Twain’s critique is compassionate, however. His intention is not to expose anything inherently unworthy in his characters but to point out universal human weaknesses. When Judge Thatcher visits, everyone at Sunday school shows off—the superintendent, librarian, teachers, boys, and girls—in an attempt to attract the local celebrity’s attention. Tom arranges to earn an honor he doesn’t deserve, teachers dote on students they usually treat severely, and the superintendent gives a reward to a child (Tom) whom he knows doesn’t deserve it. By exposing the superficiality of the Sunday school’s workings, Twain makes Tom’s own dramatic inclinations seem not a departure from, but an exaggeration of, his society’s behavior.
As Twain describes the church service in Chapter 5, he again shows Tom’s faults replicated in the behavior of adults. Tom is restless and inattentive in the usual childlike manner, but he is not alone—the congregation as a whole drifts toward slumber, and “many a head by and by began to nod.” Tom’s desire to be the child leading the lion and the lamb, while misguided, demonstrates that he is at least listening to some of the sermon. That the rest of the congregation is so easily distracted supports the idea that Tom’s lack of interest in and misunderstanding of the sermon constitute the universal response to the monotonous minister.
By releasing the pinchbug and creating havoc, Tom succeeds in doing what the sermon cannot—he gets the congregation’s attention. With more people caring about the pinchbug than about the minister’s fire and brimstone, the church service begins to seem as ridiculous as the struggle between the poodle and the insect. Again, however, Twain’s satire is not cruel. Nobody is accused of being irreligious or wicked for falling asleep during the service. Rather, Twain exposes the comic and sometimes ridiculous elements of traditions, such as churchgoing, that bind the community together.
In the scene following the church service, we meet Huckleberry Finn, one of the most famous figures in American literature. Huck enjoys what Tom and every other mischievous boy secretly wishes he could attain—complete freedom from adult authority. Unlike Tom, who is parentless but has Aunt Polly to limit his liberty, Huck has no adults controlling him at all. His father is the town drunkard, leaving Huck to wander as he pleases—“everything that goes to make life precious, that boy had.” From a boy’s perspective, Huck can do all the important things—swimming, playing, cursing, fishing, walking barefoot—without enduring the burdens of church, school, personal hygiene, or parental harassment.
Given Tom’s inability to keep his mind from wandering during the church sermon, Huck and Tom’s earnest enthusiasm for superstition in their conversation about the causes of warts is particularly notable. Tom may not be interested in memorizing Bible verses, but he and his companions are fascinated by the intricate details of charms, magical cures, and other varieties of folk wisdom. The boys’ unwavering belief in the efficacy of the wart cures resembles religious fervor in its dependence upon explanations that exist outside the bounds of human understanding. They want so strongly to believe in the supernatural that when a charm seems not to work, they are quick to furnish what they consider a rational explanation for its failure rather than concede that their charms don’t work at all.