- Fasting is the practice of abstaining from food or drink for religious purposes, usually for a specified period of time. It passed into Protestantism from its Catholic and Jewish roots, but only in an attenuated form as a voluntary, occasional discipline.Fasting is found in both the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) and the New Testament, as when Paul established his leadership credentials by citing his fasts (II Corinthians 6:5; 11:27). Jesus extolled fasting by his example in the wilderness following his BAPTISM, and by telling the apostles (Matthew 17:21) that demons could not be cast out without prayer and fasting.Martin LUTHER, who had fasted as a Catholic monk, continued the practice in later life. John Calvin refers to fasting in the Institutes of the Christian Religion while discussing repentance. He emphasized the need for inward change, not just outward actions, and implied that public fasting should be reserved "for times of calamity" and grief. As for individuals, "the life of the godly ought to be tempered with frugality and sobriety that throughout its course a sort of perpetual fasting may appear."Calvin attacked the fixed fasts of the Roman Catholic tradition, such as during Lent, but supported the practice of public days of fasting when leaders felt it appropriate. For example, during the Salem witchcraft hysteria in the 1690s in Massachusetts, Salem pastor Rev. Samuel Parris led times of prayer and fasting to bring an end to the crisis.Fasting continues to be extolled by some Protestant leaders as an occasional valuable tool. In 1994, Bill Bright, founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, summoned believers to participate in a 40-day fast accompanied with prayer, revival, and the fulfillment of the Great Commission (to go into all the world and preach the Gospel). Bright cited the examples of great Protestant leaders of the past who included fasting as part of their Christian witness, from Luther and Calvin to John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, Matthew Henry, Charles Finney Andrew Murray, and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. In 1995, the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. held its first annual period of prayer and fasting during Holy Week (the week prior to Easter Sunday), with prayer especially directed to lawmakers and those most affected by legal changes: the young, the marginalized, the poor, and the otherwise vulnerable.Most Protestant denominations have made fasting optional, but some officially support it. For example, the Assemblies of God have adopted a statement extolling the virtue of fasting, as a way to "heighten focus, intensify fervor, and gain control over one's fleshly cravings and human will." It can be helpful in many unusual circumstances, but it should be "carried out in secret only before God."The practice remains less popular in Protestant circles than among Roman Catholics.Further reading:■ Jerry Falwell, Fasting (Wheaton, 111.: Tyndale House, 1984)■ Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper, 1978)■ J. Oswald Sanders, Prayer Power Unlimited (Chicago: Moody Bible Institute, 1977)■ Arthur Wallis, God's Chosen Fast (Fort Washington, Pa.: Christian Literature Crusade, 1968).
Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Gordon Melton. 2005.