The War Prayer
by Mark Twain
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 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 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
"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
"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.
is pleased to welcome Mark Twain as a guest writer this week. The
original - a response to the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902,
but as apropos today as it was then - was rejected by his publisher.
The unpublished manuscript was found with his papers after his death.]