The (New) Sanctuary Movement: A Brief Introduction for Adventist Activists

Adventists tend to be proud of their distinctive “sanctuary” doctrine and its theological significance. In short, the sanctuary is understood as where God’s presence dwells and relates with His creatures. While the sanctuary was vital to the development of the Sabbatarian Adventist movement and then Seventh-day Adventist denomination, Adventism has not been involved in the sanctuary or new sanctuary movements. In fact, I would guess that the majority of Adventists do not know what the sanctuary movement is all about. Therefore, I will briefly introduce it.

The Sanctuary Movement, which began in the early 1980s, sought to provide safe-haven and political asylum for Central American refugees escaping civil conflict. With tracing their roots back to biblical cities of refuge and subsequent medieval right of sanctuary, the Imagemovement opposed strict U.S. government immigration policies. 500 churches throughout the United States declared themselves “sanctuaries” for refugees, providing shelter, basic goods and legal services. Churches and synagogues from many persuasions participated, from Baptists to Quakers. As far as I have been able to determine, no Adventist churches participated. Douglas Morgan, in his 2001 book Adventism and the American Republic, said that in the 80s Adventists “maintained their strong tradition of religious liberty but were not particularly outspoken for legislation to strengthen and extend civil rights for women and minorities. Liberty did not make an issue of American support for foreign regimes accused of abusing human rights and did not regard the ‘sanctuary’ movement for harboring illegal aliens fleeing such regimes in Central America as a legitimate or theologically warranted means of defending liberty” (208). Morgan notes that “Liberty did not seem concerned about government infiltration of church groups involved in the ‘sanctuary’ movement as a violation of religious liberty” (254). While Adventism began as a movement based upon the sanctuary, they did not seem to be engaged in or in support of the separate Sanctuary Movement.

Thankfully, all opportunity is not lost. The incipient New Sanctuary Movement provides another chance for Adventists to engage in the creation of pockets of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth and show others what sanctuary means in its deepest sense. According to the movement’s Facebook page, they feel “called by [their] faith to respond actively and publicly to the suffering of [their] immigrant brothers and sisters residing in the United States.”

1 Corinthians 6:19 declares that the church, the body of Christ, is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of the church is to reveal God to an unjust world. While ideological differences will limit participation by Adventism as a whole in the New Sanctuary Movement, particular congregations seeking creative ways to enact their faith might consider making their churches a sanctuary for the oppressed. If you want to promote sanctuary as a safe place where your church can reveal God’s love, but worry your fellow congregants are not yet ready to provide something as controversial as political asylum, there are other options for revealing the body of Christ as a sanctuary for those in need. Your church could explore ways to provide sanctuary to victims of IPV (intimate partner violence) or how to make your church a safe haven for individuals without a home. Be creative and find how God wants you to share the sanctuary with those who need it most.

For more on the Sanctuary Movement:

Aleinikoff, T. Alexander, David A. Martin, and Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy, Fourth edition, 1998.

Bau, Ignatius. 1985. This Ground is Holy: Church Sanctuary and Central American Refugees. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Coutin, Susan. 1993. The Culture of Protest. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Golden, Renny and McConnell, Michael. 1986. Sanctuary: the New Underground Railroad. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Matas, David. 1989. The Sanctuary Trial. Manitoba, Canada: Legal Research Institute.

On the New Sanctuary Movement:


About landonschnabel

Hello, my name is Landon Schnabel. I'm a PhD candidate in sociology at Indiana University, Bloomington. You can find out more at
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