While most people seem to believe that the International Date Line was created by the 1884 Meridian Conference, and that it has something to do with the 180-degree meridian, history seems to indicate that there is no truth in either of these assumptions. Rather, it appears that our IDL is merely the latest development of an ancient day line.
What is the nature of this day line, and what is its source?
I believe that we must first understand the nature of the 7th-day Sabbath. Jesus told us that “the Sabbath was made for man.” He did not say the Sabbath was made for the earth, the rocks, or the trees. From this we can see that, where there are no people, there is no Sabbath. Where human habitations exist, however, there must be a Sabbath, and by extension, a 7-day week.
Now, let’s go back to the creation of man.
God placed us on a round world and commanded us to keep the 7th day of every week holy. (See Genesis 1:1-2:3 NKJV.) This implies the existence of a place on the revolving earth where one day changes to another — what we call a “day line.” But, where was it? With no people, and thus no Sabbath or weekly cycle, anywhere on the globe except in the Garden of Eden, there would have been nothing but the Garden to define the location of the day line. So, depending on the concept one prefers, the day line was at some undefined longitude not passing through the Garden, or it was exceedingly broad, encompassing all other longitudes. Our choice between these two descriptions probably doesn’t matter much, just so we understand there must have been a place for one day to end and another to begin, a “day line.”
Changes in the bounds of human habitations, prior to the flood, along with any corresponding developments in the day line, would not affect us today, as the survival of just one family returned the day line to much the same state as at Creation.
In the events connected with the Tower of Babel, we see that God deliberately scattered the human race over the face of the entire globe. [See Genesis 11:8-9 (NKJV).] Part of the earth would have been inhabited by those migrating westward from Babel, and other parts by those migrating eastward. Had all of those migrants kept track of the weekly cycle and observed the true Sabbath, and had they immediately met up on the other side of the world, they would have found that their respective day counts were off by one day! A day line would have been immediately apparent, passing between the habitations of the easterly migrants and the homes of the westerly migrants.
The Nature of the Day Line
All migrants keeping the Sabbath, and the farthest migrants meeting soon after their dispersion from Babel, represent a hypothetical scenario. However, this does serve to illustrate the nature of the day line. It is not something drawn on a map by force of international agreement, and then imposed on every society on earth. It is not based on any theory of what might be ideal. Rather, it is something which develops naturally, and is defined by the question of which societies are following the easterly migrant week, and which are following the westerly migrant week. This is the true nature of today’s “International Date Line” or IDL, and it explains why the IDL does not necessarily follow a straight line. We should be thankful that one can at least chart the reality by drawing just one line on a map!
What do we know about the history of the day line/IDL?
The actual history of the day line, from the flood until relatively modern times, can only be known as well as those early migration patterns. Thus our review of the day line must include a certain risk of inaccuracy. That said, to the best of our knowledge, the westerly migrants initially settled only about as far as the Atlantic. The Pacific islands, and even the Americas, appear to have been settled by easterly migrants. (See “Early Human Migration Map.“)
Because much of the world seemed to have abandoned the 7-day week, I believe it would be fair to define the early day line by those migration patterns, and by the weekly cycle which ought to have been remembered in any given place. From this, the day line would seem to have been in the vicinity of the Atlantic Ocean for a very long time.
How did the day line get from the Atlantic to the Pacific?
I believe that this massive shift was largely an unconscious one. The Mayans, as advanced as their civilization appears to have been, had no 7-day cycle in their calendar. (See ”The Mayan Calendar.”) If this is at all representative of other cultures in the Americas, the mass migration of Europeans across the Atlantic, following the early explorers, would probably have allowed the westerly migrant week to take over the “New World” without creating any awareness that a day line shift was even taking place.
What area was affected by this massive, unconscious day line shift?
There are many gaps in my knowledge. However, is seems clear that Alaska, the Cook Islands, Tahiti and the Leeward Islands were initially excluded, while such places as Hawaii, and even the Philippines, were included in the effect. Neither Tonga nor Samoa was a part of this shift. They remained on the easterly migrant week, in accordance with the way they had first been settled.
What do we know about intentional day line shifts?
Between 1840 and 1867, Alaska, Tahiti, and the Leeward Islands all experienced a known and deliberate day line shift, moving to the westerly migrant week by means of a one-off 8-day week. The Philippines adjusted in the opposite direction, dropping Tuesday, December 31, 1844 and moving back to the easterly migrant week.
Lastly, Samoa (including present-day American Samoa) followed Tahiti in adopting the westerly migrant week – by repeating Monday, July 4, 1892.
The Existing Day Line, as of 1895
Now, with some degree of confidence, we are prepared to say just where the existing day line was in 1895, when our first Adventist missionaries arrived in Tonga. It passed between Alaska and Siberia, staying to the west of Hawaii and to the east of Fiji. Interestingly, one would have had to draw the line to the west of Samoa, double it back northward between what is now American Samoa and the Cook Islands, and then bring it back down to the east of the Cook Islands. That might have been rather interesting! The day line would have stayed west of Tahiti, but east of Tonga and New Zealand. That’s where the existing day line was in 1895. Shortly afterward, in 1899, the day line (already known as the International Date Line?) was shifted to the west of the Cook Islands, doubtless making it much easier to draw on a map.
More Recent Developments and the SDA Problem
In more recent times, we have seen the IDL shifted to the east of Kiribati, Wallis/Futuna, and Samoa/Tokelau. With all of the day line shifts of history, Tonga has not been involved in any way, yet it was in Tonga where “Adventist” Sunday observance was first revived. It seems that this error was largely the result of popular misconceptions concerning the day line.