How Seventh-day Adventists thrive despite the most restrictive Sunday laws in the world.
No matter where they are in the world, people like the sun to be above their heads at noon. So as you travel around the world, you adjust clock in 24-hour increments. If you’re going east, you lose an hour each time you pass into a new time zone, and if you go west, you gain an hour. When it’s noon in New York, it’s 9 a.m. in Los Angeles.
The places where the time zones are drawn are somewhat arbitrary and often follow national or other regional boundaries. But as you travel east, you run out of new time zones, and it has to start over. Fortunately, this happens mostly over the Pacific Ocean in one of the most sparsely populated zones in the world, and not over a continent. In 1884, the International Date Line was arbitrarily drawn along the 180th meridian of longitude, but it still curves around national and geographic boundaries. For instance, the line moves slightly eastward to avoid eastern Siberia from being on a different day than the rest of Russia. It may be Sunday in Siberia, but at the same time, but in Alaska it is Saturday.
In the South Pacific, the date line bulges out further east than the 180th meridian so that smaller islands share the same day of the week as New Zealand.
Until 2011, American Samoa was a day ahead of Samoa, but Samoa moved across the date line to improve its relationship with Australia and New Zealand.
One of these island groups that the date line wraps around is Tonga, a Polynesian kingdom with more than 170 small islands and around 106,000 people. Tonga is a very religious country, with nearly all people belonging to several Christian churches. Article 6 of the Constitution of Tonga provides as follows:
“The Sabbath Day shall be kept holy in Tonga and no person shall practise his trade or profession or conduct any commercial undertaking on the Sabbath Day except according to law; and any agreement made or witnessed on that day shall be null and void and of no legal effect.”
This enforced Sunday rest is taken very seriously by the government, and restaurants and shops are mostly closed unless necessary to cater to tourists at resorts. Activities including playing sports, dancing, listening to loud music, and fishing are illegal on Sundays. Breaking the law could lead to a fine not exceeding $100 or imprisonment up to 6 months unless the violation was because of an emergency, and the burden of proof is with the accused to show there was an emergency. (Laws of Tonga, Ch. 37 ) The history of Tonga’s Sunday laws and the extensive rules governing Sunday activity is available on this blog.
Seventh-day Adventists are also dedicated to keeping the Sabbath holy, much to the extent that the Tongan people are, in places far less hospitable to the concept. But their Sabbath falls on Saturday, the seventh day of the week, in line with the 4th Commandment. So how do the 3,853 (as of 2020) Adventists in Tonga handle the discrepancy?
At first, it was an issue of intense discussion and concern, with the Adventist Church reaching Tonga at about the same time that the date line was being established. J.N. Andrews, the namesake of the church’s flagship institution, Andrews University, recommended using the Bering Strait date line in 1871 in a small book titled The Definitive Seventh Day. Merritt Kellogg, the stepbrother of John Harvey Kellogg, was a missionary to the South Pacific on the ship, the Pitcairn, and joined several others in trying to get some guidance from the denomination about the controversial subject.
According to David Hay, who was the president of the Tonga and Niue nation, church founder Ellen White wrote to Kellogg stating that “trying to solve the unessential problem of the day line really wasn’t his task.”
There were other issues the fledgling church had to face when it came to sundown to sundown Sabbath observance, such as what happens in the north or south when there is constant light or darkness for lengthy periods of time. White wrote, “God made His Sabbath for a round world; and when the seventh day comes to us in that round world, controlled by the sun that rules the day, it is the time in all countries and lands to observe the Sabbath.” (Letter 167, 1900).
Geographically, the 180th meridian is west of Tonga. But as we noted above, for commercial reasons, the government moved the line east so that Tonga would share the same weekday as New Zealand. So when it’s Sunday in New Zealand, it’s still Saturday east of the 180th meridian. Politically, the line was shifted so the calendars in Tonga say it is Sunday, but geographically it is Saturday. Tonga changed the names of the days of the week to accommodate commerce with New Zealand. So ultimately, it is accurate that Tonga celebrates the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, which they call Sunday. So the Saturday Sabbath-keepers are not out of step with either the government or their faith. Certainly, not all Adventists agree with this, and some believe that the point is to keep Saturday instead of Sunday regardless of geography. However, the majority of Adventists have followed the 180th meridian as the date line standard for many years.
Now, whether it is a good policy of the Christians of Tonga to use the power of the state to compel a day of rest is another matter altogether.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Tonga as the islands sustained major damage during recent volcanic activity.