Throughout his life, Mark Twain had what his biographer Albert Bigelow Paine called a “natural leaning toward ministers of the Gospel.” While acknowledging that Twain was “hopelessly unorthodox” and “rankly rebellious as to creeds,” Paine noted that “something in his heart always warmed toward any laborer in the vineyard.”
From his days roughing it out West to his final years in Connecticut, Twain would befriend many ministers. However, it might be something of a stretch to say that he “warmed toward any” member of the clergy. Most of his clerical friends labored on the religiously liberal side of the theological vineyard. In fact, Twain had little patience for ponderously dogmatic men of the cloth preaching from what he dismissed as the “drowsy pulpit.”
This would account for his long friendship with the Reverend Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, born today (February 10) in 1824. Far from dogmatic in his theology, Beecher occupied a pulpit that was anything but “drowsy”.
During his tenure as The Park Church’s minister in Elmira, Beecher was considered “one of the most radical preachers of the time,” according to Max Eastman, who literally grew up in Park Church. Eastman’s parents were both ordained ministers who served as Beecher’s assistants there (his mother Annis, in fact, was one of the first women to be ordained in America). (For more on the Eastmans, Beecher, and the Park Church culture of Elmira, check out the recent “Gospel of Revolt” podcast episode produced by the Center for Mark Twain Studies.)
Although he would grow up to be an atheist, Eastman would still praise the independent-minded Beecher for having “no doctrine but the fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.” (Quoted from “Mark Twain’s Elmira” by Max Eastman [Harper’s Magazine, 1938]; also available in Mark Twain in Elmira)
Beecher was the son of Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher (and half-brother of Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe). He’s best known in Twain circles as the close friend and minister of Twain’s in-laws, the Langdons. From 1854 until his death in 1900, he would serve as pastor of Park Church, which the Langdons co-founded. During this time, Beecher would officiate (with Joseph Twichell) Twain and Livy’s wedding in 1870, and he would also oversee their daughter Susy’s funeral after her sudden death in 1896.
A protégé of the controversial Hartford divine Horace Bushnell, Beecher possessed the same “rich fertility and bold novelties of thought and in the subtle penetration of his aesthetic imagination” as his mentor. (Quote from Thomas K. Beecher: Teacher of the Park Church at Elmira, New York, 1854-1900) Eastman would credit these enlightened qualities with making the progressive Park Church a hub for “the most interesting clusters of people and ideas that American churchdom ever produced…they happened, moreover, to be the same people and ideas that Mark Twain had absorbed into himself by marriage.”
Years before Twain would meet Beecher, however, his reputation as a complex and paradoxical minister extended back to before the Civil War. According to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center,
From a young age, Thomas Beecher had shown a disinterest in the ministry and an aptitude for natural sciences and education…Up to the beginning of the Civil War he opposed abolition as too radical. He disagreed with the woman’s rights movement that his sister Isabella and brother Henry supported. These views led to his dismissal (from New England Church in Williamsburg, NY), and he accepted a call from the Independent Congregational Church in Elmira, NY in 1853…Despite Thomas’ anti-abolition stance there is evidence he participated in the Underground Railroad.
After the Civil War broke out, Beecher would remain conflicted about his ministerial purpose and the relevance of organized religion on the battlefield while serving as a chaplain in the Union army. He reflected in a letter from December 1862:
Even while enjoying the most advantageous social position in my regiment of any chaplain whom I have ever heard of, I am clearly persuaded that, as a chaplain, I am quite useless. Were it not that there has been a world of other work, I should long since have relieved the regiment of my presence—and the treasury of my support.
And now as to religious reading and other literature furnished by the million pages for distribution, I have a word or two. The paper, pictures, type and plentifulness are beyond praise. But the contents are often times ridiculously unapt and worthless among soldiers.from The Spirit Divided: Memoirs of Civil War Chaplains, the Union
Beecher would recover a sense of pastoral purpose upon returning to Elmira and volunteering to minister to captured confederates held in the prisoner of war camp there. Not only was he the first minister among local clergy to lead a worship service for the POWs—his sermon was apparently considered “practical, sensible, and liberal”—but his subsequent sermons would also become the most popular among the prisoners. (Quoted from “History of the Park Church”)
After the war, as Twain was courting Olivia, Beecher provoked controversy among members of Elmira’s Ministerial Association by holding popular Sunday evening worship services in the town’s opera house. Twain drew from scripture to pen a biting defense of the unorthodox minister (who, like Jesus, had run afoul of the religious establishment). Writing under the pseudonym S’Cat in the Elmira Weekly Advertiser, Twain noted that Beecher “finds himself in the novel position of being responsible to God for his acts, instead of to the Ministerial Union of Elmira.” Twain continued with a sharp, sarcastic edge,
[Rev. Beecher] felt warranted in this course by a passage of Scripture which says: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel unto every creature.” Opera Houses were not ruled out specifically in this passage, and so he considered it proper to regard Opera Houses as a part of “all the world.” He looked upon the people who assembled there as coming under the head of “every creature.” … His great mistake was in supposing that when he had the Savior’s endorsement of his conduct, he had all that was necessary.from “Mr. Beecher & The Clergy” reprinted in Mark Twain in Elmira
A few years later, as plans for constructing the new Park Church were underway, Twain would equate Beecher’s “peculiar” ministerial style with the very essence of the church’s “fresh and original” design. In an article published in the New York Times from 1871, Twain observed:
If Rev. Mr. Smith, or Rev. Mr. Jones, or Rev. Mr. Brown, were about to build a new church edifice, it would be projected on the same old pattern, and be like pretty much all the other churches in the country, and so I would naturally mention it as a new Presbyterian Church, or a new Methodist Church, or a new Baptist Church, and never think of calling it by the pastor’s name; but when a Beecher projects a church, that edifice is necessarily going to be something fresh and original. It is not going to be like any other church in the world; it is going to be as variegated, eccentric and marked with as peculiar and striking an individuality as a Beecher himself; it is going to have a deal more Beecher in it than any one narrow creed can fit in it…
From such sentiments, it’s apparent that Twain, who once had an ambition to be a preacher of the Gospel, felt a religious kinship with what Paine called Beecher’s “doubtful theology.” However, where Beecher would ultimately find solace in his unconventional Christian faith, Twain would continue his quest for, as Ron Powers put it, “a new faith system to fill the void.”
In an autobiographical dictation from 1907, Mark Twain reflected on this difference while still fondly recalling his good friend Thomas Beecher as “one of the best men I have ever known”:
I knew Reverend Thomas K. Beecher intimately for a good many years…He was deeply versed in the sciences, and his pulpit eloquence fell but little short of that of his great brother, Henry Ward. His was a keen intellect, and he was brilliant in conversation, and always interesting—except when his topic was theology. He had no theology of his own, any more than any other person; he had an abundance of it, but he got it all at second-hand. He would have been afraid to examine his subject with his own fine mind lest doubts should result, and unsettle him. He was a very frank, straightforward man, and he told me once, in the plainest terms, that when he came on from Connecticut to assume the pastorship of that Elmira church he was a strenuous and decided unbeliever. It astonished me. But he followed it with a statement which astonished me more; he said that with his bringing up he was aware that he could never be happy, or at peace, and free from terrors, until he should become a believer, and that he had accepted that pastorate without any pangs of conscience for the reason that he had made up his mind to compel himself to become a believer, let the cost be what it might. It seemed a strange thing to say, but he said it. He also said that within a twelvemonth or two he perfectly succeeded in his extraordinary enterprise, and that thenceforth he was as complete and as thorough a believer as any Christian that had ever lived. He was one of the best men I have ever known.from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3
Dwayne Eutsey is an independent scholar and former Quarry Farm Fellow who is currently working on a book about Mark Twain’s theology.