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Huck Finn’s dilemma: When conscience and Scripture seemed to collide, Part 1

Loyalty, love, and sin come to life in Mark Twain’s novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  Set in the shadow of the Fugitive Slave Act, Huck Finn helps his friend, Jim, escape from slavery.

Late in their journey, Huck wants to be “saved” from his sins, but he remembers a preacher who said the Bible approved slavery.  Did Huck need to hand Jim over to a slave-catcher to be “right with God”?

Mark Twain (Library of Congress)

Huck talks with himself

Something inside me kept saying, “There was the Sunday school … they’d a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn’t try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn’t come … It was because my heart warn’t right; it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. 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, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; 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 …

At last I had an idea; and I says, I’ll go and write the letter- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send. HUCK FINN

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing …

At last I struck the time I saved him … and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he’s got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. 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”- and tore it up.”[1]

Abolition-minded Christians shared Huck’s agony to some degree.  Their consciences and hearts said that slavery was sinful, but they couldn’t point to a simple Bible verse or passage to prove their point.  In contrast, Southern ministers thundered out Bible verses in support of slavery.

Fugitive Slave Act

Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, requiring all Americans to help return slaves to their masters.  Quaker Jesse Macy called the Fugitive Slave Act “one of the most barbarous pieces of legislation ever enacted by a civilized country.” [2]

Jesse Macy (Wikipedia)

Pro-abolition Christians remembered Bible verses such as “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake” (II Peter 2:13, King James Version).  How could they refuse to obey the Fugitive Slave Act and still be good Christians?

Two weeks from now, Part II

In Part Two, I will discuss why the pro-slavery tradition of Bible interpretation was so strong. I will also share a pro-abolition Bible argument from Scripture that was available in the 1850s.

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Thank you for reading my blog!

[1] Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York:  1884 and 1918), 294-297.

[2] Jesse Macy, The Anti-Slavery Crusade:  A Chronicle of the Gathering Storm (New York: 1919), 109.

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Huck Finn’s dilemma, Part Two: When conscience and Scripture seemed to collide

8 Comments

  1. Kathleen Parsons

    This is an excellent discussion of the pros and cons of slavery that were genuinely encountered by our ancestors just 150 years ago. It is a discussion that deserves to be heard, Thanks for initiating the discussion.

    • David Connon

      Hi, Kathy. Thank you for your kind comment! I plan to share more details in Part 2 (two weeks from today).

  2. Alice Wentling

    Reading this is like watching a tennis match. Yes, that was a good serve. But wait, that,was a great response, back and forth. Amazing how good writing can open our eyes in many ways!

    • David Connon

      Hi, Alice. I appreciate your statement, “Amazing how good writing can open our eyes in many ways!” Thank you for joining the conversation (and reading my blog).

  3. Excellent post David, I have used Huck’s grappling with his conscience over Jim to initiate conversation about the limits of conscience and the dangers of a malformed conscience in my Business Ethics classes for decades. Conscience acts as a warning to tell one “it is time for moral reasoning”, not as a substitute for the actual reasoning.

    • David Connon

      Hi, Dennis. Thank you for your kind comment. Thank you, too, for sharing your use of Huck’s grappling with his conscience over Jim. I appreciate your point, “Conscience acts as a warning to tell one ‘it is time for moral reasoning,’ not as a substitute for the actual reasoning.”

  4. Norman LeRoy

    Very good writing David and I’v sent it on to my friends and family..

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