Dear Brother Beebe: You have requested my views on Public Fasting, and by whose authority it was introduced into the Christian church. I presume the readers of the Southern Baptist Messenger are fully aware of the difference between the legal and the gospel dispensations. The worship under the former, as prescribed by the ceremonial law, consisted in outward forms, based upon creaturely sacrifices; whereas, under the gospel dispensation, the worship recognized by the New Testament is spiritual, and based upon the one sacrifice offered by Christ in His own person. Hence, under the law, mourning, affliction and contrition were, with propriety, expressed by putting on sackcloth, fasting, &c., while joy and thankfulness were expressed by feasting. But fasting is neither commanded by Christ or His apostles in the New Testament, nor by God in the law, unless the command to Israel, in connection with the yearly day of atonement, that on that day they should afflict their souls, be considered as embracing fasting. See Lev. 16:29. So that fasting, unless the legal service of the day of atonement be an exception, was altogether a voluntary form, until it became established among the Jews, by the tradition of the Elders. The first account of fasting as a form in earnestly seeking God is that of Israel's fasting in their war with Benjamin. Judges 20:26. After that, we find occasional instances of fasting during the time of Samuel's judging Israel in the two books of Samuel; also, of David's fasting, on account of the sickness of his child. In this case, David seems to have done it as an act of humiliation and supplication to God for the life of his child. But his servants seem to have viewed fasting simply as an _expression of sorrow. See II Sam. 12:16-23. The first instance in Scripture of a fast being proclaimed by authority is certainly not a very commendable example to be followed. It was made by Jezebel at the time she would take the life of Naboth, by false witnesses, I Kings 21:3-14; though we afterwards find Jehoshaphat proclaiming a fast as an act of seeking help from God (and was heard of God in his supplication). In the times of Isaiah and Jeremiah, fasts appear to have become common, and much of hypocrisy in them. In the time of Zechariah, there were two stated yearly fasts among the Jews; one in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple by the king of Babylon, the other, as appointed by Esther. But God reproves them for hypocrisy in these Zech.7:5.
But let us pass to the New Testament and see what authority we have there for Christians fasting. The first instance we have of instruction concerning fasting is in Mt. 6:16-18. Our Lord directs His disciples that when they fast to be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance, &c. "But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast." Here our Lord does not forbid His disciples to fast, but forbids their assuming the outward appearance of it, so as to appear unto men to fast. Consequently, it forbids public fasting to His disciples, though it admits of their fasting in secret or private, as before God. But I apprehend that many, in some measure, misapprehend much of Christ's instruction to His disciples in this discourse on the mount. It contains much instruction that applies to His disciples under the gospel, showing the spirituality of the worship belonging to His kingdom, in opposition to legal forms and outward ostentation. But, at the same time, it is addressed to them as under the law, as they were. Christ Himself, for the time He served, was a minister of the circumcision, and so were His disciples bound to observe the rites and forms of the law until Christ, by His death, redeemed them from under the law, and blotted out the handwriting of ordinances, nailing them to the cross. Hence, Christ said to the multitude, to His disciples, "The Scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses' seat; all, therefore, whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works" Mat.23: 1-3. Another case is: The disciples of John came to Christ and said, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast oft, but thy disciples fast not? And Jesus said unto them, Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn as long as the bride-groom is with them? But the days will come when the bride-groom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast" Mt. 9:14,15. The first idea here presented is that Christ represents mourning the same with fasting. The second is that in this case He justifies His disciples in departing from the tradition of the Elders. But, what is taught by our Lord's figure? The idea of the children of the bride-chamber, and of the bride-groom being with them, is that of a marriage feast, and joy. Was this feast and joy which the disciples of Christ experienced in having with them, carnal or earthly? Certainly not. They had not much of such feasting. But they joyed in His presence with them as the Messiah, and feasted on His word. So, from that day to this day, whenever the Blessed Bridegroom is present with the children of God, they have enjoyed a wedding feast, though suffering much worldly privation; it is spiritual. So the feeling or mourning which Christ intended must evidently be spiritual. In this sense, the children of God have experienced much of mourning, or fasting, since Christ ascended. That this was the idea intended is confirmed by the parables in the following verse, of the old garment, and old bottles, by which Christ teaches that gospel grace and blessings are not to be patched on to the old garment of legal rites and ceremonies, nor put into the old bottles of the legal covenant. Hence, this text affords us no authority for fasting from natural food. But, the instances which, more than any other, sanctions the practice of fasting among Christians are found in Acts 13:2,3 & 14:23, because we there have apostolic example for fasting. Apostolic example is, next to command, the best authority we have for religious order. But these practices, in all cases, are certainly not to be received as binding examples to the saints in after ages. Because the prejudices of the early disciples were so strong in favor of Jewish rites and customs, that even Paul, in many instances, was constrained to conform to their prejudice, differently from what he taught the Gentiles. Thus he circumcised Timothy, and by the request of the apostles at Jerusalem, he shaved his head, and went through other forms as though he had a vow upon him. See Acts 21:20-25. And I am inclined to the belief that these instances above referred to were in conformity to Jewish prejudices and customs. Seeing there is no command for it in the whole Bible, fasting looks to me so much like will-worship and false humility, and neglecting of the body, not in any honor to the satisfying of the flesh, that I feel like touching not. See Col.2:21-23. Besides, if I were to fast twice a week, I must rely alone on the atonement of Christ as my plea for my pardon and acceptance with God. But still, in view of these examples in the apostolic church, I do not wish to condemn such saints and churches as feel their minds led to practice fasting, provided they observe the directions of our Lord. Matthew 6:16-18.
Brother Beebe, you also requested me to state by whose authority fasting was introduced into the Christian church. Bodily mortification seems, in all ages, to have been a favorite element in natural religion, both among the Jews and heathen. Hence, the early disciples clung to it, and the Catholic church, when they commenced multiplying ceremonies, encouraged the practice of it as an act of penance. And Calvin also, in his blending much of legality with his system of religion, encouraged its being practiced in his church upon the Pharisaical plan. But since the Jews nationally ceased, I know of no instance on record of fasting being observed as a national act, or by the authority of national governments, until the Puritans introduced it into New England. Soon after their settlement there, in view of their troubles with the Indians, and on account of their severe winters, and unimproved country, the General Assembly of Massachusetts appointed the observance of fasts twice a year, one in the spring, and one in the fall. This practice was continued for a number of years until, on one occasion, the General Assembly was about to appoint a Colonial fast for the fall, when a member arose, and with a good deal of national propriety, if nothing more, said they had repeatedly appointed days of fasting to supplicate God's protection, but had never appointed a season of thanksgiving to Him for the mercies they had received. He, therefore, moved that instead of appointing a day of fasting for the fall, they appoint a day of thanksgiving. It was carried, and from that day to this, Massachusetts, and the other New England Colonies, and States, have had appointed for them a day of fasting in the spring, and a day of thanksgiving in the fall, with, perhaps, the exception of Rhode Island. For a number of years past, New England influence, by means of New England settlers, has induced the Governors of several of the other States to appoint for their people days of thanksgiving, though seldom days of fasting. The influence has caused several of the Presidents of the United States to appoint days of fasting, and I think, in one instance, a day of thanksgiving. One of the Presidents, Jackson, I think it was, when petitioned to appoint a day of national fasting, refused, as did Governor Wise reject a like petition to appoint a day of thanksgiving for Virginia. Both assigned as the reason of their refusal that the observance of such days must be considered religious performances, with which they, as Magistrates had not right to interfere. It may be argued that as an example of natural religion, it may be proper, on special occasions, for a nation, or people, to humble themselves before God by fasting; and, that God has favorably respected such acts, as in the case of Ahab, I Kings 21:27-29; and of the king of Nineveh, Jonah 3:6-10. If nations observe such days without having any reference to Christ and His religion, I have nothing to say. But, this much I must say: That if rulers appoint the religious observance of such days, whether on the principle of natural or revealed religion, we as Christians cannot consistently participate in the observance, because that in all things pertaining to our religion, we should acknowledge no king but Christ, and no rule but His word. In other matters it becomes us to be obedient to Magistrates.
Dear Brother William, I have given you my views, and such information as I have, on this subject. I hope I may not have written anything which will be offensive to any of the brethren. I am not favorably situated for writing, living, as I do, within a seven mile space that divides the guards of the two contending armies, liable to be visited with scouts from Lincoln's army, as well as by our own scouts, and in daily expectation, and have been for weeks, of the advance of one or the other army to bring on a battle. But we know the Lord has the control of every move, great or small.
Yours, with Christian regard, Centreville, Fairfax County, Virginia, July 8th, 1861.
Elder Samuel Trott.
From: SIGNS of the TIMES: Vol. 30 (1862)