The War Prayer
by Mark Twain

                                                                    Adapted for solo performance by Orfeo, from
                                                                    “The War-Prayer,” in Europe and Elsewhere








Script copyright © 2001 Orfeo

It was a time of great and exalting excitement.

The country was up in arms,
the war was on,
in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism;

the drums were beating,
the bands playing,
the toy pistols popping,
the bunched firecrackers hissing and spluttering;

on every hand
and far down the receding and fading spread
of roofs and balconies
a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun;

daily the young volunteers
marched down the wide avenue
gay and fine in their new uniforms,
the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts
cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion
as they swung by;

nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting,
to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts,
and which they interrupted at briefest intervals
with cyclones of applause,
the tears running down their cheeks the while;

in the churches the pastors
preached devotion to flag and country,
and invoked the God of Battles
beseeching His aid in our good cause
in outpourings of fervid eloquence
which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time,
and the half dozen rash spirits
that ventured to disapprove of the war
and cast a doubt upon its righteousness
straightway got such a stern and angry warning
that for their personal safety’s sake
they quickly shrank out of sight
and offended no more in that way.


Sunday morning came—
next day the battalions would leave for the front;
the church was filled;
the volunteers were there,
their young faces alight with martial dreams—
visions of the stern advance,
the gathering momentum,
the rushing charge,
the flashing sabers,
the flight of the foe,
the tumult,
the enveloping smoke,
the fierce pursuit,
the surrender!
Then home from the war,
bronzed heroes,
welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory!

With the volunteers sat their dear ones,
proud, happy, and envied
by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers
to send forth to the field of honor,
there to win for the flag, or, failing,
die the noblest of noble deaths.

The service proceeded;
a war chapter from the Old Testament was read;
the first prayer was said;
it was followed by an organ burst
that shook the building,
and with one impulse the house rose,
with glowing eyes and beating hearts,
and poured out that tremendous invocation:

God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest,
Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!


Then came the “long” prayer.

None could remember the like of it
for passionate pleading
and moving and beautiful language.


The burden of its supplication was,
that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all
would watch over our noble young soldiers,

…and aid, comfort, and encourage them
in their patriotic work;

bless them,
shield them in the day of battle
and the hour of peril,
bear them in Thy mighty hand,
make them strong and confident,
invincible in the bloody onset;
help them crush the foe,
grant to them and to their flag and country
imperishable honor and glory—


An aged stranger entered
and moved with slow and noiseless step
up the main aisle,
his eyes fixed upon the minister,
his long body clothed in a robe
that reached to his feet,
his head bare,
his white hair descending
in a frothy cataract to his shoulders,
his seamy face unnaturally pale,
pale even to ghastliness.
With all eyes following him and wondering,
he made his silent way;


without pausing,
he ascended to the preacher’s side
and stood there waiting.


With shut lids the preacher,
unconscious of his presence,
continued his moving prayer,
and at last finished it with the words,
uttered in fervent appeal,
“Bless our arms, grant us the victory,
O Lord and God,
Father and Protector of our land and flag!”


The stranger touched his arm,
motioned him to step aside—
which the startled minister did—
and took his place.


During some moments
he surveyed the spellbound audience
with solemn eyes,
in which burned an uncanny light;
then in a deep voice he said:


“I come from the Throne—
bearing a message from Almighty God!”
The words smote the house with a shock;
if the stranger perceived it
he gave no attention.
“He has heard the prayer
of His servant your shepherd,
and will grant it if such be your desire
after I, His messenger,
shall have explained to you its import—
that is to say,
its full import.
For it is like unto many of the prayers of people,
in that it asks for more
than the one who utters it is aware of—
except one pause and think.


“God’s servant and yours
has prayed his prayer.
Has he paused and taken thought?
Is it one prayer?
No, it is two—
one uttered, and the other not.
Both have reached the ear
of Him who heareth all supplications,
the spoken and the unspoken.

Ponder this—keep it in mind.
If you would beseech a blessing upon yourself,
lest without intent
you invoke a curse upon your neighbor
at the same time.
If you pray
for the blessing of rain on your crop
which needs it,
by that act
you are possibly praying
for a curse on some neighbor’s crop
which may not need rain
and can be injured by it. [pause]


“You have heard your servant’s prayer—
the uttered part of it.
I am commissioned by God
to put into words the other part of it—
that part which the pastor—
and also you in your hearts—
fervently prayed silently.
And ignorantly and unthinkingly?
God grant that it was so!


You heard the words
‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’
That is sufficient.
The whole of the uttered prayer
is compact into those pregnant words.
Elaborations were not necessary.
When you have prayed for victory
you have prayed
for many unmentioned results
that follow victory—
must follow it,
cannot help but follow it.


Upon the listening spirit of God
fell also the unspoken part of the prayer.
He commandeth me
to put it into words.

“Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth into battle—be Thou near them! With them—in spirit—we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—

“For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet!

“We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.”

(After a pause.) “Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

* * *

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.


Last modified: 02/23/22