Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter 2: Of the Duty and of the Efficacy of Prayer, so far as the Same Appear from the Light of Nature - The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy
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Chapter 2: Of the Duty and of the Efficacy of Prayer, so far as the Same Appear from the Light of Nature - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Of the Duty and of the Efficacy of Prayer, so far as the Same Appear from the Light of Nature
When one man desires to obtain any thing of another, he betakes himself to entreaty; and this may be observed of mankind in all ages and countries of the world. Now what is universal, may be called natural; and it seems probable that God, as our supreme governor, should expect that towards himself, which, by a natural impulse, or by the irresistible order of our constitution, he has prompted us to pay to every other being on whom we depend.
The same may be said of thanksgiving.
Prayer likewise is necessary to keep up in the minds of mankind a sense of God’s agency in the universe, and of their own dependency upon him.
Yet, after all, the duty of prayer depends upon its efficacy: for I confess myself unable to conceive, how any man can pray, or be obliged to pray, who expects nothing from his prayers; but who is persuaded, at the time he utters his request, that it cannot possibly produce the smallest impression upon the being to whom it is addressed, or advantage to himself. Now the efficacy of prayer imports that we obtain something in consequence of praying, which we should not have received without prayer; against all expectation of which, the following objection has been often and seriously alleged: “If it be most agreeable to perfect wisdom and justice that we should receive what we desire, God, as perfectly wise and just, will give it to us without asking; if it be not agreeable to these attributes of his nature, our entreaties cannot move him to give it us, and it were impious to expect that they should.” In fewer words, thus: “If what we request be fit for us, we shall have it without praying; if it be not fit for us, we cannot obtain it by praying.” This objection admits but of one answer, namely, that it may be agreeable to perfect wisdom to grant that to our prayers, which it would not have been agreeable to the same wisdom to have given us without praying for. But what virtue, you will ask, is there in prayer, which should make a favour consistent with wisdom, which would not have been so without it? To this question, which contains the whole difficulty attending the subject, the following possibilities are offered in reply:
1. A favour granted to prayer may be more apt, on that very account, to produce good effects upon the person obliged. It may hold in the Divine bounty, what experience has raised into a proverb in the collation of human benefits, that what is obtained without asking, is oftentimes received without gratitude.
2. It may be consistent with the wisdom of the Deity to withhold his favours till they be asked for, as an expedient to encourage devotion in his rational creation, in order thereby to keep up and circulate a knowledge and sense of their dependency upon him.
3. Prayer has a natural tendency to amend the petitioner himself; and thus to bring him within the rules which the wisdom of the Deity has prescribed to the dispensation of his favours.
If these, or any other assignable suppositions, serve to remove the apparent repugnancy between the success of prayer and the character of the Deity, it is enough; for the question with the petitioner is not from which, out of many motives, God may grant his petition, or in what particular manner he is moved by the supplications of his creatures; but whether it be consistent with his nature to be moved at all, and whether there be any conceivable motive which may dispose the Divine Will to grant the petitioner what he wants, in consequence of his praying for it. It is sufficient for the petitioner, that he gain his end. It is not necessary to devotion, perhaps not very consistent with it, that the circuit of causes, by which his prayers prevail, should be known to the petitioner, much less that they should be present to his imagination at the time. All that is necessary is, that there be no impossibility apprehended in the matter.
Thus much must be conceded to the objection: that prayer cannot reasonably be offered to God with all the same views, with which we oftentimes address our entreaties to men (views which are not commonly or easily separated from it), viz. to inform them of our wants and desires; to tease them out by importunity; to work upon their indolence or compassion, in order to persuade them to do what they ought to have done before, or ought not to do at all.
But suppose there existed a prince, who was known by his subjects to act, of his own accord, always and invariably for the best; the situation of a petitioner, who solicited a favour or pardon from such a prince, would sufficiently resemble ours: and the question with him, as with us, would be, whether, the character of the prince being considered, there remained any chance that he should obtain from him by prayer, what he would not have received without it. I do not conceive that the character of such a prince would necessarily exclude the effect of his subject’s prayers; for when that prince reflected that the earnestness and humility of the supplication had generated in the suppliant a frame of mind, upon which the pardon or favour asked would produce a permanent and active sense of gratitude; that the granting of it to prayer would put others upon praying to him, and by that means preserve the love and submission of his subjects, upon which love and submission their own happiness, as well as his glory, depended; that, beside that the memory of the particular kindness would be heightened and prolonged by the anxiety with which it had been sued for, prayer had in other respects so disposed and prepared the mind of the petitioner, as to render capable of future services him who before was unqualified for any: might not that prince, I say, although he proceeded upon no other considerations than the strict rectitude and expediency of the measure, grant a favour or pardon to this man, which he did not grant to another, who was too proud, too lazy, or too busy, too indifferent whether he received it or not, or too insensible of the sovereign’s absolute power to give or to withhold it, ever to ask for it? or even to the philosopher, who, from an opinion of the fruitlessness of all addresses to a prince of the character which he had formed to himself, refused in his own example, and discouraged in others, all outward returns of gratitude, acknowledgements of duty, or application to the sovereign’s mercy or bounty; the disuse of which (seeing affections do not long subsist which are never expressed) was followed by a decay of loyalty and zeal amongst his subjects, and threatened to end in a forgetfulness of his rights, and a contempt of his authority? These, together with other assignable considerations, and some perhaps inscrutable, and even inconceivable, by the persons upon whom his will was to be exercised, might pass in the mind of the prince, and move his counsels; whilst nothing, in the mean time, dwelt in the petitioner’s thoughts, but a sense of his own grief and wants; of the power and goodness from which alone he was to look for relief; and of his obligation to endeavour, by future obedience, to render that person propitious to his happiness, in whose hands, and at the disposal of whose mercy, he found himself to be.
The objection to prayer supposes, that a perfectly wise being must necessarily be inexorable: but where is the proof, that inexorability is any part of perfect wisdom; especially of that wisdom which is explained to consist in bringing about the most beneficial ends by the wisest means?
The objection likewise assumes another principle, which is attended with considerable difficulty and obscurity, namely, that upon every occasion there is one, and only one, mode of acting for the best; and that the Divine Will is necessarily determined and confined to that mode: both which positions presume a knowledge of universal nature, much beyond what we are capable of attaining. Indeed, when we apply to the Divine Nature such expressions as these, “God must always do what is right,” “God cannot, from the moral perfection and necessity of his nature, act otherwise than for the best,” we ought to apply them with much indeterminateness and reserve; or rather, we ought to confess, that there is something in the subject out of the reach of our apprehension; for, in our apprehension, to be under a necessity of acting according to any rule, is inconsistent with free agency; and it makes no difference which we can understand, whether the necessity be internal or external, or that the rule is the rule of perfect rectitude.
But efficacy is ascribed to prayer without the proof, we are told, which can alone in such a subject produce conviction—the confirmation of experience. Concerning the appeal to experience, I shall content myself with this remark, that if prayer were suffered to disturb the order of second causes appointed in the universe, too much, or to produce its effects with the same regularity that they do, it would introduce a change into human affairs, which in some important respects would be evidently for the worse. Who, for example, would labour, if his necessities could be supplied with equal certainty by prayer? How few would contain within any bounds of moderation those passions and pleasures, which at present are checked only by disease, or the dread of it, if prayer would infallibly restore health? In short, if the efficacy of prayer were so constant and observable as to be relied upon beforehand, it is easy to foresee that the conduct of mankind would, in proportion to that reliance, become careless and disorderly. It is possible, in the nature of things, that our prayers may, in many instances, be efficacious, and yet our experience of their efficacy be dubious and obscure. Therefore, if the light of nature instruct us by any other arguments to hope for effect from prayer; still more, if the Scriptures authorise these hopes by promises of acceptance; it seems not a sufficient reason for calling in question the reality of such effects, that our observations of them are ambiguous; especially since it appears probable, that this very ambiguity is necessary to the happiness and safety of human life.
But some, whose objections do not exclude all prayer, are offended with the mode of prayer in use amongst us, and with many of the subjects which are almost universally introduced into public worship, and recommended to private devotion. To pray for particular favours by name, is to dictate, it has been said, to Divine wisdom and goodness: to intercede for others, especially for whole nations and empires, is still worse; it is to presume that we possess such an interest with the Deity, as to be able, by our applications, to bend the most important of his counsels; and that the happiness of others, and even the prosperity of communities, is to depend upon this interest, and upon our choice. Now, how unequal soever our knowledge of the Divine oeconomy may be to the solution of this difficulty, which requires perhaps a comprehension of the entire plan, and of all the ends of God’s moral government, to explain satisfactorily, we can understand one thing concerning it: that it is, after all, nothing more than the making of one man the instrument of happiness and misery to another; which is perfectly of a piece with the course and order that obtain, and which we must believe were intended to obtain, in human affairs. Why may we not be assisted by the prayers of other men, who are beholden for our support to their labour? Why may not our happiness be made in some cases to depend upon the intercession, as it certainly does in many upon the good offices, of our neighbours? The happiness and misery of great numbers we see oftentimes at the disposal of one man’s choice, or liable to be much affected by his conduct: what greater difficulty is there in supposing, that the prayers of an individual may avert a calamity from multitudes, or be accepted to the benefit of whole communities?