Why pray? Prayer occurs in many faiths. It stays recognisable despite its varied forms. It must be good for something – but what?
In one of its most common and controversial forms, it takes the form of a petition made to the almighty for, well, all kinds of purposes, public and private, physical and spiritual. Public intercessory prayer has been a consistent feature of Christianity since its early days. Registers were kept of clergy, civil leaders and people in need, and intercession was made for them in the community’s worship. Common practices included anointing the sick and praying for healing. Over time, the anointing ritual was formalised as extreme unction and largely confined to moments of final illness. Intercession, however, lived on.
Put into theological terms, intercessory prayer was an appeal for God’s ‘special providence’ – an exceptional intervention beyond the ‘general providence’ that governed natural processes. Doubts and dissents on that principle were common, but they did not contaminate public worship, which dutifully pleaded for the health of rulers and bishops (always by their first names).
The 19th-century statistician Francis Galton, writing with an almost roguish scrupulousness, decided to test the efficacy of such prayers with a statistical study of the longevity of British royalty, clergy and other elite groups. He found that members of royal families – the most interceded-for class of people in Britain – had a shorter average span of life than other, less prayer-lavished cohorts. ‘The sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence,’ Galton concluded in 1872. ‘The prayer has therefore no efficacy, unless the very questionable hypothesis be raised, that the conditions of royal life may naturally be yet more fatal, and that their influence is partly, though incompletely, neutralised by the effects of public prayers.’ Clergy fared a bit better, but not much, and Galton explains their relative longevity by their ‘easy country life and family repose’.