House Approves Commemorative Coin for Religious Skeptic Mark Twain With "In God We Trust" on It (UPDATED)

UPDATE, 3 p.m.: Added comment from Bob Hirsh, curator of the Mark Twain Project.

The plan for a new Mark Twain commemorative coin includes the phrase "In God We Trust," a phrase Twain made fun of 150 years ago.

Twain had a complicated relationship with religion. In the quote-collection snippets attributed to him, he is occasionally critical of "God," the deity, but always critical of Christianity, and his pithy, concise condemnations of organized religion have filled more than one homemade website about atheism or religious skepticism.

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me," Twain once said. "It is the parts that I do understand."

Which is what makes a bill passed Wednesday by the House of Representatives so intriguing: It provides for Mark Twain commemorative coins -- spendable $1 and $5 coins of gold and silver -- to be minted in 2016. The bill calls for the coins to include all the standard U.S. currency inscriptions: "Liberty," "United States of America," "E Pluribus Unum," and, yes, "In God We Trust."

It's a phrase Twain specifically and very publicly mocked after it was put on during the Civil War, according to Mark Twain's Religion, a 2003 book by religious scholar William E. Phipps.

"It is the choicest compliment that has ever been paid us, and the most gratifying to our feelings," Twain said. "It is simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well -- In God We Trust. I don't believe it would sound any better if it were true."

Twain also suggested the phrase be replaced with "Within certain judicious limitations we trust in God," and "if there isn't enough room on the coin for this, why, enlarge the coin."

Sorry, Mr. Clemens -- if Congress has its way, it'll be 0.85 inches across and have "In God We Trust" right there near your face.

But people shouldn't be so quick to label Twain an atheist, said Robert Hirsh, curator of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

"He's saying we're hypocritical because we don't really trust in god," Hirsh said. "He's not saying there is no god, he's just saying he didn't think ["In God We Trust"] was sincere."

Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri, agreed, saying Twain was raised Presbyterian.

"He, I think, never completely turned his back on religion. He just never practiced a particular one," Sweets said. "He left Hannibal at age 17, and I would say from there on, he was not a regular church attender."

Sweets said Twain became increasingly critical of religion after he went on a lecture tour to pay off debts after going bankrupt -- while he was gone, one of his daughters died, and when he returned, his wife was ill and his other daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy.

"He was questioning a lot of things," Sweets said. "If you take a look at his writings, he doesn't, I don't think, come to the conclusion that there is no god... One thing that he was very much opposed to was hypocrisy."

When asked if he found it ironic that Twain was being commemorated with a coin bearing a phrase he made fun of, Hirsh said, "Well, let's put it this way -- if he were around he'd probably find something sarcastic to say about it." 

Sweets said, "To me, it's not [a big deal]." Though it certainly helps that these coins could bring in a million bucks to his museum:

The money would come from surcharges included in the price of the coins -- they wouldn't be sold at face value, like Susan B. Anthony dollars or those Sacajawea coins you get on the subway that make you feel like a pirate. There would be a $35 surcharge on the $5 coins and a $10 surcharge on the $1 coins, which would be split evenly among:

  • The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticutt
  • The University of California, Berkeley (home of the Mark Twain Project)
  • Elmira College in New York (home of the Center for Mark Twain Studies)
  • The Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal, Missouri

Sweets said they believe each share would be $750,000 to $1 million, judging from the results of other commemorative coin programs, and that the Boyhood Home's share would be used to augment the long-term endowments of the museum.

Hirsh, of the Mark Twain Project, said his project's share would be most immediately used to help fund a new edition of The Innocents Abroad and put out a new set of letters Twain wrote while living in San Francisco.

"I'm always planning the next book," Hirsh said, adding that the follow-up to the much-acclaimed first volume of The Autobiography of Mark Twain is "just about to go to press and will be out next year."

But the coin party isn't technically a done deal yet: A matching bill still has to make it through the Senate before the mint can start kicking out golden sideburns; the bill was referred to committee late last year but hasn't moved yet.

There aren't any indications it's going to meet resistence, though -- passage of the bill in the House was almost unanimous  -- four Republicans voted against it, including Florida Rep. Richard Nugent, who represents sections of the Gulf Coast.

"Basically, right now, the federal government is borrowing forty cents of every dollar it spends.  We barely have enough money right now to cover the 'must haves'. When that is the case, the 'nice-to-have' things have to wait. It's that simple," he wrote in an email. "I'm a big fan of Mark Twain and I'm pretty sure if he saw the state of our finances and realized we were going to borrow money from China just to mint a coin in his honor, he'd pull out a pen and lampoon us into the hereafter."

For what it's worth, the bill indicates the coins would in theory be totally paid for --  it requires the price to include costs "of designing and issuing the coins (including labor, materials, dies, use of machinery, overhead expenses, marketing, and shipping)."

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Rich Abdill