“Be Never Afraid of Doubt”: Mark Twain, Liberal Religion, and Huck Finn

At this service UUFE lay leader Dwayne Eutsey reflects on his recent stay at Mark Twain’s summer home in Elmira, NY, and his research on the lifelong influence he finds of liberal religion on the “Lincoln of our literature”


From Mysterium Amoris, a choral work by Margaret Rizza based on the words of Christian mystic and contemplative writer John Mane:

The meaning of life is the mystery of Love. Just as the roots of trees hold firm in the soil, so it is the roots of love that hold the ground of our being together.


“A religion that comes of thought, and study, and deliberate conviction, sticks best.”


Anyone here who has known me for a long time knows that I’ve been working on a book about Mark Twain for a long time.

I’ve been working on it since back in the mid-1990s when I wrote my master’s thesis on Twain and religion. Like the tortoise in that old fable by Aesop, it’s been slow going, but I am happy to report that I can finally see the finish line, even if it is still off in the distance. A big help in that regard was a fellowship I received from the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College this year, which gave me a stipend and a two-week stay at Quarry Farm, the farmhouse up on a mountain overlooking Elmira, New York, where Twain summered with his family and worked on many of his classics.

Not only was this a great opportunity to immerse myself in an uninterrupted block of time to start writing my book, the experience was somewhat spiritual for me as well. About halfway through my stay at Quarry Farm, in fact, I felt a new affinity with something Mark Twain wrote while he was there “on top of the hill near heaven,” as he described it.

“I have the feeling of being a sort of scrub angel,” Twain mused, “& am more moved to help shove the clouds around, & get the stars on deck promptly, & keep all things trim & ship-shape in the firmament than to bother myself with the humble insect-interests & occupations of the distant earth.”

I felt the same way. After a day there devoted to writing, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch where Twain sat with his family—taking in the scenic view of the distant earth below and listening to the wind bloweth where it listeth through the trees—I also experienced something close to Twain’s scrub-angel epiphany overlooking the Chemung Valley.

It may seem ironic to speak of sharing a spiritual experience with Mark Twain, considering his reputation as a skeptic and frequently scathing critic of religion. This is the guy, after all, who quipped, “If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be: a Christian,” and “[The Bible] has noble poetry in it… and some good morals and a wealth of obscenity, and upwards of a thousand lies.” He also observed (which seems all-too relevant today):

“In religion and politics peoples’ beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.”

And these are among Twain’s shorter and tamer critiques of religion. He wrote longer and harsher diatribes, especially late in life as he dealt with bankruptcy and the deaths of his beloved wife and two of his three daughters. Irreverent satire has always been integral to his writing. In his first book, Innocents Abroad, his irreligious descriptions of shrines he visited while touring the Holy Land provoked at least one pious clergyman to accuse Twain of being “a son of the devil.”

Other examples of Twain’s jabs at religious orthodoxy include the little boy in Tom Sawyer who memorizes and recites 3,000 Bible verses as part of a Sunday school competition, which he wins, but is rendered “little better than an idiot from that day forth,” as Twain put it. Religious satire also permeates Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One of the most pointed moments is when Huck goes to church with a heavily armed family that’s feuding with another heavily armed family at the church, where they gather together for Sunday worship to hear a sermon “all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness,” Huck says.

In one of his last works, Letters from the Earth, which wasn’t published until half a century after his death because Twain’s daughter Clara thought it might be too offensive, Twain imagines Satan visiting earth and writing letters to his archangel friends ridiculing human religious beliefs, such as heaven:

In man’s heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. The universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is of one hymn alone. The words are always the same, in number they are only about a dozen, there is no rhyme, there is no poetry: “Hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, Lord God of Sabaoth, ‘rah! ‘rah! ‘rah! siss! — boom! … a-a-ah!”

Consider further: it is a praise service; a service of compliment, of flattery, of adulation! Do you ask who it is that is willing to endure this strange compliment, this insane compliment; and who not only endures it, but likes it, enjoys it, requires it, commands it? Hold your breath!

It is God!

Again, these examples are merely a tame sampling of the attacks on religion that Twain wrote with what he once referred to as a “pen warmed up in hell.” So, it would appear as though he really was a forerunner of Richard Dawkins and today’s new atheists, right?

Based on over two decades of research, I have to disagree.

In fact, I would say the opposite is true…that reports of Mark Twain’s atheism have been greatly exaggerated. Contrary to his reputation as an embittered atheist teetering on the edge of nihilism, I hope my book will show how Twain’s critiques of orthodox religion were steeped in the now largely forgotten context of the liberal religious ferment of the 19th century—a ferment instigated in large part by Unitarianism.

When seen within this historical context, I believe it is possible to see Twain’s mocking potshots and lacerating invectives in a much more positive theological light. They were, according to my thesis, significantly influenced by liberal religious movements led by Unitarians, Transcendentalists, Universalists, and so on that wanted to salvage vital religious truths from stale traditional orthodoxy and superstition and make them relevant in a new modern age of reason and the rapidly changing world of the Industrial Revolution.

The roots of this goal extend back to the Enlightenment and, in America, it goes back at least to founders like Thomas Jefferson. Influenced by the kind of rational Unitarian Christianity his friend Joseph Priestley preached, Jefferson considered himself a Christian who admired Jesus as an ethical philosopher but despised what he called the “corruptions of Christianity” that came after him (sounds similar to the Twain quote about Christ not being a Christian). Jefferson literally cut what he called the diamonds of Jesus’ teachings from the dunghill of supernatural scripture to create his own enlightened version of the New Testament.

Unitarianism was at the center of a number of cultural controversies before the Civil War that culminated after the war in a liberal theological revolution that sought to liberate individuals from ancient religious orthodoxy in the same way the Civil War had liberated African-Americans from slavery. James Freeman Clarke, a renowned Unitarian Christian who frequented the same Boston literary circles as Twain, defined this kind of liberal Christianity as promoting the:

freedom to seek the truth anywhere, everywhere, and always. It means that we should not only be willing that others should differ from us, but ready to help them to inquire freely, even if their inquiries lead them to believe what we consider erroneous. It means that we are not to judge each other, nor to submit our own belief to the judgment of any church or any human authority.

That last part about not submitting your belief to any human authority evokes Twain’s quote I read earlier about beliefs and convictions from second-hand authority not being worth a brass farthing. I don’t believe that’s a mere coincidence. In fact, Mark Twain was deeply influenced by religious liberalism, not just after the Civil War but throughout his life.

Just take a look at a couple examples from his early years: His father was a freethinker and his uncle was a Universalist. During the Civil War when he was living on the western frontier, Twain said he was “thick as thieves” with several theologically liberal ministers in San Francisco, most of them Unitarians like Thomas Starr King (whom Twain, along with many Californians at the time, greatly admired).

Religious liberalism’s effort to deconstruct old orthodoxies in order to liberate eternal truths within them remained with him throughout his life. Read in this light, even Twain’s seemingly later writings like Letters from the Earth that atheists often quote can be understood that way.

That passage I read earlier about Satan ridiculing humankind’s silly notions of heaven, for example, takes on a different meaning when you consider that Twain’s Satan is an unfallen archangel who actually knows first-hand the sublime beauty of what Twain describes earlier in the text as the “illimitable continent of heaven, steeped in a glory of light and color” where the Creator’s “divine head blazed there like a distant sun”.

In fact, Satan even reveres this Deity and when he says “It is God!” who wants to be the center of humanity’s insane idea of heaven, he goes on to correct himself and says he’s referring to the human race’s imaginary god.

So while Mark Twain mercilessly ridiculed what Jefferson called the corruptions of Christianity, Twain also revered throughout his life what he called “the real God, the genuine God, the great God, the sublime and supreme God, the authentic Creator of the real universe” not the “the gods whose myriads infest the feeble imaginations of men.” It’s these false gods and the insane religion surrounding them that Twain was a war with.

This isn’t surprising when you consider that Twain confessed his only genuine ambition in life when he was younger was to be a preacher of the Gospel (he said what prevented him was his inability to supply himself with the necessary stock in trade— i.e. religion, implying to me a dichotomy between the Gospel of Jesus and the religion surrounding it). He also saw his humorous writings as sermons. “If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited,” Twain reflected in 1906, “I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not.”

Sermons were an important literary genre in the 19th century, so Twain isn’t using the word lightly here in characterizing his writings. In fact, his closest friend was a liberal Congregationalist minister named Joseph Twichell, who was also the pastor of the church Twain regularly attended in Hartford, Connecticut (but never joined). Among the many things their 40-year friendship provided the two men was mutual literary inspiration.

A Boston newspaper article from 1874 noted 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.”

Although Twichell was a devout Christian, one of his parishioners described him as having “a liberal and receptive mind…he has kept through it all a perfectly level head” during “years of uncommon intellectual stir and agitation and unsettlement of doubt” that have “shaken the Christian world.”

Twichell’s “liberal and receptive mind” resulted in part from his time as a battlefield chaplain for the Union during the Civil War and from his mentor, a controversial theologian and minister named Horace Bushnell. Dubbed the “Emerson of Hartford,” Bushnell was brought up twice on heresy charges (and was exonerated both times). However, unlike Emerson, Bushnell remained a devoted (albeit unorthodox) Christian until his death in 1876.

Still, Bushnell shared with Emerson an emphasis on the primacy of mystical intuition over scripture and tradition. He also considered the Trinity a metaphorical truth, not a literal one, and he believed that divinity was within humanity and nature and not apart from them.

Twichell had a close personal and theological relationship with Bushnell, saying that “No human being, save my father…had ever seemed to summon me to the purpose of living a true life as [Bushnell] had.” Mark Twain also knew Bushnell through Twichell and admired him. It’s in this relationship among the three that I see one source of liberal religion’s influence on Twain’s writing, in this instance his classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

My book will go into some depth showing how this liberal religious influence runs through Twain’s narrative like the Mississippi River. But for today, I’ll focus how I see two eulogy sermons Twichell preached for Horace Bushnell influenced Huckleberry Finn in 1876. Considering Twain wrote the first 400 pages in a burst of creative energy a couple months later up at Quarry Farm, I find this link not only plausible, but quite likely.

There are many parallels between what Twichell preached in these sermons and major themes Twain developed in Huckleberry Finn. For example, Twichell reflects in one of them that Bushnell “came into possession of his faith by an independent…process…He did not accept it upon authority; he did not inherit it from tradition; he found it himself—with God’s help.” That’s my take on Huck’s faith journey down the river as well, with Huck especially sharing in common with Bushnell both a deep sense of religious doubt and a reliance on prayer.
While doubt and prayer may seem paradoxical today, for Bushnell doubt about one’s faith was something to embrace, not to shy away from, as long as one did so with prayer. In one of his eulogy sermons, Twichell quotes Bushnell as encouraging Christians to “be never afraid of doubt” and to “never be in a hurry to believe.” Both of these traits are integral to Huck, who is certainly never afraid of doubt. He doubts, for example, Miss Watson’s claim that you’ll get whatever you pray for as well as the relevance of scripture when he says he’s not interested in what Moses did a long time ago because “I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

According to Twichell, however, Bushnell’s kind of religious doubt did not undermine religious faith. Unflinchingly exploring its most uncertain depths ultimately strengthened faith by offering a “new demonstration of the reasonableness of our Christian faith”, and “a sign for doubters of every degree…(that they) may trust God will bless…many souls groping in darkness…(who nonetheless) press forward still patiently seeking and looking for the promised revelation.”

Although Bushnell advocated never being afraid of doubt, he also stressed that you also need to “pray for all the help and light you can get” amid your doubt and be willing to accept wherever prayer leads you.

Huck doubts Miss Watson’s facile claims about prayer, but as he ventures down the river, he develops an openness to Bushnell’s kind of prayer that culminates in the pivotal moment when Huck prays for help to do what his slavery-based society has taught him is God’s will: turn in his friend Jim as a runaway slave. Huck’s attempt at prayer in this theologically complex moment echoes how Twichell describes Bushnell in his sermons as a “soul as deep in doubt as any soul can be” who is “praying so dimly to a God whom he could only hope existed”. But, according to Huck:

…the words wouldn’t come. Why wouldn’t they? It warn’t no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn’t come. It was because my heart warn’t right… I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. 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, but the lie here is the slavery-supporting theology his society has taught him is God’s will. However empty his words may be on the surface, however, Huck’s sincere underlying desire is to do the right thing. He is, as Twichell describes Bushnell in his sermons, “an honest soul, to be sure, and an earnest one.”

What Huck ostensibly prays for—the moral strength to betray Jim—is ultimately immoral; yet, underlying Huck’s disingenuous words is an earnest yearning to do God’s will. It’s this honest yearning that opens his soul so that God’s inspiration strengthens Huck to do the truly moral thing and not betray his friend.

Still, because Huck’s social conditioning prevents him from discerning this deeper implication of his prayer, he ironically assumes that he is committing a deadly sin. Even so, just as Twichell said Bushnell asserted that we must be willing to accept wherever prayer leads us, Huck bravely accepts what he wrongly assumes is his fate:

I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”…

By not being afraid to doubt the morally flawed orthodoxy that his church has taught him, Huck ends up empowered to do, with God’s help, the right thing. Of course, in typical Twainian style, the unsophisticated Huck isn’t aware of this redeeming experience and assumes instead that he’s condemned to hell.

While I believe Bushnell’s influence helped to save Huck’s soul in the end, Huck’s salvation nevertheless remains murky and ironic. However, in Huck’s morally corrupted society—and even in the fallen world through which the rest of us must journey in these troubled times—I have to hold out hope that even an ironic experience of God’s salvation is better than experiencing no salvation at all.

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