Praying for rain: the intersection of weather and religion

(Dennis Mersereau)

(Dennis Mersereau)

American author Charles Dudley Warner once famously quipped that “everybody complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Well, that’s not quite true. When the skies are clear and the ground is dry, some folks look up to the heavens and request divine intervention in the form of prayers for rain.

Human history is speckled with instances of figures calling on the masses to pray for rain. The Meditations, written by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in the first century AD, documents a Greek prayer for rain said to Zeus –Greek god of the sky and thunder – by Athenians: “Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, down on the ploughed fields of the Athenians and on the plains.”

Native Americans are also widely known in American culture to have performed “rain dances” and other rituals to help end particularly dry spells. Several Native American websites document some of the legends and traditions surrounding these rain dances.

Even in present-day America, there are recent examples of legislators asking citizens to request precipitation from the deity of his or her choice. Former Alabama Governor Bob Riley signed a proclamation in June 2007 asking Alabamians to pray for rain to help break the drought that gripped a large swath of the country.

A few months later and following in Riley’s footsteps, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue held a controversial public prayer rally on the steps of the Georgia State Capitol in an attempt to break the drought through divine intervention.

More recently, Texas Governor Rick Perry signed a proclamation declaring April 22-24, 2011 the “Days of Prayer for Rain in Texas” in order to end the devastating drought of 2011 that crippled much of the southern and central United States, but hit Texas especially hard. The worst of the dry spell, which cost the state economy many billions of dollars in damages and lost crops, lasted for over half a year (and still lingers to this day) before conditions finally allowed for more reliable rainfall to penetrate the heat dome and rejuvenate the parched landscape.

It took many months for significant rains to fall over parts of Texas after the Days of Prayer. According to Wunderground’s weather history page (the data on which is collected from official National Weather Service records), it took at least two months for several major cities in Texas to receive any appreciable rainfall.

The following chart shows the first instance of greater than half an inch of rain in one day, and the first instance of greater than one inch of rain in one day in the months after the Days of Prayer (including how many days elapsed between events).

rain chart

The need for rain has compelled Jews and Muslims to call to the heavens as well.  In 2010, CWG’s Jason Samenow noted: “A five year drought motivated a rare interfaith prayer service yesterday in Al-Walajah, a Palestinian village between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank, also part of Israel’s Jerusalem municipality.”

Irrespective of whether one believes praying for rain works, the activity will undoubtedly continue among people of faith for as long as there are droughts and hopes of clouds on the horizon.

New CWG contributor Dennis Mersereau, who grew up in Woodbridge, Va., also writes a weather column for Daily Kos.

(CWG’s Jason Samenow contributed to this post)

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