The War Prayer

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
cyclone of applause, the tears running
down their cheeks the while; in the
churches the pastors preached
devotion to flag and country, and
invoked 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,
and 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

Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy
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 his moving prayer, and at
last finished it with the words, uttered
in fervent appeal, "Bless our arms,
grant us victory, O Lord our God,
Father and Protector of our land and

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!"
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
from 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 servants 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.

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

For more than ten years, Mark Twain opposed the war and imperialism as a vice president and outspoken publicist of the Anti-Imperialist League. From his return to the United States from Europe in 1900 until shortly before his death in 1910, he expressed his opposition to imperialism in numerous essays, stories, and sketches, public and private letters, and interviews and speeches. Mark Twain's involvement with the anti-imperialist movement was one of the longest and most significant political affiliations of his life, and it was widely recognized during his lifetime, inspiring editorials and political cartoons from California to London, Bermuda to Canada, and probably further a field. But like the Philippine-American War itself, and turn-of-the-century imperialism more generally, this part of Mark Twain's career is rarely recognized today.

Sometimes published as an essay or in poem form, Twain places the reader in a church where a clerical figure is blessing the troops as they go off to do battle. The sermon uses powerful language and summons pictures of righteousness.

A full text was collected in Europe and Elsewhere (1923). Twain apparently dictated The War Prayer around 1904-05; it was found after his death among his unpublished manuscripts. He wrote a friend saying, "I don't think the prayer will be published in my time."

Written in response to the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 Mark Twain wrote the satirical story The War Prayer in 1905 followed by a scathing indictment of the U.S. troops and in March of 1906. They had massacred 900 Muslim Filipinos -- men, women and children -- at Bud Dajo. The Filipinos were trapped in the volcanic crater and fired upon for four days from the heights above until all were reported killed only one young girl survived the horror. Twain continued to comment on the war and U.S. imperialism until at least 1908.

Albert Bigelow Paine had, during his time as trustee of the Mark Twain Papers, originally published extracts from The War Prayer in his 1912 biography of Mark Twain with the comment that the author said he had been urged not to publish it. According to Paine, Mark Twain acceded to its suppression by stating, to colleague Dan Beard, who had dropped in to see him. While he was there Clemens read The War Prayer, telling Beard that he had read it to his daughter Jean, and others, who had told him he must not print it, for it would be regarded as sacrilege.

    "Still, you are going to publish it, are you not?"

    Clemens, pacing up and down the room in his dressing gown and slippers, shook his head.

    "No", he said, "I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world.

    "It can only be published after I am dead."

Outraged by American military intervention in the Philippines, Mark Twain initially tried submitting it to Harper's Bazaar. The women's magazine rejected it for being too radical. As he had predicted the piece wasn't published until after his death, in the November 1916 issue of Harper's Monthly, when World War I made it even more timely.

This poem is public domain.


Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain, A Biography (Harper & Brothers, 1912).

identity theory | the war prayer by mark twain:

Zwick, Jim. Duration of Philippine-American War: 1899-1913, February 1999:

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