April 21, Mark Twain

 |  NCR Today

"I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right then, I'll go to hell' --and tore it up."

-- Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Chapter XXXI

Huck struggled with his conscience. Should he write to Miss Watson and tell her where her runaway slave was being held? He knew he must. Even though he was "brung up wicked", Huck knew that helping Jim escape would mean "everlasting fire". He knelt down and tried to pray. He even wrote the letter. But then he "got to thinking over our trip down the river".

Today is the hundredth anniversary of the death of Mark Twain, our country's greatest writer, who used his gift to illustrate our country's greatest evil.

"Religion played a crucial role in Hannibal's slave culture. Churches were instrumental in maintaining the institution. Slave owners were comforted from the pulpit and told slavery was the will of God. Slaves were brought to church, where they were told that God wanted them to obey their masters. A popular New Testament lesson told how the Apostle Paul had instructed a runaway Christian servant to go home and be a good slave. Dissent was not tolerated. In the Hannibal of Sam Clemens's youth, people who opposed slavery opposed the will of God."

--In http://www.amazon.com/SEARCHING-JIM-SLAVERY-CLEMENSS-CIRCLE/dp/0826214851/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1271770665&sr=1-1>Searching for Jim: Slavery in Sam Clemens's World, University of Missouri, 2003, Terrell Dempsey provides the cultural, religious, and political context in which Huck Finn learned that God would send him to hell for failing to return an escaped slave to his owner. See especially, Chapter 6, "The Trial of Thompson, Work, and Burr"; Chapter 8, "Slavery and the Churches of Hannibal"; and Chapter 9, "The Theology of Slavery". (And to read about the first black Catholic priest in the United States, search for "Tolton".)

Sometimes Mark Twain put satire aside and wrote seriously about the depths to which racists could descend. In his essay, "The United States of Lyncherdom", which was not published until after his death, Mark Twain expressed his disgust at the 1901 lynchings in Pierce City, Missouri.

More of Mark Twain's views of religion may be found in Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays: 1891–1910, which includes "Extracts from Adam's Diary," "Eve's Diary," "Eve Speaks," "Adam's Soliloquy," "A Humane Word from Satan," "What is Man?" "Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," "Letters from the Earth," et al.

Mark Twain on Religion contains "The War Prayer", "The Turning-Point of My Life," "The Death of Jean," et al.

Reading the familiar stories again and reading the unfamiliar ones for the first time would be a good way to celebrate this great author's anniversary year. (Is Mark Twain a saint? Can an author whose greatest character preferred hell to obeying church teachings be among the blessed?)

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July 14-27, 2017