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Faith Placed in Twain

Nevada church's future could rest on Connecticut Yankee's history

April 02, 2006|Martin Griffith | Associated Press Writer

CARSON CITY, Nev. — As a fledgling writer in his 20s, Mark Twain was well known for his carousing at Nevada Gold Rush saloons, his pranks and his irreverence toward the establishment.

Now, the creator of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer is getting attention for a little-known good deed: his role in the construction of a frontier church in the 1860s.

Twain's name is being evoked by both sides in a dust-up over plans to demolish the First Presbyterian Church in Carson City to make room for a new one. The plans are on hold while the city and church negotiate to save it.

At the request of two church trustees, Twain raised $200 -- worth about $2,200 today -- to help complete construction of the church by charging admission to his January 1864 "roast" of Nevada lawmakers in Carson City, the state capital.

At the time, Twain was a reporter for the Territorial Enterprise in nearby Virginia City. His brother, Orion Clemens, was a church member and secretary of the Nevada Territory.

"I still take a religious interest in its welfare," Twain wrote of the church three months after his fundraiser. "I could sling a strong prayer for its prosperity, occasionally, if I thought it would do any good. However, perhaps it wouldn't -- it would certainly be taking chances anyhow."

The National Trust for Historic Preservation and other groups argue it would be a mistake to tear down the humble brick church at a time when heritage tourism is becoming more popular.

Not only is the church a rare link to Nevada's territorial days, they say, but it's one of only four remaining buildings associated with Twain in Nevada. Others are the Orion Clemens House in Carson City, where Twain occasionally stayed while covering the Legislature, and the Stewart-Nye House in Carson City and Theodore Winters House in Washoe Valley, both places where Twain is known to have attended social events.

When visiting such Twain haunts as Hannibal, Mo., Hartford, Conn., and Elmira, N.Y., "you find tangible vestiges of him," Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha said. "What we have here with the church, in my opinion, is a national treasure."

Robert H. Hirst, head of the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley, agreed.

"If such a thing existed in those cities, they wouldn't allow it to be destroyed," he said. "They value such things, buildings he had an association with."

Church officials view Twain differently. Although they appreciate his fundraising, they think too much is being made of what they call his minor association with the church.

Twain was not a member of the congregation, they said, and there's no proof he ever set foot inside the church. His nearly three-year stay in Nevada ended a couple weeks after the church was dedicated in May 1864.

"His speech is fine, but we don't see the relevance of bringing it up at this point," said Ken Pearson, chairman of the church's building committee. "It's only by his association with his brother that he raised money for the church."

Other church members chided Twain for what they called his anti-Christian beliefs.

"I have read where he was an atheist," Jean Schmid said after a hearing on the demolition permit. "And I'm sorry he was ever mentioned [in connection with our church]."

In a recent letter to the editor of the Nevada Appeal that circulates in Carson City, Julie Dawson of Gardnerville suggested that Twain would be unhappy with being linked to the effort to save Nevada's oldest church building.

"I think I hear Mark Twain groaning in his grave," she wrote to the newspaper. "To implicate him in the preservation of the [church] would be an affront to a man who, by his own words, generally disparaged organized religion [and] mocked faith. Those who invoke his name would do well to consider whether this is an endeavor he would like to be remembered by."

Although he was not a Christian, Hirst said, Twain believed in God and attended church as an adult. Twain was raised a Presbyterian and his funeral was at a Presbyterian church.

"He had a lifetime interest in religious affairs," Hirst said.

"He sees churches as a good thing to support because they help the community. He supports their social functions, such as raising money for the poor," Hirst said.

"It's a myth that he became more bitter about religion late in life after his wife died. He just became more willing to say what he believed in all along," Hirst said.

Several Territorial Enterprise columns in which Twain mentioned various church fundraisers show his commitment to the cause was deeper than thought, Rocha said.

If he ever came into money, Twain wrote in one, "I shall donate my salary to charitable institutions. I will finish building this chronic brick church here, and lease a high-priced parson to run it. Also, an exorbitant choir. Everything connected with the church shall be conducted in the bulliest manner."

Twain's fundraiser helped put a roof over the church two years after its brick walls went up.

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