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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol III, Part 2: 1907 - 1910|
CCXCV. Mark Twain's Religion
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|There is such a finality about death; however interesting it may be as an
experience, one cannot discuss it afterward with one's friends. I have
thought it a great pity that Mark Twain could not discuss, with Howells
say, or with Twichell, the sensations and the particulars of the change,
supposing there be a recognizable change, in that transition of which we
have speculated so much, with such slender returns. No one ever debated
the undiscovered country more than he. In his whimsical, semi-serious
fashion he had considered all the possibilities of the future state--
orthodox and otherwise--and had drawn picturesquely original conclusions.
He had sent Captain Stormfield in a dream to report the aspects of the
early Christian heaven. He had examined the scientific aspects of the
more subtle philosophies. He had considered spiritualism,
transmigration, the various esoteric doctrines, and in the end he had
logically made up his mind that death concludes all, while with that less
logical hunger which survives in every human heart he had never ceased to
expect an existence beyond the grave. His disbelief and his pessimism
were identical in their structure. They were of his mind; never of his
Once a woman said to him:
"Mr. Clemens, you are not a pessimist, you only think you are." And she
might have added, with equal force and truth:
"You are not a disbeliever in immortality; you only think you are."
Nothing could have conveyed more truly his attitude toward life and
death. His belief in God, the Creator, was absolute; but it was a God
far removed from the Creator of his early teaching. Every man builds his
God according to his own capacities. Mark Twain's God was of colossal
proportions--so vast, indeed, that the constellated stars were but
molecules in His veins--a God as big as space itself.
Mark Twain had many moods, and he did not always approve of his own God;
but when he altered his conception, it was likely to be in the direction
of enlargement--a further removal from the human conception, and the
problem of what we call our lives.
In 1906 he wrote:--[See also 1870, chap. lxxviii; 1899, chap. ccv; and
various talks, 1906-07, etc.]
Let us now consider the real God, the genuine God, the great God,
the sublime and supreme God, the authentic Creator of the real
universe, whose remotenesses are visited by comets only comets unto
which incredible distant Neptune is merely an out post, a Sandy Hook
to homeward-bound specters of the deeps of space that have not
glimpsed it before for generations--a universe not made with hands
and suited to an astronomical nursery, but spread abroad through the
illimitable reaches of space by the flat of the real God just
mentioned, by comparison with whom the gods whose myriads infest the
feeble imaginations of men are as a swarm of gnats scattered and
lost in the infinitudes of the empty sky.
At an earlier period-the date is not exactly fixable, but the stationery
used and the handwriting suggest the early eighties--he set down a few
concisely written pages of conclusions--conclusions from which he did
not deviate materially in after years. The document follows:
I believe in God the Almighty.
I do not believe He has ever sent a message to man by anybody, or
delivered one to him by word of mouth, or made Himself visible to
mortal eyes at any time in any place.
I believe that the Old and New Testaments were imagined and written
by man, and that no line in them was authorized by God, much less
inspired by Him.
I think the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God are
manifested in His works: I perceive that they are manifested toward
me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be
manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one.
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.
I cannot see how eternal punishment hereafter could accomplish any
good end, therefore I am not able to believe in it. To chasten a
man in order to perfect him might be reasonable enough; to
annihilate him when he shall have proved himself incapable of
reaching perfection might be reasonable enough; but to roast him
forever for the mere satisfaction of seeing him roast would not be
reasonable--even the atrocious God imagined by the Jews would tire
of the spectacle eventually.
There may be a hereafter and there may not be. I am wholly
indifferent about it. If I am appointed to live again I feel sure
it will be for some more sane and useful purpose than to flounder
about for ages in a lake of fire and brimstone for having violated a
confusion of ill-defined and contradictory rules said (but not
evidenced) to be of divine institution. If annihilation is to
follow death I shall not be aware of the annihilation, and therefore
shall not care a straw about it.
I believe that the world's moral laws are the outcome of the world's
experience. It needed no God to come down out of heaven to tell men
that murder and theft and the other immoralities were bad, both for
the individual who commits them and for society which suffers from
If I break all these moral laws I cannot see how I injure God by it,
for He is beyond the reach of injury from me--I could as easily
injure a planet by throwing mud at it. It seems to me that my
misconduct could only injure me and other men. I cannot benefit God
by obeying these moral laws--I could as easily benefit the planet by
withholding my mud. (Let these sentences be read in the light of
the fact that I believe I have received moral laws only from man-
none whatever from God.) Consequently I do not see why I should be
either punished or rewarded hereafter for the deeds I do here.
If the tragedies of life shook his faith in the goodness and justice and
the mercy of God as manifested toward himself, he at any rate never
questioned that the wider scheme of the universe was attuned to the
immutable law which contemplates nothing less than absolute harmony. I
never knew him to refer to this particular document; but he never
destroyed it and never amended it, nor is it likely that he would have
done either had it been presented to him for consideration even during
the last year of his life.
He was never intentionally dogmatic. In a memorandum on a fly-leaf of
Moncure D. Conway's Sacred Anthology he wrote:
The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly
teaches me to suspect that my own is also.
MARK TWAIN, 19th Cent. A.D.
And in another note:
I would not interfere with any one's religion, either to strengthen it or
to weaken it. I am not able to believe one's religion can affect his
hereafter one way or the other, no matter what that religion maybe. But
it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life hence it is a
valuable possession to him.
Mark Twain's religion was a faith too wide for doctrines--a benevolence
too limitless for creeds. From the beginning he strove against
oppression, sham, and evil in every form. He despised meanness; he
resented with every drop of blood in him anything that savored of
persecution or a curtailment of human liberties. It was a religion
identified with his daily life and his work. He lived as he wrote, and
he wrote as he believed. His favorite weapon was humor--good-humor--with
logic behind it. A sort of glorified truth it was truth wearing a smile
of gentleness, hence all the more quickly heeded.
"He will be remembered with the great humorists of all time," says
Howells, "with Cervantes, with Swift, or with any others worthy of his
company; none of them was his equal in humanity."
Mark Twain understood the needs of men because he was himself supremely
human. In one of his dictations he said:
I have found that there is no ingredient of the race which I do not
possess in either a small or a large way. When it is small, as compared
with the same ingredient in somebody else, there is still enough of it
for all the purposes of examination.
With his strength he had inherited the weaknesses of our kind. With him,
as with another, a myriad of dreams and schemes and purposes daily
flitted by. With him, as with another, the spirit of desire led him
often to a high mountain-top, and was not rudely put aside, but
lingeringly--and often invited to return. With him, as with another, a
crowd of jealousies and resentments, and wishes for the ill of others,
daily went seething and scorching along the highways of the soul. With
him, as with another, regret, remorse, and shame stood at the bedside
during long watches of the night; and in the end, with him, the better
thing triumphed--forgiveness and generosity and justice--in a word,
Humanity. Certain of his aphorisms and memoranda each in itself
constitutes an epitome of Mark Twain's creed. His paraphrase, "When in
doubt tell the truth," is one of these, and he embodied his whole
attitude toward Infinity when in one of his stray pencilings he wrote:
Why, even poor little ungodlike man holds himself responsible for the
welfare of his child to the extent of his ability. It is all that we
require of God.