A. T. Jones: Defender of Religious Liberty

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A. T. Jones: Defender of Religious Liberty

The Pentecostal Preacher

Alonzo Trevier Jones is known as one of the most powerful preachers ever to grace an Adventist pulpit. His charismatic style made him probably the most influential figure in American Adventism during the 1890s.

The Sunday laws passed in the U. S. in the 1880s and 90s also called forth his best efforts to uphold religious liberty in a country that was on the brink of becoming a “Christian nation.” These were times where almost every Adventist expected end-time events to take place swiftly. Adventists couldn’t get enough of Jones’s fiery preaching in those days.

As the Sunday Law crisis faded away in the early twentieth century, Jones’s extreme tendencies became more noticeable, however. Eventually, he would choose to fight against the church he once loved. There are great gems of practical knowledge for our own lives in the story of A. T. Jones.

From Army Sergeant to Soldier of the Cross

There isn’t much known about A. T. Jones’s early life until he enlisted in the army in 1870, at 20 years old. In his five years of service, the most intense fighting he saw came in the conflict with the Native American Modoc people of northern California in 1872-73.

He began to seek God earnestly during his time as a sergeant and was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist church in 1874. After his discharge from the army in 1875, Jones joined the man who had baptized him, Isaac Van Horn, in evangelism in the state of Washington.

Jones’s preaching career got off to a comical start. “Using Daniel 2 as his text, ‘he told all he knew in twenty minutes and Elder Van Horn…. Had to take over and finish it.’”[1] It would be one of the only times this could be said of a sermon by Jones. But it is encouraging to know that every good preacher didn’t always start that way.

In 1884, Jones moved to California to begin helping with the editorial work of the Signs of the Times and a religious liberty journal called the Sabbath Sentinel. His writing skills soon began to establish him as an authority on history, especially Bible history, and religious liberty. It was here that Jones also became good friends with E. J. Waggoner. Their two names have now become forever associated together in Adventist history when it comes to the righteousness by faith movement beginning in 1888.

Along with writing heavily for the two papers, Jones also taught at Healdsburg College, the new Adventist school established in northern California in 1882. “Although Jones taught several classes, the one that excited him most was his course on prophecy and history. He began with Genesis 10 and correlated the Bible story with history and prophecy.”[2] His new findings in prophetic history would soon lead him to clash with the then church authority on such matters, Uriah Smith.

Trouble Brewing Before 1888

In 1885, A. T. Jones concluded that Uriah Smith was incorrect about a small portion of prophetic history in his book Daniel and the Revelation. Smith had interpreted one of the ten horns (the ten divisions of the Western Roman Empire) on the fourth beast of Daniel chapter seven as the Huns, but Jones believed he could prove that the Alemanni fit the prophecy’s description much better.

Jones wrote to Uriah asking him to provide good evidence for his belief that the Huns were the tenth division of Rome. He also requested that Smith review his findings on the Alemanni. “Unfortunately Jones received no answer to his first request, while Smith replied to the second one that he lacked time for the task.”[3]

Unwilling to wait around until the older man had a chance to respond thoroughly, Jones went ahead and published his findings in the Signs of the Times in 1886. This caused an uproar from Uriah Smith and other leading brethren in the church. Smith wrote to Jones, saying, “Thousands would instantly notice the change, and say: ‘Oh! now you find that you are mistaken on what you have considered one of your clearest points; and so if we give you time enough, you will probably come to acknowledge finally, that you are mistaken on everything.’”[4]

Jones countered this argument by stating what he believed would happen when Adventist teachings became noticed by prominent people in America:

“Then every point is going to be analyzed and challenged by the scholarship and dignity of judges, statemen, and the greatest in the land, as well as by the hypocrisy of religious bigots and the trickery of politicians. Then it will be that our views will have to be examined by men who are acquainted with all the avenues of history, and will have to pass the challenges that all these men can put upon the truth.”[5]

Why were both of these men making such a small point of doctrine into something so critical? The answer lies in religious legislation being enforced in the 1880s.

Sunday Law Crisis

Sunday laws in Arkansas led to the incarceration of 19 Adventists between the years of 1885 to 1887. The fact that not many other people had been harassed by the law led A. T. Jones to write, “There could be no clearer demonstration that the law was used only as a means to vent religious spite against a class of citizens guiltless of any crime, but only of professing a religion different from that of the majority.”[6]

Due to these instances, many Adventists claimed that the fulfillment of the prophecies in Revelation 13 concerning religious persecution was happening right before their eyes. This is the reason that church leaders were enraged when Jones started voicing an interpretation of the prophecies that, according to them, might cause division at a time when the denomination needed to be unified and ready for what was coming.

But in Jones’s mind, the church needed to be able to defend their doctrines down to the minutest detail when the government would begin to question them. Neither side was willing to back down, which only caused trouble for the church going into the 1888 General Conference.

Controversy in Minneapolis

The ultra-assertive personality of A. T. Jones was on full display during the ministerial institute held just before the famous 1888 General Conference Session in Minnesota. George Knight quotes Jones presenting at the meetings and Ellen White’s response: “‘Elder Smith,’ A. T. Jones blurted early in the Minneapolis meetings, ‘has told you he does not know anything about this matter. I do, and I don’t want you to blame me for what he does not know.’ Ellen White responded with ‘Not so sharp, brother Jones, not so sharp.’”[7]

The foul spirit developed by differences in opinions over history and Bible interpretation would die hard between the younger A. T. Jones and E. J. Waggoner and the older leaders of the church. Jones’s fiery personality did little to help the situation. Because of this attitude toward one another, the wonderful message of righteousness by faith, mainly preached by Waggoner but heavily supported by Jones, was largely rejected at the conference.

Jones would go on to help Ellen White and E. J. Waggoner carry the righteousness by faith message to schools, camp meetings, and church revivals. But this is not what he initially became well known for in the Adventist world. What made him a household name in Adventism was the one thing that everyone agreed with him on at the 1888 conference, religious liberty.

Battling the Image of the Beast

Jones was made the point man to lead the denomination’s efforts against the forces trying to make America officially a Christian nation. His first order of business was to refute the Sunday rest bill proposed by Senator H. W. Blair in December of 1888.

Jones appeared before the Senate Committee to argue that the bill was unconstitutional and went against religious freedom. Jones and other Adventists believed that laws such as these would lead to the church taking over the state, just like in medieval times, which led to the persecution of millions who disagreed with the Roman church. Jones believed that Christianizing America would lead to the forming of the image of the beast spoken of in Revelation 13.

“A. T. Jones, as the first Adventist to testify before a congressional body, was rapidly becoming a folk hero to the Adventist people, and a man to contend with for the religious and political forces crusading for a Christian America.”[8] Jones continued to fight aggressively against all Sunday legislation throughout the 1890s. His sermons carried an extra weight of end-time expectation because of his first-hand experience with American politics.

The Crucial Years of 1893-1895

1893 was another year for Adventists where the fulfillment of prophecy was on everyone’s mind. Despite Jones’s fervent battles against religious legislation, Congress passed the first national Sunday law in 1892. The church expected new rules to be enacted and enforced against them all over the land. On top of this, Ellen White wrote in 1892, “the time of test is just upon us, for the loud cry of the third angel has already begun in the revelation of the righteousness of Christ, the sin-pardoning Redeemer. This is the beginning of the light of the angel whose glory shall fill the whole earth.”[9]

Jones wasted no time using this quote to stir up revival, first in the Battle Creek church and college, and then at the 1893 General Conference Session. At the conference, he preached 24 sermons focused on the third angel’s message in Revelation 14. Jones first preached about the new Sunday law and the mark of the beast. And then concentrated on the righteousness by faith message that he said was still being rejected since 1888.

His passionate speeches both at and after the conference caused many in Battle Creek to sell their houses to do missionary work. This is one instance where Jones’s extreme tendencies were revealed. Ellen White sent a letter to those in Battle Creek cautioning against making reckless decisions without fully understanding what they were doing. “They were not to heed the rash counsel of their advisers, who did not understand all the implications of their admonitions.”[10]

Unfortunately, Jones would need to fall harder to learn his lesson. He went on at the end of 1893 and into 1894 to lead another revival in Battle Creek, this time by using the testimonies of a young woman named Anna Rice, who he claimed was another Adventist prophet. Jones led many people to believe that this woman was inspired by God, just like Ellen White.

It would take yet another letter coming from clear across the world in Australia from the true prophet to put Jones in his place again. She revealed to him and everyone else that Anna Rice’s messages did not come from God. “She counseled him to weed out of his public utterances everything that was extreme and extravagant, because he had all too many followers who desired strange and wonderful new light and were ‘always ready to go off on some tangent.’”[11] Instead of drawing closer to Jesus, however, Jones continued down an extreme path.

1895 found him once again at odds with Ellen White, this time concerning church and state. Jones spoke out strongly against accepting any government aid when it came to purchasing things like land or buildings. At the same time, other leaders and Ellen saw no issue with receiving assistance in certain circumstances. Because of White’s counsel, the church took the position that it was not a denial of their faith to accept help from states or countries that wanted to give it.

This was just another straw that would eventually break the camel’s back when it came to Jones’s relationship with the church. In the years to come, Jones would choose to war against the denomination he had previously worked so hard for.

Final Controversies

A. T. Jones went on after 1895 to do positive things in the church, such as serving as the Review and Herald editor in 1897, serving as president of the California Conference in 1901, and writing multiple history books students utilized in Adventist schools. But his extreme tendencies could never really be reined in.

His departure from the church began with his views on church organization. This was the most significant topic in Adventism at the turn of the twentieth century. Jones, holding an extreme view on the Holy Spirit, advocated that there should be no governing body in the church. Everyone should simply be led by the Spirit working in them. At best, Jones saw organization going only as far as each individual congregation wanted to carry it.

When the church adopted its new structure at the beginning of the 1900s, with A. G. Daniells serving as its president, Jones, along with Dr. Kellogg and E. J. Waggoner, were heavily against the move. Jones and Waggoner thought that the Adventist church was headed in the same direction as the Roman Catholic Papacy because they continued to give men presidential positions (even though Jones had served for multiple years as the California Conference president).

Jones would join with Kellogg in reopening the college at Battle Creek after it had been moved to Berrien Springs, Michigan. Ellen White warned him that this was a dangerous move, saying, “The Lord plainly called the school out of Battle Creek, and it is not wise to build up a school there, and call people back again.”[12]

The final destruction of Jones’s influence in the church came in 1906. He began, along with Kellogg, to insinuate that not all of Ellen White’s testimonies were inspired by God and that she was being manipulated by her son and the General Conference leaders. Jones spread around a tract entitled Some History, Some Experience, and Some Facts, where he had taken quotes from White entirely out of context.

Ellen had warned the church leaders not to make any significant move against the defectors in Battle Creek until “Dr. Kellogg and his associates had taken a decided position to repudiate the Testimonies.”[13] Now that A. T. Jones had made that move, the General Conference put out their own pamphlet, clearly showing how Jones had taken sentences out of context to manipulate his readers.

Jones didn’t want to go down without a fight and continued to quarrel with the church as he was on his way out of it. Ellen White didn’t give his arguments much attention. She told him flat out, “You have apostatized, and it becomes necessary to warn our people not to be influenced by your representations.”[14]

After being disfellowshipped from the church, Jones continued to speak bitter words against it. At the same time, he claimed that he had not given up Seventh-day Adventist beliefs until the day he died in 1923. Jones believed that he was individually carrying out the true message in his own life. He created another religious liberty magazine and stayed active in writing and editing it until his death. His legacy is a mixed one. Some choose to follow the good in his life and live out the principles of righteousness by faith he preached so powerfully, while others, unfortunately, follow his spirit of separation and individualism.

Positive Lessons from the Life of A. T. Jones

Expert Revivalist

Jones was easily one of the most charismatic figures in Adventist history. When he preached something, he preached it with all of his heart. His energy helped bring the denomination’s focus back to Christ after the 1888 General Conference.

Although some of his revival efforts were tinged with extremism, there were great positives from his preaching. Ellen White, commenting on his preaching during the revival efforts of 1889, said,

“Elder Jones spoke in the forenoon with great power. It was meat in due season…. Brother Jones is giving precious instruction. All are waking up to appreciate it. Brother Kilgore’s [a Butler-Smith supporter at Minneapolis] face fairly shines. He talks and cries and praises God. I believe he is really converted…. Elder Jones spoke with great freedom upon the righteousness of Christ. The people drink in this heaven-sent message as the earth drinks in the rain.”[15]

At this time in history, it was hard to find a better man to push forward the essential message of Christ’s righteousness to the church. Thank God that He found a willing and able heart in A. T. Jones to make this message prominent at a time when the church was desperately in need of it.

Mistakes We Can Learn From

Too Extreme

Once Jones had made up his mind about an important subject, it was hard for him not to carry the idea too far. While good to a point, his religious liberty ideas eventually led many to become uncomfortable with the concepts he was advocating.

At the 1893 General Conference, he tried to get the delegates to accept his view that no one should ever obey a Sunday law by ceasing their work on that day. Instead, they should force the hand of the authorities by being intentionally defiant. He is quoted as saying, “Therefore don’t you see, that as heavier penalties are laid on without reaching whatever the government is after, it will simply have to reach the heaviest penalty at last, and that is death.”[16]

Thankfully his radical strategy was never actually carried out. Ellen White provided statements on the subject that encouraged a much more moderate approach: “Never… encourage the spirit of defiance and resistance.” “Our policy is, do not make prominent the objectionable features of our faith…” “If work is done on Sunday, let our brethren make that day an occasion to do genuine missionary work.”[17]

Another case in point is Jones’s view on the inspiration of Ellen White. While the prophet herself openly stated that she was not infallible and shouldn’t be treated as such, A. T. Jones refused to accept that. In his mind, either she was inerrant in everything she had ever written, or she could not be trusted at all as a prophet.

In his biography on Jones, George Knight quotes a statement from him and then shows us where it led Jones: “‘I thought,’ he stated in 1906, ‘that we must not recognize that there were mistakes in the matter that was written and sent out from the source of the Testimonies: and I acted strictly according to that view.’ When faced with the fact that inspiration did not guarantee inerrant information in every detail, his faith in Ellen White shattered.’”[18]

As we have previously seen, this is what led Jones out of the church. We need to cultivate humility in our Christian walk. We have to be willing to accept the fact that there may be a more temperate route to take on touchy issues that we may hold to be essential pillars of the faith. May the Lord help us to heed the warning signs in A. T. Jones’s life and accept correction when heading down the path of extremism.

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[1] George Knight, A. T. Jones: Point Man on Adventism’s Charismatic Frontier, p. 18.

[2] Ibid, p. 23-24.

[3] George Knight, Angry Saints, p. 17.

[4] Uriah Smith to A. T. Jones, Nov. 8, 1886.

[5] A. T. Jones to Uriah Smith, Dec. 3, 1886.

[6] George Knight, Angry Saints, p. 14.

[7] George Knight, A. T. Jones: Point Man on Adventism’s Charismatic Frontier, p. 38.

[8] Ibid, p. 52.

[9] Ellen White, Review and Herald, Nov. 22, 1892.

[10] George Knight, A. T. Jones: Point Man on Adventism’s Charismatic Frontier, p. 127.

[11] Ibid, p. 135.

[12] Ellen White to A. T. Jones, Aug. 2, 1903.

[13] George Knight, A. T. Jones: Point Man on Adventism’s Charismatic Frontier, p. 252.

[14] Ellen White to A. T. Jones, Oct. 26, 1906.

[15] George Knight, A. T. Jones: Point Man on Adventism’s Charismatic Frontier, p. 52-53.

[16] Ibid, p. 91.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, p. 262.

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About the author

Tony Dennis

Tony Dennis is from Sacramento, California, and spent most of his life as an atheist. He was converted to Seventh-day Adventism when he was 21 years old by reading the book Steps to Christ. He has served as a teacher of Daniel, Revelation, and Sanctuary classes at the evangelism school Souls West. His passions are education and history.