Mark Twain Tries-Again-to Become a Christian

Joel Welty

I’m Mark Twain. Those of you who may have heard of me probably know that I was buried in 1910, and not prematurely. I can’t blame them; I was dead.

You may be wondering why this old man has come back to life. Oh, I know I’m supposed to wait until Jesus’s second coming. But some of us have been waiting two thousand years and are getting fretful. I admit I got a bit twitchy myself, thinking about all the times in my life when I failed to make the grade as a Christian. Would I, in fact, be one of the ones called up in all the dust and the rushing crowds and the shouting and weeping? Or would I be among that sorry lot left behind as Jesus’s parade moved up into heaven without me?

Thinking over my misspent life, I figured I’d better see if I could get my case re-adjudicated and worm my way into Jesus’s procession. Besides, my dear wife, Livy, insisted I try again to become a Christian. I’d do anything to please her, even if it means becoming a Christian at last.

 

I began my years on the sinful path to hell as a young child. I made friends with a boy named Jim. Don’t know if he had a last name. Never asked. Together, we tramped through the woods and swam in the Mississippi River. Jim and I loved stories and told each other the grandest lies. We shared sandwiches on an island and managed to get back to our homes just before daybreak. You may not think, here in the twenty-first century, that this was particularly deserving of an eternity spent sizzling in hell, but in the nineteenth century it was. I’ll explain it so you can get a firm grasp on the nature of my sinful ways.

Jim was black, a slave, owned by Mr. Henning, the superintendent of the Sunday school to which I was sentenced. Jim was not permitted to go to school, lucky fellow. And he was forbidden to learn reading and writing, because there was no telling what fool ideas he might pick up if he did. Mr. Henning was a virtuous master and protected Jim against such mischief.

It hurts me to confess this, but I sneaked books out of the house to share with Jim. We laboriously crept through those books page by page, puzzling out words. Oh, I knew well enough I was breaking Missouri law and committing a sin of awesome dimensions. That was part of the appeal for a nine-year-old sinner. Every clergyman in Hannibal would tell you, if you asked, that enslaving a Negro was to confer upon him or her the blessings of civilization, of Christianity, of eternal life. The loss of freedom and heavy lifelong labor meant little when counted against such profit.

The war came. In my life, there was only one war deserving that awesome designation—it was so extravagantly bloody, so impressively expensive, so thoroughly destructive. Always immoderate in our practice of murder, we Americans were enthusiastically so when confronting one another. So, the war came the way tornadoes, floods, and plagues come—without restraint. In spite of the scriptural urgings of Hannibal clergymen, I was reluctant to join the battle. I went west.

Mining towns in the West were rough, impolite places, with thieving, cheating, and other recreations. I decided they were no place for a Presbyterian, so I quit being one, adding one more sin to my private list. Later, contrary to the opinions of my betters in Hannibal, I discovered God was on the side of the North. Northern theology was more persuasive than Southern. It was prudent of God to be on the side of the more numerous, better-armed infantry, for reasons best known only to himself.

Being averse to real work, I soon began to write to earn an occasional dollar. I was lucky enough to be hired by a newspaper to accompany a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. Such a sanctified crusade would surely help absolve me of my childhood sins. I found that the Holy Land was not the happy, peaceful, loving environment I expected of a place that blossomed with such fervent religion. Now, in the twenty-first century, the residents have had another hundred years to enable the full effects of religion to flower. I must buy a newspaper to check this out. Palestine must surely be the one place in the world filled with goodwill, overflowing with tenderness among all and mutual understanding and admiration for each other’s views. Well, perhaps I can just assume that is so without bothering about getting the details.

 

When the trip to the Holy Land failed to help me make the grade into Christianity, I dropped the whole project as a hopeless goal. But then I met and married Olivia Langdon, my dearest Livy. How can I explain what Livy means to me? We loved each other without reservation. But that doesn’t say the half of it. We depended on each other for everything and focused our lives upon each other.

Livy made me read the Bible, but unfortunately that just created more doubt. I had expected that Christianity would approve of the way Livy’s love had resurrected my soul. I expected Christianity would support my love. Wrong! In reading Jesus’s words, I realized that once again I had failed a religious test. Matthew 10:34–37 reported Jesus’s words about family: “I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. . . .”

I was stunned. Love that dead fanatic more than I loved my Livy? More than I loved my parents? More than I loved my very own progeny? How could that man require this of me? Once again, Christianity demanded more of me than I could give. I loved no one more than my family.

I searched the Bible further, hopefully. What was Jesus’s attitude toward his own family? I was aghast to discover Matthew’s report (Matt. 12: 46–50): “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.” How rude! Why didn’t he just say he would be with them when he finished work?

I wasn’t satisfied and searched for more. Perhaps later on Jesus would show love for his family? No! Matthew went on (Matt. 19:28–29): “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.”

So, Jesus wanted me to neglect my parents, desert my home and wife, and abandon my children. He promised me a hundredfold payoff if I did, a pretty usurious rate. Exactly what would I get in return? A hundred parents? A hundred wives? A hundred children? The thought is exhausting. I was satisfied with the parents, wife, and children I had already, thank you. And I hoped to be with them in heaven.

But searching further, I found that no one is married in heaven. As Luke reports Jesus’s words (Luke 20:34, 35): “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

I preferred Livy over heaven any time. What kind of place is this Jesus’s heaven, lacking this most important aspect of life? Why is Jesus so hostile toward marriage and family?

But there is, Jesus says, a simple, sure path to heaven, if that’s what one wants. His exact words are reported by Matthew (Matt. 19:12): “. . . There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” Good grief! He suggests a man take a razor to his own testicles and slice them off to be sure of being accepted into heaven. Why does castration guarantee admission? But I notice that Jesus did not do this to himself. It was a case of do as I say, not as I do.

All this bizarre advice about sexual matters made me lose my calm. I searched through Paul’s letters to see if somehow Jesus’s words have been reinterpreted, somehow softened, so a marriage and a family like mine could be tolerated. Alas, no. Paul said, in Corinthians 7:8–9: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.”

Better to marry than burn? Good to abide single, as Paul did? Since he had not married, he could not appreciate what marriage can do for a real human. He seemed to think marriage was good for nothing but to scratch one’s sexual itch. That is not all there is to marriage. Marriage offers so much more than sex, as good as that is. Some compare marriage to friendship, but there is no friendship that can carry the freight that marriage does. Marriage is an intimate companionship. It is our comprehension of another’s mind, our delight in serving another person who delights in serving you. Marriage is growth and becoming and blooming and fulfilling yourself in fulfilling your partner’s development. Marriage is life. Paul missed the whole point of marriage. Paul was ignorant of life.

Augustine was just as bad. He reports that when he first reached puberty and found himself attracted to the female half of our species, he did not glory in his growth to maturity. He did not take pride that he was blossoming into manhood. He did not look forward to achieving a man’s full relationship with a lifetime partner. No, he whined about his “concupiscence”—what a word!—and he felt ashamed at becoming mature. He yearned to return to that state of childhood in which one feels no ripened sexual longings with a supernatural parent who would relieve him of all necessity for decision making or for any of the responsibilities of the prime of life. Augustine took a mistress for a while and had a child with her. Instead of building a caring, tenderly affectionate, and appreciative life with her, he dumped her and took her child away from her. This is a Christian saint? Augustine’s ideal of Christian life seems to have been the life of a six-year-old lad—irresponsible and immature. Pitiful.

 

Livy wants me to become a Christian, and I look at the Christian ideal: you must be what they call “innocent,” by which they mean ignorant of what life is all about. You must be dedicated to God or you make no decisions yourself but instead merely find out what God intends for you—or, at least, what those who claim to speak for God say he intends for you. You must avoid love for another adult person and instead love someone who died two thousand years ago and wait for his return. You must avoid sex, unless you just can’t help yourself.

This enforced immaturity, this “gift” of celibacy, has produced some strange perversions in those who claim to practice it. Priests and nuns sworn to celibacy in a solemn covenant with their god have, in fact, sex partners. Some of these priestly sex partners are willing adults and they consent gladly. Okay. But marriage would satisfy better than these mere bounces in the hay.

What bothers me—No!—what distresses me, infuriates me, enrages me beyond endurance are those self-congratulating “celibates” who force children of the ages of fourteen, thirteen, twelve, and even younger into involuntary servitude as their sex slaves. They keep these children handy and docile by threatening them with hellfire in order to rape them repeatedly whenever they find they have an odd moment to spare. Then they tell these children they must not tell anyone what is being done to them by their priests or ministers—not even their parents—lest these raped children commit the sin of spreading rumors.

These clergymen spend a great deal of time telling the rest of us that an intimate knowledge of God guarantees a moral life, and they accuse me that my denial of such a god leads me inevitably to immoral behavior. I have not yet been able to reconcile this view with the widespread sex-crimes of so many godly priests. I’ll work on this question next summer, when I don’t have anything else to do anyway.

At any rate, I have tried, again, to become a Christian, as Livy required of me. I see I failed to make the grade. Again.

Oh, Livy, Livy, why did you ask me to be a Christian? We love each other; we love our children, and they love us. We respect our neighbors in this world, and they respect us. Mostly. Isn’t that enough?

Joel Welty

Joel Welty is president of the Great Lakes Humanist Society.


I’m Mark Twain. Those of you who may have heard of me probably know that I was buried in 1910, and not prematurely. I can’t blame them; I was dead. You may be wondering why this old man has come back to life. Oh, I know I’m supposed to wait until Jesus’s second coming. But …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.