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Mark Twain’s Private War with the Almighty

When Mark Twain died in 1910, he was an international celebrity and an American institution. He was cheered at home and abroad for his droll wit, frontier bluffness, and cornpone wisdom. He was America’s knight errant against sham, cant, and pomposity in places high and low. His signature white suit, shock of gray hair, walrus moustache, and omnipresent cigar were etched in the national consciousness. Wherever he went, he drew exuberant crowds, journalists wheedled piquant quips, hosts vied for after-dinner remarks. He was toasted by royalty, wooed by moguls, embraced by the intelligentsia. Andrew Carnegie donated a thousand dollars to spread “a new Gospel of Saint Mark” (an anti-imperialist tract). Charles Darwin kept a Twain volume on his nightstand. William Dean Howells, a lifelong friend and esteemed arbiter of belles lettres, dubbed him “the Lincoln of our literature.”

Only a handful of intimates knew this revered creator of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Huck Finn had died a bilious adversary of the Almighty. Even today, Beelzebub isn’t a part of his popular image. In his hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, billboards, advertisements, posters, T-shirts, mugs, and other memorabilia betray no hint of Twain’s vendetta against God. In his twilight years, Twain’s volcanic pen belched ceaseless vitriol against his Maker. Spewed into letters, notebooks, essays, dialogues, autobiographical dictations, and sundry fragments, none of this uneven gallimaufry was published in his lifetime. This was gospel for the future. Marveling at the magnitude of his naughtiness, he initially reckoned the world would need five hundred years to catch up. Later, in a flush of philanthropy, he revised the estimate to 2006 C.E.

He had no wish to emulate the fate of Thomas Paine, whose The Age of Reason he had read in his cub pilot days. Because Paine openly denigrated the Bible and religion, he was skewered in pulpits across the land. Overnight, he went from national hero to national varmint. Since Twain liked to be liked, he opted for the better part of valor. At seventy-two, he wrote: “I expose to the world only my trimmed and perfumed and carefully barbered public opinions and conceal carefully, cautiously, wisely, my private ones.”

His private opinions had never been arrestingly pious. His father, who died when Mark was twelve, was an easygoing Hannibal lawyer and storekeeper, whom the son would later suspect of having had an agnostic bone or two. His Presbyterian mother showed flashes of heterodoxy. In his autobiography, Twain recalls her sympathy for Satan because he never got to tell his side of the story. Like Tom and Huck, his alter egos, young Twain preferred smoking, cussing, spelunking, and lollygagging to sermons, Sunday school, and other heavy-duty moral cleansers. When he did attend to religion, his empirical proclivities threatened orthodoxy. After his Bible teacher had explicated the verse “Ask and ye shall receive,” Twain spent three days praying for gingerbread. When none materialized, he filched a convenient piece. He concluded that prayer is an inferior mode of acquisition.

As an adult, he adopted the Christianity of enlightened liberalism, congenial with his deism. He discarded heaven and hell, the immortality of the soul, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. From Paine, he had imbibed the idea that religions derive their authority from spurious claims by their founders that they had received revelations from the divine, transmitted to posterity as incontrovertible holy writ. Bibles diminished the grandeur of the real God by straitening him to the narrow confines of parochial imaginations. The true revelation was Nature, best apprehended through science.

As late as the 1880s, Twain could still view with equanimity an aloof, impersonal Creator: “I do not believe in special providences. I believe that the universe is governed by strict and immutable laws. If one man’s family is swept away by a pestilence and another man’s spared, it is only the law working: God is not interfering in that small matter, either against the one man or in favor of the other.” Though severe, this Olympian impartiality was without caprice.

Twain was quick to embrace Darwinism. The Descent of Man became one of his favorite books. Like Darwin, Twain was skeptical of the theological bromide that evolution is God’s way of producing humans. At various stages, the oyster, the pterodactyl, and the kangaroo, he impishly surmised, had made similar assumptions about themselves. For a time, he believed evolution operated on a teleological principle on design, not chance. Later, he decided evolution is “a blind giant who rolls a snowball down a hill.” The direction of movement is “unpremeditated, unforeseen, blind.”

Twain touted science, reason, and logic as antidotes to ignorance, superstition, and humbuggery of every ilk. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the mumbo jumbo of the enchanter Merlin is no match for the “hard unsentimental common sense” of Hank Morgan, an enlightened technocrat pitted against medieval obscurantism. From Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, Twain gleaned copious sentiments that found their way into his own writing. Adducing evidence from geology and paleontology, White demolished the Genesis account(s) of creation. White’s book reinforced Twain’s conviction that God doesn’t meddle in human affairs. When Dr. Jacques Loeb proposed that life could be created from a mixture of chemical agencies, Twain publicly defended him against widespread skepticism in the scientific community. Historically, Twain noted, the cognoscenti had often scoffed at major breakthroughs. Privately, Twain hailed Robert Ingersoll, an outspoken agnostic, as “an angelic orator and evangel of a new gospel–the gospel of free thought.”

Twain’s friend and biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, described the author’s delight in cosmology: “He was always thrown into a kind of ecstasy by the unthinkable distances of space–the supreme drama of the universe. The fact that Alpha Centauri was 25 trillions of miles away–250 thousand times the distance of our remote sun, and that our solar system was traveling, as a whole, toward the bright star Vega, in the constellation of Lyra, at the rate of 42 miles a second, yet would be thousands upon thousands of years reaching its destination, fairly enraptured him.” In Letters from the Earth, a wry commentary on Biblical lore, Satan gives his angelic cohorts a tutorial on astronomy so they may be properly aghast at Jehovah’s ignorance of celestial mechanics.

Compared with the majestic pageantry of astronomical phenomena, church creeds seemed insular, petty, and egoistic. In a letter to William Dean Howells, Twain recounted the constricting effect of his sister-in-law’s religiosity on his brother Orion: “She is saturated to the marrow with the most malignant form of Presbyterianism–that sort which considers the saving of one’s own paltry soul the first & supreme end & object of life, so you see she has harried him into the church several times, & then made religion so intolerable to him with her prayings & Bible readings & her other & eternal pious clack-clack that it has had the effect of harrying him out of it again.”

Despite his strictures on church and Bible, Twain long retained respect for Jesus. He told Orion: “Neither Howells nor I believe in hell or the divinity of the Savior, but no matter, the Savior is none the less a sacred Personage, and a man should have no desire or disposition to refer to him lightly, profanely, or otherwise than with the profoundest reverence.” Twain always respected what he deemed sincere expressions of moral idealism.

When Twain married the wealthy Olivia Langdon, of Elmira, New York, in 1870, he wasn’t averse to her conventional piety. At this time, according to Howells, Twain was still “far from the entire negation he came to at last.” Livy’s ardor for church, Bible reading, and family prayers certified her virtue. Like many men of his era, Twain believed the female aptitude for spirituality exceeded the male’s. Deferentially, he acquiesced for a while in his wife’s faith. He offered morning prayers and daily readings from Scripture. He desisted from snide remarks about the Book. He regularly attended a church pastored by his friend Joseph Twichell–a “progressive Christian,” Twain enthused. Temporarily, at least, he slipped comfortably into the vestments of Christian respectability. Even after the punctilious phase of his piety had waned, he observed an extended truce with orthodoxy.

Prior to the 1890s, Twain’s criticism of religion was more bantering than acrimonious. He poked fun at religious tracts, pious showboats, and bombastic moralizing. “Colloquy Between a Slum Child and a Moral Mentor” illustrates the mode. The supercilious mentor grows increasingly dithery when the child persists in swearing and misconstruing the nature of hell.

“I’d like to ben in that bad place them times when I was cold, by hokey!”

“Don’t swear, James. It is wicked.”

“What’s wicked?”

“Why, to be wicked is to do what one ought not to do–to violate the moral ordinances provided for the regulation of our conduct in this vale of sorrows, and for the elevation and refinement of our social and intellectual natures.”


So, what turned our amiable wag and devotee of science into a closet Captain Ahab, storming at the inscrutable malice of the universe and presumptuously scanning the Almighty?

Here, one must resort to conjecture. Whatever Twain’s overt pretensions, he evidently never relinquished an anthropomorphic cast of thought. According to philosopher Paul Edwards (“Atheism,” Encyclopedia of Philosophy), few Westerners do. When most adults “think about God unself-consciously, they vaguely think of him as possessing some kind of rather large body. The moment they assert or deny or question such statements as ‘God created the universe’ or ‘God will be a just judge when we come before him,’ they introduce a body into the background, if not into the foreground, of their mental pictures.” In the fundamentalist Missouri of his youth, Twain absorbed by cultural osmosis, if not ecclesiastical injection, the idea that God is a merciful and just Father. No matter how often he might deride the idea–and he did so ad infinitum–some part of him continued to believe this is the way God should be. “Twain’s disbelief and his pessimism,” noted Bigelow Paine, “were of his mind, never of his heart.” Forty years of halcyon fortune shored up the subterranean optimism.

Then, in the 1890s, Twain’s fortune drastically changed. He was buffeted by a series of blows from which he never recovered. Speculative investments brought him to bankruptcy, his oldest daughter, Susy, died of meningitis, his youngest, Jean, was diagnosed an epileptic, Livy began a slide into lasting invalidism (she died in 1904), and Twain’s own health was in eclipse. “Having long derided the notion of special providence,” said John S. Tuckey, a Twain scholar, “he was now forced to consider himself the personal victim of a scheme of providential retribution.”

When the crushing afflictions were visited on him, he responded like an irascible Job. He struck back at the abusive Father with his best weapon, words–feverishly, obsessively, endlessly, but never publicly, discharged. Firing these paper bullets of the brain momentarily eased his leaden grief.

For a time, his rancor was confined to the Old Testament God, whom he had intellectually, but never emotionally, sloughed off. Twain “could never quite free himself from reading the Bible with fundamentalist passion,” said Twainian Stanley Brodwin, “even as he ridiculed it in the name of reason.” Jehovah, Twain calculated, was statistically the biggest mass murderer in history. Offended, he reflexively slew everything in sight: “All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies, all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered. What this insane Father requires is blood and misery; he is indifferent as to who furnishes it.” Nothing drove Jehovah’s dudgeon higher than minor lapses in hygiene. Anyone “who pisseth against the wall” was sure to provoke a wholesale massacre. Despite recurrent bludgeonings, the pious persisted in conferring on the brutal Autocrat epithets of love and respect: “With a fine sarcasm we ennoble God with the title of Father–yet we know quite well that we should hang his style of father wherever we might catch him.” “There is only one Criminal,” catechized Twain, “and it is not man.”

Before long, Twain’s ire extended to Jesus Christ-aka Jehovah “after he got religion.” The all-new Jehovah was not an improvement. He had added braggadocio and deceitfulness to his repertoire of defects. “His Old Testament self is sweetness and gentleness and respectability compared with his earthly self. In Heaven he claims not a single merit and hasn’t one–outside of those claimed by His mouth–whereas in the earth He claims every merit in the entire catalogue of merits, yet practices them only now and then, penuriously.” With some historical legerdemain, Twain credited (or discredited) Jesus with the invention of hell. This was the most egregious rascality imaginable because it deprived the wretched human race of its lone solace, eternal death. Thus, “the meek and gentle Savior was a thousand times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament.”

Eventually, Twain’s odium encompassed the stolid Designer of the deists. He, too, was destitute of morals. As the author of natural law, he was culpable for the thousand shocks flesh is heir to. Twain was stupefied by “the all-comprehensive malice which could patiently descend to the contriving of elaborate tortures for the meanest and pitifulest of creatures.” The effectiveness of the traps, pitfalls, and gins, Twain mused, in no way depended on obtrusive intervention: “He could invent the tortures and set in motion the laws and machinery which should continue them through all time without his supervision, then turn His attention elsewhere and trouble himself no further about the matter.” In short, the cosmic Watchmaker could install automatic detonating devices. This absentee knavery was worse than Jehovah’s in-your-face immediacy.

Twain’s anger was aggravated by the supposition that God, were he genially disposed, could eliminate all suffering, yet sadistically declines to do so. Twain ridiculed the moral platitude that suffering builds character and fosters empathy. Prolonged suffering, he thought, was more apt to destroy than to edify the afflicted. He inverted Alexander Pope’s cheery maxim that “whatever is, is right.” Since God is malevolent, Twain reasoned, whatever is, is wrong.

Twain obsessively documented the wrongness: “The day we are born he begins to persecute us. Even our littleness, our innocence, our helplessness cannot move him to any pity, any gentleness. Day after day, week after week, month after month, the wanton torture goes on.” Twain frequently chanted litanies of ailments: “Pain, pain, pain–in the teeth, in the stomach, in the bowels; disease follows disease: measles, croup, whooping cough, mumps, colic, scarlet fever, ague, tonsilitis, diphtheria–there is no end to the list.” In sum, man, the self-proclaimed paragon of animals, “is but a basket of festering offal provided for the support and entertainment of swarming armies commissioned to rot him and destroy him, each army equipped with a special detail of the work.”

Twain oft rehearsed the ubiquitous malignity of the fly. God gives it its orders: “Depart into the uttermost corners of the earth, and diligently do your appointed work. Persecute the sick child; settle upon its eyes, its face, its hands, and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret and madden the worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and who humbly prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the deceived and unteachable.” He goes on for another four-hundred words.

In a fragmentary Twain fable, a monkey, hearing God praised, mumbles: “My praise is that we have not two of him.” Twain couldn’t imagine himself as heartless as he supposed God to be: “I often put a dog on the fire and hold him down with the tongs, and enjoy his yelps and moans and strugglings and supplications, but with a man it would be different. I think that in the long run, if his wife and babies, who had not harmed me, should come crying and pleading, I couldn’t stand it; I know I should forgive him and let him go, even if he had violated a monastery:” In general, people are “better, kinder, gentler, more to be respected, honored, and esteemed” than the deity they ostensibly revered.

Viewing Satan as a heroic rebel against the real Archfiend, Twain came to identify with the fallen cherub and often used him as a mouthpiece. In “That Day in Eden,” Satan commiserates with the fallen Adam and Eve, baffled by God’s punishment: “Poor ignorant things, the command of refrain had meant nothing to them, they were but children, and could not understand untried things and verbal abstractions which stood for matters outside of their little world and their narrow experience.” In Letters from the Earth, Satan says, “The only person responsible for the couple’s offense escaped, and not only escaped but became the executioner of the innocent.”

Twain deprecated the Moral Sense (he always capitalized it), a legacy of the mythic Fall, as a fount of immorality. By allowing humans to distinguish good and bad, its sole effect was to tempt and to enable humans to do evil. Without it, we would live in a state of idyllic innocence, unafflicted by conscience. With it, we are inferior to the creatures, spared the accursed faculty: “Whenever I look at the other animals and realize that whatever they do is blameless, I envy them the dignity of their estate, its purity and its loftiness, and recognize that the Moral Sense is a thoroughly disastrous thing.”

Twain was a lapsed Calvinist in a universe divested of grace. Deprived of free will, proximately by temperament and circumstance, but ultimately by God, humans were servile mechanisms doomed to enact, generation after generation, to the last syllable of time, the script God had contrived, foreseen, and appointed to each.

Mentally, Twain dwelt in an absurd universe where human automatons trick themselves into believing they are autonomous. All the while, the cosmic Puppet Master is pulling the strings: “Man is a poor joke–the poorest that was ever conceived–an April-fool joke, played by a malicious urchin Creator with nothing better to waste his time upon.” As programmed mechanism, “man is not to blame for what he is.” He “didn’t make himself and he has no control over himself.” Only “unthinking fools” believe they have “an obligation to God and owe Him thanks, reverence, and worship.”

His own perfervid blasphemies were part of the appointed absurdity. Occasionally, Twain sought refuge in solipsism. After his wife’ s death, he wrote Joseph Twichell: “There is nothing. There is no God and no universe, there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible Thought. And I am that thought. And God, and the Universe, and Time, and Life, and Death, and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that same Thought.” In his grief and despair, Twain had arrived at an endgame of utter nihilism.

An atheistic observer might be tempted to read Twain’s fate as an exemplum on the perils of anthropomorphic theism. I’ll resist. At the end, for Mark Twain, nothing short of death would do. Informed that two old acquaintances had died, he groused: “They get all the good stuff.” He had been stretched out on the rack of the world too long. Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure–these, he wrote, were life’s false gifts. Death was the only true boon.

Editor’s note: Under the title “A Connecticut Yankee in God’s Court: Mark Twain’s Covert War with Religion,” a version of the above essay was originally published in the magazine Skeptic, vol. 8, no. 4, 2001.