Mark Twain, a pilgrim in progress, hoped to discover something holy in the Holy Land as he searched for that elusive certitude we all secretly desire. Does he find it?

The Innocents Abroad

Mark Twain’s first and most popular book, “The Innocents Abroad,” follows Mark Twain’s epic excursion to Europe and the Holy Land.  The book historically attracts the attention of analysts and pundits ranging from literary critics to metaphysical commentators.

Theories about Twain’s tour of Palestine described in the book encompass everything from a fulfilling of Biblical Prophecy (“The Oracle” by Jonathan Cahn) to characterization as a sustained joke at the expense of the local people (Archaeologist Michael Press). 

Most analysts overlook the book’s defining moment, and so miss its most obvious theme: Mark Twain’s quest to find something holy in the Holy Land.

Twain Joins a Pilgrimage

William Faulkner called Mark Twain (pseudonym for Samuel Langhorne Clemens) the father of American literature. But launching a literary career turned out to be a formidable challenge for the young Missourian. Twain held an obscure job as a reporter in San Francisco when he learned of an excursion to Europe and the Holy Land, lauded as the first organized pleasure party ever assembled for a transatlantic voyage.

The Brooklyn, New York, Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims organized the trip in early 1867. The advertised itinerary proved to be more than Mark Twain could resist. He convinced his newspaper to provide the $1,250.00 passage money in return for regular letters describing the adventure for publication as a series of articles. And so, the fledgling writer signed on with about 70 pilgrims from the Church, which probably became the source for the secondary title of The Innocents Abroad, “The New Pilgrim’s Progress.”

But the trip was destined to be more than a working vacation for Twain. It became a quest for something. Something intangible. Something that surfaced at a most unexpected moment during the exhausting and mundane trek through the Holy Land. An event from which Mark Twain, the skeptic, emerged as an almost persuaded believer—a pilgrim in progress.

The Launching of the USS Quaker City, and a Career

On June 8, 1867, the 31-year-old Mark Twain boarded the paddle steamer USS Quaker City with (in his words) “three ministers of the gospel, eight doctors, sixteen or eighteen ladies, several military and naval chieftains with sounding titles, an ample crop of ‘Professors’ of various kinds, and a gentleman who had ‘COMMISSIONER OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA TO EUROPE, ASIA, AND AFRICA thundering after his name in one awful blast!”

The published dispatches, full of irony and satire, gave Mark Twain greater exposure as a writer than he could have imagined. The ensuing publication of the edited letters as The Innocents Abroad set in motion his literary career. The book became his all-time bestseller, elevating him from a local journalist to an international satirist. Years later, he boasted, “It sells right along just like the Bible.”

During the voyage, Twain developed a dislike for the piety showed at the nightly prayer meetings, which he chose not to attend. The religious inclinations of many fellow passengers, which he viewed as false piety, provided fodder for Twain’s rapier wit in more than a few dispatches to the newspaper.

Twain didn’t profess atheism but held a skeptical view of organized religion. A few years before the voyage of the Quaker City, he wrote, “I have a religion—but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor. Our religions are alike, though, in one respect—neither can make a man happy when he is out of luck.”

But despite Twain’s disdain for all things religious, his journal postings leave little doubt that he looked forward to the Holy Land visit with deepening anticipation. As the ship drew near the last stop on their 8,000-mile journey, Twain wrote, “We sailed from Smyrna in the wildest spirit of expectancy, for the chief feature, the grand goal of the expedition, was near at hand—we were approaching the Holy Land!”

The Pilgrims in Palestine

The travelers arrived in Beirut, then broke into smaller groups for different routes through the Holy Land aboard horses and donkeys. Twain chose “the long trip” through the full length of Palestine, a risky journey during the hottest season of the year. The other parties took shorter routes.

Twain’s high-spirited anticipation soon turned to disappointment as an excerpt from The Innocents Abroad describing Galilee reveals.

If all the poetry and nonsense that have been discharged upon the fountains and bland scenery of this region were collected in a book, it would make a most valuable volume to burn.

Archaeologist Michael Press shares the opinion of many critics that Twain’s travelogue represents “an elaborate, sustained joke at the expense of the peoples and places of the Mediterranean.” But such opinions may be disputed on several grounds.

Twain and the Bible

First, we should read The Innocents Abroad in the light of the humorous and satirical style with which Twain wrote.

Second, Twain later confesses that much of what he wrote about the Holy Land originated from first impressions tainted by the weariness of arduous travel.

I set down these first thoughts because they are natural—not because they are just or because it is right to set them down… One’s first thought is not likely to be strictly accurate, yet it is no crime to think it and none to write it down, subject to modification by later experience.

Third, despite his distaste for organized religion, Twain viewed the Palestinian landscape through the lens of Biblical revelation. For instance, in the valley of Jezreel, Twain recalls the victory of Deborah and Barak over a formidable enemy but adds:

Stirring scenes like these occur in this valley no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent. To this region one of the prophecies is applied: And I will bring the land into desolation: and your enemies which dwell therein shall be astonished at it. And I will scatter you among the heathen, and will draw out a sword after you: and your land shall be desolate, and your cities waste (Leviticus 26:32-33 KJV).

Biographer and historian Ron Powers said in his introduction to a film documenting Twain’s visit to the Holy Land, “Samuel Clemens had a constant, lifelong sort of jilted love affair with the Bible. He wanted to believe, but he couldn’t believe.”

But soon the inner conflict between belief and unbelief reached a climactic juncture and Mark Twain as a pilgrim in progress began to emerge.

Jerusalem: The Not So Golden City

As Jerusalem appeared on the horizon, Twain’s thoughts were full of poetry, sublimity, and dignity. But soon after entering the famed Damascus Gate, disappointment set in. He writes, “Jerusalem is mournful and dreary and lifeless. I would not desire to live here.”

He expresses disgust at the impoverished populace. “Lepers, cripples, the blind, and the idiotic assail you on every hand, and they know but one word of but one language apparently—the eternal baksheesh.”

Twain’s spirits sank further as the group approached the first stop on the Jerusalem tour.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre didn’t fail to live up to Twain’s negative expectations. He chafed at the guide’s claim that the Church displayed under one roof the crucifixion and burial sites of Christ. And he found it quite amusing that the Emperor Constantine’s mother, Saint Helena, chose the sites after-the-fact three centuries later.

The group entered the building through “the midst of the usual assemblage of beggars.” Twain describes the place as regrettably “scandalized by trumpery, gewgaws, and tawdry ornamentation.”

They visited in succession the Sepulchre; a place where Saint Helena found the three crosses; and then a niche that at one time preserved a piece of the true cross. The monks explained that long-ago priests of another sect stole the artefact. With tongue in cheek, Twain writes, “We know very well that it was stolen, because we have seen it ourselves in several of the cathedrals of Italy and France.”

And so it goes. The author’s contempt for the phoniness of the exhibits came to a head at the tomb of Adam where he comically feigned a tearful countenance upon discovering so far from home “the grave of a blood relation.” He reports, “I deem it no shame to have wept over the grave of my poor dead relative.”

As they continued marching through the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, nothing changed. Twain continued to be amazed at Saint Helena’s good fortune to find anything mentioned in her Bible that she searched for—even the copper plate Pilate attached to the Savior’s cross, and upon which he wrote, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” But, ironically, “that copper plate is in one of the churches in Rome now.”

They moved on to other implausible displays including the supposed burial site of Melchizedek which Twain found a little too well preserved for a four-thousand-year-old tomb. But then, the unexpected happened.

At the Cross

The poetry of Isaac Watts in “Alas! And Did My Savior Bleed?” describes what occurs next.

At the cross, at the cross
  Where I first saw the light.

Suddenly the point of view in Twain’s narrative switches from the first person to the third person singular form. In other words, instead of the pronouns ‘we’ and I,’ he uses the more distant ‘one’ and ‘he.’ It’s as if the writer considers what happens next so affecting that he feels the necessity to move outside himself to convey the experience.

Only a few analysts of The Innocents Abroad show an understanding of the profound change of direction in these three paragraphs. Laura Skandera Trombley, former president of the Huntington Library, gets it right. “The experience Twain has at the site of the crucifixion is really profound for him and meaningful,” she says. “He recognizes that this may have happened and gains some understanding into why religion is so powerful.”

Mark Twain writes that one observes most things in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the conviction “that there is nothing genuine about them and that they are imaginary holy places created by the monks.” Standing before the place of the Crucifixion, however, “affects him differently.” Why does this particular place in a setting Twain found otherwise laughable affect him differently? Personally?

Of all the places in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre arbitrarily marked by Saint Helena and the monks, they may have selected this one spot correctly. Why? Because Christ was “very celebrated long before he came to Jerusalem,” and also “when he was crucified, there were very many in Jerusalem who believed that he was the true Son of God.” Therefore, the public execution of “such a personage was sufficient in itself to make the locality of the execution a memorable place for ages.”

Also, the storm, the darkness, the earthquake, the rending of the veil of the temple, and the untimely waking of the dead “were events calculated to fix the execution and the scene of it in the memory of even the most thoughtless witness.”

Twain surmises that fathers would tell their sons about the strange affair and point out the spot. Then the sons would transmit the story to their children for generations. The telling and retelling could easily span three hundred years at which time Helena came and built a church on the sacred place preserved by the memories of men and women.

Since that time, Twain continues, “there has always been a church there,” therefore, “it is not possible that there can be any mistake about the locality of the Crucifixion.” Other identified places in the Church represented far less extraordinary events witnessed by comparatively small numbers. But not so regarding the Calvary event.

Twain reasons, “The crucifixion of Christ was too notable an event in Jerusalem, and the Hill of Calvary made too celebrated by it, to be forgotten in the short space of three hundred years.”

And so, at the place where they crucified “the meek and lowly, the mild and gentle, Prince of Peace,” the quest of Mark Twain, the pilgrim in progress, finds its resolution. At long last, he encounters something holy in the Holy Land.

Returning to the first-person point of view, Twain writes:

I climbed the stairway in the Church which brings one to the small enclosed pinnacle of rock and looked upon the place where the true cross once stood, with a far more absorbing interest than I had ever felt in anything earthly before. I could not believe that the three holes in the top of the rock were the actual ones the crosses stood in, but I felt satisfied that those crosses had stood so near the place now occupied by them that the low feet of possible difference were a matter of no consequence.

A Pilgrim in Progress

Twain’s skepticism about religion lasted all his life, but always tempered by a personal faith that had come alive within the dark confines of a church eight thousand miles from home. He professed a belief in God, attended worship, and donated money for the construction of a House of God. But he never overcame the pessimism fed by a nagging perception of religious hypocrisy. Like so many of us, Samuel Langhorne Clemens lived his days as a pilgrim in progress.