Christians worldwide are currently observing Lent, a penitential season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Generally speaking, modern western Christians are prone to approach these disciplines as a matter of individual piety. But historically, these practices have carried much broader and more significant social, economic, and political implications. We often think of the Protestant Reformation as declaring an end to Lenten observance, and public fasts in general, but the reality is more complicated.
During the English Reformation in particular, fasting played a direct and significant civic role. Under the rule of Henry VIII, Protestants could be arrested for breaking Lenten fasts, which included provisions for eating fish. This was perhaps less a matter of Henry’s devotion to medieval piety, and more a response to the devastating impact that the backlash against the “popish flesh,” and general negative attitude toward fish in popular culture, was having on the fishing industry. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Kent vows to “serve him truly that will put me in trust, to love him that is honest… to fear judgment … and to eat no fish.”
Keeping in step, Henry’s son Edward VI introduced an injunction in 1547 which forbade any changes in the order and manner of maintaining fast days without agreement of the Crown. A proclamation insisted that all citizens “observe and keep from hencefurth such fastyng days, and the tyme commonly called lent, in abstaining from al maner of flesh, as heretofore in this realm hath been most commonly used and accustomed.” The rationale for the proclamation was rooted, partially, in “worldly and civil policy,” given that conserving meat and eating fish on certain days would provide income for many “beset by water on all sides.”
In her first year on the throne, Elizabeth continued to urge the consumption of fish with her proclamation proclamation against “killing, dressing, or eating any flesh” on fasting days. One of Elizabeth’s chief advisors, Sir William Cecil, lobbied intensely for the implementation of such legislation, explaining, “in old times no flesh at all was eaten on fish days; even the king himself could not have license; which was occasion of eating so much fish as now is eaten in flesh upon fish days.” In the session of 1562-1563 he introduced a bill demanding that parliament enact “a politic ordinance on fish eating,” by which the eating of meat on fast days was made punishable by a fine of three pounds or three months’ imprisonment. To fortify his Protestant credentials and dispel any appearance of popish intent, Cecil added a theological clause to his bill:
“Because no person should misjudge the intent of the statute, which is politicly meant only for the increase of fishermen and mariners, and not for any superstition for choice of meats; whoever shall preach or teach that eating of fish or forbearing of meat is for the saving of the soul of man, or for the service of God, shall be punished as the spreader of false news.”
Against the background of these events, 17th century poet John Taylor opined,
“I have often noted that if any superfluous feasting or gormandizing, paunch-cramming assembly do meet, it is so ordered that it must be either in Lent, upon a Friday, or a fasting: for the meat does not relish well except it be sauced with disobedience and contempt of authority. … It is most certain that if lent were truly kept, and the fish days in every week duly observed . . . that then his kingdom of Great Britain both for meat and mariners would be the mistress of the world, and for the wealth and riches superlative to the Mines of America.”
21st century Christians may see in Cecil’s theological proviso evidence for a strict separation between the worldly economic concerns that drive political legislation and the true spiritual piety of the soul which stems only from individual volition. One either fasts privately to fulfill one’s spiritual needs, or public fasts are instituted to address civil needs (like the rationing in wartime that many Western nations experienced as recently as the 1940s). The renowned 16th-century churchman and theologian, Richard Hooker, however, sought to forestall such a strict either/or.
He recognizes, to be sure, fastings that are “of men’s own free and voluntary accord, as their particular devotion doth move them thereunto,” and on the other hand, those “publicly injoined in the Church, and required at the hands of all men,” and notes that many of his contemporaries only allowed the latter for strictly “secular” rationales: “[these] they allow no farther than as the temporal state of the land doth require the same, for the maintenance of seafaring men and preservation of cattle; because the decay of the one, and the waste of the other, could not be well prevented but by a politic order appointing some such usual change of diet as our is.”
But he sought to resist such a strict public/private dichotomy, arguing that there could be public fasts that were still, in some sense, spiritual:
“We are, therefore, the rather to make it manifest in all men’s eyes, that set times of fasting, appointed in spiritual considerations to be kept by all sorts of men, took not their beginning either from Montanus, or any other whose heresies may prejudice the credit and due estimation thereof, but have their ground in the Law of Nature, are allowable in God’s sight, were in all ages heretofore, and may till the world’s end be observed, not without singular use and benefit.”
The reason, he argues, is that our affections are disciplined by our habits, and it behooves the church to cultivate virtuous affections by ordering our habits.
“The affections of Joy and Grief are so knit unto all the actions of man’s life, that whatsoever we can do or may be done unto us, the sequel thereof is continually the one or the other affection. Wherefore considering that they which grieve and joy as they ought cannot possibly otherwise live than as they should, the Church of Christ, the most absolute and perfect school of all virtue, hath by the special direction of God’s good Spirit hitherto always inured men from their infancy partly with days of festival exercise for the framing of the one affection, and partly with times of a contrary sort for the perfecting of the other.”
Of course, in Hooker’s day, “the Church” in England was regulated by the civil authorities (themselves presumptively Christian), an arrangement that Hooker defended, and so it was they who were tasked with thus “framing affections” by the legislation of festival days and fast seasons, thus quite confusing, to our minds, civil and spiritual functions. To Hooker, however, there was no confusion, only a close co-dependence:
“For if the course of politic affaires cannot in any good sort go forward without fit instruments, and that which fitteth them be their virtues, let polity acknowledge itself indebted to religion, godliness beinge the chiefest top and wellspring of all true virtues, even as God is of all good things. So natural is the union of Religion with Justice, that we may boldly deny there is either, where both are not.”
Although addressing particular circumstances in which the “maintenance of seafaring men and preservation of cattle” were pressing concerns, Hooker’s theological appeal affords a more general reminder about the public nature of spiritual discipline. Fasting at the behest of the temporal institution is not inherently less pious than doing so out of voluntary accord. To suggest such a strict dichotomy in the first place demonstrates a failure to see the link between religion, justice, and the way in which public habits shape affections. Mindful of both the public and private dimensions of fasting, the Christian begins to more fully understand the relationship between their own fasting and the feasting to which is ordered, a feast that is not limited to themselves but which expresses itself publicly in forms of justice, civic virtue, and the common good.
 Although citizens were permitted to eat white meat, eggs, butter, and cheese during lent in 1542. Susan Bridgen, London and the Reformation, 371-77.
 Kate Colquhoun, Taste: The Story of Britain Through Its Cooking (Bloomsbury, 2007).
 E Cardwell ed., Documentary Annals of the Reformed Church of England (Oxford, 1844).
Willem Nijenhuis, Ecclesia Reformata: Studies on the Reformation, Volume 2 (Brill, 1994), p.189.
 Aaron Kitch, Political Economy and the States of Literature in Early Modern England, Ashgate, 2013. p 89-90. During a period of economic hardship from 1596-97 Elizabeth launched an extensive campaign to promote public fasting and almsgiving. Brodie Waddel , God, Duty and Community in English Economic Life, 1660-1720 (Boydell Press, 2012), p. 65. Ktich, Ibid., notes that by 1603, there were even laws prohibiting the sale of meat between Sunday morning and evening prayers.
 William Cecil, Notes upon an Act for the Increase of the Navy (1563).
 An exception would allow one serving of meat on Wednesdays on the condition that three fish dishes are also on the table.
 Cecil, Ibid.
 John Taylor, Jack a Lent (c. 1617)
 Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book V.72 (Oxford, 1977), p. 258.
 Ibid. V.1, p. 17.
Rev. Adam Borneman is a graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He currently works with Macedonian Ministry, an Atlanta based organization that provides leadership development training for clergy nationwide.