Mark Twain on ‘Bible Teaching and Religious Practice’

Mark Twain on ‘Bible Teaching and Religious Practice’ October 8, 2012

“When a Christian rises against a rooted wrong at all,
he is usually an illegitimate Christian,
member of some despised and bastard sect.”
Mark Twain

Gryphen points us toward a fantastic essay from Mark Twain that I’d not encountered before: “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice.”

This apparently comes from Europe and Elsewhere and A Pen Warmed Up in Hell — two bits of Twain I haven’t yet enjoyed.

I realize that Mark Twain is generally regarded as a critic and foe of both “Bible Teaching” and “Religious Practice” — subjects that, particularly late in his life, made him so grumpy that he almost seems to lose the twinkle in his eye. But Twain isn’t just lobbing spitballs here. This essay seems intended as constructive criticism for Christian Bible-readers, and I think it offers some constructive wisdom for those of us who fit that description.

Yes, the essay is full of barbs and plenty of ferocious, sardonic wit. But then Twain is discussing matters such as Sir John Hawkins, founder of the British slave trade — a devout Christian fellow who named his 700-ton slaver The Jesus.

Jesus — nothing less than Mark Twain’s acid pen seems appropriate in response to facts like that.

The entire essay is short, so you should read the whole thing, but here’s a representative taste:

During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.

Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch — the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything. At Salem, the parson clung pathetically to his witch text after the laity had abandoned it in remorse and tears for the crimes and cruelties it has persuaded them to do. The parson wanted more blood, more shame, more brutalities; it was the unconsecrated laity that stayed his hand. In Scotland the parson killed the witch after the magistrate had pronounced her innocent; and when the merciful legislature proposed to sweep the hideous laws against witches from the statute book, it was the parson who came imploring, with tears and imprecations, that they be suffered to stand.

There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.


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  • Justin

    Yes. Agreed.

  • EAH

    If you ever visit Cape Coast, Ghana, and tour the slave castle there, you will first be taken to the small, stifling, nearly lightless, underground rooms that held three hundred African men and women at a time, waiting their turns to be taken aboard English ships and sold as slaves. The guide will tell you how they were imprisoned there for days or weeks on end, with little food and water and no bathroom facilities, not even a hole in the floor.

    When you come up again into the courtyard, the guide will point over your shoulder to the large, light, airy room above the dungeon yiu’ve just come from. “That was the Anglican church,” he’ll say.

  • I ran into this recently doing some historical research.  William Penn was forced to preside in judgment over a woman accused of witchcraft, from the Pennsylvania Swedish settlements now under British control in 1683, one Margaret Matson. That the pacifist Quaker was to pronounce life and death over the accused because of the Witch Statute made law by James I of King James Version of the bible fame. 

    That Penn or the jury that is returned with a verdict of guilty for her “having the common fame of a which, but not guilty in manner and forme as shee stands indicted.” In other words, she’s got a bad rep in the neighborhood but so what, what else is new?

    Hanging onto outdated laws clinging to outdated thinking can cause a lot of needless pain.

  • Joshua

    The Hawkins coat of arms in the Wikipedia link does not match Twain’s description of Hawkin’s device. Am I right that a device is the same thing as a coat of arms? Or what is it?

  • More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.

    And now an Arkansas legislator wants to put a death penalty for “rebellious children” back into the law books.

  • Hexep

    Well, there’s a proper monster of a man.

  • Jessica_R

    You know, this actually makes me feel better about myself. I’m not much of a kids person, and my job means having to deal with them at their whiny, screamy, tantrum throwing worst. But as much as I wish I had a mute button for people, even I think the DEATH PENALTY is a bit much. Good Christ. 

  • I was just going to post about that.  Horrifying that such a man is considered fit for public office.

  • Fusina

     I do like children, and even I would like a mute button at times (although I have been accused of being able to totally tune the noise they make out), but I think it is rather disingenous that he would assume that all parents would be against the death penalty for their own children. I’ve read far too many stories about how a parent killed their child for whatever reason–often due to mental illness on the part of the parent–

  • EllieMurasaki

    Often the parent is perfectly sane and the child has a physical or mental disability or a mental illness or is non-neurotypical. And the jury often, appallingly, agrees that the child was a burden on the parent that the parent had every reason to remove.

  • Kiba

    Seriously, stop the world I really, really want to get off. What the holy hell is wrong with these people? We have one asshole that wants to take kids from poor “illegitimate” families then have the parents killed (that’ll keep those shiftless people off the government tit) and now we have this bastard wanting the death penalty for “rebellious” children because that will teach them to respect their parents? 

    Fear does not equal respect and neither does it equal love. If I’m afraid of you I can guarantee that I neither respect, nor love you. Also, death penalty as deterrent hasn’t exactly worked for violent crime has it?   

  • PorlockJunior

    On witchcraft, here is a civilized moment from about the time of Salem. It has a couple of other points to recommend it, too: It’s from the part of “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” that no one ever reads; and it’s one of the two good things I know about Louis XIV.

    BTW, EPR&tMoC is worth reading through, except IIRC for the second chapter; YMMV. We all love mistaking a rare tulip bulb for an onion, and “an enterprise of great profit, but no one to know what it is”, and “every fool aspired to be a knave”, which is one of my favorarite epigrams of all. But the book can tell you a lot sbout witchcraft and Crusades and other things worth knowing an generally unkown.

    So, late in the 17th century, the authorities in Normanday caught a couple of witches and wrote  requesting His Majesty to issue a death warrant. The King declined it. They wrote back, explaining in detail how important it was to keep the witches under control. Louis “l’État” XIV wrote back explaining in detail what a load of antiquated BS this witchcraft stuff was. Most people don’t really know what a forward-minded guy he was, when he wasn’t hounding the Huguenots and such.

  • I’ve got my copy of the essay in Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race.  A damned fine collection of his work, indeed.  Highly recommended.  There’s another particularly relevant one in there, “Slave Catching from the Slave’s Point of View”, although at that time the slaves in question were Polynesian.

  • JayemGriffin

    Yes, a “device” and a “coat of arms” are the same thing, although from the way Twain uses the term, I’m guessing he’s actually referring to a badge. Individuals rarely had any choice in their arms, since they were typically inherited, but they would sometimes choose an alternative shield or badge to represent them as well. (Think Lancaster and York and their respective roses; their actual armorials were quite similar.)

  • Patrick Spens

     It looks like the Hawkins’ changed their coat of arms sometime after slavery fell out of fashion.

    Here is a sketch of the original coat. It inclueds most of the elements of the new one (Lion, clam, waves etc.) but also has a bound slave on the top.

  •  The coat of arms is part of what is known as an armorial device, which consists of the shield, crest, supporters and motto. Wikipedia shows the shield part in Hawkins’ entry, but the crest is as Twain described (as shown at Patrick Spens’ link)

  • No stranger has ever put a razorblade or poison in an apple over Halloween. Parents have, and not because of insanity. One man put a razor in an apple to murder his child for the insurance money. We like to believe that most people who murder their children have a reason we can understand and see ourselves possibly pushed to do. But it’s not so. 

    It’s hardly ever about mental illness or disability. Sane parents (almost always fathers) rape their physically and mentally (until they were raped) normal children all the time. It’s about power, and about what society will let a certain type of person get away with. Men can get away with an awful lot, and they can particularly get away with a lot toward women in their families, and they can most of all get away with hurting their female children as much as they please, especially if they’re smart about where the bruises show. 

    We hear an awful lot about the women who murder their children, but not very much about the fathers who murder their children. And we hear a lot about strangers who rape children, but virtually nothing about family members who do. Because dog bites man is not news.

  • Matri

    One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.

  • LoneWolf343

     To be fair, it is a mute button, just one you could never unmute.

  • Carstonio

    Horrifying enough when parents murder their children, but constructing an argument as to why this is supposed to be an appropriate punishment…that’s an evil that I find even more difficult to describe or comprehend.

    I once had a copy of Art Linkletter’s “Kids Sure Rite Funny,” and one of the school papers quoted had this: “Capital punishment should not be used in the training of little children.”

  • AnonaMiss

    We hear an awful lot about the women who murder their children, but not very much about the fathers who murder their children.

    They need to do way instain fahder, who kill thier babbies, because these babby can’t frigth back?


  • Launcifer

    You know you’ve hit a new low when, on pondering these weighty matters, your thoughts keep getting interrupted by a voice at the back, shouting, “Huh, Mark Twain looks suspiciously aware that his photo is missing a caption”.

    So, er, go my subconscious, I guess.

  • redsixwing

     Can’t…. unsee.

  • VMink

    Mark Twain remains un-meme’d, and he wants to keep it that way.

    Srsly.  Don’t torque the Twain.

    ( :-) )

  • The_L1985

     …I admit it, I laughed.

  • Alexander Wolfe

    What an incredible read. If only he were still around today.

  • P J Evans

    (Think Lancaster and York and their respective roses; their actual armorials were quite similar.)

    Not a surprise, given that they were fairly closely related (that was why they were fighting, after all).