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WAS SHERLOCK HOLMES A CALVINIST?
Paul A. Tambrino, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Retired President of the Iowa Valley Community College District, and
Community College President Emeritus, American Association of Community Colleges
Since my youth, I have been fascinated by the tales of the world’s greatest detective, be they the complete stories and novels of Sherlock Holmes (to which Sherlockians refer as the Canon), or the apocryphal Hollywood tales (staring Basil Rathbone) that appeared on the silver screen.Of course any serious research about Holmes must be based exclusively on the material contained in Arthur Conan Doyle’s infallible Canon, in which Holmes’s life and adventures are so faithfully recorded by his biographer and good friend, Dr. Watson.As my avocational interest in Holmes merged with my more serious interest in Reformed theology (especially that of John Calvin), I began to wonder whether Sherlock Holmes might not be some sort of closet Calvinist!Could it be, I wondered, that scattered throughout the Canon are clues to Holmes’s theology?Would it be possible to prove that Sherlock Holmes possessed Calvinistic proclivities?Thus, I resolved to exegete the canon with regard to the theology of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
In the years that followed, I re-read the stories and novels of Sherlock Holmes, carefully noting references regarding theology or religion.Only once did Holmes directly address the issue of religion in the tales.In The Naval Treaty (NAVA) he said, “Nowhere is deduction so necessary as in religion.It can be built up as an exact science by the ideal reasoner.” In this story, Dr. Watson’s childhood friend, Percy Phelps, had called upon Holmes to investigate the disappearance of a diplomatically sensitive naval treaty. Phelps, the nephew of Lord Holdhurst, Cabinet Minister and future Premier of England, worked as a clerk in the Foreign Office.His uncle had entrusted the secret treaty to him with instructions to copy it, but Phelps had unwisely left the document in the room in which he had been copying it.During the short interval in which he left the document and the room unattended, the treaty was stolen.
Holmes and Watson found Phelps at Phelps’s home recovering from brain fever, acquired when the full shock of the missing treaty came to him.During the nine weeks since the disappearance of the document, Phelps’s fiancee, Anne Harrison, had been nursing him back to health.As Holmes interviewed Phelps, he suddenly exclaimed, “What a lovely thing a rose is!There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion.It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner.Our highest assurance of the goodness of providence seems to me to rest in the flowers.All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are really necessary for our existence in the first instance.But this rose is an extra.Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it.It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from flowers.”
At first glance, Holmes’s theological interjection seems to be completely out of context with the story.Nothing prepares the reader for it and neither roses nor Providence are ever referred to again.Watson records the mystification of Phelps and Miss Harrison to Holmes’s outburst as they “looked at Holmes during this demonstration with surprise and a good deal of disappointment written on their faces.”It is the pragmatic Miss Harrison who abruptly interrupts Holmes’s theological reverie with “Do you see any prospect of solving this mystery, Mr. Holmes?”
It seemed to me that Holmes’s sermon on the relationship between deduction and religion portrayed him as a man firmly rooted in the 19th century, where rational thought and religious belief often blended, where the mystery of Providence and the mystery of the disappearing naval treaty could be solved by employing the detective’s art of deduction.
As I continued my investigation of Holmes’s religious life, I discovered that his interest in religion was most likely kindled at the university, where he also solved his first mystery.In the Adventure of the Gloria Scott (GLOR), Holmes tells Watson how he met his only friend, Victor Trevor. Holmes says to Watson, “one morning as I went down to chapel--.” Chapel was a regular feature of university life in Holmes’s day and it is there that he presumably received instruction in Anglicanism.Attending chapel during his college years would have prepared Holmes in the mystery of the sacrament, the Anglican liturgy and the prayer book.Through these chapel services he would have become familiar, though probably not intimate with Scripture.That young Holmes must have been napping during his Old Testament course, may be deduced by the events that occurred many years later in The Adventure of the Crooked Man (CROO.)
The key to this adventure was an old love triangle set in colonial India between the daughter of the Regiment, the two men who loved her, and one whom she loved.Nancy Devoy married Sergeant James Barclay after he tricked her true love, Corporal Henry Wood, into being captured by rebels.After many years, Nancy learns of the deception and in an argument with her soon to be dead husband was heard to yell the name David.In this story, Watson asks Holmes, “There’s only one thing, if the husband’s name was James, and the other was Henry, what was this talk about David?”To this Holmes replies, “That one word, my dear Watson, should have told me the whole story had I been the ideal reasoner which you are so fond of depicting . . . David strayed a little occasionally, you know, and on one occasion in the same direction as Sergeant Barclay.You remember the small affair of Uriah and Bathsheba.My biblical knowledge is a trifle rusty, I fear, but you will find the story in the first or second Samuel.”
Of course, the story of David, Uriah and Bathsheba is found in second Samuel, chapters 11 and 12.Though Holmes was accurately able to quote Scripture, “Sufficient for tomorrow is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34), in Chapter 3 of the Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN), I discovered Holmes’s interest in theology and religion was not necessarily Biblical.As I continued my investigation I found that Holmes’s interest in religion resembled that of a 19th century free thinker rather than that of a Biblical theologian.He was far more familiar with a generalized Providence than with the Providential God of the Bible.
Much of Sherlock Holmes’s theological interest could be broadly classified as deistic in nature with a general, somewhat diffuse belief in God.In Chapter 14 of the Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN), Watson records that, “Holmes breathed a prayer of gratitude” upon finding Sir Henry Baskerville unwounded after his encounter with the hound.As to whom Holmes breathed his prayer, one can only speculate.
Certainly Holmes had indentured himself to a god possessing high ethical standards.In The Problem of the Thor Bridge (THOR), Miss Dunbar, a very attractive governess, was unjustly arrested for shooting her employer’s wife in the head.Her employer was a very wealthy, powerful American living in England who had noticed Miss Dunbar’s loveliness.Convinced that there is more to the case than a simple case of murder motivated by greed, Holmes tells Miss Dunbar and Mr. Cummings, the barrister entrusted with her defense, “With the help of the god of justice I will give you a case which will make England ring.” And in The Bascombe Valley Mystery (BOSC), Holmes hands the criminal, not to the police, but to “a higher Court than the assizes.” Holmes served the god of justice throughout his career, whether it meant placing the criminal in the hands of the authorities or allowing the criminal to go free thus satisfying the less tangible demands of justice as was the case in both The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot (DEVI) and The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (BLUE.)Thus, in a large part it was to a just god that Holmes returned thanks for the sparing of an innocent man’s life.
A god of justice dialectically posits a force of evil in the world.Holmes cosmology cautiously included the presence of the devil.In Chapter 3 of the Hound of the Baskervilles (HOUN), a tale that exploits 19th century fascination with the occult and spiritualism, Dr. Charles Mortimer consults Holmes about the mysterious death of Sir Charles Baskerville when confronted with a spectral hound.Holmes says, “I have hitherto confined my investigations to this world.In a modest way I have combated evil, but to take on the Father of Evil himself would, perhaps, be too ambitious a task.”
However, Holmes ultimately investigates the case of the hound.In surveying the ordnance map for the portion of Devonshire moor afflicted by the midnight visitations of the ghostly hound, Watson observes, “ It must be a wild place.”To this Holmes replies, “Yes, the setting is worthy of one.If the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men--.”Watson interrupts, “Then you are yourself inclining to the supernatural explanation.”To which Holmes states, “The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not? . . . Of course, if Dr. Mortimer’s surmise should be correct and we are dealing with force outside the ordinary laws of Nature, there is an end to our investigation.But we are bound to exhaust all other hypotheses before falling back upon this one.”
Though Holmes is skeptical that the hound ultimately has any supernatural features, he recognized that the work of the devil may take human form.Oddly enough Holmes does not impute devilish characteristics to Professor Moriarity, his archenemy and would be murderer.It is to Charles Augustus Milverton, king of all blackmailers, that Holmes applies the simile he is as cunning as the Evil One.Holmes says, “Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces?Well, that is how Milverton impresses me.”Thus it is Charles Augustus Milverton, and not the infamous Professor Moriarity, who is the incarnation of the Serpent, perpetually preying on the weaknesses of women and men.
I discovered that Holmes also seemed to have vague notions of an afterlife where the accounts of good and evil are ultimately balanced and settled.The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger (VEIL) concerns Eugenia Ronder, a woman betrayed, who hides her hideously scarred face behind a mysterious veil.Upon learning Miss Ronder’s story Holmes deduces, “The ways of fate are indeed hard to understand.If there is not some compensation hereafter, the world is a cruel jest.”
By this time I had learned that Holmes, a man rooted in the 19th century, had a generalized belief in an ethical Providence (a kind of deism), notions of evil sprinkled with 19th century hints of the occult, and some sense of afterlife ruled by the god of justice.As I continued my research, I also deduced that Holmes must have some knowledge of a kind of gnosticism, a dualistic belief in the separateness of matter and spirit.While cruising the Thames in The Sign of Four (SIGN) searching for the villain’s launch Aurora, Holmes scans the shore with his night-glasses.Upon seeing workers leave the shipyard after a day’s work, he remarks, “Dirty-looking rascals, but I suppose every one has some little immortal spark concealed in him.There is no a priori probability about it.A strange enigma is man!”
Holmes recognized that Gnostic spark of the divine even while hidden in the stuff of possible scoundrels.I discovered a tendency toward Gnostic dualism segregating matter and spirit again in Holmes’s theology in The Adventure of the Creeping Man (CREE.)An aging professor seeks to make himself young again by injecting a strength-giving serum in the hope of attracting the attentions of a beautiful, younger woman.The results are, of course, disastrous.Brilliantly combining Gnostic notions of dualism with the regnant Darwinism of his day, Holmes muses, “When one tried to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it.The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny . . . Consider, Watson, that the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives.The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher.It would be the survival of the least fit.What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?”
Holmes also seemed to be familiar with pagan ritual, what today is commonly referred to as the new age.In the Adventure of the Empty House (EMPT), Dr. Watson accidentally bumped into an ancient bibliophile, knocking the old man’s armload of books out of his hands.Watson particularly noticed one title, The Origin of Tree Worship, as he helped to gather up the fallen books.Of course, the elderly bibliophile later proves to be Holmes in disguise.Though Watson astutely observed this interesting title from among other books scattered about the pavement, he drew the wrong conclusion about that which he had observed, concluding that the old man was a collector of obscure volumes.Had Watson taken note of Holmes’s interest in theology and religion, The Origin of Tree Worship would have assisted Watson in penetration his friend’s disguise.
As a free thinker of the 19th century, Holmes was continually interested in religions of the East, as well as Christianity.In The Sign of Four (SIGN), Watson records Holmes facility with comparative religions.“He spoke on a quick succession of subjects—on miracle plays, . . .on the Buddhism of Ceylon . . .”
Believed to be dead, Holmes traveled the world for three years eluding Professor Moriarity’s chief henchman, Colonel Moran.Recounting his journeys to Watson in the Adventure of the Empty House (EMPT), Holmes tells Watson, “I traveled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head of Llama. . . . I then passed through Persia, looked at Mecca . . .”
Unfortunately, Watson did not press Holmes about the two years spent in mystical Tibet and we have no record of what must have been a fascinating conversation between Holmes and the head Llama nor do we know exactly what Holmes did in Mecca.All we have is the fact that Holmes visited the great centers of Buddhism and Islam.The fact that he came to Mecca and Lhassa while fleeing death itself is further evidence of his interest in the mystery of the world’s religions.
My theological investigation of Sherlock Holmes would not be complete without noting the timing of his return from the dead.While Watson is, for the most part, woefully negligent in supplying the details as to Holmes’s theological life, he does in The Adventure of the Empty House (EMPT) record the all-important time of Holmes’s return.After an absence of three years, during which time all the world supposed him to be dead, Holmes dramatically re-appears in Watson’s study on an April evening.Watson is careful to tell us that the Master’s seeming resurrection occurred after three years and on an evening in April.Are we to deduce that this was Watson’s personal Easter?
My exegesis of the Canon for clues to Sherlock Holmes’s theology was nearly at an end.My notes portrayed Holmes as a 19th century free thinker, raised an Anglican to become a kind of vague deist, something of a Gnostic, familiar with the occult, yet with an avid interest in comparative religions.It looked as though I had searched in vain for the Calvinistic Sherlock Holmes.Perhaps I had been guilty of Holmes warning in A Scandal in Bohemia (SCAN) in which he said, “I have no data yet.It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” Yet there were two more definitive clues to Holmes’s religious life.In A Study in Scarlet(STUD) he said, “From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara, without having seen or heard of one or the other.” Therefore, might we not also conclude that he would say (and in a way, paraphrase St. Paul’s writing in the first chapter of Romans), that from any aspect of creation, we can logically infer a Creator without having seen or heard of Him.
Late in Holmes’s career it was to Christianity, though not the Christianity of his university days, that Holmes returned. In The Adventure of the Retired Colourman (RETI) the murderer, when confronted with his crime, attempted suicide by trying to swallow a small white pill.Holmes grabs the murderer’s throat, thwarting the suicide attempt, saying, “No short cuts Josiah Amberley, things must be done decently and in order.”
Spoken during a moment of surprise and crisis, Holmes’s remark was entirely uncalculated.We have seen that Holmes’s knowledge of the Bible was “a trifle rusty.”It is highly unlikely that Holmes would quote First Corinthians 14:40 during such a critical time.I could only deduce that this verse was on his mind, perhaps holding a special meaning for him.
I would like to suggest that as Sherlock Holmes’s career began to draw to a close he became a Calvinist.That things should be done decently and in order, is a rallying cry of Calvinists, a verse that lies close to the Calvinist heart, a verse that is on every Calvinist’s tongue.To quote this particular verse during a life and death moment proves that Sherlock Holmes made Calvinism his ultimate theological home.For John Calvin, and hence Calvinists in general, the opposite of the Kingdom of God is complete disorder and confusion.
The Canon showed Holmes to be a man of the 19th century in whom the rational and supernatural were both at work.Indeed, Sherlock Holmes, the world’s greatest consulting detective, was the archetype for the 19th century theologian, for whom the pursuit of rationality and the fascination of mystery were forces constantly in motion.Any attempt to study God is an attempt to study Mystery.And the study of Mystery, in some atavistic sort of way, naturally lead Holmes to the contemplation of good and evil as well as postulations of Providence, ultimately to embrace Calvinism.
The process by which the consulting detective arrives at the solution of a mystery and the process by which the theologian of the 19th century attempts to study God, the ultimate Mystery, are much the same.The art of deduction, in one form or another, was as necessary to the theologian as to Sherlock Holmes.Holmes knew that solving the mystery of the disappearance of the naval treaty required the same methodical reasoning as constructing a theology of the Trinity.Things must be done decently and in order.
The last adventure of Sherlock Holmes’s life, His Last Bow (LAST), records Holmes and Watson as old men, coming out of retirement to save the British Empire from a World War I German spy.It is fitting that at the close of their final adventure together, Holmes leaves Watson, all of Britain, and those of us who eagerly follow in the Master’s footsteps with this benediction:“There’s an East wind coming . . . such a wind as never blew on England yet.It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast.But it’s GOD’S own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” Holmes spoke as a true Calvinist.
 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New York: Doubleday &
Company, Inc., 1930), 455.
 Ibid., p. 456.
Ibid., p. 374.
 Ibid., p. 422.
 Ibid., p. 748.
 Ibid., p. 757.
 Ibid., p. 1068.
 Ibid., p. 217.
 Ibid., p. 681.
 Ibid., p. 684.
 Ibid., p. 572.
 Ibid., p. 1101.
 Ibid., p. 137.
 Ibid., p. 1082-3.
 Ibid., p. 485.
 Ibid., p. 90.
 Ibid., p. 488.
 Ibid., p. 163.
 Ibid., p. 23.
 Ibid., p. 1119.
 Ibid., p. 980.
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