Sep 192021
 

PASTOR’S PERSPECTIVE:  MARK TWAIN-LINCOLN OF LITERATURE BUT SPIRITUAL SHIPWRECK?

     Everybody loves Mark Twain.  Every school boy and girl enjoyed reading The Adventures Tom Sawyer, and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Both give us insight to what it was like growing up in Hannibal, Missouri in the mid 1800’s. The Family Encyclopedia of American History says, “if the 19th Century American dream has a single literary laureate, it is Samuel Clemens, known by his pen name, Mark Twain”.   Literary critic Edgar Wagenknect concurred when he wrote, “Mark Twain is incomparably the dominating personality in American literature, the mightiest figure in American mythology”.  Ernest Hemingway, in The Green Hills of Africa asserted that, “Huckleberry Finn was both the first and best book in American Literature and Mark Twain began to be viewed as the writer’s writer”.  Likewise, William Faulkner told Japanese students that “Mark Twain was really the father of American Literature”. Longtime friend, and literary critic William Dean Howe, speaking at Twain’s funeral, said “Clemens was sole, incomparable, the Lincoln of Literature.”   Those comments affirm the greatness of Mark Twain.

     I was introduced to Twain in High School English literature, but really became familiar with him while attending college in his home town of Hannibal, Missouri.  Everyone who came to visit us asked us to take them to Mark Twain’s boyhood home, and of course to visit and tour the Mark Twain Cave.  Such exposure to those places enriched your life with the very things he wrote about, and made them literally come to life!  What most do not realize is that Mark Twain grew up in a very Christian home, and was saturated with the Christian faith, a faith he struggled greatly with, and was never really able to fully embrace.  His father, John Marshall Clemens, was a free thinker who never saw the necessity of embracing Christianity, until on his death bed, when asked by the Pastor, “do you believe in Christ, and trust His saving blood to save you?’ the elder Clemens responded, “I do!”  Twain’s mother, Jane Clemens, was a very involved Christian, who took her children religiously to Sunday School, first in the Methodist Church, and later to the Presbyterian Church in Hannibal.  She read the Bible to them daily and sought to share her faith with them, though her faith was characterized by the non-traditional habits of pipe-smoking, and dancing, with occasional ventures into odd forms of religion that was novel to the culture of Hannibal in the mid 1800’s.  Twain once claimed that “he knew the Bible well enough by two weeks old, to protest being named Samuel, after a boy whom the Lord had to call…a couple of times before he would come!”: (a reference to I Samuel 3:1-10). Twain illustrated what his Sunday School experience was like in chapter 4 of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  Most commentators refer to Twain’s Sunday School indoctrination as an influence that proved unshakable for him to his dying day.  John Gerber asserted, “The Calvinistic doctrines of the depravity of man and predestination created an intellectual context from which he never escaped. Yet Samuel Clemens was never a believer in the orthodox sense.”

     Clemens fell in love with, and married his sweetheart, Olivia Langdon.  Olivia grew up in a Christian home, as was a dedicated Christian. Olivia had been an invalid, as a girl, and had been healed by a faith healer named Dr. Newton, which restored her to activity.  Aware of her faith, in a letter of proposal to her, Clemens assured her that if she married him their home would be a Christian home.  He wrote, “…Livy, we’ll model our home after your old home, and make the Spirit of Love lord over the entire realm…we will turn toward the Cross and be comforted-I turn with you-What would you have more? The Peace of God shall rest upon us and all will be well!” During that engagement time Twain was reading the Bible nightly and praying, as well as corresponding with his sweetheart over sermons that he had been reading.  When the couple first married, they read the Bible together, said grace at meals, and all seemed to be going as promised.  But the influence of his Pastor, Thomas Beecher, brother to Henry Ward Beecher, far more liberal than his famous brother, began to have a detrimental affect on Twain.  Twain began to doubt the faith he was raised in.  The atmosphere of their Christian home soon changed as he announced to Livy, “I don’t believe the Bible-it contradicts my reason!”  This reversal of his religious fervor began to show up in his writings.  Through the mouth of Tom Sawyer he said, “I…have got religion and wish to be quit of it and lead an honest life again!”  His biographer writes, the early years of engagement and marriage to Olivia Langdon, “he came the closet to making a real connection with genuine Christianity”.   His departure from his early faith began to take a toll on his wife.  On one occasion she said she no longer believed, and “That if he was going to hell, she wanted to go with him!” She modeled herself after her beloved husband, and began to “smoke and curse!”  He was amused at her efforts, and remarked that “she knew the words and lyrics, but not the melody!”   Later, when she was ill, and dying, he encouraged her to lean on her faith, and her response was “I no longer have any faith!” Twain never forgave himself of causing her to abandon her faith, because of him. He began to have terrifying dreams in which his family are lost in the dark aboard a ship with no pilot and rudder, as a result of his poor example leading them to abandon their faith.  Allison Ensor concluded, “I believe that the evidence shows that Twain’s orthodoxy reached it zenith late in 1868 and early 1869, and after that period he abandoned all penchant for Bible reading and hat-tipping in that direction”.  In 1878, while on a trip to Europe with a Pastor friend, Rev. Joseph Twitchell, Twain confessed, “I have been almost a believer, but it immediately drifts away from me again, I don’t believe a word of your Bible was inspired by God any more than any other book.”

   In spite of that confession, Twain often admitted that he could never get away from his “trained Presbyterian conscience!”

     Twain’s brother Henry was severely injured in an explosion on the steamboat Pennsylvania, a boat that Twain was supposed to be piloting that day, but had to ask Henry to fill in for him, due to unknown circumstances.  Twain sat by his bedside for six days nursing him after the explosion, until Henry died.  Twain wrote a letter to his brother Orion’s wife Millie, and revealed how broken he was over the accident.  He wrote, on June 21, 1858, “lost and ruined sinner that I am-I even, I have humbled myself to the ground, and prayed as never a man has prayed before, that the Great God might let this cup pass from me-the He would strike me to the earth, but spare my brother-that He would pour out the fulness of His just wrath on my wicked head, but have mercy, mercy, mercy upon that unoffending boy.  The horrors of these three days have swept over me-they have blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time. Mollie there are grey hairs in my head tonight. For forty-eight hours I have labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised, but uncomplaining brother, and then the star of my hope went out and left me in despair.  Then poor wretched me, that was once proud, was humbled to the very dust-for the vilest of beggars in the streets of St. Louis could never conceive a humiliation like mine.  Men take me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me lucky because I was not on the Pennsylvania when she blew up!  My God forgive them, for they know not what they say!”  Mark Twain, and his faith, continues to be a paradox to all who study him.  Winston Churchill called Russia, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.  That is a good description of Mark Twain and his faith.

     Twain’s “trained Presbyterian conscience” showed up clearly in his writings.  His book The Prince and Pauper is beyond question an allegory about the Incarnation of Christ, and is a good commentary on Philippians 2:5-11.  His book The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court continues that imagery.  Even Puddin’Head Wilson has subtle illustration of the Incarnation.  Of course, his Joan of Arc praises her as the greatest Christian ever to live, second only to Jesus Himself.  Twain’s objection to Christianity seems more about the failure of most Christians to live out a genuine faith.  He said, “If Christ were here today, the one thing he would not be is a Christian!” Mark Twain was the personification of wit and wisdom to his generation.  He famously shared the word, “better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt!”.  A bit of wisdom President Lincoln lived by, and repeated often.  He said, “I never rejoiced over anyone’s death, or wished someone dead, but I have often read certain obituaries with a smile.” One obituary he read with a smile might have been his own.  While touring Europe, to raise money for some financial burdens, it was rumored that he was in poor health, and near death.  It was actually true of his cousin James Rose Clemens.  When his cousin died, it was mistakenly reported by Frank Marshall White, of the New York Journal, that Twain had died.  Upon reading it Twain wrote Marshall and said, “The report of my demise has been greatly exaggerated!”. 

     In 1835 Haley’s comet made it periodic visit. Mark Twain arrived at the same time.  As the time of its return drew closer, in 1909Twain remarked, “It’s coming again next year, and the Almighty has said n doubt, these two unaccountable freaks came in together, they must go out together!” His words were very prophetic, for on April 21, 1910, the report of his demise was this time accurate, and the world lost the Lincoln of Literature, and their author that no one saw a in freak.  James Hefley, Christian author, and later the Professor of Writing at Hannibal-LaGrange College, in Twain’s home town of Hannibal wrote many articles of the impact of Twain.  In his article The Wit and Tragedy of Mark Twain, detailed how if Twain had embraced the Christian faith with his heart instead of his head, he would have found the secret to making his faith genuine.  Had he done that he might have had a spiritual impact on his world not unlike his contemporary William Jennings Bryan.  He writes that Twain had a clear understanding of the doctrine of the new birth, and salvation by grace, that he was taught by his mother in life, and his father on his death bed, but ne never, as far as we can be sure, ever embraced it personally for himself. To his dying day, though he doubted at times the reality of heaven, he never questions the reality of hell and feared many, himself included, might experience that tragedy when he died.

     His later years, after losing Livy, and his children, Twain wrote in his autobiography, published only after his death, by his own wishes, these depressing pessimistic words: “A myriad of men are born; they labor and struggle and sweat for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other.  Age creeps upon them and infirmities follow; shame and humiliation bring down their pride and vanities.  Those that they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned into an aching grief.  The burden of pain, care, and misery grows heavier year by year. At length ambition is dead; longing for relief takes its place.  It comes at last, the only unpoisioned gift earth has for them-and they vanish away from a world where they achieved nothing, where they were of no consequence, where they were a mistake, and a failure and a foolishness; where they left no sign they ever existed-a world that will lament them for a day, and forget them forever!”

     On his last trip to Europe his itinerary had him meeting nearly every dignitary of Europe.  After meeting the Chancellor of Germany, his daughter Jean was so impressed with her famous father that she said, “Papa if this keeps up there won’t be anybody else for you to meet except God!”  He certain had every opportunity to do so with all of his exposure to the Christian faith.  It would be a real American tragedy if he never did.  Perhaps he, like his father, on his own death bed, finally had a change of heart, and like he promised Livy, made his way to the cross he often talked about, and found the peace of God that seemed to allude him.  One never knows.  His pen name-Mark Twain, was the most important call to be heard on a steamboat.  If mean that the water was deep enough to avoid being shipwrecked on the river.  It would be a real tragedy to be so named and end up making a shipwreck of his own faith.  This American Lincoln of Literature gives us the ultimate lesson not just for his 19th century, but for the new millennium of the 21st century as well! Mark Twain!

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