On a Wing and a Prayer: The Search for Guardian Angels
Interest in angels waxes and wanes. In 1975 evangelist Billy Graham lamented in his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents that “little had been written on the subject in this century” (p. ix). However, belief in angels went up from 50 percent in 1988 to 69 percent at the end of 1993, with 66 percent believing they were actually watched over by their “own personal guardian angel.” Furthermore, between 1990 and 1993, Sophy Burnham’s A Book of Angels sold over half a million copies in thirty printings (Woodward 1993, 54), and many similar books were as successful.
A poll in September 2008 showed interest in the celestial beings reaching a new level. Conducted by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion, the poll of 1,700 respondents yielded 55 percent answering in the affirmative to the statement, “I was protected from harm by a guardian angel” (Stark 2008, 57). Christopher Bader, director of the Baylor survey, which also covered a number of other religious issues, found that response “the big shocker” in the report. He explained: “If you ask whether people believe in guardian angels, a lot of people will say, ‘sure.’ But this is different. It’s experiential. It means that lots of Americans are having these lived supernatural experiences” (quoted in Van Biema 2008).
But are these experiences really supernatural? Or are they only natural, the result of misperceptions and even misreporting? A look into the phenomenon of claimed guardian-angel encounters is illuminating.
Perhaps the earliest depiction of an angelic being, or a precursor of angels, is a winged figure on an ancient Sumerian stele. The entity is pouring the water of life from a jar into the king’s cup. Other precursors may be the giant, winged, supernatural beings—part animal, part human—that guarded the temples of ancient Assyria, thus perhaps serving as models for the concept that angels are protectors. The word angel derives from the Greek angelos, “messenger”; however, in biblical accounts, the entities not only fulfilled the role of messengers (e.g., Matt. 1:20) but also were avengers (2 Sam. 24:16), protectors (Ps. 91:11), rescuers (Dan. 6:22), and more (Burnham 1990, 81–82; Larue 1990, 57–61; Guiley 1991, 20).
In modern times, angels have been seen primarily as guardians (figure 1). “Angels represent God’s personal care for each one of us,” observes Father Andrew Greeley, a priest turned sociologist-novelist (qtd. in Woodward et al. 1993). This “new angelology”—the belief in personal guardian angels—is manifested not only in books but in angel focus groups and workshops, as well as angel bric-a-brac, posters, greeting cards, and so on. According to Newsweek: “It may be kitsch, but there’s more to the current angel obsession than the Hallmarking of America. Like the search for extraterrestrials, the belief in angels implies that we are not alone in the universe—that someone up there likes me” (Woodward et al. 1993).
Personal encounters with angels—related as inspirational stories—fill the books on angels. One such account appears in Graham’s book (1975, 2–3). It tells of a little girl who fetches a doctor to help her ailing mother. After caring for the woman, the doctor learns that her daughter died a month before, and in the closet hangs the little girl’s coat; “It was warm and dry and could not possibly have been out in the wintry night.”
Investigating the account, I discovered that it is a very old tale, circulated in various forms, with conflicting details (Nickell 1995, 153–55). Noted folklorist Jan Brunvand (2000, 123–36) followed up on the tale (with some assistance from me) and demonstrated that it derived from a story told by S. Weir Mitchell (1829–1914), a physician and writer of prose fiction. Mitchell himself referred to it as “an early [illegible] ghost tale of [mine ?]”—a seemingly tacit admission that the narrative was pure fiction (Nickell 2011).
Most of the currently popular angel stories are personal narratives. Among these are tales of “mysterious stranger angels,” ordinary-looking people who “appear suddenly when they are needed, and disappear just as suddenly when their job is done” (Guiley 1993, 65).
This genre includes the “roadside rescue” story, which one source admits “happens so often that it is almost a cliché in angel lore.” Essentially, “In the roadside rescue, the mysterious stranger arrives to help the motorist stranded on a lonely road at night, or who is injured in an accident in an isolated spot. Or, human beings arrive just in the nick of time” (Guiley 1993, 66). One such testimonial has come from Jane M. Howard, an “angel channeler and author.” According to Guiley (1993, 66):
One night, the gas pedal in Janie’s car became stuck, and she ran off the freeway near Baltimore. She stopped the car by throwing the transmission into park. It would not restart, and she began to panic. It was ten P.M. and she was miles from the nearest exit. She prayed to the angels for help, and within minutes, a van pulled up, carrying a man and a woman.
The woman rolled down her window and told Janie not to be frightened, for they were Christians. Even so, many people would have been wary of strangers at night. But the angels gave Janie assurances, and she accepted a ride to a gas station. She discovered that the couple lived in a town near hers, and knew her family. They pulled off to help Janie, they said, because they had a daughter, and they hoped that if their daughter ever was in distress, she, too, would be aided.
Notwithstanding such mundane occurrences, often the intervention is described so as to leave little doubt that it must have been a supernatural event. One such narrative tells of a woman’s visit to an electronics store and a young man who helped her son with some technical knowledge. The woman stated (in Guiley 1993, 65):
I was just dumbfounded. The young man wished us a nice day and left the store. A couple of seconds later, I rushed out the door to thank him, but he was gone. He literally disappeared. The store is in the middle of the block, so you would still be able to see someone walking down the sidewalk. Obviously, this was not an ordinary human. I still get chills about it.
However, we must ask: Was it really only “a couple of seconds later” or could it have been several seconds—long enough for the man to have entered a waiting car or stepped into an adjacent store?
Then there are the bedside angelic encounters, such as a story told by a Louisville woman in Burnham’s A Book of Angels (1990, 275–76). One of the woman’s good friends had died but seemed to linger as a “presence.” Moreover, she says,
Twice I have awakened from sleep to see something mystical. I sat up in bed to convince myself I was not dreaming.
To the right of me, hovering about five feet from the floor, was a bright mass of energy, a yellow and orange ball about six inches in diameter. I closed my eyes and reopened them. I even pinched myself to make sure I was really seeing what was before my eyes, and there it remained until I fell asleep again.
I was frightened. About a year later, the same thing happened under the same circumstances. However, this time I asked questions subconsciously and they were answered. They were all in reference to my friend who had left this world. And the overall summation was, I was not to fear or worry, because I was being watched over. His protection, caring, and love were continuing, though his physical being was gone.
One immediately recognizes in this account the unmistakable characteristics of a “waking dream”—a very realistic-seeming hallucination that occurs in the state between full wakefulness and sleep. Waking dreams are responsible for countless supposed visitations by angels, as well as by ghosts, extraterrestrials, demons, and other otherworldly entities that lurk in the subconscious mind (Nickell 1995, 41, 46, 117, 131, 157, 209, 214; Baker 1995, 278).
In still other cases the percipient may simply be a classic fantasizer (Nickell 1995, 40–41, 57). Children are especially well known for engaging in fantasies. Consider, for example, this anecdote related by Sophy Burnham (1990, 4):
Once my mother saw an angel. She was five years old at the time, just a little girl in her nightie, getting ready for bed, when she looked up and saw an angel standing in the bedroom door.
“Auntie!” She pointed at the figure. “Look!” but her beloved auntie could not see.
“Go to sleep, child,” she said. “There’s nothing there.” I don’t know what her angel looked like. When I asked her, my mother’s face took on a dreamy and exalted look, simultaneously nostalgic and alight. She used words like brilliance or radiance, and I have the impression of many colors. But I have no idea what she saw.
As indicated by the aunt’s inability to see it, the angel obviously resulted from a child’s imagination and is no more credible than an eyewitness account of Santa Claus, a leprechaun, or an elf.
Stress can even produce angels in crisis situations. As psychologist Robert A. Baker observes, there is a “well-known psychological fact that human beings, when subjected to extreme fear and stress, frequently hallucinate. These hallucinations, in many instances, take the form of helpers, aides, guides, assistants, et al., playing the role of Savior.” Adds Baker, “If the hallucinator also has religious leanings it is easy to understand how such a ‘helper’ is converted into one of the heavenly host, i.e., a guardian angel” (qtd. in Nickell 1995, 157–58).
Then there are stories that appear to fall into the category of urban legends. One of these features the Angel of Mons that supposedly came to the aid of British soldiers at that Belgian battlefield during World War I. Folklorist David Clarke, for his The Angel of Mons: Phantom Soldiers and Ghostly Guardians, exhaustively investigated the story, finding it had been inspired by a fictional tale “at a time when the British people were desperate for news of a miracle” (2004, 241). Appearing in the London Evening News of September 29, 1914, “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen dramatized the British routing of the Germans in symbolic terms of St. George and “his Agincourt bowmen.” Many read the story as true, prompting rumors of eyewitness accounts. Concludes Clarke (2004, 246):
In 1914, Britain was an imperial nation with a long tradition of success in combat that was sustained by belief in divine intervention. At Mons, the cream of the British Army narrowly escaped defeat at the hands of the Germans during the first month of the war. Many believed it was a miracle, and Arthur Machen’s story provided a perfect conduit for the creation and transmission of a reassuring modern legend that was based upon ancient precedents. His literary skills gave the story a resonance and power that would sustain it long beyond his lifetime. It was a legend that had an important and positive function during the war, sustaining hope, boosting patriotic optimism and shoring up faltering faith during the dark days of the Somme, Passchendaele and all the other disastrous battles that almost exterminated a generation of young men. Today the Angel of Mons remains one of the undying icons of that war and lives on as a symbol of the loss of innocence that was the legacy it left upon the British psyche. This legend re-emerged for a brief spell during the national crisis of 1940, at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain. Maybe one day the angels will be needed again.
The concept of guardian angels, notes one writer (Willin 2008, 37), “was given a huge impetus” by the publication of Machen’s tale.
Thus far we have considered personal accounts of angels acting as guardians; however, if such accounts represent only what serious researchers disparage as “anecdotal evidence,” then what about photographic evidence—photos offered to support claims of angelic encounters? Unfortunately, the evidence is at best unconvincing, usually easily explainable. Many touted examples, for instance, are nothing more than simulacra, images perceived by the mind’s tendency to “recognize” common shapes in random patterns, like seeing pictures in inkblots, clouds, woodgrain patterns, and the like (Nickell 2007, 18).
Such images may also be faked. Consider the “Cloud Angel” photo circulated by Betty Malz, author of Angels Watching Over Me and other books. The picture Malz (1993) was kind enough to send me was accompanied by a brief narrative telling how a honeymooning couple had taken the photo from the window of their airplane. They had undergone severe turbulence that provoked them to pray for safety, whereupon the turbulence soon subsided and later the angel-shaped cloud appeared in one of their photos. It turns out, however, that the same picture has a long history—touted variously as an image of Christ taken during Hurricane Hugo (“Experts” 1990) and a “ghostly apparition” taken in 1971 by an “ordained spiritual minister” (Holzer 1993). Suspiciously, the cloud lacks the three-dimensional qualities of genuine cloud photographs as determined by a computer imaging expert (Nickell 2001, 200–03).
Much more recently, a few “angel” photos were included in the book The Paranormal Caught on Film by Melvyn Willin (2008, 36–37, 42–43, 46–47, 62–63). Alas, however, these range from the poorly documented to the suspiciously anonymous and are attributable to a variety of a photographic anomalies including reflections, simulacra, and other factors, as well as outright fakery.
As these narrative and photograph examples demonstrate, to many people guardian angels offer comfort in difficult times, while to others they are confirmation of deeply held religious or New Age beliefs. However, the evidence for their existence appears as ethereal, elusive, and doubtful as the alleged entities themselves.
As always, I appreciate the assistance of Timothy Binga, director of the Center for Inquiry Libraries.
Baker, Robert A. Afterward to Nickell 1995, 275–85.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. 2000. The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story! Chicago: University of Illinois.
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CNN “Headline News.” 1993. CNN/Time/Newsweek poll cited December 18.
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———. 1993. A radiance of angels. Fate (December): 60–68.
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