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We have come to the season of angels. Suddenly they are everywhere: standing in front yards, department store windows, draped around streetlights, gazing from cards in the mail and keeping vigil atop Christmas trees. There are tall, slender, white-winged angels, and short pudgy cherubim and many other variations. But among all the angels, I have a personal favorite, the Recording Angel, and particularly the one who made an appearance in the February 1946 issue of Harper’s. He stems from the pen of the magazine’s top contributor at the end of the nineteenth century, Mark Twain:
Office of the Recording Angel
Department of Petitions, Jan. 20
Buffalo, N. Y.
I have the honor, as per command, to
inform you that your recent act of benevolence
and self-sacrifice has been recorded
upon a page by itself of the Book
called Golden Deeds of Men: a distinction,
I am permitted to remark, which is not
merely extraordinary, it is unique.
As regards your prayers, for the week
ending the 19th, I have the honor to report
For weather to advance hard coal 15
cents per ton’. Granted.
For influx of laborers to reduce
wages 10 per cent. Granted.
For a break in rival soft-coal prices.
For a visitation upon the man, or
upon the family of the man; who has set
up a competing retail coal-yard in Rochester.
Granted, as follows: diphtheria, 2,
1 fatal; scarlet fever, 1, to result in deafness
and imbecility. NOTE. This prayer should
have been directed against this subordinate’s
principals, The N. Y. Central R. R.
For deportation to Sheol of annoying
swarms of persons who apply daily for
work, or for favors of one sort or another.
Taken under advisement for later decision
and compromise, this petition appearing
to conflict with another one of same date,
which will be cited further along.
For application of some form of
violent death to, neighbor who threw brick
at family cat, whilst the same was serenading.
Reserved for consideration and
compromise, because of conflict with a
prayer of even date to be cited further
To “damn the missionary cause.”
Reserved also–as above.
To increase December profits of $22,
230 to $45,000 for January, and perpetuate
a proportionate monthly increase thereafter–
“which will satisfy you.” The
prayer granted; the added remark accepted
For cyclone, to destroy the works and
fill up the mine of the North Pennsylvania
Co. NOTE: Cyclones are not kept in stock in
the winter season. A reliable article of firedamp
can be furnished upon application.
Especial note is made of the above list,
they being of particular moment. The 298
remaining supplications classifiable under
the head of Special Providences, Schedule
A, for week ending 19th, are granted in a
body, except that 3 of the 32 cases requiring
immediate death have been modified
to incurable disease.
This completes the week’s invoice of
petitions known to this office under the
technical designation of Secret Supplications
of the Heart, and which for a reason
which may suggest itself, always receive
our first and especial attention.
The remainder of the week’s invoice
falls under the head of what we term
Public Prayers, in which classification we
place prayers uttered in Prayer Meeting,
Sunday School Class Meeting, Family
Worship, etc. These kinds of prayers have
value according to classification of Christian
uttering them. By rule of this office,
Christians are divided into two grand
classes, to wit: 1, Professing Christians; 2,
Professional Christians. These, in turn,
are minutely subdivided and classified by
size, species, and family; and finally,
standing is determined by carats, the minimum
being 1, the maximum 1,000.
As per balance-sheet for quarter ending
Dec. 31, 1847, you stood classified as
Grand Classification, Professing Christian.
Size, one-fourth of maximum.
Family, A of the Elect, Division 16.
Standing, 322 carats fine.
As per balance-sheet for quarter just
ended-that is to say, forty years later you
stand classified as follows:
Grand Classification, Professional Christian.
Size, six one-hundredths of maximum.
Family, W of the Elect, Division 1547.
Standing, 3 carats fine.
I have the honor to call your attention
to the fact that you seem to have deteriorated.
To RESUME report upon your Public
Prayers–with the side remark that in
order to encourage Christians of your
grade and of approximate grades, it is the
custom of this office to grant many things
to them which would not be granted to
Christians of a higher grade-partly because
they would not be asked for:
Prayer for weather mercifully tempered
to the needs of the poor and the naked.
Denied. This was a Prayer-Meeting
Prayer. It conflicts with Item 1 of this
report, which Was a Secret Supplication of
the Heart. By a rigid rule of this office,
certain sorts of Public Prayers of Professional
Christians are forbidden to take
precedence of Secret Supplications of the
Prayer for better times and plentier
food “for the hard-handed son of toil
whose patient and exhausting labors make
comfortable the homes, and pleasant the
ways, of the more fortunate, and entitle
him to our vigilant and effective protection
from the wrongs and injustices which
grasping avarice would do him, and to
the tenderest offices of our grateful hearts.”
Prayer-Meeting Prayer. Refused. Conflicts
with Secret Supplication of the Heart
Prayer “that such as in any way obstruct
our preferences may be generously blessed,
both themselves and their families, we here
calling our hearts to witness that in their
worldly prosperity we are spiritually
blessed, and our joys made perfect.”
Prayer-Meeting Prayer. Refused. Conflicts
with Secret Supplications of the Heart
Nos. 3 and 4.
“Oh, let none fall heir to the pains of
perdition through words or acts of ours.”
Family Worship. Received fifteen minutes
in advance of Secret Supplication of the
Heart No.5, with which it distinctly conflicts.
It is suggested that one or the other
of these prayers be withdrawn, or both
of them modified .’
“Be mercifully inclined toward all who
would do us offense in our persons or our
property.” Includes man who threw brick
at cat. Family Prayer. Received some
minutes in advance of No.6, Secret
Supplications of the Heart. Modification
suggested, to reconcile discrepancy.
“Grant that the noble missionary cause,
the most precious labor entrusted to the
hands of ‘men, may spread and prosper
without let or limit in all heathen lands
that do as yet reproach us with their spiritual
darkness.” Uninvited prayer shoved
in at meeting of American Board. Received
nearly half a day in advance of
No.7, Secret Supplications of the Heart,
This office takes no stock in missionaries,
and is not connected in any way with the
American Board. We should like to grant
one of these prayers but cannot grant
both. It is suggested that the American
Board one be withdrawn.
This office desires for the twentieth time
to call urgent attention, to your remark
appended to No.8. It is a chestnut.
Of the 464 specifications contained
in your Public Prayers for the week,
and not previously noted in this report,
we grant 2, and deny the rest. To-wit:
Granted, (1), “that the clouds may continue
to perform their office; (2), and the
sun his.” It was the divine purpose anyhow;
it will gratify you to know that you
have not disturbed it. Of the 462 details
refused, 61 were uttered in Sunday School.
In this connection I must once more remind
you that we grant no Sunday School
Prayers of Professional Christians of the
classification technically known in this
office as the John Wanamaker grade. We
merely enter them as “words,” and they
count to his credit according to number
uttered within certain limits of time;
3,000 per quarter-minute required, or no
score; 4,200 in a possible 5,000 is a quite
common Sunday School score among
experts, and counts the same as two hymns
and a bouquet furnished by young ladies
in the assassin’s cell, execution-morning.
Your remaining 401 details count for
wind only. We bunch.them and use them
for head-winds in retarding the ships of
improper people, but it takes so many of
them to make an impression that we cannot
allow anything for their use.
I DESIRE to add a word of my own to this
report. When certain sorts of people do
a sizable good deed, we credit them up a
thousand-fold more for it than we would in
the case of a better man-on account of
the strain. You stand far away above your
classification-record here, because of certain
self-sacrifices of yours which greatly
exceed what could have been expected of
you. Years ago, when you were worth only
$100,000, and sent $2 to your impoverished
cousin the widow when she appealed
to you for help, there were many in heaven
who were not able to believe it, and many
more who believed that the money was
counterfeit. Your character went up many
degrees when it was shown that these
suspicions were unfounded. A year or two
later, when you sent the poor girl $4 in
answer to another appeal, everybody believed
it, and you were all the talk here
for days together. Two years later you sent
$6, upon supplication, when the widow’s
youngest child died, and that act made
perfect your good fame. Everybody in
heaven said, “Have you heard about
Andrew?”-for you are now affectionately
called Andrew here. Your increasing donation,
every two or three years, has kept
your name on all lips, and warm in all
hearts. All heaven watches you Sundays,
as you drive to church in your handsome
carriage; and when your hand retires
from the contribution plate, the glad shout
is heard even to the ruddy walls of remote
Sheol, “Another nickel from Andrew!”
But the climax came a few days ago,
when the widow wrote and said she could
get a school in a far village to teach if she
had $50 to get herself and her two surviving
children over the long journey; and
you counted up last month’s clear profit
from your three coal mines-$22,230-
and added to it the certain profit for the
current month-$45,000 and a possible
fifty-and then got down your pen and
your check-book and mailed her fifteen
whole dollars! Ah, Heaven bless and keep
you forever and ever, generous heart!
There was not a dry eye in the realms of
bliss; and amidst the hand-shakings, and
embracings, and praisings, the decree was
thundered forth from the shining mount,
that this deed should out-honor all the
historic self-sacrifices of men and angels,
and be recorded by itself upon a page of its
own, for that the strain of it upon you had
been heavier and bitterer than the strain
it costs ten thousand martyrs to yield up
their lives at the fiery stake; and all said,
“What is the giving up of life, to a noble
soul, or to ten thousand noble souls, compared
with the giving up of fifteen dollars
out of the greedy grip of the meanest white
man that ever lived on the face of the
And it was a true word. And Abraham,
weeping, shook out the contents of his
bosom and pasted the eloquent label
there, “RESERVED”; and Peter, weeping,
said, “He shall be received with a torchlight
procession when he comes”; and then
all heaven boomed, and was glad you were
going there. And so was hell.
THE RECORDING ANGEL. [Seal.]
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Amount that President Obama has added to America’s “brand value” according to the Nation Brands Index:
A study suggested that the health effects of exposure to nuclear radiation at Chernobyl were no worse than ill health resulting from smoking and normal urban air pollution.
A former New York City police officer who had been arrested in 2012 for exchanging online messages about cooking women alive and eating them, and for illegally accessing data about potential victims in law-enforcement databases, was sentenced to time served.
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”