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.
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.
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.