TEN PRAYERS THATCHANGED THE WORLD: Extraordinary Stories of Faith that Shaped the Course of History. By Jean-Pierre Isbouts. Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2016. 270 pages.
It is said that prayer changes things, and I believe that there is truth in this adage. I believe it is especially true when we inhabit prayers that inspire us to action. As a Christian who recites the Lord’s Prayer most every Sunday in worship, I know its power. It is a call to give allegiance to God, above all other allegiances. There is power is that kind of prayer.
The Lord’s Prayer, also known as the Our Father is one of many prayers that we could name that have proven influential down through the ages. Indeed, it is one of the ten prayers that historian/author/filmmaker Jean-Pierre Isbouts has chosen to highlight in his book Ten Prayers that Changed the World, a book published by National Geographic. This review of the Isbouts book is one of twelve contributions to the TLC Book Tour. This tour is a promotional venture that allows bloggers like me and my fellow blogger James McGrath to highlight certain books. I was pleased to be asked to participate.
These ten prayers that Isbouts believes have helped form or change the world range from Abraham’s plea for the life of his son Isaac, and for the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, to the “Daily Prayer” that Mother Teresa developed for her order of nuns. Isbouts’ collection is predominantly Christian, but the author offers them up, and the stories behind them, as encouragement to his readers, that they would embrace the "moral superiority of spiritual pluralism and the great civic virtue of religious tolerance" (p. 227).
Before we move on to the prayers and the stories that accompany them, a word needs to be said about the author. Isbouts is a professor of social science at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. He is also the author of books on subjects that range from the life of Jesus to that of the young Leonardo da Vinci. He’s also a filmmaker with credits that include a film about the painter Manet and Operation Valkyrie. His own academic credentials include a doctorate in history from Columbia University focusing on a nineteenth century architectural firm. Several of his books were published by National Geographic, and offer to a general audience an introduction to the way in which religion and culture interact.
As for this project, one might wonder how a person might choose ten particular prayers to highlight because of the world-changing properties. I’m not sure that there is a ready answer, but the author has chosen these ten and invites us to ponder them in a narrative context. Isbouts is a story-teller, and so we hear stories. They may be true stories, but they are rooted in the imagination. Or at least in Isbouts attempt to penetrate the heart and mind of his subjects.
The prayers are linked to such figures as Abraham, Jesus, Constantine, Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, George Washington, St. Francis, George Patton, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa. Several of the prayers are connected to military ventures, including the prayer requested by Patton but written by a chaplain that would, Patton hoped, encourage the soldiers trapped at Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulg. The prayer of Constantine also has a military context, for it is connected to his famed battle against his rival emperor at the Milvian Bridge outside of Rome. Constantine apparently has a vision of Jesus and embraces Jesus as his patron in battle. He wins the battle, and control of the Western Roman Empire. With that comes toleration of Christians in the empire. Isbouts tells the stories behind the prayers, creating internal dialogue to move the story forward. Thankfully, he expresses the necessary degree of skepticism as to the veracity of certain stories. One of the stories demanding skepticism is, of course, George Washington’s famed prayer at Valley Forge. The prayer and the story behind it cannot be corroborated. Indeed, the supposed witness might not have been anywhere near Valley Forge when the said prayer was supposed to have been uttered!
Making this book accessible to the general audience involves entering the inner world of the creators of the prayers. We enter the thoughts of Abraham as he tries to make sense of the call to sacrifice Isaac, and as he argues with God about sparing Sodom and Gomorrah. One might be fascinated with the story of the pious young French maiden who inspires the French claimant to the throne to resist England’s attempt to control France. She must, of course, convince a skeptical audience, including the readers of this book, that God was speaking to her. She convinces the heir to the throne and they push forward toward victory. Unfortunately for Joan, she is captured, put on trial for heresy, and burned at the stake. Though she would not live to see France’s final victory, Isbouts suggests that it was her visions that helped galvanize the French.
Yes, there are prayers connected to military ventures, but there are also prayers for peace. These include the famed Prayer of St. Francis and Gandhi’s Prayer for Peace. Isbouts sets Gandhi’s prayer in Gandhi’s quest to not only overturn British rule in India, but his desire to see an undivided India where Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Christian might live together in peace. He opposed the division of India into two countries, a cause that contributed to his assassination at the hands of a Hindu nationalist. But he leaves behind this prayer for unity and peace, which continue to inspire us.
One of the most intriguing stories in the book is connected to the origins and publication of what has come to be known as the Prayer of Saint Francis. It appears just about everywhere, including in my denomination’s hymnal, which designates the prayer as being “attributed to Francis of Assisi.” The editors of the hymnal do not give any hints as to its likely provenance; they just link it to St. Francis. It sounds like it could be from his hand, but that’s unlikely. The facts suggest a very different origin. Isbouts suggests that in the course of time a simple French prayer for peace, which first appeared in print in 1912, in a Catholic magazine, came to be attributed to St. Francis during World War I. The likely author of this prayer was Father Esther Bouquerel, who published it in the Catholic magazine he edited. In 1915 the Marquis Stanislas de la Rochethulon discovered it and was so taken by it that he decided that it needed wider distribution, especially in light of the carnage of the First World War. So he took the prayer to Pope Benedict XV, who was also appalled by the war. With the support of the Pope, in 1916 the prayer was published by the Vatican. To this point there had been no connection with St. Francis. That would come in 1917 when the prayer was published on a card, the reverse side of which bore the image of St. Francis. Thus a “happy accident” leads to the prayer becoming connected with a saint committed to peace and caring for the poor, the sick, and the outcast. From then on the prayer became known as the Prayer of Saint Francis. What is of special interest to me is that the person who popularized the prayer in the United States was a Disciples of Christ minister and peace activist named Kirby Page. Page included the “Prayer of Saint Francis” in his book Living Courageously. It gained further currency during World War II, when Cardinal Spellman had the prayer published on devotional cards that were placed in kits sent with soldiers sent into battle during that war. Again the prayer was attributed to Francis. Such is the case to this day, so that the prayer continues to inspire.
Isbouts takes no specific doctrinal position on the nature of God or on the ways in which God should be approached in worship or in prayer. What he wants to do is offer these stories as a reminder that when we pray, we open ourselves up to new visions. We allow God, however we envision God, to intervene in our lives. As to how prayer works, he speaks of them in terms of “whispers of God” that stir our minds and actions, so that we might do things we might not otherwise deem possible. He speaks of the prayers he shares in positive ways. Thus, for instance, he notes that the Lord’s Prayer continues to inspire believers to this day. Thus, even though the followers of the Christian faith are divided into many “traditions and factions with sharply different views on doctrine and liturgical practice. But one thing that is shared across all confessions is the Our Father.” It is, he reminds us, the one prayer all followers of Jesus recite. It seems, from the stories, that even if God isn’t hearing the prayers, they speak to us.
Readers of this book will be treated to stories of people seeking to engage the divine and to do great things. As we read we will be inspired to engage in prayer ourselves, so as to open ourselves up to the work of God. Even if there are problems with some of the stories—that is, we don’t know whether they are truly the work of the one to whom they’re attributed—they still can inspire. That is his purpose—inspiring us to make a difference in the world. This is a most readable and enjoyable book, so get a copy and start reading.