The War Prayer

Mark Twain

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 out­pour­ing 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 — them 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 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 think.

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 the Father 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 their 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. 

(The War Prayer, believed to have been writ­ten in 1904, was­n’t pub­lished until 13 years after Twain’s death in 1910. It first appeared in the 1923 anthol­o­gy Europe and Else­where.)

Mark Twain (18351910) was an Amer­i­can humorist, satirist, social crit­ic, lec­tur­er and nov­el­ist. He is most remem­bered for The Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn and The Adven­tures of Tom Sawyer. He wrote this sto­ry in 1870.
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