Letter to the Earth (by Mark Twain)

Below is an essay by Mark Twain, which was published posthumously on account of its - well - controversial nature. It reminds me of his sarcastic comedy (complete with punchline), Yama’s interrogation of sinners, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol all rolled into one. Just remember, this is humor.

Office of the Recording Angel
Department of Petitions, Jan. 20

Abner Scofield
Coal Dealer
Buffalo, New York

I have the honor, as per command, to inform you that your recent act of benevolence and self-sacrifice has been recorded upon a page of the Book called Golden Deeds of Men; a distinction, I am permitted to remark, which is not merely extraordinary, it is unique.

As regards your prayers, for the week ending the 19th, I have the honor to report as follows:

  1. For weather to advance hard coal 15 cents a ton. Granted.
  2. For influx of laborers to reduce wages 10 percent. Granted.
  3. For a break in rival soft-coal prices. Granted.
  4. For a visitation upon the man, or upon the family of the man, who has set up a competing retail coal-yard in Rochester. Granted, as follows: diphtheria, 2, 1 fatal; scarlet fever, 1, to result in deafness and imbecility. NOTE. This prayer should have been directed against this subordinate’s principals, the N.Y. Central R.R. Co.
  5. For deportation to Sheol of annoying swarms of persons who apply daily for work, or for favors of one sort or another. Taken under advisement for later decision and compromise, this petition appearing to conflict with another one of same date, which will be cited further along.
  6. For application of some form of violent death to neighbor who threw brick at family cat, whilst the same was serenading. Reserved for consideration and compromise because of conflict with a prayer of even date to be cited further along.
  7. To “damn the missionary cause.” Reserved also - as above.
  8. To increase December profits of $22,230 to $45,000 for January, and perpetuate a proportionate monthly increase thereafter - “which will satisfy you.” The prayer granted; the added remark accepted with reservations.

Especial note is made of the above list, they being of particular moment. The 298 remaining supplications classifiable under the head of Special Providences, Schedule A, for week ending 19th, are granted in a body, except that 3 of the 32 cases requiring immediate death have been modified to incurable disease.

This completes the week’s invoice of petitions known to this office under the technical designation of Secret Supplications of the Heart, and which, for a reason which may suggest itself, always receive our first and especial attention.

The remainder of the week’s invoice falls under the head of what we term Public Prayers, in which classification we place prayers uttered in Prayer Meeting, Sunday School, Class Meeting, Family Worship, etc. These kinds of prayers have value according to the classification of Christian uttering them. By rule of this office, Christians are divided into two grand classes, to wit: (1) Professing Christians; (2) Professional Christians. These, in turn, are minutely subdivided and classified by Size, Species, and Family; and finally, Standing is determined by carats, the minimum being 1, the maximum 1,000.

As per balance sheet for quarter ending Dec. 31st, 1847, you stood classified as follows:

Grand Classification: Professing Christian.
Size: one-fourth of maximum.
Species: Human-Spiritual.
Family: A of the Elect, Division 16.
Standing: 322 carats fine.

As per balance sheet for quarter just ended - that is to say, forty years later - you stand classified as follows:

Grand Classification: Professional Christian.
Size: six one-hundredths of maximum.
Species: Human-Animal.
Family: W of the Elect, Division 1547.
Standing: 3 carats fine.

I have the honor to call your attention to the fact that you seem to have deteriorated.

To resume report upon your Public Prayers - with the side remark that in order to encourage Christians to your grade and of approximate grades, it is the custom of this office to grant many things to them which would not be granted to Christians of a higher grade - partly because they would not be asked for:

Prayer for weather mercifully tempered to the needs of the poor and the naked. Denied. This was a Prayer-Meeting prayer. It conflicts with Item 1 of this report, which was a Secret Supplication of the Heart. By a rigid rule of this office, certain sorts of Public Prayers of Professional Christians are forbidden to take precedence of Secret Supplications of the Heart.

Prayer for better times and plentier food “for the hard-handed son of toil whose patient and exhausting labors make comfortable the homes, and pleasant the ways, of the more fortunate, and entitle him to our vigilant and effective protection from the wrongs and injustices which grasping avarice would do him, and to the tenderest offices of our grateful hearts.” Prayer-Meeting prayer. Refused. Conflicts with Secret Supplications of the Heart No. 2.

Prayer “that such as in any way obstruct our preferences may be generously blessed, both themselves and their families, we here calling our hearts to witness that in their worldly prosperity we are spiritually blessed, and our joys made perfect.” Prayer-Meeting prayer. Refused. Conflicts with Secret Supplications of the Heart Nos. 3 and 4.

“Oh, let none fall heir to the pains of perdition through words or acts of ours.” Family Worship. Received fifteen minutes in advance of Secret Supplications of the Heart No. 5, with which it distinctly conflicts. It is suggested that one or the other of these prayers be withdrawn, or both of them modified.

“Be mercifully inclined toward all who would do us offense in our persons or our property.” Includes man who threw brick at cat. Family Prayer. Received some minutes in advance of No. 6, Secret Supplications of the Heart. Modification suggested, to reconcile discrepancy.

“Grant that the noble missionary cause, the most precious labor entrusted to the hands of men, may spread and prosper without let or limit in all heathen lands that do as yet reproach us with their spiritual darkness.” Universal prayer shoved in at meeting of American Board. Received nearly half a day in advance of No. 7, Secret Supplications of the Heart. This office takes no stock in missionaries, and is not connected in any way with the American Board. We should like to grant one of these prayers, but cannot grant both. It is suggested that the American Board one be withdrawn.

This office desires for the twentieth time to call urgent attention to your remark appended to No. 8. It is a chestnut.

Of the 464 specifications contain in your Public Prayers for the week, and not previously noted in this report, we grant 2, and deny the rest. To wit: Granted, (1) “that the clouds may continue to perform their office; (2) and the sun his.” It was the divine purpose anyhow; it will gratify you to know that you have not disturbed it. Of the 462 details refused, 61 were uttered in Sunday School. In this connection I must once more remind you that we grant no Sunday School Prayers of Professional Christians of the classification technically known in this office as the John Wanamaker grade. We merely enter them as “words,” and they count to his credit according to the number uttered within certain limits of time; 3,000 per quarter-minute required, or no score; 4,200 in a possible 5,000 is a quite common Sunday School score, among experts, and counts the same as two hymns and a bouquet furnished by young ladies in an assassin’s cell, execution morning. Your remaining 401 details count for wind only. We bunch them and use them for head winds in retarding the ships of improper people, but it takes so many of them to make an impression that we cannot allow anything for their use.

I desire to add a word of my own to this report. When certain sorts of people do a sizable good deed, we credit them up a thousand-fold more for it than we would in the case of a better man - on account of the strain. You stand far away above your classification record here, because of certain self-sacrifices of yours which greatly exceed what could have been expected of you. Years ago, when you were worth only $100,000, and sent $2 to your impoverished cousin the widow when she appealed to you for help, there were many in heaven who were not able to believe it, and many more who believed that the money were counterfeit. Your character went up many degrees when it was shown that these suspicions were unfounded. A year or two later, when you sent the poor girl $4 in answer to another appeal, everybody believed it, and you were all the talk here for days together. Two years later you sent $6, upon supplication, when the widow’s youngest child died, and that act made perfect your good fame. Everybody in heaven said, “Have you heard about Abner?” - for you are now affectionately called Abner here. Your increasing donation, every two or three years, has kept your name on all lips, and warm in all hearts. All heaven watches you Sundays, as you drive to church in your handsome carriage; and when you hand retires from the contribution plate, the glad shout is heard even to the ruddy walls of remote Sheol, “Another nickel from Abner!”

But the climax came a few days ago, when the widow wrote and said she could get a school in a far village to teach if she had $50 to get herself the long journey; and you counted up last month’s clear profits from your three coal mines - $22,230 - and added to it the certain profit for the current month - $45,000 and a possible fifty - and then got down your pen and your checkbook and mailed her fifteen whole dollars! Ah, heaven bless and keep you forever and ever, generous heart! There was not a dry eye in the realms of bliss; and amidst the hand-shakings, the embracings, and praisings, the decree was thundered from the shining mount, that this deed should outhonor all the historic self-sacrifices of men and angels, and be recorded by itself upon a page of its own, for that the strain of it upon you had been heavier and bitterer than the strain it costs ten thousand martyrs to yield up their lives at the fiery stake; and all said, “What is the giving up of life, to a noble soul, or to ten thousand noble souls, compared with the giving up of fifteen dollars out the greedy grasp of the meanest white man that ever lived on the face of the earth?”

And it was a true word. And Abraham, weeping, shook out the contents of his bosom and pasted the eloquent label there, “RESERVED”; and Peter, weeping, said, “He shall be received with a torchlight procession when he comes”; and then all heaven boomed, and was glad you were going there.

And so was hell.


By command


This is obviously tongue-in-cheek but the implication of a vast heavenly bureaucracy handing out favors to the fossil fuel industry reminds me that every civilization tends to imagine heaven as a mirror of its own political structure: from the courts of Chinese heaven, to the vengeful “Roko’s” basilisk of Silicon Valley, we’re always telling stories that naturalize even the most unstable power structures…


Is “Letter to the Earth (by Mark Twain)” connected with any Buddhist or Asian religions?

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This is the plot twist, right?

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Yeah, it reads that way. I think here Heaven’s functionaries are modeling after the IRS or an auditing firm, which fits Scofield, who is a businessman. Twain didn’t believe in a God cast in the image of man or that Heaven could be anything like what Christians believed, if it existed at all. It was all preposterous to him. He had also become a misanthropist at the end of his life, and these unpublished writings are really very dark at times. He lived through the Civil War and long enough to see the United States occupy the Philippines and behave like other European colonial empires. His attitude was very much like people after World War I who became convinced there was something very wrong with human nature. Twain’s answer was that humans had a “moral sense” which allowed them to imagine all sorts of cruel evils and then pretend to be virtuous after doing them. To him, animals were innocent compared to humans because they didn’t have any concept of evil.

Myself, when I read Twain’s writings, I think he was a very insightful and wise man who had clearly understood the basic problem of life. But he couldn’t come up with an answer to it and fell into a deep depression, partly because of that.

I think Twain did dabble in reading about Asian religions the way the American Transcendentalists did, but I’m not sure if any of that is in this essay. Perhaps Heaven here is a bit like the Chinese one, as Khemarato has said.

It doesn’t quite work, does it? It took a couple readings for me to fully get it. The laying on of more and more phony compliments was supposed to be the tell of what was coming, I think, to help the punchline work.


Yeah, unfortunately sociopaths are immune to shame.