Friday, July 4, 2008


By Britt Towery

Mark Twain in March, 1905, was outraged by the American military invasion of the Philippines. As a result he sat down and wrote "The War Prayer." He sent it to Harper's Bazaar. Being a women's magazine, it was rejected. It wasn't published until after his death. World War I was in progress and publishers thought it to be timely. It appeared first in Harper's Monthly, November, 1916.

The story, as Mark Twain tells it, unfolds on a Sunday morning when the battalions were to leave for the front. The minister led a beautiful prayer for the troops with great eloquence. How they "would bring the foe to flight" and they "be submerged in golden seas of glory!"

A merciful and loving Father God would "watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory."

It was a lovely and timely prayer the minister offered for the soldiers. A prayer offered over and over in land after land and war after war. Then came the part of the story that kept it from being published for so long.

Twain's story continues: After the minister's prayer "an aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister."

The aged stranger said: "I come from the Throne -- bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; ... He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it ..."

The stranger faces the minister and congregation, saying, "You heard these words: 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!'"

The stranger says he is there to express the unspoken part of the prayer, the part that was in all their hearts, but they were unable to speak or dwell upon. He then commanded the congregation to pray with them. "Listen!" He said as he held the attention of the entire congregation.

This was when the stranger prayed for their "young patriots to smite the foe ... tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells ... help us to lay waste their humble homes ... help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief ... " and on and on he prayed about the horrors that would come to the other side if their prayers were answered. The innocents. The homeless. The cripple and wounded.

The stranger concludes his prayer: "If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it."

Twain's "War Prayer" is not one that is heard from pulpits, then or now. It is painful, but truthful. It unmasks all the glory of war and the weird idea that God would take sides with anybody in war. Mark Twain ends his story with one interesting comment: "It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said."


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