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The first issue of The American Sentinel, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 1886.

From the ASTR Archives.

The American Sentinel

By Milton Hook

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Milton Hook, Ed.D. (Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, the United States). Hook retired in 1997 as a minister in the Greater Sydney Conference, Australia. An Australian by birth Hook has served the Church as a teacher at the elementary, academy and college levels, a missionary in Papua New Guinea, and as a local church pastor. In retirement he is a conjoint senior lecturer at Avondale College of Higher Education. He has authored Flames Over Battle Creek, Avondale: Experiment on the Dora, Desmond Ford: Reformist Theologian, Gospel Revivalist, the Seventh-day Adventist Heritage Series, and many magazine articles. He is married to Noeleen and has two sons and three grandchildren.

First Published: August 18, 2020

The American Sentinel was a periodical dedicated to the advocacy of religious liberty for all mankind and the separation of church and state powers. It found expression in issues from 1886 through 1900.

Context

In the 1880s there was growing anxiety among Seventh-day Adventists in America concerning the increasingly loud voice of the National Reform Association (NRA), a Protestant organization that sought to legislate and maintain government laws dealing with Sunday sacredness.1 Seventh-day Adventists taught that such moves were inevitable, even a sign of the end of the world, but they had not anticipated the main threat would be fellow Protestants. Adventists resisted the push rather than let it take its natural course. They could have chosen pacifism and testified about their faith in the courtrooms and from the prison cells. However, they opted more and more for activism from the pulpit and press, publicly promoting an individual’s common right to practice their faith according to conscience. For Seventh-day Adventists it was primarily a struggle for the right to worship on Saturdays and work on Sundays. The position introduced a tension between a yearning on one hand for a rapid end of the world and on the other hand negotiating for more time to evangelize new territories. They believed in the imminence of the Second Advent but worked for a delay in order to win more converts.

Matters concerning religious liberty had emerged in Californian politics in the early 1880s. The Republican Party embraced the agenda of the NRA but was defeated at the election. Sunday laws on the other side of the continent persisted in Pennsylvania with the continual support of the NRA. In that territory any person found working on Sunday could be arrested and punished. In Arkansas the Sunday laws had made exemptions for Jews and others but in the Spring of 1885 these statutes were repealed2 and some Seventh-day Adventists were subsequently arrested and tried.3 Adventist ministers were alarmed when the judge cited precedents of Mormons sentenced for their religious custom of polygamy.4 The dilemma was discussed at the November 1885 General Conference Session.5 These circumstances were the immediate catalyst for issuing The American Sentinel. It was not a campaign to support Mormons, Jews, or any other faiths. The debate was lifted to an ideological platform from which were mounted general arguments for religious liberty.

Campaigning

The American Sentinel was launched in January 1886 from the Pacific Press Publishing Company in Oakland, California, with an annual subscription of fifty cents. It began as a monthly of eight pages, unattractive in some respects because of its tightly packed columns of print with no illustrations. Illustrations were added in the 1890s. Its nationalistic aim was “the defence of American Institutions, the preservation of the United States Constitution as it is, so far as regards religious tests, and the maintenance of human rights, both civil and religious.” It vowed it would “ever be uncompromisingly opposed to anything tending toward a union of Church and State, either in name or in fact.”6 Its combative motto inferred a reference to the NRA with the words, “Corrupted freemen are the worst of slaves.”7 Its columns overtly locked horns with the NRA and lively exchanges persisted.8

It took eighteen months before the periodical admitted to the names of the editors. The initial driving force behind the periodical was the fatherly figure of Joseph Waggoner as corresponding editor, the one who marshaled many arguments in the debate about religious liberty and wrote much in its defense. He had witnessed the political debate in California in the early 1880s. His son, Ellet Waggoner, and associate Alonzo Jones, as nominated editors, carried the responsibility of production and gradually assumed a larger role in the debate.9 Later names attached to the editorial role were Calvin Bollman, William McKee10 and Leon Smith.11

In January 1889 the periodical began to be issued on a weekly basis for an annual subscription of one dollar.12 At the same time it adopted a less combative style in some respects. For example, a new motto appeared at the masthead, one that did not allude to the NRA. Instead, it quoted Thomas Jefferson’s words: “Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political.”13 The first issue of 1890 mentioned the periodical’s office had transferred to New York14 and the final numbers came from an office in Chicago.15

The editors employed several strategies in the debate. One was to argue from a scriptural foundation about Saturday sacredness.16 A related tactic was to unmask some reasons put forward for the Sunday laws. One allegation was that the clerics’ ulterior motive was to deter people from attending sports and entertainments on Sunday simply in order to fill their pews.17 Another strategy involved quoting Protestant clergy who had published against the Sunday laws. Examples included pastors of the Baptist18 and Evangelical Lutheran faiths.19

In the 1890s the General Conference established the Religious Liberty Association (RLA) to strengthen their push against the NRA. Leadership of the RLA was noted in The American Sentinel as Allen Moon, president; Alonzo Jones, vice-president and Albion Ballenger, secretary.20 At the 1897 General Conference Session a report was given by Moon of Sunday laws affecting Seventh-day Adventists in the period March 1895 through September 1896. He noted:

The result to our own people has been that more arrests have taken place, more convictions have been secured, and more time has been spent in jails and chain-gangs than in all the time since the enforcement of the Blue Laws of New England. Our records show that seventy-six Sabbath-keepers have been under arrest for violating Sunday laws within the last two years. Thirty of these have served terms of various lengths in jail, chain-gangs, etc.21

Moon’s detailed listing of arrests and convictions demonstrated that the worst affected territories were Maryland and Tennessee. His 1897 report could well have sounded the death rattles for the periodical because it indicated that the use of the press, specifically The American Sentinel over a period of ten years, was ineffective. Nevertheless, the response of the RLA was:

In view of the vast increase of the arrests and prosecutions for Sunday labor, and the zeal manifested on the part of the religio-political party in demanding more rigid Sunday laws, the Executive Board of the Association decided to engage more earnestly in the work of educating the legislators of the land. Accordingly, with the co-operation of the State conferences and the State tract societies, this work was entered upon; and during the present winter The American Sentinel is going regularly each week to all members of Congress and thirty-eight State legislators - to the number of between five and six thousand of the leading men of this country.22

Apparently the fervor of the RLA members was not shared by all church leaders. At the 1899 General Conference Session the secretary of the RLA lamented that “there has been a disposition to regard this department of the work as of little importance.” He recommended the RLA be reorganized with increased finances and a full-time president to promote its cause.23

The report of the RLA at the 1901 General Conference Session only reinforced the lament of 1899. That is, even though the circulation of The American Sentinel may have had a telling effect, in view of the fact that arrests of Seventh-day Adventists were becoming rare, these circumstances led to the perception that the need for a periodical to advocate religious liberty was less urgent. Lack of enthusiasm for the periodical paralleled a drop in membership numbers for the RLA.24 The last issue of The American Sentinel was December 20, 1900. Alternative literature in the form of tracts and books were published to promote religious liberty.25

Sources

B[utler], G[eorge] I. “Sunday Persecution.” ARH, October 27, 1885.

B[utler], G[eorge] I. “The Sabbath Question Coming Before Arkansas Courts.” ARH, October 27, 1885.

Farnsworth, E[ugene] W. “Our Work and the Sunday Trials in Arkansas.” ARH, November 17, 1885.

Moon, Allen. “Religious Liberty Association - President’s Report.” General Conference Daily Bulletin, February 26, 1897.

Osborne, H[oward] E. “Biennial Report of the International Religious Liberty Association.” General Conference Daily Bulletin, April 7, 1901.

Reavis, D[rury] W. “Report From the Corresponding Secretary of the International Religious Liberty Association.” General Conference Daily Bulletin, February 21, 1899.

Russell, K[it] C. “Religious Liberty Work in Oklahoma.” ARH, March 5, 1908.

Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook. Battle Creek, Michigan: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1886.

The American Sentinel. General Conference Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research, Silver Spring, Maryland. Accessed October 4, 2021. https://www.documents.adventistarchives.org/Periodicals/Forms/AllItems.aspx?.

Notes

  1. G[eorge] I. B[utler}, “Sunday Persecution,” ARH, October 27, 1885, 665-666.

  2. Ibid.

  3. G[eorge] I. B[utler], “The Sabbath Question Coming before Arkansas Courts,” ARH, October 27, 1885, 665-666.

  4. E[ugene] W. Farnsworth, “Our Work and the Sunday Trials in Arkansas,” ARH, November 17, 1885, 712.

  5. “General Conference Proceedings,” Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook (Battle Creek, Michigan: Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Association, 1886), 28-32.

  6. Footer, The American Sentinel, January 1886, 8.

  7. Masthead, The American Sentinel, January 1886, 1.

  8. E.g., “The Christian Statesman and the American Sentinel,” The American Sentinel, February 1886, 16.

  9. Masthead, The American Sentinel, June 1887, 41.

  10. Masthead, The American Sentinel, April 12, 1894, 113.

  11. Masthead, The American Sentinel, April 16, 1896, 121.

  12. Footer, The American Sentinel, January 1889, 8.

  13. Masthead, The American Sentinel, January 30, 1889, 9.

  14. Masthead, The American Sentinel, January 2, 1890, 1.

  15. Masthead, The American Sentinel, December 20, 1900, 785.

  16. E[llet] J. W[aggoner], “Sunday and the Law of Nature,” The American Sentinel, May 1, 1889, 113-114.

  17. Geo[rge] B. Thompson, “South African Correspondence,” The American Sentinel, April 12, 1894, 116.

  18. R.D. Clark, “Sunday Legislation is Church and State Union,” The American Sentinel, May 1, 1889, 115-117.

  19. J. Muller, “Sunday laws for the Capital of Our Country,” The American Sentinel, April 10, 1894, 113.

  20. Footer, The American Sentinel, September 24, 1896, 304.

  21. Allen Moon, “Religious Liberty Association - President’s Report,” General Conference Daily Bulletin, February 26, 1897, 161-163.

  22. Ibid.

  23. D[rury] W. Reavis, “Report From the Corresponding Secretary of the International Religious Liberty Association, General Conference Daily Bulletin, February 21, 1899, 47-48.

  24. H[oward] E. Osborne, “Biennial Report of the International Religious Liberty Association,” General Conference Daily Bulletin, April 7, 1901, 110-111.

  25. E.g., K[it] C. Russell, “Religious Liberty Work in Oklahoma,” ARH, March 5, 1908, 21.

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Hook, Milton. "The American Sentinel." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. August 18, 2020. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=F8VD.

Hook, Milton. "The American Sentinel." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. August 18, 2020. Date of access April 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=F8VD.

Hook, Milton (2020, August 18). The American Sentinel. Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved April 18, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=F8VD.