Church History
Fasting
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“Fasting,” Church History Topics

“Fasting”

Fasting

At the time the Church was founded, fasting was an important feature of worship for many Christians in North America. They based this practice on examples found in the Bible. 1 The earliest Latter-day Saints likely participated in fasting before they joined the Church and continued to fast as members of the Church. In August 1831, Joseph Smith received a revelation instructing the Saints to prepare food “with singleness of heart that thy fastings may be perfect.” 2 A later revelation mentioned that a key function of the Kirtland Temple was to foster “prayer, and fasting.” 3 Before the temple’s dedication in 1836, group fasting was mostly in preparation for the healing of the sick or participation in meetings of the Kirtland School of the Prophets. 4 After the temple’s dedication, Church leaders designated the first Thursday of the month as a fast day. 5 Special fast-day meetings at the temple included sermons, personal testimonies, and donations for the poor. 6

Between 1838, when most Church members left Ohio, and 1849, when the Saints began to become more established in Utah, fast-day meetings were held occasionally as part of councils and conferences and for performing ordinations, blessing the sick, aiding the poor, or celebrating divine assistance and blessings. 7 The Saints in the Salt Lake Valley soon revived the regular fast day on the first Thursday of the month, and by 1856, Church leaders encouraged a more regular fast offering, consisting of the food from which they abstained or its monetary equivalent, to help the poor. It was also around this time that fast-day meetings began to more consistently feature members of local congregations bearing testimonies. 8 Leaders sometimes organized special fasts during this period for relief from natural disasters and antipolygamy raids. 9 In 1896, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve moved fast meetings to the first Sunday of each month, recommended a fasting period of 24 hours, and requested donations equal to the sacrifice of two meals. 10

At the turn of the 20th century, a new wave of health advocacy promoted fasting as a physical and spiritual benefit. 11 Church leaders also noted the health benefits of fasting, but most of their remarks at general conference instead emphasized the importance of the practice as a way of providing relief to the poor. President Joseph F. Smith introduced a more formal fast-offering system by which local bishops and stake presidents could collect and distribute fast donations to those in need. 12 As fast offerings were increasingly made as cash donations, Church leaders developed a centralized model by which funds could be directed to the poor—first in wards, then in stakes, and finally to other areas of need. This fast-offering system has continued well into the 21st century as a significant practice of devotion and humanitarian service for Church members worldwide. 13

Notes

  1. R. Marie Griffith, Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 33–37.

  2. Joseph Smith, “Revelation, 7 August 1831 [D&C 59],” 1, josephsmithpapers.org.

  3. Joseph Smith, “Revelation, 27–28 December 1832 [D&C 88:1–126],” in Revelation Book 2, pp. 39–40, 45–46, josephsmithpapers.org.

  4. Minutes, 23 March 1833–A,” in Minute Book 1, 18–19, josephsmithpapers.org; John Murdock, April 13th, 1833,” John Murdock Journal typescript, John Murdock Journal and autobiography, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; Joseph Smith, “Revelation, 29 March 1836–A,” in Journal, 1835–1836, 186, josephsmithpapers.org. See also Topic: School of the Prophets.

  5. Colonial, state, and federal legislative bodies had promoted various fast-day proclamations and resolutions during periods of war and outbreaks of disease. Such resolutions typically designated a weekday or specific date for public fasting and prayer to unite citizens in seeking God’s divine help. Latter-day Saints in Kirtland had braved a cholera epidemic in 1832 during which several state legislatures and the United States Congress debated establishing a regular fast-day for the country. See “Resolution of the House of Burgesses Designating a Day of Fasting and Prayer, 24 May 1774,” Thomas Jefferson Papers, United States National Archives; Adam Jortner, “Cholera, Christ, and Jackson: The Epidemic of 1832 and the Origins of Christian Politics in Antebellum America,” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 27, no. 2 (2007), 233–64.

  6. Eliza R. Snow, Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Company Printers, 1884), 12–13; Oliver B. Huntington, “Fast Days in Kirtland Temple,” Young Women’s Journal, vol. 8 (1896), 239; Brigham Young, Discourse, 8 Dec. 1867, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–1886), 12:115.

  7. Joseph Smith, “Discourse, 30 July 1840, as Reported by John Smith,” josephsmithpapers.org; Joseph Smith, “Discourse, 20 March 1842, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff,” in Wilford Woodruff, Diary, 138, josephsmithpapers.org; A. Dean Wengreen, “The Origin and History of the Fast Day in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1896” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1955), 18–25.

  8. Wengreen, “Origin and History of the Fast Day,” 43–45, 57–58.

  9. See Topic: Antipolygamy Legislation. See also “Letter to the Presidents of Stakes and Their Counselors,” 2 Dec. 1889, in James R. Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 3:176–177.

  10. Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith, “An Address,” 5 Nov. 1896, in Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, 3:281–82; Wengreen, “Origin and History of the Fast Day,” 71.

  11. Marie Griffith, “Apostles of Abstinence: Fasting and Masculinity during the Progressive Era,” American Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 4 (2000), 599–638; see also Griffith, Born Again Bodies.

  12. Joseph F. Smith, October 1915 general conference, 4–5; Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-day Saints, 1890–1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1996), 95.

  13. H. Lester Peterson, “The Magnitude of the Fast Offerings Paid in the Stakes of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1916–1936,” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1938), 19; Clark, ed., Messages of the First Presidency, 4:195; “Latter-day Saints Asked to Fast, Pray on Sunday,” Church News, Aug. 18, 1945, 1; William G. Hartley, “Mormon Sundays,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 19–25; Glen M. Leonard, “Why do we hold fast and testimony meeting on the first Sunday of the month?,” Ensign, Mar. 1998, 60–61.