).
Jones said that the basis of his argument was supported by both the Bible and the U.S. Constitution. He said that Sunday laws were religious in nature and violated the separation of church and state as established by Christ: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” Matthew 22:21. And because the Sabbath was a religious ordinance designed for worshipping God, attempting to legislate the Sabbath was a terrible infringement that both the Bible and the U.S. Constitution strongly prohibited.
Jones also argued that religious liberty was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, Article VI that stipulates that “no religious TEST shall ever be required.” He stressed that even if the government reflected the will of a majority, it had no more authority than has a king or a pope to violate the God-given liberty of conscience and freedom to worship. He concluded his testimony by saying that government should leave religion to “every man’s conscience and his God. As long as he is a good citizen, the nation will protect him and leave him perfectly free to worship whom he pleases, when he pleases, as he pleases, or not to worship at all, if he pleases” (The National Sunday Law, Argument of Alonzo T. Jones, Dec. 13, 1888, p. 43).
These words left a lasting impression upon the U.S. Senators, and as a result the Sunday Law Bill and Christian Education Amendment failed to receive the necessary votes to move on and died in committee. Senator Blair was unfazed by this defeat. He replaced the language and resubmitted variations of the Sunday Law bill called the Amended Blair Sunday Rest Bill of December 9, 1889, Senate Bill 946, and the revised Blair Christian Education Amendment of December 9, 1889; but at every instance he was met with the same fate—failure to get the necessary votes in committee. This was a great victory for God’s people and for religious liberty. Incidentally, just two days before Jones’ historic testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on December 13, 1888, Ellen White gave a very important and timely counsel on what our approach and attitude should be with regards to the Sunday law question on December 11, 1888:
“While men are sleeping, Satan is actively arranging matters so that the Lord’s people may not have mercy or justice. The Sunday movement is now making its way in darkness. The leaders are concealing the true issue, and many who unite in the movement do not themselves see whither the under-current is tending. Its professions are mild, and apparently Christian [clearly she was referring to Blair's “Christian Education bill”]; but when it shall speak, it will reveal the spirit of the dragon. It is our duty to do all in our power to avert the threatened danger. We should endeavor to disarm prejudice by placing ourselves in a proper light before the people. We should bring before them the real question at issue, thus interposing the most effectual protest against measures to restrict liberty of conscience.” Review and Herald, December 11, 1888.
This should be the same attitude for God’s people today. We must be proactive, on the offensive, and engage the issue and not run away from the conflict as our leadership did in 1961. Tragically, these clear-cut arguments against the Sunday law bill as given by Ellen White and Alonzo T. Jones were never presented during the 1961 Supreme Court Rulings which established a precedent. They ruled in favor of Sunday saying that Sunday laws are “secular” and “necessary” in America.