In my ward, today is Fast Sunday. (Your ward may have celebrated Fast Sunday the week before General Conference.) If you’re one of our Canadian readers, you will celebrate Thanksgiving Day tomorrow, October 11. With Thanksgiving approaching next month here in the U.S., our thoughts turn to eating enormous amounts of food. We’re all familiar with the Pilgrims story of the first Thanksgiving. Soon after the saints settled in Utah, droughts and the grasshopper invasions decimated the food supply, and the Indians weren’t as friendly to the Mormons Pioneers as they were to the Pilgrims of Plimouth, Massachasetts. The early Mormon saints were lucky to survive the winter.
Brigham Young encouraged the saints to fast and give the money to the poor. Those of us who live in Utah are all familiar with the famous seagull invasion where the seagulls saved the crops of the saints in 1848. However in 1855 and 1856, the grasshopper attacks were much worse, and the seagulls were overwhelmed. Fast Offerings were instituted due to the grasshopper attacks in 1855.
According to Establishing Zion, Chapter 8 says,
The following summer the Saints experienced another bad grasshopper attack, and the 1856 harvest was less than that of 1855. So the Law of Consecration and Stewardship of the mid-1850s suffered the same fate that it had experienced in the 1830s, and for a similar reason: it simply was not given a chance at success. However, it did stimulate the spirit of self-sacrifice and helped to increase public willingness for greater contributions to the public purse.3
[p.144] The attempt to obey the law of consecration also led to a practice that still remains in the Mormon church: “fast offerings” (see chap. 10). During the winter of 1855-56, church leaders asked members to fast for twenty-four hours on the first Thursday of each month and to contribute the food thus saved to help the poor. Fasting was a time-honored practice for purifying the soul and communing with God, and when combined with a free-will offering to less fortunate brothers and sisters and with a “testimony” meeting in which the Saints could give extemporaneous expressions of thanksgiving and religious conviction, the monthly “fast meetings” became an accepted regular practice among the Mormons.
Chapter 10 goes into a little more detail about fast offerings.
Another practice during the Saints’ first years in the Great Basin was fasting and using the food saved to help the less fortunate. On [p.179] Sunday, 30 May 1847, while still en route to the valley, Howard Egan wrote in his journal, “Tomorrow is set aside as the last Sunday was, for fasting and prayer.” Sunday lent itself to the practice since the pioneers did not travel on Sundays and could more easily fast when not engaged in vigorous activity. Apparently not until 1849 were fast days regularly observed. Thursday, 26 April 1849, according to the Journal History, was set aside as a fast day, and the following Thursday was also a day of fasting. At the April 1852 General Conference, Young announced that from “henceforth we should hold meetings regularly each Sabbath at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and in the evening several quorums of the priesthood would assemble to receive instructions. On Thursdays the brethren and sisters would come together at 2 p.m. for prayer and supplication and on the first Thursday of each month at 10 a.m. for the purpose of fasting and prayer.” This pattern was followed until November 1896 when the First Presidency decided that Fast Day would be the first Sunday of the month.14
Mormons had always been admonished to give to the poor; but not until 1855-56 did this become associated with fast meetings when Mormons were asked to bring their “fast offerings” to the meetings.15 Sources for 1856 are replete with evidence that members brought donations for the poor to monthly fast meetings. The scribe of the Salt Lake Eighteenth Ward recorded on 7 February 1856 that “meeting opened by prayer by Brother George Works, Saints who met for fasting and prayer and who brought corn beef and cabbage and seed for the relief of the poor bore their testimonies, and the [p.180] meeting was closed by prayer.” During this year some wards even instituted two fast days a month. However, many members seemed to resent this, and the practice was discontinued after a few months. By 1857, fast days had become a permanent institution in the church.
So what do you think of the purpose of fast offerings? Were you surprised to see how early they were implemented, and that they continue to this day?