Corn-pone Opinions

Editor’s Notes: I’m pleased to introduce an old friend, Richard E. Kelly, as another regular contributor to Dick actually wrote this particular article over two years ago for another website that I was managing. I’ve asked him to allow me to republish it here – not because it was originally directed at Jehovah’s Witnesses – but rather because it so clearly demonstrates their attitude about what and how they preach. Mark Twain had a unique talent for pointing out the hypocrisies and foibles of the people of his time. But like more recent humorists Will Rogers and George Carlin, his well-crafted prose was able to expose truth in a clear and palatable way for his readers.

Over fifty years ago, my grandfather shared some words of wisdom that are as relevant today as they were when I first heard them. And they were, “Dickie, you’ve got to read and reread Mark Twain’s ‘Corn-pone Opinions’ until you got it down pat.” This was a short, 1901 essay which I will paraphrase as follows:

As a boy of fifteen, Samuel Clemens had an acquaintance he was very fond of – a delightful young black man named Jerry – a slave – who had the daily habit of preaching sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile. He imitated the pulpit style of the clergymen of his day, and did it well. And one of Jerry’s favorite texts was, “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell what his ‘pinions is.”

It seems that the black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he had to train with the majority; in matters like politics and religion, he had to think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing. In other words, he had to restrict himself to corn-pone opinions – at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.

Mark Twain thought Jerry was right, in the main, but he did not go far enough. It was Twain’s belief that a man conforms to the majority view of his locality by calculation and intention; that a coldly-thought-out and independent verdict upon a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion is a most rare thing – if indeed it ever existed.

Basic human instinct moved one to conformity. It is man’s nature to conform; it is a force which not many can successfully resist. And the cause is the inborn requirement of self-approval. And its source was the approval of other people. We get our notions and habits and opinions from outside influences; we do not have to study them. We are creatures of outside influences; as a rule we do not think, we only imitate.

The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking.

Why are Catholics, Catholics? Baptists, Baptists? Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jehovah’s Witnesses? Republicans, Republicans? And Democrats, Democrats? Mark Twain believed it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination, that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon religion or politics which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies. Broadly speaking, there is nothing but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval.

Men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently. They arrive at convictions, but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand which is of no particular value.

We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it’s the Voice of God.

Now I don’t know if my awareness of corn-pone opinions is why I have no religious affiliation or why I can’t join a political party. But I’m not ashamed to admit that a lot of what I believe, I learned from Mark Twain. Like he said, “The trouble with the world is not that people know so little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

Richard E. Kelly is the author of Growing Up in Mama’s Club – a A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses. An active Jehovah’s Witness as a child, Dick served briefly at Bethel in Brooklyn in the early 1960s.That experience convinced him to leave the Watchtower religion. Now actively retired and living in Arizona, Dick has a wide range of interests, but still finds time to promote his book and comment on the current state of religion and politics in the USA.


Corn-pone Opinions — 3 Comments

  1. I love Mark Twain. One of my favorite Twain texts is “What is Man?” an excerpt of which appears below:

    “O.M. That list of sects is not a record of STUDIES, searchings, seekings after light; it mainly (and sarcastically) indicates what ASSOCIATION can do. If you know a man’s nationality you can come within a split hair of guessing the complexion of his religion: English–Protestant; American– ditto; Spaniard, Frenchman, Irishman, Italian, South American– Roman Catholic; Russian–Greek Catholic; Turk–Mohammedan; and so on. And when you know the man’s religious complexion, you know what sort of religious books he reads when he wants some more light, and what sort of books he avoids, lest by accident he get more light than he wants. In America if you know which party- collar a voter wears, you know what his associations are, and how he came by his politics, and which breed of newspaper he reads to get light, and which breed he diligently avoids, and which breed of mass-meetings he attends in order to broaden his political knowledge, and which breed of mass-meetings he doesn’t attend, except to refute its doctrines with brickbats. We are always hearing of people who are around SEEKING AFTER TRUTH. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he had never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who THOUGHT they were (permanent) Seekers after Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment–until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. THAT WAS THE END OF THE SEARCH. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather. If he was seeking after political Truth he found it in one or another of the hundred political gospels which govern men in the earth; if he was seeking after the Only True Religion he found it in one or another of the three thousand that are on the market. In any case, when he found the Truth HE SOUGHT NO FURTHER; but from that day forth, with his soldering-iron in one hand and his bludgeon in the other he tinkered its leaks and reasoned with objectors. There have been innumerable Temporary Seekers of Truth–have you ever heard of a permanent one? In the very nature of man such a person is impossible. However, to drop back to the text– training: all training is one from or another of OUTSIDE INFLUENCE, and ASSOCIATION is the largest part of it. A man is never anything but what his outside influences have made him. They train him downward or they train him upward–but they TRAIN him; they are at work upon him all the time.”

  2. It is quite amazing how Mark Twain holds up so well with age. His advice and observations are just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago. Thanks for sharing this piece, Mad Sweeney. This is the first time I have seen Seeking After Truth.

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