Glen M. Leonard, president of the Farmington Utah Stake and director of the Museum of Church History and Art.
For half a century, beginning in the 1830s, fast and testimony meetings convened on Thursday, following a practice approved by the Prophet Joseph Smith. No written directive or explanation can be found that explains why that day of the week came to be used. In latter-day revelation, the Lord commands the Saints to “continue in prayer and fasting” (D&C 88:76). Revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith linked prayer and fasting in two contexts—one with Sabbath observance and the other with anticipated worship in the Kirtland Temple (see D&C 59:9–14; D&C 88:76, 119).
In combining prayer and fasting, the Lord restored a practice enjoyed by faithful people in earlier dispensations. References to fasting in the Old Testament, New Testament, and Book of Mormon emphasize the purposes of fasting: drawing closer to the Lord and seeking special blessings from him through prayer (see Esth. 4:16; Isa. 58:3–7; Alma 5:46; and 3 Ne. 27:1).
In 1985 Elder Howard W. Hunter, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, noted that the formal observance of regular public and private fasts was not established until after the children of Israel left Egypt (see Ensign, Nov. 1985, 72). During Zachariah’s reign in Israel, the people observed specific monthly fasts. By the time the Savior began his ministry, many pious Jews were fasting two days a week. Of greater importance to the Savior than specific times and places was his admonition that fasting be observed in a spirit of sincerity (see Matt. 6:16).
Many Christian denominations observe fasts, including observances tied to specific days. Fasting is also observed by peoples in other religions outside Judaism and Christianity.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught the importance of fasting as a means of preparing oneself to approach Heavenly Father in prayer in times of special need (see Joseph Smith, The Words of Joseph Smith, ed. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook , 37, 109, 255). However, a regular fast observance in the restored Church emerged gradually.
For a year following the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, prayer meetings were held in the temple each Thursday under the direction of the Prophet’s father, Joseph Smith Sr. Once a month, one of those prayer meetings was designated as fast meeting. In these meetings, members prayed for the sick and spoke of their deepest spiritual feelings. At some of these gatherings, the gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues were manifest (see Andrew Jenson, The Historical Record, June 1886, 79–80; Kenneth W. Godfrey, Audrey M. Godfrey, and Jill Mulvay Derr, Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830–1900 , 60–61).
Elsewhere in Ohio in the 1830s, fast meetings were held on other days of the week as needed. For example, in Columbiana County, in eastern Ohio, members gathered in October 1837 for a Monday morning fast meeting following a weekend conference (see Elders’ Journal, Oct. 1837, 15). Later that month, members met in a Saturday fast meeting (see Elders’ Journal, Nov. 1837, 31).
Special fast meetings convened at other times during the early years of the Church. While Joseph and Hyrum Smith were in Liberty Jail, their father called a prayer and fast meeting that began at sunrise and continued until late afternoon to ask “the Lord to bless them and enable them to bear the cruelties that they had to suffer and pass through” (“Autobiography of John Lowe Butler: 1808–1861,” typescript, 16).
As the Saints moved from Ohio to Missouri and then into Illinois, fast meetings continued on an occasional basis in response to specific needs (see History of the Church, 4:389; 5:252; 7:264). In May 1845 the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reemphasized the need to fast regularly and to donate to the bishop for the care of the poor (see History of the Church, 7:264, 413). From then until the mobbings of September 1845, monthly fast meetings were held in Nauvoo on the second Thursday of the month during the early part of the afternoon (see Diary of Hosea Stout, ed. Juanita Brooks , 1:43, 47, 51, 57).
The exodus west interrupted the practice of regular fast meetings, but specific needs prompted designated fasts from time to time. During the drought of 1855–56 in pioneer Utah, President Brigham Young established a regular fast to help ease the suffering caused by hard times. He designated the first Thursday of each month for the observance. The food thus saved was distributed among the poor, averting calamity resulting from food shortages due to drought, severe winters, grasshopper infestation, the influx of LDS immigrants, and the large numbers of California-bound gold seekers in need of supplies (see B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 4:109–10).
From time to time during his presidency, President Young reiterated the importance of fast day as a means of supporting the poor through donations. He also reminded the Saints that Joseph Smith had established the first Thursday of the month as fast day in Kirtland. “All that was to be eaten that day, of flour, of meat, or butter, or fruit, or anything else, was to be carried to the fast meeting and put into the hands of a person selected for the purpose of taking care of it and distributing it among the poor” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe , 169).
Toward the end of the century, economic changes in the working world made it difficult to attend a daytime Thursday fast meeting. In 1896 Hyrum M. Smith, then a missionary in England, wrote to his father, President Joseph F. Smith, then second counselor in the First Presidency, about the difficulty members faced getting excused from their jobs to attend Thursday fast meetings. Workers had no paid leave, and “when these came from the pits, they had to go home, bathe, and change their clothes” (see Joseph Fielding Smith, “Prayer and Fasting,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1956, 895). He asked if Sunday would be a more appropriate day.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve prayerfully discussed the question and felt guided to change fast meeting to the first Sunday of each month. In announcing the change, President Wilford Woodruff and his counselors said they recognized the need to make the meeting more accessible to all members throughout the world. The change became effective on 6 December 1896.
Activities that had become part of the fast meeting continued: administering the sacrament, bearing testimonies, blessing children, confirming new members, and relieving the needs of the poor and ill (see James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [1966–75], 3:281–84).
Another change taking place in the 1890s in Utah was the transition from a barter economy to a cash economy. As the Saints began to pay their tithes and offerings mostly in cash, the deacons were assigned to call monthly on the homes to collect the fast offerings. Members were no longer expected to bring their offerings to the fast and testimony meeting (see Ensign, Nov. 1974, 15).
The First Presidency, along with local Church leaders, began to call other fasts as needed. For example, Church leaders called special days of fasting and prayer to raise funds to help complete the Salt Lake Temple (see “The Salt Lake Temple,” Contributor, Apr. 1893, 280–81). On 23 December 1889, Church members observed the 84th anniversary of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s birth with fasting and prayer aimed at softening opposition toward the Church (see Comprehensive History of the Church, 6:218–19). In the Salt Lake Temple in 1899, President Lorenzo Snow introduced a new emphasis on tithing during a special fast meeting and solemn assembly of the priesthood of the Church (see Comprehensive History of the Church, 6:358–60).
Several fasts in this century have supported humanitarian efforts. During a fast in January 1921, the Saints contributed toward helping millions of hungry children in Europe and Asia (see Messages of the First Presidency, 5:171, 188–89). Similar fasts were held following World War II. In 1985 two special fasts were held for hunger relief and community development in Africa, South America, and other areas (see Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 5 vols. , 502).
While the time and method of observing the fast and of making fast offerings have changed, the eternal principle has remained intact: “to continue in prayer and fasting” as a way to draw close to the Lord and to seek his blessings for those in need as well as for ourselves.