Mark Twain: Friend or foe to Christians? - Catholic Courier
A statue of Mark Twain on the campus of Elmira College is inscribed with the titles of books he wrote while in Elmira. A statue of Mark Twain on the campus of Elmira College is inscribed with the titles of books he wrote while in Elmira.

Mark Twain: Friend or foe to Christians?

"There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory … ours is a terrible religion."

As this quote from his recently released autobiography illustrates, Samuel Langhorne Clemens was not one to sugarcoat his views about organized religion.

Sprinkled among his novels, essays, speeches and personal memoirs are numerous remarks by Clemens — better known by his pen name of Mark Twain — that would be distressing to devout Christians. In fact, Twain quotes are often featured on atheistic websites.

Even so, Twain is among the most celebrated United States authors of all time, as well as arguably the most famous person ever connected to Elmira, N.Y. He maintained a summer residence there for two decades following his 1870 marriage to Elmira’s Olivia Langdon, penning some of his most famous works in Chemung County. Twain is buried there alongside his wife and children at Woodlawn Cemetery.

Twain had been in the news quite a bit during 2010. Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California Press) went on sale this past fall, per his instruction not to release such a work before the 100th anniversary of his death. That milestone occurred last April 21 followed by his 175th birthday on Nov. 30; both anniversaries have sparked several local celebrations. In addition, the autobiography has received substantial national media coverage and quickly become a best-seller.

Should Catholics and other Christians share in civic pride and widespread admiration for Twain? One person who believes so is Anthony Pucci, who leads the English department at Elmira Notre Dame High School. Pucci said he feels Twain’s biggest beef with Christianity was not about its core teachings, but with humans’ failure to practice what they preach.

Indeed, Twain seemed at his angriest when people misused religion to justify violence, personal gain, and mistreatment of the poor and oppressed. Consider these remarks:

 "If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be — a Christian," from Mark Twain’s Notebook

Pucci also noted Twain’s depiction of religious hypocrisy in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which the feuding Grangerford and Shepherdson families attend church services and then go right back to engaging in bloodshedp>

 "They come out of church but don’t act very Christian," Pucci remarked. "That’s the basis of Huck’s repudiation of religion — you’re not a better Christian because of your religion."

Among Twain’s many controversial stances on religion, he did not believe in the existence of heaven and hell, the immortality of the soul nor the divinity of Jesus Christ. He was highly skeptical of the Bible’s contents, and although he professed belief in God, he frequently questioned God’s motives. Representative of his views are such novels as The Mysterious Stranger, in which conventional religion is attacked, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which takes Catholicism to task.

Nonetheless, Pucci said he teaches Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as "a great book to illustrate a Christian message, regardless of what Twain might have written about organized religion" because Huck stands up to corruption, opting to protect Jim the slave even if it means in his mind that he might be damned to hell.

"There’s a dark side of Twain," Pucci acknowledged. "But in teaching the book, you don’t have to get into that with the kids. You just teach the book itself."

On the other hand, Twain scholar Michael Kiskis said an aunt of his who was a woman religious refused to read A Connecticut Yankee because she knew it contained disparaging remarks about the Catholic faith. It’s doubtful, then, that the aunt would have enjoyed Twain’s current autobiography or two additional volumes that have yet to be released. According to Kiskis, these works contain Twain’s most cutting remarks yet known on the subject of religion. A large part of this commentary is aimed at God himself, especially a running complaint that God has the power to alleviate human suffering and elects not to do so, Kiskis said.

"The notion of compassion is one (Twain) wants to believe in, and the problem he has is sometimes the works of God are not entirely compassionate, not up front — why do bad things happen to good people?" said Kiskis, who edited Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography: The Chapters of the North American Review (1990, University of Wisconsin Press), an anthology of 25 Twain writings that were first published in 1906 and 1907.

Kiskis observed that Twain knew his harshest views on religion might taint his image; thus he didn’t want them to become public in his own lifetime.

"Twain didn’t want his debate with, or interrogation of, God to diminish his sales," said Kiskis, who teaches at Elmira College, home of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, which includes many Twain-related exhibits and artifacts.

Based on the Autobiography of Mark Twain‘s best-seller status, there seems little cause for concern about Twain’s marketability 100 years after his death. In addition to his iconic status as a humorist, Kiskis and Pucci said Twain remains popular in American literary culture thanks to a constant quest for honesty and justice in his religious, political and social commentary. In fact, through Twain’s defense of the underprivileged, "Clemens is reinforcing the beatitudes in some ways," Kiskis observed.

His writings nothwistanding, several aspects of Twain’s life actually paint a picture of a religious man. Twain makes frequent uncritical references in his memoirs to his Presbyterian upbringing; his funeral was in a Presbyterian church (the Brick Church in New York City); and he counted several clergy among his close friends. In addition, Twain considered his best work to be Joan of Arc, a reverential biographical account of a Catholic saint who exhibited all the human ideals Twain found so lacking in the rest of mankind.

Regarding Twain’s issues with God, Kiskis and Pucci said the author’s comments don’t resemble those of an atheist.

"Historically, people have been prone to categorizing (Twain’s) skepticism as disbelief," Kiskis said. "Many Twain scholars are still convinced that his antipathy for established religion somehow negates a potential for a belief in God. I thought that way, too. Now, though, I am more and more convinced that he does believe."

Kiskis owes his altered viewpoint in part to the perspective that "if you don’t believe in God, you don’t argue with God."

Meanwhile, Pucci added that he believes Twain’s overall motive was to improve the state of Christianity.

"The kinds of things you say about organized religion and are critical, does not mean you don’t have beliefs," Pucci remarked. "If he didn’t really have in his heart the improvement of man or the potential for the betterment of man, he wouldn’t write at all. If some of it is harsh, it’s for the purpose of making you look at yourself. If he was really cynical he wouldn’t bother writing. Anyone who is a serious writer is committed to the betterment of humanity."

Copyright © 2024 Rochester Catholic Press Association, Inc. All rights reserved. Linking is encouraged, but republishing or redistributing, including by framing or similar means, without the publisher's prior written permission is prohibited.

Choose from news (Monday), leisure (Thursday) or worship (Saturday) — or get all three!

No, Thanks

Catholic Courier Newsletters