Huckleberry Finn's Ethical Dilemma and Slavery

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If one were to review the various lists of the greatest literary classics, it would be hard to call any list complete which didn't include The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn ("Huck Finn")  by Mark Twain. No less a writer than Ernest Hemingway praised the book stating,
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
Of course, many years have passed since Hemingway made that statement, and while more novels have been written that deserve consideration for that list, I can't think of any that have had the magnitude of impact both in history and literature as Huck Finn . The almost flawless writing of the book using the "voice" of the people - writing in a way that uses the natural accents and verbal styles used in everyday talk in America of the 1800s -- makes the book stand out as unique at the time and a harbinger of novels to come. So, when Huck Finn touches on Christianity and ethics, I think it is worthwhile to consider what Huck Finn says, and (for purposes of this blog) the accuracy of the vision it projects of Christian ethics.

Background to the Struggle

Since most Americans are required to read Huck Finn in high school (or, at least, it was largely considered required reading prior to the present age which has sought to downplay the past greats of American literature in favor of a more diverse ethnicity in literature and prior to the rise of the ongoing effort to remove books from the schools that use language considered incorrect in today's world ), I don't plan to spend much time on the plot of the novel. It is sufficient to note that the book follows the adventures a young boy, Huckleberry Finn ("Huck"), who lives prior to the American Civil War, and who runs away from his abusive father in Illinois. He connects up with Jim, a slave he knows who is owned by his benefactor's sister, Ms. Watson. Together (and with great consternation for Huck), the two try to leave slave country and head to where Jim can be free. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, the two find themselves heading down the Mississippi River further and further into the pro-slavery south. For further information and details about the plot, the reader is invited to the summary of Huck Finn on Spark Notes.

One of the most important chapters of Huck Finn is Chapter 31 where Huck gets separated from Jim, and learns that Jim has been sold by two of their traveling companions to some slavers for $40, and these slavers plan to collect the $200 reward. Huck, who is young and poor, has no money to redeem Jim from the slavers, and so he begins to consider the available alternatives. He considers writing to his friend, Tom Sawyer, to have him tell Ms. Watson that Jim was being held by slavers in recognition that Jim's former life with Ms. Watson had been preferable to a life of a slave in the deep south. But Huck initially rejects this course of action out of concern for Jim and how he will be treated by Ms. Watson and others who would identify him as a former runaway. Returning Jim to "his owner" may be better than staying with the slavers, but as a slave who tried to escape it also may be worse for Jim - much worse.

Moreover Huck also worries about his own fate. If he did elect to return Jim, once it became known that he had helped Jim escape it was likely that Huck himself would be marked by his culture as having engaged in shameful conduct. Huck comments (please note, Huck Finn uses language that is not acceptable in today's society and may even shock the conscience of some; it is certainly language that I never use in my own speaking, but in the interest of accurately portraying the novel and Mark Twain's thoughts [as channeled through the fictional Huckleberry Finn], I will not censor the language of the book as originally written):
That’s just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don’t want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain’t no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman’s nigger that hadn’t ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there’s One that’s always on the lookout, and ain’t a-going to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn’t so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, “There was the Sunday-school, you could a gone to it; and if you’d a done it they’d a learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.”
Huck's ethical dilemma and the times

Huck's struggle is understandable in light of the times in which he lived. He has been taught that Jim, as a slave, is the property of Ms. Watkins - nothing more. And in the culture where he has been raised, this was not only legal, it was seen as the proper order of things. Having been taught the Biblical injunction against stealing and having been taught in the pro-slavery state where he was raised that slavery was "Christian," it is understandable that his immature understanding of Christianity would lead him to believe that helping Jim escape was the same as stealing. He notes that if he had attended Sunday School, he would have been taught that his act of helping Jim escape would lead him to "the everlasting fire." That's why Huck feels "the plain hand of Providence" (God) slapping him. Huck believes that God has seen what he has done, and is telling him that his actions were wrong.

Huck tries to pray, but realizes that he cannot pray when he is deep in the depths of a sin. So, he sets aside his initial reservations, and decides to lift the burden of sin from his shoulders by writing the letter to Ms. Watkins telling her of Jim's whereabouts. After composing the letter, he feels good because he has done "the right thing," i.e., he was returning Jim to his owner, and therefore had stopped the sin of theft of her property.

Still, as Huck sits and contemplates the fact that he has rid himself of the guilt of having stolen Ms. Watkins' property, he begins to think back on his time with Jim on the raft,
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. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I’d see him standing my watch on top of his’n, ‘stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, 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.
In these words Twain introduces the readers to Huck's ethical dilemma. He has two competing ethical obligations: an obligation to obey the moral injunction against stealing, and a moral obligation to help a man who has become a friend. He knows that his culture and God's law (as it has been taught to him) requires him to not steal - which he sees himself as clearly doing -- but in his time on the river with Jim he has learned a basic truth: slaves are people, too. Unfortunately, Huck believes what he was almost certainly taught in his Sunday School in the pre-Civil War South (a teaching that was reinforced in law by the horrible Dred Scot v. Sanford decision of the United States Supreme Court), i.e., slaves are property not people. But the time spent with Jim confronted Huck with the simple fact that Jim was much, much more than a horse, a house or a shoe.

Christianity doesn't present the dilemma Huck encounters

The sad part is that the ethical dilemma presented to Huck need not have been as vexing as it was except that the teachings of the church in the Old South made it difficult. You see, by the time Huck Finn was written, most of America's ministers were arguing forcefully from their pulpits that slavery was an affront to God. The earliest pamphlet published against slavery (that I found) was published by Judge Samuel Sewell in 1702 entitled "The Selling of Joseph" and began its arguments by first and foremost citing the Bible:
The Numerousness of Slaves at this day in the Province, and the Uneasiness of them under their Slavery, hath put many upon thinking whether the Foundation of it be firmly and well laid; so as to sustain the Vast Weight that is built upon it. It is most certain that all Men, as they are the Sons of Adam, are Coheirs; and have equal Right unto Liberty, and all other outward Comforts of Life. GOD hath given the Earth [with all its Commodities] unto the Sons of Adam, Psal 115.16. And hath made of One Blood, all Nations of Men, for to dwell on all the face of the Earth; and hath determined the Times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation: That they should seek the Lord. Forasmuch then as we are the Offspring of GOD &c. Act 17.26, 27, 29.
Bruce T. Gourley, author of books about religious belief and the Civil War, noted that in the 1820s, "many Baptists North and South were anti-slavery, reflective of larger views in the South at that time, a legacy of a pre-cotton economy." It was the growth of the Cotton Industry in the South and its demand for hours of heavy labor that led many of the Southern pastors to change their opinion and support the "peculiar institution." Still, outside of the South it was rare to find an American pastor who believed slavery was Biblical. But for the hardening of the hearts of those in the South by their economic interests and Southern pride, it is an almost certainty that slavery would have been abolished by the arguments of the abolitionists over time.

As a side note, I recognize that there are people today who wrongly assert that the Bible condones slavery (and I fully expect someone to post a litany of Bible verses that superficially appear to support slavery), but that argument has been roundly rejected by virtually all Christian churches since the Civil War. Nevertheless, the purpose of this particular article is not to make the Biblical case for the anti-slavery position, but accepts that nearly unanimous agreement that the Bible teaches the equality of all men before God, and the understanding that slavery is an abominable practice that the Bible ultimately condemns.

(For those interested in pursuing the argument against slavery, I recommend Ravi Zacharias International Ministries article entitled "Does the Bible Condone Slavery?"  and Richard Deem's "Does God Approve of Slavery According to the Bible" which both provide a basic background for a Biblical understanding of the rejection of slavery. Another good source of the abolitionist arguments can be found in an online paper entitled "Slavery - The Abolitionist Movement" by David Meager.  I would also recommend reviewing some of the current arguments against Human Trafficking which is, of course, just a modern form of slavery. Two quick resources are's paper on Human Trafficking, and All About's article on Human Trafficking Victims) I will not re-fight the Civil War here, and those that do try to do so in the comments will either be ignored or deleted.

A deontological struggle?

Unfortunately, Huck wouldn't have been privy to the arguments rejecting slavery. If he had been, he might have more correctly reasoned that his real dilemma wasn't choosing between two of God's ethical mandate. His ethical dilemma was between choosing to follow an obligation to obey the state and return a person who is a slave according to the earthly authorities of the state or the obligation to obey God's law and help Jim be free. That was the real dilemma facing Huck, and it was a dilemma that thousands of people understood and decided correctly when they formed the underground railroad.

In a choice between following God and following the law of man, the Bible is clear - following God is the moral thing to do. But Huck didn't know that. He had been taught that slaves were property and not people. So, Huck was left with a much more difficult, albeit inaccurate, ethical dilemma - follow God's proscription against stealing and return Jim (thus, denying his humanity) or continue to help Jim escape (recognizing his humanity) and violate the law against stealing.

People encounter this type of dilemma all the time, and those that choose the first believe that God is more interested in rules than he is in souls. In today's language, choice one would be seen as promoting a deontological approach to ethics - the belief that it is our responsibility to do the "right" thing, i.e., follow the rule or prescriptive behavior , regardless of the "good" of the outcome. As noted by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on Deontological Ethics:
The most familiar forms of deontology, and also the forms presenting the greatest contrast to consequentialism, hold that some choices cannot be justified by their effects—that no matter how morally good their consequences, some choices are morally forbidden. On such familiar deontological accounts of morality, agents cannot make certain wrongful choices even if by doing so the number of those exact kinds of wrongful choices will be minimized (because other agents will be prevented from engaging in similar wrongful choices). For such deontologists, what makes a choice right is its conformity with a moral norm. Such norms are to be simply obeyed by each moral agent; such norm-keepings are not to be maximized by each agent. In this sense, for such deontologists, the Right is said to have priority over the Good. If an act is not in accord with the Right, it may not be undertaken, no matter the Good that it might produce (including even a Good consisting of acts in accordance with the Right). 
In today's society, one commonly sees deontological thinking in the area of lying. Leviticus 19:11 says quite plainly, "Do not lie," and the New Testament echoes this injunction in Colossians 3:9 when it says, "Do not lie to each other." (Both, NIV) And God Himself is not a liar. (Titus 1:2) And God's ethics certainly call on us to be truthful in all circumstances. But what happens when that injunction against lying might cause injury to another person creating an ethical dilemma? Talk show host Dennis Prager uses the illustration of a person hiding Jews during the Holocaust who is confronted by Nazi soldiers who demand to know if any Jews are in the home and the only acceptable answers are "yes" or "no." The example is intended to set up an dilemma: if the person hiding Jewish people responds "yes" thereby keeping the moral directive to not lie, she does so at the expense of the lives of innocent Jews and therefore follows deontological reasoning. If, however, she says "no," she breaks the moral directive by lying but she saves the lives of the innocent people hiding from persecutors, thus following the teleological or consequentialist approach to ethics. (People sometimes develop fanciful alternatives where one somehow saves the lives without lying, but the point of the dilemma is that there is no other choices - lie and innocent people live, or don't lie and innocent people die.) What is the moral thing to do?

Huck is faced with a similar dilemma, but in his mind he has temporarily elevated the proscription against stealing above the obvious humanity of Jim. Fortunately, Huck is able to pierce the fog of what he has been incorrectly taught to believe, and he finds emerging a simple truth - he cares for Jim, and Jim is more than property. And this simple fact leads him to a final decision:
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.
No Huck, you won't go to hell for following God's law even when you don't recognize it as God's law. It's just a shame that the Southern ministers contributed to his belief that helping a man made in the image of God to find freedom is less important to an obligation to return stolen property -- especially where the property isn't really property at all.


That scene is one of the great iconic moments in American literature. It so perfectly illustrates Kholberg's Hierarchy, a concept in psychology, where one moves beyond mere rule keeping to understands the reasons for the rules. Huck graduates to the higher stage by realizing that a higher ideal can be right and the rule can be wrong, or wrongly applied.

You are totally right that Christianity doesn't really teach the false dilemma, but Christians in the south sure thought it did.I still remember the racism of Texas growing up, the Dallas of my childhood was freely and openly racist with no qualms, I remember people just freely dropping the N world with no conjunction and saying really stupid things about the alleged inferiority of blacks and Hispanics.

Good article man, it[s agodo work you are doing.

Anonymous said…
BK: As a side note, I recognize that there are people today who wrongly assert that the Bible condones slavery (and I fully expect someone to post a litany of Bible verses that superficially appear to support slavery), but that argument has been roundly rejected by virtually all Christian churches since the Civil War.

Christianity now recognises that slavery is wrong, which is to be applauded, and so virtually all Christian churches since the Civil War have been against it. However, it does not follow that the Bible does not condone slavery - it clearly does.

BK: Nevertheless, the purpose of this particular article is not to make the Biblical case for the anti-slavery position, but accepts that nearly unanimous agreement that the Bible teaches the equality of all men before God, and the understanding that slavery is an abominable practice that the Bible ultimately condemns.

The equality of all men is something that has been devised since the Bible was written. Again, Christianity is to be applauded for embracing it, but it is not Biblical. The Bible clearly states several times that the Jews are God's chosen people, even in the NT; see, for example, Matthew 15:24.

If you want to show that the Bible does not condone slavery or that it promotes the equality of all men, you need to quote the Bible. It is telling that you do not.

BK said…
Pix, interesting point. I will say that you are right in one sense, i.e., the Bible doesn't specifically state in one place that "all men are created equal." That requires reading and understanding the Bible as a whole. And it is also true that the Bible is more interested in oneness than equality. Equality can be seen as a passing concept while we are on Earth, but oneness in Christ as well as the equality before Christ are what the Bible ultimately teaches. The Bible definitely teaches that we will all go before God when we die and it doesn't matter whether we are rich or poor, Jew or Greek, slave or free.

It is the Christian teaching of our equality before God that was put into the Constitution (although not perfectly practiced then just as it is not perfectly practiced today) that "all men are created equal." On the La Vista Church of Christ website there is a nice page answering this question that begins with the following two points:

In speaking to the Athenians, Paul stated that God "has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings" (Acts 17:26). We are all descendants of Adam. While we are divided between different nations and languages, we are all the same -- human beings created by the hand of God.

In determining whether we will go to heaven or hell after life on this earth, God "will render to each one according to his deeds" (Romans 2:6). Nationality will not matter. God is impartial toward nations. "For there is no partiality with God" (Romans 2:11).

No, the Bible doesn't condone slavery and yes, the Bible does ultimately teach that all men are equal before Him. To grasp that takes more than a surface reading of the text which you appear to be doing.
Anonymous said…
BK: No, the Bible doesn't condone slavery and yes, the Bible does ultimately teach that all men are equal before Him. To grasp that takes more than a surface reading of the text which you appear to be doing.

It requires that you have decided these things in advance, and are determined to interpret them that way.

If you asked the Ancient Hebrews, the guys who wrote the OT, whether slavery was morally wrong or whether other races were equal to them before God, they would answer NO to both.

BK said…
Have I decided things in advance? Well, yes, if you mean that I have thought about them and made a decision long prior to this post. You have too.

And with respect to the OT Hebrew guys, I believe you are correct. But (1) they didn't have what was written in the NT which doesn't change the OT rules but builds on them, and (2) I certainly don't believe that the OT Hebrews should be used as models for living a God-filled life. A quick review of the history of the OT shows that the people of Israel fell time and time again. Yes, they wrote the OT, but it was God's understanding -- not the Hebrews understanding -- which mattered.
Anonymous said…
I mean you have decided slavery is wrong, and then approached the Bible to rationalise that view, rather than approaching the Bible with an open mind to see what it really says on the subject. You are forcing your own opinion on the book.

The relevant part of the OT was written when the Hebrews ruled themselves, ad written by leaders within the community; they were in a position to institute laws about slavery. In contrast, the NT was written under the rule of the Romans, and by people outside of mainstream society; people who had absolutely no opportunity to influence the law of the land in any way whatsoever. The NT gives a guide to personal conduct, but has nothing to say about institutes and laws. If we want to know what laws and institutions God wanted and does not want, then the OT is the place to go.

Now you seem to be saying that the ancient Hebrews got those laws wrong. Is it your position that they misunderstood God, and that really God wanted them to abandon slavery?

BK said…
Your comment makes me a bit more understanding of the answer that God gave Job when he asked him over and over, "Were you there when...." Were you, Pix, there when I began my study of this issue? Were you there when I prayerfully developed a hermeneutic that takes into account the passages that speak of how we are all created in God's image and all equal before God with the passages that seem accepting of slavery? Were you there when I did my research into what it meant to be a slave in New Testament times? Were you there when I worked through why God allows bad things to happen? I hardly think so.

It is my experience that much of the time that people accuse someone of doing something inappropriately, it's because that's how they either would do it or that's how they did it. Thus, I suspect that the reason that you think that all I did in developing my thoughts about slavery is make my mind up and try to justify it is because that's exactly how you did it. You made up your mind that the Bible is wrong, so you made your mind up about slavery and are using the Bible to justify it.

I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that your answers are really the result of study rather than assumption. But I will answer your comment this way: I said in my post that I would not re-fight the Civil War here in the comments. I believe you have gone too far down a particular road, and it will take me to long to lead you back to the beginning where we can work together to see what the Bible actually says. Since I write the blog recognizing that most of the readers rarely read past the first comment or two, we are too far down the chain for me to believe that arguing further with you will produce any positive response. Certainly, I don't expect to change your mind, and arguing further will have no impact on people reading down the chain because not enough people will have read this far to be worth addressing the issue for their sake. Perhaps I will address this later in another post, but I doubt it. I think my viewpoint is both well-settled and well-accepted, and I don't see any point in spending a lot of time arguing about slavery or equality any more than I see any reason to spend time arguing about whether God's forgiveness extends backwards into the Old Testament.

But in the meantime, please recognize that you don't know me. You have no right to assume how I think or how I arrived at my conclusions. I will try to grant you the courtesy of not putting thoughts into your head if you will do the same for me.
Anonymous said…
The fact is that if you look at the Bible with an open mind, with no prior conclusion about its position on slavery, you will conclude that it condones slavery. Because it clearly does.

That you have found otherwise is highly suggestive that you are indeed forcing a prior conclusion upon, but okay may be that is not the case. Maybe you are just bad at reading comprehension.
BK said…
It would be easy for me to respond with an equally insulting comment, but I won't.
Anonymous said…
Looking bad, that was a bit much, apologies. I guess that is because I debate with Joe too much.

However, the point remains. If you are claiming you approached the Bible with an open mind with respect to slavery, how would you possibly conclude that it condemns slavery?

The culture of the OT and of Jesus too is very much that the Jews were a nation apart. They were God's chosen people. Jesus stated his message was for Jews not gentiles, and the Jews of Jesus time were awaiting a messiah from God who would lead the Jews back to what they saw as their rightful place, on top of everyone else, as God's chosen people.

I do not want to come across as anti-semitic here - this is a very common belief; that your tribe/people/nation were better than everyone else, and have the right to rule everyone else. It is still around today in the form of nationalism, though perhaps it has diminishes in the last few decades.

The point here is that your claim that the Bible says everyone is equal just does not stand up when we look at the OT, which makes a clear distinction between Jew and gentile. Looking specifically at slavery, it clearly Jewish slaves are not to be treated ruthlessly, and are to be freed at the jubilee, in contrast to gentile slaves who are enslaved for life.

Okay, Paul and the authors of the later gospels were trying to sell Christianity to the Romans, and so much of the NT reflects that, but remember that Jesus was crucified for treason against Rome, so it is doubtful he would have been happy with that.


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