Ever the Twain Did Meet?

by Dwight A. Moody


One became the brightest light in the American literary firmament, rising in the west (Missouri) and settling in the east, shuffling between homes in Hartford, Connecticut, and Elmira, New York. The other started adult life in Boston but headed west (Chicago); by the time he was done he had, almost single-handedly, set in motion things that would make him (perhaps) the most influential religious leader in American history.


If you listed every city, town, and village visited by either of these famous men—some repeatedly—you would swear they must have met a dozen times. But did they? I don’t know, maybe you do.


Samuel Clemens was born in 1835 and Dwight L. Moody in 1837. Between 1870 and 1900, each dominated his respective sphere (literature and religion) and did so in very similar ways. Which leads me to think—had they actually met, it would have been a roaring good time for all.


Each was known for a sense of humor. It was an important element in the preaching of D. L. Moody, and Clemens was famous for his whacky sense of what is funny.


The apex of the latter occurred in Chicago, blocks away from the church where Moody preached. The year was 1879, and the occasion was a reunion of the Army of the Tennessee, the one organized and led by General (later President) Ulysses S. Grant. Eighty thousand veterans showed up, in uniform, and paraded in front of every general any of us could name.


A banquet of five hundred civic and military leaders settled in to listen to 15 speakers, the last of which was the man by then known as Mark Twain. Is it possible that Dwight L. Moody, already one of the most famous ministers in that midwestern town, was not there?


Twain rejected his assigned topic (“Women”) and took his own (“Babies”). He made an extended supposition of all the yet-to-be-famous babies lying in cribs that very day, “trying to find out some way to get his big toe into his mouth”. He went on to surmise that, had that baby been the honoree, “there are mighty few who will doubt that he succeeded”. The crowd convulsed in laughter, and Grant actually broke a smile.


Twain had secessionist sympathies and evaded service by fleeing as far west as he could go. Moody was a full-throated Yankee but also refused to fight: “In this respect, I am a Quaker.” He spent the years evangelizing Union soldiers, having learned the techniques as first president of the Young Men’s Christian Association.


Twain played the piano and loved to sing, beginning many of his “lectures” doing just that. Moody recruited Ira Sankey to do his singing and in so doing revolutionized church work to the point that now, 150 years later, music often overshadows the sermon at Christian events.


Both Moody and Twain, I suspect, would have enjoyed the Village People in their outrageous performance attire singing their now-world-famous song. Moody would have sought to convert them, of course; Twain would have concocted a story and made a million dollars.


Twain grew up in a strict Presbyterian household and, in many ways, never got over it. Throughout his increasingly irreligious life, he frequently attended worship and counted a Boston minister among his best adult friends. Moody, on the other hand, grew up without church, scripture, and sacrament but found all three in an oft-repeated shoe-store conversion story (to which episode a Massachusetts historical marker now testifies).


Here is where they did meet: at the intersection of the old and the new.


Old religious sensibilities and structures were losing ground to the new demands of the Industrial Age. Moody took his un-ordained, un-educated talent, meshed it with what today we call an entrepreneurial vision, and became the fountainhead of the movement known for urban crusades, gospel music, parachurch organizations, and transatlantic influence. Today we call it Evangelical Christianity. Most of us have heard a preacher or two spin off a saying or two  from this ecumenical minister once described as “the most quoted preacher in American history”.


What Moody did for religion, Twain did for literature.


Mark Twain was the first American celebrity, making millions with his books that featured realistic scenes, extensive dialogue, and a barely hidden ridicule of the norms and values of American culture. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is still considered the greatest novel in American literary history, and most of us have read one or more of his great stories set on the Mississippi River.


They were common men with uncommon gifts, using the vernacular language of the American people—black and white—in ways that set the course for everything that followed, right up to this day. Did they ever meet?


I think so.


“Many of the people I once knew in Hannibal [Missouri] are now in heaven,” Sam said softly during his penultimate trip to his boyhood home. Moody, on the other hand, is famous for this word of assurance: “Someday you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody …  is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all….”


Dwight L. Moody died in 1899 and is buried at the homestead in Northfield Massachusetts. Samuel Clemens died in 1910 and is buried 285 miles to the west, near the family home of his wife in Elmira, New York.


When Dwight welcomed Sam to heaven, I suspect they lit up a fine cigar and laughed way into whatever passes for nighttime in the great beyond. I am also sure Mark Twain’s story of what happened that night is uproariously funny and only half true. But I don’t care.


(May 2020)