Tyndall on Prayer

John Tyndall, 1874

Maybe we should do what John Tyndall suggested. From Edward J. Pfeifer’s chapter on the United States in The Comparative Reception of Darwinism:

[Tyndall’s] materialistic inclination was enough to make him notorius in the United States, but shortly before his visit he endorsed a proposal that shocked Americans even moree. This was the prayer test. Since prayers, he argued, are frequently said for a particular purpose, their efficacy could be tested. This might be done by establishing separate hospital wards,one of which would be given over to patients treated medically, while patients in the other ward would receive only the benefit of prayer. Recovery rates could then be established and the efficacy of prayer determined. (1)

The experiment, in response to Bishop Wilberforce‘s call for a national day of prayer to cease the wet weather that threatened harvests in Britain, never took place (2). But prayer meetings were held for Tyndall in Boston and Philadelphia in 1872-3. Albert Jackson wrote to Tyndall on January 13, 1873 that the same stage on which he lectured in New York was the same that a prominent Brooklyn Presbyterian clergyman had given a speech entitled “Tyndall’s Prayer Gauge,” on “the infidelity of science in general.” Jackson noted that the clergyman’s own pulpit burned to the ground, “which science might have prevented, but which prayer certainly did not” (3). Unfortunately, that Tyndall was embroiled in theological controversy during his lecture tour urged Joseph Henry, first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Tyndall’s sponsor, to question whether he made the right choice in inviting  Tyndall to talk up science in America. Henry, afterall, was a religious man. He wrote to Benjamin Silliman, Jr.:

I regret very much that he got into the Theological controversy as to prayer since this not only involves himself in an apparent antagonism to christianity [sic], but also the cultivators of science generally. The effect has been unfortunate. The subject of the connection of science and Theology is one which requires to be treated with great delicacy. (4)

Perhaps, today being the National Day of Prayer, we can utilize the millions of Americans surely participating to test its efficacy, since Tyndall’s proposed experiment was never carried out.


1. Edward J. Pfeifer, “United States,” in Thomas F. Glick, ed., The Comparative Reception of Darwinism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 168-206, on 196-7.

2. Richard G. Olson, Science and Religion, 1450–1900: From Copernicus to Darwin (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,2004), 207.

3. Albert Jackson to John Tyndall, January 13, 1873, letter stuck into Tyndall’s American journal, RI MS JT/2/10, Tyndall Papers, Archives, Royal Institution of Great Britain.

4. Joseph Henry to Benjamin Silliman, Jr., February 28, 1873, in The Papers of Joseph Henry, Vol. 11: January 1866-May 1878 (Sagamore Beach, MA: Watson Publishing/Science History Publications, 2007), 448-51, on 449.

Other sources:

Robert Bruce Mullin, “Science, Miracles, and the Prayer-Gauge Debate,” in David C. Lindberg and Ronald Numbers, eds., When Science and Christianity Meet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 203-24.

Rick Ostrander, The Life of Prayer in a World of Science: Protestants, Prayer, and American Culture, 1870-1930 (Religion in America) (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 17-34.

John Tyndall, “On Prayer,” Contemporary Review, October 1872, republished in The Prayer-Gauge Debate (Boston: Congregational Publishing Society, 1876), 109-15.

John Tyndall, “Thoughts on Prayer and Natural Law” (1861), in Fragments of Science (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1871), 33-40.

8 thoughts on “Tyndall on Prayer

  1. Pingback: Tyndall on Prayer « Transcribing Tyndall

  2. Puts me in mind of a talk at the Royal Institution last year, given by Bob Park (formerly Director of Public Info, at the American Physical Society, and a great all round debunker of pseudoscience). He shared the results of a Templeton funded study on the efficacy of prayer that assessed the value of prayer on the recovery rates of coronary bypass patients. No positive effect of prayer was found, although he said there was a negative impact on the health of a sub-group of patients who were told up-front they would be receiving prayers; I suspect the expectation worried them! (I don’t have a reference at hand for the study, but sure it’s findable)

  3. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton observed that, despite being prayed for throughout the nation (and, I presume, British Empire) by millions of people each week, the British royal family did not tend to live longer than other, similarly well-to-do families.

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  5. By “prayer” did Tyndall (and modern would-be prayerologists) mean supplication, as most folks think when considering the topic, or deprecatory prayer (supplicating for misfortune or harm on ones enemies)(even an experiment on the efficacy of such a prayer would be ethically suspect), or a thanksgiving prayer (not asking for anything), or a prayer for increased moral courage, patience, or other such internal states of being (which would be impossible to measure)?

    Of those four types, which I submit is only a rough c categorization of common Christian prayers, only two could be possibly “tested” in a Tyndalian fashion.

    The problems arise precisely when faith (which cannot be isolated, nor measured in a test tube) and science are confused with each other, in a kind of quasi-theological, quasi-scientific discussion, when really science is a tool, a way of acquiring and categorizing experiment, or the results thereof, and faith is an altogether different thing…where one listens to, and at the same time disciplines, the heart.

  6. Tyndall referred to prayer that would alleviate humans of suffering, hence prayer for folks in hospital wards to get healthy or prayer to lessen wet weather which threatened harvests. So, supplication.

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