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Mark Twain at the Dessert Theater


I am plenty safe enough in [God’s] hands…The one that I want to keep out of the reach of, is the caricature of him which one finds in the Bible. We (that one and I) could never respect each other, never get along together. I have met his superior a hundred times -- in fact I amount to that myself. -- Letter from Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) to his wife Olivia, July 17, 1889

Bold and blasphemous words, these. How Olivia Clemens, a believing Christian, put up with such things for so many years is difficult to say. But Mark Twain was not hostile to the idea of a God per se; just the cold, heartless, ruthless “version” of God that Presbyterian Christianity had taught him.

Sam’s parents were not avid churchgoers. His mother, Jane, was a nervous woman with some weird backwoods Kentucky notions of psychic spirituality. She told Sam at an early age that he had psychic powers. When Sam’s nine year old brother Benjamin died of yellow fever in 1842 – the third Clemens child to die in childhood – Jane led the remaining children one by one into the bedroom where the boy’s corpse lay and made them kneel and touch Ben’s cold cheek. The morbid ritual mystically impacted precocious six year old Sam; the bizarre memory was forever linked with the notion that he was somehow treacherously the cause of Benjamin’s death.

The loss of Benjamin drove Jane Clemens to seek solace in the Presbyterian church – an odd place to seek solace in the 19th century; Presbyterianism was darkly predestinarian, teaching that God predestines souls, including those of dead infants, to hell. Every Sunday Sammy Clemens heard the bad news of damnation for all who weren’t elect. He also heard that you should still try to be good on the off-chance that you might be elect. This message made no sense to a boy who already felt guilty for his brother’s death. The Presbyterian God Clemens saw as a cold, heartless, vengeful assassin – and the Presbyterians all seemed to be fine with that. Samuel Clemens wasn’t.

The rough life of the frontier exposed young Sam to many violent tragedies. The curious boy, one dark night, followed a staggering drunk to a neighbor’s house. The owner of the house came out with a shotgun and warned the loud obnoxious drunk to stay away. The drunk refused and Sam watched in horror as the owner blasted the intruder at point blank range. On another occasion a jailed drunk asked Sam to get him some matches for a smoke. Sam happily complied and handed the matches through the jail’s barred window. The drunk accidentally set the jail on fire and Sam stood helplessly outside watching the trapped man burn to death, screaming for Sam to help him all the while. Sam’s young mind pondered “How could a good God allow these tragedies?” and he felt guilt for being present, felt that like his brother’s death, he was somehow responsible, a tool for the causation of tragedy in the hands of an angry God.

In 1858 Clemens endured the loss of his precious younger brother, Henry. Both were young men working on Mississippi riverboats. The boiler on Henry’s boat exploded and Henry was badly burned over most of his body and died in agony after swimming ashore and surviving several days. To make matters worse, Sam had had a dream several weeks prior to the incident in which he saw Henry dead in a casket with a bouquet of flowers on his chest and wearing one of Sam’s suits. When Sam finally saw Henry at the mortician’s, the scene was exactly as he had dreamed – right down to the color of the flowers. Henry had been given a job on the boat that exploded because Sam directed him there, and his role in this providence hardened his heart into unbelief regarding the Christian God. In later writings he regularly ranted against the Presbyterian God who casually and carelessly afflicted the world with pain and disease and the other evils of life. “God's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn”. It was “the swindle of life and the treachery of a God that can create disease and misery and crime – create things that men would be condemned for creating -- that men would be ashamed to create.” Someone at the time of Henry’s death mentioned the “luck” of Sam’s not being on the exploding boat. “Luck?” Sam retorted. “I beseech God to strike my wicked head and have mercy upon that unoffending boy!!!”

Aboard ship Sam had taken up reading The Age of Reason, written by Thomas Paine, the American patriot whose pamphlet Common Sense had helped inspire the American Revolution. The Age of Reason is a long diatribe exposing all of the tiny imprecisions and “errors” of the Bible, and proposing that it is not a fit book to be the foundation of a reasonable man’s religion. Paine’s book gave Clemens ammunition against the Presbyterian Assassin-God, and he followed Paine in asserting that there is a God but He’s not the unreasonable tyrant of the Bible. He held that view for the rest of his life.

The tragic loss of his wife and three of his four children to illness in his later life wore on his soul and only added to his hardness of heart against the God of the Bible. His latest writings are the most vitriolic and blasphemous, a venting of anger and frustration which make Thomas Paine seem tame and irenic. Oddly enough, despite Twain’s irreverent outlook, throughout his life the white-haired wit toyed with the idea of becoming a preacher, and his best and most faithful friend was Pastor Joe Twichell, whom Twain considered a “manly Christian”.

On the surface Mark Twain is indeed a blasphemer and an example of the fool and scoffer of Proverbs. But the more I learn of him the more I can understand his bitterness. The more I read him the more I pity him when he rants and blasphemes. He doesn’t hate “God”. He hates ugliness and evil in the world – he experienced plenty of it -- and he hates some of the cold, hypocritical things he saw in the Christians of his day. He longed for a manly Christianity like Pastor Joe Twichell’s which cared more about overcoming evil with good in bold ways and less about the perfecting of mystic rituals and microscopic social scruples, and I can’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t be more approving of things like the Pittsburgh Project and Compassion International and the more progressive evangelical faith that developed in the 20th century, due in part to some of his own pointed and appropriate criticisms of dead orthodox Christianity.

And that is why I’ve opened the doors and invited him to speak at our Dessert Theater. That and the fact that his down-home American tell-it-like-it-is humor can be very, very funny. I hope you enjoy him. If not, we’ll bar his presence in the future…

-- Pastor Chris

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