Mark Twain's Religion. William E. Phipps. Mercer University Press, 2003. 386 pages. Paper. $18.00. ISBN 0-86554-897-8.

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The following review appeared 15 January 2004 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2004 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed by
Terrell Dempsey

Just a mile north of where I sit in Hannibal, Missouri is a statue of Mark Twain as an old man gazing thoughtfully toward the northeast. Inscribed on the base of the statue are the words, "His religion was humanity and a whole world mourned for him when he died." Like much that has been written about and by Mark Twain, the inscription contains more than a bit of hyperbole, but it does reflect a long interest in the religion of the great American writer--and an acknowledgment that Mark Twain had transcended the confines of mere religiosity.

Now William Phipps has penned a valuable contribution to our understanding of Samuel Clemens's spiritual journey. Mark Twain's Religion would be a worthy addition to the library of any Twain scholar, theologian, or educated person. Though Phipps is a professor of religion and philosophy, his work is neither academic nor stuffy. The book, though far more substantive, is as easy to read as the recent Gospel According to the Simpsons. (Phipps has the singular distinction of being the only author to keep my attention through a paragraph-long quote from Immanuel Kant.)

So why is the book of value? It often seems that Twain has been exhumed, dissected, prodded, poked, and re-pickled so many times that nothing fresh can come along in this genre. In interpretive biographies, those that do not bring forth new facts or findings, poor Twain has become a canvas upon which anyone can paint a portrait as viewed through the lens of his or her own experiences and prejudices. Phipps brings an important perspective. He is a southern Presbyterian, the son of a preacher, and a theologian himself.

The Presbyterian Church and the Congregational Church were two branches of Calvinist Protestantism in the United States. Calvinism is terribly significant in Clemens's life. It was the religion of his upbringing, the religion of his wife's family, and the religion of some of his most important friends--many of whom were leading northern Presbyterian and Congregationalist clergy of the day. As Phipps clearly demonstrates, even when you might think Sam was busy being non-religious, he was being a Calvinist--a cultural Calvinist if you will (my phrase, not Phipps's). If you want to understand the man, you need to understand this aspect of his life.

Phipps is most effective in addressing Clemens's induction into the liberal Calvinism of late 19th century America. The book begins to sparkle when Sam enters the world of the Langdon family. He adroitly looks at the importance of Jervis, Olivia and Livy Langdon in Clemens's development. The family was among the forty liberal Presbyterians who broke away to form Park Church in Elmira to escape the presence of slaveholders in the Presbyterian General Assembly. Ironically, in Hannibal, Sam Clemens's church also underwent schism--over the presence of abolitionists in the same Presbyterian General Assembly! Through the Langdons, Clemens entered a long friendship with their pastor Thomas Beecher and became further acquainted with his brother Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church. Phipps explores these relationships as well as Clemens's long-term friendship with his buddy Joe Twitchell, Congregationalist minister.

An extremely important relationship Phipps examines is that between Clemens and George W. Cable. Cable, like Clemens, was a southern Presbyterian, son of slave holders, who became very active in advocating equality for emancipated slaves. Cable and Clemens traveled together in 1884 giving lectures. They were together constantly. Though Clemens found Cable's piety tedious at times, it is obvious that he was influenced by his fellow author.

Phipps divides the book into ten chapters: an "Introduction;" "Along the Mississippi," which examines the boyhood religion of Sam Clemens; "Peripatetic Journalist," which picks up Sam in Nevada and takes him through his Hawaiian sojourn and the Quaker City trip; "Amid Liberal Calvinists," which covers the Langdons, New York, Hartford, and the tour with Cable; "Justice in America," a thematic examination of the religious bases of Clemens's evolving views of economic, political, racial, and gender justice; "Ambassador-at-Large," Clemens in Europe, his global tour, and his anti-imperialism; "Biblical Usages," his use of biblical language and text; "Theological Journey," his views of God, Jesus, evil, freedom and immortality; "Final Quest," the death of Susy and Joan of Arc, the search for healing, and Clemens's last years; and a "Conclusion."

The United States is still one of the most religious of the developed western nations. It is hard to imagine, but in the 19th century, the country was even more blatantly Christian. Phipps quotes President McKinley in 1899 as justifying the seizure of the Philippines, "There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all ... and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the best we could by them, as our fellow-men for whom Christ also died" (page 203).

The liberal Calvinism Clemens was exposed to as an adult was the driving force behind the dominant reform movements of his day. Clemens was part and parcel of this religious world. He participated in religious dialogues and attended services. Phipps examines Clemens's personal journey to a mature theology as he grappled with the deaths of his loved ones and faced his own demise. The book does a good job of incorporating some of Mark Twain's more inflammatory religious writings into a nuanced understanding of Samuel Clemens's life. Phipps adroitly examines the concept of Heaven in "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," as an expose of ethnic, religious, and class prejudice, and not an attack on Christianity itself. Phipps does not plaster Twain with labels. He deems him a tolerant monotheist. "MT's acceptance of religion went far beyond a grudging toleration of what he was unable to destroy. His was a tolerance that sought to learn from, and even adopt, the best that a religion could offer" (page 371).

Stylistically, the book is easy to read. Phipps handles well the inherent problem of shifting from issues that are best told chronologically to those that must be handled thematically. The book is well-footnoted, and has a bibliography.

What are the book's shortcomings? Phipps relies almost exclusively on secondary sources. If you are seeking anything new in factual material, you are not going to find it here. The book's strength is its weakness. It is a theological examination and a principal tool of the Christian theologian is the use of exegesis--extrapolating meaning from Bible texts. Mark Twain's Religion is a piece of library research, which leads us to the biggest problem Phipps faced, the dearth of material on Sam Clemens's childhood.

There are only about thirty pages in the book devoted to Sam Clemens's life as a child--and unfortunately much of the material is wrong or poorly interpreted. Though the cover notes that "the study takes a close look at his growing up in the slave culture of Missouri Protestants," the material is non-existent in the book. He apparently relied on Henry Sweet's history of Hannibal First Presbyterian Church, a booklet that virtually ignores slavery. Thus, the split of the church in 1841-42, is obliquely referred to as a schism over Calvinist theology. It was not. The issue was strictly slavery--not whether it was good or bad--the vast majority agreed it was good. The issue was whether the local congregation could associate with a national organization that would tolerate abolitionists. Some felt they could and remained in the old church. Others formed the Second Presbyterian Church.

Similarly, Phipps writes about the importance of Hannibal preacher Joseph Bennett in Sam's young life, but missed completely Bennett's subsequent conversion to abolitionism when he moved to a pulpit in the northeast and Hannibal's uproar when it learned of this betrayal. The incident opens a fascinating window on the church and the community. There are other significant errors as well. Phipps states that Sam attended "Old Ship of Zion" Methodist church for two years and was given books to read. Sam attended the Methodist Church at most for nine or ten months and was four years old when his mother began attending First Presbyterian. (He was 5 years, 2 and 1/2 months when she joined in 1841.) Phipps slides into Tom Sawyer as autobiographical material to illustrate Sam's religious experiences.

Phipps does not understand what happened when David Nelson, founder of the Hannibal Presbyterian church, became an abolitionist. He implies there was debate on the morality of slavery in the community. In fact, Nelson was run out of the county at gun point. Two people caught with abolitionist literature at the Presbyterian college in Marion County were given the choice of leaving or being hanged. The college declared abolitionism "unchristian." Phipps wrongly asserts that Orion Clemens became an abolitionist in Hannibal because of this imagined dialogue Orion heard in church as a young man in Hannibal. When fifteen-year-old Orion arrived in Hannibal, the legislature had already passed a law making advocating abolitionism a felony. Further, Orion was not an abolitionist in Hannibal. Read his newspapers for goodness sake. Phipps cites as further proof of this proposition that Orion stumped for Lincoln in 1860. The Republicans in Missouri did not advocate ending slavery in Missouri. As late as 1864 when they knew they had to end slavery, they were coming up with schemes where some people would remain slaves for life and others would serve another twenty-five years!

These are just examples of shortcomings in Phipps's book. It is a shame that Phipps did not do some primary research on the childhood of Sam Clemens. He could easily have shed important light on the issues of Twain's transformation. I would love to know why First Presbyterian apparently stopped admitting slaves after the split with Second Presbyterian. Phipps would be well-qualified to answer that question. Instead, in later portions of the book, he falls back on generalizations about southern Presbyterians and not specifics from young Sam's life. The book illustrates the danger of library research: you are at the mercy of the person who wrote the book.

Library research is a particularly dangerous practice when dealing with Hannibal. Like the tourist attractions in Hannibal, most of the histories written on Hannibal are fluffy, feel-good pieces that omit anything that might offend. They need to be approached with caution and checked against a primary source if possible. These shortcomings, however, do not detract from the merit of the book. I would advise the discerning reader who will be bothered by these inaccuracies regarding Sam Clemens's early years in Hannibal to begin this book with the third chapter.

Despite the problems, the book is deserving of a read. No doubt pastors and rabbis will find ample material for sermons within its covers. Only a hard heart will come away without a deep respect for the humanity of Mark Twain. His spirituality is part and parcel of the reason he has become a cultural and artistic icon. On his last visit to Hannibal, Clemens was invited to speak at the Baptist church in Hannibal, "not to preach a sermon but to say a few words." Clemens responded:

What I say will be preaching. I am a preacher. We all are preachers. If we do not preach by words, we preach by deeds…. Words perish, print burns up, men die, but our preaching lives on. Washington died in 1799, more than a hundred years ago, but his preaching survives, and to every people that is striving for liberty his life is a sermon. My mother lies buried out there in our beautiful cemetery overlooking the Mississippi, but at this age of mine, she still cheers me. Her preaching lives and goes on with me. Let us see that our preaching is of the right sort, so that it will influence for good the lives of those who remain when we shall be silent in our graves (p. 339-40).

Phipps's work gives witness to Twain's ministry.

Terrell Dempsey is a Samuel Clemens scholar and author of Searching for Jim; Slavery in Sam Clemens's World (University of Missouri Press, 2003).