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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

Fasting by English Baptists

in the 17th Century

Joseph Jackson Goadby

From the book, Bye-Paths in Baptist History, 1871

The Baptist of the Seventeenth Century regarded fasting as "a religions duty," "a solemn and Divine ordinance." Not, said he, that there were any set times appointed for its observance. That must be determined as occasion required."

"The drift of the apostles," said he, quoting Socrates Scholasticus, "was not to lay down causes and decrees concerning fasts and holy days; but to become unto us patterns of piety and good life."

Moreover, Augustine had affirmed "that upon what days we must fast he found not appointed by any commandment of our Lord or His Apostles." The Lenten fast of the Papist, with its feeble imitation by the English State Church, was regarded as altogether without scriptural warrant.

Not so all fasting whatsoever. Fasting was an "extraordinary duty," perhaps, rather than one to be statedly observed; but still, the Master and Lord fasted; the Apostles imitated His example; and they (the Baptists), considered themselves as manifestly in the right when following in their steps.

There were "national" fasts, said one of them; and fasts that were either "congregational," or "particular."

Tenaciously as one exponent of Baptist opinions held to congregational principles, he yet contended, "that the king, or chief magistrate, might enjoin a day of general humiliation, when the judgments of God were impending, or were actually inflicted upon a nation." The "good example of the Ninevites" is quoted in illustration of this, "seeing there is no king but hath equal authority with the King of Nineveh in that case."

As for "congregational fasts," they might be fixed upon" by the pastors and leading men in the churches, with the advice of the brotherhood," supposing the churches should " find cause to humble themselves for any judgment which sin had brought on them, or for any blessing they came short of, or danger which attends them."

The church at Antioch kept a fast unto the Lord, "without any intervening power of the magistrate; and there is no reason why other churches may not do the like, with every church is the most capable to judge of the necessity they have to wait upon God in such services."

The "particular fasts" were private; must be left to the judgment of individual Christians, and their families, "the special direction of our Saviour about them being duly observed."

"Let those in authority look to the first," says an exponent of their opinions at this period," and call their subjects thereto. Let Christ's ministers look to the second, and stir up the churches to this religious duty. Let every Christian look to the third, especially masters of Christian families; and as occasion requires, devote themselves to this holy exercise."

"Particular fasts" were to be held "on account of our imperfections; "as shown by the examples of David and Paul. Hence, Marlorat defines this kind of fasting as "a measurable castigation or chastising of the body, and a certain discipline, always used of the saints of God to this end, that the substance of heavenly things might be more amiable, and the desires of the body more quenched."

But Basil, referring to the spiritual part says, "True fasting standeth in a departure from vices, in the right government of the tongue, in suppressing wrath, in cutting off concupiscence, backbiting, malice, and perjuries"

"The true definition of this duty," says the writer, who quotes with approval these passages, "is, a beating down of the body, that we may fly from sin, and with more feeling taste the heavenly doctrine of godliness."

Men did fast, in the ancient time, "for deliverance from enemies; "but the chief cause for fasting, "that which gives being to all the rest," was sin; in others, or in ourselves.” It is, moreover, the way to fit men for mercies, blessings, and favours to be desired."

When "congregational" fasts were decided upon, it was customary to state precisely their object. The Broadmead church among the Calvinistic Baptists, and the Fenstanton church among the General Baptists, set apart particular days for fasting and prayer when their elders, or ministers and deacons were elected; and nothing is more common, in the Records of both churches, than entries to that effect.

The church of Amersham, to take another example, decided to hold a fast in 1676, and thus announced beforehand the reasons for its being kept:

(1) That the Lord would be pleased to humble us under a sense of our brother Rudrup's miscarriage, and that we may be more watchful for the future.

(2) To bewail divisions that are among God's people; and to seek for a spirit of love, unity, illumination, and obedience.

(3) To pray that the Lord would be pleased to continue a seasonable harvest.

(4) To entreat Him to prevent all wicked designs which the enemies of the truth are devising against those that fear the Lord.

(5) To beseech Him to support our sister Child under her heavy trials.

(6) To beg that He would sanctify the affliction that is on Mary Hall, and give His blessing on her going to the bath for her recovery.

This selection of some special case as the object of humiliation, fasting, and prayer, was by no means unusual. Five-and twenty years before the date just given, a General Baptist Church in Cambridgeshire was informed "that Mary Cox was greatly afflicted with heavy temptation; and it was desired, by herself and her parents, that a day should be set apart by fasting to seek the Lord on her behalf: which," says the church record, " was consented unto."

A similar instance is chronicled in the Fair Street church-book. "Nov. 1, 1697: whereas, it was requested by sister Wood, whose daughter lies in a deplorable condition, that we keep a day of fasting and prayer to God; we agree, that Friday next be kept, at her house, from eight in the morning till four in the afternoon."

There is a case mentioned in the Broadmead Records, of the whole church fasting and praying on a particular day formerly set apart, on behalf of "the daughter of sister Tylly, one of the members of the congregation.

“The child was "bewitched, (as termed) was very much changed, and had strange fits, and as it were haunted by an evil spirit, and would say that such a woman was in the room. .. . When they conveyed her to Bath, the whole church put apart a day for it, to seek the Lord by fasting and prayer, when Bro. Jessey was here, and the child was restored as well as before, and to this day. Ye glory only be given to our God."'(Broadmead Records, Rev. N. Hayeroft, p. 87)

General fasts were often appointed by the Local Associations or General Assemblies. The General Assembly of General Baptists in 1711, appointed the 20th of June as a day of fasting and prayer, "to humble themselves before Almighty God for their sins and great decay in religion; to seek the Lord for grace to be quickened and renewed therein, and also for national calamities; "and in 1714 the same body appointed " a quarterly fast to be kept for one year on the Wednesday after every quarter-day."

The Midland Association, in 1726, was only following a common custom when it recommended four days of fasting and prayer "to be kept by the churches between that meeting and the next, in order that it may have power from heaven."

It must not be supposed that these fast days among the early Baptists were not rigidly kept. They sometimes complained that "men did this service by the half part, which they called forty days fasting, or Lent."

In that period some do abstain from every living creature; and others, of all living creatures, feed only upon fist. Others, together with fish, feed on the fowls of the air. Others eat neither nuts, apples, neither any other kind of fruit, nor eggs. Some feed only upon dry bread; some others receive not that." Among the last were the Baptists.

"Although the kingdom of God standeth not," said the advocate already quoted, "in meat and drink, but in righteousness, &c., yet God is well pleased that His servants deny themselves in that respect. True fasting, if for a day, or for a short space of time, is not from some kinds of food only, but a total forbearance from all nutriment, except necessity require an indulgence."

The vain pretense of fasting, rebuked by Jerome, is held up as a warning.

"What profit," said Jerome, "not to eat of the oil, and to seek certain dainties and difficult kind of meats? As figs, pears, nuts, fruits of palms or dates, the flower of wheat, of honey, and such kind of meats. There is no kind of garden fruit where­with we do not torment ourselves to the end we eat not bread. And whilst we do follow pleasures, we are drawn from the King of Heaven.

“Further, I have heard that some who against the rule of nature drink no water, and eat no bread, but do eat of delicate suppings and of panned leeks. What a shame is this! How are we not ashamed of such follies? How are we not wearied of such superstitions? Do we seek in delicates the savour of abstinence? "

After quoting this passage, the Baptist advocate of fasting urges his brethren "to avoid the vanities of the Papists and others, and to study the simplicity of the service, and the holy ends thereof." (Grantham’s, Christianismus Primitive, - Of Church Discipline, pp. 144-149)