Letters from the Earth

Letters from the Earth
From Letters from the Earth — Uncensored Writings
by Mark Twain
Edited by Bernard De Voto
HarperCollins Perennial Classics Edition (2004)

In this fifty-three-page title piece from the volume listed above, Mark Twain is at his biting and brilliant best. Written in 1909 (Twain died in 1910), “Letters from the Earth” removes any doubt about where the author of Tom Sawyer and Life on the Mississippi stood on religious matters. A series of eleven letters addressed to the archangels Michael and Gabriel by Satan containing his observations of life on earth, “Letters” systematically lays waste to the Old and New Testaments and the notion that human beings are watched over by an all-knowing, benevolent deity. From Satan’s third letter, on the subject of Adam and Eve’s fall:

. . . Very well, God banished Adam and Eve from the garden, and eventually assassinated them. All for disobeying a command which he had no right to utter. [They were acting according to the nature God had given them. W.M.] But he did not stop there, as you will see. He has one code of morals for himself, and quite another for his children. He requires his children to deal justly — and gently — with offenders, and forgive them seventy-and-seven times; whereas he deals neither justly nor gently with anyone, and he did not forgive the ignorant and thoughtless first pair of juveniles even their first small offense and say, “You may go free this time, I will give you another chance.”

On the contrary! He elected to punish their children, all through the ages to the end of time, for a trifling offense committed by others before they were born. He is punishing them yet. In mild ways? No, in atrocious ones.

You would not suppose that this kind of a Being gets many compliments. Undeceive yourself: the world calls him the All-Just, the All-Righteous, the All-Good, the All-Merciful, the All-Forgiving, the All-Truthful, the All-Loving, the Source of All Morality. These sarcasms are uttered daily, all over the world. But not as conscious sarcasms. No, they are meant seriously: they are uttered without a smile. . . .

The story of the Flood and Noah’s Ark receives similar treatment, as does the New Testament and its introduction of hell. From Satan’s tenth letter:

. . . In time, the Deity perceived that death was a mistake; a mistake, in that it was insufficient; insufficient, for the reason that while it was an admirable agent for the inflicting of misery upon the survivor, it allowed the dead person himself to escape from all further persecution in the blessed refuge of the grave. This was not satisfactory. A way must be contrived to pursue the dead beyond the tomb.

The Deity pondered this matter during four thousand years unsuccessfully, but as soon as he came down to earth and became a Christian his mind cleared and he knew what to do. He invented hell, and proclaimed it.

Now here is a curious thing. It is believed by everybody that while he was in heaven he was stern, hard, resentful, jealous, and cruel; but that when he came down to earth and assumed the name Jesus Christ, he became the opposite of what he was before: that is to say, he became sweet, and gentle, merciful, forgiving, and all harshness disappeared from his nature and a deep and yearning love for his poor human children took its place. Whereas it was as Jesus Christ that he devised hell and proclaimed it!

Which is to say, that as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament — oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was when he was at his very worst in those old days!

Meek and gentle? By and by we will examine this popular sarcasm by the light of the hell which he invented.

While it is true that the palm for malignity must be granted to Jesus, the inventor of hell, he was hard and ungentle enough for all godlike purposes even before he became a Christian. It does not appear that he ever stopped to reflect that he was to blame when a man went wrong, inasmuch as the man was merely acting in accordance with the disposition he had afflicted him with. No, he punished the man, instead of punishing himself. . . .

And so on. In language that is crisp, clear, and direct, Mark Twain presents his case logically and with great humor, as when he said, “Shem was full of hookworms. It is wonderful, the thorough and comprehensive study which the Creator devoted to the great work of making man miserable.” Also from aboard the Ark:

The discomforts furnished by the Ark were many and various. The family had to live right in the presence of multitudinous animals, and breathe the distressing stench they made and be deafened day and night with the thunder-crash of noise their roarings and screechings produced; and in addition to these intolerable discomforts it was a peculiarly trying place for the ladies, for they could look in no direction without seeing some thousands of the creatures engaged in multiplying and replenishing. And then, there were the flies. They swarmed everywhere, and persecuted the Family all day long. They were the first animals up, in the morning, and the last ones down, at night. But they must not be killed, they must not be injured, they were sacred, their origin was divine, they were the special pets of the Creator, his darlings.

It’s worth noting that had Mark Twain begun his writing career with “Letters from the Earth,” he might well not have had a writing career. That he spoke out near the end of his life showed he was more concerned with finding the truth than with how he would be remembered. He wasn’t arrogant enough to pretend to know the answers, but he was intelligent and open-minded enough to question what so many people eagerly and blindly accept. In so doing, he brought honor to his profession and lived up to his end of the human bargain.

If “Letters from the Earth” were to be read from the pulpit today, it would definitely make some people laugh — and scare others to death. In light of all the so-called “advances” we have made since the author’s time, and considering the atrocities committed daily in God’s name, this is a powerful tribute to his writing.

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