The Healing Power of Prayer

Conventional medicine discovers that prayer has an effect on healing

| March-April 2000

If you’ve ever prayed for someone who’s perilously ill, in some corner of your mind you may have doubted the efficacy of your efforts, wondering if prayer soothed only the supplicant. But in October, the prestigious Archives of Internal Medicine published evidence that prayer may actually benefit the sick, even if they are totally unaware of appeals on their behalf.

This finding emerged from the laboratory of an unlikely pioneer of metaphysical research, 50-year-old physiologist William Harris, who had been in the midst of discerning the secrets of fish oil’s effect on blood lipids. One day he was lunching and strumming guitar with some colleagues in his windowless office at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City when discussion turned to cardiologist Randolph Byrd’s study of prayer’s effects on cardiac patients. Byrd ostensibly found that those who were prayed for did better than those who weren’t. But his study, published in the regional Southern Medical Journal (July 1988), had loopholes that undermined its credibility.

Harris and his strumming pals, a psychology graduate student and a cardiologist, decided to replicate Byrd’s study without the loopholes. They recruited a hospital chaplain and 15 five-member prayer groups, obtained a $5,000 private grant, and secured the hospital administration’s permission.

When people were admitted to the coronary care unit at the Mid-America Heart Institute, their names and patient numbers appeared in the chaplain’s computer. The chaplain’s secretary—who never saw the patients—called in the first names of even-numbered patients to prayer group leaders. Leaders then assigned a team member to pray every day for the patient’s speedy recovery without complications. Odd-numbered patients became the control group. In all, 466 patients received prayers while 524 didn’t. Volunteer supplicants—mostly women—were of various Christian denominations. Neither patients nor doctors knew of the yearlong study.

Probably others were praying for some of the patients too, says Harris, since more than half indicated a religious preference when they were admitted. Nevertheless, when he measured number and severity of adverse events befalling trial subjects, those prayed for by the prayer groups did 11 percent better.

As for the source of this beneficence, Harris writes in Archives, “It was intercessory prayer, not the existence of God, that was tested here.” He doesn’t attempt to explain the mechanism, but does remind readers that in 1753, when James Lind discovered that lemons and limes cured scurvy, the notion of a nutrient was still 200 years in the future. “I’m not interested in mechanism,” says Harris. “I want to know how this can be maximized for healing. What kind of prayer works? With how many praying? One? Ten?”

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