Agenda for GC '15: Leadership on the Date Line Sabbath

On April 19, I attended the Seventh-day Sabbath Church in Colton, CA, with friends. The church is conservative Adventist in theology, but not a conference church. The speaker was David Vaipulu, an Adventist from Tonga who preaches around the world. Pastor Vaipulu shared that most Tongan Adventists keep Sabbath on Sunday, along with the other Christians, but that he leads a group of about 30 members who worship on Saturday, despite Tongan Mission and South Pacific Division directions to meet on Sunday. A growing number, currently about 300 members in various churches, have joined this “Saturday is the Sabbath” movement. They contend, I think correctly, that a Date Line change—when a nation moves from one date zone to the other—does not change the weekly cycle or change the days of the week. Hence, when nations like Tonga switch from the American date zone to the Far East date zone, Tongan Adventists should keep Saturday as reckoned in the new date zone, not Sunday. God did not specify an International Date Line, so we must respect government decisions regarding where the Date Line will run. Sadly, the Adventist disagreement about what day to keep is increasingly being reported in secular media, and is an embarrassment to our church. When will the General Conference act?

Why is there an International Date Line?

Suppose you fly around the world from west to east, setting your clock forward one hour each time you enter a new time zone. When you complete a circuit of the world, you will have set your clock forward 24 times, and your calendar will be a day later than the date everyone else is using. This fact featured prominently in Jules Verne's novel, “Around the World in Eighty Days,” in which Phileas Fogg wagered that he could circle the globe in a hot air balloon in 80 days. He thought he had lost his bet when he arrived back in London on, by his count, the 81st day. Then he realized that for everyone else it was the 80th day, so he had actually won.

To solve this problem of potentially conflicting dates, the world has drawn a line, called the International Date Line. If you cross the line traveling east, you subtract a day from your calendar, whereas if you cross the line traveling west, you add a day. This means that a traveler flying from Los Angeles to Tokyo crosses into tomorrow; on his return flight to America, he travels back to yesterday.

Where is the International Date Line?

Cartographers divide the globe longitudinally with lines called meridians that run from the North to the South pole. The principal meridians each represent one degree of the earth's 360 degree circle. The Prime, or zero, Meridian was established in 1851, and runs through the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England. At the International Meridian Conference of 1884, it was decided that the the International Date Line should run along the 180th Meridian, because (1) it is on the exact opposite side of the globe from the Prime Meridian, and (2) it runs through the Pacific Ocean and—except for the eastern tip of Siberia—bisects no continents or large land masses.

Why does the “International” Date Line Move Around So Often?

The International Date Line has been moved many times since 1884. Its impermanence is because it is not, in fact, international. It is not fixed by any multilateral treaty or convention. Any nation can choose which side of the Date Line it wants to be on, and its decision will depend largely on its commercial interests. To understand this issue, imagine that the Date Line had been placed down the middle of North America. Suppose you are a Floridian and you telephone a California office on Friday—you are out of luck, because it's already Saturday there and their office is closed. Now suppose the California office returns your call on Monday only to learn that it's Sunday in Florida and your office is closed. The date line means that people trying to do business across it have only four overlapping business days, not five. If a Pacific island nation is doing business primarily with the United States, Canada, and Central and South America, it will want to be in the American date zone; but if it is trading mostly with Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, China, Taiwan, and Japan, it will want to be in the Far East date zone.

As a result of these unilateral sovereign decisions, the line now zigs and zags down through the Pacific. As it descends from the North Pole, it zigs to the east and bisects the Bearing Straight, so that all of Siberia will be west of the line, then zags far to the west, so that all of the Aleutian Islands—part of Alaska and hence the United States—will be east of the line and within the American date zone. Roughly at the equator, the line jogs a long way east, to about the 150th Meridian, to encompass all of the Kiribati Islands, an adjustment made by the Kiribatis in 1995 partially in order to be the first nation to see in the new millennium. South of the Kiribati Islands, the line jogs back to the west, but not all the way to the 180th Meridian so as to keep a number of islands within the Far East date zone. Then it continues its descent to the south, not rejoining the 180th Meridian until it is south of New Zealand.

Sabbath-Keeping Oddities Caused by the International Date Line

In 1891, Adventist missionaries from the ship Pitcairn first visited Tongatapu, the main island in the Kingdom of Tonga, which is composed of 176 Polynesian Islands. Four years later, the Pitcairn brought Edward and Ida Hilliard to the Island, where Mrs. Hilliard taught school and gave Bible studies. In 1896, the Hilliards were joined on Tongatapu by Edwin and Florence Butz, and two Pitcairn Islanders, Sarah and Maria Young (descendants of Bounty mutineer, midshipman Edward “Ned” Young). In 1897, they were joined by Dr. Merritt and Eleanor Kellogg. This pioneering work on Tonga proceeded slowly; by 1905 only 12 Europeans and two native Tongans had been baptized. Difficulties arose from lifestyle issues such as kava-drinking and pork-eating, which are socially important to the Polynesians.

The islands of Tonga lie east of the 180th Meridian, in the American date zone. Sunday-keeping Christian missionaries had previously come from Australia and New Zealand, and had taught their converts to observe the Sunday observed in those countries, which, under the new Date Line regime in Tonga, was Saturday. When the first Adventist missionaries arrived from America, they taught their converts to worship on Saturday as reckoned both in America and also pursuant to the then new Date Line regime. The result of this accident of history was that all Tongan Christians worshiped on the same day, making it difficult for Adventists to establish a separate identity.

But Tonga trades mostly with Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia, all of which lie west of the 180th Meridian, and Tonga decided that it too wanted to be in the Far East date zone. But when Tonga changed date zones, the Tongan Adventists did not; they continued to attend church on the same day, even though that day was now officially Sunday. The Sunday-keeping Christians were now worshiping on the officially correct Sunday, but still on the same day as the Adventists. The Tongan Adventists argued that since Tonga is east of the 180th Meridian, they should worship on the Sabbath as reckoned by the American date zone, regardless of Tonga's official Date Line change. For several decades, the Tongan situation was unique, but recent changes to the date line have involved Sabbath-keepers on other islands.

The Republic of Kiribati (a transliteration of “Gilbert”) consists of the Gilbert Islands, the Line Islands, and the Phoenix Islands. The Gilbert Islands are west of the 180th Meridian, the Phoenix Islands lie east of the 180th Meridian, and the Line Islands are scattered along a line running from northwest to southeast, from about the 160th to the 150th meridian—roughly on the same longitude as the Hawaiian Islands. Kiribati's 1995 decision to move all of the islands of Kiribati into the Far East date zone created a very large, hammer-shaped eastward protrusion in the International Date Line.

Most of the population of Kiribati is concentrated in the Gilbert Islands, which are west of the 180th Meridian, and hence were unaffected by the IDL change. Kanton, which at last report had only 24 residents, is the only habitable island in the Phoenix Islands. The Line Island group, however, has a population of about 9,000, over 5,000 of whom live on Christmas Island (or Kiritimati, as Christmas is transliterated into Gilbertese). There are two Seventh-day Adventist churches on Christmas Island. When the Line Islands were moved into the Far East date zone in 1995, the Adventists elected to keep worshiping on the same day, even though it was now Sunday.

In June, 2011, Samoa, sometimes called Western Samoa, which had been on the American side of the Date Line, decided to switch to the Asian side, because it wanted longer trading hours with the Far East. To effectuate the re-alignment, Samoa decreed that it would skip December 30, 2011, and declare it December 31. (American Samoa—composed of the islands of Pago Pago and Manu'a—although fewer than 50 miles east of Samoa, has chosen to remain in the American date zone.) Samoa has now switched over the Date Line twice; in 1892, American businessmen persuaded Samoa to shift to the American side to facilitate business with the West Coast, a shift that took place on the fourth of July, so Samoans could celebrate American Independence Day twice. But today, Samoa does much more business with New Zealand, Australia, and Pacific Rim countries such as Indonesia and China. As did the Adventists in Tonga and on Christmas Island, the Adventists of Samoa have elected to continue to worship on the same day they always have, although that day is now Sunday.

My understanding is that Adventists on Wallis and Futuna, two Polynesian islands near Samoa governed by France, are also keeping Sabbath on what is Sunday under their official Date Line regime.

How Should Sabbath-Keepers Respond to Changes in the IDL?

I have sympathy for the Sabbath-Keepers near the IDL who've been affected by their countries' change of date zone to accommodate trading and commercial interests. There is something about changing the date for such a reason that seems inconsistent with the solemnity of the Sabbath. Nevertheless, I've concluded that Sabbath-Keepers should worship on the day designated as Saturday on the calendars of the country in which they live.

First, there is nothing sacred or even astronomically significant about the 180th Meridian; it is an arbitrary line on the map. God, who created the world round (Isa. 40:22) knew that there would have to be a Date Line, but He didn't supply one. Those who chose the 180th Meridian were not acting in His name or under His Authority, and hence their decision is not sacred or untouchable; it does not have the force of divine law. The governments of islands near the 180th Meridian are within their rights to choose a date zone for commercial reasons, or so as to have all the islands within their domain in one date zone.

Second, we cannot say that it is wrong for Sabbath-keepers in Samoa or Tonga to keep the day officially designated as Saturday in those territories, because it is the same day kept by Sabbath-Keepers in Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, China, the Philippines, etc. If it were wrong for Tongans and Samoans to keep that day, it would be wrong for Fijians and New Zealanders to keep that day, and it certainly is not. And should the Date Line in those islands be moved yet again, it would not be wrong for Tongans and Samoans to keep the same day kept by Sabbath-Keepers in American Samoa, Tahiti, Hawaii, Pitcairn Island, and the Aleutian Islands. If it is wrong for Tongans and Samoans to keep this day, then it is wrong for Hawaiians and Alaskans to keep it, and it certainly is not.

In short, this simply is not a matter of right and wrong. This is a question of having an intelligible and consistent witness. Adventists should be worshiping on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, as per the official calendar in the country where they live. As it stands now, we do not have a consistent witness. The sabbath-Keepers in Tonga and Samoa believe themselves to be making a principled stand for Sabbath-sacredness, but they are blurring the distinction between themselves and Sunday-Church Christians by going to church on the same day as them. There has been internal ridicule on Adventists blogs, with comments like:

“Can I flee to Samoa to avoid persecution when the worldwide Sunday law happens and at the same time keep my Sabbath with a clear conscience?”

“I wonder indeed if we can move to Samoa when the Sunday Laws come – and keep Sabbath on Sunday?”

The criticism is not all internal; some non-Adventists believe Tongan Adventists are worshiping on Sunday to avoid conflict with Tonga's Blue Laws, which are strong and vigorously enforced. Police actually stop drivers and ask why are they driving on Sunday. Allen Sonter, an Adventist missionary from Australia, stated:

I recall that on one occasion in Tonga I was speaking with a delegation from the British government, and one senior officer said, 'The Adventist church in Tonga has been very astute in getting around the strong Sunday legislation in Tonga by arguing that in Tonga the seventh day of the week is really Sunday.' So from the point of view of an educated outsider looking at the situation in Tonga, it appeared that the Adventist solution to the moving date-line problem did not indicate loyalty to God, but rather the opposite - a convenient compromise, and a rather opportunistic one at that! (1)

Some liberals argue that the fact that the Date Line can be moved means that keeping the Sabbath is not important. But this issue effects fewer than 1 in 10,000 people; it is a non-issue for the overwhelming majority of the human race. It is as though God knew there would need to be a place for an International Date Line that would effect few people, and during the Flood arranged for the largely empty Pacific Ocean to be formed. Those who argue that the IDL means that Sabbath-keeping is arbitrary or irrelevant are the same ones who say that because 1 person in 10,000 is inter-sexed—having both male and female sexual characteristics—therefore Scripture's guidance regarding sexual morality and sex role distinctions is arbitrary and irrelevant. These are not bona fide arguments, but an attempt to nullify God's clear commands. The Sabbath is not in doubt; it has never been lost. There is no disagreement about which day is the Sabbath, as is indicated by the fact that Adventists and observant Jews keep the same day.

What Should the General Conference Do?

The world church has had little to say; we seem befuddled by this not-so-complex issue, and happy to leave it in the hands of the South Pacific Division, or even the local churches. This must change. This has become a very divisive and rancorous issue, with some islanders keeping Saturday and some Sunday. According to a 2013 news story, Sunday-keeping Samoan Adventists threatened to go to court to prevent Saturday-keeping Samoan Adventists from using church facilities. There have been attempts to involve tribal councils in the dispute. Strong leadership at the world church level is of utmost importance.

The 2015 General Conference session at San Antonio should urge the effected churches to worship on Saturday as per the calendar in their countries. The world church needs to make clear that a country's choice of a date zone is not an attempt to enforce Sunday-worship, or to force the conscience of Sabbath-keepers. It is merely a choice, by a nation that could easily be on either side of the Date Line, to be on the side that is most sensible, given its needs. The world church needs to make clear that Adventists who worship on Sunday are muting their message and confusing their witness. Sunday-keeping by Adventists needs to stop, it needs to stop now, and the world church needs to say so in the clearest possible terms.

1. Edwin Puni, “Is Move by the SDA Church in Samoa a Convenient Compromise?” independent news, Jan. 19, 2012.

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