Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CCXCV

Mark Twain’s Religion

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 heart.

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:201

201 [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 them.

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.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05