The bold red cross in the upper left corner of the royal red Tongan flag symbolizes the facts of life in this country. The Tongan Constitution (drafted by Methodist missionary Shirley Baker) declares the Sabbath day forever sacred: It's unlawful to work, hold sporting events, or trade on Sunday.
Contracts signed that day are void.Most tours are also canceled, though picnic trips do run to the small islands off Nuku'alofa. All shops and most restaurants are closed on Sunday.
The Sabbath is so strong that even the Seventh-Day Adventists here observe Sunday as the Lord's Day (not Saturday). They claim this is permissible because of the "bend" in the international date line, but it would be intolerable to have two Sundays in Tonga!
Tongans are great churchgoers—over a third of all Tongans and most of the noble class are members of the mainstream Free Wesleyan Church.
Three other branches of Methodism also have large followings in Tonga: the Free Church of Tonga, the Church of Tonga, and the Tokaikolo Christian Fellowship. In addition, there are thousands of Mormons, Roman Catholics, and Seventh-Day Adventists. Smaller groups include the Anglicans, Assemblies of God, and Baha'is.
In all, 16 official churches are active in the country, and missionaries from new groups are arriving all the time. In recent years, affiliation in the new religious groups has increased sharply as membership in all four Methodist churches declined.
Attend the service at Centenary Church (Free Wesleyan) in Nuku'alofa Sunday at 1000 to hear the magnificent church choir and perhaps catch a glimpse of the royal family. Gentlemen are expected to wear coats and ties (although tourists are usually admitted without). After church, the rest of the day is spent relaxing, strolling, and visiting friends—what Tongans like to do anyway, so it wasn't hard for the missionaries to convince them to set aside a whole day for it.
Mormons account for over 17 percent of the population of Tonga, the highest such ratio in the world. The Church of Latter-day Saints has become the largest private employer in the kingdom, spending more on construction than even the government, and the American church sends far more financial aid to its Tongan flock than the U.S. government provides to Tonga as a whole. Mormon missionary efforts in Tonga are aimed at making this the first country on earth with a Mormon majority.
Assembly line Mormon churches (with their inevitable basketball courts) are popping up in villages all over Tonga, as the children of Israel convert in droves to be eligible for the free buildings, schools, sporting facilities, and children's lunches. Many Tongans become "school Mormons," joining as their children approach high school age and dropping out as they complete college in Hawaii. Unlike Cook Islanders and American Samoans, Tongans don't have the free right of entry to a larger country, so church help in gaining a toehold in Honolulu or Salt Lake City is highly valued.