The River Jordan is Deep and Wide

There were times when Mark Twain’s humorous attitude toward religion was equal parts impudence and intuition: “There has been only one Christian,” he wrote in his 1898 Notebook. “They caught him and crucified him—early.”3

On many other occasions he wrote with far less subtlety and more direct disdain. Though if a reader then or now were to call the acerbic Twain irreverent, it would be an insult that the author might accept as a trophy. After all, the Missouri native also claimed, “Irreverence is the champion of liberty.”4 However, when it comes to religion, Twain’s impish and cynically dismissive remarks belie a much more sophisticated argument for liberty of conscience in nineteenth-century America.

While his attitude toward Christianity can often come across as unpleasant, even displaying dissatisfaction with organized religion, Twain asks that in addition to protecting freedom of religion, American society benefits when it grants personal freedom from religion.

Mark Twain’s argument for religious liberty is visible within his classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, wherein he uses the mighty Mississippi River as a symbol for escapism, not merely from adulthood and oppression, but also from a dangerous and hypocritical form of Christianity. It is while Huck and Jim are floating down the Mississippi that they find the closest thing to spiritual peace that is ever experienced in the turbulent novel. Conversely, on the chaotic riverbanks, they deal with the worst that antebellum Christianity has to offer: feuding clans who quote the Bible, then kill each other the next day; barbarous towns that use the pages of the Bible to treat gunshot wounds; and Scripture-studying slave owners. Each time, Huck and Jim escape Christianity on shore and seek solace and freedom from religion in the currents of the Mississippi.

The colossal waterway itself also makes it into Twain’s compendium of insightful sayings. He could have been writing about any combination of himself, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, or Jim when he claimed, “The only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi.”

It was on the banks of that river that the adolescent Twain learned the finer points of sacrilegious humor, and acquired the inspiration for the fictional Black slave Jim, who develops a taboo friendship with Huck in the novel.

For Twain, even in his early years the Mississippi represented a freedom from the stifling provincial, legalistic Christianity that inspired him only inasmuch as it could provide him with satirical material. Andrew Levy writes in Huck Finn’s America that the Twain toyed with the idea of adding a moment of traditional spiritual education into Huck and Jim’s southbound odyssey, but decided against it:    “[Twain] considered some kind of ‘negro sermon,’ one line telling us what it might have been about: ‘See dat sinner how he run.’ [Twain] thought maybe Huck could ‘teach . . . . Jim to read & write.’ But there’d be no sermon, no teaching, either.”6

Twain instead preserved the fictional Mississippi as a place of liberty—free from religion and formal schooling, both distasteful to Twain and by extension Huck—to contrast with the pair’s unenjoyable encounters with church on land. However, Twain does not preclude a sense of spiritual wonder and biblical beauty from his portrayal of the river and the islands. The most peaceful and beautiful passages in the novel take place on the river: “Not a sound anywheres,” Huck says of the Mississippi, “perfectly still—just like the whole world was asleep, only sometimes the bullfrogs a-cluttering, maybe. . . . Then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh and sweet to smell on account of the woods and the flowers. . . . Afterwards we would watch the lonesomeness of the river, and kind of lazy along. . . . So we would put in the day, lazying around, listening to the stillness.”7

Within its serene waters the Mississippi River cradles the lush Jackson Island, and there are deliberate biblical parallels between Huck and Jim’s first refuge and the home of Adam and Eve in Genesis: “Whatever its inspiration in real life, Jackson’s Island functions as an Eden in both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, a paradise of harmony between man and beast and a stark contrast between so-called civilization and the natural world.”8

Like Adam and Eve, “[Huck] and Jim do not ‘go much on clothes’”9 and they also cannot stay too long in paradise, one of many ways that Twain romantically lulls the reader into a sense of false security. Another is the hopeful story of star-crossed lovers set within the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, and in true Shakespearean fashion, their passion only adds to the death toll rather than helping to end the family hostility. When their elopement ends in a gunfight between the families, the Shepherdsons kill two members of the Grangerford clan, including an adolescent boy who had befriended Huck. Mark Twain’s young protagonist weeps at the sight of his fallen friend, and he leaves Kentucky by quickly slipping back to the Mississippi River, his place of freedom.

“I cried a little when I was covering up Buck’s face,” Huck narrates, “for he was mighty good to me. It was just dark now. I never went near the house, but struck through the woods and made for the swamp.”10

The author frames this exit as an escape from the religious hypocrisy that caused the violent feud. Twain includes Scripture twice in the chapters where Huck stays with the Grangerfords. If it were not so tragic, it would be downright amusing: the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons of Kentucky attend church together, with guns between their knees, and listen to the minister “preaching—all about brotherly love.”11

Sadly the message does not get through. Later, the American Juliet, Sophia Grangerford, asks Huck to fetch her New Testament from the church pews where she left it, only for Huck to realize that the Bible was being used to store secret communication between Sophia and her Appalachian Romeo. Twain simultaneously argues that genuine Christian teachings do little to de-escalate the conflict, and at the same time, misuse of the Bible may have played a role in the escalating feud: the Bible becomes a device that indirectly increases the death toll after Sophia elopes.

In the novel Twain was able to use the Bible in a variety of ways: the hiding place for a love letter, Edenic allusions, and even as a piece of unorthodox medical equipment. 

As Huck travels through Arkansas, he witnesses a Colonel Sherburn shoot a drunk named Boggs in retaliation for an insulting remark, and the townspeople bring the wounded man to a drugstore to attempt to save his life with a pair of Bibles. Huck watches the whole scene unfold: “I rushed and got a good place at the window, where I was close to him and could see in. They laid him on the floor and put one large Bible under his head, and opened another one and spread it on his breast; but they tore open his shirt first, and I seen where one of the bullets went in. He made about a dozen long gasps, his breast lifting the Bible up when he drawed in his breath, and letting it down again when he breathed it out—and after that he laid still; he was dead.”12

Again, Twain positions the Bible as a symbol: in the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud, it escalates the violence, and in Arkansas, it does nothing to save the life of a dying man. Twain does not seem optimistic about the role of Christianity, as it was functioning then, might play in bringing peace and healing to America. No true Christian would begrudge a medical professional for using any book to save a life, including a Bible, but readers should not take the scene literally. Lack of concern for the Christian commandment of brotherly love and symbolic misuse of Scripture played a role in the deaths of several people in Kentucky; just so Huck watches a drugstore crowd administer useless biblical platitudes to a victim who needed genuine Christian intervention much sooner in his life.

Not too long after the scene at the drugstore—with the aid of the con artists who had cheated townsfolk in a theatrical ruse, and had earlier swindled honest churchgoers into donating to a fraudulent offering plate at a tent revival—Huck again retreats to the Mississippi “gliding downstream, all dark and still, and edging towards the middle of the river, nobody saying a word.”13

Twain’s combination of Scripture and drugstore was no coincidence. As a boy his family moved into a drugstore in Hannibal, Missouri, where they lived with the proprietors, the Grants. Then, in an essay called “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice” Twain quipped, “The Christian’s Bible is a drug store. Its contents remain the same; but the medical practice changes.”14

In the essay Twain assails the church for having used Scripture to defend slavery for years, only to later switch sides when the tide of public support had waned. Rather than praise the Christian community for taking a stand for liberty, Twain castigates Christians for playing catch-up to the progressive values of the world. 

Twain includes many of these themes in the character of Silas Phelps, on whose farm Jim waits imprisoned and re-enslaved. At the same time as being a slave owner, Silas avidly studies a chapter in Acts, an irony lost on him, but not on J. H. Smylie writing in Theology Today:  

“By now, Jim is a possession of this family and imprisoned on its farm. A farmer preacher, Silas studies Acts 17 before going to feed Jim. He seems oblivious to the fact that Paul and his biblical namesake suffered prison and that Paul shortly afterward preached on the Areopagus that God had made of ‘one blood’ all nations of the earth.”15

Despite Silas’ earnestness in studying the life of Paul, neither the apostle’s narrative of captivity nor his multicultural sermon dissuade Silas from subjugating another human being in a system of racial enslavement. Silas is later announced as the uncle of Tom Sawyer, who makes a late and almost spiteful entrance near the end of the story.

Tom and Huck eventually manage a convoluted and unnecessarily time-consuming jailbreak, freeing Jim from his captive chains in a fairy-tale escape they plan and direct in a way that is much more difficult than it need be. After setting up the conflict as a struggle on land between a Bible-reading slave master and a pair of adolescent abolitionists, there was only one logical place Twain could send the lawbreakers: the free waters of the Mississippi.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ends with Miss Watson posthumously freeing Jim, even though the dastardly Tom knew as much the entire time. In the heroic and bizarre rescue of their enslaved companion, Huck and Tom liberate Jim from a system of racial bondage much too closely associated with New Testament scripture for any Christian, then or now, to find comfortable. Like their previous retreats into the unshackled waters of the Mississippi River, Huck and Jim can avoid the calamitous religious practices of those on land. Whether they are running away from con artists swindling sincere tent revivalists, or feuding clans who ignore sermons on brotherly love, the raft-bound companions consistently seek a haven free from church control and religious violence. They exit bloody drugstores where townsfolk use the Bible only when pressing down upon the chest wound of a dying man instead of heeding its commandments of neighborly love and prohibition on murder. They flee a slave owner who studies the Book of Acts before sending his slave to work. Each time they escape, they find a temporary paradise and freedom from hypocritical religion as they float down the Mississippi. 

Twain builds this spiritual quest upon the cruel, false versions of Christianity where crowds abuse the Bible, commandments to love are forgotten, and the worst of human sins are defended with Scripture. After all, when it came to the world’s most widespread religion, Twain wasn’t too convinced of the presence of many genuine practitioners other than Christ Himself.

Mark Twain was an observer of human nature much more than he was a theologian. In his critique of religious practice, and argument for freedom from religion, he reminds readers that few converts will join congregations as long as the examples they see of Christian behavior look anything like the fraudulent Christians in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Contemporary behavior could hardly be considered much better if most churches were to take an honest glance into the looking glass.

By including the Mississippi River as a geographic symbol for liberty of conscience, Twain is asking American Christians to respect the decision of those who wish to take no part in religious practice. Huck’s raft was a small one, though; there would not have been room enough for all the characters to join him on the river. Perhaps if Huck and Jim had been able to find the same freedom on land as they did on water, the Christian communities would not have been portrayed as so undesirable to them. Escapism might be the preferable route for some, but it cannot solve a crisis of sincerity.  

1 Mark Twain, “The United States of Lyncherdom,” On the Damned Human Race (New York: Hill and Wang, 1962), pp. 96-105.

2 Mark Twain to Henry H. Rogers, 1905.

3 Mark Twain and Albert B. Paine, Mark Twain’s Notebook (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935).

4 Ibid.

5 Mark Twain, “Corn-Pone Opinions,” On the Damned Human Race, pp. 21-26.

6 Andrew Levy, Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece, 2015.

7 Mark Twain. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1912).

8 Peter Schilling, Jr., Mark Twain’s Mississippi River (Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2014).

9 J. H. Smylie, “The Preacher: Mark Twain and Slaying Christians,” Theology Today, 57, no. 4 (2001): 484-500.

10 Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid.

14 Mark Twain, “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice,” On the Damned Human Race, pp. 40-45.

15 Smylie.

16 Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 

Article Author: Martin Surridge

Martin Surridge has a background in teaching English. He is an associate editor of ReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent news Web site. He writes from Calhoun, Georgia.