Huck Finn and Impostor Preachers

Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn shows up often in lists of the most important, and most influential, American novels. No doubt its exploration of the issue of slavery through the character of Huck’s friend “old Jim” makes this an important work. But even more perturbing is the novel’s exposé of the “characters” that make up a big part of the American character, i.e., America’s con men, hucksters, and impostors.

In a recent essay in the journal Claremont Review of Books (Vol. 13 No. 2 [Spring 2013]: 44-49), Professor Paul A. Cantor at the University of Virginia explores this aspect of Mark Twain’s novel, and includes a look at impostor preachers. In America, Cantor notes “it becomes difficult to distinguish the genuinely self-made man from the con man. . . . The democratic world is filled with impostors.” (p. 45). Cantor points to the character of “the duke” in Twain’s novel as an example of the impostor preacher. Talking confidentially to one of his friends, the “duke” explains:

I’ve done considerble in the doctoring way in my time. Layin’ on o’ hands is my best holt—for cancer and paralysis, and sich things; an I k’n tell a future pretty good when I’ve got somebody along to find out the facts for me. Preachin’s my line, too; and workin’ camp-meetin’s, and missionaryin around (e.g., see Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [UK: Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax Ltd., 2006], p. 109 [chap. 19]).

Cantor explains about the “duke,” and his friend the “king,” that:

In their shameless impostures, they represent the dark side of all that is best in America, its spirit of enterprise. . . . They have a temperance scam, in which they play upon the moral fervor of their spellbound audience in order to extract donations for the noble cause of teetotalism. Americans, as part of their democratic character, like to think the best of people. This is no doubt an admirable trait, but again, it makes them especially susceptible to con games. They love to hear stories of religious conversion, of criminals who discover the evil of their ways and confess their sins. That is why the king and the duke include preaching among their swindles. Their ability to exploit religion for financial gain is the dark side of the genuine power of evangelical movements in the United States. With no established church in America, anybody can set himself up as a preacher. In the absence of any official form of validation, preaching must become self-validating and therefore rely on the preacher’s charisma. Unable to count on a captive audience, preachers must create their own congregations. (Claremont Review of Books (Vol. 13 No. 2 [Spring 2013]: 46).

How does the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod look through the eyes of Huck Finn? On the one hand, it has a number of characteristics that has helped it resist “the dark side of all that is best in America, its spirit of enterprise.” The LC—MS does have an “official form of validation” for preachers, namely, synodically-established-clergy-training systems, certification, ordination, installation, and an “arm’s length” form of supervision in the Circuit Counselor. Lay control of finances in congregations, and corporate-board control of finances at district and synod levels, prevents financial abuse. And, most significantly, the synod requires of its clergy that they vow to teach in accord with the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions unconditionally—known as quia subscription, and they can be removed for failing to keep those vows.

On the other hand, many of these important “clergy controls” are eroding. The 1989 Wichita convention created the “district-licensed lay deacon” (hereafter DLLD), which “deacons” ascend the pulpit without most of the vetting process that takes place for ordained clergy. There are now 600 DLLDs in synod, about 10% of all active clergy. Lay control of finances in congregations, i.e., control independent of clergy influence, has been jettisoned in the “Accountable Leadership Model” of the Transforming Congregations Network. Most disturbing to me is when I see seminary graduates throwing away their Book of Concord, or existing LC—MS pastors denigrating our doctrinal standards, as if they know better.

The “American spirit of enterprise” is perhaps the most subtle and insidious force creeping into the synod. How else can you explain the former synodical president’s goal of 2000 new mission starts and 50 million witness events by 2017 (see Convention Workbook: Reports and Overtures, 2007, 63rd Regular Convention, The LCMS, Houston, TX, July 14-19, 2007 [St Louis: LCMS, 2007], p. 5)? How else can you explain so many congregations, pastors, and laymen who got “suckered” into the false promises of the “church-growth movement”? At best, such congregations just lost the money they paid to the church-growth con men. At worst, such congregations are gone, and their lay members are alienated from the church until their dying day—and there are many cases like this.

The laymen and pastors of the LC—MS need to be aware of “the dark side of all that is best in America, its spirit of enterprise.” We need to keep the “clergy controls” we have in our seminary training programs, synodical-level certification, ordination, installation, and visitation by Circuit Counselors. When people attack the Lutheran doctrine of the call and ordination, as that doctrine is explained by such luminaries as C. F. W. Walther and Johann Gerhard, we have to ask whether they are, in fact, “wolves trying break down the gate to the sheep pen,” i.e., con men with evil designs. When pastors try to weasel their way into the financial aspects of a congregation, we have to ask what they are really up to—and whether there are sufficient “financial controls” to prevent abuse. When pastors, professors, and other teachers of the Word are not willing to be subject to the Scriptures and Book of Concord, we need to tell them firmly that Lutheran theology does not allow an entrepreneurial spirit in its doctrines or doctrinal principles; and if they disagree, we need to give them the “boot.”

This also teaches laymen something very important. If they have a pastor who submits to the Scriptures and the Book of Concord; who does not try to impress people with fancy cars or fancy clothes—thus not a lover of money; who is not an impostor, huckster, or con man; but is rather modest, conscientious, and otherwise described by the Timothean virtues (e.g., 1 Timothy 3:1-13), they have a rara avis, i.e., a rare bird to be cared for and respected. As a rule, our LC—MS clergy are rare birds compared to the typical American preacher. If our Lutheran laymen allow bullies or hucksters to drive out their good pastors, then they deserve nothing else but what is standard fare in the American religious diet—the impostor preacher.

[If you are interested in subscribing to the Claremont Review of Books, you may call: 909-621-6825; or contact: [email protected] Their website is: www.claremont.org/crb. Prices are $6.95 per copy; $27.80 for a one-year subscription in the US. The journal is published by the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy, 937 West Foothill Blvd., Suite E, Claremont, CA, 91711. Individual copies might be available at the newsstand at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore; or your public library].

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