When I was informed by family members that Elder John V. Stevens had passed away on Friday evening, November 30, 2015, I sat down, took in a deep breath, and reflected on the many years I had listened to him preach and teach, the many times he had helped and trained me to mediate workplace discrimination issues involving the seventh-day Sabbath, and the time he had made a special trip to attend my ordination to the gospel ministry at Lake Tahoe, Nevada, in 1992.
John was a father-like mentor to me. He will live on in my memory as one of the most competent and powerful spokesmen for religious freedom and human rights I have ever known. In my estimation, only two other individuals stand out so distinctly in the annals of religious freedom advocacy in the Seventh-day Adventist Church—Alonzo T. Jones, the first editor of a religious liberty journal, and Bert Beach, who pioneered interchurch dialogue.
John Stevens was a man of unwavering conviction, and his philosophical rationale was pioneering in nature and bold for his era, particularly within Adventist Church settings and Evangelical circles, where his messages were extremely challenging, and often counterintuitive and controversial. For example, John held strongly to what he believed was biblical truth. The Bible and Bible prophecy shaped and guided his worldview, but he did not use his well-founded beliefs in a way that forced others, through law, to believe those same truths. In other words, he could discuss the pros and cons of abortion; he could personally oppose honoring Sunday as the day of Christian worship because of its pagan origins; and he could oppose same-sex unions; and yet at the same time oppose all constitutional amendments that sought to make religion, or any aspect of it, the law of the land. Freedom of choice and freedom of conscience was the most sacred of rights that both God and the Constitution bestowed to humanity, and it was not humanity’s or government’s jurisdiction to impose both acts of worship and religious beliefs on society.
To John, this meant essentially that in order for the free exercise of religion to thrive, it was best for both church and state to know and respect their boundaries. The constitutional separation of church and state must be championed and preserved at all times, or the free exercise of religion as we know it today would become compromised. This is because, in terms of understanding America’s natural bent toward Puritan views of “exceptionalism,” religious powers—during an extreme time of world unrest—would eventually find success in dictating its religious demands to the state and thus all of its citizens. This was never the constitutional Founders’ intent, and yet so many Evangelical Christians believe that it was. For Christians to demand an end to the constitutional separation of church and state—as many have during the past 45 years—was a prophetic sign for John and others of us that the end of America’s beloved constitutional system is close at hand, and that Christ is soon to come. It deeply pained John to see so many Evangelical Christians buy into a historical revisionism that emphasized an actual intent to have a Christian nation government.
In regard to those concerned that irreligion and irreligious forces would pose a much greater threat through government sanction, as with the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage, John frequently responded by saying that the Bible indicated that in the last days religious powers would claim the ascendancy over the state as both a premeditated endeavor on their part and not just a reaction to secularism run amok, and that this would merely fuel them further in achieving their ultimate utopian aim of establishing a Christian nation by law, even in the midst of a nation of vast religious pluralism.
But his views went even deeper. John believed that Vatican II’s inclusion of religious freedom for the first time in Catholic Church history—in the document written and pioneered by Jesuit priest and theologian John Courtney Murray known as Dignitatis Humanae—paved the way for a Catholic definition of religious freedom that conservative Protestant Evangelicals in the United States found convincing, and led the way forward in revising U.S. constitutional history. Dignitatis Humanae championed the free exercise of religion but rejected, through purposeful silence, the Western constitutional doctrine of the separation of church and state found in Europe and more specifically in the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. John believed that this was the basis for much of the historical revisionism that emerged from the pens and voices of Francis Schaeffer, Christian dominionist R. J. Rushdoony, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and David Barton in the 1970s until now.
While serving as the director of the public affairs and religious liberty department of the Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (1974-1993), John published a quarterly newsletter called Undercurrent, in which he would compile a list of key news pieces and quotes that warned against this kind of historical revisionism. It was an extremely controversial publication, but it found its way into church bulletins all across a five-state region in the Pacific Southwest.
John would transfer this same zeal for religious freedom to the international arena of several Communist countries. His church-state diplomatic efforts were focused, in his words, “in the interest of fostering greater liberties for all religious persuasions.” Early in his pastoral ministry years he served as Arizona’s senate chaplain, and as president of the Arizona Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, where the number of new believers and new churches established, nearly doubled.
His other professional experiences included helping to found the Council on Religious Freedom (CRF) and to vigorously oppose, on First Amendment grounds, President Ronald Reagan’s appointment of the first permanent ambassador to the Vatican’s Holy See in 1984.
There are many other accomplishments, but John’s signature achievement was in introducing, shepherding, and helping to pass California Assembly Bill 2744 (AB 2744) in 1974. Claude Morgan and John Stevens stood on either side of Governor Jerry Brown as the governor signed this public employee’s collective bargaining bill that contained a conscience amendment provision for religious objectors.
Rest in peace, John. Job well done, thou good and faithful servant of Christ. Jesus is coming soon!
Author: Gregory W. Hamilton
Gregory W. Hamilton is President of the Northwest Religious Liberty Association (NRLA). Established in 1906, the Northwest Religious Liberty Association is a non-partisan government relations and legal mediation services program that champions religious freedom and human rights for all people and institutions of faith in the legislative, civic, academic, interfaith and corporate arenas in the states of Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. Mr. Hamilton wrote the seminal work, "Sandra Day O'Connor's Judicial Philosophy on the Role of Religion in Public Life," published in 1998 by Baylor University. From time to time, Greg publishes Liberty Express, a journal dedicated to special printed issues of interest on America's constitutional founding, church history and its developmental impact on today's church-state debates, and current constitutional and foreign policy trends. He is available to speak in North America and internationally about these subjects and related issues. To become familiar with the Northwest Religious Liberty Association, please visit www.nrla.com.