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August 29, 2010: “The Theology of Mark Twain, Mark Twain Guest Preacher”

Mark Twain Guest Preacher
(A Sermon using the words of Mark Twain from Various Sources)
Rev. Arthur G. Severance

        Good morning ladies and gentleman- if you'll pardon the assumption.  Your minister has asked me to preach a sermon on my theology, though I'm a writer and not a preacher. He has said that he has read most of what I have written and agrees with much of it, yet you evidently still allow to work for you. I'm surprised! Perhaps if a church like this had existed a century ago I would have been a Unitarian or a Universalist instead of a Presbyterian as they accuse me of and as I have been known to occasionally attend, so as I've said, 'We were good boys, good Presbyterian boys, and loyal and all that; anyway, we were good Presbyterian boys when the weather was doubtful; when it was fair, we did wander a little from the fold'.- 67th birthday dinner, 11/28/1902

        I can't recall any Presbyterian pastors asking me to grace their pulpits. So while your kind minister helped me with this introduction, the rest of what I will say here today is all in my own words gathered over many years. I have to apologize for not using what you now call inclusive language.  No one really ever asked me for my theology before, perhaps because they were always afraid of what it might be, given some of the things they had read I had said! I understand, my theology really started at a young age by pointing out religion's seemingly obvious inconstancies as well as its follower's hypocrisies. So here goes.

Let me start by talking about God:

        'I have a religion--but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor.....Perhaps your religion will sustain you, will feed you--I place no dependence in mine. Our religions are alike, though, in one respect--neither can make a man happy when he is out of luck'. - Letter to Orion Clemens, 10/19-20/1865

        'If I were to construct a God I would furnish Him with some way and qualities and characteristics which the Present lacks. He would not stoop to ask for any man's compliments, praises, flatteries; and He would be far above exacting them. I would have Him as self-respecting as the better sort of man in these regards.

  He would not be a merchant, a trader. He would not buy these things. He would not sell, or offer to sell, temporary benefits of the joys of eternity for the product called worship. I would have Him as dignified as the better sort of man in this regard.

  He would value no love but the love born of kindnesses conferred; not that born of benevolences contracted for. Repentance in a man's heart for a wrong done would cancel and annul that sin; and no verbal prayers for forgiveness be required or desired or expected of that man.

  In His Bible there would be no Unforgivable Sin. He would recognize in Himself the Author and Inventor of Sin and Author and Inventor of the Vehicle and Appliances for its commission; and would place the whole responsibility where it would of right belong: upon Himself, the only Sinner.

  He would not be a jealous God -- a trait so small that even men despise it in each other.
  He would not boast.
  He would keep private His admirations of Himself; He would regard self-praise as unbecoming the dignity of his position.
  He would not have the spirit of vengeance in His heart. Then it would not issue from His lips.
  There would not be any hell -- except the one we live in from the cradle to the grave.
  There would not be any heaven -- the kind described in the world's Bibles.
  He would spend some of His eternities in trying to forgive Himself for making man unhappy when he could have made him happy with the same effort and he would spend the rest of them in studying astronomy.'

— Notebook

        "Man was made at the end of the week's work when God was tired."

        'In God We Trust. It is the choicest compliment that has ever been paid us, and the most gratifying to our feelings. It is simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well -- In God We Trust.  I don't believe it would sound any better if it were true.'

        'Leaving out the gamblers, the burglars, and the plumbers, perhaps we do put our trust in God after a fashion. But, after all, it is an overstatement. If the cholera or black plague should come to these shores, perhaps the bulk of the nation would pray to be delivered from it, but the rest would put their trust in The Health Board.'

— Mark Twain, speech, “Education and Citizenship”

        What God lacks is convictions -- stability of character. He ought to be a Presbyterian or a Catholic or something -- not try to be everything. -- Mark Twain, Notebook


        Sacred cows make the best hamburger."

        "In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing."

        The easy confidence with which I know another man's religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also. 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 may be. But it may easily be a great comfort to him in this life--hence it is a valuable possession to him.  Biography

        'Man is a Religious Animal. He is the only Religious Animal. He is the only animal that has the True Religion -- several of them. He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn't straight.

* In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination.
* No God and no religion can survive ridicule. No political church, no nobility, no royalty or other fraud, can face ridicule in a fair field, and live.
* Man is kind enough when he is not excited by religion.
* The higher animals have no religion. And we are told that they are going to be left out in the Hereafter.'
    'If the man doesn't believe as we do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it. I mean, it does nowadays, because now we can't burn him.'

Following the Equator

        'Between believing a thing and thinking you know is only a small step and quickly taken'.  3,000 Years Among the Microbes

        The so-called Christian nations are the most enlightened and progressive ... but in spite of their religion, not because of it. The Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition. The Greeks surpassed us in artistic culture and in architecture five hundred years before Christian religion was born.  from Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain, a Biography (1912),

        'In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.' - Autobiography of Mark Twain

        Monarchies, aristocracies, and religions....there was never a country where the majority of the people were in their secret hearts loyal to any of these institutions. - The Mysterious Stranger

        I am quite sure now that often, very often, in matters concerning religion and politics a man's reasoning powers are not above the monkey's.

‘ Eruption’

        Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain..    - Notebook, 1879

        I was educated, I was trained, I was a Presbyterian and I knew how these things are done. I knew that in Biblical times if a man committed a sin the extermination of the whole surrounding nation--cattle and all--was likely to happen. I knew that Providence was not particular about the rest, so that He got somebody connected 

with the one He was after. – Autobiography of Mark Twain

        Zeal and sincerity can carry a new religion further than any other missionary except fire and sword.
  • Christian Science The altar cloth of one aeon is the doormat of the next. - Notebook, 1898There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the schoolboy who said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."-- Mark Twain, Following the Equator, ch. 12, "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar" (1897) I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious -- unless he purposely shut the eyes of his mind &amp; keep them shut by force. -- Mark Twain, Frederick Anderson, ed, Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals (1979), notebook 27, August 1887-July 1888, quoted from James A Haught, "Breaking the Last Taboo" (1996)</code></pre></li>

The Church

        The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example. -- Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

        Mine was a trained Presbyterian conscience and knew but the one duty -- to hunt and harry its slave upon all pretexts and on all occasions, particularly when there was no sense nor reason in it. -- Mark Twain, Autobiography

        Presbyterianism without infant damnation would be like the dog on the train that couldn't be identified because it had lost its tag. -- Mark Twain, from Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain, a Biography (1912), quoted from Barbara Schmidt, ed, "Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources"

        It has taken a weary long time to persuade American Presbyterians to give up infant damnation and try to bear it the best they can. -- Mark Twain, Is Shakespeare Dead?

If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be — a Christian. …There has been only one Christian. They caught him and crucified him — early Notebook (1898)

        Alas! those good old days are gone, when a murderer could wipe the stain from his name and soothe his trouble to sleep simply by getting out his blocks and mortar and building an addition to a church. - The Innocents Abroad

        A man is accepted into a church for what he believes and he is turned out for what he knows. -- Mark Twain, quoted from Barbara Schmidt, ed, "Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources"

“[The Bible]

        "[The Bible] has noble poetry in it... and some good morals and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies."

        "I believe that our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey."
  • It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.

When one reads Bibles, one is less surprised at what the Deity knows than at what He doesn’t know.

I am plenty safe enough in his hands; I am not in any danger from that kind of a Deity. 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. — Mark Twain, letter to Livy (July 17, 1889), quoted from Barbara Schmidt, ed, “Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources”

It was not that Adam ate the apple for the apple’s sake, but because it was forbidden. It would have been better for us — oh infinitely better for us — if the serpent had been forbidden. — Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Notebook

The two Testaments are interesting, each in its own way. The Old one gives us a picture of these people’s Deity as he was before he got religion, the other one gives us a picture of him as he appeared afterward.

— Mark Twain, Letters From the Earth (1909; published in 1962)

God, so atrocious in the Old Testament, so attractive in the New — the Jekyl and Hyde of sacred romance. — Mark Twain, Notebook (1904)


One of the proofs of the immortality of the soul is that myriads have believed in it. They have also believed the world was flat. — Mark Twain, Notebook (1900)

This is a Christian country. Why, so is hell. Inasmuch as “Strait is the way and narrow is the gate, and few — few — are they that enter in thereat” has had the natural effect of making hell the only really prominent Christian community in any of the worlds; but we don’t brag of this and certainly it is not proper to brag and boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that certainly five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate. — Mark Twain, in Bernard DeVoto, ed, Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events (1940), quoted from Barbara Schmidt, ed, “Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources”

We may not doubt that society in heaven consists mainly of undesirable persons. — Mark Twain, Notebook

        I have never seen what to me seemed an atom of proof that there is a future life. And yet -- I am inclined to expect one. -- Mark Twain, from Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain, a Biography (1912), quoted from Barbara Schmidt, ed, "Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources"

        "Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company."
        "The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time."
        "The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven not man's."
        "Let us live so that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry."
        "Just when I thought I was learning how to live, 'twas then I realized I was learning how to die."


I response to critics who wanted to ban my book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

        'There's nobody for me to attack in this matter even with soft and gentle ridicule -- and I shouldn't ever think of using a grown up weapon in this kind of a nursery. Above all, I couldn't venture to attack the clergymen whom you mention, for I have their habits and live in the same glass house which they are occupying. I am always reading immoral books on the sly, and then selfishly trying to prevent other people from having the same wicked good time'. -- Mark Twain, Letter to Denver Post (August 14, 1902) regarding banning of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the Denver Library, also published in the New York Tribune (August 22, 1902), quoted from Barbara Schmidt, ed, "Mark Twain Quotations, Newspaper Collections, & Related Resources"

‘Always do what is right. It will gratify half of mankind and astound the other.”

“Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.”

“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”

“The lack of money is the root of all evil.”

‘There are several good protections against temptations, but the surest is cowardice.”

“We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it and stop there lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again and that is well but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.”

“Be good and you will be lonesome.”

“It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream–a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought–a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!”

“There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable, and smokable which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is. It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.”

Words to live by

“The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.”

“Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten the dog.”

The best minds will tell you that when a man has begotten a child he is morally bound to tenderly care for it, protect it from hurt, shield it from disease, clothe it, feed it, bear with its waywardness, lay no hand upon it save in kindness and for its own good, and never in any case inflict upon it a wanton cruelty. God’s treatment of his earthly children, every day and every night, is the exact opposite of all that, yet those best minds warmly justify these crimes, condone them, excuse them, and indignantly refuse to regard them as crimes at all, when he commits them. Your country and mine is an interesting one, but there is nothing there that is half so interesting as the human mind. — Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

“Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.”

“Life is short, Break the Rules.
Forgive quickly, Kiss SLOWLY.
Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably
And never regret ANYTHING
That makes you smile.”

“Grief can take care of itself, but to get the full value of joy you must have somebody to divide it with.”