Prayer: A History

When Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, Latter-day Saints believe, they built an altar and offered sacrifice to the Lord (see Moses 5:4–5). In other words, they prayed. This may have been the first time that humans truly prayed, at least according to the biblical tradition. Before that, man and woman walked and talked with God in the cool of the evening garden. As mortality settled upon them, they turned immediately to prayer to recapture, distantly but genuinely and powerfully, something of the sacred among the thorns and thistles of their newly profane world. Whether taking the form of a child’s simple bedside pleading for God “my soul to keep” or the intricate rites performed at temples to maintain balance in the cosmos and guarantee providential favor, prayer is the sacred link between earth and heaven. Or, as Philip and Carol Zaleski define it in their book Prayer: A History, “Prayer is action that communicates between human and divine realms.”

Despite its faults, Prayer is a valuable offering that provides a richer understanding of one of the central facets of human history and culture. Readers already given to prayer will undoubtedly be inspired by the many exemplars whose prayer lives are detailed in the book; although Latter-day Saints are never mentioned in the book, it nevertheless has great relevance for believers from any tradition who seek greater efficacy in accessing the divine. Skeptics will be forced to reckon with a phenomenon that, when properly seen, refuses to be reduced or marginalized by secular modernity. In the end, prayer can be truly known only through direct experience, and so any written evaluation of it is bound to come up short. As the authors acknowledge, “We can describe the visible world of prayer in sumptuous detail . . . but the most intimate dance between God and the soul occurs at a level beyond human perception.” The simultaneous accessibility and mystery of prayer means that even our best descriptions will be only approximations.

Published in BYU Studies Quarterly 46:3
Purchase this Issue