Most religions have traditionally believed that prayer can cure physical illness. The founding texts of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, for example, are clear that an individual can regain health through worship.
Within the Islamic tradition, some Muslims believed that reciting the Qur’an could heal, whilst Buddhist, Christian and Hindu traditions have long held the belief that illness could be overcome by visiting shrines and praying to particular gods or patron saints. Few doubted prayer’s healing potential; one Bishop confidently stated in the 1600s: ‘faithful prayer faileth never’. If praying did not cure your illness, it was thought you must have been a particularly sinful person.
Particular individuals have long claimed that they could use prayer to heal others. In England in the 1600s, Valentine Greatrakes claimed he could cure many illnesses by laying his hands on the sick. This tradition continues today. High-profile evangelical faith healers, many of whom practise in front of large crowds or on television, claim they can cure disease by praying for or touching sick people.
From the 1800s onwards, various scientists and doctors have tried experimenting to test whether prayer is an effective treatment. In 1872 Henry Thompson, an English surgeon, proposed a study where one group with a disease would be treated with cutting-edge medical therapy, whilst another would be prayed for - with the effectiveness of the two options compared. Although the suggestion attracted a lot of attention, the study was never carried out.
Today, similar investigation into the power of prayer is sponsored by organisations such as the Templeton Foundation and by researchers at a Californian university. Whatever these studies may find, statistics suggest that many people continue to believe in prayer as an effective remedy. With half of all Americans regularly praying for their own health, prayer remains the most common alternative, or supplement, to mainstream medicine.
L I Conrad, ‘Arab-Islamic Medicine’ in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine (London, Routledge, 1993)
R Porter (ed.), The Cambridge History of Medicine (Cambridge: University Press, 2006)
K Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Penguin, 1991)
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