Fasting as Protest

Post Reformation Fasting Practices - a Prelude

The Reformation movement in the Catholic Church greatly changed how many people had been fasting in the Middle Ages. One result of the reduced number of public fasting days, now no longer demanded for so many religious events, was a move by government entities to issue occasional fasting proclamations. These were nothing like the recently abolished frequency of the fasts the Church had once demanded. Instead proclamations were typically for particularly ominous or especially somber happenings that the state wanted to focus the attention of its population on. England was particularly noteworthy in this regard. The arrival of the plague on London in 1563 was the impetus for an order for fasting and prayer in an effort to help bring an end to the epidemic. When the so called Gunpowder Plot was uncovered in 1605, thwarting the assassination of the King of England and numerous members of Parliament, a fast of thanksgiving was ordered. The reach of the English government was of course widespread during these times and so fasts were also often followed by colonists in the New World.

These use of fasting by governments tended to create a sense of civic or national unity that cities and states wanted to foster. They were also seen as a means of helping to assuage public fears about certain situation or for managing the public’s general mood during times of public emergency.

Colonial Solidarity: a National Protest Fast

One of the most interesting early uses of fasting as a form of civil protest was motivated by a motion made in the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 24, 1774. The port of Boston to be closed on June 1 by the British government as punishment for the Boston Tea Party. The members of the burgesses wanted to pass a resolution to show solidarity with and support for the people of Boston. It was decided a day of fasting and prayer should be declared for June 1. Another motivation for doing this was to more or less offer an insult to the Crown - and it was taken as such an act. The next day after the vote on the proclamation the British Governor of Virginia declared their legislative session over and effectively sent the burgesses home.

Unfortunately for the Crown the word about this idea has already gotten out and the idea spread - not only to Virginians but to other colonies as well. The effect was that on June 1 many colonists in many areas fasted and held special prayer services. It was an effective protest and created a sense of solidarity among the colonists.

Protest fasting did not catch on although fasting proclamations for other reasons were issued by American political bodies may times after this episode. In America these types of public fasts became as fashionable as in England, and this practice continued throughout most of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Gandhi and Fasting for Change

Mahatma Gandhi is one of the most famous practitioners of civil disobedience in human history. His use of fasting as a means of protest, especially in regards to freeing India from British rule, was an extension of a Hindu practice. The central idea was to fast for the shortcomings or sins of a person that had wronged you. It was useful, in some situations, as a powerful way of shaming others into coming around to a position they would otherwise not be willing to entertain or concede. One of Gandhi’s many gifts was an ability to strongly connect with his countrymen through the simplest of gestures, and unite and rally them to his causes and ideas in a remarkable way. His fasting was one means of communicating to his people that strongly moved them, while it simultaneously was perceived by others in the world as a moving statement about his causes.

Gandhi's was influenced by the example set by Marion Wallace-Dunlop, an important figure in the British women's suffrage movement. An interesting piece about some aspects of Wallace-Dunlop's life, including her notoriety for fasting and civil disobedience, was written by Joseph Lennon and published in the Sunday Times. It is well written and a great read.....The Hunger Artist

Hunger Strikes - Fasting for Concessions

There have been numerous famous hunger strikes that have taken place, some more well known than others.


Cecily de Ridgeway, England 1357

Charged with the murder of her husband, if found guilty she would be put to death and her property would revert to the Crown. One method of putting of a trail that some defendants would learn about was to remain mute at their pleading hearing. Cecily de Ridgeway remained mute and was remanded to what was called narrow prison. This was a way the government had of getting mute defendants to talk – sending them to prison and with holding food and water. Most prisoners were ready to plead after a day or two. She did not break down. In fact she lasted forty days without food or water. Her case gained greater and greater notoriety with each day she lasted. Within a few weeks time public opinion was that it was heavenly divined that she was innocent. By the fortieth day, King Edward III himself ordered her freed from prison and decreed all charges should be dropped.


Irish Hunger Strikers

The first instance of Irish IRA prisoners going on a hunger strike was in the spring of 1920. Eighty prisoners, many incarcerated on dubious charges, all refused to eat and drink. After a week of this, public attention in England and Ireland become focused on their situation and it caused a problem for the government. After a general work strike was called in Dublin, the government realized public sentiment was for the prisoners and they were released.

This was followed shortly thereafter by the case of Terence MacSwiney. Lord Mayor of Cork, he was arrested and jailed under a new order that abolished trial by jury in Ireland. MacSwiney had been in charge of an uprising four years earlier, which was the cause of his arrest and subsequent two year prison sentence. When sentenced and asked if he would like to address the court, MacSwiney stated “I have decided that I shall be free, alive or dead, within a month, as I will take no food for the period of my sentence.”

This caused a problem for the government as they did not want to follow up setting eighty prisoners free with freeing the next person to declare a hunger strike. It was deemed dangerous to give in thus they dug in their heels. This again caused a great public uproar with each passing day. MacSwiney did after sixty nine days, on October 25, 1920. He declared to one of his guards on his last day alive “I want you to bear witness that I die as a soldier of the Irish Republic.”

The most famous of the more contemporary Irish hunger strikers is Bobby Sands. He and other prisoners struck to be have their official prison status changed from criminal to political, among other demands. He and his fellow hunger strikers were convicted of various crimes related to their involvement in IRA and INLA activities. Sands died on May 5, 1981 and nine others chose this same fatal fate. The action by the men was successful in gaining worldwide attention and ironically Sands was elected a British MP while in the midst of his hunger strike. The lasting effect of the death of Sands was to cause more recruits to join the IRA and increase the violence associated with their activities.


Nelson Mandela

Along with other prisoners on Robbins Island, these political prisoners used fasting as an effective tool to gain many concessions from the South African government.


Cesar Chavez

A Mexican American labor leader that helped secure unionization and improve wages for itinerant farm workers. Chavez helped form the National Farm Workers’ Association in 1962. Three years later another union began a grape pickers strike that Chavez and the NFWA joined in solidarity. The strike was long lasting and at one point, with the movement becoming less cohesive and a ratcheting up of violent rhetoric, Chavez stopped eating. He fasted almost exclusively on water for twenty five days. His actions diffused some of the tension, draw the workers closer together, and drew greater attention to their cause. The strike lasted four years and the workers eventually won many concessions.


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