Illustrations from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

Not long after the Civil War, Mark Twain joined a steamship tour of Europe and the Holy Land. His entertaining book, The Innocents Abroad, chronicles the journey in a way only Twain could. Punctuated liberally with sarcasm and irony, the volume contains not a few (well-deserved?) jabs at hypocritical religion. From time to time, however, the author offers striking praise for what he observes. The Innocents Abroad has become one of my favorite books; I have read it three times. I have made use of a number of anecdotes from the book in my sermons in recent years, and hope the following might be useful to you as life lessons, or in your own lessons or messages as you seek to illustrate the truth of God’s word:

“Pilgrims, always prone to find prophecies in the Bible, and often where none exist, speak cheerfully and complacently of poor, ruined Ephesus as the victim of prophecy. And yet there is no sentence that promises, without due qualification, the destruction of that city. The words are: “Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” That is all … These ‘prophecies’ are distinctly leveled at the ‘churches’ of Ephesus, Smyrna, etc., and yet the pilgrims invariably make them refer to the cities instead … stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may.” (p. 374-375)

At one point in the journey, Twain had lost his passport and was worried about being asked for it in Russia (Sebastopol). He needn’t have worried. Speaking of the reception he had as an American, he wrote: “But all that time my true passport had been floating gallantly overhead — and behold it was only our flag. They never asked us for any other.”
What a reminder that the only “passport” to heaven that we need is the cross of the Lord Jesus! We need no other!

Twain wrote very sarcastically about just about everything he saw on the trip. But of one particular sight, the Cathedral of Milan in Italy, he had only raptures to report:

“Howsoever you look at the great cathedral, it is noble, it is beautiful! Wherever you stand in Milan or within seven miles of Milan, it is visible and when it is visible, no other object can chain your whole attention. Leave your eyes unfettered by your will but a single instant and they will surely turn to seek it. It is the first thing you look for when you rise in the morning, and the last your lingering gaze rests upon at night. Surely it must be the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived.”

Now if such a building “conceived of the brain of man” can, as Twain wrote, “chain your whole attention” in such a way, then is it beyond credulity that the glory of God Almighty Himself might similarly cast us spellbound in rapt adoration for all eternity? (p. 147)

“It seemed curious enough to us to be standing on ground that was once actually pressed by the feet of the Savior. The situation is suggestive of a reality and a tangibility that seem at variance with the vagueness and mystery ad ghostliness that one naturally attaches to the character of a god. I cannot comprehend yet that I am sitting where a god has stood, and looking upon the brook and the mountains that a god has looked upon, and am surrounded by dusky men and women whose ancestors saw Him, and even talked with Him, face to face, and carelessly, just as they would have done with any other stranger. I cannot comprehend this; the gods of my understanding have been always hidden in clouds and very far away.” (p. 436)

Just inside the Holy Land, Twain records how “Dr. B” who accompanied him on the trip ministered to an ailing baby, and as a result was swarmed with people afterwards. It does not take much imagination to think of how they would have done the same with Jesus, just as the Gospels describe:
“As soon as the tribe found out that we had a doctor in our party, they began to flock in from all quarters. Dr. B., in the charity of his nature, had taken a child from a woman who sat nearby, and put some sort of wash upon its diseased eyes. That woman went off and started the whole nation, and it was a sight to see them swarm! The lame, the halt, the blind, the leprous — all the distempers that are bred of indolence, dirt and iniquity — were represented in the Congress in ten minutes, and still they came! Every woman that had a sick baby brought it along, and every woman that hadn’t, borrowed one. What reverent and worshipping looks they bent upon that dread, mysterious power, the Doctor! … The ancestors of these — people precisely like them in colour, dress, manners, customs, simplicity — flocked in vast multitudes after Christ, and when they saw Him make the afflicted whole with a word, it is no wonder they worshipped Him. No wonder His deeds were the talk of the nation. No wonder the multitude that followed Him was so great that at one time — thirty miles from here — they had to let a sick man down through the roof because no approach could be made to the door; no wonder His audiences were so great at Galilee that he had to preach from a ship removed a little distance from the shore; no wonder that even in the desert places about Bethsaida; five thousand invaded His solitude, and He had to feed them by a miracle or else see them suffer for confiding faith and devotion; no wonder when there was a great commotion in a city in those days, one neighbor explained it to another in words to this effect: ‘They say that Jesus of Nazareth is come!'” (p. 438–439)

“In one of those long Pompeian halls the skeleton of a man was found, with ten pieces of gold in one hand, and a large key in the other. He had seized his money and started toward the door, but the fiery tempest caught him at the very threshold, and he sank down and died.”
(P. 301-2) Silver and gold cannot deliver you in the day of distress!

Inside the Cathedral of Milan, Twain and company were brought to the tomb of St. Charles Borromeo, Bishop of Milan. The guide opened the sarcophagus: “Within lay the body, robed in costly habiliments covered with gold embroidery and starred with scintillating gems. The decaying head was black with age, the dry skin was drawn tight to the bones, the eyes were gone, there was a hole in the temple and another in the cheek, and the skinny lips were parted as in a ghastly smile! Over this dreadful face, its dust and decay, and its mocking grin, hung a crown sown thick with flashing brilliants; and upon the breast lay crosses and crosiers of solid gold that were splendid with emeralds and diamonds. How poor, and cheap, and trivial the gewgaws seemed in presence of the solemnity, the grandeur, the awful majesty of Death! Think of Milton, Shakespeare, Washington, standing before a reverent world tricked out in the glass beads, the brass ear-rings and tin trumpery of the savages of the plains. Dead Bartolomeo preached his pregnant sermon, and its burden was: You that worship the vanities of earth – you that long for worldly honour, worldly wealth, worldly fame — behold their worth!” (p. 152-3)

In Rome Twain wrote:
“Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, and wishing we could export some of it our restless, driving vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this matter lies one of the main charms of Europe — comfort. In America, we hurry — which is well, but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it life fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in — the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains, and its heated machinery is allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally, and renew our edges!” (p. 160)

“At Nazareth we camped in an olive grove near the Virgin Mary’s fountain, and that wonderful Arab ‘guard’ came to collect some backsheesh for his ‘services’ in following us from Tiberias and warding off invisible dangers with the terrors of his armament. The dragoman had paid his master, but that counted as nothing — if you hire a man to sneeze for you, here, and another man chooses to help him, you have got to pay both. They do nothing whatever without pay. How it must have surprised these people to hear the way of salvation offered to them ‘without money and without price.’ If the manners, the people, or the customs of this country have changed since the Savior’s time, the figures and metaphors of the Bible are not the evidences to prove it by.” (p. 486)

In the Holy Land, Twain and the group came upon the crumbling castle of Banias: “It is a thousand feet long and two hundred wide, all of the most symmetrical, and at the same time the most ponderous masonry. The massive towers and bastions are more than thirty feet high, and have been sixty … We wondered how such a solid mass of masonry could be affected even by an earthquake, and could not understand what agency had made Banias a ruin; but we found the destroyer, after a while, and then our wonder was increased tenfold. Seeds had fallen in crevices in the vast walls; the seeds had sprouted; the tender, insignificant sprouts had hardened; they grew larger and larger, and by a steady, imperceptible pressure forced the great stones apart, and now are bringing sure destruction upon a giant work that has even mocked the earthquakes to scorn!” (p. 434)

About Shawn Thomas

My blog,, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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