Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

It is easy to understand why Clara Clemens stopped the publication of Letters from the Earth, for it would be hard to reconcile the genial humorist who was the author of Tom Sawyer (1876) and other children’s classics with the bitter satirist of this later work. However, as “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The War Prayer,” and other late works demonstrate, this was Twain laying out his last theological views and blasting both humans and God. Humans are self-deluded, Twain believes, and have created a religious structure that is irrational at best and hypocritical at worst. These views are hardly new, of course; Huck Finn previews them when, at the apex of his story, he says that he believes he will go to Hell for listening to his heart and helping Jim—clearly a heavenly act if there ever were one. Supernatural forces are impersonal, Twain believes, but humans have imagined a religious history that places them in the center of the universe, and then created a morality that is impossible to follow. They have, in short, a false consciousness about themselves and their creation. It is significant that Twain spends the most time in “Letters from the Earth” on the figure of Satan and hardly mentions Jesus Christ, whose life and death highlighted some of these same contradictions.

These are the writings of a man raised on a fundamentalist Protestant theology who, by the end of his life, had experienced a series of personal tragedies and lost his religious faith. It is no wonder that a Mark Twain Association of freethinkers would spring up soon after his death or that, a century later, Letters from the Earth would be a featured work on the “Positive Atheism” Web site. The development of Twain’s religious views parallels that of many adults, perhaps, but he expressed them with more humor and more bitterness.