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Looking back at the history of fasting in religion and within the Church of Jesus Christ

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Apr. 8, 2020 at 6:26 p.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — Fasting has played an integral role in the history of religion. It’s a practice that’s been used for centuries by those who seek enlightenment, blessings and health.

So it’s not much of a surprise that amid the COVID-19 pandemic, religious leaders are turning to fasting for help.

“I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday, April 10, that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened and life normalized,” said President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, during a general conference session Saturday.

It was the second time he’s called for a worldwide fast in as many weeks.

Since this topic is top of mind for many, let's take a look at the history of fasting and its importance across time and cultures.

A brief history of fasting in religion

Fasting is when someone abstains from food or drink. It’s been used for medical purposes and even peaceful protests — think Mohandas Gandhi's hunger strike — for centuries. It’s also been commonly used for religious and spiritual reasons for about as long as religion has been documented. It can be found within the roots of every major world religion.

For example, there are plenty of biblical references to fasting. It’s referenced as early as the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God — a key religious moment taught in major religions such as Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The story dates back to about 1300 BCE, according to the BBC.

"And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten commandments," a passage in the Book of Exodus reads.

All three of those religions, which are believed to account for more than half of the world’s religious population, still practice fasting for religious purposes to this day.

During Ramadan, Muslim worshippers fast from sunrise to sunset for the entire month.

"It is meant to be a time of spiritual discipline — of deep contemplation of one's relationship with God, extra prayer, increased charity and generosity, and intense study of the Quran," Vox explained in a 2017 article.

Members of the Catholic sect of Christianity, as another example, are currently observing Lent, which is "often observed as a time of reflection and an acknowledgment of darkness before the coming of light," and leads up to Easter Sunday. Fasting is traditionally done during this time, and may include staying away from meat on certain days.

"When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onward," according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

While taught in major denominational religions, fasting had meaning for ancient civilizations and carries significance in some Native American cultures as well.

"In the religions of some tribes of Native Americans, fasting was practiced before and during a vision quest. … Historically, priestly societies among the Pueblo Indians of the American southwest fasted during retreats before major ceremonies connected with seasonal changes," according to Encyclopedia Britannica, which wrote about Native American use of fasting.

The history of fasting within the Church of Jesus Christ

Fasting is well ensconced within Latter-day Saints' practice, as well. In a section of the church's Doctrine & Covenants, which members of the faith regard as modern revelation, Joseph Smith wrote: "I give unto you a commandment that ye shall continue in prayer and fasting from this time forth."

That was written in 1832 — two years after the church was formed. Today, members of the faith traditionally fast on the first Sunday of every month. During that time, church members are encouraged to go "without food and water for two consecutive meals in a 24-hour period and then contribute the money that would have been spent for that food to those in need," according to the church.

Fasting is also often used in times of need now, and during the church’s history. For example, members fasted before and after arriving in modern-day Utah.

"Special fast days for various purposes were held during the exodus from Nauvoo, and after the Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, some fasts were held on the first Thursday of the month," said then-Elder Howard W. Hunter in 1985 as a member of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

They also fasted during early struggles adjusting to the valley, he added.

Worldwide call to fast on Good Friday

President Nelson’s call for a worldwide fast isn’t a first for leaders of the faith. On Jan. 27, 1985, church members participated in a worldwide fast for victims of a famine in Ethiopia. This fast led to the launch of LDS Charities and raised more than $6 million to go toward hunger relief; another fast that year raised an additional $5 million, according to the church.

In 2005, church members across the world were asked to fast for victims of a tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands of people in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Thailand and India.

The call to fast Friday includes anyone and everyone. A Facebook group gathering people together already has more than 280,000 members of various faiths across the world, as of Wednesday morning. It only adds to the long history of fasting in religion.

Carter Williams

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