Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/December 18, 1898

I am asked to say that “by the devout consent of many Christians in many lands” the first week of January is set apart as a week of prayer. It is a custom of more than a half century’s age, and it seems that “gracious answers have been received in proportion to the earnestness and unanimity of the petitions.” That is to say in this world’s speech, the more Christians that have prayed and the more they have meant it, the better the result is known to have been. I don’t believe all that. I don’t believe that when God is asked to do something that he had not intended to do he counts noses before making up his mind whether to do it or not. God probably knows the character of his work, and knowing that he has made this a world of knaves and dunces he must know that the more of them that ask for something, and the more loudly they ask, the stronger is the presumption that they ought not to have it. And I think God is perhaps less concerned about his popularity than some good folk seem to suppose.

Doubtless there are errors in the record of results—some things set down as “answers” to prayer which came about through the orderly operation of natural laws and would have occurred anyhow. I am told that similar errors have been made, or are believed to have been made, in the past. In 1730, for example a good Bishop of Auvergne prayed for an eclipse of the sun as a warning to unbelievers. The eclipse ensued and the pious prelate made the most of it; but when it was shown that the astronomers of the period had foretold it he was a sufferer from irreverent gibes. A monk of Treves prayed that an enemy of the Church, then in Paris, might lose his head, and so it fell out; but it transpired that, unknown to the monk, the man was under sentence of decapitation when the prayer was made. This is related by Ausolus, who piously explains, however, that but for the prayer the sentence might perhaps have been commuted to service in the galleys. I have myself known a minister to pray for rain, and the rain came. Perhaps you can conceive his discomfiture when I showed him that the weather bureau had previously predicted a fair day.

I do not object to a week of prayer and cheerfully announce it, as requested. But why only a week? If prayer is “answered” Christians ought to pray all the time. That prayer is “answered” the Scripture affirms as positively and unequivocally as anything can be affirmed in words: “All things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, that ye shall receive.” Why, then, is it that a few years ago, when all the clergy of this country prayed publicly for the recovery of President Garfield, the man died? Why is it that although two pious chaplains ask almost daily that goodness and wisdom may descend upon Congress, Congress remains wicked and unwise? Why is it that in all the churches and half the dwellings of the land God is continually asked for good government, yet good government remains what it always and everywhere has been, a dream. From Earth to Heaven in unceasing ascension flows a stream of prayer for every blessing that man desires, yet man remains unblest, the victim of his own folly and passions, the sport of fire, flood, tempest and earthquake, afflicted with famine and disease, war, poverty and crime, his world an incredible welter of evil, his life a labor and his hope a lie. Is it possible that all this praying is fertilized and invalidated by lack of faith?—that the “asking” is not credentialed by the “believing”? When the anointed minister of Heaven spreads his palms and uprolls his eyes to beseech a general blessing or some special advantage is he the celebrant of a hollow, meaningless rite, or the dupe of a false promise? I do not know, but I do know that his every resultless petition proves him by the inexorable laws of logic to be the one or the other.

Concerning the efficacy of prayer a correspondent recalls an incident of the blowing up of the steamer “Governor” on the San Joaquin River in the early ’50s. Aboard her were two religious young men, church-members and conspicuous in Sunday-school work, and both were hurt. One died at once, before he could be prayed for, but in behalf of the other the several churches made a concerted effort to persuade God to spare him. They succeeded: he recovered to waste some thirty years in uselessness and die at last a blaspheming drunkard. “If the Deity can be turned from his purpose by prayer is it not,” my correspondent asks, “a dangerous tool for the finite intelligence to play with?” Being no theologian I cannot say. The question is reverently submitted to the holy gentlemen at the head of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, in whose decision I shall put my steadfast faith, especially if unable to understand it. And if it should occur that there are two contradictory decisions I shall bless Heaven for abundant wisdom and believe both.


So Wheeler snubbed Shafter!

Now what will come after?

Why, bullets, or steel, or—

Well, Shafter’ll snub Wheeler.


If Lieutenant Hobson has any judicious friends they should go to him and say: “Sir, we are very proud of your gallantry, as is the entire country. Pray give us an opportunity to be proud of your modesty. You are a very young man; you are not known as a particularly wise one; you hold no high office and have no political following for whom you may be supposed to speak. How, then, does it happen that you go about the country with the president, the members of the Cabinet and distinguished generals of the army, sitting upon the same platform and speaking from the same stand? Nobody cares for what you say; all that is wanted—and that by foolish persons only—is a look at you. You are a show—nothing else. How can you assent to the exhibition? It is to say: ‘Look at a brave man. I, Hobson, am he!’ Do you fear oblivion unless you blow the cooling coal of your fame? Small danger of that, though it were better that your courage were forgotten than your immodesty remembered. It is difficult to imagine an exhibiting hero—a speech-making, baby-kissing son of the gods. And when one has achieved the conception it is not altogether pleasing. Have the goodness to relieve us of it.”

And then, if Hobson will not grant the desired relief we can do something for ourselves by shutting our eyes when he comes forward to be looked at, putting our fingers into our ears when he makes a speech and denying to his seeking lip the clammy muzzles of our young.

Dr. Voorsanger, I observe, has been making a plea for Christian tolerance toward the Jews. That is well and good as far as it goes, but Christians need a little tolerance in their turn, and from none would it come with a better grace than from the Jews. Toleration of intolerance is neither impossible nor ignoble, and it is sorely needed in this world. In the mud that the Christian hand flings at the Jew there is a little gold; in the Christian’s dislike of him there is what the assayers and analysts call “a trace” of justice. He who thinks that whole races of men, through long periods of time, hate for nothing has considered history to little purpose, if at all, and knows not well the constitution of the human mind. Far be it from me to dictate to so wise and learned a man as Dr. Voorsanger, but it seems to me that his usefulness in promoting peace between Jew and Christian might be enlarged if he would more seriously consider whether, not the chief, but the initial, fault may not be that of the Jew, who was not always the unaggressive non-combatant, the long-suffering victim, that centuries of oppression and repression have tended to make him. If we may believe his own historical records, which the Christian holds in even higher veneration than he does himself, he was once a very bad neighbor. No worse calamity could then befall a feeble people than the attention of an Israelite king. Believing themselves the salt of the earth, his warlike subjects had always in their own pickle a rod for every Gentile back. Every contiguous nation which did not accept their God incurred their savage hatred, expressed in incredible cruelties. Their world was a little one, but they ruled it with an iron hand, dealing damnation round and forcing upon their neighbors a currency of bloody noses and cracked crowns. Even now they have not renounced their irritating claim to primacy in the scale of being, though no longer able to make it good with fire and sword. It is significant, however, that here in the new world, at a long remove from the inspiring scenes of their petty power and gigantic woes—their parochial glory and imperial abjection—they have somewhat abated the arrogance of their pretensions; and in obvious consequence the brutal Christian hand is lifted against them in service of a softened resentment. The American Christian beats the American Jew with a stuffed club.

Being neither Christian nor Jew, and with only an intellectual interest in their immemorial feud, I find in it, despite its most tragic and pathetic incidents, something essentially comic—something to bring a twinkle to the eye of an Apuleius and draw the merriment of a Rabelais, “laughing sardonically in his easy chair.” That two races of reasoning beings, tied by the feet to one small planet and having the same sentiments, passions, virtues, vices and interests, should pass loveless centuries hating, damaging and vilifying each other is so ludicrous a proposition that no degree of familiarity with it as a fact suffices to deprive it altogether of its opera bouffe character. Nevertheless it is not to be laughed away. It must be dealt with seriously if at all; and it is encouraging to observe that more and more it is taking attention in this country, where it can be considered with less heat, and therefore more light, than elsewhere. If any man on either “firing line” is competent by training and character to do something worthwhile toward a suspension of hostilities and eventual peace it is my good and learned friend Dr. Voorsanger. And I venture to think that his best success will be attained without assistance from the unearthly teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud; not by fixing his people’s attention upon their dead past, its glory and its gloom; not by drawing broader and blacker the lines marking them off from their fellow men; not by dwelling upon their long exile and persecution and denouncing the injustice of the instruments of God’s displeasure; not, in short, by leading them to the Place of Wailing, or persuading them to sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep. Dr. Voorsanger’s method has been, in a general way, the reverse of all this. I believe him wise enough to know the unwisdom of detachment and the futility of deprecation. If the Jew cares for justice he must learn, first, that it does not exist in this world, and second, that the least intolerable form of its opposite goes by favor with the hand of fellowship; and the hand of fellowship is not offered to him who stands austerely apart saying: “I am holier than thou.” America has given to the Jews political and civic equality. If they want more, more is attainable. But it is their move.


“I know not how it came about, But all my sins have found me out!”

Sang Mike de Young in a minor key,

For roasting on the grill was he.

“Ah, happy spirit!” Spreckels cried,

Turning in pain from side to side.

“With me ’tis otherwise—each sin

Of mine that sought me found me in.”


Dan Burns and Herrin stood near by,

Each with a tear in either eye

(When saints would know the joy again

Of grief they seek the Place of Pain).

Said William, thoughtful: “It appears

There’s such a thing as sin.” The ears

Of Daniel twitched to signify

Attention, then he made reply

But only after long reflection:

“And such another as detection.”

Then spreading pinions like a grouse,

He ascended to the Upper House.

And William murmured with a sigh:

“Dear me! he always will vote ‘I.’”


To Certain Correspondents:

Dickinson.—(1) “None,” originally singular, a contraction of “no one,” is now very generally used by good writers in either number, a usage to which there seems to be no valid objection.

(2) “A two weeks’ visit,” using the possessive, is correct. We do not say “a week visit,” but “a week’s,” not “a day visit,” but “a day’s.” If the possessive is required in the singular why not in the plural?

G.C.—So you have “vainly tried” to believe me a decent man. You should not “try” to believe anything—that is most unphilosophic. Examine the matter in hand with such light as you are able to get upon it and with no care what that may reveal; then if you have a sound mind you will believe according to the preponderance of evidence. You may not be right in result but you will have been right in your method, which is the best that one can do.

C. L.—“Uprighteous” is no doubt a very good word, but it is the compositor’s, not mine. I wrote “unrighteous.” If I can learn who the compositor is I shall be pleased to tell him what you say in approval, and shall add a few remarks of my own.

Tom.—Yes, the editor sometimes ventures to express an opinion contrary to my own, but I don’t mind. When one is right one can afford to be magnanimous.

Ch. de G.—What would I have done in Gen. Toral’s place? About what he did doubtless—surrendered. But a skillful commander would have passed his army through the vacant space of several miles between the harbor-mouth forts and Shafter’s army, and falling upon the latter’s left flank and rear destroyed or captured the entire outfit.

M.—No, I neither observe nor deserve Christmas.


I know not upon what meat the poets of East Aurora feed that they are grown so great, but here is the perfected result of some mysterious viand transmuted into song and published in “The Philistine.” It is called Aspiration.


The Sky is up above the Earth,

It stretches all around,

And when you bump your head ’gainst it

It makes a hollow sound.


There is no difficulty in determining the status of this gem of thought and sentiment: it belongs to the Gobemouch School of Gelett Burgess, the purple Cowley of the West. The strength, splendor and vivacity of the sentiments would be more notable were it not that the reader’s attention is held by the oleaginous fluency of the style, the third line, especially, being as smooth as a diagonal progress across a plowed field in a springless cart. If Marco Morrow, the author, will send me some verses like that I will assist him to an honorable fame by suppressing them.

“The Philistine,” by the way, is, I believe, the sole survivor of that unlamented crew, the freak magazines. It is by no means a bad neighbor, having a good moral character most of the time, a peaceful disposition and the profoundest type of self-respect in the market. Its editor, Mr. Elbert Hubbard, is a bright writer, a nice girl and a good provider. May he outlive “The Philistine” many, many years, come to San Francisco when he dies and wear a halo ten feet in diameter, while thou, Marco Morrow, “liest howling!”

The President and Cabinet

In solemn convocation met,

And a young hero of the wave

Stood with them, silent as the grave.

His countrymen in full accord

Deemed him well worthy of reward.

Then spoke the President—said he:

“Name it, my son—what shall it be?”

That youthful hero found his voice,

And “Whisky” was Hobnobson’s choice.

(Source: California State Library, microfilm collection)