[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
One of the most important biblical references in the history of charismatic faith healing, the story of the woman with an “issue of blood” (Mark 5: 25-34), is often recounted to help explain the communication of curative efficacy from patient to healer. In this classic account of contagion, a woman with a seemingly incurable discharge of blood boldly makes her way through the dense throng following Jesus, reaching out her expectant hand to touch Jesus, the healer. Immediately upon contact with the “hem of his garment,” a healing virtue, or power, is communicated into the woman’s body. Both patient and healer simultaneously register this tactile contact: as the woman experiences a newfound sensation of somatic wellbeing, Jesus feels power leaving his body (see the above illustration from Oral Roberts’ famous 1950 treatise, If You Need Healing Do These Things). Given the significant place that this account holds in the theology and technique of charismatic faith healing, I would like to briefly explore this question: If the woman with an “issue” were to seek healing in the late modern context, how would she negotiate her way through the crowd to make contact with the healer?
In the heyday of the charismatic faith healing campaigns, millions of “prayer cards” were distributed to patients who desired a curative touch from healers such as William Branham, A. A. Allen, Jack Coe, and Oral Roberts. In order to discipline and organize the potentially excessive crowds of thousands of patients desiring tactile contact with the healer, bureaucratic “card systems” were instituted underneath the massive space of the tent cathedral. These bureaucratic systems structured an efficient “prayer line,” allowing patients to file past the healer in a serialized procession. In the mass crowds of modernity, therefore, the woman with an issue cannot simply make her way boldly through the throng, but she must be assigned a “PRAYER CARD” whose alpha-numerical code dictates exactly when she can make contact with healing power (see prayer card illustration, belowabove). Moreover, the woman must not only wait in patient and disciplined expectation for her number to be called (“E-1”), but in order for her prayer card to be properly validated with a special ink-stamp, she must attend a “faith building” course that instructs her on how faith healing works, and how to comport herself in the prayer line (these faith building services usually occurred in the morning or afternoon before the evening tent campaign). On top of this, the prayer card was also a complicated release form!
This prayer card is full of implications for a description of prayer, faith, and embodiment in the late modern world. More specifically, the request for payer inscribed on this card invokes a basic theme in the Materiality of Prayer Collection. The self, as that repository of an interiorized faith or belief, is crossed out in favor of a displaced agency and material infrastructure that believes for it. The prayer of faith is thus a discharge produced at the interface of bodily capacities and devotional objects. The efficacy of prayer, like a postcard that arrives from some faraway place, is enlivened by a stamp whose red ink elides systems of sorting machines, bureaucratic practices, and regimes of bodily organization.