In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), a student recites 3,000 Bible verses before suffering a breakdown and becoming “little better than an idiot from that day forth” (1980, p. 60). In Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a wounded man gasps for breath and an onlooker burdens him by placing a Bible on his chest: “He made about a dozen long gasps, his breast lifting the Bible up when he drawed in his breath, and letting it down again when he breathed it out—and after that he laid still; he was dead” (2003, p. 186). Striking scenes from Mark Twain’s two most important works, these passages associate the Bible, however comically, with foolish, even dangerous, behavior. It is noteworthy, too, that when both books were banned from a Brooklyn library, Twain defended them by declaring them cleaner than an unexpurgated Bible (Paine, 1912, Vol. 4, p. 1281).

Both a target and a tool of satire, the Bible in Twain’s work, like religion more generally, provided a powerful antagonist that shaped his fiction and nonfiction. Twain drew themes, characters, plots, literary forms, and style from the Bible. The Bible was the most important literary influence on Mark Twain.

Criticisms of the Bible.

The Bible served as a primary guidebook for the Quaker City trip Twain recounts in The Innocents Abroad (1869). Twain records in the first chapter that passengers were advised to bring a Bible on board, and Twain purchased in Constantinople the copy that is now in the collection of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas. This Bible is replete with marginalia showing what Fulton in The Reverend Mark Twain refers to as a “biblical itinerary” for Twain’s peregrinations in the Holy Land; in that sense, the biblical texts also provided an outline for the book that resulted from the trip (2006b, p. 6).

Nevertheless, Twain burlesqued the Bible mercilessly in The Innocents Abroad. Twain vowed in his preface to record his impressions “with his own eyes,” a method that undermined biblical accounts. “The very cornerstone of Twain’s treatment of the Holy Land was irreverence,” Allison Ensor contends, citing the extreme example of cattle using Lot’s wife as a salt lick (1969, p. 17). The book’s humor comes from the disjuncture between the biblical account and what Twain experienced: he compares “the street which is called Straight” to a corkscrew, asserts that “the combined monarchies of the thirty ‘kings’ destroyed by Joshua … only covered an area about equal to four of our counties of ordinary size,” and scoffs at the Sea of Galilee as a mere “pool” compared to Lake Tahoe (Twain, 1869, pp. 462, 486, 507).

In later years, Twain’s criticisms of the Bible became more direct and serious. One example is “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice,” a work likely written in 1890. It is in this work that Twain memorably likened the Bible to a pharmacopeia, the contents of which are static while “the medical practice changes” (1973a, p. 71). The outdated materia medica included passages discussing hell, damnation, slavery, and witchcraft.

One extensive 1898 notebook entry has received a great deal of attention. In this passage, written less than two years after his daughter Susy’s death, Twain contrasts the Bible with God’s “real Bible … The Bible of Nature” (1935, p. 362). “Burn the spurious one,” Twain exhorted, and one could gain a more realistic view of God (1935, p. 362). In another discussion, he again contrasted the God of the Bible with the God of nature. “To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a Being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact, and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes” (Paine, 1912, Vol. 2, p. 412). Sherwood Cummings credits such statements to Twain’s reading of—and “conversion” by—the “deist’s bible,” Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1988, p. 21).

One can discern this strain, too, in Twain’s many comments on the inconsistency of the biblical God as compared to the mechanistic and changeless God of nature or deism. “God, so atrocious in the Old Testament, so attractive in the New—the Jekyll and Hyde of sacred romance,” Twain wrote in his notebook (1935, p. 392). Considered as a depiction of God, the Bible was, in Twain’s pungent phrase, “the most damnatory biography that ever found its way into print” (Paine, 1912, Vol. 4, p. 1354).

Despite such criticisms, Twain exploited biblical authority for much of his social criticism. Moreover, John Q. Hays has detailed how Twain tried to fashion “his personal Bible” by ignoring some passages and accepting others (1989, p. 107). For Hays, Twain is a “mirror of American eclecticism,” one might even say pragmatism. Hays discusses Twain’s comments on the Bible in What Is Man? (1906), where the author praised the modern church for selectively embracing the Bible. Twain referred to What Is Man? as his “new gospel,” but it bore a title drawn from the more ancient Bible, illustrating the dynamic contribution of the book to his creativity.

Criticism of Biblical Interpretation.

Twain depicts biblical interpretation as difficult, often self-serving, and occasionally disrespectful to God and the Bible. In “The Captain’s Story” (1877), he ridicules modern attempts to apply “natural laws to the interpretation of miracles” (p. 683). The title character explains Isaiah’s calling down fire from heaven as involving a match and barrels of petroleum. “There ain’t a thing in the Bible but what is true,” the captain concludes. “All you want is to go prayerfully to work and cipher out how’t was done” (p. 687).

One sees in other works Twain’s opposition to literal interpretations of the Bible, the “southern evangelical mind” he experienced during his formative years in Missouri, as Lloyd A. Hunter observes (1977, p. 252). A good example is Twain’s book review of George Warder’s The Cities of the Sun (1901). Warder’s literal interpretation of Revelation made the celestial city seem like an upscale housing development, and Twain depicts him as a corrupt real estate developer. Twain castigates John D. Rockefeller Jr. in “Mr. Rockefeller’s Bible Class” (1906) for “theological gymnastics” in his self-serving interpretation of Christ telling the rich man to give away his possessions (1940, p. 85). In Christian Science (1907), he attacks Mary Baker Eddy for perverting scripture for her own ends, such as identifying herself as the “woman clothed with the sun” referred to in Revelation 12:1 (p. 226). While Twain himself burlesqued the Bible frequently, he did not do so with the self-serving vigor he saw in others. Fulton contends in “Mark Twain’s New Jerusalem” that “Twain seems to suggest that a respectful attitude toward the mystery of the book is in order, rather than an energetic interpretive onslaught” (2006a, p. 191).

Biblical Allusions and Patterns.

In his important, unpublished dissertation “Mark Twain and the Bible: An Inductive Study” (1971), Earl Allen Reimer includes a useful concordance with 3,000 biblical quotations and allusions. Twain refers explicitly to 24 of 39 books in the Old Testament and 20 of 27 books in the New Testament. As Reimer himself notes, however, the list of works he analyzed was incomplete, so even these figures are conservative (1971, p. 152).

The most important figure in the Bible for Twain was Adam, whose story Twain foregrounded in many works, including “On Adam” (1883), “Why a Statue of Liberty When We Have Adam?” (1883), “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” (1893), “Adam’s Soliloquy” (1905), “Eve’s Diary” (1905), and “Eve Speaks” (1905). Bush sees Twain as sharing his age’s disillusionment with the Bible as a source of meaning but also notes the irony that “[t]he sustained attacks upon biblical belief accelerated the spiritual crisis that coincided with Mark Twain’s near obsession with the biblical Adam” (2007, p. 206). Indeed, Stanley Brodwin convincingly identifies Adam as “a controlling force in shaping his view of humanity and, therefore, much of his creative work” (1976, p. 168). Equally compelling is Ensor’s view that Twain used Eden as the lens through which to view the lost world of his childhood and the loss of his own happy home in Hartford (1969, p. 43).

Fulton (1997) sees the figure of Christ as central to Twain’s conception of the artist, noting the allusive structure in works as diverse as “Sociable Jimmy” (1874), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and The American Claimant (1892). According to Minnie Brashear, “Satan was, without doubt, the Biblical character that appealed most strongly to his imagination” (1934, p. 208). While some might argue in favor of Adam or Christ, Satan figures in a number of works, most notably in the Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1897–1908) and as the narrator of “Letters from the Earth” (1909), a work in which he lambastes the uncritical acceptance of the Bible as ludicrous and chronicles abuses of the Bible in human history.

Twain’s Biblical Style.

The bookish writer Mark Twain made more references to the Bible than to any other book, but it was more than the content of the Bible that influenced Twain. Twain praised the elegance of the biblical style in the King James translation of the Bible. In Chapter 16 of Roughing It, Twain draws a comparison between the “Mormon Bible,” which he derides as “chloroform in print” and “the quaint, old-fashioned sound and structure of our King James’s translation of the Scriptures” (1993, p. 107). The possessive pronoun is of great significance in Twain’s comment, for it highlights his sense of ownership over the KJV and suggests that, as a writer, he understood its power as both sourcebook for allusions and as a stylistic model.

In Mark Twain as a Literary Artist (1950), Gladys Carmen Bellamy charts the stylistic influences of the Bible on Twain, including such elements as biblical language, alliteration, parallelism, repetition, and “cadenced prose arising from balanced rhythms with caesurae arranged in a way suggestive of the King James Bible” (pp. 84, 256). One purpose of this, Bellamy argues, is to create a bond with the reader that is based on shared knowledge, for Twain employs the biblical style “with an ease which seems to take the reader’s knowledge of the Bible absolutely for granted” (p. 130).

Bellamy also notes the striking clash of diction when Twain employs “biblical language” along with “colloquial phraseology” (p. 129). This contrast creates the opportunity for much humor in Twain, with the incongruity between the elevated biblical language and the colloquial. The contrast between high and low in terms of style, language, and plot also emerges in Twain’s burlesque life of Christ, “The Second Advent” (1881), where he directly parodies language from Matthew (see Fulton, 2006b, pp. 87–104).

Perhaps one of the most intriguing of Twain’s early responses to the Bible was his appreciation in Chapter 47 of The Innocents Abroad: “It is hard to make a choice of the most beautiful passage in a book which is so gemmed with beautiful passages as the Bible; but it is certain that not many things within its lids may take rank above the exquisite story of Joseph. Who taught those ancient writers their simplicity of language, their felicity of expression, their pathos, and above all, their faculty of sinking themselves entirely out of sight of the reader and making the narrative stand out alone and seem to tell itself?” (1869, p. 492). Perhaps one sees in this passage the growing pains of a writer who had by 1869 made the name Mark Twain synonymous with the writer as jokester and jackass. In The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s irreverence is very much present, and delightfully so, but his attitudes toward the literary craftsmanship of the Bible anticipate his greatest work, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where Twain achieved that ideal of sinking “entirely out of sight,” at least in most parts of the text. It was an ideal that he would achieve rarely, though the tension between the presence and absence of the author in the text was a productive one in works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), where the narrator frequently fades into the background; “A True Story” (1874), where “Misto C” yields narratorial control to a character; and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), where Twain occasionally uses his narrator Hank Morgan as a mouthpiece for his own opinions.

Twain and Biblical Prophecy.

Twain’s friend and fellow writer William Dean Howells commented on the writer’s use of prophecy, and this prophetic stance was another important element Twain gleaned from the Bible. In a variety of works spanning his career, Twain adopted the mantle of the prophet in order to criticize contemporary society. Fulton suggests in The Reverend Mark Twain that the author’s “persona as a prophet, sometimes comic and often serious, encompasses his career, from first to last” (2006b, p. 164). Fulton details Twain’s use of the prophetic genre in such diverse works as “Barnum’s First Speech in Congress” (1867), The Innocents Abroad (1869), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), “To The Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901), “The United States of Lyncherdom” (1901), “The War Prayer” (1905), and The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts (1897–1908). Many of these works include allusions to the prophetic works, while others have an even greater debt, building on particular verses from the prophetic books. Stylistically, Twain adopted language and forms of address typical of prophecy. One could cite no better example than “The United States of Lyncherdom,” where Twain’s “O, Missouri” echoes Jeremiah’s “O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness.” Besides comedy in many of the works mentioned, there is just this sense of writing in the prophetic mode that has a satirical purpose—even a religious one.

Twain’s View of the Bible.

There has been much disagreement about what, ultimately, is Twain’s view of the Bible. Ensor argues that “although he had little to offer in the way of new ideas or an informed understanding of biblical scholarship, he wished to reveal the book’s foolishness and pernicious influence” (1969, p. 95). Reimer proposes the contrary idea that Twain’s lifelong engagement with the Bible in his writing might evidence “an underlying search for a meaningful religious faith” (1971, p. 148). Given the author’s long career and intellectual vigor, it is more fitting to speak of Twain’s views of the Bible. Certainly, of the many books he drew on throughout his career, the Bible was the one he invoked most frequently and authoritatively.

The Bible was for Twain a cultural touchstone that he invoked to make jokes and to satirize social hypocrisies. He could poke fun at it or those who revered it, but he could also usurp its authority for his own ends. The result was an unfettered use of the Bible enjoyed by few other writers of his day; he could take the Bible with utmost seriousness and respect one moment and in another complain about “so-called housekeeping where they have six Bibles and no corkscrew” (1935, p. 210).

Bibliography

Bibliography

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Edited by Victor Fischer, Lin Salamo, and Walter Blair. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Edited by John C. Gerber. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
  • “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice.” In “What Is Man?” and Other Philosophical Writings, edited by Paul Baender, pp. 71–75. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973a.
  • “The Captain’s Story.” In Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays, Vol. 1: 1852–1890, edited by Louis J. Budd, pp. 683–687. New York: Library of America, 1992.
  • Christian Science. In “What Is Man?” and Other Philosophical Writings, edited by Paul Baender, pp. 215–397. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973b.
  • The Innocents Abroad. Hartford, Conn.: American Pub. Co., 1869.
  • Mark Twain’s Notebook. Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935.
  • “Mr. Rockefeller’s Bible Class.” In Mark Twain in Eruption, edited by Bernard DeVoto, pp. 83–91. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1940.
  • Roughing It. Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and Edgar Marquess Branch. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

References

  • Bellamy, Gladys Carmen. Mark Twain as a Literary Artist. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.
  • Brashear, Minnie M. Mark Twain: Son of Missouri. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1934.
  • Brodwin, Stanley. “The Theology of Mark Twain: Banished Adam and the Bible.” Mississippi Quarterly 29 (1976): 167–189.
  • Bush, Harold K. Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007.
  • Cummings, Sherwood. Mark Twain and Science: Adventures of a Mind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
  • Ensor, Allison. Mark Twain and the Bible. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1969.
  • Fulton, Joe B. Mark Twain’s Ethical Realism: The Aesthetics of Race, Class, and Gender. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997.
  • Fulton, Joe B. “Mark Twain’s New Jerusalem: Prophecy in the Unpublished Essay ‘About Cities in the Sun.’ ” Christianity and Literature 55 (2006a): 173–194.
  • Fulton, Joe B. The Reverend Mark Twain: Theological Burlesque, Form, and Content. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006b.
  • Hays, John Q. Mark Twain and Religion: A Mirror of American Eclecticism. Edited by Fred A. Rodewald. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
  • Hunter, Lloyd A. “Mark Twain and the Southern Evangelical Mind.” Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 33 (1977): 246–264.
  • Paine, Albert Bigelow. Mark Twain: A Biography. 4 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912.
  • Reimer, Earl Allen. “Mark Twain and the Bible: An Inductive Study.” PhD diss., Michigan State University, 1971.

Further Reading

  • Baetzhold, Howard G., and Joseph B. McCullough. The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
  • Gribben, Alan. “Mark Twain’s Library Books in the Humanities Research Center.” Library Chronicle of the University of Texas at Austin 11 (1979): 11–26.

Joe B. Fulton