Reading Elder Holland’s Dissertation

I knew that Elder Holland graduated from Yale with a PhD in American Studies, but it never occurred to me until General Conference (while I was watching him speak), that it might be available online via ProQuest (UMI’s Microfilm initiative). Most university libraries, by the way, have subscriptions that will let you download the dissertation for free.

Sure enough, when I searched for his name, his 1973 dissertation was in the database, and in less than 30 seconds the entire 300 page document was on my computer. I haven’t had a chance to really read through it (and given my current reading list, I’m not sure when I will); however, I at least wanted to put up the abstract and get other’s thoughts on it.

“Mark Twain’s Religious Sense: The Viable Years–1835-1883”

Kenneth Burke has written that the poet naturally tends to write about that which most deeply engrosses him, and that nothing more deeply engrosses him than his burdens. Religion was Mark Twain’s burden: he thought about it and talked about it and wrote about it all his life. He frequently called this adversary Presbyterianism but Twain cared little for the nuances of sectarian delination. He could defame Christian, Jew, and Moslem in the same breath, and while that did not necessarily make him the ‘savage’ Bernard DeVoto suggests, it surely precluded any Howellsean-like distress over the distinction between a Universalist and a Unitarian.

But if Twain did not have a mind tuned to fine theological distinctions, he did nevertheless have a soul gripped by the Puritan fathers. In Walt Whitman’s phrase that ‘interior consciousness’ which in the religious sense was as tinged with ‘animal heat’ in Sam Clemens as it was in any revivalist who ever leaped upon a stump. Sin, punishment, conscience, duty, the fear of God, death–these were the staples in his moral pantry. In fact there is considerable evidence that Twain seriously considered the ministry several times in his life, usually when he was out of work and desperate. But, as he told his brother, he could not supply himself with ‘the necessary stock in trade–i.e. religion.’ So he accepted his ‘call’ to humorous literature wherein he might ‘excite the laughter of God’s creatures.’

When discussing Twain’s religious position, most of his biographers have focused on his last decades, those ‘damned human race’ years which were so full of financial strife and personal tragedy. It is contended in this study that the earlier years, stretching from Hannibal to Hartford, are not only crucial to any real understanding of the later skepticism but also much more revealing to students of American cultural history. Paul Tillich’s proposition that religion is the substance of culture, and culture the form of religion was never more axiomatic than it was for Samuel Clemens.

The Clemens odyssey from 1835 to 1883 reveals scenes of a remarkably varied religious experience. He knew Millerites, Mormons, and more Beechers than he cared to. He attended seances and camp meetings and church socials at every turn. Above all he prided himself on running with ‘the fast nags of the cloth,’ whatever their denomination. Most importantly these years include the time of his most concentrated efforts toward becoming a professing Christian. The incentive for the quest was the hand of Olivia Langdon but the pilgrimage was real and it led him to the spiritual zenith of his life.

Having won the girl he was to love with all his heart, the need for less substantial gods decreased. Gradually there were more and more statements against the orthodoxy of his age until, in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, the boy who is father to the man chooses to flee the shams and strictures of Protestant America’s civilization. Years later Clemens confessed that 1883–the year he finished “Huckleberry Finn”–marked the point in his spiritual descent before which pessimism was impractical and after which optimism was impossible. This study concludes there: at the end of whatever viability his religious faith may have had and at the beginning of all that impiety ahead.

Okay, I’m not an Americanist, and I haven’t read past page 20, but it seems to be decent scholarship. FWIW, not all dissertations are (spend some time on ProQuest and you’ll see what I mean, if you already don’t). Beyond that I have to admit that I’m pleasantly surprised that someone in the Twelve has produced a substantial document in a genre similar to the one I find myself working in–an academically acceptable dissertation in the humanities (if we can in fact call this a ‘genre’). Holland even quotes Tillich!

Alright, before I reveal more about my own presuppositions concerning Church leadership than I’d like to, I’ll stop here.

8 Replies to “Reading Elder Holland’s Dissertation”

  1. What an odd coincidence. I had the same thought last month (that Elder Holland’s diss. was available via ProQuest), and I likewise downloaded it, saved it to my desktop, read the abstract, and haven’t had a moment to look at it again since.

    I am an Americanist, and though I hesitate to judge the scholarly-quality of the diss. based on the abstract alone, I agree that it does seem to be “decent scholarship.” I seem to remember Elder Holland mentioning in his interview for the PBS documentary that following the completion of his PhD at Yale, he was considering whether to pursue a career in the academy or one in CES, and following what he described as a revelatory experience, decided to go the CES-route. It would have been interesting to see how things would’ve turned out had he chosen the other option and (presumably) published his dissertation.

  2. I looked over Elder Holland’s dissertation a while ago as well and will attest to its credibility. I have always wondered who else would have been floating around Yale’s American Studies department at the time he was there. He studied with R.W.B. Lewis who won a Pulitzer Prize and the Bancroft award for his biography of Edith Wharton. Yale was and is one of the premier American Studies departments in the country.

  3. Russ,

    It’s available online via ProQuest (UMI’s Microfilm initiative). Most university libraries have subscriptions that will let you download the dissertation for free. Go to a university library and ask a librarian how to access it. Take a memory stick and save it so you can read it on your person computer. You can also pay an arm and a leg to subscribe to it yourself (

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