The War Prayer

Below is the full text of "The War Prayer" by Mark Twain. It was published posthumously in Harper's Monthly in 1916, six years after Twain's death.

Twain delayed publication during his lifetime because, as he said to his publisher, "I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world. It can be published after I am dead."

The War Prayer
by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spread of roofs and balconies a fulttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory with stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts, and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country, and invoked the God of Battles beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpourings of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety's sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came -- next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their young faces alight with martial dreams -- visions of the stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender!

Then home from the war, bronzed heroes, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag, or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation:
God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!
Then came the "long" prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was, that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all 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 crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory --

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher's side and stood there waiting. With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord and God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!"

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside -- which the startled minister did -- and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes, in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

"I come from the Throne -- bearing a message from Almighty God!" The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. "He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it if such be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import -- that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of -- excpet he pause and think. "God's servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two -- one uttered, and the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this -- keep it in mind. If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon your neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain on your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse on some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

"You have heard your servant's prayer -- the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it -- that part which the pastor -- and also you in your hearts -- fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard the words 'Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!' That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory -- must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
"Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle -- be Thou near them! With them -- in spirit -- we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it --

For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimmage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.
(After a pause.) "Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits."

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

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13 thoughts on “The War Prayer”

  1. I used this poem in the week of Remembrance Day in the high school I was chaplain to. The school has an unhealthy synthesis of junior military commitment (each student is required to do at least one year of Cadets) and pseudo-Christian rhetoric (it is a church school but is for all intent and purpose like any other elite private school). I wanted the students to reflect on the rhetoric that was rife throughout that week and to take seriously the silent prayers and assumptions we all make. Needless to say, in that particular context, the old prophet would have been deemed a lunatic, unpatriotic and seditious. No doubt, by using the poem, I was also deemed unworthy of attention.

  2. Imprecatory prayer. The Bible has a lot of them. It's not unusual, but he's right that we need to own what we are really praying for.

  3. Good story - good for Mark Twain too - the prayers in the psalms are quite explicit - so they do not fall into quite the same pattern as the War Prayer.

    Arise יְהוָה, save me my God, for you strike all my enemies on the cheek, the teeth of the many wicked broken (3:8)
    Shamed and vexed much all my enemies, let them turn and be ashamed in a moment (6:11)

    But these are not the only prayers about enemies, e.g.
    You have fixed strength for the sake of your adversaries
    that you might eradicate enemy and vengeance (8.3)

    The poet often reveals the way that the one to whom prayer comes reverses what might be thought as the intent of the prayer - or hears it very well indeed and acts on behalf of the enemy. By the end of the Psalter, we are supposed to know that the transgression is 'in my heart' (oracle 1: 36.2) and that the psalms are there to form a people that knows and is known in covenant mercy (149). Note also the second oracle (110) and the cost of the footstool.

  4. I find it interesting that he didn't want it published while he was alive ... it doesn't seem particularly damning to me. But in a small book of Twain's short stories I just read, he says something similar about peacemakers being shouted down. (I thought Twain would be appropriate regional material being this close to the Mississippi.) The book finished with The Mysterious Stranger, another story that wasn't published (or finished) while he was alive, and probably for similar reasons. Lots of extremely pointed questions about the problem of evil and critiques of popular religion.

  5. I wrote this yesterday.  I hope it is helpful - and it would be good to share it with someone...

    "It has been my great privilege this week to sit in the midst of death, listening to the stories of those most affected by a teenage boy’s suicide. 
    I have witnessed the working of two forces, both operating through the medium of human tragedy, both seeking to pull the press-ganged combatants away from the painful tension of living with loss.  In both battles, one side has sought (however unwittingly) to enlist death and proclaim him their leader; to seat death upon a throne, to place a crown upon his head and bow down in obeisance.  The protagonists in both struggles have done this blindly, believing that they bound death whilst handing him the sceptre.
    The first of these struggles sought an answer to a single question: ‘why?’.  The search for meaning is perhaps the deepest instinct of any man or woman.  But sometimes there is none to be found.  There is, I think, a wisdom in recognising the difference.  In such circumstances, our task perhaps is not to prolong the search for meaning in vain, but rather to contribute it ourselves.  We can help in the hard work of recalling happier times, of recognising the legacies of love and friendship, of uniting in shared purpose.
    The second conflict, I witnessed both within a single room and across a whole community: I watched the lines being drawn.  This was a skirmish between the psychologies of disgust and embrace.  Disgust plays a useful role in the practicalities of death.  But a remedy wrongly prescribed can become poisonous.  Disgust pronounces on matters of purity and seeks to contain contagion.  Disgust is never the right response to suffering humanity.  This is to seek for the living amongst the dead. 
    What I have seen this week is that it is our response to death – perhaps more than anything else – that defines us.
    But it is the task of those who have learned to trust truth, neither to enthrone death nor to oppose him.  Our duty, I think, is to respectfully rob him of power, for he has none that is not given.  Death is no enemy, but neither will he refuse the weapons we hand him.
    The expressions of community and of hope emerging from the ruins of despair along with the trust placed in an outsider such as myself have left me both humbled by their sense of generous inclusion within a hurt community and also, awkwardly, with a dim glow of having contributed usefully, if modestly, to that community.  And I think that’s OK.
    And I think – sooner or later – all sorts of things will be OK."

  6. I teach this short Twain piece to juniors, and it always instigates some lively discussion. (There's also a fairly recent short film made of it that's positively striking in terms of capturing Twain's sentiment; you can easily find it on YouTube.)

    A comment, though: My understanding is that Twain did attempt to get this piece published, but it was so roundly rejected that Twain stopped submitting it. Authors like him and William Dean Howells (read his short story "Editha") were writing against the jingoistic attitudes of the time: America was getting its first real taste of imperialism, and the public at the time was not supportive of dissent for endeavors like the Philippine-American War. Twain just connected it to religion, which apparently went too far for some people. For me, it is a commentary both on the grave nature of war and on the often unthinking and uncaring views that even the most sincere and pious individuals can find themselves holding.

  7. I almost always leave your blogs a wiser person than before. Not that I always agree with you. It's just that I am forced to think about things very often from a different perspective, mine or others. I am sure our forefather Alexander Campbell would have smiled with approbation at this ironic offering along with Barton Stone and any number of our spiritual forebearers. Mark Twain was a great entertainer and story teller and essayist, a literary giant in any setting. He was also a very serious thinker which you so adroitly brought to our attention. I had never heard of this before.......

  8. Beautiful tale. Hal Holbrook, famed actor whose played Mark Twain for more than half a century, recited this on an interview we did with him on the Tokens show out in Malibu a few years ago:

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