Mark Twain's "Presbyterian conscience" and repentance...

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Some years ago, I was speaking to a middle-aged woman who had been raised in a pious Christian home, sent to a good Christian liberal arts college, married a handsome young man entering the ministry after getting his seminary degree at one of the finest and most conservative Evangelical seminaries, but then given herself to adultery which had marked her and her family for the past twenty years or so. She had long ago given up any pretense of Christian faith, but I appealed to her to pray to God, asking for His help. I told her God would hear her prayers. She responded with a broken question: "But what if He doesn't answer?" She added, softly, "I've tried to pray, but He doesn't answer." It was unbearable and I didn't know what to say.

Later I was speaking to her Christian brother whose faith is strong. I asked if he had any advice concerning future conversations I might have with his sister and he didn't hesitate in his response: "Did she come to God in repentance? There must be repentance." His statement didn't come out any of those sins we associate with calls to repentance today, such as unkindness, vindictiveness, bitterness, moralism, censoriousness; in general, "elder brotherhood." Rather, his comment came from an evident spirit of mourning and faithful love, and it left me very, very sad.

What is the nature of repentance? Is there false repentance, or is all repentance efficacious just like the "Trinitarian baptism" the new Presbyterian sacramentarians hold out to their followers? Should a father or mother, pastor, elder, deacon, or older woman simply comfort those souls who confess to them that they have a bad conscience, telling them that knowing our sin is half or three-quarters of the way to being forgiven; "just ask Jesus and He'll certainly forgive you."

How very enticing it is to heal the souls under our care falsely, as the shepherds of Israel did in the time of...


They heal the brokenness of the daughter of My people superficially, Saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ But there is no peace. Were they ashamed because of the abomination they had done? They certainly were not ashamed, And they did not know how to blush; Therefore they shall fall among those who fall; At the time of their punishment they shall be brought down,” Says the LORD.  - Jeremiah 8:11, 12

Limiting ourselves to palliative measures alone in the work of pastoral care with sin-sick souls is so very enticing to us, and yet so very destructive to the souls we are responsible for as they seek to know their guilt, to come to repentance, to be given forgiveness; to be regenerated, born again. How awful it is to despise the Holy Spirit, assuring those souls we love and care for "just come to Him; He'll never cast you out!" Which of course is our Lord's Own promise, and true, as long as we take the time to explain that command "come to Him" and that it cannot be done without first coming under conviction of God's utter holiness and our utter wickedness by the power of the Holy Spirit, and His leading us from conviction to true repentance and faith. 

This is what it means for sinners to "come to Jesus," yet I had tried to heal this woman's wounds falsely by exhorting her to pray to God, promising He would hear her without any loving explanation of her need of conviction of the desperate strait she was in and that she must flee God's wrath by coming to Jesus in repentance and faith. You see, I wanted to trade in sentimental blandishments rather than Biblical truth. I was an unfaithful shepherd seeking to avoid being the means of a sinner coming under conviction and despairing of any hope outside the shed blood of Jesus Christ. 

But then this woman's faithful and loving brother snapped me to my senses and I remembered my calling. I am to preach God's holiness, God's Law, man's sinfulness, and the hopeless of life and death outside the shed blood of God''s Own Precious Son given for the forgiveness of sin. And doing so is only possible when I myself rely on the power o the Holy Spirit to work through my words and the power of the Holy Spirit to convict the souls we're preaching and speaking to of sin, and righteousness, and judgment, and then to give them the gift of repentance and faith, of new birth in Christ.

These were my thoughts after reading an excerpt from Mark Twain's Autobiography this morning. Under the index entry: "Clemens, Samuel Langhorne (Mark Twain): Attitudes and habits; Presbyterian conscience" we find a number of citations including this one in which Twain has listed and described a number of tragic deaths which he suffered under the guilt of as a boy and young man. He makes it clear though that it was false guilt—the result of his "trained Presbyterian conscience."

My teaching and training enabled me to see deeper into these tragedies than an ignorant person could have done.

My teaching and training enabled me to see deeper into these tragedies than an ignorant person could have done. I knew what they were for. I tried to disguise it from myself, but down in the secret deeps of my heart I knew—and I knew I knew. They were inventions of Providence to beguile me to a better life. It sounds curiously innocent and conceited, now, but to me there was nothing strange about it; it was quite in accordance with the thoughtful and judicious ways of Providence as I understood them. It would not have surprised me, nor even over-flattered me, if Providence had killed off that whole community in trying to save an asset like me. Educated as I had been, it would have seemed just the thing, and well worth the expense. Why Providence should take such an anxious interest in such a property—that idea never entered my head, and there was no one in that simple hamlet who would have dreamed of putting it there. For one thing, no one was equipped with it.

It is quite true: I took all the tragedies to myself; and tallied them off in turn as they happened, saying to myself in each case, with a sigh, "Another one gone—and on my account; this ought to bring me to repentance; His patience will not always endure." And yet privately I believed it would. That is, I believed it in the daytime; but not in the night. With the going down of the sun my faith failed, and the clammy fears gathered about my heart. It was then that I repented. Those were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with the bitterness of death. After each tragedy I recognized the warning and repented; repented and begged; begged like a coward, begged like a dog; and not in the interest of those poor people who had been extinguished for my sake, but only in my own interest. It seems selfish, when I look back on it now.

My repentances were very real, very earnest; and after each tragedy they happened every night for a long time. But as a rule they could not stand the daylight. They faded out and shredded away and disappeared in the glad splendor of the sun. They were the creatures of fear and darkness, and they could not live out of their own place. The day gave me cheer and peace, and at night I repented again. In all my boyhood life I am not sure that I ever tried to lead a better life in the daytime—or wanted to. In my age I should never think of wishing to do such a thing. But in my age, as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse. I realize that from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race—never quite sane in the night. When "Injun Joe" died.... But never mind: in an earlier chapter I have already described what a raging hell of repentance I passed through then. I believe that for months I was as pure as the driven snow. After dark.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1; Harriet Elinor Smith, ed.; University of California Press, Berkley; 2010; pp. 157, 158. (Emphases in the original.)



Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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