Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Appendix I

Mark Twain’s Championship of Thomas K. Beecher

(See Chapter lxxiv)

There was a religious turmoil in Elmira in 1869; a disturbance among the ministers, due to the success of Thomas K. Beecher in a series of meetings he was conducting in the Opera House. Mr. Beecher’s teachings had never been very orthodox or doctrinal, but up to this time they had been seemingly unobjectionable to his brother clergymen, who fraternized with him and joined with him in the Monday meetings of the Ministerial Union of Elmira, when each Monday a sermon was read by one of the members. The situation presently changed. Mr. Beecher was preaching his doubtful theology to large and nightly increasing audiences, and it was time to check the exodus. The Ministerial Union of Elmira not only declined to recognize and abet the Opera House gatherings, but they requested him to withdraw from their Monday meetings, on the ground that his teachings were pernicious. Mr. Beecher said nothing of the matter, and it was not made public until a notice of it appeared in a religious paper. Naturally such a course did not meet with the approval of the Langdon family, and awoke the scorn of a man who so detested bigotry in any form as Mark Twain. He was a stranger in the place, and not justified to speak over his own signature, but he wrote an article and read it to members of the Langdon family and to Dr. and Mrs. Taylor, their intimate friends, who were spending an evening in the Langdon home. It was universally approved, and the next morning appeared in the Elmira Advertiser, over the signature of “S’cat.” It created a stir, of course.

The article follows:


“The Ministerial Union of Elmira, N. Y., at a recent meeting passed resolutions disapproving the teachings of Rev. T. K. Beecher, declining to co-operate with him in his Sunday evening services at the Opera House, and requesting him to withdraw from their Monday morning meeting. This has resulted in his withdrawal, and thus the pastors are relieved from further responsibility as to his action.”— N. Y. Evangelist.

Poor Beecher! All this time he could do whatever he pleased that was wrong, and then be perfectly serene and comfortable over it, because the Ministerial Union of Elmira was responsible to God for it. He could lie if he wanted to, and those ministers had to answer for it; he could promote discord in the church of Christ, and those parties had to make it right with the Deity as best they could; he could teach false doctrines to empty opera houses, and those sorrowing lambs of the Ministerial Union had to get out their sackcloth and ashes and stand responsible for it. He had such a comfortable thing of it! But he went too far. In an evil hour he slaughtered the simple geese that laid the golden egg of responsibility for him, and now they will uncover their customary complacency, and lift up their customary cackle in his behalf no more. And so, at last, he finds himself in the novel position of being responsible to God for his acts, instead of to the Ministerial Union of Elmira. To say that this is appalling is to state it with a degree of mildness which amounts to insipidity.

We cannot justly estimate this calamity, without first reviewing certain facts that conspired to bring it about. Mr. Beecher was and is in the habit of preaching to a full congregation in the Independent Congregational Church, in this city. The meeting-house was not large enough to accommodate all the people who desired admittance. Mr. Beecher regularly attended the meetings of the Ministerial Union of Elmira every Monday morning, and they received him into their fellowship, and never objected to the doctrines which he taught in his church. So, in an unfortunate moment, he conceived the strange idea that they would connive at the teaching of the same doctrines in the same way in a larger house. Therefore he secured the Opera House and proceeded to preach there every Sunday evening to assemblages comprising from a thousand to fifteen hundred persons. He felt warranted in this course by a passage of Scripture which says, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every creature.” Opera-houses were not ruled out specifically in this passage, and so he considered it proper to regard opera-houses as a part of “all the world.” He looked upon the people who assembled there as coming under the head of “every creature.” These ideas were as absurd as they were farfetched, but still they were the honest ebullitions of a diseased mind. His great mistake was in supposing that when he had the Saviour’s indorsement of his conduct he had all that was necessary. He overlooked the fact that there might possibly be a conflict of opinion between the Saviour and the Ministerial Union of Elmira. And there was. Wherefore, blind and foolish Mr. Beecher went to his destruction. The Ministerial Union withdrew their approbation, and left him dangling in the air, with no other support than the countenance and approval of the gospel of Christ.

Mr. Beecher invited his brother ministers to join forces with him and help him conduct the Opera House meetings. They declined with great unanimity. In this they were wrong. Since they did not approve of those meetings, it was a duty they owed to their consciences and their God to contrive their discontinuance. They knew this. They felt it. Yet they turned coldly away and refused to help at those meetings, when they well knew that their help, earnestly and persistently given, was able to kill any great religious enterprise that ever was conceived of.

The ministers refused, and the calamitous meetings at the Opera House continued; and not only continued, but grew in interest and importance, and sapped of their congregations churches where the Gospel was preached with that sweet monotonous tranquillity and that impenetrable profundity which stir up such consternation in the strongholds of sin. It is a pity to have to record here that one clergyman refused to preach at the Opera House at Mr. Beecher’s request, even when that incendiary was sick and disabled; and if that man’s conscience justifies him in that refusal I do not. Under the plea of charity for a sick brother he could have preached to that Opera House multitude a sermon that would have done incalculable damage to the Opera House experiment. And he need not have been particular about the sermon he chose, either. He could have relied on any he had in his barrel.

The Opera House meetings went on; other congregations were thin, and grew thinner, but the Opera House assemblages were vast. Every Sunday night, in spite of sense and reason, multitudes passed by the churches where they might have been saved, and marched deliberately to the Opera House to be damned. The community talked, talked, talked. Everybody discussed the fact that the Ministerial Union disapproved of the Opera House meetings; also the fact that they disapproved of the teachings put forth there. And everybody wondered how the Ministerial Union could tell whether to approve or disapprove of those teachings, seeing that those clergymen had never attended an Opera House meeting, and therefore didn’t know what was taught there. Everybody wondered over that curious question, and they had to take it out in wondering.

Mr. Beecher asked the Ministerial Union to state their objections to the Opera House matter. They could not — at least they did not. He said to them that if they would come squarely out and tell him that they desired the discontinuance of those meetings he would discontinue them. They declined to do that. Why should they have declined? They had no right to decline, and no excuse to decline, if they honestly believed that those meetings interfered in the slightest degree with the best interests of religion. (That is a proposition which the profoundest head among them cannot get around.)

But the Opera House meetings went on. That was the mischief of it. And so, one Monday morning, when Mr. B. appeared at the usual Ministers’ meeting, his brother clergymen desired him to come there no more. He asked why. They gave no reason. They simply declined to have his company longer. Mr. B. said he could not accept of this execution without a trial, and since he loved them and had nothing against them he must insist upon meeting with them in the future just the same as ever. And so, after that, they met in secret, and thus got rid of this man’s importunate affection.

The Ministerial Union had ruled out Beecher — a point gained. He would get up an excitement about it in public. But that was a miscalculation. He never mentioned it. They waited and waited for the grand crash, but it never came. After all their labor-pains, their ministerial mountain had brought forth only a mouse — and a still-born one at that. Beecher had not told on them; Beecher malignantly persisted in not telling on them. The opportunity was slipping away. Alas, for the humiliation of it, they had to come out and tell it themselves! And after all, their bombshell did not hurt anybody when they did explode it. They had ceased to be responsible to God for Beecher, and yet nobody seemed paralyzed about it. Somehow, it was not even of sufficient importance, apparently, to get into the papers, though even the poor little facts that Smith has bought a trotting team and Alderman Jones’s child has the measles are chronicled there with avidity. Something must be done. As the Ministerial Union had told about their desolating action, when nobody else considered it of enough importance to tell, they would also publish it, now that the reporters failed to see anything in it important enough to print. And so they startled the entire religious world no doubt by solemnly printing in the Evangelist the paragraph which heads this article. They have got their excommunication-bull started at last. It is going along quite lively now, and making considerable stir, let us hope. They even know it in Podunk, wherever that may be. It excited a two-line paragraph there. Happy, happy world, that knows at last that a little congress of congregationless clergymen of whom it had never heard before have crushed a famous Beecher, and reduced his audiences from fifteen hundred down to fourteen hundred and seventy-five at one fell blow! Happy, happy world, that knows at last that these obscure innocents are no longer responsible for the blemishless teachings, the power, the pathos, the logic, and the other and manifold intellectual pyrotechnics that seduce, but to damn, the Opera House assemblages every Sunday night in Elmira! And miserable, O thrice miserable Beecher! For the Ministerial Union of Elmira will never, no, never more be responsible to God for his shortcomings. (Excuse these tears.)

(For the protection of a man who is uniformly charged with all the newspaper deviltry that sees the light in Elmira journals, I take this opportunity of stating, under oath, duly subscribed before a magistrate, that Mr. Beecher did not write this article. And further still, that he did not inspire it. And further still, the Ministerial Union of Elmira did not write it. And finally, the Ministerial Union did not ask me to write it. No, I have taken up this cudgel in defense of the Ministerial Union of Elmira solely from a love of justice. Without solicitation, I have constituted myself the champion of the Ministerial Union of Elmira, and it shall be a labor of love with me to conduct their side of a quarrel in print for them whenever they desire me to do it; or if they are busy, and have not the time to ask me, I will cheerfully do it anyhow. In closing this I must remark that if any question the right of the clergymen of Elmira to turn Mr. Beecher out of the Ministerial Union, to such I answer that Mr. Beecher recreated that institution after it had been dead for many years, and invited those gentlemen to come into it, which they did, and so of course they have a right to turn him out if they want to. The difference between Beecher and the man who put an adder in his bosom is, that Beecher put in more adders than he did, and consequently had a proportionately livelier time of it when they got warmed up.)

Cheerfully, S’CAT.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00