Some years ago, I attended the Seventh-day Sabbath Church in Colton, CA, with friends. The church is Adventist in theology, but it is not a conference church. The speaker was David Vaipulu, an Adventist from Tonga who preaches around the world. Pastor Vaipulu stated that most Tongan Adventists keep Sabbath on Sunday, but that he leads a group of about 30 who worship on Saturday, despite a directive from the Tongan Mission and the South Pacific Division to meet on Sunday.
About 300 members in various churches have joined this “Saturday is the Sabbath” movement. They correctly argue that a Date Line change—when a nation moves from one date zone to the other—does not change the days of the week such that the Sabbath should be observed on Sunday. Hence, when nations like Samoa switch from the American date zone to the Far East date zone, Samoan 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 governmental decisions regarding where the Date Line will run. Sadly, the Sabbath controversy among Adventists in the Pacific is increasingly being reported in secular media. It is an embarrassment to our church. When will the General Conference act?
Why is there an International Date Line?
Suppose you fly east around the world, 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 hours, 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 when he arrived back in London on, by his count, the 81st day, but soon realized that for everyone else it was the 80th day, and he had won his wager.
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 west, you add a day to your calendar, whereas if you cross the line traveling east, you subtract 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 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 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. Each and every Pacific island nation in the vicinity of the IDL can choose its own date zone, 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. Every weekend is a holiday weekend, and you cannot get as much business done.
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.
Because 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 (Gilbert) 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 Gilberts, 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.
A Survey of the First-day Adventists of the Pacific
Sunday-keeping Christian missionaries came from Australia and New Zealand, and effectively established Tonga as being in the far east date zone. They taught their converts to observe the Sunday observed in Australia and New Zealand. The islands of Tonga lie east of the 180th Meridian, in the American date zone as reckoned under the 1884 convention, but the Tongans wanted to stay in the Far East date zone. Tonga trades mostly with Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia, all of which lie west of the 180th Meridian in the Far East date zone. So Tonga never changed to the American date zone.
In 1895, the Adventist mission ship Pitcairn brought Edward and Ida Hilliard to the main island of Tonga, where Mrs. Hilliard taught school and gave Bible studies. The Hilliards were later joined on Tongatapu by Edwin and Florence Butz, and two Pitcairn Islanders, Sarah and Maria Young (descendants of Bounty mutineer Ned Young). In 1897, they were joined by Dr. Merritt and Eleanor Kellogg. This pioneering work on Tonga proceeded very 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.
These first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries, from America and the Eastern Pacific, ignored the local calendar and continued to observe the American Sabbath. They taught their converts to worship on Saturday as reckoned in America and under the 1884 Date Line convention, despite the fact that it was Sunday as reckoned by everyone else in Tonga. Tongan Adventists have been worshiping on the local Sunday for about 120 years, ever since the beginning of Adventism in Tonga.
But it was not the proper place of the Adventist missionaries to Tonga to decide for the Tongans what date zone they should opt for. That is properly a governmental decision outside the purview of any religious denomination.
For a century, the Tongan situation was unique, but recent date zone changes have involved Adventists on other islands. The initial confusion in Tonga has led to even greater confusion in those islands that have recently changed their date zone.
b. The Gilbert 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 these 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 24 residents, is the only inhabited 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 remain in the American date zone, even though it meant that they were now keeping Sunday as reckoned under the local calendar.
c. Western Samoa
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.)
Western 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.
Like the Adventists on Christmas Island, the Adventists of Samoa have effectively stayed in the American date Zone, even though it means their worship day is now Sunday as per the local calendar.
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.
Reasons the First-day Adventists Give for Keeping Sunday
What justification do these Adventists give for ignoring their governments’ choice of date zone? They argue that the 4th Commandment essentially tells us to keep a cycle of sevens, regardless what day the Sabbath falls on.
“Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God. In it thou shalt not do any work.”
When a nation moves from the American date zone to the Far East date zone, however, there are only six days from Saturday until the next Saturday. Insisting on a seven-day cycle causes you to end up keeping Sabbath on the local-calendar Sunday. This is what the Adventists on Christmas Island, Western Samoa, and Wallis and Futuna did. When their governments moved to the Far East date zone, they continued to count off seven, which meant that they were now keeping Sabbath on Sunday.
It is worth noting that the Tongan situation was not caused by a sovereign change in a date zone. American Adventist missionaries directed their converts to worship on the American Sabbath even though that was (and still is) Sunday as reckoned by the Tongans. Thus, by far the longest running instance of Adventists keeping Sunday arose not from a movement of the IDL, but from arrogant American missionaries refusing to recognize the local calendar that everyone else in Tonga observed.
Second, if an American goes to church on his Sabbath, then, in the middle of the week travels to Japan, and counts seven days from Sabbath to Sabbath, he’ll be worshiping on what is the local Friday, and ignoring the Sabbath-keeping Adventist churches of Japan. Is that a reasonable way to keep the Sabbath? Would it not be better to yield to the local calendar and worship with other Sabbath-keeping Seventh-day Adventists in Japan?
Third, if our American traveler continues on around the world in a westerly direction, counting off and observing each seven-day cycle and setting his watch back an hour for each time zone, when he arrives home again, he’ll be worshipping on Friday in America! And, counting off sevens and keeping a “seventh-day Sabbath,” he’ll be stuck in Friday worship forever (unless and until he goes around the world heading east). Perhaps for convenience he should join a mosque.
The “count off seven” rule does not work in any circumstance involving world travel, which is why the International Date Line exists. There is simply no substitute for observing local times and dates.
The idea that we can observe a “seventh-day Sabbath” without reference to the calendar is specious. We can know which is “the seventh day” only by reference to the named and numbered days of the week. Only if we know that Sunday is the first day of the week can we know that Saturday is the seventh day. Because Sunday is the first day of the week, it cannot be—according to the most basic rule of logic, the principle of non-contradiction—the seventh day. Sunday cannot be the Sabbath.
That Saturday is the Sabbath is not in doubt; the Sabbath is observed on Saturday everywhere in the world. There is no disagreement about which day is the Sabbath, as is indicated by the fact that Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Baptists, and observant Jews all keep the same day, Saturday. Whichever side of the IDL you happen to be on, you observe the Sabbath on Saturday, as reckoned by the local calendar.
Again, the notion that we can observe a “seventh-day Sabbath” based upon 7-day cycles disconnected from the named and numbered days of the week and the local calendar, and hence legitimately keep Sabbath on a day other than Saturday, is simply untenable. It is an error.
For a refutation of other arguments used by the First-day Adventists of the Pacific Islands, I strongly recommend the book, Sabbath, the Drama of Our Age by Robert Vincent and John Wallace, which is available as a Kindle e-book download for 99 cents.
How Should Seventh-day Adventists Respond to First-day Adventists?
Seventh-day Adventists must worship on Saturday as per the date zone in which their governments have placed them. There is simply no other solution that will not lead to endless confusion, rancor, bitterness and a compromised witness for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
First, there is nothing sacred or even significant about the 180th Meridian. It is an arbitrary line on the map. God, who created a round world (Isa. 40:22) knew that there would need to be a Date Line, but He did not 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, nor has it the force of divine law. The governments of island nations near the 180th Meridian are within their rights to choose a date zone that best furthers their commercial, cultural, and national interests.
If this were a case of an alteration of the calendar, or an attempt to re-number or re-name the days of the week, it might be different. If it were an attempt to substitute a ten-day cycle or a five-day cycle for the Scriptural cycle of seven-days—as was seen after atheistic revolutions in France and later Russia—then Adventists would be within their rights to ignore it. But a change in the date zone is none of these things. A change in the date zone is a legitimate exercise of governmental authority.
Second, it is not 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.
Should Kiribati and Samoa again choose the American date zone, it could not be wrong for them to keep the same day kept by Sabbath-Keepers in American Samoa, Tahiti, Hawaii, Pitcairn Island, the Aleutian Islands, and the United States. If it is wrong for Samoans and Gilbertese to keep this day, then it is wrong for Hawaiians and Alaskans to keep it—and we know it is not.
In other words, for those islanders near the International date line, it would be morally, ethically and spiritually correct to worship on the same day as Hawaiian Adventists OR on the same day as Kiwi Adventists. The choice of a date zone is not a moral issue. The choice of a date zone is a political issue to be settled by national governments
The real issue is the need for an intelligible and consistent witness. Seventh-day Adventists should be worshiping on Saturday, the seventh day of the week as per the calendar in the nation where they live. As it stands now, Adventists do not have a consistent witness. This is not a local issue, but an issue that bears on the biblical integrity of the entire Seventh-day Adventist world church. It is an issue that should be taken up in General Conference session.
The islander Adventists who worship on Sunday believe themselves to be making a principled stand, but in fact they are blurring the distinction between themselves and Sunday-keeping Christians by going to church on Sunday. They are denying the Adventist Church a righteous witness for Saturday sacredness as opposed to Sunday sacredness. This is just the opposite of what we should be doing. We need to “come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins.” Worshiping with the Sunday-keepers on Sunday is heading straight back into Babylon.
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 comprehensive and strictly enforced. Police stop drivers and ask why they are 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!” (Edwin Puni, “Is Move by the SDA Church in Samoa a Convenient Compromise?” Scoop.world independent news, Jan. 19, 2012)
Some liberals argue that the fact that the Date Line can be moved means that keeping the Sabbath is not important. But this issue affects fewer than 1 in 10,000 people; it is a non-issue for most of humanity. It is as though God knew there would need to be a place for an International Date Line that would affect few people, and during the Flood arranged for the largely empty Pacific Ocean to be formed.
Other liberals argue that the IDL means that Sabbath-keeping is arbitrary or irrelevant; they 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 statement that God created us “male and female” is not true, and that created gender distinctions need no longer be observed. These are not bona fide arguments, but an attempt to nullify God's clear commands.
What Should the General Conference Do?
This has become a divisive and rancorous issue, with some islander Adventists keeping Saturday, but most keeping 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 to mediate the dispute.
Elder Ted Wilson visited Samoa in April, 2016, but punted on the Sabbath impasse, attributing it to unique circumstances that should be handled locally. As we have seen, however, the circumstances in Samoa are not unique but affect several other island nations near the 180th meridian. Sadly, Elder Wilson seemed befuddled by this not-so-complex issue, and glad to leave it in the hands of the South Pacific Division.
But the South Pacific Division has provided no leadership. To the contrary, the SPD has given aid and comfort to the First-day Adventists. Astonishingly, the SPD has had its local Biblical Research Institute make arguments to support the compromised practice of Adventist Sunday-keeping.
The 2020 General Conference session at Indianapolis should make it clear that Seventh-day Adventists worship on the Saturday of the calendar in their countries. The GC in session should clarify that a country's choice of a date zone is not an attempt to violate the conscience of Sabbath-keepers. It is merely a choice, by a nation that could choose either date zone, to be on the side that best serves its economic needs.
Adventists who worship on Sunday are muting our message and confusing our 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. It needs to be addressed by the world church because, in the global village, it is diminishing the witness of the entire world church.
I encourage the SDA Church to vote and issue a formal statement, along these lines:
“Whereas the witness of the entire Seventh-day Adventist church is undermined by Sunday-keeping Adventists anywhere in the world, and
“Whereas worshiping on Sunday appears to many to be a compromise with ease and convenience in jurisdictions that enforce strict Sunday Blue Laws,
“Therefore, a Seventh-day Adventist believer will observe the Sabbath from sundown on Friday until sundown on Saturday according to the calendar where the Adventist believer lives. Despite the frustration and confusion of believers whose governments change their date zones, it is never appropriate for Seventh-day Adventists to worship on Sunday, or on any day other than Saturday as reckoned by the local calendar. Adventists who persist in keeping Sunday as locally recognized will forfeit the right to use the name Seventh-day Adventist and associated trademarked terms.”