For more than 170 years, the Seventh-day Adventist Church has promoted freedom of belief for all people. For Adventists, the principle of religious freedom has strong biblical, historical, and theological foundations. The first article on this topic by an Adventist Church leader was written in 1851 by John N. Andrews. In this article, Andrews explored the pivotal role of religious freedom in end-time events. In 1864, as the fledging Adventist community worked to secure noncombatant status for its members during the Civil War, Andrews expanded on his initial writings, linking religious freedom to what today we would call “human rights.” A few years later, in the 1880s, Adventists began a decades-long effort to oppose various initiatives by organizations such as the National Reform Association to pass religious legislation in the United States. The Church focused much of its efforts on protesting state Sunday laws and resisting proposals to introduce a national Sunday law. During this time, some Adventist Church members were prosecuted for violating state-mandated Sunday observance. As their advocacy efforts grew, Adventists strengthened their commitment to the idea of separation of church and state. In arguing that the government should not interfere in the religious life of its citizens, they saw themselves as defending the legacy of leading American founders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
It was around this time that Ellen White, a central figure in the early Adventist Church, wrote, “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” (Testimonies to the Church, vol 5, p 714).
In 1884, the Adventist Church published a journal, the Sabbath Sentinel, which explored these ideas of religious liberty, and 500,000 copies were circulated nationally. This publication 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.”
In 1889, leaders meeting at the Adventist Tabernacle at Battle Creek, Michigan, launched the National Religious Liberty Association. In the declaration signed by 110 charter members, it declared: “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.” In 1890, the association collected 250,000 signatures protesting religious legislation, and presented these signatures to the U.S. Congress. 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).
The Adventist Church established the first Department of Religious Liberty in 1901 and a few years later, in 1906, the department began publishing Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Freedom. At the time, Liberty was the only magazine on religious freedom in the Americas. Today, the magazine is the oldest continuously published journal on religious liberty and continues to advocate for religious freedom for all and for the separation of church and state.