The Mormon Fast Offering Program and Early Christianity

In my last post, I mentioned that the Church’s fast offering program has long been an inspiration to me. I have had many testimony-building experiences in watching that program at work and seeing how it affects the lives of people. I have seen many evidences of powerful inspiration in its administration.

In addition, there are some intriguing hints about the reality of the Restoration when we consider this program wherein members of the Church fast regularly on Sabbath days and donate the savings in food (or many times the savings, if possible) to help the needy, as administered by the Bishop with the help of other priesthood holders. Fasting is part of the process wherein we can make our Sabbath observance “perfect” (see Doctrine and Covenants 59:12-14).

Now we know that early Christians fasted, but the Bible offers few details about how they fasted. It is understandable that in the absence of such revelation, there are many diverse forms of fasting among modern Christians, including practices such as doing without red meat on certain days, or giving up a favorite food for period of time, or just ignoring the issue altogether. But what did the earliest Christians do, and how does that related to LDS religion, which claims to be a restoration of the full Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Insight into early Christian practices comes from a book that was accepted as scripture by many early Christians in the second and third centuries, but which was dropped from the canon by later Christian leaders. The book is the Shepherd of Hermas, apparently written in Italy written shortly after the apostolic era. In this book, Hermas receives revelation in the form of visions and parables about Christian religion and practices, including baptism for the dead (see my LDSFAQ page, Baptism for the Dead) and the principle of fasting. John W. Welch in “Fasting in Earliest Christianity” (Insights, Vol. 21, No. 9, 2001, a publication of FARMS) summarizes the teachings from the Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 5, about how to fast. Hermas is told:

1. You are first to “guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world.”

2. Then you must “estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day on which you intend to fast, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need.”

3. Moreover, “you must observe these things with your children and your whole household and in observing them you will be blessed [makarioi].”

4. Furthermore, those who receive fast offerings are to pray “on behalf of [hyper]” those who have extended their generosity in this way.

“This fast,” the Christian is told, “is very good in keeping the Lord’s commandments,” and if you will do these things, “this fast of yours will be perfect [teleia]” and “your sacrifice will be acceptable in God’s sight, and this fast will be recorded, and service performed in this way is beautiful and joyous” (compare perfect and rejoicing in D&C 59:13-14).

These principles are in remarkable accord with Latter-day Saint practices, as revealed to modern prophets. Welch offers further analysis:

If these directives may be described as the true order of fasting, it is evident that few Christian churches today follow this essential instruction. Is it possible that this was one of the “plain and precious things” taken away from the original gospel as it went forth from the mouth of the Son of God as foreseen by Nephi of old (1 Nephi 13:28)? But Nephi also beheld that some of those truths would be restored by “other books” that would come forth “from the Gentiles” (1 Nephi 13:39).

Interestingly, the Old Latin version of the Shepherd of Hermas was first published in 1873 in Germany, and with the study of the crucial Greek text in Codex Siniaticus in the late nineteenth century, people soon realized the great antiquity of this important document. Yet only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as far as we know, teaches and actually operates a regular program of fasting along these earliest Christian lines.

In addition to that insight from John Welch, I ran into something else interesting while reading a book I picked up at a used book sale in Appleton. I discuss that in the following extract from my LDSFAQ page on Mormon practices, beginning with a little background:

In the Aaronic Priesthood, deacons can distribute the sacrament (communion) to people and fulfill other assignments, particularly the collection of “fast offerings” to help the poor and the needy. Teachers can help prepare the sacrament, visit members regularly with a companion to serve them as “home teachers,” and perform other duties. Priests can ordain others to the Aaronic Priesthood, can baptize, can bless the sacrament, and can do all that teachers or deacons do.

Though he is a High Priest, Bishop is the President of the Aaronic Priesthood in a ward and the president of the Priests Quorum, and serves under a Stake President who has authority over several congregations. A primary responsibility of the Bishop is to care for the poor and needy, relying heavily on the collection of fast offerings by deacons and others to have resources to help. Interestingly, some of these modern LDS practices closely parallel early Christian patterns. For example, here is a passage from Robert M. Grant’s book, Augustus to Constantine (Barnes and Noble Books, New York, 1970, p. 150):

The only Christian writer from the middle of the second century to say anything about the organization of the community is the apologist Justin (ca. 150). He tells us that at the eucharist a lector read from the “reminiscences of the apostles” (which, he says, “are called ‘gospels'”), and bread and wine were brought to “the president [proestos] of the brethren.” After he offered a long prayer or sequence of prayers, the “deacons” distributed the bread and wine to those present and also took them to the absent.

The president’s functions were both liturgical and charitable, for he was also the community’s administrator of funds for orphans, widows, the sick, prisoners, and visitors from abroad.[Apol. 1, 65-67]

Justin is writing at Rome, and it is therefore not surprising that in earlier Roman writings similar functions are described. In the Shepherd of Hermas, for example, we have found “the presbyters who preside over the church,” and both bishops and deacons – the latter by definition subordinate to the former – concerned with widows and orphans….

Justin’s reticence about presbyters and bishops, contrasting with his explicit mention of “president,” lector, and deacons, may also be due to the circumstances. Had he mentioned these offices they might have been subject to arrest by the Roman authorities. In any event, judging from the writings both before him and after 150, the “president” was one among the Roman presbyters, and he was probably a bishop.

Here is the actual quote from Justin Martyr, Apologies for the Christians, Chapter 67:

And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly….

This has a nice LDS flavor to it! Sunday worship, reviewing the words of the apostles and prophets, distributing the sacrament to those present and having opportunities to take it to the ill who could not come, collecting offerings for the care of the poor to be distributed under direction of the president (“branch president” or “bishop” in modern LDS terminology), a community that is closely knit together and spends a lot of time together – all these things are very typical of the LDS community. Call it a cult, if you will – but it’s the kind of cult that my man Justin Martyr wrote about around 150 A.D.

Robert Grant also discusses the office of “presbyter” or “elder” in the early Church, typically older men who served with the Bishop, though sometimes they are also called bishops (pp. 65-66). They have other servants or deacons who work with them. While the terminology for Church offices was very fluid then as it has been in the restored Church, the administrative concepts are very similar: Bishops and Presidents leading with the help of Elders and other offices, including deacons (which just means servant), initially under the direction of apostles and prophets (see pp. 63-68).

As our Sixth Article of Faith teaches, “We believe in the same organization that existed in the Primitive Church, namely, apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and so forth.” There are some differences in detail, typically due to changes in circumstance and need, but the core is the same: multiple priesthood offices such as bishop, teacher, deacon, and elder, all in one organization under apostolic direction, with each office requiring ordination by the laying on of hands by those in authority. We’re really serious when we say that there has been a Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

11 thoughts on “The Mormon Fast Offering Program and Early Christianity

  1. This is fascinating stuff Jeff. Frankly, while I love BOM studies/scholarship, it’s becoming more difficult to find new scholarly approaches to the literature.

    This, however, has been untouched by most scholarship. Just expressing my interest and appreciation.

  2. 100% of the funds are used to help the needy. Bishops and Stake Presidents oversee those funds and can and do attest to their careful use, as do the recipients. There is also careful accounting of this program and all financial matters in the ward through regular stake audits, and they get into numerous details, require receipts, signatures, documentation, etc. I’ve been through many of those.

    But no, we don’t publicly post a list of needy people in the ward and how much they got for what. The program must be run confidentially.

    But MT, having seen your posts before, let me remind you that if you don’t like the Church or trust its programs, procedures, or people, you don’t have to donate anything! (If you really want a full detailed disclosure of how your money is spent, send me a couple thousand bucks and I’ll send you all the details and receipts, and even photos of what I bought. I’m thinking palladium bullion right now – a hot investment and so pretty.)

  3. Jeff, I am just curious about this, and since you have been a Bishop, I figure you would know. Do the funds to help people who use the Bishop’s storehouse come from fast offerings? Or does it come it from a seperate fund?

  4. When I was a bishop here in Appleton, we did not use a storehouse but ran things ourselves. But as I recall from my days in Atlanta as a counselor in a bishopric, when we sent someone to a storehouse to get food or other items, the cost was charged against our fast offering funds. Maybe others with more storehouse experience could chime in.

  5. Jeff, I’m curious to know if there is anything in these documents that discusses the ordinary length of fasts, and whether or not it was common to go without water as well as food. We read in the Book of Mormon how Alma and others fasted for many days. It seems to me that this probably meant they sometimes drank water during their fasts. I have heard some people say that no fast should be longer than 24 hours, but obviously there are scriptural examples to the contrary. Everything should be done in wisdom and in order, of course.

  6. Cayblood: From what I’ve been told, it’s OK to drink water during a fast. Also, while it is suggested to fast for 24 hours for fast Sunday, this can be shortened depending on physical ability. Conversly, one can also lengthen this if they deem it expidiant.

    Personaly, I don’t think the length of the fast matters so much as the commitment to the fast.

  7. “I’ve been told, it’s OK to drink water during a fast.”

    Depends on what you mean by “OK.” The definition of fasting as given by the Prophets in our dispensation is refraining from ALL food an drink. But it’s OK to adapt to one’s capacities and circumstances in trying to show devotion through fasting. Pregnant women, for instance, should not fast at all. Others may have physical infirmities that make it inadvisable for them to go without water but can still go without food. (Don’t worry, you don’t need a note from your doctor.) So is it “OK” to do that? It’s up to the faster.

  8. Whose references are you citing to say that it is not “OK” to drink water during a fast? Is there available a clear definition, from a prophet, of fasting that describes it as abstaining from both food and water? Where can I find it? Thanks.

  9. “When fasting, members of the Church are advised to abstain from two meals each Fast Day . . . also by prayer in connection with fasting to develop spiritual power. No direct instruction is given in the Doctrine and Covenants regarding abstaining from water while fasting. In the Bible there are three references in connection with fasting and abstaining from water. These are: Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 9:9-18, where it states that Moses “did neither eat bread nor drink water”; and Esther 4:16, where Esther asked the Jews to fast for her and to “neither eat nor drink.”

    The spirit of fasting is the main thing to encourage. Too much stress should not be laid on technical details, but the self denial of food, striving for spiritual strength and donating for the benefit of the poor should constantly be in mind.” (Messages of the First Presidency, Vol.5, p.307)

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