Mark Twain’s Disbelief
As one of the greatest satirists America ever had, Samuel Clemens made humorous attacks on nearly everyone. No dogma stood safe, no convention regarded as sacred. Yet a little known fact to the public remains, that Twain violated the one thing still taboo in American society- he was a freethinker, most likely an atheist by the end of his life. Mark Twain disbelieved the benevolent God of Christianity, regarded the Bible as a human creation and believed human progress to be inhibited by superstitions.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens did not have a belief in a benevolent God of Christianity, an opinion unusual for one who grew up in the United States Bible Belt under the Calvinist creed (Strunsky 115, 181). Worthy of mention is the fact that Samuel’s father, John Marshall Clemens, was a freethinker (Briston). Mr. William Dean Honell, a friend of Mark Twain, asserts that “in his later years Mark Twain believed neither in the Christian theology, in God, nor in immortality” (Strunsky 89). Prayer, a major creed of the Christian faith, has often been attacked by Twain in his works. For example, Huckleberry Finn contains two heroes who poke fun at conventions, Finn and an escaped slave. Huck tells the following story about living with the devout Miss Watson:
Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing came of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it wasn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hook. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By-and-by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way (qtd. in Herrick 209).
Mark Twain doubted the existence of both Heaven and Hell. Even in a theistic creed written early in his life, when he still had a belief in God, he proclaimed “I cannot see how eternal punishment herafter could accomlish any good end, therefore I am not able to believe in it” (qtd. in Herrick 211). Twain believed that the religion of a person depends largely on the nationality of said person. For example, in his autobiography he writes that “You can never find a Christian who has acquired this valuable knowledge, this saving knowledge, by any process but the everlasting and all-sufficient “people say” (qtd. in Mark Twain Quotations). And in a separate work: “If you know a man’s nationality you can come within a split hair of guessing the complexion of his religion” (qtd. in Ayres 195). Mark Twain’s sentiment that religion could prosper because of the large profit it grants to some was shown by such written statements as “I found out that I was a Christian for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble” (qtd. in Mark Twain Quotations).
Mark Twain regarded the Christian Bible as a purely human creation and viewed the stories from it as false. This satirical take on the holy book can be seen in unpublished article on God, Ancient and Modern, where he wrote:
The sole solicitude of the God of the Bible was about a handful of truculent nomads. He worried and fretted over them in a peculiar and distractingly human way. One day he coaxed and petted them beyond their deserts. He sulked, he cursed, he raged, he grieved, accoridng to his mood and the circumstances... when the fury was on him, he was blind to all reason- he not only slaughters the offenders, but even his harmless little children and his cattle” (qtd. in Herrick 210).
A more direct statement he made in an unpublished statement of belief: “I believe that the Old and New Testament were imagined and written by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less written by Him”(qtd. in Herrick 210).
The largest criticism of religion came from Mark Twain whenever it slowed, or tried to, human progress. Alfred Kreymborg writes in the London Spectator “Puritanism hemmed Mark Twain in; he had to conform to innumerable taboos, religions, moral and social” (qtd. in Strunsky 111). Mark Twain believed that the “Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our time, when the use of anesthetics in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve” (qtd. in Mark Twain Quotations.
Furthermore, “the so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive..., but in spite of their religion, not because of it” (qtd. in Mark Twain Quotations). In the story of Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Merlin is discovered to have none of the magical powers he claimed. Yankee, representing the technological progress of Mark Twain’s era, acts as the protagonist of the story. Merlin pulls off only one miracle- he putts the Yankee to sleep for a few centuries. Twain’s dislike for Christianity made him suspect that Christianity has moved far from the original message of Christ. In Mark Twain’s Notebook, he wrote that “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be- a Christian” (qtd in Mark Twain Quotations).
Like many freethinkers of his time, he viewed all superstition with suspicion because of the violence it often brings about. “Man... is kind enough when he is not excited by religion” (qtd. in Ayres 195). Christ, in Twains views, would become disapointed upon comming again, though he hopes, as he wrote in a letter to Howells, “Christ will not do; he made trouble enough before” (qtd in Mark Twain Quotations). In his Notebook he wrote “There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him- early” (qtd. in Mark Twain Quotations). Samuel believed that the days of Christianity are numbered, and he may yet be proven right in that respect. He wrote, for example, that “The altar-cloth of one eon is the doormat of the next” (Ayres 196).
Though possibly a theist at heart, as Dwayne Eutsey attempts to show, Mark Twain stands as an important intellectual figure in the freethought movement. Growing up at the age of the steam engines and telegraph, he found church services and praying absurd at best. As more people had free time, the rise of public entertainment occured and his generation saw the greatest increase in scepticism since the Enlightenment as people moved away from the church. Mark Twain did in writing what Robert Ingersoll did at the same time rhetorically.
Ayres, Alex. The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.
Briston, Wesley. “Mark Twain: Cradle Skeptic.” (Sept. 1997). On-line. Internet. 2 April 2003. Available. www.yorku.com/twainweb/filelist/skeptic.html.
Eutsey, Dwayne. “The Influence of Liberal Religion on Mark Twain.” On-line. Internet. 2 April 2003. Available. www.meadville.com/eusey_1_2.HTM.
Harrick, Jim. Against the Faith: Essays on Deists, Skeptics and Atheists. New York: Promethens Books, 1985.
“Mark Twain Quotations- Christianity.” On-line. Internet. 2 April 2003. Available. www.twainquotes.com/Christianity.html.
Strunsky, Simeon. Readings on Mark Twain. San Diego: Greenhaven Press. 1996.
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