The American Tradition of Fasting for Heaven’s Help


Last month our message reminded readers of the desperate situation our country found itself in during the months leading up to 1787 when many factors combined to bring near collapse. It seemed only a miracle could save the colonists at that point. The writing and adopting of the Constitution provided that miracle, but only after the hard work and active faith on the part of many colonists. This letter contains the description of one specific action on the part of many colonists which seemed, perhaps more than any other, to draw on the powers of Heaven sufficiently so as to appear to have been what some leaders actually called miraculous intervention.

Proclamation of the National Day of Humiliation,
Fasting, and Prayer by the Continental Congress

On two occasions before the Declaration of Independence was drafted and signed, the Continental Congress pleaded with the people of the colonies to come together on specific days in the spirit of fasting and prayer. The first set aside was July 20, 1775, not long after the Battles of Lexington, Concord , and Bunker Hill . The second was May 17, 1776, just two months after General Washington’s successful siege of Boston from the British and about five weeks before the Congress would adopt the Declaration of Independence. Here is the text of the second Proclamation:

“In times of impending calamity and distress; when the liberties of America are imminently endangered by the secret machinations and open assaults of an insidious and vindictive administration, it becomes the indispensable duty of these hitherto free and happy colonies, with true penitence of heart, and the most reverent devotion, publicly to acknowledge the over ruling providence of God; to confess and deplore our offences against him; and to supplicate his interposition for averting the threatened danger, and prospering our strenuous efforts in the cause of freedom, virtue, and posterity.

“The Congress, therefore, considering the warlike preparations of the British Ministry to subvert our invaluable rights and privileges, and to reduce us by fire and sword, by the savages of the wilderness, and our own domestics, to the most abject and ignominious bondage: Desirous, at the same time, to have people of all ranks and degrees duly impressed with a solemn sense of God’s superintending providence, and of their duty, devoutly to rely, in all their lawful enterprises, on his aid and direction, Do earnestly recommend, that Friday, the Seventeenth day of May next, be observed by the said colonies as a day of humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may, with united hearts, confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions, and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life, appease his righteous displeasure, and, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain his pardon and forgiveness; humbly imploring his assistance to frustrate the cruel purposes of our unnatural enemies; and by inclining their hearts to justice and benevolence, prevent the further effusion of kindred blood.

“But if, continuing deaf to the voice of reason and humanity, and inflexibly bent, on desolation and war, they constrain us to repel their hostile invasions by open resistance, that it may please the Lord of Hosts, the God of Armies, to animate our officers and soldiers with invincible fortitude, to guard and protect them in the day of battle, and to crown the continental arms, by sea and land, with victory and success: Earnestly beseeching him to bless our civil rulers, and the representatives of the people, in their several assemblies and conventions; to preserve and strengthen their union, to inspire them with an ardent, disinterested love of their country; to give wisdom and stability to their counsels; and direct them to the most efficacious measures for establishing the rights of America on the most honorable and permanent basis – That he would be graciously pleased to bless all his people in these colonies with health and plenty, and grant that a spirit of incorrupt able patriotism, and of pure undefiled religion, may universally prevail; and this continent be speedily restored to the blessings of peace and liberty, and enabled to transmit them inviolate to the latest posterity.

“And it is recommended to Christians of all denominations, to assemble for public worship, and abstain from servile labor on the said day.

(Note: The word “humiliation” had a different meaning in colonial days than it seems to today. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defined humiliation as “The act of abasing pride; or the state of being reduced to lowliness of mind, meekness, penitence and submission.”)

Fasting: Humble Appeal to Heaven for Help

The colonists could bear many testimonies of the power of fasting to call down the powers of Heaven on their behalf. We have previously cited the famous prayer meeting in the Old South Meetinghouse in Boston in 1746, when the congregation had gathered in a spirit of fasting and prayer and called upon God to stop the approaching French fleet from destroying the colonists’ coastal cities. Miraculously, a violent storm arose in the Atlantic and, instead, destroyed nearly every one of the French ships! The colonists could cite dozens of such stories to modern day Americans.

Ellis Sandoz, editor of the wonderful two-volume work entitled, “Political Sermons in the Founding Era” writes:

“Days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving were proclaimed for particular occasions throughout the eighteenth century and even earlier. Such times were nationally proclaimed (“recommended”) at least sixteen times by the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War; and the entire American community repaired to their various churches on such days of fasting, prayer, and humiliation to repent of sins, seek forgiveness, and implore God to lift the affliction of their suffering from them….”

Apparently, the effective use of fasting among the colonists was known outside the American continent, especially in England . One British friend to the American cause, a Dr. Price, wrote concerning an impending crisis:

“In this hour of tremendous danger, it would become us to turn our thoughts to heaven. This is what our brethren in the colonies are doing. From one end of North America to the other, they are fasting and praying. But what are we doing? Shocking thought! we are ridiculing them as fanatics, and scoffing at religion. We are running wild after pleasure, and forgetting everything serious and decent at masquerades. We are gambling in gaming houses; trafficking for boroughs; perjuring ourselves at elections; and selling ourselves for places. Which side then is Providence likely to favor? In America we see a number of rising states in the vigor of youth, and animated by piety. Here we see an old state, inflated and irreligious, enervated by luxury, and hanging by a thread. Can we look without pain on the issue?”

Fasting the right way for the right reason

Because the colonists were so successful in fasting to help them after all they could do for themselves and because they and their preachers were serious students of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, we assume they were well acquainted with the counsel of Isaiah, as he admonished that a true fast that God recognizes is one that is not flashy or showy, one that includes sincere repentance, and one where the person show a genuine willingness to help the poor and the needy. He told his fellow Israelites they are fasting for show and contention and for this reason God does not respond to their prayers:

“Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.

“Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.

“Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?”

Isaiah then describes the elements of a fast that would be acceptable to the Lord:

“Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To lose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?

“Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?

Then Isaiah describes the beautiful blessings that awaits one who fast with a humble, penitent spirit and desires to care for those who are less fortunate:

“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.

“Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;

“And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday:

“And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. (Isaiah 58: 3-11)

Isaiah’s requirement to help the poor and the needy through fasting is completely consistent with Jesus’ emphasis on helping the poor as a determinant to enter heaven. In Matthew 25, he said:

“Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

“For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

“Naked and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

“Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? Or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

“When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? Or naked, and clothed thee?

“Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25: 34-40)

Fasting seems to be a wonderful method to offer help to the truly needy and thereby be able to expect the assistance of Heaven. It has even been suggested that if all Americans would fast just two meals and give the value of those meals to help the poor, there would be no hungry or homeless in the United States. What a welfare program indeed!

Faith and Good Works Precede the Miracles

It would seem if modern Americans wish to call down the blessings of heaven on our country, we must follow the example of early Americans who successfully used this pattern of sincere prayer and fasting to do so. Perhaps we should begin in our families, our churches, and in all our associations to seriously instigate a periodic fast and prayer for our country. Certainly our cause is as just, and we are perhaps as equally in need of a miracle today to preserve that which was miraculously produced in their day.


Earl Taylor, Jr.