The Theology of Sherlock Holmes
based on The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
 

"I suppose that I am committing a felony,
but it is just possible that I am saving a soul."
ó The Blue Carbuncle

 

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Arthur Conan Doyle penned the Sherlock Holmes mysteries in the last decades of the nineteenth century when Britain was still a Christian country in culture and habits of mind. The Sherlock Holmes mysteries reflect these traits both in Holmes himself and in the other characters in the stories. Two of the tales -- The Boscombe Valley Mystery and The Blue Carbuncle -- have distinctly Christian endings, which show Holmes acting out Biblical values.

I.  The Boscombe Valley Mystery

At the beginning of Boscombe Valley, Holmes remarks on the character of the accused in terms redolent of Christian virtue. "The self-reproach and contrition . . . appear to me to be the signs of a healthy mind, rather than of a guilty one." Contrition is a distinctly Biblical characteristic, expressing sorrow for sin and a desire to repair oneís ways. It is closely allied to repentance which is a prerequisite of forgiveness. The Bible contrasts a sound mind with a reprobate mind (Romans 1). The reprobate who willfully chooses a life of sin is given over to a mind suitable to his desires. Holmes reflects in this remark a Biblical view of human nature. When the murderer confesses to Holmes at the end of the story, he employs Biblical concepts. He calls his victim "a devil incarnate" and prays for Holmes: "God keep you out of the clutches of such a man as he." He then confesses: "Deeply as I have sinned, I have led a life of martyrdom to atone for it." Holmes, in receiving this confession, is thrust into the role of a priest and, holding the manís fate in his hands, delivers him from punishment with remarkable Biblical grace, showing forth the forgiveness and mercy which are the hallmark of Christís teaching and example.

"Well, it is not for me to judge you," says Holmes. And then: "I pray that we may never be exposed to such a temptation." The man replies: "I pray not." Both men speak throughout this dialogue in a common Christian discourse. The man has only a few months to live. Holmes speaks of the Ultimate Judgment. "You are yourself aware that you will soon have to answer for your deed at a higher court than the Assizes." He expresses an intention to keep the manís confession hid from "mortal eye" unless its use becomes unavoidable. The grateful perpetrator then observes solemnly that Holmes own deathbed "will be the easier for the thought of the peace you have given to mine." In the words of Christ: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." Matthew 5:7

After the man departs, Holmes meditates for awhile and then exclaims: "God help us!" In a show of humility he states: "There, but for the grace of God, goes Sherlock Holmes."

This entire dialogue proceeds on assumptions of a Biblical reality including an assumed final judgment beyond the grave. The mingled justice and mercy in the exchange reflect clearly the defining characteristics of God himself and demonstrate that Holmes and his contemporaries lived in a culture where such realities were taken for granted. "There is one lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy: who art thou that judgest another?" James 4:12.

II.  The Five Orange Pips

In The Five Orange Pips, the first victim, upon receiving the pips, exclaims: "My God, my God, my sins have overtaken me." This is the language of a Christian civilization where Godís reality and the dire nature of sin are accepted as fact. The story ends with Holmes client being the victim of foul play. Holmes was "depressed and shaken" by the news. His reflection on his own reaction to the news of his clientís demise reveals a mind shaped by the Christian understanding of human nature.

"That hurts my pride, Watson," he said at last. "It is a petty feeling, no doubt, but it hurts my pride. It becomes a personal matter with me now, and, if God send me health, I shall set my hand upon this gang."

Holmes consideration of pride as a "petty feeling" reflects Christís teaching that pride is a vice and humility a virtue. "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low." Isaiah 40:4. "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble." James 4:6. See also Peter 5:5 ("be clothed with humility") and Proverbs 3:34 ("he giveth grace unto the lowly"). Thus, Holmes keen awareness that pride is a petty feeling corresponds with the Biblical values and doubtlessly reflects Doyleís own education in Christian virtue.

Holmes also makes the success of his endeavor dependent upon the favor of God. "[I]f God send me health . . ." Reflected here is the humility of the man who knows that the issue of every event and the consequence of all human intention lie in the hands of God alone. "For that ye ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that." James 4:15. "In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths." Proverbs 3:6.

He exclaims of those who perpetrated a crime before he could foil them: "They must be cunning devils." The devil is not a figure of speech in the Bible but the very adversary of God. He is clever and ruthless. Holmes, as a cultured Christian gentleman, portrays his opponents in Biblical language. Watson concludes the story with the comment: "There is ever a flaw, however, in the best laid of human plans . . ." Unspoken is the assumption that there are plans not made with human hands which are perfect and not subject to frustration.

III.  The Blue Carbuncle

The Blue Carbuncle has Christmas for its backdrop and thus appropriately gleams with Christian concepts, particularly in its denouement. In analyzing a lost hat for clues as to its owner, Holmes descries a "moral retrogression" caused by an "evil influence." Good and evil and objective morality are Biblical concepts. That a manís life has a moral quality ó for good or evil ó in service of Christ or the devil ó is a central theme of the New Testament. The fate of oneís soul is entwined with the moral quality of his life. "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." Ecclesiastes 12:14. Holmes could not have spoken in such terms were he not grounded in the Christian view of reality. Precious stones, Holmes observes, are "the devilís pet baits." He thus speaks of the temptations by which the devil snares the souls of men to do evil and thus become his captives. The metaphor is striking and starkly Biblical. This comment of Holmes beings to mind his statement at the close of The Boscombe Valley Mystery: "I pray that we may never be exposed to such a temptation." Holmes is keenly aware of the role of the human will in its response to temptation and the dire consequences of succumbing thereto. The Lordís prayer, of course, bears the oft-repeated stanza: "Lead us not unto temptation, but deliver us from evil." As the Lord prayed, so does Holmes observe. And he understands the weakness of human nature, including his own. "Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." I Corinthians 10:12.

Holmes understanding of the common frailty of human nature and its proneness to sin renders him sympathetic and forgiving towards others. In this he is a Christian. Confronting the perpetrator at the end of the story, Holmes analyzes his failing in Biblical terms: "Well, the temptation of sudden wealth so easily acquired was too much for you, as it has been for better men before you[.]" The wrongdoer then invokes the Bible in pleading for mercy

"For Godís sake, have mercy!" he shrieked. "Think of my father! Of my mother! It would break their hearts. I never went wrong before! I never will again. I swear it. Iíll swear it on a Bible. Oh, donít bring it into court! For Christís sake, donít!"

He then confesses that he "sold my character," a reflection that brings to mind Christís statement: "What shall a man give in exchange for his soul?" Matthew 16:26. "God help me" he cries out. "God help me!" Once again Holmes is in the place of a priest addressing a penitent sinner. In The Boscombe Valley Mystery the pleader was a murderer; in The Blue Carbuncle it is a thief. In both stories without Holmes intervention an innocent man would have answered for the crime, a matter that troubled him deeply and sharpened his determination to solve the crimes. The same is true also in The Copper Beeches. Holmes thus possesses also a keen sense of justice, which is obviously a moral and Biblical attribute.

Satisfied that the wrongly accused will be acquitted, Holmes permits the thief to flee without turning him over to the authorities. His reasons are thoroughly scriptural.

I suppose that I am committing a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again. He is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a gaolbird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness.

In these observations we see that the salvation of souls has a high value indeed for Holmes, far greater even than just retribution. Christ died to pay the price for our sins that he might redeem our souls out of the grasp of the evil one. "For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved." John 3:17. Thus, Holmes in his character reflects Christís higher purpose to redeem the sinner for God, rather than merely to punish him for his transgressions. Godís justice is satisfied in Christís sacrifice for sin; and the sinner who as a penitent accepts this gift paid for his soul, is redeemed from the curse and consequences of sin. Holmes in this act of mercy is actuated also by the forgiveness of God. Christ teaches that we must forgive others to receive for ourselves Godís mercy. "For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses." Matthew 6:14-15. Thus, Holmes recognizes the moral quality of Christmas as reflective of Christís mission of mercy to the souls of men. And shows forth that mercy himself ó for its own sake and in hopes of saving a soul from perdition.

IV.  The Speckled Band

In The Speckled Band the client recognizes Holmes moral perceptions, stating: "But I have heard, Mr. Holmes, that you can see deeply into the manifold wickedness of the human heart." See Jeremiah 17:9 ("The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?") Watson describes the villain as having "a large face . . . marked with every evil passion." Commenting on the criminal, Holmes sighs: "Ah, me! itís a wicked world[.]" When the villain falls prey to his own device, Holmes comments: "Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another." This observation is also Biblical. "Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Galatians 6:7. "Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him." Proverbs 26:27. See also Proverbs 28:10 ("he shall fall himself into his own pit"); Ecclesiastes 10:8 ("He that diggeth a pit shall fall into it"); and Psalms 7:15, 9:15, 35:8, 57:6 and 141:10.

 In the concluding words of The Speckled Band Holmes reflects on his own moral condition for having stirred up the perpetratorís instrument to strike its owner. Considering himself "no doubt indirectly responsible" for the wrongdoerís death, Holmes weighs the matter and concludes: "I cannot say that it is likely to weigh very heavily upon my conscience." A clear conscience is one of the greatest attainments of the soul. "And herein do I exercise myself, to have always a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward men." Acts 24:16. Holmesí conscience functions as his moral barometer, as it is intended to do. He honestly examines himself, unwaveringly taking responsibility for his part in the manís death, and thus is unlike those "[s]peaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron." I Timothy 4:2.

V.  The Engineer's Thumb

In The Engineerís Thumb, the client recalls for Holmes an arguably rude comment he made to his adversary. "Heaven forgive me for that last sentence," he says, "but the words came to my lips." A Christian is careful how he speaks. "For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." Matthew 12:37. "But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment." Matthew 12:36. The clientís delicate regard for improper speech and his prayer for Godís forgiveness bespeak a soul sensitive to sin and eager to avoid it. In this he is part of the Christian culture that permeates the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Later in the story a maid attempts to warn the client of his danger: "For the love of Heaven!" she whispered, "get away from here before it is too late!" Such an appeal has meaning only to one who loves God.

VI.  The Noble Bachelor

In The Noble Bachelor, Holmes comments that "jealousy is a strange transformer of characters." See Proverbs 27:4 ("Who is able to stand before envy?"). At the close of the story Watson remarks on the bachelorís lack of graciousness when faced with the former husband of his betrothed. Holmes again shows forth his forbearance. "I think that we may judge Lord St. Simon very mercifully, and thank our stars that we are never likely to find ourselves in the same position." Holmes shows the same spirit here that he did in The Boscombe Valley Mystery and The Blue Carbuncle. "For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Matthew 7:2. "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." Galatians 6:1.

VII.  The Beryl Coronet

In The Beryl Coronet, Holmes describes the villain as "a man without heart or conscience," actuated by a "wicked lust for gold." In this statement he expressed Biblical truth in Biblical language. "But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition." I Timothy 6:9. At the conclusion of the story he remarks on the behavior of the young girl who ran off with the villain. "[W]hatever her sins are, they will soon receive a more than sufficient punishment."

IX.  The Copper Beeches

In The Copper Beeches the Great Detective terms the statistics of crime a "dreadful record of sin" and remarks on "the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness . . ." All these strong moral terms derive from Doyleís undoubtedly Christian worldview. They lend substance to his hero's character, elevating him above the level of a mere problem-solver.

X.  Conclusion

The enduring attraction of the Holmes stories, I believe, is not related solely to Holmes unusual power of reasoning but also to the attractiveness of his moral character which is grounded in the Christian civilization in which he lived. Not only Holmes, but also the other protagonists in the stories, share a common Biblical vision of reality. Holmes virtues as well as his mental ability create a well-rounded character -- morally and intellectually. His pursuit of justice and his Christian humility make him a small, albeit fictional, hero of the faith. His sins, especially the use of hard drugs, are overbalanced by his recognition of the common frailty of others. His suspicion of pride is particularly attractive in one as mentally gifted as he is. He also eschewed the grosser sins of the flesh, referring in The Redheaded League to such a motivation for crime as "vulgar intrigue." His courtesy is a hallmark of a Christian gentleman, careful of the feelings of others and gracious in manner. See A Case of Identity ("the easy courtesy for which he was remarkable"). "Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous." I Peter 3:8.


Martin Wishnatsky
P.O. Box 1043

Prattville, AL 36068

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