On this day 132 years ago the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the first “banning” of Adventures of Huckleberry, by the Concord Public Library. Controversy has followed the novel ever since, with the most recent ruckus occurring just a few months ago in a Virginia school district. Recent attempts to suppress the book are prompted by its racially offensive language instead of snobby objections to “rough, ignorant dialect.” Both cases, however, seem fixated on the novel’s admittedly rude linguistic surface while missing the deeper moral undercurrents.
At the risk of violating Twain’s warning to avoid looking for any moral in his book, I discern a complex morality flowing through its pages as strong (and at times as murky) as the Mississippi River itself. And I am not alone. Victor Doyno, for example, summed it up as a boy’s journey “from religion to morality.”
While I agree with Doyno’s point generally, I also believe there might be a deeper religious significance to Huck’s moral growth than Doyno’s distinction between conventional Christianity and a morality grounded in secular skepticism suggests. I base this interpretation on the possibility that Twain may have been influenced as he was formulating Huckleberry Finn in early 1876 by two sermons his good friend and pastor, Joe Twichell, also preached at the time.
As I elaborated last summer in a lecture given at The Park Church in Elmira, I find an intriguing thematic link between these sermons eulogizing Twichell’s mentor, the controversial clergyman and theologian Horace Bushnell, and Huck’s attitudes toward (and personal experience of) religion. Twain knew and admired Bushnell and also regularly attended Twichell’s services at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, so he most likely was aware of these sermons, which Twichell originally preached in March at Asylum Hill and in April at The Park Church, which Twain’s in-laws helped to establish.
Dubbed the “Emerson of Hartford” for his highly unorthodox theology, Bushnell was unlike Emerson in that he remained a devout, lifelong Christian (despite being brought up on charges of heresy at one point). He dedicated his ministry, in fact, to revitalizing traditional Christian faith claims amid in a modern world wracked by, among other things, Darwinism and the Industrial Revolution.
Although not as radical as Bushnell, Twichell still shared a deep bond with his mentor that extended beyond theology. He reflected in one of the eulogy sermons that “no human being, save my father…had ever seemed to summon me to the purpose of living a true life…And as a man, far less than as a theologian, he continued to make his impression upon me to the last.”
Twichell touches on many of Bushnell’s beliefs in these sermons that would have been appealing to Twain. For example, pointing out that truth for Bushnell “was not the truth that is in the Bible particularly, but an universal thing, and wherever he saw it, however uttered and exhibited, he acknowledged and reverenced it.” Guided by prayer, Bushnell adhered to “the law of his mind and heart,” and therefore “he could not borrow or use other men’s views and reasons. It was his necessity to find his own, and when he found them he knew what they were, and had the confidence in them that comes of seeing to the bottom of a matter.”
At the heart of Bushnell’s unorthodox theology, steeped as it was in reason and fierce independence, was a quest for an authentic and personal experience of the divine. Twichell notes, “It was the soul of the Bible, that lives underneath its garment of language, that he craved to find, and he asked God day and night to give him a soul that could discern it.” In taking this approach, Twichell believed Bushnell exemplified “a new demonstration of the reasonableness of our Christian faith, and of its power to stand” as a “sign for doubters of every degree…groping in darkness.”
Twain, who had observed nearly a decade earlier as a journalist on the Western frontier that “a religion that comes of thought, and study, and deliberate conviction, sticks best,” certainly would have felt a kinship with such views. But it was in Bushnell’s unflinching willingness to explore his deepest religious doubt that I find the most direct connection between Twichell’s sermons and the development of Huck’s religious sentiments. Twichell points out two particular admonitions of Bushnell’s that are especially relevant: “Be never afraid of doubt” and “Never be in a hurry to believe; never try to conquer doubts against time.”
Huck is certainly never afraid of doubt nor is he ever in any hurry to believe anything when it comes to religion. These qualities are evident when he declares that he “don’t take no stock in dead people” after the Widow Douglas reads him the story of “Moses and the Bulrushers.” It’s also there when he concludes that Miss Watson’s claims that daily prayer will get him whatever he asks for just “warn’t so.”
Still, following the example of Bushnell’s openness to doubt, Huck begins to appreciate another dimension of prayer after he fakes his death and runs away. While a famished Huck watches the search party setting loaves of bread filled with quicksilver afloat on the river to locate his drowned corpse, he picks up one of the loaves that ironically finds its way to him and begins to eat it, reflecting:
“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.”
Later, at the novel’s pivotal moment, Huck prays for strength to do what he’s been taught is God’s will: turn Jim in as a fugitive slave. The complicated theological irony here is that even though Huck concludes he “can’t pray a lie” and so chooses to go to hell instead of betraying Jim, his prayer resembles that of Twichell’s doubter groping in darkness, and, circuitously, helps him find the resolve to do the truly Christ-like thing and sacrifice himself for his friend.
Because Twain composed the first 400 pages of Huckleberry Finn in a burst of creative energy at Quarry Farm during the summer after Twichell preached the two Bushnell sermons, it seems plausible that the unorthodox theology of Horace Bushnell which Twichell eloquently reflected on may have informed the religious doubt in Huck that would eventually bring him to this ironic (yet morally empowering) encounter with God.