ROBINSON CRUSOE and his RELIGION
(Investigator 193, 2020 July)
"Robinson Crusoe" is a fictional, biographical novel authored by Daniel
Defoe (1660-1731) in 1719 about the sole survivor of a shipwreck who
lives on an uninhabited island in the Caribbean for 28 years.
Not often emphasized is that the novel also has a religious theme — the
hardships and dangers Crusoe experienced together with reading the
Bible led him to faith in God.
The setting is an island, possibly Tobago off the Venezuelan coast at the mouth of the Orinoco River.
Crusoe retrieves tools, building materials, guns and other stuff from
the shipwreck, establishes himself on the island and encounters
visiting cannibals and mutineers and is finally rescued.
The story became one of the most popular English novels and went to
hundreds of editions including abridged, pictorial, foreign, and
children's. As an eight-year-old I received an illustrated children's
version for Christmas, possibly published 1952, and read it again and
again, enthralled every time. One website reports the donation of 669
editions to a library, and there may be more!
Defoe's original full title summarizes the story:
Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York,
Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an uninhabited
Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of
Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men
perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely
deliver’d by Pyrates.
"Project Gutenberg" has various editions of Defoe's novel, of which I read The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1808).
The novel begins with Crusoe's family, home life, and admonitions from
his father to stay home and live safely. Instead he departs from Hull
(England) in 1651 and the ship is wrecked in a storm.
Crusoe sets out a second time and makes money by trade. On his third
voyage he is captured by Moors and made a slave. He escapes after two
years by commandeering a fishing vessel. Crusoe lands to get fresh
water on the uninhabited coast south of Morocco where there are
"prodigious numbers of tigers, lions, leopards, and other furious
creatures". (p. 26) Defoe got that wrong — tigers are in India and
eastern Asia, not Africa! Crusoe encounters a Portuguese ship (p. 31)
and is taken to Brazil where he becomes a plantation owner.
Years pass and Crusoe in 1659 joins an expedition to bring slaves from Africa. (pp 39-40)
The story now becomes the one we're familiar with when the ship is
wrecked during a storm and the waves carry Crusoe to an island (pp
45-46) followed later by a dog.
As sole human survivor Crusoe retrieves weapons, tools, food, liquor,
ropes, canvas and other supplies from the ship. He also climbs a hill
and realizes he's on an island with "two small islands...about three
leagues to the west". (pp 50-57)
Crusoe builds a fence around a cave and gets established. (59-60) He
keeps track of time by making marks on a wooden cross. He hunts,
cultivates corn and rice, finds grapes, melons, cocoa-trees and oranges
growing naturally, and learns to make pottery, raises goats and makes
butter and cheese from their milk, and adopts a parrot.
Crusoe also has Bibles and prayer books. (p. 65) His increasing
comforts and good fortunes such as surviving sickness and an
earthquake, and finding barley growing without him planting it, makes
him think of God's providential care:
I had hitherto acted
upon no religious foundation at all; indeed I had very few notions of
religion in my head, or had entertained any sense of any thing that had
befallen me, otherwise than as a chance, or, as we lightly say, what
pleases God; without so much as inquiring into the end of Providence in
these things, or his order in governing events in the world: but after
I saw barley grow there, in a climate which I knew was not proper for
corn, and especially that I knew not how it came there, it startled me
strangely, and I began to suggest, that God had miraculously caused
this grain to grow without any help of seed sown, and that it was so
directed purely for my sustenance on that wild miserable place. (p. 79)
I had, alas! no divine
knowledge; what I had received by the good instruction of my father was
then worn out by an uninterrupted series, for eight years, of seafaring
wickedness, and a constant conversation with nothing but such as were,
like myself, wicked and profane to the last degree. I do not remember
that I had in all that time one thought that so much as tended either
to looking upwards toward God, or inwards towards a reflection upon my
own ways. But a certain stupidity of soul, without desire of good, or
conscience of evil, had entirely overwhelmed me, and I was all that the
most hardened, unthinking, wicked creature among our common sailors can
be supposed to be, not having the least sense, either of the fear of
God in danger, or of thankfulness to God in deliverances. (p. 89)
Pages 95-96 tell of Crusoe commencing regular Bible reading and prayer.
After one full year on the island:
I kept this day as a
solemn fast, setting it apart to a religious exercise, prostrating
myself to the ground with the most serious humiliation, confessing
myself to God, acknowledging his righteous judgment upon me, and
praying to him to have mercy on me, through Jesus Christ... (p. 105)
It's obvious by now that Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe
to advocate Christianity. The book is a promotion of Christianity
masquerading as a castaway-survival novel. Crusoe says: "I daily read
the word of God, and applied all the comforts of it to my present
state." (p. 115)
Crusoe becomes very religious, and thanks God that he has everything he
needs — except human company. The aloneness is solved when cannibals
occasionally visit the island to kill and feast on their prisoners, one
of whom Crusoe rescues. (pp 206-208) Crusoe, names him "Friday", teaches
him English and converts him to Christianity (p. 221): "The savage was
now a good Christian, a much better than I." (p. 225)
Eventually another party of cannibals arrives. Crusoe and Friday kill
most of them and rescue two prisoners. One happens to be Friday's
father and the other a Spaniard (p. 240) who informs Crusoe that there
are other Spaniards shipwrecked on the mainland. A plan is devised for
the Spaniard and Friday's father to go to the mainland and bring back
Before they return, an English ship controlled by mutineers appears.
Crusoe helps the ship's captain and loyal sailors retake the ship after
which they leave the island and arrive in England in June 1687. (pp
Crusoe then goes to Portugal to reclaim the profits of his estate in Brazil, and returns to England with Friday.
Defoe authored two sequels in 1720 that were often included in new editions of the original story. The first sequel, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,
deals with Crusoe's marriage, children and life in England followed by
travels to Madagascar and the Far East. The second sequel, Serious Reflections of Robinson Crusoe, consists of moral and religious essays.
Many Robinson Crusoe editions were padded with one or both sequels;
also with a biography of Defoe; a bibliography of Defoe's other
writings; the story of Alexander Selkirk; and a poem titled "The
Solitude of Alexander Selkirk".
Selkirk was a real-life castaway from Scotland whose experience may have influenced Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe.
Selkirk lived for four years on the Pacific island Más a Tierra
which is the largest of three islands known as the Juan
Fernández archipelago situated 670 kilometres west of South
America in the South Pacific.
In 1704 Selkirk was navigator on the English galley Cinque Ports which stopped at Mas a Tierra for supplies.
After an altercation with the captain concerning the ship's
seaworthiness Selkirk stayed behind alone with his clothing, bedding, a
musket, gunpowder, carpenter's tools, a knife, and a Bible. He found
water, plums, goats and seals, built a house, and became
In February 1709 Captain Woodes Rogers of the Duke, an English ship
searching for pirates, took Selkirk on board and he arrived back in
Scotland in 1717.
Captain Rogers authored Cruising Voyage (1712) which gave a basic description of Selkirk's ordeal. The essayist Richard Steele also told Selkirk's story in The Englishman of Dec. 3, 1713. These accounts may have given Defoe the idea for Robinson Crusoe.
However, there were in Defoe's time already many stories about castaways and Defoe would have known about some of them.
One inspiration may have been the philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yagdhan
by Muslim scholar Ibn Tufail (1105-1185) about a child raised on an
island by a gazelle who discovers ultimate truth. It was translated
into Latin in 1671 and English in 1708.
National Geographic mentions a "Miskito Indian named Will, who was marooned and rescued on Más a Tierra two decades before Selkirk."
Tim Severin in Seeking Robinson Crusoe
(2002) identifies surgeon Henry Pitman as Defoe's inspiration. Pitman
escaped from a Caribbean penal colony and was subsequently shipwrecked
on an island. His adventures were published by J. Taylor of London
whose son William Taylor later published Defoe's novel. Pitman lived in
lodgings above the publishing house and therefore Defoe may have met
Probably the truth is that Defoe drew on many castaway survival stories.
The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk
By William Cowper (1731-1800) (Published 1782)
|I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all round to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
O Solitude! where are the charms
That sages have seen in thy face?
Better dwell in the midst of alarms,
Than reign in this horrible place.
I am out of humanity’s reach,
I must finish my journey alone,
Never hear the sweet music of speech;
I start at the sound of my own.
The beasts that roam over the plain
My form with indifference see;
They are so unacquainted with man,
Their tameness is shocking to me
Society, Friendship, and Love
Divinely bestow’d upon man,
O, had I the wings of a dove
How soon would I taste you again!
My sorrows I then might assuage
In the ways of religion and truth;
Might learn from the wisdom of age,
And be cheer’d by the sallies of youth.
Religion! what treasure untold
Resides in that heavenly word!
More precious than silver or gold,
Or all that this earth can afford
|But the sound of the church-going bell
These valleys and rocks never heard,
Nor sighed at the sound of a knell,
Or smiled when a Sabbath appeared.
Ye winds that have made me your sport,
Convey to this desolate shore
Some cordial endearing report
Of a land I shall visit no more:
My friends,—do they now and then send
A wish or a thought after me?
O tell me I yet have a friend,
Though a friend I am never to see.
How fleet is a glance of the mind!
Compared with the speed of its flight,
The tempest itself lags behind,
And the swift-winged arrows of light.
When I think of my own native land
In a moment I seem to be there;
But alas! recollection at hand
Soon hurries me back to despair.
But the sea-fowl is gone to her nest,
The beast is laid down in his lair;
Even here is a season of rest,
And I to my cabin repair.
There’s mercy in every place,
And mercy, encouraging thought!
Gives even affliction a grace
And reconciles man to his lot.
Mas a Tierra, area 93 km2, was discovered by Juan Fernández, a Spanish captain and explorer who landed there in 1574.
It was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island in 1966.
Luc Voyenne (1974) writes: “The islands habitants are divided into two
distinct classes…” These are employees and retirees from the Chilean
mainland, and families who have lived on the island for several
generations. The latter group includes an “aristocracy” descended from
Baron Alfred de Rodt of Switzerland who stayed ten years from 1877 to
harvest timber, and the Green family who are descended from a Scotsman
who settled on the island in 1914.
Más a Tierra, although a possession of neutral Chile, got involved in World War I.
In March 1915 the German cruiser Dresden stopped for repairs after
fleeing the Battle of the Falkland Islands, and three British ships
arrived. Outgunned and outnumbered the German crew soon fled in
life-boats to the island and the Dresden exploded. Three Germans were
killed, 15 were wounded, 315 interned in Chile.
The Island was hit by a 5-meter high tsunami in February 2010 after a
major earthquake in Chile. Five people were killed in the main village,
San Juan Batista.
The Island's population in 2011 was 859. They have television sets, a
few vehicles, and satellite internet connection. The economy depends on
lobster trade and tourism.
Aside from cannibals, pirates and struggles for survival Defoe's novel
describes how Robinson Crusoe found God. It was not in church or by
listening to sermons but by living alone with nature and reading the
The name "Crusoe" may come from Timothy Cruso (d.1611) [Correct is 1697] who was a
schoolmate of Defoe's and had authored religious guidance books such as
God the Guide of Youth (1695).
Defoe was a Puritan and wrote books on how to be a good Christian such as The New Family Instructor (1727) and Religious Courtship
(1722). Defoe's biography says, "He had always discovered a great
inclination to engage in religious controversy ... his favourite
Puritanism was a Protestant reform movement that sought to "purify" the
Church of England from remnants of Catholicism, claiming that England's
religious transformation had not gone far enough. The Encyclopedia Britannica says:
Puritans became noted
in the 17th century for a spirit of moral and religious earnestness
that informed their whole way of life, and they sought through church
reform to make their lifestyle the pattern for the whole nation…
Their ideals were sober, practical behaviour, careful
management, thrift, asceticism, and the rejection of hedonistic
pleasures of life.
Robinson Crusoe echoes
Puritanism's theology and moral perspectives. Take the notion of Divine
Providence. By surviving through hopeless situations and experiencing
fortunate outcomes Crusoe, as quoted above, feels guided by divine
fate. He accepts "predestination" which Puritans adopted from Calvinism:
If so, nothing can
happen in the great circuit of his [God's] works, either without his
knowledge or appointment. And if nothing happens without his knowledge,
he knows that I am here, and am in a dreadful condition; and if nothing
happens without his appointment, he has appointed all this to befal me.
Puritan scholar John Milton (1608-1674) wanted educational reform and authored Of Education (1644):
Milton's aim was the
traditional aim, the molding of boys into enlightened, cultivated,
responsible citizens and leaders. His proposed academy, which would
take the place of both secondary school and college, was to concentrate
on instruction in the ancient classics, with due subordination to the
Bible and Christian teaching. Milton also emphasized the sciences, and
physical and martial exercise had a place in his curriculum as well.
Making education "subordinate to the Bible" is seen in Defoe's novel in
that Crusoe salvaged three Bibles which comforted and instructed him.
Crusoe's hard-earned, increasing prosperity reflects the Bible's
emphasis on honest work, and the Protestant Work Ethic that Puritans
believed in, including "sober, practical behaviour":
I had never handled a
tool in my life, and yet in time, by labour, application, and
contrivance, I found at last that I wanted nothing but I could have
made it, especially if I had had tools; however, I made abundance of
things, even without tools, and some with no more tools than an adze
and a hatchet, which perhaps were never made that way before, and that
with infinite labour... (pp 68-69)
Although believing in Christian standards Crusoe has no moral problem
with slavery which at the time was legal. He does not hold cannibals
morally responsible for their cannibalism because it's part of their
culture. (p. 174) However, he still considers cannibalism a crime and
stops Friday from practicing it. (p. 211)
The success of Robinson Crusoe
inspired many imitators, and castaway novels became popular. Most of
these fell into obscurity, but some became established including:
• The Swiss Family Robinson (1812) Johann David Wyss
• Mysterious Island (1875) Jules Verne
• Two Years Vacation (1888) Jules Verne
• Tarzan of the Apes (1912) Edgar R. Burroughs
• Lord of the Flies (1954) William Golding
A real-life castaway adventure occurred in 1965-1966. Six Tongan school
boys aged 13 to 16 attempted to sail 500 miles from Tonga northwest to
Figi, but their boat was destroyed in a storm. They survived on the
uninhabited island of Ata, 104 miles southwest of Tonga, for 15 months
until rescued in September 1966.
Daniel Defoe doesn't mention the Church of England or Puritanism in the
novel by name. The religion he assigns to Crusoe and Friday is direct
reliance on the Bible:
... the knowledge of
God, and of the doctrine of salvation by Christ Jesus, is so plainly
laid down in the Word of God, so easy to be received
and understood, that as the bare reading the Scripture made me
capable of understanding enough of my duty to carry me directly on to
the great work of sincere repentance for my sins, and laying hold of a
Saviour for life and salvation, to a stated reformation in practice,
and obedience to all God's commands, and this without any teacher or
instructor (I mean, human;) so the plain instruction sufficiently
served to the enlightening this savage creature, and bringing him to
be such a Christian, as I have known few equal to him in my life. (p.
Education (2009) & Puritanism (2009) & Selkirk, Alexander
(2009). Encyclopædia Britannica 2009 Deluxe Edition.
Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica.
Severen, T. 2002 In Search of Robinson Crusoe, Basic Books
Tapper, J. Los Angeles Times, August 11, 2002
Voyenne, L. with photos by Serraillier, M. Robinson Crusoe’s Real Island, The Australian Women’s Weekly, April 24, 1974, pp 17-19