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Sociological Criticism of Twain’s “The War Prayer” Essay

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Updated: Jul 14th, 2021

Mark Twain’s The War Prayer is a short story written during the Philippine-American War in 1905 but published only after the author’s death (Nagawara 30). In the story, Twain gives not only a scathing critique of war but also sharply condemns the hypocrisy of the Church that prays for love and happiness yet supports the horrors of war. One may note that in The War Prayer, Twain’s thoughts about Christianity are also revealed, as the writer claims that there is intolerance in the Christians’ views on war.

It is thus no wonder that the story drew immediate condemnation from a bunch of critics stating that Twain is a jingoist who wrote the prose poem in his most distraught period of life. In the given essay, it is discussed that The War Prayer cannot be viewed solely as a story of a pacifist, as the main argument is weak and unjustified.

To begin with, it is important to consider the historical background of the short story. According to Zehr, it was written as a response to the US suppressing the movement for independence in the Philippines (87). That is why The War Prayer may be considered to be a product of Twain’s revulsion of the US policy. Martin Zehr states that the work represents Twain’s ability to “emphasize the experience of the Other” (88). Such a skill to adopt the perspective of the others could have enabled Twain to write an emphatic rather than pacifistic story. It is the portrayed perspective of the other people that made The War Prayer’s appeal to emotions so powerful.

However, it is possible to assume that it was necessary for the US to maintain the linkage between national and religious aims. In this relation, the Church was a powerful tool for ensuring that this linkage was strong enough to promote the rise of Christianity. According to Vaughan, Twain “was crossing the Rubicon into a field of assured deduction” (40). That is why the main argument may be considered to be weak, as Twain does not tackle the issue from the broad perspective.

One may note that obscurity of the setting and context that initially influenced Twain are often disregarded. This, in turn, does not allow for a clear interpretation of the short story. Hsu views the author not as a great American critic but as a great traveler “with a consciously global viewpoint” (79). According to Dwayne Eutsey, in The War Prayer, the natural dualism of Americans is reflected rather than “orthodox notions of God and Satan” (51).

This statement can be substantiated by the fact that Twain’s appeal does not depend on his voice, as it is the aged stranger who conveys the main idea of the story. Therefore, The War Prayer may be viewed as a declaration of not a pacifist but a reflective Trans-Atlantic traveler.

The main argument in the story is against the ignorance that Christians practice, as well as the hypocrisy of the Church which fully supports the war and thus its detrimental effects. Even though the argument may be considered to be reasonable, some critics claim that such an attitude to Christianity is prejudiced. In particular, Sloan states that The War Prayer was written as a scathing indictment of religion at the time when Twain experienced a number of losses (88). Considering himself to be a victim of God’s retribution, Twain could have revenged for his misfortune using the power of the word.

To sum up, in the given essay, Mark Twain’s The War Prayer has been discussed regarding social criticism. It has been determined that even though the writer makes an impressive argument claiming that the Church supports the horrors of war, he does not view the issue on a large scale. This may be explained by the fact that Twain poses himself rather as a Trans-Atlantic traveler than a philosopher. Also, the story may be prejudiced as it was written at the time of the writer’s personal losses.

Works Cited

Eutsey, Dwayne. “‘From the Throne’: What the Stranger in ‘The War-Prayer’ Says about Mark Twain’s Theology.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1. 2009, pp. 50–53.

Hsu, Hua. “The Trans-Pacific Lesson of Mark Twain’s ‘War-Prayer’.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1. 2009, pp. 78–80.

Nagawara, Makoto. “A Comment on ‘The War-Prayer’: Mark Twain ‘Never Ceased to Grow’.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1. 2009, pp. 29–31.

Sloan, Gary. “A Connecticut Yankee in God’s Court. Skeptic, vol. 8, no. 4, 2001, pp. 86–89.

Vaughan, Christopher A. “Mark Twain’s Final Offensive: ‘The War-Prayer’ and American Religious Nationalism.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1. 2009, pp. 38–41.

Zehr, Martin. “The Vision of the Other in Mark Twain’s ‘War-Prayer’.” Journal of Transnational American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1. 2009, pp. 87–91.

Transnational American Studies, vol. 1, no. 1. 2009, pp. 87–91.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Sociological Criticism of Twain's "The War Prayer"." July 14, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/sociological-criticism-of-twains-the-war-prayer/.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Sociological Criticism of Twain's "The War Prayer"'. 14 July.

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