The War Prayer Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1904 or 1905, famed author and humorist Mark Twain penned a scathing indictment–written as a prose poem–of the Philippine American War (1899–1902). The poem is a reflection of Twain’s disdain for American imperialism in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. In his comments, Twain parodies the idea of praying for a victory in battle, as such prayers are exercises in self-indulgence rather than petitions to the God of all people.

Summary Overview

In 1904 or 1905, famed author and humorist Mark Twain penned a scathing indictment–written as a prose poem–of the Philippine American War (1899–1902). The poem is a reflection of Twain’s disdain for American imperialism in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. In his comments, Twain parodies the idea of praying for a victory in battle, as such prayers are exercises in self-indulgence rather than petitions to the God of all people.

Defining Moment

By the 1890s, Samuel Clemens (known by his pen name Mark Twain) was one of America’s most celebrated authors. The resident of Hartford, Connecticut, had, by that time, published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In 1891, Twain closed his Hartford residence and moved his family to Europe, from which he began a global tour.

In addition to being a humorist, Twain was also developing into a staunch anti-imperialist in the late 1880s. During the 1870s, he spoke out against the proposed annexation of Hawaii (it would become a US territory in 1898). Twain’s views became more pronounced during his travels in Europe and elsewhere abroad. In 1891, Twain cofounded the American Friends of Russian Freedom, a Boston-based organization designed to generate support for the opposition movement that would culminate in the Revolution of 1905 in Russia. During the mid-1890s, he traveled to India, South Africa, Australia, and Sri Lanka, all regions of interest to the European colonial powers. In 1895, Twain–by then a resident of Great Britain–even found himself in the middle of a threatened war between the United States and Britain regarding the two countries’ dispute over the Monroe Doctrine and the United States’s claim to a sphere of influence over Latin America.

In 1898, war broke out between the United States and Spain. Twain was initially under the impression that the United States was attempting liberate Cuba from the oppression of Spanish imperialists and, therefore, supported the war. However, when the Spanish-American War came to a close later that year, the United States was (under the articles of the Treaty of Paris) handed control over Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. According to his writings at the time, Twain was appalled at the transfer of power. He spoke vehemently against America’s presence in the Philippines, particularly US forces’ brutal efforts to “civilize” and “Christianize” the Muslim population there, as well as efforts to suppress opposition to US occupation from the Christian Filipino population. He returned to the United States in 1900, declaring himself to be an anti-imperialist. Twain later became the vice president of the Anti-Imperialist League of New York and is credited with being a major force behind that group’s revitalization. The focus of Twain’s anti-imperialist attention was on US occupation in the Philippines. Although the Philippine-American War ended in 1902, conflicts between US forces and the Muslim Moro people, as well as between US forces and the Pulahanes people, lasted until these groups conceded defeat in 1913.

Between 1904 and 1905, Twain penned “The War Prayer,” satirizing American military efforts in the Philippines. However, the strong tone of this parody made his family discourage him from trying to publish it, though it was virtually impossible for Twain to find a willing publisher anyway. Even those companies with whom he shared a long-standing relationship, such as Harper’s Bazaar, refused to publish it. Twain, therefore, shelved the essay, famously uttering, “None but the dead are permitted to tell the truth.” He left the essay among a set of documents that were, in fact, to be published after his death.

Author Biography

Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri. In 1839, the Clemens family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, along the Mississippi River. While attending school, Clemens took a number of posts in journalism and typesetting. After traveling throughout the country, including time spent as a riverboat apprentice and pilot on the Mississippi River in the 1850s, Clemens settled in Virginia City, Nevada, in 1861. There, he adopted the pseudonym “Mark Twain,” a riverboat term meaning “two fathoms deep.” He moved to San Francisco in 1864 and continued his travels, including a trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1867.

In 1865, Twain’s short story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” brought him national acclaim. After a nationwide and European tour, Twain wrote his first best-selling book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). In 1870, he married Olivia Langdon and settled in Hartford, Connecticut, where he wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In 1891, he and his family moved to Europe, where he continued writing and guest lecturing, before moving back to the United States in 1900. He died on April 21, 1910, at his home in Redding, Connecticut.

Document Analysis

Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer” is a harsh parody of a common occurrence. Twain’s piece has two main elements: a criticism of the Philippine-American War and what he perceives as that war’s imperialist underpinnings, and a commentary on the idea of praying for God’s blessing in battle. Mark Twain’s beliefs on this particular war were well known by the time “The War Prayer” was written. Still, the dark humor prevalent in the piece is a major reason why a work by one of America’s most prominent authors could not find a publisher until well after his death.

The piece describes a time in which patriotism is running high, with every man, woman, and child celebrating their national pride as they cheer on their soldiers, who are off to war. There is among the throng a small group of opponents to the war; this party is quickly shouted down by the majority and forced to leave. The next day, the war-inspired crowd goes to church, where they intend to pray for their soldiers’ success when they depart for the battlefield. When they return, the soldiers will again be celebrated as heroes.

The minister steps to the pulpit and, aided by thunderous bursts from the organ, delivers a fiery prayer to God, asking Him to bless and keep the soldiers as they enter battle. Furthermore, the minister prays that God will “grant us the victory.” As he is calling out for God’s help, a strange man enters the church, walks down the aisle, and approaches the pulpit. This “unnaturally pale” and cloaked man ushers aside the minister and stands before the congregation.

The man identifies himself as a messenger from God and states that God will grant the minister’s prayer, as long as the congregation understands and approves its full meaning–which he suggests they do not grasp. The man then proceeds to reword the nationalistic prayer, asking God–“Who is the Source of Love”–to help tear the enemy soldiers “to bloody shreds with our shells,” filling the air with “shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain,” leaving their wives and children to “wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst.” If the congregation wishes for God to hear this revised prayer, the man says, they should say so. The congregation instead dismisses the man as “a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

This story underscores what Twain saw as the blindness-inducing effects of wartime patriotism. God, the universe’s ultimate source of love and peace, is called upon to help one side in a war. However, wishing victory for one side is wishing catastrophe for the other, and when the realities of war–the carnage and destruction that occur during such conflicts–are described, the so-called patriots disregard them. Imperialism and war, Twain is arguing, are the stuff of humanity and not of Heaven.

Essential Themes

Mark Twain initially embraced the US effort against the Spanish in the conflict leading up to the Philippine-American War. He later regretted his outspoken patriotism when the Philippines became a bargaining chip rather than an independent nation. “The War Prayer” encapsulates Twain’s reversal of opinion, suggesting that he and others were deceived when imperialism was confused with freedom fighting.

At the time Twain wrote “The War Prayer,” America had already won the Spanish-American War and was reaping the fruits of that victory in the Philippines. Nationalism was high, with Americans overwhelmingly in support of the American effort in its newly acquired Pacific territory. The raucous crowd in this piece represents that fervor, impassioned by the idea that an American victory–liberating the Filipino people from their backward social and religious ways–was a cause in line with the precepts of Christianity.

Twain’s essay also satirizes the notion of praying to God for success in war. The minister in this story echoes the crowd’s sentiments–calling upon God to bless the country’s soldiers when they engage the enemy. Those who oppose the war are presented here as a small minority whose voices are quickly silenced by the roar of the patriotic crowd. The crowd, representing the America that Twain saw in the opening years of the twentieth century, views the occupation of the Philippines as unquestionably just.

However, the prayer to God is clarified by the stranger who enters the church. He warns the congregation that it is critical to understand the nature of their prayer. War, he explains, involves death and devastation, a scene few non-soldiers would understand or appreciate. In response, the crowd dismisses God’s messenger as a lunatic and his revised prayer as nothing but nonsense.

As was the case with Twain and his fellow anti-imperialists, the crowd is blinded by the idea of a just war and dismisses the voice of dissent. In his pursuit of a publisher for “The War Prayer,” along with other anti-imperialist essays he penned during American occupation of the Philippines, Twain himself was silenced by the majority while America engaged in what he saw as a brutal war not for independence but for conquest.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Fishkin, Shelly Fisher. A Historical Guide to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford UP, 2002. Print.
  • Phipps, William E. Mark Twain’s Religion. Macon: Mercer UP, 2003. Print.
  • Twain, Mark. Following the Equator and Anti-Imperialist Essays. Ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin. Vol. 20. New York: Oxford UP, 1996. Print.
  • Twain, Mark. Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War. Ed. Jim Zwick. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992. Print.
  • Zehr, Martin. “The Psychologies of Mark Twain.” Monitor on Psychology 41.4 (2010): 28. Print.
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