“Exciting the Laughter of God’s Creatures”—Remembering Mark Twain’s Spirituality

By Dwayne Eutsey

Although Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of Samuel Clemens’s death, any reports of his alter ego Mark Twain’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

In fact, Twain remains as well-known today as he was a century ago.

In January, Easton Middle School performed a popular musical adaptation of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that had many of us humming sunny tunes about life on the Mississippi while shoveling snow here on the Eastern Shore. A couple years ago, Twain’s brooding image adorned the cover of Time magazine beside the somewhat ominous headline, “The Dangerous Mind of Mark Twain.”

That dichotomy between the whimsical and cantankerous aspects of Twain’s legacy captures well how we’ve come to understand his enduring iconic presence in our culture. As with most icons, however, there are usually many complex ambiguities coursing like murky river currents beneath the familiar façade we think we know.

Twain’s attitudes on race, for example, remain a matter of debate and have even led some to call for banning Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from schools because of its alleged racism. In terms of his religious beliefs, many people also assume Twain was an embittered atheist who, especially late in life, took devilish delight in mocking God and ridiculing Christianity.

In reading some of Twain’s writings at face value, it’s easy to see where these assumptions might come from. Huckleberry Finn uses the derogatory “N-word” well over 200 times while many of Twain’s later writings (unpublished until after he died) often contain vitriolic attacks on what he called the “sham” of religion.

However, when understood within the context of Twain’s lifelong involvement with the liberal religious movements of his time, both instances can take on a different meaning. Twain once admitted that his only genuine ambition in life (aside from being a riverboat pilot) was to be a preacher of the Gospel. However, he was never able to stomach the silly superstitions and stale orthodoxies he saw in most institutional religion.

In this regard, Twain was part of a large theological movement during the 19th century attempting to dig deeply beneath centuries of dead dogma to revive a direct, personal, and living experience with the divine. This movement was in harmony with what Twain’s daughter Clara called his “natural inclination…toward more poetic and mystic subjects.”

At any rate, this inclination found a home with religious liberalism. When he was younger, Twain experienced his uncle’s Universalism, a liberal Christian movement that believed God’s love would ultimately welcome everyone into heaven (regardless of their race or belief). He was also friends with a broad range of literary- and liberal-minded ministers throughout his life, including Unitarians (known at the time as liberal Christians), mainline ministers like his close friend Joseph Twichell (a Congregationalist minister), and freethinkers like the transcendentalist Moncure Conway.

Twain’s views on God and religion are complex and quite unorthodox, but I think he was anything but an atheist. Like Job in the Bible, he criticized what he called “God’s inhumanity to man,” but most often he attacked how we tend to cram the vast cosmic Deity into such narrow and self-serving religious belief.

There are numerous examples I can cite, but for the purposes of this column I’ll use his satire “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven”, which he worked on for 40 years. In it, Twain imagines a Universalist heaven in which all life throughout the universe (including creatures from other worlds and people of all faiths from here on earth) is welcome.

He also pokes fun at the silly ideas people have of floating around on clouds and playing harps for eternity, pointing out that God’s true heaven is far beyond what our feeble minds can possibly imagine. “When the Deity builds a heaven,” Twain writes, “it is built right, and on a liberal plan.”

What about Twain’s supposed racism? Despite coming from a Southern family that owned a pair of slaves, there’s ample evidence that Twain was very progressive in his racial views. In fact, after the Civil War he paid the tuition of Warren McGuinn, one of the first black students to attend Yale law school. In a letter to the dean of Yale, Twain wrote, “We have ground the manhood out of (African American men), and the shame is ours, not theirs, and we should pay for it.”

With Twain’s financial assistance, McGuinn graduated from Yale and, as a lawyer in Baltimore, went on to serve on the Baltimore City Council, fought against racial segregation, and advocated for women’s rights. He also mentored another young black lawyer who would go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall, who called McGuinn “one of the greatest lawyers who ever lived.”

Seen in this light, Huckleberry Finn is actually Twain’s critique of slavery’s dehumanizing impact on both blacks and whites. In fact, away from the rigid racial apartheid of the South, Huck and the runaway slave Jim actually begin to recognize and value each other’s humanity as they solemnly drift down the big still Mississippi River on a raft, laying on their backs together and looking up at the stars.

Twain illustrates this bond in theological terms when Huck debates whether to turn Jim in as a runaway slave. Although Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodor Parker preached that turning in an escaped slave was akin to Judas betraying Jesus, Huck’s religious upbringing taught him that God sanctioned slavery and that aiding a runaway slave would result in eternal damnation.

When Huck prays for guidance, his religious conditioning initially clears his conscience and he decides to do the socially “right thing” and turn Jim in. However, as he remembers the genuine communion they shared on the raft together, Huck realizes he can’t betray his friend.

“All right, then,” he decides, “I’ll go to hell.”

 This is no flippant decision for Huck. He literally believes he will go to hell for helping Jim. However, that is only what his flawed, human religion has taught him. God’s real answer to Huck’s prayer reminds him of the nurturing friendship he has developed Jim, which ironically emboldens Huck to do the truly Christian thing and sacrifice himself for his friend.

 As we commemorate the centennial of Samuel Clemens’s death, then, I hope these examples from Mark Twain’s enduring literary sermons (and that is what he considered many of his writings) will also inspire you to read them and experience how they can still excite “the laughter of God’s creatures”, as Twain called the purpose of his vocation as a humorist.

I believe you’ll find that through this holy laughter, Twain’s writings live on and still have much to teach and to preach even after all this time. 

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