Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe “Gets Religion”



After a frenetic and tirelessly productive career, including advocacy of religious liberty that landed him in prison, Daniel Defoe, age 59, began the writing that made him one of history’s unforgettable novelists--known to us all.
He began with what he conceived as a journalistic account not unlike those he had innovated earlier. History, however, views what he created as perhaps the first English novel (if the novel is primarily, or necessarily, realistic in contrast with “romance.”) It was to be the most influential period in Defoe’s championing of religious tolerance and freedom. 

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner (shortened from the full 69-word title), was “Written by himself” (Crusoe). This was not unusual. Many authors published under pen names and, if a work succeeded, claimed it.

Readers thought, as Defoe intended, that the novel was a first-person account. It caught on, cycling through four printings in its first year. Again, Defoe viewed it as journalism, and he certainly was recounting experiences of real castaways then known.

The work morphed into a novel because Defoe’s organizing principle is not historical chronology but a theme: deliverance. The novel is viewed today as a “spiritual autobiography” illuminating Christianity. Shipwrecked on a deserted island (alone until he encounters cannibals and their victims), Crusoe is haunted by isolation, despair, and then an illness. 

In his feverish nightmare, a hideous apparition accuses: “All these things [misfortunes] have not brought thee to repentance.” This drives Crusoe to admit that he is abandoned, utterly alone, and ill, but that he “never had so much as one thought of it being the hand of God or that it was a just punishment for my sin—my rebellious behaviour against my father…”

And: “Then I cried out, ‘Lord, be my help for I am in great distress.’ This was the first prayer…that I had made for many years. …[A]s for being DELIVERED, the word had no sound, as I may say, for me; the thing was so remote…”

Turning to a Bible salvaged months earlier from the shipwreck, but tossed into a trunk, he feels God moving his hand each morning to a predetermined page and passage. He finds not only relief from despair, but, in time, peace.

When he rescues and befriends the cannibal he names “Friday,” he teaches him scripture to convert him to Christianity.  “…[H]e began to speak to me, and understand me, I was not wanting to lay a foundation of religious knowledge in his mind; particularly I asked him one time who made him?"

Robinson Crusoe was adventure and suspense that by the end of the nineteenth century had more editions, translations, and spinoffs (some 700) than any work excepting the Bible—and happened “also” to have a religious theme. The sequel published the same year, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, dealt at length with religious liberty, toleration, and a formula for sectarian peace. Unsurprisingly, it is less read than the first book.

Home at the end of the Adventures, in the sequel novel Crusoe thinks only of the island, his home for three decades. He meditates that he was sovereign of his little domain, which “had but three Subjects, and were of three different Religions. My Man Friday was a Protestant, his Father was a Pagan and a Cannibal, and the Spaniard was a Papist: However, I allow’d Liberty of Conscience throughout my Dominions.”

In time, Crusoe sails back to the island (probably modeled on Tobago) with a company that is diversely religious and includes an old Catholic priest who becomes Crusoe’s interlocutor, mentor, and exhibit #1 of religious tolerance. Crusoe spars with priest about how tolerance can be possible between them and what that, in turn, could mean at the scale of the world at large.

Arriving at his beloved island (from which, recall, he was rescued by pirates), he finds diverse inhabitants. They exist, he perceives, in a Hobbesian world of life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” in the famous phrase of Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan.

To restore order, Crusoe turns to the island’s Catholic Spaniards and the French Catholic priest. (Recall that the youthful Defoe joined the Monmouth Rebellion against a Catholic king.) On his friendship with the priest, Crusoe comments that it happened even though “he was a Papist; secondly a Popish Priest, and thirdly, a French Popish Priest.” It is a brief catalog of factors that in Defoe’s day figured into prejudice. 

Chapters IV, V, and VI deal with conversion. They illustrate in depth Defoe’s “solution” to the challenge of tolerance. Quite simply, the solution is conversation, conversation among men genuinely Christian as well as between such men and those needing to be saved. By implication, Defoe’s message to the world is that the solution is not coercion by law or by violence. The clergyman tells Crusoe: “‘We that are Christ’s servants…can go no further than to exhort and instruct…tis all we can do…”

Crusoe repeatedly models what he believes this can achieve. As the clergyman presents him with advice on reforming the islanders along Christian lines, Crusoe at first is irritated to be instructed. But so modest and benevolent are the priest’s words that “I could hold no longer: I took him in my arms and embraced him eagerly. ‘How far,’ said I to him, ‘have I been from understanding the most essential part of a Christian, to love the interest of the Christian church and the good of other men’s souls…’”

Crusoe is portrayed as astonished that the priest urges reaching the souls of slaves. And concerned with tribal women with whom the seamen had children without benefit of wedlock. All are challenges to “conversation” by true Christians—which the novel exemplifies in abundance. 

If this article merely suggests the myriad issues historians and literary critics have identified in these novels, it has achieved its purpose. Today, critics delve into religious controversies that animated Defoe’s novels; but also pose new controversies. For example: Did Crusoe embrace tolerance by creating “Protestant Catholics”?

As an aside, the novel also can be read as a manifesto of economic individualism and likewise has been interpreted as an expression of British colonialism. For Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who praised the book in his novel, Emile, Defoe has written “the most felicitous treatise on natural education" ever penned. Rousseau may have been first to indicate the broad philosophic value of Crusoe, who also is mentioned in the Social Contract.

An afterword: Defoe went on to write half-a-dozen more novels including The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, 1722, a contender for portrayal of “the first feminist heroine.” Another Defoe first.

His later novel, Roxanna, 1724, is considered one of the greatest novels about commerce ever written. Robinson Crusoe, too, has long been used to illustrate economic fundamentals.  Despite his interest in economics, Defoe himself never struggled free of debt. At the end of his life, he moved from place to place to evade his creditors. He died at age 71, probably of a stroke, in lodgings at Rope Maker’s Alley. He is buried in what is now the Borough of Islington. His grave and a monument erected 140 years later can be visited today. 

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