This section is from the book "The Hygienic System: Fasting And Sun Bathing", by Herbert M. Shelton. Also available from Amazon: The Hygienic System Vol III Fasting and Sun Bathing.
Fasting as a religious observance, has long been practiced for the accomplishment of certain goods. Religious fasting is of early origin, antedating recorded history. Partial or entire abstinence from food, or from certain kinds of foods, at stated seasons, prevailed in Assyria, Persia, Babylon, Scythia, Greece, Rome, India, Ninevah, Palestine, China, in northern Europe among the Druids, and in America among the Indians. It was a widely diffused practice, often indulged as a means of penitence, in mourning and as a preparation for participation in religious rites, such as baptism and communion.
At the very dawn of civilization the Ancient Mysteries, a secret worship or wisdom religion that flourished for thousands of years in Egypt, India, Greece, Persia, Thrace, Scandinavia and the Gothic and Celtic nations, prescribed and practised fasting. The Druidical religion among the Celtic peoples required a long probationary period of fasting and prayer before the candidate could advance. A fast of fifty days was required in the Mithriac religion in Persia. Indeed, fasting was common to all the mysteries, which were all quite similar to the Egyptian mysteries and were probably derived from these. Moses, who was learned in "all the wisdom of Egypt," is said to have fasted for more than 120 days on Mount Sinai.
The mysteries of Tyre, which were represented in Judea in the days of Jesus, in a secret society known as the Essenes, also prescribed fasting. In the first century A.D., there existed in Alexandria, Egypt, an ascetic sect of Jews, called Therapeutae, who resembled the Essenes and who borrowed much from the Kabala and from the Pythagorian and Orphic systems. These Therapeutae gave great attention to the sick and held fasting in high esteem as a curative measure.
Fasting is mentioned quite frequently in the Bible while several fasts of considerable duration are recorded therein, as, Moses forty days (Ex. 24:18; Exodus 34:28); Elijah forty days (1st Kings, 19:8); David seven days (2 Sam. 12:20); Jesus forty days (Matthew 4:2); Luke, "I fast twice in the week" (Luke 18:12); "This kind cometh not out save by prayer and fasting" (Matt. 17:21); a fast throughout all Judea (2 Chronicles 20:8). The Bible cautions against fasting for mere notoriety (Matt. 6:17, 18). It also advises fasters not to wear a sad countenance (Matt. 6:16); but to find pleasure in fasting and to perform one's work (Isa. 58:3), and that certain fasts shall be fasts of gladness (Zech. 8.19).
We may very properly assume that some great good was the object of the many fasts mentioned in the Bible even though we may be sure that they were not always intended for the "cure" of "disease." We may also be sure that the ancients had no fear of starving to death by missing a few meals.
For two thousand years the Christian religion has recommended "prayer and fasting" and the story of the forty days' fast in the wilderness has been told from thousands of pulpits. Religious fasts were frequently practised in the early days of Christianity and during the Middle Ages. Thomas Campanella tells us that frail nuns often sought relief from attacks of hysteria by fasting "seven times seventy hours,"--or twenty and one half days. John Calvin and John Wesley both strongly urged fasting as a beneficial measure for both ministers and people.
Among the early Christians, fasting was among the rites of purification. Fasting is yet a regular practice among the nations of the Far East, especially among the East Indians. The many fasts of Ghandi are generally known.
Penance-worn members of the early church frequently retired to the desert for a month or two to fight down temptations. They would drink water from some dilapidated old cistern during the period, but to eat so much as a millet-seed was considered a breach of their vows and destroyed the merits of their penance. At the end of the second month the "gaunt world-renouncers" generally had sufficient strength to return home unassisted.
The writer of Peregrinato Silviæ, in describing how Lent was observed in Jerusalem, when she was there about 386 A.D., says: "They abstained entirely from all food during Lent, except on Saturdays and Sundays. They took a meal about midday on Sunday, and after that they took nothing until Saturday morning. This was their rule through Lent."
Although the Catholic Church has no law requiring fasting, as we use the term, it was voluntarily practiced by many individuals in the past. Fasting, whether total abstinence from food or abstinence from proscribed foods, is regarded by this Church as a penance. The Catholic Church also teaches that Jesus fasted in order to instruct and encourage belief in the practice of penance.
The Roman Church has both "fast-days" and "abstinence-days," though they are not necessarily the same. The "law of abstinence" is on a different basis and "is regulated, not by the quantity, but by the quality of food" permitted. "The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat or meat broth, but not eggs, 'lacticinia' (milk) or condiments of any kind even from 'the fat of animals'." The rule of the church in fasting is: "What constitutes fasting is the taking of only one full meal in a day." "In earlier times a strict fast was kept until sunset. Now this full meal may be taken any time after mid-day, or, as the church's approved authors hold, shortly before. Some even hold that the full meal may be taken at any time during the 24 hours." But this "one full meal in twenty-four hours" does not prohibit the taking of some food in the morning and evening. Indeed, "local custom," which is often a somewhat undefined phrase, as determined by the local bishop, determines what extra food may be taken daily. In America the rule is that the morning meal should not exceed two ounces of bread; in Westminster (England) the limit is three ounces. Obviously a "fast" of this nature is not what we mean by fasting, for a man may eat enough in this manner to grow fat. Nor can Hygienists accept the so-called moral principle of the Roman Church--"parvum pro nihilo reputatur" and "ne potus noceat"--"a little is reckoned as nothing," "lest drink unaccompanied by anything solid should be harmful." We hold, as Page expressed it, that little driblet meals are not fasting.
The Lenten fast of Catholics is also merely a period of abstinence from certain proscribed foods, although there are Catholics who take advantage of the period for a real fast. The early practice of fasting until sundown, then feasting, is similar to the practice of Mohammedans in their so-called fast of Ramadan. During this season the people do not eat and cannot drink wine nor smoke cigarettes from sunrise to sunset, but they have their cigarettes handy, ready to begin smoking as soon as the sun goes down and they enjoy a night of feasting. A grand carouse at night makes up for their abstinence during the day. Their cities hold nightly carnivals, the restaurants are lighted and the streets are filled with revelers, the bazaars are well illuminated and the peddlers of lemonade and sweetmeats are in their glory. The wealthy sit up all night receiving and returning calls and giving dinner parties. After forty days of this feasting and revelling, the people celebrate the end of their month of "fasting" with the feasting of Bairam.
At the present time Christians of all sects and denominations rarely undergo real fasts. Most fasts of Roman, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant communicants are merely periods of abstinence from flesh foods. Abstinence from flesh foods other than fish on "fast" days appears to have been enjoined merely to aid the fishing and shipbuilding industries. Among the Jews fasting always means entire abstinence from food, and at least one of their fast days carries with it abstinence from water, also. Their periods of fasting are commonly only short ones.
While the Hindu Nationalist's leader, Ghandi, fully understood the hygienic value of the fast, and often fasted for hygienic purposes, most of his fasts were "purification" or penance fasts and political weapons by which he compelled England to accede to his demands. He even fasted for the purification of India, and not merely for his own cleansing.
Fasting formed part of the religious observances of the Aztecs and Toltecs of Mexico, the Incas of Peru and of other American tribes. Fasting was also practiced by the Pacific Islanders; while there are traces of fasting in China and Japan, even before their contact with Buddhism. In Eastern Asia and wherever Brahmanism and Buddhism have spread, fasting has been kept alive.