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Southwestern States Mission: Fasting Frequency

By: Edje Jeter - March 18, 2012

Inspired by Ardis Parshall’s serial posting of the missionary diary of Willard Larson Jones at Keepapitchinin, I announce an occasional series on missionary life in the Southwestern States Mission around 1900.

Using the diaries of six missionaries who served in eastern Texas [1], I will address such burning questions as… What time did missionaries get up? How often and where did they bathe? And what’s with all the entertainment? I anticipate the posts running short, dry, and rather like an undergraduate exercise in “Using Primary Sources.” That said, I hope the net effect is to illustrate aspects of Mormon material culture, lived religion, and social History.

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Alas, I do not have a post ready for Women’s History Month; I begin, instead, with the question: “How often did the missionaries fast?” [2]

The missionaries expected to fast the first Sunday of every month, all other Sundays, and occasionally for special circumstances.

In 1896 the Church moved the monthly two-meal fast for all members to the first Sunday of each month. The Elders called it the “general fast day” and usually observed it as a two-meal fast. [3] The other-Sunday fasts were particular to missionaries. Four of the six Elders record multiple other-Sunday fasts. [4] In contrast to the “general” fast, the other-Sunday fasts typically (but not always) lasted only through breakfast.

It is not clear how the weekly fast fit into the mission’s institutional culture. Was it a rule? suggestion? tradition? Elder Brooks mentions “our duty to fast.” An 1896 circular from the Northern States Mission also suggests a top-down element: “To properly fast, we should eat no breakfast or dinner. Many elders fast every Sunday morning, and do so with profit.” [5]

How often the Elders actually fasted is difficult to evaluate with precision. Elder Brooks and Elder Jones, who kept the most consistent meal records, observed the first-Sunday fast 60-85% and 48-79% of their respective chances. For the other-Sunday fasts the ranges are 51-88% and 14-50%, respectively. [6] The missionaries recorded only a handful of non-Sunday fasts. [7]

As noted, the Elders tended to observe (or at least record observing) the first-Sunday fast more faithfully than the other-Sunday fasts. On days when they recorded fasting the missionaries also frequently noted sleeping “late” and writing letters, reading, and praying. Travel and illness excused Elders from the duty to fast, though there are counter-examples; there are also instances of healthy, stationary Elders not fasting.



[1] The diarists are Joseph Brooks, Franklin Clark, James Duffin, Heber Folkman, David Forsha, and Willard Jones, some of whom have been cited at JI and Keepa, eg, a hurricane, a polygamist, an abortion, and a homecoming.

[2] …mostly because it already came up and I’m lazy like that.

[3] Five of the Elders mention “general” or “regular” fast days at least once.  Elder Folkman only identifies the first Sunday as “fast day” and does not explicitly mention fasting on other Sundays. President Duffin complicates the pattern slightly when he calls a special “general fast” for the mission on a second Sunday.

[4] Number of entries explicitly noting non-first-Sunday fasts: Brooks: 28; Clark: 8; Forsha: 11; Jones: 11. Elder Folkman, who recorded little about eating or fasting, does not mention the other-Sunday fasts, but when he was companion with Elder Brooks, Elder Brooks records that “we” fasted. President Duffin records one fast on a non-first Sunday but makes it out as a special fast upon entering a new area.

[5] Letter from the Office of the Northern States Mission, 1896 Jul 15, Kansas City, Missouri, “To the Presidents of Conferences and Traveling Elders,” Harold B Lee Library, Special Collections, Box 8608 .Ala no.1305.

[6] The quantitative analysis is still in the first draft. I coded each Sunday for which there is an entry in the diary as “Yes they fasted” (the diary mentions fasting explicitly OR it says they skipped a meal AND did things they normally did while fasting), “No they did not fast” (it explicitly says they did not fast or says they ate three meals), or “Not enough information.” The “yes” and “no” percentages give the upper and lower bounds I report above.

[7] Non-Sunday fasts per diary: Brooks: 2; Jones: 2; Duffin: 4; Folkman: 1.



6 Comments

  1. This is absolutely wonderful. Thanks!

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 18, 2012 @ 9:27 pm

  2. Just what we’ve learned to expect from Edgy: footnotes as long as the post, fascinating content, and pure brilliance. Thanks!

    Comment by Ben P — March 19, 2012 @ 2:10 am

  3. Elder Folkman, who recorded little about eating or fasting…

    Obviously, my grandfather was not as obsessed about food as I am.

    Comment by kevinf — March 19, 2012 @ 12:45 pm

  4. Great stuff, Edje!

    Comment by Jared T — March 19, 2012 @ 5:22 pm

  5. Edje, this is awesome and I’m excited about future posts in this series. We’ve missed your contributions around here.

    Comment by Christopher — March 20, 2012 @ 8:20 am

  6. […] The Elders do include some mild intensifiers when they shared a bed with three or more people, shared a bed with a non-missionary, or unexpectedly got their own bed. Previous Post: Fasting Frequency […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Southwestern States Mission: Sharing a bed — March 25, 2012 @ 4:30 pm