Liberty Sentinels and Monuments To Freedom

The other day, as I passed by the nicely framed pictures of the ten Liberty editors from 1906 to the present, an inner voice suddenly brought me up with a simple, yet profound thought. There really should be eleven! Yes, what about Alonzo T. Jones?

A few days earlier I had themed my Liberty welcome to the attendees at our 13th annual Religious Liberty Dinner on the simple passage of time. “It is hard to believe,” I told them, ”that it is nearly 500 years since the Reformation that invigorated the concept of religious freedom.” Then, without pause, I hit another significant marker: “Hard to believe that it is nearly 300 years since the Great Awakening that gave a religious liberty imperative to the soon-to-emerge United States.” And then the payoff for Liberty awareness: “Hard to believe that it is nearly 110 years since the first issue of Liberty magazine, begun in the aftermath of misbegotten efforts to advance religious practice by legislation.”

But that very mention of “misbegotten efforts” should have itself invoked an explanation of A.T. Jones.  In 1888 a Senator Blair introduced what he intended to be a national Sunday law. It had the support of many mainline religious groups and such politically influential groups as the then widespread Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  A quick online survey lists national Sunday laws as a recurring conspiracy theory. I wish it were so. The proposal of 1888 was real enough, and it rode in on the same sort of religious empowerment that shoots at the courthouse and Constitution on a regular basis even today.

Here is the meat of the bill, reprinted at the time by Jones in his magazine, just to give a sense of what it entailed:

“50th CONGRESS, } S. 2983. 1st SESSION. }

“IN the Senate of the United States, May 21, 1888, Mr. Blair introduced the following bill, which was read twice, and referred to the Committee on Education and Labor: --

“A bill to secure to the people the enjoyment of the first day of the week, commonly known as the Lord’s day, as a day of rest, and to promote its observance as a day of religious worship.

“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That no person, or corporation, or the agent, servant, or employee of any person or corporation, shall perform or authorize to be performed any secular work, labor, or business to the disturbance of others, works of necessity, mercy, and humanity excepted; nor shall any person engage in any play, game, or amusement, or recreation, to the disturbance of others, on the first day of the week, commonly known as the Lord’s day, or during any part thereof, in any territory, district, vessel, or place subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the United States; nor shall it be lawful for any person or corporation to receive pay for labor or service performed or rendered in violation of this section.”

Jones, in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, gave a considerable verbal rebuttal and an even more complete case in the material he gave for the record. As a Seventh-day Adventist, I particularly like the following; which is most pertinent: “If this bill were framed in behalf of the real Sabbath of the Lord, the seventh day, the day which we observe; if this bill proposed to promote its observance, or to compel men to do no work upon that day we would oppose it just as strongly as we oppose it now, and I would stand here at this table and argue precisely as I am arguing against this, and upon the same principle, -- the principle established by Jesus Christ, -- that with that which is God’s the civil government never can of right have anything to do. That duty rests solely between man and God; and if any man does not render it to God, he is responsible only to God, and not to any man, nor to any assembly or organization of men, for his failure or refusal to render it to God; and any power that undertakes to punish that man for his failure or refusal to render to God what is God’s, puts itself in the place of God. Any government which attempts it, sets itself against the word of Christ, and is therefore antichristian.”

The bill failed, I think in no small part due to the efforts of Alonzo T. Jones—and, of course, the many other civil libertarians who saw not only theological overreach but unconstitutionality.

That was in 1888; about 127 years ago and before Liberty began publication. But maybe that figure is not quite so distant for the magazine as it appears. Jones was actually the first religious liberty leader of the newly formed Seventh-day Adventist Church and the editor from 1887 to 1899 of its first religious liberty journal, the American Sentinel or the Sentinel of Liberty, as it was later known. And that is the giveaway to the Liberty connection. In actuality the magazine has existed since then, with the gap of just a handful of years before it reappeared under its present shortened name.

So I am determined to put a rather large framed photograph of Alonzo T. Jones at the head of we Johnny-come-lately editors. He spent twelve years setting the model for a magazine of note, which continues to provide a vehicle for a religious liberty proclamation which is for all, and which threads separation of church and state, the Constitution, the Bible, church history, civil history, legal analysis, rational philosophical argument and the rights of man into an unbreakable argument.

God bless you and Thank You, Alonzo T. Jones: an old soldier who should never be allowed to fade away!

And in thanking one hero of liberty, I am compelled to mention another, more recent, friend of Liberty.

At that same Liberty Dinner at the elegant Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., I presented a plaque of recognition to an associate who is stepping back a little after decades of service.

Dr. John Graz (who has an article in this very issue) is a man who has risen higher in my estimation with each passing year. He has the look of a diplomat and the style to match; and the Swiss and French origins to prove it. He has a Sorbonne doctorate that he wears not on his sleeve but in his mental acuity; which for me made the hours of discussion we had about history and philosophy during many airport layovers rich and treasured times.

From 1995 on he has been the Secretary General of the International Religious Liberty Association; from 2002 he carried the elected position of Secretary of the Christian World Communions, and from 1999, when I began editing Liberty Magazine, a friend and colleague.

John and I travelled together to quite a few out of the way places. I think of some harrowing times together in Ambon, Indonesia, immediately after religious violence there, as we passed through ruined towns and deserted villages and visited churches with bullet holes in the walls. I think of visiting newly independent East Timor and together discussing religious liberty with its President and various religious leaders, and the Fretelin faction which had precipitated civil war. I think of the meal we had that was designed to test Western taste buds to the limit: a meal that consisted of nothing else but a large mound of Durian; the love-hate stinky fruit of Asia (the only time I saw John waver). But the most memorable moment and most typical of his recent travels was John in the Dominican Republic, on the stage in a stadium jammed with about 10,000 mostly young people, yelling out “Thank You God, thank you to this country, for religious liberty.” He has done that dozens of times in recent years, before ever bigger audiences of ever more enthusiastic crowds. It is a wonderful counterpoint to the increasing horrors of religious violence and persecution. It was John’s best answer to the call to battle on behalf of religious freedom. It’s been a pleasure serving with you, John.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."