Litkicks Message Board Archive

Mark Twain's The War Prayer (please read)

Posted to Poetry and Politics

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 fluttering 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 which 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

*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 to 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 with his moving prayer, and at last finished it
with the words, uttered in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our 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 shall 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 -- except he pause and

"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, 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 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.

"You have heard your servant's prayer -- the uttered part of it. I am commissioned of 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 these
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!

"O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to 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 to 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 little children to wander unfriended
the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun
flames of 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 pilgrimage, 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.

Twain apparently dictated it around 1904-05; it was rejected by his publisher, and was found after his
death among his unpublished manuscripts. It was first published in 1923 in Albert
Bigelow Paine's anthology, Europe and Elsewhere.