My impression is that, among many Christians, people around a table saying a prayer thanking Jesus for a meal hold hands with one another. What is the origin of this practice, and are there any reasons for it given in reliable sources?
Protestantism and Tradition
I'm coming at this answer from a Protestant perspective. Since I've seen a variety of folk in my branch of Christianity hold hands during prayer, I'll assume you've been observing my people. We've inherited from Paul a suspicion of traditional rites and practices. When we do observe some custom, we are very likely to either:
- create a post hoc justification, or
- protest that the custom is not binding (and we can stop at any time).
I doubt either of these will be satisfactory to you, but maybe the sociological aspects will be of interest.
No Biblical justification
Laying hands on a person (especially when they are sent off to perform some ministry) has strong support in the practice of the early church. Probably the earliest example is:
These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.—Acts 6:6 (ESV)
That practice has roots in the life of Jesus and in Hebrew culture. Of course, praying while putting one's hands on another isn't the same thing as joining hands. We get a hint of the idea of holding hands from this mention in one of Paul's letters:
and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.—Galatians 2:9 (ESV)
Again, this sounds more like a handshake than a prayer circle. So the goto source for Protestants seems to be silent on this issue except that the posture of the hands can be important somehow.
There's a lot of stuff that Christians (and Protestants in particular) do for strictly practical reasons. For instance, as far as I know the only reason we have lots of guitar in our worship services is that it's an easy instrument to learn well enough to make some semblance of music to accompany singing. Churches are removing organs (the musical instrument, I mean) because it's getting harder to find decent organists. So while you will still find Christians who think God only hears music accompanied by some sort of keyboard and that guitars are from the devil, most of us are more relaxed about the whole thing. (Culture and the rejection thereof have a lot more to do with these attitudes than any sort of solid theology.)
When it comes to holding hands in prayer, I think there are several practical purposes:
- It symbolizes that we are all equal before God and creates a sense of unity. (See the Galatians passage above.)
- It shows who is participating in the prayer. (This can be helpful when praying at a restaurant to avoid the awkward situation of a server interrupting a prayer.)
- When praying with small children, it ensures small hands are not making mischief while eyes are (theoretically) closed.
- It allows for silent communication (a squeeze of the hand) during the prayer.
No doubt there are other considerations. There's no hard and fast rules about posture in prayer, so it's not uncommon to have some participants holding hands while others place their arms over their neighbor's shoulders. (I'm often the link between the two for some reason.)
The mind-body problem
Finally, I must find a way to quote C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. It's a work of fiction from the point of view of a demon writing to an underling about how to divert a man ("the patient") from God ("the Enemy"). This is Screwtape's advice about prayer:
The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy's party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part. One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray "with moving lips and bended knees" but merely "composed his spirit to love" and indulged "a sense of supplication". That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy's service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time. At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.—The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 4.
In other words, we must orient our bodies toward God if we are to orient our minds and souls toward Him. Christians don't have a precise requirement for how to do this, but we have traditions that we follow because they have that practical effect.
What is the origin of holding hands when praying around a circle before a meal?
There are a few questions I find quite hard to evaluate within this question.
Should the answer involve uniquely saying grace before meals or should the origins be more concentrated on holding hands 👫 in a ”circle” in general or simply at meal times.
Generally speaking, it is a praise worthy act of piety to thank Our Lord for the food we are about to eat. As the phrase goes: It is so kosher.
There is no real justification for praying in a circle in any denomination, that I can find. It is just done by some Christians.
To start off with, I am going to post what Wikipedia has to say about this.
A prayer circle is most simply where participants join hands in a literal circle of prayer, often as part of a vigil. Informal prayer circles have been practiced for centuries. Their recent resurgence in popularity is frequently attributed to their use in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. Similarly, amongst North American and specifically Native American Catholics, prayer circles have formed around Kateri Tekakwitha, who was the first Native American to be beatified by the Roman Catholic Church. Tekakwitha Conference prayer circles, called Kateri Prayer Circles, have been formed on nearly all U.S. Indian Reservations. In Islam, Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca will form concentric circles around the Kaaba in prayer, and these too are commonly referred to as prayer circles.
A prayer circle may also refer to some online communities where people share their thoughts and prayers with other like-minded worshippers, usually within specially-designated message board areas.
Ritual prayer in a circle around an altar is not unique to Christianity. Ritual ceremonies around an altar are common in paganism, and ritual prayer dances around an altar were practiced by early Christians, especially Gnostics, before the practice was condemned as a heresy by the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 A.D. (See Nibley, "The Early Christian Prayer Circle", page 41.) Much later, Protestants began conducting informal prayer circles. Sometimes these communities are developed online.
In Mormonism, a prayer circle is a mode of prayer practiced by Mormons who have taken part in the endowment ceremony. Established by Joseph Smith in 1842 or 1843, he called it the "True Order of Prayer". The ritual involves an antiphonic recitation of prayer by participants joined in a circle, usually around an altar inside a temple. Earlier Mormons had practiced conventional Protestant-type prayer circles at least as early as 1833.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest branch of the Latter Day Saint movement, prayer circles since 1978 are no longer practiced outside of temples, and Mormons do not take part in prayer circles except as part of an endowment ceremony. - Prayer Circle
Tim Challies states that praying in circles is un-biblical at the least.
Praying in circles is fast becoming a thing in some Evangelical churches. People have been taught to draw circles around the things they want, or even to walk in circles around the things they are sure the Lord ought to grant them. In either case, they are to pray around those things and in that way to claim them for the Lord.
What I consider most notable about Batterson’s approach to prayer is that it is extra-biblical. It is not drawn from the New Testament or the Old Testament but from the Talmud. To the Jew the Talmud is the authoritative, binding body of religious tradition; to the Christian it is nothing, no more binding and no more prescriptive than Encyclopedia Britannica. It may be of historical and academic interest, but it does not represent the voice of God to his people. When Batterson prays in circles, he begins with a tradition outside the Bible and then looks within the Scripture to build a shaky support structure.
Praying in circles is extra-biblical, derived from a source apart from Scripture. But that’s not all, it’s also patently un-biblical, finding no support in Scripture. It is entirely absent from God’s Word to us. The Bible is not lacking in explicit and implicit teaching when it comes to prayer. Jesus’ disciples asked Jesus as simply and clearly as they could: “Teach us to pray.” When Jesus taught his disciples, he said nothing about prayer circles; if anything, he said the opposite when he told them to pray privately and in a quiet place. When Paul wrote to the people he loved, he often told them how and what he was praying on their behalf, and he said nothing about prayer circles. Praying in circles is absent in any and every form.
Praying in circles is extra-biblical and un-biblical, but it is more than that: it is anti-biblical. It directly violates the principles of prayer. When Jesus teaches us to pray, he teaches us to approach God as a child approaches a father, not marching in circles around him, but simply asking with confidence and humility. To pray in circles is to elevate technique at the expense of the heart behind it. To pray in circles is to attempt to manipulate God by action rather than seeking God by communing with him in his Word and prayer. It is nearly indistinguishable from a name-it-and-claim-it kind of Christianity where the things we visualize and demand are the things God must and will give to us, if only we know how to bend his will to ours. - Don’t Pray in Circles!
Praying at meals times is great and wholesome act of thanksgiving towards our Creator, however doing it in a circle while holding hands seemsfor some to be incorporating some pagan practices.
Prayer circles have a long history of use among pagans, witches, and other occult practitioners. But the use of the prayer circle in Christianity, like so many other modern rituals, practices and doctrines, can be traced to the American apostate church. - WHERE DID PRAYER CIRCLES ORIGINATE?
The Catholic Church does not permitted her faithful to either hold hands while in a circle around the altar or during the Our Father at Mass. These are liturgical norms and do not apply to family settings when ”grace before meals” is being prayed. Nevertheless we can see the implications.
- Is it permitted to form a circle around the altar and hold hands during the Eucharistic Prayer?
- What's the tradition behind hand holding during the Our Father at Mass?
- Holding Hands at Mass During the “Our Father”
- Should people hold hands during the Our Father at Mass?
So what is the origin of holding hands when praying around a circle before a meal? This question seems too obscure to answer with any real certitude at all.
Before meals, Quakers typically have a silent grace or a moment of silent thankfulness for the meal and for each other. The group often holds hands during grace.
Saying grace before meals is a long held tradition that’s practiced by most Christians and Catholics alike. Throughout the bible, there are many examples of grace and blessing being performed before meals, (Matthew: 14:19, 15:36) (Luke: 22:19, 24:30). Yet, there remains no one set prayer that must be recited. - Grace Prayers, Dinner Prayers and Blessings
There is a remote possibility that the origin of holding hands when praying around a circle before a meal, actually was inspired from the actual Last Supper of Jesus Christ with his Apostles.
Jesus and his Apostles were loosely in a sort of circle at this meal.
Why Were They Reclining During the Last Supper?
While reading John 13, it had me wondering why the word “reclining” was used during the last supper when Jesus talked about His upcoming betrayal. The same word appears in the books of Matthew (26:20), Mark (14:17), and Luke (22:14– “reclined”).
During the ancient times, people (especially the Romans and the Greeks), ate while in a reclining position rather than sitting down. There may be a table in the middle and couches were set up around it.
This may help explain the circle part of this question.