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Mark Twain’s ‘War Prayer’

Mark Twain in March, 1905, was outraged by the American military invasion of the Philippines. So he wrote “The War Prayer” and 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 had begun and publishers felt it more timely. It appeared in “Harper’s Monthly” in November 1916.

The story 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. A prayer offered over and over before Mark Twain’s time and since. Then came the part no one wanted to utter or even think about.

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.”

“‘I come from the Throne–bearing a message from Almighty God!’ The words smote the house with a shock….”

He continued, “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd, and will grant it….”

The stranger continues: “You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!'” The stranger goes on to say 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.

Then 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 crippled 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.”

Mark Twain ends his story with: “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

Britt Towery, a retired Baptist missionary, writes a weekly column for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas.