Mark Twain versus the Bible

THAT Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was no great fan of the Bible is common knowledge, and his disdain for the “Good Book” shows up in a number of well-known quotations, my favourite being:

It is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.
Letters from the Earth

But an account of an amusing confrontation between Twain and a librarian over the Bible has only just come to light – thanks to Twain’s soon-to-be-published autobiography 100 years after his death in 1910.

According to this blog, the altercation took place in a library that had just banned Huckleberry Finn.

Wrote Twain:

About once a year some pious public library banishes Huck Finn from its children’s department, and on the same plea always – that Huck, the neglected and untaught son of a town drunkard, is given to lying, when in difficulty and hard pressed, and is therefore a bad example for young people, and a damager of their morals.

Two or three years ago I was near by when one of these banishments was decreed and advertised, and I went over and asked the librarian about it, and he said yes, Huck was banished for lying. I asked,

‘Is there nothing else against him?’

‘No, I think not’.

‘Do you banish all books that are likely to defile young morals, or do you stop with Huck?’

‘We do not discriminate; we banish all that are hurtful to young morals’.

I picked up a book, and said:

I see several copies of this book lying around. Are the young forbidden to read it?

‘The Bible? Of course not’.

‘Why not?

‘That is a strange question to ask’.

‘Very well, then I withdraw it. Are you acquainted with the passages in Huck which are held to be objectionable?’

He said he was; and at my request he took pen and paper and proceeded to write them down for me. Meantime I stepped to a desk and wrote down some extracts from the Bible. I showed them to him and said I would take it as a favor if he would attach his extracts to mine and post them on the wall, so that the people could examine them and see which of the two sets they would prefer to have their young boys and girls read.

He replied coldly that he was willing to post the extracts which he had made, but not those which I had made.


‘He replied – still coldly – that he did not wish to discuss the matter’.

According to Time magazine,  in 1885, the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned the book a year after its publication for its “coarse language”

In 1905, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York followed Concord’s lead, banishing the book from the building’s juvenile section with this explanation:

Huck not only itched but scratched, and that he said sweat when he should have said perspiration.

Twain enthusiastically fired back, and once said of his detractors:

Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.

Huckleberry Finn remains one of the most challenged books in the US. In an attempt to avoid controversy, CBS produced a made-for-TV adaptation of the book in 1955 that lacked a single mention of slavery and did not have an African-American portray the character of Jim. In 1998, parents in Tempe, Ariz., sued the local high school over the book’s inclusion on a required reading list. The case went as far as a federal appeals court; the parents lost.

Here’s another, rather longer, Twain quotation from Bible Teaching and Religious Practice, Europe and Elsewhere:

The Christian’s Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes …The world has corrected the Bible. The church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession – and take the credit of the correction.

During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.

Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry … There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.

35 responses to “Mark Twain versus the Bible”

  1. Brian Jordan says:

    My favourite is “Faith is believing what you know ain’t true.” (From memory – can’t run down the source at the moment.)

  2. Arnold Lane says:

    My favourite:

    “A man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation.”

    and the obvious one:

    “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand. “

  3. Broga says:

    Mark Twain is one of my all time heroes. He pulled of the difficult feat of writing as if someone engaged in conversation was chatting at the top of their form. And Huckleberry Finn is a great book.

    The censorship quote is so appropriate to so much today but never more so than the Stalinist censoring of any “non faith” opinion on Thought for the Day. Every wacko opinion, the banning of anything that might actually challenge the intellect and encourage the audience to think, the mushy bolus of well chewed religious tat welcomed as long as it comes from those “of faith.”

    Contemptible arrogance playing to the gullible for fear that they might become less gullible. The BBC should be ashamed that this stain on its reputation continues.

  4. Lucy says:

    I am a long term fan of Mark Twain too. What a hero.

  5. Broga says:

    @Lucy: Glad to hear that. I first read Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer when I was at school. Then later my own children read them. I still remember how much they admired Tom’s scheme to get the fence painted. But they always thought the Huckleberry Finn story was special.

    What do christians imagine they gain by these silly, and certain to fail, attempts at banning books, including great literature? Their selections are arbitrary and, of course, the bible is excused their condemnation. The irony is that the most foul, violent and perverted books are available with never a word of protest from these censors. The banning kicks in when there is any suggestion that the author or the book may be less than respectful towards their particular faith.

    Rather off topic but one of my favourite quotes is from the judge in the Lady Chatterly trial: “Is this the kind of book you would allow your wife or your maid to read?”

  6. Marcus says:

    Here are another couple of quotes I like from Twain:

    “But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?”

    “When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”

  7. ZombieHunter says:

    I’ve never actually read any of Mark twains books but I’ll have to put them on my list of books to read though that list keeps getting longer and longer by the day 😛

    “censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak because a baby can’t chew it”

    Thats always been one of my favorite anti censorship quotes and being anti censorship is something I am passionate about and have to be passionate about as I like things that people want to ban, censor or alter in some way and I’m not just talking about right wing fundie christians left wing so called liberals are just as bad they both want to ban things I enjoy but for differn’t reasons

    Example I like violent video games, right wing fundie bible bashers want to ban them because they promote violence and encourage bad behaviour in children and distract people away from god leftie so called liberals want to ban them because apparently it’s bad for you and there is an off chance that somebody might be offended and the only way to stop people being offended is to ban things and censor the content.

    I think the trouble with censorship is that people who claim to be anti censorship only care about it when it’s something they like being banned or censored and they aren’t so quick to speak up when it’s something they don’t like facing the same treatment from the same censors, example someone who reads a lot gets pissed off at rediculous bans on books or films because they like those particular books or films but when it comes to video games they aren’t so quick to speak up because these games have no artistic merit OR someone into heavy metal music won’t be so quick to defend rap music when it’s being used as a scapegoat for societies ills and faced with restrictions by the same people who want to ban heavy metal, I tried to point this out to a fellow metalhead when I was at a gig a while ago and so solid crew were all over the papers being accused of encouraging gun crime and gang violence, the guy I was talking to thought it was right to ban them and I pointed out to him that the same people who want to ban that are the same people who want to ban our music and if so solid crew get banned then that means you have to ban our music too but this arguement was lost on him so I gave up. 😛

  8. Harry says:

    The trouble with censorship is it makes things worse. I, for example, would rather tentacle porn did not exist. I won’t suggest censoring it because it was originally introduced as a form of censorship. Rather than show a penis, knowing full well that penises corrupt people and turn them evil, japanese media chose instead to use the wholesome and noncorrupting image of a tentacle in its place.

    There are more examples but none better in my opinion.

  9. Broadsword says:

    Like you I’ve never read Mark Twain. The trouble with coming here is that you end up Googling new words and have a reading list as long as your arm.

    I’m a metalhead too and I think you’ll find Stargraves is into it as well. Your point about artistic merit is a good one. There are many art forms and just because I don’t like something, it doesn’t mean it’s crap.

  10. chrsbol says:

    This is my favourite MT quote.

    “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” –

    Applies to every teen…….

  11. Stuart W says:

    Thanks for posting these. I read ‘Huckleberry Finn’ in 2000 but have never seen these droll and needle-sharp quotes before.
    ‘…never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession – and take the credit of the correction’ is particularly prophetic in light of creationist views being morphed into ‘intelligent design’ after countless scientific discoveries made the Bible’s content look like even more of a mountain of superstition and ignorance by contrast.

  12. Marcus says:

    Stuart W Speaking of creationists, superstition and ignorance, you should take a look at the website I’ve linked to below. It’s called Earth History and I was directed to it by a guy called Jon Woodward who runs (I think) the crazy Noah’s Zoo theme park/brainwashing centre.

    According to Jon, he has ‘studied evolutionary science at a high level’ but still thinks that concepts such as ‘time inflation’ and comments such as “the speed of light at Creation must have been much faster than now” aren’t bonkers at all but actually make for good science. He also thinks that a complete re-reading of the entire geological record so it fits neatly with creationists’ view of the universe is perfectly sane and acceptable.

    Read it and be afraid!


  13. Janstince says:

    Though not related specifically to the bible, my favorite quote was:

    “Never refuse to do a kindness, unless the act would work great injury to yourself. And never refuse a drink, under any circumstances.”

    Words to live by, I believe he put them in his memoirs.

  14. Marcus says:

    By the way, I did also ask Jon Woodward to explain how Noah found penguins and polar bears in Palestine. But the creationist loon said he had ‘better things to do’.

  15. Janstince says:

    Edit not working well on my phone. Also, the latest crack-pated scheme I heard to get Huck Finn banned was its proclivity of the use of the phrase “nigger Jim.” Oddly enough, I don’t recall it being black people who had a problem with it, though I could be mistaken.

  16. Stonyground says:

    The best argument against those who seek to censor things is the total lack of effect caused by the internet. Their argument for censoring stuff has always been some vaguely defined harm which would be done to society if the prolls were to be allowed access to said stuff. The internet has made censorship almost impossible and as a consequence made every kind of material available to everybody. Why has the end of civilisation as we know it failed to occur? I would say that it is because the vaguely defined harm exists only inside their heads.

  17. Broga says:

    Censorship, particularly by religionuts, is usually based on ignorance. And they are very happy to censor their own kind. You won’t find a better, or more entertaining as I see it, example than that amazing intellect Erasmus. St Jerome was said to have written the Vulgate i.e. the Latin translation of the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. The Church gave this their authority, this was the book, the word of God, The Holy Book, the real deal and for hundreds of years accepted as the Word of God.

    Erasmus decided that the Greek was rubbish and the grammar poor. He decided to do a Latin re-write and his versions (1516 and a much improved 1519) was very different from the Vulgate which, as you will know, just had to be perfect, only it wasn’t. It was crap. Not only that but Erasmus, being a top of the class smarty pants, defended his version with brilliant and aggressive scholarship. It was no contest. This was a guy with the kind of ability that defies competition. The problem: if the text on which the Church had approved with full authority was wrong – often daft, in fact – what can be done. What had happened to God’s word? (Hang on, dear reader, I know you are ahead of me.)

    They censored and banned Erasmus version, big time. And this was serious and vicious. Accept the brilliant Erasmus version against the very flaky version approved by the Church and you risked being burned alive. In 1569 Herman Van Flekwyk was burned at the stake by Cornelius Adrian, inquisitor and Franciscan Friar. The reason, “You have sucked at the poisonous breast of Erasmus……”

  18. Har Davids says:

    Mark Twain’s books were among the first I read in English and I still consider them a treat. What appeals to me is the irreverence his characters can display, very often in an innocent way. And don’t just read Finn and Sawyer; there’s so much more. ‘A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court’ is another favourite of mine.

    And about censurship: a weapon to be used if you don’t have any answers left, if you had any to begin with.

  19. Stuart W says:

    Marcus, I have a hunch that the methods which Noah and family used to round up the most dangerous predators and heaviest herbivores in the days before tranquiliser darts are also something that visitors to this park have to fathom out for themselves.

  20. stargraves says:

    @Zombie & Broady – indeed I find censorship often is used to make scapegoats to blame for whatever societal wrongdoings are prominent at the time – rather than a genuine attempt to tackle social ills, more often than not, caused by social deprivation, etc,

    The thing is, violent video games are meritous works of art IMHO – they are made by whole teams of reasonably talented people from programmers, designers, writers etc… to create an exciting – I would say cathartic too – experience. Like exploitation movies (of course I am a fan of these too) there is no proof from research that they can corrupt and deprave. (Japan for example has the most violent games and films by FAR – some of their stuff is fantastically depraved! yet their society has much lower crime rates than the US and UK, presumably due to the deeply held social and cultural customs
    they have – I am generalising here of course!)

    Agree too about rap – as a metaller I can’t stand the repetition of the same beat for more than 4 bars; its like dripping water torture to me – 10 seconds of it is worse than waterboarding to me – but I don’t want it banned.

    And the genius of mark twain – the short story “the mysterious stranger” is a must read – there is this most charming passage which I have to share:

    “Strange, indeed, that you should not have suspected that your universe and its contents were only dreams, visions, fiction! Strange, because they are so frankly and hysterically insane – like all dreams: a God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones; who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body; who mouths justice and invented hell – mouths mercy and invented hell – mouths Golden Rules, and forgiveness multiplied by seventy times seven, and invented hell; who mouths morals to other people and has none himself; who frowns upon crimes, yet commits them all; who created man without invitation, then tries to shuffle the responsibility for man’s acts upon man, instead of honorably placing it where it belongs, upon himself; and finally, with altogether divine obtuseness, invites this poor, abused slave to worship him! . . .”

    Says it all really

  21. Broga says:

    Stuart W. You are overlooking the obvious solution. I asked a fundie in the USA some years ago how Noah captured a couple of koala bears, who ate only Eucalyptus, and who lived in Australia, a continent unknown to Noah or anyone else.

    “To God, all things are possible,” he explained.

  22. Stonyground says:

    “To God, all things are possible”

    “And the Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but he could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron.”

    Judges Ch. 1 – Vs. 19.

    All things are possible until God is faced with superior technology it would seem. If iron chariots are a problem, it will be interesting to see how the four horsemen of the apocalypse cope with A10s, helicopter gunships, cluster bombs and nuclear armed cruise missiles.

  23. barriejohn says:

    You guys are really naive! Don’t you realize that as all dating methods are completely unreliable, the earth had just one land mass up until the time of Noah (as described so graphically in Genesis), and it was only as a result of the tremendous upheavals of The Flood that the continents came into being? Also, inasmuch as species have evolved since then, the animals that, after The Flood, migrated to the parts that we now refer to as The Americas and Australasia, have had ample time in the ensuing 4,000 years to become the creatures which we find only in those places today. It is only ungodly scientists, blinded by atheism, who think that everything in the past progressed at the same rate as it does today.

  24. barriejohn says:

    Broga: My response to Stuart’s and your comments has disappeared, but your friend should have directed you to this site!

    John Woodmorappe answers many questions about the ark and the animals on it, in great detail in his book “Noah’s ark: A Feasibility study”. There is stuff in this book that would quiet any skeptic.


  25. Russell W says:


    “Australia,a continent unknown to Noah or anyone else”

    Not quite,people have been living in Australia for at least 50,000 years and they got to know the place rather well.Koalas are not bears,by the way.
    Nothing personal,it’s just that Euro/US centricism is irritating.

  26. Thanks for the Repost
    Phil Ferguson

  27. stargraves says:

    why would noah want to save dropbears? they are deadly! ;o)

  28. Broga says:

    Russell W. Point taken and you are right to make it. I am aware of the long history in Australia of the Aboriginal Australians, the Dream Time and much else. I have also been appalled by the way these first Australians were hunted for sport, shot without recourse to justice, deprived of their children, their lands purloined and trashed. Much of this, of course, arose out of an Imperial Arrogance which I detest and which continues. And not just in Australia.

  29. Adam Tjaavk says:

    Read THIS and be afriad!

    Didn’t realise you were a Geordie, Barriejohn!


  30. Ex Patriot says:

    MARK TWAIN my hero for many years, The bible and it’s stories are mythology and thats what it will ever be. Screw you fundie nuts…

  31. Brian Jordan says:

    I’ve finally tracked down my favourite Mark Twain quote – and a devil of a job it was!

    There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”
    –Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar.

    Header for Chapter XII,
    The Project Gutenberg EBook of Following the Equator, Complete
    by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens)

  32. Aad van Duijn says:

    Religion, Christianity included, is crap! Not only is it nonsensical and absurd (virgin birth, resurrection of Christ etc. etc.)it is also repulsive. A father who has his son crucified – supposed that it were true – is not benign and almighty but a psychopatic bastard!

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