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Chapter 4: The Development Of Fasting From Monasticism Through The Reformation To The Modern Era

Christian Fasting From Excesses To Decline

As has already been seen, Christian fasting practices began expanding from their basic biblical roots in the early centuries of the church. While this development was not always subversive, it did have the tendency of formalizing the practice into corporate rituals, with the result that voluntary fasting on the part of the people of the church was largely lost. Voluntary fasting was, however, taken up by those who embraced the submission of monasticism, and their austerities in asceticism colored the general perception of fasting for later Christianity. As a result, the Protestant Reformers largely reacted against fasting in Catholicism, divided as it was mainly into the two categories of ritual performance and monastic asceticism. With the onset of the modern era, Christian society further minimized the role of fasting until the practice was virtually forgotten by Protestants, and practiced in formal rituals in Catholicism that even the Catholic leadership began to question. This chapter traces the development of fasting from monasticism through the Reformation and Protestant traditions into the modern era, tracing the rise of excesses and the later decline of the practice. This will set the stage for an examination of the renewal of a theology of Christian fasting in the next chapter.

The Catholic Backdrop to Fasting Before the Reformation:
Fasting as Monastic Asceticism and Churchly Devotion

The fasting traditions of the church handed down from the fathers and formalized in church pronouncements formed the basis for fasting practices by Catholics in the Middle Ages. The sacramental and seasonal fasts were observed universally as a matter of church policy, as discussed in the previous chapter. A development in the sacramental approach to fasting was to see fasting as a possible application of the sacrament of penance, thereby associating fasting more closely with the forgiveness of sins.461 Ascetic fasting also continued to be practiced, and was developed primarily through the monastic movement, discussed below. Thomas Aquinas, the pillar of Christian systematizing and himself a monk, taught about fasting in the context of Catholicism, and his work will be examined in some detail as well. These factors of monastic asceticism and churchly devotion provide something of the backdrop for understanding the Protestant reactions and developments of their own with regard to fasting, which will be examined later.

Fasting in Monasticism:
Attempting to Regulate Asceticism

The following section will show how fasting factored into the regulation of monastic asceticism, although controlling these behaviors within tempered orthodox theology proved to be a difficult task. Monasticism began as something of a grass-roots movement, but astute church leaders brought it into the mainstream of church life. Fasting played a significant role in the ascetic life of monasticism, and examples abound of its use. However, doctrinal and practical hazards related to the abuse of fasting also emerged, whether from heretics or the gradual corruption of theology within Catholicism.

The Rise of Monasticism: Mainstreaming Asceticism

The rise of the monastic movement in early Christianity incorporated fasting as an integral component of the rhythms governing the ascetic life. The word “asceticism” derives from the Greek word ἄσκησις, which most literally has to do with the disciplined practice of athletes, but for Christians came to mean the “partial renunciation of bodily needs to obtain spiritual benefits.”462 Its Greek root occurs only once in the NT, in Acts 24:16, where Paul told Felix, “I do my best to always have a clear conscience toward God and toward people”.463 But the concept nevertheless came to play a large role in the understanding of the Christian life for many early Christians. Typical forms of ascetic renunciation that were thought to have roots in the NT included selling one’s possessions and living in poverty or communally (as in Acts 2:44-45); dedicating oneself to virginity or sexual abstinence (inspired by texts like Matt 19:12, where Jesus speaks of “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” or 1 Cor 7:32, where Paul says “The unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord”); and rigorous private disciplines that often included prayer and fasting in various forms. Traveling evangelists, widows in service to the church, dedicated virgins, and ascetics who withdrew to relative isolation from society all are found from the church’s earliest times. With regard to ascetic fasting, the purpose “was to subjugate the powers of the flesh and to deliver the mind from distractions.”464 Meat and wine were prime suspects for leading to bodily sin, and abstinence from them came to be a regular call to virtue. Plus, asceticism encouraged the idea of purifying the body from sin by fasting, and so fasting came to be thought of as within the orbit of a broad doctrine of salvation as a process.

Already by the third century, church leaders had begun to consider how to regulate such behaviors more centrally and provide guidance for the flowering ascetic, monastic movement. This gave rise to several codes of conduct (often known as “Rules”) being written, such as those by Basil and Augustine (already examined in the previous chapter), Benedict (discussed in more detail below), and Francis.465 The goal was to incorporate the nascent para-church movement into the universal church’s life.466 While it is outside the scope here to deal with the many facets of monasticism, it is appropriate to try to understand how fasting factored into the monastic ideal and try to assess at least some of that impact.467

Examples from Monasticism: Idealizing (and Sometimes Moderating) Austerity

Thomas O’Loughlin observes that “monastic fasting must be seen as a variant and development of fasting within Christianity as a whole.”468 The scriptural examples of fasting inspired imitation, and the earliest Christian documents already examined show that fasting was quickly becoming part of regular Christian experience. Christians held up ascetic ideals as examples and participated vicariously in the lives of others. Some of the ascetics became heroic figures in early Christianity, and “where the monk’s austerities could not be imitated, they could be admired.”469 It should not be surprising, then, to see monastic fasting taking examples of fasting and habits that were already forming generally into more structured forms.

Antony: Fasting in the Archetypical Ascetic. Among examples of monastic fasting, Antony (ca. 251-356) stands out as “the undisputed pioneer of the monastic tradition and the most famous teacher of later generations,” and “all later sources on early monasticism refer to Antony as the father of monasticism.”470 Athanasius’ classic depiction of Antony shows him eating bread and salt, with water, once a day in the evenings, and frequently foregoing these.471 Antony saw his ascetic life as a daily martyrdom, and combined fasting with wearing a hair shirt and refusing to bathe.472 Fasting, combined with prayer, was seen as a means of thwarting demonic temptations.473

Ephrem and Eastern Monasticism: Championing Ascetic Orthodoxy. In the East, ascetic life took hold in monastic communities in Greek-speaking areas as well as Syria and points further distant. Fasting practices in the East drew inspiration from Basil’s rules, and received similar teaching about fasting and self-control from prominent figures like John Chrysostom and Ephrem the Syrian (4th century), Diadokos of Photiki and Mark the Hermit (5th century), and John Climacus (6th century).474 Ephrem (ca. 306-373), who championed orthodoxy against many heresies that were flowering in the East, wrote at least ten hymns on fasting that were featured in the liturgical year.475 Hymn 1 features Jesus defeating Satan in the desert as an answer to the fall of Adam. Hymn 4.11 Moses and Elijah as forerunners of Christ experiencing the same fasting duration and supernatural power. Hymns 7-9 refer to the exemplary biblical fasts of Esther, the Ninevites, Daniel and his three friends. In addition to the negative example of Adam and Eve, the hypocritical fast of Ahab and Jezebel against Naboth is recalled in Hymn 3. For Ephrem, the many good uses of fasting were ultimately transcended by the purification it fosters that allows a clearer vision of God: “Beau et utile est le jeûne pour celui qui se purifie afin de contemplar Dieu.”476

John Cassian and Latin Monasticism: Fasting to Counter the Principal Vice of Gluttony. Among the Latin fathers, John Cassian’s (ca. 360-ca. 435) writings from the late fourth and early fifth centuries “present the fullest treatment of fasting and were looked to as basic teaching until modern times.”477 Cassian governed communities of monastic life in Egypt for some time and wrote his Conferences (Latin, Conlationes) and Institutes in that context.478 In the midst of dealing with liturgical calendar questions about fasting around the time of Pentecost, Cassian teaches that fasting is not an “essential good,” or intrinsically right, because its opposite, eating, is not intrinsically wrong. Therefore, fasting, like other behaviors, should be practiced in accord with what is essentially good and promotes true good.479 But, since gluttony is the principal vice that led to Adam’s fall, fasting should be encouraged to help the body to learn to abstain from gluttony as well as the other vices of lust that are related to it. Jesus, who by virtue of his sinless divinity was not affected by the vices of sinful flesh, still fasted when tempted by the devil, to show the means of conquering sin in the flesh.480 Gregory the Great followed and modified Cassian’s approach to the deadly sins, and retained fasting as the sine qua non of ascetic commitment, from which everything else flowed.481 Cassian’s approach to fasting and vigils were that moderation was required, because one could err on the side of too much as well as too little abstinence.482 So while Cassian obviously presided over monks practicing rigorous disciplines that often included austere fasting, in the final analysis it was intended as a tool for more important matters of the spiritual life.483 Maximus the Confessor (7th century) similarly urged fasting, among other disciplines, as a tool against sin.484

The Rule of St. Benedict: Fasting Austerities Moderated. The Rule of St. Benedict was composed sometime before 528 when Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-ca. 547) moved from governing monasteries in Subiaco, Italy, to Monte Cassino, where he lived until his death.485 Its organization of monastic life has stood as the rule for all these centuries for Benedictines as well as adherents of some other orders. While it does present a disciplined life, it is not particularly strenuous with regard to fasting. Its food ration allows for two cooked dishes and available fruits and vegetables at two meals per day, at the sixth and ninth hours, plus bread. More can be allowed by the abbot’s discretion, though care should be taken, since “nothing is more contrary to being a Christian than gluttony.”486 Wine is allowed, though “those who have received the gift of abstinence will know they shall be especially rewarded by God.”487 Monks are to fast until the ninth hour on Wednesdays and Fridays from Pentecost through the summer, provided there is not too much hard labor or heat.488 During Lent, monks should voluntarily plan to abstain in some way that is communicated to the abbot, though “a monk’s life should always be like a Lenten observance.”489 One can see from these rules an encouragement of a voluntarily disciplined life, without extreme rigor in fasting practices.

Hazards to Orthodoxy in Asceticism: Fasting Abused

While many fasting practices could be held up as examples for the orthodox, there were also doctrinal hazards emerging. Evagrius Ponticus, like Antony, urged fasting for spiritual combat with demons, stressing that gluttony was the first of the evil thoughts and led to lust and avarice, from which the other deadly sins proceeded. But Evagrius’s fasting practices were also connected to his gnostic dichotomy between the body and mind, and one could see in some strands of monastic fasting an unhealthy deprecation of full humanity.490 The Manichees practiced fasting in the context of asceticism and monasticism, and developed elaborate purification doctrines that essentially tied the spiritual life to the diet.491 So it is clear that fasting was by no means a monopoly of the orthodox, or immune to divergent applications.

It seems entirely likely that abstinence from meat was influenced by some of the dominant philosophical strands at the time. The Neoplatonic approach, derived from Pythagoreans, taught that meat was a heavy food that dragged down the soul, was expensive, was too stimulating, and the living body would become somewhat defiled by contact with what was dead.492 However, stoic philosophies also influenced Christians to view food as a matter that was indifferent. When these philosophies mixed with a Christian community with roots in biblical practices, a somewhat conflicted approach arose that can be seen in literature related to fasting through the years.493

As time passed, the emphasis on fasting and asceticism in general as a form of penance, coupled with a view of the body that saw it as a corrupted vessel containing a perfectible soul, increased the tendency toward extremes in self-inflicted pains.494 Saints like John Chrysostom and Bernard of Clairvaux were praised for their holiness, while virtually ruining their health through constant fasting. Perhaps this is evidence of a view of fasting that is focused more on the effect on the human body than on the person’s overall relationship to a God who created a good world. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, self-flagellation (the practice of beating oneself, often rather cruelly) became a widespread movement among ascetics, whose fasting practices were intensified by the self-infliction of pain. It is not entirely surprising to see Giles Constable look back at practices that so superceded merely the restraining of indulgence and say, “we tend to regard self-inflicted punishment as a sign of spiritual and psychological disorder and not, as was believed in the Middle Ages, of a proper and praiseworthy attitude toward oneself and God.”495

Thomas Aquinas: Fasting as Churchly Devotion, Toward the Virtue of Temperance

When it comes to systematizing theology in the Roman Catholic Church, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) is the unrivaled touchstone. In his Summa Theologiæ he addressed fasting on several occasions and once in an extended treatment. His teachings tend to reinforce the basic approaches to fasting handed down by the Scriptures and earlier fathers of the church, but as one would expect, his treatment is systematically ordered. As will be seen, he advocates fasting in the context of church traditions on the grounds that it is a tool for temperate virtues and therefore helpful against temptations.

Christ’s Fasting: An Example for Defeating Temptation in the Flesh

Thomas discusses fasting in relationship to the temptation of Christ in ST 3a. 41. Christ was tempted by the devil as the new Adam in order to conquer death, not by power so much as by righteousness. Since the world and flesh held no sway over his sinless nature, it was left to the devil to tempt him. But since the devil could also not succeed against Christ’s impeccable nature, the temptation story is given not only as a demonstration of Christ’s victory, but also as an example to us, since all of us must know how to face temptation. Thomas says that fasting is a weapon against temptation, that those fasting should expect temptation, and that Jesus undertook fasting to become hungry and face temptation to show that manhood is capable of withstanding the power of the devil. Citing Hilary, he says that “the devil was to be conquered, not by God, but by the flesh,” and from Chrysostom he draws the conclusion that “in fasting he went no further than Moses and Elijah, lest his assumption of our flesh might seem incredible.”496

Fasting and Sacraments:
Solemn Occasions Suggest Solemn Observance

Thomas also mentions fasting in regard to the sacraments. In ST 3a. 72, 12 he answers questions about the appropriateness of fasting before baptism and confirmation. Since these are solemn occasions, and usually performed on or around Easter, it is most fitting for fasting to accompany them, except in cases where this cannot be conveniently observed.497 In ST 3a. 80, 8 he discusses fasting and the Eucharist. He follows Augustine in arguing that no food should enter a Christian’s mouth before the sacrament. This is taken to mean a requirement of fasting from midnight until the sacrament is taken in the morning of that day, although exceptions for illness are allowed. Such fasting seems to go against the institution of the Lord’s supper at a feast, but Thomas says it is in accord with Paul’s admonitions about solemnity and not eating and drinking in the Lord’s house. The priests administering the sacrament are also to fast afterwards for a few hours, although various customs may apply in local circumstances.498

Fasting as a Tool for the Virtue of Temperance

Thomas’s most extensive treatment of fasting occupies a section of his discussion of temperance, where questions 141-154 relate to temperance, intemperance, shame, honor, abstinence, fasting, gluttony, sobriety, drunkenness, chastity, virginity, and lust, in that order. ST 2a2ae. 147 deals with fasting through eight points of inquiry:

1. whether it is an act of virtue;

2. and of which virtue;

3. whether it is a matter of precept;

4. whether anybody is excused from its observance;

5. on the times of fasting;

6. whether it requires no more than one meal in the day;

7. on the hour of the meal;

8. on the foods to be abstained from.499

Fasting Itself Not a Virtue, but Used for Virtues. As to whether it is a virtue, Aquinas says that Isaiah 58 makes it clear that fasting by itself is not necessarily a virtue. But since Paul lists it as a virtue in 2 Cor 6:5, it can be a virtue, provided “it is set on some moral value.”500 The chief motives for fasting are to bridle the lusts of the flesh, to free the mind for contemplation of God, and to make satisfaction for sin (and here he cites the call to repentance of Joel 2:12). In addition to the problems of hypocritical fasting as in Isaiah 58, too much fasting can negate its very purpose. Here he cites Jerome, who says “it makes no difference whether you are sapping yourself for a long or for a short time; by excessive lack of nourishment and by eating and sleeping too little you are offering a sacrifice of stolen goods.”501 Fasting requires courage to endure hardship, and is an act of the virtue of abstinence. It can be metaphorically understood as abstaining from all things harmful, so that “fasting properly speaking is from all manner of lusts, since any act ceases to be virtuous, as we have pointed out, when it goes with any vice.”502

Fasting is a Matter of Liberty, but Everyone Needs It. As to whether or not fasting is a precept, it is noted that not fasting is no sin, that it is not a sacrament, and is a matter of liberty. However, the fact that it is a matter of liberty suggests that it is intended to be practiced, even if how it is practiced may differ somewhat from place to place. So, in an insightful statement, he defends the practice of ecclesiastical fasting seasons:

It is not binding under precept in the abstract, but in the concrete to each one who needs its remedy. And since for the most part we need it, according to St. James, in many things we all offend, and to St. Paul, the flesh lusteth against the spirit, the Church is rightly pragmatic in appointing some common fasts to be kept by all. Not, however, by turning a work of supererogation into one of obligation, but by giving a determinate shape to a common duty.503

Yet, liberty should allow for exceptions, and “a person may lawfully follow his own judgment in not carrying out the command,” provided he counsels with justly constituted authorities.504 Children are exempted from fasting until they are twenty-one, and qualifications can be made for labor and pilgrimages, as well as the poor who live hand to mouth.

Fasting for the Bridegroom: Choose an Interpretation, Regardless, It Promotes Fasting. Thomas then discusses the synoptic reference to the children of the bridegroom not fasting, and offers three interpretations from tradition. Chrysostom said the “children” were the weak, and so they were exempt from fasting, as beginners. Jerome saw it as a freedom from observances of the old law, as Christians were to be “breathing the freshness of grace.” Augustine said that the passage could be divided into two kinds of fasting, that of those who mourn, and that of those who enjoy the presence of Christ and are “caught up by spiritual things, and this fasting is for the righteous.”505 While Aquinas seems to recommend all three interpretations, there does seem to be an ascendance in the interpretations from questionable, to biblical theology, to grand spiritualization.

Church Fasting Seasons Defended. Thomas defends the church’s seasonal fasts as the common custom of church tradition. In preparation for Easter, the church inverts the sequence of Christ’s baptism and fasting, in order to be buried with him in death before being raised again to life. Several imaginative numerological explanations of the number forty are offered from Gregory and Augustine, but in the end, it is Christ’s fasting that is the reason for the forty days. Thomas shows great awareness of Jewish fasting practices, and although the church keeps similar times throughout the year, in echoing the Didache, she is careful not to observe the same days as the Jews, who are still observing the old covenant, and not breathing the newness of the Spirit.506

Reasons for Precise Fasting Regulations. Aquinas goes on to discuss what meals are allowed and what constitutes breaking a fast. He distinguishes two kinds of fasts, the first being absolute (allowing no food or drink at all), which should precede the Eucharist. The second kind, the “faster’s fast,” is broken only by partaking in what is not allowed, hence there is some latitude involved in the definition. So during church fasts, one square meal per day is allowed, but small amounts of “comfits” (basically snacks) or medicines do not violate a fast, “unless of course people cheat and wolf a lot or make a meal of them.”507 Christian fasting should last until the ninth hour (3 P.M.), because that echoes the time Christ gave up the ghost, although exactness of time is no great matter. Fasting from meat, milk and eggs may seem inconsistent, since fish and other foods might be made just as tasty and filling. However, Thomas believes that for the majority of people and times, meat and animal foods are considered more desirable, and so they are appropriate as the content of foods to be fasted from. Besides, he believes, they produce substances in the body that build up seminal matter and increase the pressure of lust, making abstinence from these foods particularly relevant to the purposes of fasting against temptation. However, local customs may prevail.508

Developments in Fasting in Protestant Traditions:
Reacting Against Catholicism, but Allowing for Its Practice

In the section below, fasting in the Protestant tradition will be examined by looking at statements by key leaders in the Reformation, as well as leaders in the Anabaptists, the Church of England and Methodism. It will be seen that the Reformers strongly criticized several aspects of Catholic fasting in their polemics, but they still allowed for certain forms of fasting. There is little evidence that the Anabaptists paid much attention to fasting at all. The Church of England sought its middle way between Catholic fasts and the Protestant emphasis on freedom of the conscience. Wesley urged fasting as a form of personal spiritual discipline and churchly devotion for the sake of the ministry, as perhaps the strongest advocate and practitioner of fasting among the main Protestant figures. Yet taken as a whole, it will be seen that the trajectory of moving away from perceived Catholic excesses in fasting likely led to something of a decline in fasting in general in Protestantism, especially as it progressed into the modern era.

The Reformers: Fasting Cannot Garner Merit, but Can Have Appropriate Uses

The Protestant Reformation reacted negatively against the Catholicism of the time, especially those doctrines and practices that seemed to highlight human merit with regard to salvation. In such a context, one might expect the Reformers to look dimly on fasting, as it had come to be associated with penance and forgiveness of sins, as well as church rituals that they were beginning to reject wholesale. While this negative theme certainly does emerge in their specific discussions of fasting, what is perhaps more surprising is how the Reformers all acknowledge the positive role fasting can and should play in the life of the Christian and the church. The following discussion will show that despite strong warnings against the negative use of fasting, the Reformers consistently advocated fasting as a positive Christian behavior, when guided by what they believed to be biblically based theological norms.

Martin Luther: Fasting is Too Associated with Merit, but Perhaps It Could Have a Role

Martin Luther (1483-1546), who was himself trained in the ascetic rigors of Augustinian monasticism, grew very suspicious of any human work or attitude that smacked of garnering merit before God. As will be seen, he viewed fasting skeptically, and he often railed against abuses he saw of the practices in Catholicism. However, he still makes several positive comments about the human need for disciplining the flesh, and he clearly believes fasting could play a role in the genuine believers’ life. He even suggests some ways the church and state could promote fasting, provided it was clear what the bases for such fasting would be.

Fasting is Too Associated with Merit. Luther was concerned with protecting the purity of a subjective faith over and against placing personal trust in any works. The Christian is to place faith in Christ to receive the benefits of a passive justification. But this does not rule out the need for active works and discipline of the flesh but rather, they must be seen as proceeding from justification. In his “Treatise on Good Works” 18-19 he writes:

The highest and first work of God in us and the best training is that we let our own works go and let our reason and will lie dormant resting and commending ourselves to God in all things, especially when they appear spiritual and good.

19. After this comes the discipline of the flesh, the killing of its gross evil lust and giving it rest and relaxation. We must kill the flesh and subdue it with fastings, watchings, and labor. And it is from this that we learn how much and why we should fast, watch, and labor.509

Luther strongly criticizes those who perform fasting because they think it will earn them some merit. Christ “is not my fasting, praying, waking, and toiling. No, my fasting is a work which has its source in me.”510 Luther despised what fasting had become because it was done to seek merit before God, atone for sin, and reconcile God as an imposed act of penance, which he saw as trampling Christ underfoot and hitting him on the mouth.511 The source of true righteousness could not be anything emanating from within a person, like fasting or almsgiving, but rather must come from outside, from Christ. Clearly he believed the Roman Catholics had fallen into this error. “They tried to make God gracious to them on the basis of the cowl and the tonsure, fasting and prayer.”512 He emphasized that Christians are free from all human traditions, and fasting is not a divine requirement. Paul condemned abstinence from foods and observing Sabbaths and special days (Col 2:16), and believers should beware of falling into such rituals. In citing the synoptic fasting query, he says:

Why do we fast frequently? We are “sons [of the bridechamber],” He says (Matt 9:15). This was a good and a true fasting, not like the fasting mentioned in Matt 6:16. Nevertheless, he rejects it. Fasting does not justify, but faith in Christ does.513

Interestingly, Luther does not address the fact that Jesus went on to tell the disciples that when he was gone, then they would fast.

Fasting could also too easily be an individualistic practice that neglected the community. Even monks like Paul of Thebes and Antony were viewed as saints, but they lived by themselves and were of no value to the church. “What if they pray and fast so often, if in the meantime no one is providing any service?”514 Luther urged his people, “But godliness goes toward the advancement of the Word and the Christian religion. If there is still some godliness left over, then tire your body or work with your hands.”515

Some refrained from certain foods like meat, eggs or butter, or scheduled fasting on certain special days according to the calendar and saints’ days: “All these people seek nothing beyond the work itself in their fasting.”516 Echoing Augustine’s pet peeve of substituting one food for another, he says, “Some fast so richly with fish and other foods that they would come much nearer to fasting if they ate meat, eggs, and butter. By doing this they would obtain far better results from their fasting. For such fasting is not fasting, but a mockery of fasting as well as of God.”517

Fasting Could Have a Possible Role. For Luther, fasting was up to the individual as to when and how it was to be done, as “these matters should be regulated by the ebb and flow of the pride and lust of the flesh.”518 In the same vein, he tells his listeners:

Or, can we not continue to pray, fast, and so on, as long as the right way is present? My answer is that if there is present a right Christian love and faith, then everything a man does is meritorious; and each may do what he wills [cf. Rom. 14:22], so long as he has no regard for works, since they cannot save him.519

He sees fasting as part of the exercising of the body, which Paul says in 1 Tim 5:8 is of some usefulness, but Paul “neither condemns nor encourages the manner in which each trains his own body.”520

But Luther worries that this freedom will cause indifference, and that those who have never experienced fasting will conclude that it is not necessary.521 In 1532, he wrote about the fasting instruction in the Sermon on the Mount:

It is not His intention to reject or despise fasting in itself, any more than He rejects almsgiving and praying. Rather He is supporting these practices and teaching their proper use. In the same way it is His intention to restore proper fasting, to have it rightly used and properly understood, as any good work should be.522

“Real fasting” is a punishing of the body, compelling the five senses to learn to live without the comforts of life.523

Clearly Luther wished to forge a middle road of encouraging fasting as discipline, but discourage any association it might have with merit in itself. He recounts the growth of Christian fasting practices from the Jews, through the early practice of the church, and the addition of more and more fast days as well as monastic observances.

The ancient fathers may have meant it well and have observed the fasts properly, but the filth soon overwhelmed and ruined it and made it worthless. And that is just what it deserved. As it was a mere human plaything to have these many special fasts, so it soon degenerated into shameful abuse.524

Luther could envision two kinds of commendable general fasts besides individual discipline. First, the civil government could call for a fast to regulate a moderate consumption of food, to save resources “from the kind of incessant guzzling and gobbling that we Germans do, and to teach people to live a little more moderately.”525 Second, he felt there could be general fasts before Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas, and even every Friday evening, as “an outward Christian discipline and exercise for the young and simple people, by which they can learn to keep track of the seasons.”526 By practicing these kinds of fasts, “the Christian Church would have plenty of fasting to do, and no one would have the right to accuse us of despising and completely rejecting the practice of fasting.”527

In sum, Luther, viewed fasting skeptically, as potentially being viewed as a meritorious human work that could undermine justification by faith in Christ. Nevertheless, it might have some value in training the body and ordering the community. But from Luther’s perspective, the role of fasting clearly needed to be downgraded from the practice of his day as he observed it.

John Calvin: Seeking a Middle Way for Fasting by Avoiding Abuses and Encouraging Humility

Like Luther, John Calvin (1509-1564) desired to seek a middle way for fasting—approving the action if done with right motives, concerned lest the action itself be viewed as meritorious. Taken as a whole, his opinion of fasting actually seems more genuinely positive than Luther’s, and somewhat less polemical. Commenting on Isa 58:5 he says, “fasting is neither desired nor approved by God in itself but only insofar as it is directed to its true end. He did not want it completely abolished, only its improper use—that is, because they believed the worship of God to consist in it.”528 The following analysis shows Calvin’s desire for this middle way in his rejection of fasting abuses and encouragement of the practice when done in genuine humility, and for the right purposes.

Fasting in The Institutes: Proper Purposes and Misconceptions. In his Institutes 3.3.17, he sees the fasting of Joel 2 as a reasonable paradigm for publicly calling for fasting and weeping unto true repentance in the face of calamity. This kind of public fast is commendable on occasion, while “the life of the godly ought to be tempered with frugality and sobriety that throughout its course a sort of perpetual fasting may appear.”529 As he discusses in Institutes 3.7.1-5, the body ought to be brought into the process of self-denial. But one must beware not to let the conscience become ensnared in indifferent matters related to food, so that greater and greater abstinence is required to avoid the thought of wrongdoing.530

The Institutes 4.12.14-21 presents a more extended section relating fasting to the means of grace in the life and discipline of the church. He includes this section for the express reason, that “very many, while they do not understand how useful it is, regard it as not very necessary; others also, considering it is superfluous, completely reject it. And, since its use is not well understood, it can easily lapse into superstition.”531

Proper fasting, for Calvin, has its three central objectives as weakening and subduing the flesh, aiding in prayer, and testimony of self-abasement before God. While subduing the flesh is a private discipline, fasting as an aid in prayer or sign of repentance can be either private or corporate in nature, and in Institutes 4.12.15 he suggests that pastors ought to call for such as occasions arise. He cites the biblical examples of the apostles in Acts, Anna, Nehemiah, and Paul, to show fasting is an aid to prayer, and experience teaches that “with a full stomach our mind is not so lifted up to God that it can be drawn to prayer with a serious and ardent affection and persevere in it.”532 He applies OT examples of fasting as a sign of corporate penitence in the face of disaster, reasoning that they could be applied rather directly to the church in times of crisis. This kind of fasting is not a ceremony that has been done away in Christ, but rather “an excellent aid for believers today.”

While Christ excused the apostles for not fasting, Calvin reminds us that Christ also said days would come when Christ is taken away. He defines fasting as more than restraint and abstemiousness, and not only the general mark of sobriety and frugality of life that should constantly be a Christian’s experience. Specifically, there are temporary fasts that consist of definite times and purposes for fasting, and abstention from foods in both quality and quantity.533

Now that Calvin has clearly laid out proper kinds of fasting, he goes after misconceptions related to it. He says that “it would be much more satisfactory if fasting were not practiced at all, than diligently observed and at the same time corrupted with false and pernicious opinions.”534 In line with Joel 2 and Isaiah 58, fasting must accompany true humility from the heart and not be merely an outward expression. Also, the idea that fasting is a work of merit or worship should be avoided, because it is rather a means to an end (and here he cites Augustine’s refutation of the Manichees in support). Also, fasting should not be too rigidly enforced, lest seeds of superstition are sown and fasting itself comes to be praised as virtuous.

Calvin believes that the general observance of Lent was an example of the degeneration of fasting in the church. Rather, Christ followed in the line of Moses and Elijah, establishing the authority of the gospel over the law. Since Lent was based on this forty-day period of fasting, the church was mistakenly making a precept of fasting ritual: “Christ did not fast to set an example for others, but to prove, in so beginning to proclaim the gospel, that it was no human doctrine but actually one sent from heaven.”535 Even worse, this period of fasting in Lent degenerated into a time when people mocked God with feigned abstinence. Echoing Jerome and Augustine, Calvin strongly decries the substitution of certain acceptable delicacies in the place of eating meat. The Catholic fasts had been turned to more sumptuous, dainty feasts, leading to a harsh conclusion: “I say only this, that both in fasts and in all other parts of discipline the papists have nothing right, nothing sincere, nothing well-ordered and arranged, to give them occasion to boast, as if anything remained among them deserving of praise.”536

Some of his comments on the synoptic gospels also reflect this distancing of fasting from merit or true worship in itself, while still allowing for its proper place. In commenting on the fasting of Anna in Luke 2:37, he takes pains to point out that not everything in a saintly person needs to be emulated by all, but that different people will be called to different acceptable vocations of good works. Fasting is not required, but prayer is. Fasting may be an aid to prayer, but should not be mistaken for worship in itself. “We must keep the distinction, that prayers are a direct service to God, but fasting only consequentially.”537 Similarly, Christ’s fasting for forty days was not given as an example to be followed in the Lenten season (which he mocks here), but rather it set him apart from common men and validated his heavenly message, like Moses and Elijah before him.538

Fasting in Commentaries on the Gospels: Brief Comments Toward the Middle Way. In brief comments on Matt 6:16-18, he reiterates his understanding of fasting as “a work of indifferent value,” inferior in itself to prayer and almsgiving in the near context. Fasting can please God to a point, “as long as it is directed to an end beyond itself, namely, to prompt us to abstinence, to subject the lasciviousness of the flesh, to incense us to a desire for prayer, to testify to our repentance, whenever we are moved by the judgment of God.”539 Commenting on the synoptic fasting query of Matt 9:14-17, Calvin notes how easily people wish to make into law those means that they find agreeable to themselves. John’s disciples were “ensnared in these coils of Satan,” and although their fasting regimen may have been a good thing, it could not be imposed on Christian liberty. Like Luther, Calvin does not even mention in this section the possible appropriate use of fasting after the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, but merely notes that it is a sign that when things are well, we can be assured that harder times will come.540

While Calvin clearly was advocating the same basic theology of fasting in his commentaries that he was in his Institutes, it is somewhat striking how little is actually said. Those things that are said mention that fasting can be a positive thing, but the emphasis here appears to have turned to the more negative. While both Luther and Calvin have said some positive things about fasting, it would not be surprising for their followers to lose this sense of balance that, at least by their words, they were hoping to promote. In short, later Protestants could easily lose the positive words about fasting amid the negative polemic against Catholicism.

Ulrich Zwingli: Liberty of Conscience Over Fasting

If Luther and Calvin were seeking a middle way for fasting but couched it in negative polemics, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) focuses rather on the polemics while allowing, at least in word, a theoretical basis for fasting. Zwingli took an especially dim view of the fasting of the Catholic church, although some of his comments indicate that it could have a positive purpose.

On True and False Religion: Avoid Pretense and Fast Simply. In his work On True and False Religion he discusses fasting on a few occasions, particularly as an example of works done for wrong motives. In discussing almsgiving and fasting in relation to Matthew 6, he criticizes the use of fasting that would be for show, or would substitute different delicacies, or for weight loss, or saving money, or as a good work in itself. But he does say that, in contrast, fasting “ought to be done simply for the purpose of hearing of the voice and bidding of the Spirit.”541 Fasting is listed as a possible pretence before God along with murmuring prayers and feeding the hungry, if done without faith.542 In arguing for his symbolic understanding of the Eucharist, he cites Origen, who places the Eucharist in a category with fasting as something which enhances one’s religious experience, and Hilary, who said that those who were without Christ were fasting in his absence, while true believers had the resurrected Christ in their hearts.543

Liberty Respecting Food in Lent: Fasting Cannot Be Mandated Over a Free Conscience. Zwingli came over time to reject Lenten fasting as a practice that was not obligated by Scripture and therefore could not be enforced on the Christian populace. In a sermon entitled Liberty Respecting Food in Lent, dated April 16, 1522, he declared the observance of Lent as incongruous with the general practice of the Christian gospel, and the ensuing dispute actually caused street fighting.544

Zwingli argued that foods themselves do not defile a person, and that the NT endorses the eating of all kinds of foods (citing Peter’s experience in Acts 10). Paul saw foods as indifferent and matters of expediency (1 Cor 6:12, 8:8, 10:25), and no one should be judged in regard to observance of a holy day (Col 2:16). Forbidding foods may even be a sign of false teaching (1 Tim 4:1; Titus 1:5; Heb 13:9).545 Therefore, food itself is neither good nor bad, and the only true sin comes in abusing it too much, not in eating or not eating at certain times. Forbidding certain foods at certain times is an edict of men, not of God, and therefore not binding on the conscience.

However, Zwingli does allow for free exercise of the practice, saying, “Let each one fast as often as the spirit of true belief urges him.”546 He notes how Jesus allowed his disciples to break the Sabbath practices as observed by men in Mark 2:23, and that Paul preaches freedom of conscience in indifferent matters (1 Cor 3:21, 7:35). Rather than fasting like naughty children who refuse to eat broth when meat is not set before them, Christians should fast when they are moved by conscience.

In a word, if you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meat, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter. You who are an idler should fast often, should often abstain from foods that make you lustful. But the labourers’ lusts pass away at the hoe and plough in the field.547

The rest of the sermon argues similarly for Christian liberty, concluding that no governors of the church have a right to set up fasting or abstinence as a common law, though Christians may accept such practices for themselves.548 Zwingli had to defend his positions before certain church delegations, and clarified that he did not forbid people to observe Lent, but wanted to keep it from being imperiously prescribed. Those who wished to fast during Lent could fast all year as far as he was concerned, and he doubted that there would be any lack of people who advised fasting—he just wanted to keep them from running things. “While I forbid no man’s fasting, I leave it free to him.”549

Defense of the Reformed Faith: Catholic Fasting Is Hypocrisy. In Zwingli’s Defense of the Reformed Faith, Article 16, he chastises Catholic hypocrisy, including the fasting practices of Lent, which he considered foolish. He says that the fasting query of Matthew 9 shows that where Christ is present, fasting is not needed. If someone becomes carnally minded, the Spirit might lead him by fasting and sorrow back to Christ.550 In Article 26 he compares Catholics to the Jewish hypocrites who fasted and prayed ostentatiously, and Jesus rebuked them strongly.551

These few comments of Zwingli are enough to show his strong desire to emphasize the liberty of Christian conscience. While he allows for fasting as a possible expression of that free conscience, he clearly is moving in a direction away from fasting as a regular, prescribed practice. This has the effect of generally diminishing the practice of fasting while it is still endorsed, at least theoretically. In Zwingli we clearly see the pendulum swinging from the prescriptions of Catholic fasting to putting it in the realm of the freedom of the conscience. While this appears to be a proper and helpful corrective, the abolition of Lent and the general tenor of the polemics against Catholic fasting suggest an overall downgrading of the importance of fasting. Following this line of reasoning, then, it should not be surprising that fasting would eventually receive relatively little attention in certain strands of Reformed Protestantism.

John Knox: Catholic Fasting Is Hypocrisy, but True Fasting Is Encouraged

Like Zwingli and Calvin, John Knox (1514-1572) came to reject the mandatory practice of Lenten fasting. But more like Calvin, Knox seeks to retain a genuine role for fasting in religious experience. In his History of the Reformation in Scotland, he records the condemnation of George Wischart, a martyr for the Reformed cause. In Article 17 of his condemnation, he was accused of being a heretic, condemning fasting and saying that people should not fast. His answer shows that he did not condemn fasting, and actually practiced it, which was confirmed by other testimonials.552 But he desired a true fasting:

My Lordis, I find that Fasting is commended in the Scripture; tharefor I war a sclanderar of the Gospell, yf I contemned fasting. And not so onlye, but I have learned by experience, that fasting is good for the health and conservatioun of the body. But God knowith onlye who fastith the trew fast.553

Knox wrote a fairly lengthy treatise on the occasion of the proclamation of a general public fast in Scotland in 1565, the first called there since the Reformation, and ordered by the assembly due to the extreme need for ministers and gathering of strength for the churches amidst Catholic persecution. This tract was published on several later fasting occasions as well.554 Knox was concerned that the Papists understand that he was not advocating what he had previously condemned in them, and that on the other hand, people ignorant of the practice of fasting might understand its purposes.555 He maintained his belief that the Catholic fasts were hypocritical and not true fasting before God. He cited familiar and obscure biblical examples of fasting and hypocrisy, urging a genuine fast that includes repentance of the heart. The message includes liturgical instructions, beginning with a confession to be read, followed by reading the preacher’s own chosen Scripture text on which the sermon will be founded, followed by certain prayers, psalms, and Scriptures. The abstinence would start from Saturday night and extend through Sunday afternoon, broken only by bread and water, and include abstaining from other pleasures like games. This routine would last a week.556

It is clear, then, that Knox and his fellow Scottish Reformers believed in creating a positive role for fasting in both their individual and community lives. While rejecting Catholic fasts as hypocrisy, Knox took pains to teach and encourage the kind of fasting that Calvin had also advocated in his Institutes. The Reformed tradition encouraged fasting, especially for special, solemn, corporate assemblies, as evidenced in the discussion “Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath-Day” in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.5:

The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith, and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.557

Anabaptists and Mennonites:
An Ascetic Tradition That Says Little About Fasting

Moving forward to the heirs of the “Radical Reformation,” one discovers something of an anomaly. Interestingly, fasting receives little to no attention in the Anabaptist tradition. Considering their emphasis on personal piety, sobriety in customs, and renunciation of worldliness, fasting would seem to be a natural fit. Kenneth Davis has described Anabaptists as having a basically ascetic structure to their theology of holiness.558 Considering this, it is remarkable that fasting does not seem to factor into that theology or practice in any large way. There are no references to fasting in the writings of Menno Simons or their other major leaders, although there are references to sober eating and drinking.559 Van der Zijpp mentions only the Gnadenfeld-Alexanderwohl communities’ joint confession of faith of 1787 apparently contained a statement about “right evangelical fasting according to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures,” but little else is said.560 There are a few records of special days of fasting and prayer being called in certain assemblies, and a handful of references to Mennonite and Amish communities who fasted occasionally in connection with seasonal communion services, or Good Friday. Some of these practices have died out, while some communities still observe them.561

Perhaps the primitivist approach to religion of Anabaptists, which often led to a rejection of established church tradition, led to a disinterest in fasting, which they might have associated with the traditions that persecuted them. Whatever the reason, it seems that fasting did not play much of a role in the shaping of the Anabaptist tradition, and certainly this tradition has been influential in modern evangelicalism. While it would be difficult to document, it seems reasonable to conjecture that this is one strand in the reasons for a relative lack of explicit references to fasting in modern evangelical thought and practice. Yet the basic theology of Anabaptist tradition would suggest at least the possibility of a welcome place for fasting, and perhaps that too could factor into an evangelical resurgence of interest in the practice.

The Anglicans and Methodists:
Balancing Traditional Fasting and Spiritual Discipline in Protestantism

The Church of England sought to promote fasting as spiritual discipline. They retained fasting traditions that had been handed down from Catholicism, while doing so in the context of the Protestant ideal of a free conscience. While this attempt at balance may not always have been met with general enthusiasm, John Wesley and the early Methodists provide an example of this virtuous balance in practice.

The Church of England: Fasting Traditions Promoted to a Free Conscience

The nature of the Reformation in England had the effect of retaining similar forms for fasting as traditionally practiced in Catholicism, even though some currents of thought led to more Protestant distinctions. Specifically, the liberty of individual Christians is valued highly, so that the traditional fasts are encouraged, but seen as voluntary.

This noble desire to uphold ancient church traditions on the one hand, while not overly binding conscience on the other, can be seen in Thomas Becon’s “Treatise of Fasting.” Becon was chaplain to Archbishop Cranmer during the reign of Edward VI and author of the first major English catechism. His fasting treatise purports to be the first discussion of religious fasting in the English language.562 Becon defines true Christian fasting as being done freely and willingly, and it is not only abstaining from food and drink, but other pleasures as well, in contrition of heart with a mind bent toward godliness.563 In support of fasting, he examines dozens of the typical biblical examples. He contrasts true fasting with the “popish and superstitious fast” that is done for mere custom, or even worse, to earn forgiveness and everlasting life.564 Becon chastises the Catholics for substituting better tasting fish for a little meat, or eating large quantities at night, and compared them to the hypocrites Jesus condemned.565 Becon follows Chrysostom’s comments on Matthew in saying that true fasting requires anointing the head, washing the face, and doing it in secret. The anointing is spiritually interpreted as mercy for the poor, and the washing as a pure conscience. 566 Fasting reminds us that possessions are to be shared, as not eating will make us appreciate those who go hungry. The purity of heart in fasting is in line with Isaiah 58 and freedom from hypocrisy. And secrecy is not so much that no one else knows, as it is that the true heart motive is that the actions are done for God alone. As for the ends of fasting, the first is that of mortifying the flesh, so that it will obey the spirit, “as an hand-maid her mistress, or an horse his keeper.”567 The second reason to fast is to learn to give liberally to the poor. Third, fasting makes one “more apt to pray,” and the biblical examples are once again reviewed.568 Fourth and finally, fasting makes one more receptive to hearing the word of God in humility.

The desire to uphold tradition in fasting while freeing the conscience can again be seen in a pronouncement on fasting communion adopted in 1899.569 Pains are taken to affirm that fasting is a healthy self-discipline and the reception of the Eucharist a very solemn occasion. Nevertheless, the Lord’s Supper was initiated in the context of a meal, and the reasons for fasting before the Eucharist are probably more customary in nature, having to do with the rise of asceticism in the early church, and do not arise from Scripture. Therefore such rules are not binding, and the church is reminded, “Fasting, again, is a means to an end and not an end in itself.”570 On this particular matter, the Church of England desired to apply Paul’s teaching not to let matters of eating or not eating be a matter of judgment, as in Rom 14:3 and 14:5.

So while the Church of England in theory seeks to free the conscience, and to a great extent does so in general practice, it still advocates the seasonal fasting rituals of the Roman Catholic Church.571 A comparison of the canon law of the two bodies on fasting shows that beyond similar Lenten practice, the Church of England actually retains more fasting days than the Roman Catholic Church, since the latter has substituted days of prayer for fasting on traditional ember days (fasts at the beginning of the four seasons of the year, as well as before ordinations, certain feast days or those called by bishops) and rogation days (the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Sunday).572 In a tract from 1833, Edward Pusey said 108 possible fast days appeared on the Church of England’s calendar, although Pusey himself was noting how little they were actually observed.573

Wesley and the Methodists: A Revival of Disciplined Fasting

John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodists, both practiced and advocated fasting in strong ways. Wesley’s comments make it clear that he did not believe the Church of England of his day was actually practicing the kind of fasting that it officially advocated, at least not in accord with biblical truth or vital habits of the disciplined life. The many statements by Wesley in his journal about fasting, discussed below, show that he and the early Methodists associated with him regularly practiced fasting. Additionally, his sermons and other writings advocate a balanced, but passionate, approach to fasting as a spiritual discipline.

Wesley’s and the Early Methodists’ Experience: Fasting as a Living Discipline. With regard to his personal practice, Wesley recorded in his journal in December 1, 1725, how he resolved to fast every Wednesday in a month when he felt he was struggling with careless sins during his Oxford days.574 He came to regularly practice this Wednesday fast, and in a letter of Oct. 11, 1732, said he had been practicing this for six months.575 He said that his Holy Club of Oxford Methodists began observing the fasts of the church, “the general neglect of which we can by no means apprehend to be a lawful excuse for neglecting them.”576 This suggests that the early Methodists felt their fasting practices were both traditional, and because of the lack of common practice, revivalist.

Wesley recorded on March 30-31, 1736, how he and his companions in Savannah were experimenting with a diet that consisted only of bread and “were never more vigorous than while we tasted nothing else.” While every kind of food is a good gift from God, those who need help in purity should “use every help, and remove every hindrance.”577 On Friday, August 17, 1739, Wesley records that many of his society agreed to “obey the Church to which we belong by observing all Fridays in the year as days of fasting or abstinence.”578 Wesley and his companions practiced their Wednesday and Friday fasts regularly throughout their ministry, patterned after the early church, and his diaries suggest a great level of self-denial in relation to food, sleep, and other things.579

In Wesley’s Appeals he makes it clear that there were those who wrongly felt they were righteous for going to church, taking the sacraments, and observing certain fasts, like that of the Anglican memorial to the execution of King Charles on January 31. Such religion could prove vain, if done without love, a form of godliness without the power, since an inwardly motivated religion of the heart was necessary.580 He defended his Methodists when they were accused of undermining church law by pointing out that they were actually keeping church law more scrupulously than others, as evidenced by their attention to the fast days.581

There are dozens of passing references to fasting in his journals, giving evidence that he and his companions observed national, church and personal fasts at a very dedicated level.582 Wesley commended the duty of fasting in a letter, writing that “Our Lord annexes a peculiar promise even to secret fasting.”583 He speaks of consecrating a solemn fast during a mission in Bristol, after which the work revived.584

Yet later in his life, Wesley would note that few of his Methodists were practicing the regular fasts. A sermon from 1790, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity,” notes the decline. He decries the lack of self-denial evidenced by the abandonment of their previous fasting habits, including even ministers on days of giving the sacraments. He strongly asserts here that according to Scripture, “the man that never fasts is no more in the way to heaven than the man that never prays.”585 In the 1797 Form of Discipline, he wrote:

The neglect of this is sufficient to account for our feebleness and faintness of spirit. We are continually grieving the Holy Spirit by the habitual neglect of a plain duty! Let us amend from this hour… . Begin next Friday, and avow this duty wherever you go.586

Sermons on Fasting: Not an End, But a Precious Means. When preaching on the Sermon on the Mount, he showed keen awareness of the Pharisees’ practice of fasting twice a week. He urged his people to avoid the hypocrisy of those who wished to be seen by others, like the Pharisee who commended himself to God in Luke 18.587 Yet, Christians ought not let their righteousness fall short of the Pharisees, and while fleeing hypocrisy, should be sure to pray and fast diligently, availing themselves of the means of grace and doing good.588 In another discourse, he notes how some go to extremes of fasting, others to neglect:

Those have spoken of it as if it were all in all; if not the end itself, yet infallibly connected with it: these, as if it were just nothing; as if it were a fruitless labour, which had no relation at all thereto. Whereas it is certain the truth lies between them both. It is not all, nor yet is it nothing. It is not the end, but it is a precious means thereto; a means which God Himself has ordained, and in which therefore, when it is duly used, He will surely give us His blessing.589

In his sermon, he shows himself aware of ancient Jewish fasting practices and early church references as well as biblical teachings and examples. He says that the natural grounds of fasting are sorrow and burdens for sin, and as an aid to prayer, where believers might avert the wrath of God’s judgment, or seek his blessings. He urges Christians to practice fasting regularly and as much as desired, while being careful not to set aside normal Christian duties.590 Christians should fast before God and not for men, not fancying any notion of merit in the bare act, and with diligence to afflict the soul as well as the body, praying and doing good deeds as fitting accompaniments.591

The Decline of Fasting Practices in Western Christianity to the Modern Era

It is generally agreed that there is a lack of attention given to fasting in the modern era. In 1968 Arthur Wallis commented, “For nearly a century and a half fasting has been out of vogue, at least in the churches of the West.”592 Similarly, Richard Foster remarked that in his research on spiritual disciplines, he could not find a single book that had been published on the topic of Christian fasting between 1861 and 1954.593 While there are minor exceptions to Foster’s statement, the substance seems basically accurate.594 Additionally, examples of the decline of attention being paid to fasting can be seen below in monastic practice, Protestant practice, and the gradual elimination of national fast days. The points discussed below suggest a decline in these specific aspects of fasting practice, and this relative lack of attention might suggest a more general decline in interest in Christian fasting.595 Some possible reasons for this decline will be offered below.

The Decline of Fasting in Monasticism

Adalbert de Vogüé, a great French scholar of the history of asceticism and himself a Benedictine monk, notes the decline of fasting in monastic tradition and seeks to trace the reasons. The decline from strict observance of ancient rules is obvious, but the reasons remain elusive. He rejects some suggestions offered by his brethren, such as the notion that modern men are more feeble than their ancient counterparts, the need for more frequent food because more work is being done in monastic communities, and the need to eat frequently for fellowship in the common life. Instead, he finds the decline most in evidence in tracing the evolution of eating practices in Europe, arguing that the sole evening meal of antiquity encroached earlier into the day until there was a noon meal, and finally breakfast was added.596

This historical reconstruction may apply in a general way to the practices of monastic life, but lacks evidence for a more general understanding of eating practices in general society, and so it is less than entirely convincing. Still, it is interesting to note that an astute observer of asceticism in history and modern practitioner sees the fact of the decline of fasting as rather general and obvious. De Vogüé criticizes the commentaries on St. Benedict’s Rule that praise the latitude offered the community: “By praising Benedict for having mitigated the observances of his predecessors, the monks absolve themselves implicitly for not being faithful to his.”597 There is evidence that despite monastic vows of poverty and commitments to self-discipline, typical monks often partook of diets that were anything but austere. English Reformer Thomas Becon caricatured a monk who was especially known for fasting, who in his regular meal ate what could have served “six godly fasters.”598 In Léo Moulin’s intriguing article, “Monks Fasted but were Plump,” he describes the regular ration in medieval monasteries as consisting of up to 4,700 calories per day. Their regular diets combined with regular fasting created an unbalanced approach to eating, which actually seems counter-productive to their own lifestyle goals of temperance:

These practices promoted an obsession with food, and on the other hand, led to a sense of suffering (which has its merits) when they mortified the flesh by fasting. Leaving the table without having wholly satisfied one’s hunger, not eating between meals, abstaining from meat—the most beneficial thing they could have done—these things were in fact a challenge which was no doubt more keenly felt than the twin burdens of chastity and obedience.599

Under such circumstances, it is not surprising that observers both inside and outside the monasteries might criticize monastic fasting practices. One might also speculate that the sharp Reformation critique of Catholic fasting could have found some resonance even within the walls of the monasteries, creating a sensitivity that could prompt changes in behavior.

The Decline of Fasting in Protestantism

As examined above, the controversies of the Reformation clearly put Catholic fasting practices in a dim light. While the Reformers themselves may have kept a place for fasting in their minds, they certainly put the Protestant churches on a general trajectory away from the ritualized, formalized and often trivialized approaches to fasting in Catholicism. When the Reformed churches quit practicing Lent, fast days became more occasional than regular in nature. With the emphasis on the freedom of the conscience, natural human tendencies to choose not to fast could certainly gain momentum, and so it should not be entirely surprising that Protestant churches practiced fasting less and less over time.

The Reformers sought to rescue fasting from what were seen as affronts to the gospel inherent in its contemporary practice. In this effort they sought a middle way between the apparent excesses of Catholicism and the danger of self-indulgence on the other hand. But this trajectory of reduction was followed until, over time, fasting was virtually eliminated by Protestants. De Vogüé also discusses the comments of Luther (whom he sees as simplistic) and Calvin (whom he appreciates much more for his synthetic thought), and concludes that they tended to minimize the role of fasting because of the excesses of their day. His trenchant comment here deserves note: “Desiring to purify fasting, we have killed it. Were not all its defects in the end less grave than the total effacement of it, which is our present state?”600

Wesley’s comments examined above show that he believed that fasting had already declined greatly in England by his day. As already noted, the Anglican church in its calendar maintained a closer resemblance to Catholic fasting practices, and 108 possible fast days appeared on the church’s official calendar when Edward Pusey wrote about the subject in 1833. But the church’s allowance of generous liberty in the practice of fasts apparently resulted in fasting not being regularly practiced, and according to Pusey, “the Church herself had tacitly abandoned them.”601

It is interesting to note that in Princeton Seminary’s 1810 charter, “The Plan of a Theological Seminary,” Article 5, Section 1, “It is also wished and recommended, that each student should ordinarily set apart one day in a month for special prayer and self-examination in secret, accompanied with fasting.”602 So here is an example of fasting being promoted as a spiritual discipline by a major Protestant institution, although one wonders how much of this older Calvinist piety was actually being practiced, and how much or it survived the school’s reorganization of its charter in 1929.

As already noted, the lacuna in literature related specifically to fasting makes it difficult to assess Protestant attitudes toward fasting as the modern era progressed. As will be seen in the following chapter, there was a mushrooming of books related to fasting as a spiritual discipline by Protestant evangelicals beginning in the latter half of the twentieth century. This change in the published literature suggests in a general way that a lack of attention was being then being addressed. But one further point is yet to be addressed, and that is the phenomenon of the decline of national or societal fast days.

National Fasts and Their Modern Decline

It was only natural in politically Christian nations, as in the Israelite kingdom that served to some extent as their ancient model, for government and religion to coordinate social structures, especially as responses to disasters or wars. These responses often included official, national proclamations of fast days, with attendant moral requirements of special liturgies for corporate worship in prayer and fasting, as well as social requirements of shutting down of commerce. These practices began to decline in the modern era, apparently corresponding with the secularization and pluralization of Western nations.

New England Puritan Community Fasts

The modern decline in community fasting practices stands in sharp contrast to the early days of Puritan New England, when some of Calvin’s staunchest followers apparently took to heart his admonitions to pastors to call for days of fasting in the face of difficulty and for repentance:

Records indicate that Plymouth called for at least sixty-nine fast days between 1620 and 1697, a figure that does not include the “frequent fasts” that were observed between 1654 and 1667 due to their lack of a pastor, and undoubtedly numerous other fasts that were simply not recorded.603

Difficult days prompted calls for prayer and fasting, while times of feasting and thanksgiving helped the community maintain a cyclical relationship between fasting and normal eating without the trappings of the more detailed church year.604 In a fast day sermon first preached January 7, 1748 in Philadelphia, Gilbert Tennent stated that fasting was abused by the Catholics, and neglected by Protestants:

Indeed the Papists do sometimes make a pretence of fasting, but ity may be truly said that many of their fasts are mock-fasts, feasts instead of fasts. It must also be confessed that many Protestants sadly neglect this duty of fasting to their great prejudice in religion. All those who would have their corruptions mortified must take pains and use proper means for that end. Fasting is among the most uselful means for it has a noble tendency to keep the body in subjection to the mind. But this duty is so contrary to people’s keen appetites that they can scarcely be brought to believe in it, and it is still more difficult for the to practice it.605

It appears that these kinds of fasts took place into the nineteenth century, though they were practiced less and less over time. National fasts were observed in the United States through the Civil War period, but there is no record of any after 1865.606

British National Fasts

Richard J. Janet has provided a thorough historical examination of the nature of and responses to general fasts proclaimed during the Victorian era in England. Up until this time, these specifically occasional, general fasts were a fairly regular part of civic life in England, as well as the American colonies. In the period examined five general fasts were proclaimed, in response to a cholera epidemic, the Irish potato famine, the Crimean war (two occasions), and the Indian mutiny. After these, however, the British government ceased calling for general fast days, though there were national observances of days of prayer, carrying less solemn requirements and legal overtones.

With incidents like the cholera epidemic and potato famine, it is easy to see continuity between biblical fasts in times of national threat or disaster beyond human control. As such, the fast functions as a time of repentance, solemn reflection on the wisdom of providence and seeking of guidance for a course of action. But war can be a trickier application, as the Crimean example suggests. Finding occasion for repentance and immediate danger in this occasion was difficult for the British, as their homeland was not threatened and it was an act of flexing military muscle abroad. The picture of Britain as a pious knight keeping a solemn vigil before going out on a noble crusade harked back to an era of Christian aggression that was disappearing, and the irony that Russian Orthodoxy also prayed for victory for their presumably despotic czar heightens the feeling of incongruity. The mixed results of the campaign stirred debate about the appropriateness of a second general fast day that was called, and one can see the erosion of Britain’s moral certainty coupled with its growing confusion over it global position and national identity.607 The Indian mutiny of 1857 likewise confronted Britain with a national military problem far from the homeland. While moral outrage seemed to prevail when “pagans” attacked the Christian government in India, it is interesting that this marks the last occasion for a general fast. To some it seemed that the fast was more utilitarian as a common expression of sympathy grief rather than as national repentance, though some still called for that in conjunction.608

Janet convincingly argues that the pluralizing of British society in the Victorian era was bringing about a different understanding of the interactions of church and state, and this led to the decline of general fast days. As an example, he cites prime minister Gladstone, who said in 1846, “The process which I am now actively engaged in carrying on is a process of lowering the religious tone of the State, letting it down, demoralizing it—i.e., stripping it of its ethical character and assisting its transition into one which is mechanical.”609 While people generally may have viewed prayer and fasting as having value, its role in national life was becoming marginalized. “In a modernizing, increasingly democratic and pluralistic state religious neutrality becomes the reflex response to agitation by minority sects or confusion generated by traditional public religion.”610 While there may have been some tendency in modern England to forsake supernatural explanations of events for more naturalistic, scientific ones, in the end the social forces of modern life probably had more to do with the end of general fasts than theology did. Janet concludes:

It can be seen that fasts were challenged (and finally abandoned) because of their inevitable entanglement in the political, social, intellectual and ecclesiastical controversies of a modernizing world. The change in English politics (toward democratic participation), society (toward egalitarianism, or, at least, civil liberties) and ecclesiastical structure (toward stricter denominational definition and discipline) meant the outdating of public fasts as universal expressions of religious belief called by the state and directed by the established church.611

Possible Reasons for the Decline of Fasting

Along with his historical observations, de Vogüé offers four plausible theological reasons why fasting may have declined into the modern era.612 First, one must take into account the natural concept of the weakness of the flesh, which requires constant diligence for the maintaining of practices that require discipline. “Christian fasting has disappeared, because pastors and faithful have not reinvented it together in each generation.”613 Second, a “disincarnate spirituality” seems to prevail in the church, one that divorces spiritual realities from bodily, physical practices. Third, the approach that categorizes fasting as a penalty for sin impoverishes its positive value. Fourth, the idea that obedience is better than fasting can easily cause other good things to become substitutes for fasting itself, so that in time fasting is no longer practiced, though it may be held up in name.

Régamey, writing in 1959 (before the renewal of fasting which he hoped for in Catholicism was to some extent set in motion, as discussed in the following chapter), offered five possible reasons for the decline of fasting.614 First, the dualism of body and soul, deeply embedded in Christian tradition, hampers a proper understanding of the role of fasting. Second, the popular notion that the form of fasting is not important for spirituality leads to an abstraction of the practice, until the concept of fasting becomes relatively meaningless. Third, he suggests that the weakened condition of faith in modern Christianity precludes Christians from a general willingness to follow in the way of the cross and discipline. Fourth, the development of naturalism has affected people so that they see fasting as a mystical element from an ancient worldview. Finally, the upheavals in the structures of modern life militate against cultural fasting practices on a wide scale. Together, he believes these factors have led to a practically complete neglect of authentic fasting practices in modern church life.

Perhaps it is not surprising in light of history, theology and human nature that fasting declined in the modern era. When one considers Catholicism, one is reminded of the excesses of ancient and medieval ascetics, the cumbersome intricacies and exceptions of canon law, and the popular redefinition of the practice.615 Considering Protestantism, one is sent on a theological trajectory against Catholicism that reduces the importance of fasting, severs it from churchly and governmental authority, and marches into a modernity that stands in a largely antithetical climate to its practice. While there appears to be no substantial voice in the leadership streams of Christian thought that has decided definitively against fasting, relatively little specific, substantial attention has been paid to fasting as a practice.

So it appears that Catholic Christian communities largely obscured the underlying biblical theology of fasting over the centuries, and the Protestant Reformation tried to recapture biblical emphases. But in practice, the pendulum swung away from actually practicing fasting. Governments in Christian nations, like England that was examined in some detail, gradually saw their role move from promoting clear spiritual functions in society to more pluralized functions. So with churches and society promoting fasting less and less, with the excesses of monasticism in the background and modern materialism in the foreground, it would be more surprising if fasting had somehow continued to have a robust Christian expression. If there is to be some kind of renewal of fasting practices in contemporary times, Christians will need to sense a defensible underlying theology of fasting, and something of the possible spiritual effects of the practice. In the latter part of the 20th century such a renewal appears to have begun. An examination of that renewal, with attendant theological questions, will be undertaken in the final chapter.


461 Daniel Callam, “Fasting, Christian,” in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. Joseph R. Strayer (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985), 5: 18.

462 Samuel Rubenson, “Asceticism: Christian Perspectives,” Encycopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), 1: 92.

463 AujtoV" ajskw' ajprovskopon suneivdhsin e[cein proV" toVn qeoVn kaiV touV" ajnqrwvpou" diaV pantov".

464 Callam, 5: 19.

465 For a detailed treatment of Franciscan fasting rules, which are not examined here, see Jordan Joseph Sullivan, Fast and Abstinence in the First Order of Saint Francis: A Historical Synopsis and a Commentary, The Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 374 (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1957).

466 Jordan Aumann, “Origins of Monasticism,” Monasticism: a Historical Overview, Word and Spirit 6 (Still River, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1984), 4-10.

467 In addition to sources cited here, see Vincent L. Wimbush, ed., Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity: A Sourcebook, Studies in Antiquity and Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); Owen Chadwick, ed. and trans., Western Asceticism, Library of Christian Classics 12 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1943); Alban Goodier, An Introduction to the Study of Ascetical and Mystical Theology (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1938).

468 Thomas O’Loughlin, “Fasting: Western Christian,” Encycopedia of Monasticism, 1: 470.

469 Robert C. Gregg, trans. and ed., Athanasius: The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist, 1980), 7.

470 Samuel Rubenson, “Antony, St.,” in Encyclopedia of Monasticism, 1: 40.

471 Life 7, Gregg, 36.

472 Life 47, Gregg, 66-67.

473 Life 5, 23, 27, Gregg, 33-34, 48, 51-52.

474 Michael D. Peterson, “Fasting: Eastern Christian,” Encycopedia of Monasticism, ed. William M. Johnston (Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2000), vol. 1: 469.

475 Éphrem le Syrien, Hymnes sur le jeûne, trans. Dominique Cerbelaud, Spiritualité Orientale 69 (Maine-&-Loire: Abbaye de Bellefontaine, 1997).

476 Ibid., 21, 30.

477 O’Loughlin, 471.

478 John Cassian: The Conferences, and John Cassian: The Institutes, trans. Boniface Ramsey, ACW 57 and 58 (New York: Paulist, 1997).

479 Conf. 21.13-14, ACW 57: 729-31.

480 Conf. 5.4-5, ACW 57: 183-85.

481 Conrad Leyser, Authority and Asceticism from Augustine to Gregory the Great, Oxford Historical Monographs (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000), 167. Gregory went on to comment that the link between gluttony and lust is clear, because of the proximity of the stomach to the genitals (citing Mor. 31.45.89, CCSL 143B, 1611). This theme can be traced back to Philo, De Agr. (On Husbandry) 8.36-38, as mentioned here in the first chapter, above.

482 Conf. 2.17, ACW 57: 100.

483 For a discussion of the specifics of the disciplines, see Columba Stewart, Cassian the Monk, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 62-76.

484 St. Maximus the Confessor: The Ascetic Life, and The Four Centuries on Charity, trans. Polycarp Sherwood, ACW 21 (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1955), 24, 35, 47, 57, 70; Char. 1.42, 79; 2.19; 3.13.

485 Benedict, The Holy Rule of Our Most Holy Father Saint Benedict, ed. Benedictine Monks of St. Meinrad Archabbey (St. Meinrad, Ind.: Grail, 1956), vii-viii.

486 Rule 39, Benedict, The Rule of St. Benedict, trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M. L. del Mastro (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1975), 80.

487 Rule 40, Ibid., 81.

488 Rule 41, Ibid., 81-82.

489 Rule 49, Ibid., 87-88.

490 Elizabeth A. Clark, “New Perspectives on the Origenist Controversy: Human Embodiment and Ascetic Strategies,” Forms of Devotion: Conversion, Worship, Spirituality, and Asceticism, ed. Everett Ferguson, Recent Studies in Early Christianity: A Collection of Scholarly Essays (New York: Garland, 1999), 258-61.

491 Vööbus, 116-19.

492 Herbert Musurillo, “The Problem of Ascetical Fasting in the Greek Patristic Writers,” Traditio 12 (1956): 12-13.

493 Ibid.: 13-14.

494 Giles Constable, Attitudes Toward Self-Inflicted Suffering in the Middle Ages, Stephen J. Brademas, Sr., Lecture 9 (Brookline, Mass.: Hellenic College, 1982), discusses these and numerous other examples.

495 Constable, 7.

496 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, trans. Samuel Parsons and Albert Pinheiro, vol. 53 (New York: Blackfriars, McGraw-Hill, 1971): 79-81.

497 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, trans. James J. Cunningham, 57: 225-27.

498 Ibid., 57: 65-71.

499 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ, trans. Thomas Gilby, 43: 91.

500 Ibid.

501 Ibid., 43: 93.

502 Ibid., 43: 95.

503 Ibid., 43: 99.

504 Ibid., 43: 101.

505 Ibid., 43: 103-5.

506 Ibid., 43: 105-9.

507 Ibid., 43: 111.

508 Ibid., 43: 115-17.

509 Martin Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958-74), vol. 44: 74.

510 Luther, “Sermons on the Gospel of St. John,” Luther’s Works 23: 23.

511 Luther, “The Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works 21: 158.

512 Ibid., 21: 25.

513 Luther, “Lectures on Titus,” Luther’s Works 29: 7.

514 Luther, “Lectures on 1 Timothy,” Luther’s Works 28: 322.

515 Ibid., 28: 323.

516 Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” Luther’s Works 44: 74; cf. “Eight Sermons at Wittenberg: First Sermon, Mar. 9, 1522, Invocation Sunday,” Luther’s Works 51: 62.

517 Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” Luther’s Works 44: 75; cf. “Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works 21: 157-58: “For I really dare say that in what they termed ‘fasting’ in the papacy I never saw a genuine fast. How can I call it a fast if someone prepares a lunch of expensive fish, with the choicest spices, more and better than for two or three other meals, and washes it down with the strongest drink, and spends an hour or three at fill in his belly till it is stuffed? Yet that was the usual thing and a minor thing even among the very strictest monks. But it was the holy fathers, the bishops, the abbots, and the other prelates who were really strict in their observance, with ten and twenty courses and so much refreshment at night that several threshers could have lived on it for three days. It may well be that certain prisoners or poor and sick people were compelled to fast on account of poverty, but I know of no one who fasted for the sake of devotion, and still less now. But now these dear papists of mine have all become good Lutherans, and none of them thinks about fasting any more. Meanwhile the poor pastors on our side have to suffer hunger and trouble, and they have to observe a genuine fast every day in place of such people.”

518 Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” Luther’s Works 44: 75; “Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works 21: 162.

519 Luther, “Eight Sermons at Wittenberg: First Sermon,” Luther’s Works 51: 66.

520 Luther, “Lectures on 1 Timothy,” Luther’s Works 28: 322.

521 Luther, “Treatise on Good Works,” Luther’s Works 44: 76.

522 Luther, “The Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works 21: 155-56.

523 Ibid., 21: 161.

524 Ibid., 21: 157.

525 Luther, “Sermon on the Mount,” Luther’s Works 21: 159.

526 Ibid.

527 Ibid., 21: 160.

528 John Calvin, Isaiah, ed. Alister McGrath and J. I. Packer, The Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2000), 348.

529 John Calvin, Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics 20 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1: 611.

530 Ibid., 1: 689-96; cf. Institutes 3.19.7, Ibid., 1: 838-39.

531 Ibid., 2: 1241. According to the editor’s note, in mentioning those who reject fasting, Calvin may have been referring to Zwingli.

532 Ibid., 2: 1242.

533 Institutes 4.12.17-18, Ibid., 2: 1243-44.

534 Institutes 4.12.18, Ibid., 2: 1245.

535 Institutes 4.12.20, Ibid., 2: 1246.

536 Institutes 4.12.21, Ibid., 2: 1248.

537 John Calvin, A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, trans. A. W. Morrison, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 98.

538 Ibid., 134.

539 Ibid., 214-15.

540 Ibid., 267.

541 Ulrich Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson and Clarence Nevin Heller (Durham, N. C.: Labyrinth, 1981), 104.

542 Ibid., 154.

543 Ibid., 242, 244.

544 Ulrich Zwingli, The Latin Works and the Correspondencee of Huldreich Zwingli, Together with Selections from His German Works, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, trans. Walter Lichtenstein, Henry Preble, and Lawrence A. McLouth, vol. 1 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons/Knickerbocker, 1912): 70-71.

545 Ibid., 1: 73-79.

546 Ibid., 1: 80.

547 Ibid., 1: 87.

548 Ibid., 1: 110.

549 Ibid., 1: 123.

550 Ulrich Zwingli, Huldrych Zwingli Writings, trans. E. J. Furcha, 500th Anniversary Volume ed., vol. 1 (Allison Park, Penn.: Pickwick, 1984): 70, 72.

551 Ibid., 1: 202.

552 John Knox, The Works of John Knox, ed. David Laing (New York: Ames, 1966), vol. 6: 671.

553 Ibid., 1: 166.

554 Ibid., 6: 388-90.

555 Ibid., 6: 393-94.

556 Ibid., 6: 416-22.

557 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1190.

558 Kenneth Ronald Davis, Anabaptism and Asceticism: A Study in Intellectual Origins, Studies in Anabaptist and Mennonite History 16 (Kitchener, Ont.: Herald, 1974), 129-201.

559 This claim is made by N. van der Zijpp, “Fasting,” in The Mennonite Encyclopedia, ed. Harold S. Bender and C. Henry Smith (Scottdale, Penn.: Mennonite, 1956), 317. Checking various indices of Mennonite writings and databases appears to validate the statement.

560 Ibid.

561 Ibid.

562 Thomas Becon, The Catechism of Thomas Becon, with Other Pieces, ed. John Ayre, The Parker Society for the Publication of the Works of the Fathers and Early Writers of the Reformed English Church (Cambridge: University Press, 1844; reprint, 1968, Johnson Reprint), 527.

563 Ibid., 528.

564 Ibid., 533.

565 Ibid., 534.

566 Ibid., 537-38.

567 Ibid., 545.

568 Ibid., 547.

569 Francis John Jayne, ed., Anglican Pronouncements Upon Auricular Confession, Fasting Communion (London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co., 1907[?]), 59-62.

570 Ibid., 61.

571 For a historical perspective and explanation of the cycles of feasts and fasts, see Vernon Staley, The Liturgical Year: An Explanation of the Origin, History and Significance of the Festival Days and Fasting Days of the English Church (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1907).

572 Rhidian Jones, The Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England: A Handbook (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000), 63, 56, 122.

573 Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience, trans. Jean Baptist Hasbrouck (Petersham, Mass.: Saint Bede’s, 1989), 92, citing Edward Pusey, “Tract 18: Thoughts on the Benefits of the System of Fasting Enjoined by our Church” (London: 1845).

574 John Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M., ed. Nehemiah Curnock, Standard ed. (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1909), 1: 51.

575 Ibid., 1: 87-88. The occasion of the letter was to defend himself from the charge that another young friend of his had died because the Wesleys taught him to fast. Wesley replied that the other man had stopped fasting a year and a half earlier, and Wesley had only begun the regular weekly practice six months earlier.

576 Ibid., 1: 101.

577 Ibid., 1: 188-90.

578 Ibid., 2: 257.

579 Ibid., 1: 184, 468.

580 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. 11: The Appeals to Men of Reason and Religion and Certain Related Open Letters, ed. Gerald R. Cragg (Oxford: Clarendon, 1975), 62-63.

581 Ibid., 11: 79.

582 Wesley, Journal of Wesley, 3: 116, 130, 228, 432, 454; 4: 140, 147, 243, 249, 258, 299, 366, 372, 418, 423, 434; 5: 150, 223, 317, 496; 6: 7, 134, 181, 212, 222, 268, 304; 7: 423, 438, 471, 517.

583 Ibid., 7: 51.

584 Ibid., 4: 243.

585 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Sermons, ed. Albert C. Outler, Bicentennial ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987), vol. 4: 94.

586 John Wesley, The Works of Wesley: Wesley’s Standard Sermons, ed. Edward H. Sugden, 4th annotated ed. (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury, 1955), vol. 1: 448-49.

587 Ibid., 1: 412-13.

588 Ibid., 1: 420-21.

589 Ibid., 1: 451.

590 Ibid., 1: 455-66.

591 Ibid., 1: 467-70.

592 Arthur Wallis, God’s Chosen Fast (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1968), 8.

593 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, rev. ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1988), 47 (cf. also the similar experience told in Wallis, 6). These dates should be considered within the American evangelical experience, as there are some Catholic, Orthodox and liturgical books that deal with fasting during that period. The earlier date would roughly reflect the American Civil War, because up to that time a plethora of fast-day sermons and official calls for fast days exists. The later date roughly corresponds to the beginning of a resurgence of interest in fasting as a spiritual discipline, as discussed below.

594 For instance, Herman Arndt, Why Did Jesus Fast? (Cincinnati: by the author, 1922), 3, noted in his self-published work during this period that there was nothing available on fasting in the life of Christ, “which has been ignored as if it were an inscrutable mystery.” He further stated, “the theologians of almost nineteen centuries seem to have entered into a conspiracy of silence on this subject” (7). In his conclusion he remarks, “Fasting has been a mystery too long for the welfare of the human race. This has caused its disuse by the majority and its abuse by those using it without intelligence” (73). Yet his work shows awareness of the Scriptures, Talmud and patristic sources on fasting in general.

595 It is not being claimed here that Christian individuals or groups in various places were not fasting in meaningful ways, since that was likely happening. It would be beyond the general scope of this dissertation to try to document such local religious practices, and I have relied more upon published sources related specifically to fasting. Since there is a relative silence in these materials, this may suggest a general lack of specific attention being paid to fasting itself, although it may still have been practiced by Christians as an accompaniment to prayer and the like.

596 de Vogüé, 69-87. Cf. also his updated comments on the book, “On Regular Fasting,” Word and Spirit: A Monastic Review 13, Asceticism Today (Petersham, Mass.: St. Bede’s, 1991), 110-31.

597 Ibid., 94.

598 Becon, 534.

599 Léo Moulin, “Monks Fasted but Were Plump,” in On Fasting and Feasting: A Personal Collection of Favourite Writings on Food and Eating, ed. Alan Davidson (London: Macdonald Orbis, 1988), 199-200.

600 de Vogüé, 87-91.

601 de Vogüé, 92, citing Edward Pusey, “Tract 18: Thoughts on the Benefits of the System of Fasting Enjoined by our Church” (London: 1845).

602 David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: Volume 1, Faith and Learning 1812-1868 (Carlisle, Pa.: Banner of Truth, 1994), 426.

603 Martha Lawrence. Finch, “Corporality and Orthodoxy in Early New England: Plymouth Colony, 1620-1692” (Ph. D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 2000), 307-8, n. 132.

604 For a sampling of American fast day sermons in the 17th and 18th centuries, see Richard Owen Roberts, ed., Sanctify the Congregation: A Call to the Solemn Assembly and to Corporate Repentance (Wheaton, Ill.: International Awakening, 1994).

605 Gilbert Tennent, “Fasting and Prayer,” in Roberts, ed., 314.

606 Richard J. Janet, “The Decline of General Fasts in Victorian England, 1832-1857” (Ph.D. diss., University of Notre Dame, 1984), 3.

607 Ibid., 37-48.

608 Ibid., 55-56.

609 Ibid., 9, 103, citing D. C. Lathbury, ed., Gladstone Correspondence on Church and Religion (New York: MacMillan, 1910), 2: 272-74.

610 Janet, 8.

611 Ibid., 247.

612 de Vogüé, 95-101.

613 Ibid., 101.

614 P. R. Régamey, et. al., Redécouverte du jeûne (Paris: Les éditions du cerf, 1959), 136-49.

615 Barbara Siebrunner, Die Problematik der kirchlichen Fasten- und Abstinenzgesetzgebung: eine Untersuchung zu dem im Zuge des zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils erfolgten Wandel, European University Studies Series 23, Theology 736 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2001), 152-54.

Related Topics: Fasting