Thomas K. Beecher

“‘One of the Best Men I Have Ever Known’: Mark Twain’s Friendship with Rev. Thomas K. Beecher” by Dwayne Eutsey

Introduction—“Drowsy Pulpits”

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.”

Although Twain counted many ministers as friends, it might be something of a stretch to say that he warmed toward any member of the clergy. In fact, Twain notoriously had little patience for dogmatic men of the cloth pontificating from what he dismissed as the “drowsy pulpit.” In contrast, his friends among the clergy were laborers on the religious liberal side of a theological vineyard divided between orthodox and heterodox approaches to religion in the nineteenth century.

Among the many varieties of liberal religious experience found among Mark Twain’s clerical friends, one of the keenest embodiments of this ethos was the Reverend Thomas Kinnicut Beecher, a self-described “teacher of the gospel” whose pulpit at Elmira’s Park Church was anything but “drowsy”.

To understand the close bond between a “hopelessly unorthodox” humorist and a ruggedly unconventional minister, it will help first to place the two men and their friendship within the liberal religious tumult shaping their times.

Mark Twain and Liberal Religion

As Mark Twain was emerging on the national scene in the aftermath of the Civil War, the liberal pulpit in America was growing in popularity. Although the roots of religious liberalism in America extend back at least to the Unitarian Controversy in 1805, its postbellum ascendancy happened at a time when middle-class evangelical views were shifting away from Calvinism and “the increasingly rationalistic spirit of orthodoxy and…formalistic spirit of revivalism.” (William King)

Essentially, proponents of religious liberalism believed that religious truth “can only be attained through a never-ending process of criticism and experiment,” rather than through traditional religious doctrines and authority. For these religious liberals, ancient articles of faith handed down through the ages not only appeared increasingly irrelevant in a rapidly changing age of science and industrialization, they blunted the individual’s first-hand, “personal encounter with the present reality of God.” (William King)

Although Twain’s religious sensibilities could be inconsistent, these liberal religious tenets remained constant. He wrote in 1868, for example, that a “religion that comes of thought, and study, and deliberate conviction, sticks best”. (Letter from Mark Twain) In autobiographical dictation from 1908, he would observe,

In religion and politics people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing. (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3)

Views like these would help to explain Twain’s “natural leaning toward ministers of the Gospel” who, despite their various liberal stripes, shared similar presumptions.

While roughing it on the Western frontier, he counted among his ministerial friends the “radical evangelical” Franklin Rising in Nevada, who challenged “high church” ritualism and tried to bring Twain “to a knowledge of the true God.” (Muir; Twain, Letter to Olivia). In San Francisco, there was the enormously popular Unitarian and Universalist Thomas Starr King, who helped California remain pro-Union during the Civil War, eloquently preached a nature-based Christian mysticism, and “followed in the train of Ralph Waldo Emerson in erecting the lecture platform into a kind of free pulpit.” (Frankiel; Thomas Starr King)

During Twain’s years in Connecticut, he was good friends with two leading ministers who embodied opposite poles of the liberal religious spectrum that Twain would oscillate along for much of his life:

  • Moncure Conway, considered the “most thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South”, was a radical Unitarian minister, an Emerson protégé who popularized Hinduism in America, and, as an expatriate living in London, served South Place Chapel, one of the oldest free-thought organizations in Britain; and
  • Joseph Twichell, the more “conservative progressive” Christian pastor of Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church, whom parishioner Charles Dudley Warner described as being “of a liberal and receptive mind” while maintaining a level-headed faith during the era’s jarring “unsettlement of doubt” that had “shaken the Christian world.” (Eutsey)

While Thomas Beecher’s ministry at Park Church in Elmira (1854-1900) is technically located somewhere between Conway and Twichell on this spectrum, Beecher would venture far afield from familiar theological paths to blaze an unconventional faith journey uniquely his own.

Thomas K. Beecher: “No Doctrine but the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man”

Thomas Beecher is best known in Mark Twain circles as the close friend and minister of Twain’s in-laws, the Langdons, who co-founded The Park Church in Elmira. As Twain was courting Olivia Langdon, the two men would go on to become close friends, with Beecher officiating (with Joseph Twichell) Twain and Livy’s wedding in 1870 and also overseeing their daughter Susy’s funeral after her sudden death in 1896.

Beecher was also the vital heart of The Park Church community, where he gained a reputation as “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). Although he grew 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.” (Eastman) This basic, down-to-earth approach to religion was reflected in the shabby work clothes Beecher always wore and his honest, unpretentious talks—delivered from an unassuming lectern—that offered practical insights into living every-day Christianity.

This simple style resonated with people around Elmira. According to William Phipps, “By treating theological talk lightly and by focusing on compassionate deeds, Thomas Beecher attracted a large congregation from all denominations, as well as those who were unchurched and agnostics.” Max Eastman noted that Beecher’s purpose “was to live and be helpful in the community as a modern Jesus would, a downright, realistic, iconoclastic, life-loving Jesus with a scientific training and a sense of humor and a fund of common sense.” (In Phipps)

Despite his success at Park Church, Beecher had come reluctantly and somewhat late in life to Christian ministry. From an early age, he stood apart from the religious and social activism of his famous and influential family.

His father, well-known Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher, was “America’s greatest revival preacher during what came to be known as the Second Great Awakening.” Lyman’s “hyperkinetic preaching…kept the fire of revival burning in New England from 1812 to 1824” while also going on to stoke anti-slavery sentiments after the Missouri Compromise. (Dorrien, Progressive Religion) Unlike his father and many of his siblings (especially Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Isabella Beecher Hooker), Thomas Beecher was politically and socially more conservative and showed more interest in the natural sciences and education than in religious matters.

Even when he eventually entered the ministry after a stint as a teacher in Philadelphia, Beecher would remain fiercely independent from his family of origin, his feminist wife, Julia, and many in his first congregation:

Up to the beginning of the Civil War he opposed abolition as too radical. He disagreed with the women’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. (Harriet Beecher Stowe Center)

Beecher’s Mentor: “The Emerson of Hartford”

Such paradoxes do not seem as randomly inconsistent when understood within the intuitive, idiosyncratic approach to Christianity espoused by Beecher’s mentor, the controversial divine Horace Bushnell.

Known as “the Emerson of Hartford,” Bushnell shared with Ralph Waldo Emerson an emphasis on the primacy of mystical intuition and instinctive spirituality over orthodox creeds and dogmas. Bushnell also believed that the Trinity was a metaphorical representation of the Godhead, not a literal truth; that divinity was within humanity and nature, not apart from them; and that Christian character results from long-term nurturing relationships, not dramatic conversion experiences. Although Bushnell would be charged with heresy (and exonerated), unlike Emerson, he would remain a Christian minister. (Strong)

Thomas Beecher possessed the same “rich fertility and bold novelties of thought and in the subtle penetration of his aesthetic imagination” as his mentor. (Park Church) Echoing Bushnell’s open-ended approach to theology, Beecher observed,

“God and all things proceeding from Him – in a word truth – does not change. But a man’s apprehension of truth and his declaration of truth change, unless, indeed, a man has stupefied himself-or been overtaken by spiritual atrophy and death.” (Taylor)

Max Eastman would credit Beecher’s enlightened approach to Christianity 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.”

“I Am Quite Useless”

Years before Twain would meet Beecher, however, his reputation as a complex and paradoxical minister would remain doubtful about his ministerial purpose and the relevance of organized religion, especially on the battlefield. As a chaplain in the Union army during the Civil War, 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. (“The Spirit Divided”)

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 Beecher the first minister among local clergy to lead a worship service for the POWs—his sermon was apparently considered “practical, sensible, and liberal”—his subsequent sermons would also become the most popular among the prisoners. (Taylor)

“He had the Savior’s Endorsement”: Mark Twain and Thomas Beecher

As Mark Twain’s literary star was rising after the war and he was courting Olivia Langdon, he would also become close friends with Thomas Beecher.

Religion aside, the two men enjoyed many of the same worldly delights, such as playing billiards and having a beer, which they were known to share at Klapproth’s Saloon in Elmira. Beecher, in fact, enjoyed brewing beer himself and, to the chagrin of teetotalers, believed that “moderate drinking of wines and beers served a useful function, promoting health and relaxation in some people.” (Phipps)

Beecher also appreciated Mark Twain’s mischievous love of hoaxes; in particular, one involving a biblical figure, Adam. Twain recalled in “Monument to Adam”, “…I once suggested to Rev. Thomas K. Beecher that we get up a monument to Adam, and Mr. Beecher favored the project…The matter started as a joke, but it came somewhat near to materializing.” (Twain, Adam Monument) According to Twain, Darwin’s theory of evolution inspired the joke’s premise:

In tracing the genesis of the human race back to its sources, Mr. Darwin had left Adam out altogether. We had monkeys, and “missing links,” and plenty of other kinds of ancestors, but no Adam. Jesting with Mr. Beecher and other friends in Elmira, I said there seemed to be a likelihood that the world would discard Adam and accept the monkey, and that in the course of time Adam’s very name would be forgotten in the earth; therefore this calamity ought to be averted; a monument would accomplish this, and Elmira ought not to waste this honorable opportunity to do Adam a favor and herself a credit.

The hoax garnered enough support that it was nearly presented to Congress; however, Twain’s friend in the House who agreed to introduce it, General Joseph R. Hawley, decided against reading it for fear “the House might take it for earnest.”

In terms of liberal religion, Twain also must have recognized qualities in Thomas Beecher that he admired in the prominent liberal ministers with whom he was “thick as thieves” on the Pacific coast (such as Horatio Stebbins and Henry Bellows). Like them, Beecher found no contradiction between faith and science. Not only did he correspond with Charles Darwin, he also helped to establish the Elmira Academy of Sciences. Drawing from his experience as an educator, he held secular leadership roles in Elmira’s schools as well.

Not surprisingly, Beecher’s unconventional ministerial style provoked controversy among members of Elmira’s Ministerial Association, especially in 1869 when he held popular Sunday evening worship services in the town’s opera house. Twain came to his aid, penning a biting defense of his unorthodox friend (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.”

Citing scripture, Twain continued to cut more deeply 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. (“Mr. Beecher and the Clergy”)

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…

Along with extolling the virtues of Park Church’s edifice, Twain also sympathized with aspects of the “antitheological” Christian socialism Beecher championed as the church’s mission. Christian socialism, which would become the Social Gospel movement, eschewed “Marxist rhetoric about smashing the capitalist state.” Among some Gilded Age clergy, it emerged as “a creative response to the social ravages of unfettered nineteenth-century capitalism” and sought to Christianize society through means that were “predominantly cooperative, progressive, social ethical, and pragmatic, usually fusing liberal and democratic elements.” (Reddick; Dorrien, Progressive Religion and Social Democracy)

Twain’s prophetic outrage permeating A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court was very much in line with these principles. Along with lacerating invectives against orthodox religion, which had “invented ‘divine right of kings,’ and propped it all around, brick by brick, with the Beatitudes—wrenching them from their good purpose to make them fortify an evil one,” Twain also wrote:

…here I was, in a country where a right to say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each thousand of its population…I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.

“One of the Best Men I Have Ever Known”

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 Albert Bigelow Paine referred to as Beecher’s “doubtful theology.” However, where Beecher would ultimately find solace in his unconventional Christian faith, Twain would continue “lighting out for the territory” beyond Christianity in his quest for “a new faith system to fill the void,” as Ron Powers put it.

In an autobiographical dictation from 1907, Twain reflected on this difference while still fondly recalling his good friend 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… (Quoted from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3)

T.K. Beecher 1887 (Photo Courtesy of the Mark Twain House and Museum)

Works Cited

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  • —. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Modern Library Paperback Edition, New York, 2001.
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About Dwayne Eutsey

Eutsey, Dwayne

Since completing his master’s thesis on Mark Twain’s religious views at Georgetown University in 1997, Dwayne Eutsey has established himself as an independent scholar on the topic, writing numerous articles, lecturing in various venues, and researching a book on the topic.  Married with three children, Dwayne works as a full-time writer/editor with a non-profit on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. With a degree in English from the University of Maryland, College Park, he also writes on religion, entertainment, politics, and pop culture, and has co-authored The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski (2011), a popular fan-book among Big Lebowski enthusiasts worldwide.

Dwayne is writing a book that examines the significant influence of religious liberalism he sees on Mark Twain’s life and writing. Entitled “There is No Humor in Heaven”: Mark Twain and the Religious Liberalism that Shaped His Life), the book will contribute to the ongoing discussion among scholars and the public regarding Twain’s complicated views on religion. Was Twain antagonistic toward religion, as many scholars and the general public appear to believe? Or, as some scholars posit, was he actually a Christian at heart who never truly strayed far from the orthodox path? Dwayne’s thesis challenges both positions by making the case that the complex liberal religious ferment of Twain’s times profoundly informed his views on religion—as well as his own personal faith journey.

Lectures by Dwayne Eutsey for the Center for Mark Twain Studies