A recurrent concept in the Old Testament and in the texts of the early Christian Church, the term ‘heathen’ played a central role in English post-Reformation theological debate. While its etymology, developing out of the spread of Christianity to Europe, denoted what was non-Christian or pagan, increasing English involvement in English travel and expansion from the sixteenth century added further potency to longstanding associations between heathenism and idolatry or religious error. ‘Heathen’ often served as a catch-all to describe those perceived to have strayed from, or who remained ignorant of, the teachings of Christ. Translations of continental cosmographies from the second half of the sixteenth century, alongside the popular compendia of Richard Hakluyt and Samuel Purchas — both of them Protestant clergymen — served to define and synthesise cultural hierarchies that made clear to readers that the reality of ‘heathen’ beliefs existed throughout the world.
The English for the most part applied ‘heathen’ to individuals or groups whose religious rites and rituals were polytheistic, existing outside the monotheism of the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim faiths. Protestants further likened Catholicism to heathen rites because of the latter’s adoration of saints. Idolatry and heathenism thus became shorthand for the unreformed Church more generally, signifying any who had strayed to corrupt or perverted notions of God. Richard Eden's The history of travayle in the West and East Indies (1577), a compilation of European accounts of America, Africa and Asia, included descriptions of the rites and ceremonies of the ‘heathen prince’ of Mexico, the cosmovision of the ‘heathen Giapans’, and the customs of the Mogorites who were ‘in like maner whyte and heathen’. A staunch Protestant with a notorious anti-Catholic zeal, Eden included several marginal annotations in his translation of Ludovico Varthema’s Itinerario, in which he exposed the similarities between popery and the ‘Idolater’ and ‘devilish’ Malabari religion, often using Catholic terminology to identify heathen practices. The use of the word in ethnographic writing displayed an awareness of the rich differences between the inhabitants of the world. In this way, Christians described idolatry as pervading both more ‘sophisticated’ societies, such as Hindus in India, but also the ‘primitive’ beliefs of Native Americans, whom many colonists described as having no religion save a belief in the devil.
It was partly through the ‘problem’ of religious variance that English men and women articulated their beliefs about orthodoxy. The knowledge of differing practices among Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, North and South American Indians, Russians, and Ottomans, among others, compelled English men and women to vocalise their identities in relation to their increasing exchanges with the world beyond England. When William Biddulph recounted his travels to the East in 1609, his lengthy title promised that his travel narrative would be ‘profitable to the help of travellers, and no lesse delightfull to all persons who take pleasure to heare of the manners, government, religion, and customes of forraine and heathen countries’. This raises English ambiguities towards heathenism: no matter how wary they were of other global religions, Protestants and Catholics alike were compelled to acknowledge that heathens were an inevitable component of the world order. Robert Brerewood divided world faiths into four (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and heathenism), and estimated that Christians occupied only one-sixth of the inhabited world, while heathen ‘idolaters’ occupied nearly two-thirds. The knowledge that human beings connected with animals, the elements, and inanimate things to access divinity was both mistrusted and, given the broader cultural influence of Greco-Roman thought and Humanist neoplatonic scholarship, seen to have been instrumental to human progression towards divine knowledge.
While the lived presence of heathens remained a concern to English men and women who ventured beyond England, the perceived falsehoods of English ‘heathens’ within the realm were deemed equally dangerous. While there is no evidence of any early modern individuals labelling themselves a ‘heathen’ as a category of religious belief, the term was often employed to describe those perceived as religious idolaters or dissenters. Because of their apocalyptic-mindedness, the more radical Elizabethan and early Stuart Protestants passionately urged their peers and congregations to proclaim the tenets of their faith against those of the heathen. Robert Browne, a zealous reformer who denounced the ecclesiastical hierarchies of the Anglican church as unscriptural, published a tract in 1582 containing tables that enabled readers to compare and contrast their faith to ‘Turkes and Papistes and Heathen folke’ — those, in other words, who ‘take those for gods whiche are no gods’, putting ‘blessedness in them which vanishe in them selves’. Protestants were advocates of lay literacy that would enable the godly to meditate on the teachings of God and access his Word first hand, especially when heathenism could contain a powerful allure. False gods, even Catholic superstition, ‘have their seducing and wicked spirites’. In this sense, Protestants in early modern England viewed themselves in a state of in-betweenness, positioned between the terrors of hell and the promise of a new heaven and new earth.
As the religious controversialist John Penry wrote, heathens ‘cannot abide the name of Jesus Christ. Be afraide therefore ... by forsaking the opportunitie of being saved’. Sermons in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries frequently related superstition to heathenism in order to warn churchgoers of the perils of rejecting salvation. The Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe used the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century BC to call for reform: ‘The Romaines ... shall conquer thee, and leave thy house desolate unto thee: who being Heathens, and not knowing God, are a degree of indignity inferior to the devill, for he knowes God’. Here, Nashe’s humanist, classical learning exposed the problems inherent in the Renaissance veneration for Greek and Roman authorities. Though Nashe, like most humanists, lauded Roman writers for their wisdom, he tempered his reverence with the awareness that classical writers lacked knowledge of the ‘true’ God. The classical authorities so admired by humanists remained ‘heathens’ who lay beyond salvation.
For the English men and women who migrated to North America during the seventeenth century, particularly from the 1630s and during the English civil wars, a close relationship existed between providentialism and the destruction of the heathen. Victories against indigenous peoples in the brutal Anglo-Pequot conflicts of the 1630s in New England seemed to confirm God’s favour towards his elect. In believing themselves to be ushering a New Jerusalem, puritan migrants to Massachusetts placed themselves within a narrative in which they were fulfilling biblical prophecies in the heart of a wilderness peopled by enemies of Christ. William Bradford, founder of the Plymouth Colony, warned colonists that the forces of sin were stronger in the wilderness, where the devil had more away: ‘Satan hath more power in these heathen lands, as some have thought, than in more Christian nations’.
In places such as South Asia, where the English presence was shaped by commercial interests and relied on the trading and diplomatic privileges granted by much more powerful Muslim and Hindu polities, ‘heathens’ were at times tolerated by English merchants or diplomats. William Methwold's account of Golconda, originally published by Samuel Purchas in 1626, included a detailed description of the religious practices of the 'gentiles or heathens' of modern day Andhra Pradesh. Based on his first seven years as an East India Company (EIC) employee involved in private trade, Methwold described Golconda as a kingdom where heathenism was the basis of an alternate system of civilisation or social order that could be compared to the ones that predominated in Christendom. Despite the erroneous beliefs and moral corruption of heathens, the rather secular perspective developed by a commercially-motivated Protestant Christian merchant like Methwold, reveals that the interactions between English and non-Christian peoples often involved an element of compromise and pragmatism which was essential to facilitating trade or diplomatic correspondence.
At the same time, evidence suggests that although the EIC operated with a certain degree of compromise in order to ensure commercial success abroad, its leaders, like those in Atlantic companies, did seek to convert non-Christian people. In 1610 one company official informed a chaplain that in order to ensure the EIC’s commercial mission, they would have to obtain the ‘love and estimation amongst those heathenish people’ through conversion to both English government and faith. Upon his return to England, the EIC chaplain Henry Lord wrote of his encounters with the ‘heathen’ Hindu and Parsi peoples, informing English readers of religious practices and stories of these faiths. The primary aim of this book was to teach future English travellers to the East to convert other peoples, writing that just as ‘Physicians in England’ had ‘learned to make the poisons in foreign Countries medicinable and sovereign in our own’, he hoped that ‘Good Christians in England’ had ‘learned also to convert the Heresies of the Heathen.’ For many inside and outside of England, overseas commercial success not only rested on good diplomatic relations with foreign leaders, but also the expansion of English Protestantism into non-Christian geographies, and England’s companies were an effective way of achieving this.
In sum, ‘heathen’ was a term saturated with religious meaning, but it also related to English imperial aspirations and early modern systems of ethnographic classification. No single consensus existed among thinkers, religious authorities, and writers on how ‘heathens’ had codified or developed their systems of belief, meaning that ideas about the world’s diversity were almost as diverse as the religions they discussed. While Old Testament writers continually pitted heathen gentiles — those who did not worship Jehovah, the God of the Jews — against reformed Christians, religious dissidents and more radical thinkers also framed the Reformation as a spiritual war on an apocalyptic level. When the Elizabethan bishop, Anthony Rudd, catalogued how the prophet Jeremiah had ‘commanded the House of Israel not to learn the way of the heathen, nor to be afraid of the signs of heaven’, his wordplay aptly summarised central beliefs in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England. A living embodiment of ignorance or religious error, the ‘heathen’ signified God’s rejected people, while ‘the signs of heaven’ pointed to England’s chosen place in the world. When Joseph Williamson led a prayer of confession at Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1659, he prayed for ‘the Church universal’, his own college, and ‘the heathen world’. In ideas that endured with little change throughout the early modern period, Williamson’s words expressed the awareness of the connectedness between the self and the wider ‘heathen world’, between divine order and the need to cultivate and reform the individual soul.