Sermon Text by Dwayne Eutsey
A couple weeks ago, I was invited by an English teacher at Easton High School to talk to his students about Mark Twain. I was there for most of the day, talking to the four classes he has: two consisted of seniors studying the characteristics of highly successful people; the other two consisted of tenth graders about to read Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
The talk to the seniors was fairly straightforward: I touched on Twain’s tireless work ethic, forged by growing up on the frontier and being forced to work at age 11 to help support his family after his father’s death. I talked about the era in which he lived, defined by a bloody civil war and sweeping industrial and technological revolutions that dramatically changed America. I also mentioned Twain’s obvious talent for writing, his untethered imagination, his knack for being in the right place at the right time, and, of course, his incisive and often biting sense of humor.
The idea of talking to the two classes of sophomores, however, was a bit more daunting. It wasn’t just the recurring nightmare I had that my experience with them would end up like something from that old movie, The Blackboard Jungle, with me thrust into a lion’s den of rowdy 15 year olds who didn’t want to read Huckleberry Finn (which was far from how things went, by the way). The biggest challenge for me was how to address the volatile live wire of race that runs throughout Twain’s narrative.
As most of us here probably know, the book and its author are often accused of being racist. In fact, moments before I talked to one of the sophomore classes I checked my phone’s Facebook feed to find an article someone posted about how Huck Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird were pulled from schools in Duluth, MN, for their alleged “racial slurs.”
I was able to use that late-breaking story to grab the class’s attention (nothing makes a book more appealing than learning it’s been banned), and I think I did ok with the racial aspect: I talked about Twain’s friendship with (and deep admiration for) Talbot County’s own Fredrick Douglass and about how Twain helped to pay the way for the first black student to attend Yale Law School, Warner McGuinn. McGuinn went on to mentor a young lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, who was on the legal team that successfully overturned segregation in American schools in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision and who became the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.
My basic argument was: Judging from these two examples alone, if Mark Twain was a racist, he was apparently doing it wrong.
Not everyone considers Twain a racist; in fact, I think most people who have actually read beyond the “n-word” in Huckleberry Finn and know a little something about his life understand how far from the truth such an accusation is. However, that isn’t necessarily true when it comes to the persistent assumption that Twain was an atheist.
That assumption may not be as prevalent now as it was, say, back in the ‘60s, when many scholars concluded that a lifetime of skepticism scarred by deep tragedy left Twain embittered and nihilistic at the end of his life. When I began my study of Twain’s religious views in the ‘90s, that perception was beginning to change and today many scholars (myself included) see Twain’s engagement with religion in a more nuanced and even positive way. Many atheists, however, still embrace Twain as one of their own, as just about any collection of “Famous Atheist Quotes” you find online will attest.
And at first glance when you read his works, there appears to be good reason to assume he was either an atheist or at least a cynically irreverent skeptic. Twain’s writings contain some of the most blistering critiques of religion in American literature. Many of these are found in his later writings, beginning in the late 1880s with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which, in case you didn’t know, is a much darker and disturbing book than Bing Crosby’s bouncy musical adaptation would have you believe.
But even his iconic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which published in 1885, contains some of Twain’s most irreverent moments. There’s Huck’s rejection of scripture when Widow Douglas reads to him the story of what he calls “Moses and Bulrushers.” At first, he’s eager to find out what happens to Moses, but, Huck says, “By and by, she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”
There’s Huck’s rejection of prayer after the pious Miss Watson promises him that he’ll get whatever he asks for if he prays every day. When he prays for fishing gear, however, Huck concludes that what she said “warn’t so.” He says: “Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hooks three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By-and-by, one day I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why, and I couldn’t make it out no way.”
Later in the story there’s the more dramatic moment when Huck is torn between doing what his church has taught him is God’s will (turning in his friend Jim as a runaway slave) or going to hell. As Huck prays to God to help him do the right thing, he can’t help but remember the good times he and Jim had on the raft together. “Somehow,” Huck says, “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him.” Trembling because he truly believes his soul is facing eternal damnation, he defiantly says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and refuses to betray his friend.
These are just a few examples among many that appear to support the assumption that Twain was an atheist in a grudge match with religion. However, just as we need to gauge the apparent racism in Huckleberry Finn with Twain’s actual relationships with African-Americans, I believe we also need to understand Twain’s religious views in Huckleberry Finn within the turbulent context of the liberal religious movements of his era that were redefining the contours of Christianity. Seen this way, I believe Huck Finn is actually a profoundly spiritual book.
It may not seem that a deep spiritual undercurrent permeates Huckleberry Finn, but some scholars have asserted that Huck’s journey “contains the seeds of all (Twain’s) religious thought and speculation.” Not only is the character of Uncle Silas in Huckleberry Finn based on Twain’s Uncle John Quarles, who was a Universalist, I think Twain’s engagement with various forms of religious liberalism prior to his composition of the book, including Freemasonry, Unitarianism, and Deism, all informed the way he portrays religion in the text.
In particular, I believe two sermons that Twain’s pastor and good friend Joseph Twichell preached when Twain was first formulating Huckleberry Finn influenced not only Huck’s irreverence, but paradoxically may have even led to his ironic redemption. These sermons were two parts of Twichell’s eulogy for a controversial Congregationalist minister named Horace Bushnell. Known mostly today only by historians and theologians, during Twain’s time Bushnell was so notorious for his unorthodox Christianity that he was dubbed the “Emerson of Hartford.” He even faced heresy charges twice (and was exonerated both times).
Bushnell was emblematic of the growing rift between Christian liberalism and Christian orthodoxy in the 19th century. Although tensions between the two groups have roots extending back to the founding of Christianity, they became particularly pronounced with the Enlightenment. To perhaps oversimplify it for our purposes today: after the Enlightenment, there were two basic Christianities: an orthodox version, which wanted to preserve the ancient traditions and doctrines of a pre-scientific world, and a heterodox or liberal version, which wanted to place the ancient faith claims of Christianity under intellectual scrutiny and adapt them to modern times.
The orthodox version held on to the notion of a depraved humankind under the wrathful judgment of a vengeful, angry God, while the liberals emphasized the essential goodness in humanity and a loving, forgiving God. Twain actually touches on these two views of Providence in Huckleberry Finn when he has Huck observe:
Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more.
Horace Bushnell extolled the widow’s kind of Christianity. He emphasized the importance of the individual’s direct, personal experience of the Divine above following creeds and dogmas. He also asserted that the Trinity was a metaphorical representation of God, not a literal truth; that divinity was within humanity and nature, not outside of them; and that true Christian character results from long-term nurturing relationships, not dramatic one-time conversion experiences.
However, despite Bushnell’s rejection of Calvinistic orthodoxy, the “Emerson of Hartford” refused to follow Ralph Waldo Emerson and other radical Unitarians away from Christianity. When Bushnell was on trial for heresy and a group of Boston Unitarians urged him to join them, they received this icy response, “I don’t belong to you. I am the worst enemy you have, if you only knew it.” In fact, he remained an avowed Christian to the day he died and was a guiding influence to a new generation of theologically liberal Christian ministers after the Civil War.
At the forefront of those he influenced was Mark Twain’s pastor, Joe Twichell. As a protégé and dear friend of Bushnell’s, Twichell admitted that, “No human being, save my father…had ever seemed to summon me to the purpose of living a true life” as Bushnell. It isn’t surprising that the Yale-educated Twichell would be drawn to Bushnell’s unconventional theology. As a Union chaplain during the Civil War who witnessed some of the conflict’s bloodiest battles, Twichell was a remarkably open-minded Congregationalist minister. He would have to be, considering his close friendship with someone like Mark Twain.
As the pastor of the church that Twain regularly attended in Hartford (but never officially joined), Twichell was known for his “conservative-progressive” theology. He was conservative in the sense that as a devout Christian, Twichell still wanted to conserve and sustain what was good and meaningful about his faith tradition; but he was progressive in that he wanted to make what was good and meaningful of his faith relevant in the modern world.
Twichell’s friendship with Twain, which lasted 40 years, had a significant impact on Twain’s life. Twichell officiated at Twain’s wedding to Olivia Langdon. The two men frequently travelled together, going as far away as Europe and Bermuda. They prayed together and Twichell consoled a bereaved Twain during the losses of his daughter Susy and his wife. He ultimately even presided at Twain’s funeral.
But another important influence the two friends had on each other was in their writing. An 1874 article, in fact, notes that “Mr. Twichell sometimes gains ideas from his companion which he embodies in his sermons and Mark Twain obtains information from his pastor which he works up into comical and humorous stories.”
In my opinion, the two eulogy sermons Twichell preached in tribute to his mentor shortly after Horace Bushnell’s death in 1876 are an example of this literary stimulus. As I’ve noted, Twain, who was also friends with Bushnell, was already honing Huck’s narrative voice at the time Twichell delivered these sermons.
Although I can’t find any smoking-gun evidence proving they influenced Huckleberry Finn, I find too many things in these sermons that Twichell preached about Bushnell echoed in Twain’s text to think they didn’t have an impact. You’ll have to wait for my book to see all of my evidence. But for today I can show Bushnell’s possible effect on the examples of Huck’s irreverence mentioned earlier.
If you recall, I quoted Huck’s dismissal of Biblical stories because he says these stories are filled with dead people and Huck “don’t take no stock in dead people.” Twichell points out that Bushnell had similar feelings toward the Bible. According to Twichell, Bushnell sought “the soul of the Bible that lives underneath the garment of language” and that for him truth “was not the truth that is in the Bible particularly, but was an universal thing, and where ever he saw it, however uttered and exhibited, he acknowledged and reverenced it.”
Like Huck, who always goes off by himself to think critically about the extraordinary claims of religious believers, Bushnell was a fiercely independent thinker who adhered to what Twichell calls “an integrity that was always with him—the law of his mind and heart…He could not borrow or use other men’s views and reasons. It was a necessity to find his own…and (he) had the confidence in them that comes of seeing to the bottom of a matter.”
Twichell also notes that Bushnell admonished his followers to “be never afraid of doubt” and “to never be in a hurry to believe, never try to conquer doubts against time.” For Bushnell, religious doubt was something to be embraced as the starting point for one’s faith journey. It was through prayerfully following these doubts to where ever they led that one’s faith could become what Twichell called “a new demonstration of the reasonableness of our Christian faith, and of its power to stand.”
Huck is certainly not afraid of doubt and is never in a hurry to believe, and yet he also comes to experience new (albeit ironic) demonstrations of faith. As I pointed out at the beginning, Huck determines early on that Miss Watson’s claims about daily prayer are not true. But as he ventures down-river on the raft with Jim, Huck’s views about prayer evolve.
After he fakes his death and runs away, Huck hides and watches as the search party floats loaves of bread filled with quicksilver onto the river (which helps to find drowned bodies in the water). One of the loaves does find a hungry Huck on the shore. As he begins to eat the bread, Huck reflects: “I reckon the widow or the parson or somebody prayed that this bread would find me, and here it has gone and done it. So there ain’t no doubt but there is something in that thing,” he says.
It’s an ironic confirmation. The grieving widow in her flawed understanding is praying for the bread to find Huck’s dead body, but her prayer is still fulfilled according to God’s larger reality. The same could be said about Huck’s prayer later when he’s praying for God’s help to turn his friend Jim in as a runaway slave. No matter how hard he tries to do what he’s been told is God’s will, Huck confesses “I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing…but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie—and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.”
The irony, of course, is that Huck is right: you can’t pray a lie, and that is what he’s unwittingly doing here. In praying for divine help to do a morally wrong thing that he’s been taught is right, his prayer nonetheless ironically leads him to fulfill God’s higher purpose by actually doing what’s morally right.
Huck’s openness to doubt, and its ultimate redemptive power, exemplifies the hope Twichell said Bushnell’s openness to doubt offers to “many souls groping in darkness.” Even for a soul like Huck groping in the darkness of doubt and confusion, salvation is possible. Of course in typical Twain fashion, Huck is clueless about his redemption and assumes instead that he’s actually bound for hell.
Still, as Twichell points out, Bushnell’s “faith is to them (who doubt) a sign of encouragement. It bids them be hopeful, and hold on and expect light.”
While it turns out that Huck’s salvation may be ironic, in his fallen world and even in our fallen world of souls still groping in darkness, Twain manages to offer the hope of salvation that, ironic or otherwise, is still better than no salvation at all.