On Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer”

In 1904, Mark Twain submitted a short piece to his publisher. Entitled “The War Prayer,” it was rejected and relegated to the scrap heap until it was unearthed two decades later and published posthumously.

Mark Twain (Photo by Everett Collection, Shutterstock.com)
Mark Twain (Photo by Everett Collection, Shutterstock.com)

In it, a congregation prays fervently for victory in a coming war. The prayer is interrupted by the appearance of a robed stranger who identifies himself as a Messenger of the Most High. He informs the congregation that their prayer has been heard and shall be granted, but first, he must remind them that every prayer has two sides: one spoken, and the other unspoken but no less fervent. He tells the assembled that both prayers have been heard.

This, in part, is what the Messenger imparts as the unspoken prayer:

"O Lord our God…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.”

The Messenger then gives the assembled a choice: “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits!”

The true victims in any war, as every war has made abundantly clear, are the people at home–the families, the elderly, the children, who have no argument with anyone; the human beings euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage.” The non-military deaths in World War II, for instance, were over double that of those in active combat.

The current blood sport in eastern Europe is no different. At this writing over 15 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, while Russia, increasingly ostracized from the world community, witnesses a steady exodus of major corporations—McDonald's, Coke, Pepsi, Starbucks, Apple, to name just a few of the scores of brand names that are now absent.

Proverbs 11:29 tells us “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” In today’s global economy, we are, all 7.8 billion of us, truly residing under one roof.

Every faith on Earth prays for a world without war. It’s Number One or close to it on our wish list. We’ve made our choice regarding The War Prayer, as have the overwhelming majority of people with an ounce of charity in their veins. War is a losing proposition for both sides but, unfortunately, some people who should know better get caught up in the cheering, the slogans, the politics, and the hatred necessary to justify bloodshed.

Such were the townsfolk in Mark Twain’s story which ends, “It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.”

Just because the path of war has been well-trod with its predictable consequences is no reason for us to follow it yet again.

We already have more than enough dead heroes.

It’s time to celebrate the freedom of living men.


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Mark Twain The War Prayer