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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Thu, 15 Jan 2004 19:16:21 -0600
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Terrell



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

Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by
Terrell Dempsey

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 This review may not be published or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

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

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

What are the books 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

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

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).