The Conversion of Robinson Crusoe


Everyone has heard of Robinson Crusoe. Not everyone has read the book. And many who have haven’t read the real story, for the text has been savagely edited over the past century. We generally think of it as boy’s adventure book, a story of wilderness survival on a desert island. We are mistaken. Crusoe’s real struggle and adventure have nothing to do with finding food and shelter or escaping his island prison. It takes even Crusoe a long time to see this. But as he prays and reads his Bible, he begins to understand.

I was earnestly begging of God to give me repentance, when it happened providentially, the very day, that, reading the Scripture, I came to these words: “He is exalted a Prince and a Saviour, to give repentance and to give remission.” I threw down the book; and with my heart as well as my hands lifted up to heaven, in a kind of ecstasy of joy, I cried out aloud, “Jesus, thou son of David! Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour! give me repentance!” This was the first time I could say, in the true sense of the words, that I prayed in all my life; for now I prayed with a sense of my condition, and a true Scripture view of hope, founded on the encouragement of the Word of God; and from this time, I may say, I began to hope that God would hear me.
Now I began to construe the words mentioned above, “Call on Me, and I will deliver thee,” in a different sense from what I had ever done before; for then I had no notion of anything being called DELIVERANCE, but my being delivered from the captivity I was in; for though I was indeed at large in the place, yet the island was certainly a prison to me, and that in the worse sense in the world. But now I learned to take it in another sense: now I looked back upon my past life with such horror, and my sins appeared so dreadful, that my soul sought nothing of God but deliverance from the load of guilt that bore down all my comfort.
This is a small, though central, example of the rich theology and spiritual sensitivity that runs throughout Crusoe’s narrative. Later, when he has found the native he names Friday, he writes this:

. . . [I]t was a testimony to me how the mere notions of nature, though they will guide reasonable creatures to the knowledge of a God, and of a worship or homage due to the supreme being of God, as the consequence of our nature, yet nothing but divine revelation can form the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and of redemption purchased for us; of a Mediator of the new covenant, and of an Intercessor at the footstool of God’s throne; I say, nothing but a revelation from Heaven can form these in the soul; and that, therefore, the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, I mean the Word of God, and the Spirit of God, promised for the guide and sanctifier of His people, are the absolutely necessary instructors of the souls of men in the saving knowledge of God and the means of salvation.
All this and more has been edited out of most modern editions as irrelevant, as a hindrance to the flow of the story. But this theme of spiritual struggle wasn’t irrelevant to Defoe. It was the heart of his story.

Daniel Defoe, the Dissenter
A contemporary document describes Defoe with these words: “He is a middle-sized spare man, about forty years old, of a brown complexion, and dark-brown coloured hair, but wears a wig; a hooked nose, a sharp chin, grey eyes, and a large mole near his mouth.” That document was a wanted poster issued by the Earl of Nottingham in 1702. The charge was that of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Upon Queen Anne’s accession, Defoe had written “a scandalous and seditious pamphlet,” entitled “The Shortest Way with Dissenters.” The pamphlet was a splendid piece of satire in which Defoe, adopting the voice and position of a High Church Tory, argued forcibly that dissenters (believers who refused to participate in Anglican worship) should be driven from the country and their pastors hanged. The piece was popular with Tories until the satire was detected; then came the charges of sedition amid a flurry of outrage and resentment.
That Defoe was a religious dissenter is the common opinion of historians. His denominational commitment, however, is more difficult to prove. But we do have this, a letter he wrote to John Howe, reprinted in an article in the Catholic Presbyterian:
“I assure you I am no Independent, nor Fifth Monarchy man, nor leveller. . . . But, sir, since I am led by you to give an account of my profession, which I hope I shall always be ready to do, I shall do it in few words. That I am in the same class and in the same denomination with yourself, your office excepted.”1 John Howe (1630-1705) was a Presbyterian minister and theologian and a somewhat unwilling chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. So Defoe was a Presbyterian, though his views on toleration were unusually liberal.
Daniel Defoe had a varied and turbulent career. He was by turns a merchant, secret agent, tax collector, factory owner, pamphleteer, journalist, and novelist. He spent some time in prison and the pillory and many more years in debt. He nearly invented both journalism and the novel. Along the way he assumed 198 pseudonyms.
Of Defoe’s spiritual pilgrimage, we know little. For unlike his best known creation, Defoe didn’t leave behind a journal or write an autobiography. But we may learn something of Defoe’s spiritual life, of his struggles, trials, and victories, by reading Robinson Crusoe. For Defoe claimed that Crusoe’s story was his own, not literally, but as a sort of fictionalized spiritual autobiography.

Spiritual Autobiography
In the seventeenth century, the conviction that every man could and should scrutinize the health of his own soul was common among English Protestants and particularly strong among Puritans. The nearness of God’s promises and providences and the absence of priestly mediation drew each believer to take personal stock of the common events of his life and their spiritual significance. “Since every man is responsible for the well-being of his own soul, he must mark with care each event or stage in its development. As his own spiritual physician, he must duly note every symptom of progress or relapse; after all, his case is one of life or death.”2
For the men and women of that era, keeping diaries or journals became a helpful way of documenting and tracking their own spiritual growth. Diaries recorded sequence and event, but their use also developed in the author the habit of “observing and interpreting every outward and inward occurrence for the sake of its spiritual significance.” For God’s hand was in all things, small and great. The most ordinary and mundane things could be of great spiritual consequence. A spiritually-minded man needed to interpret even the trivial and common in terms of his own spiritual growth or declension. And in the mindset of the age, this sort of introspection was a duty, not an option—a duty required both by thankfulness and prudence. God’s blessings ought to be weighed and counted with gratitude, and time was seen as a precious commodity that ought to be “rationed and redeemed through vigilant attention to its expenditure.”3
Because human nature is a constant, because God’s grace is unchangeable, Christian writers often found that God’s work in the lives of other published authors was remarkably like His work in their own. And because of this uniformity of experience, writers found that their descriptions of such experience were “somewhat interchangeable.” This uniformity led Christian writers to use stereotyped or stock expressions to describe their earthly pilgrimages. Biblical expressions and images were especially popular, pilgrimage itself being a good example.4
Now autobiographies have to deal with the passing of time differently from diaries. Some writers worked with seven year periods; others, with changes in occupation or status.5 In time, a pattern of spiritual progress or decline thought to be common to all Christians became the template. That template organized a man’s spiritual life along these lines:

1.    The work of God’s providence in the man’s life before he came to Christ.
2.    The steps by which God’s providence prepared the man for conversion.
3.    The time and manner of the man’s conversion and the things that immediately followed.
4.    The predictable, but sad and long spiritual decline that would follow.
5.    The man’s recovery from that decline and the renewal of his commitment to Christ.
6.    An account of some of the things that followed in the next few years.
7.    A description of the man’s current spiritual condition with accompanying observations and thanksgivings.
Conversion is clearly the center and focus of this pattern. The whole story centers on man’s subjective experience of salvation, not on God’s objective means, let alone the church’s actions to save the lost. In seventeenth century England, priestcraft, even that of the milder Anglican sort, had no real place in such accounts.
Now if autobiography could become standardized as a literary form, the possibility arose of casting traditional types of literature into the form of autobiography. “This was no mere matter of first-person rather than third-person narration. It involved a more basic sort of borrowing: the adoption of a distinctive way of organizing and interpreting experience. The new genre purporting to be autobiography imitated not only its voice but its shape and spirit.”6 And this brings us back to Robinson Crusoe.

Conversion, Culture, and Christendom
Defoe, drawing from his own spiritual history, tells us of Robinson Crusoe’s. According to pattern, Defoe shows us God’s providences in Crusoe’s early life. He tells us of the preparatory work that God does to prepare for his conversion. He notices the providential coincidences that Crusoe will consider only later on. And finally he reports the time and circumstances of Crusoe’s conversion.
The conversion is the focus and thematic center of the book. It is a seriously Protestant conversion. There are no priests, ceremonies, or sacraments. As spiritual capital, Crusoe has nothing but his dim memories of his father’s exhortations and an English Bible. He comes to Christ through Scripture reading, prayer, and meditation. He has no church, though he does observe the Sabbath.
But in true Presbyterian and Puritan fashion, Crusoe’s conversion does not remain internalized. It moves him to build a civilization in miniature. “As Robinson surrenders to God, the island surrenders to him.”7 Robinson’s faith and obedience transform “chaos into cosmos, survivalism into society.”8 So, Philip Zaleski concludes, “Robinson Crusoe is, then, nothing less than a textbook in the appropriate relationships amongst human being, culture, and God.”9 Consistent with the imagery of Scripture, Crusoe, upon his conversion, leaves his underground cave and moves to a small oasis where he begins to domesticate animals. He becomes a new Adam.10
Crusoe’s island Christ-endom expands with the arrival of Friday and, later, of a rescued Spaniard and Friday’s own father. Friday, Crusoe evangelizes. The Spaniard he leaves in his Roman Catholicism, and Friday’s father in his heathen beliefs. He is pleased with the toleration his citizens enjoy. He writes:
It was remarkable, too, we had but three subjects, and they 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 allowed liberty of conscience throughout my dominions.
This, of course, is consistent with Defoe’s first principles:
Christians of what Denomination soever, being Orthodox in Principle, and Sound in Doctrine, have a Native Right to Liberty of serving God, according to the Dictates of their own Consciences, and ought to be Tolerated, provided they behave themselves peaceably under the Gov-ernment, and obedient in all other things to the Civil Magist-racy.11
What Defoe was advocating wasn’t a secularized state, but a commonwealth enjoyed and supported by all who were “orthodox in principle, and sound in doctrine.” He obviously felt, as Crusoe did, that many things could and should be left to liberty of conscience.

Defoe lived in an England where even those who professed the name of Christ couldn’t seem to live peaceably under the same government. Crusoe and his island, far from being a mere adventure story, were both a spiritual memory and a projection of hope, of spiritual possibility. Liberty of conscience and legislated toleration need not spell the end of Christendom. Indeed, a biblical freedom might lead to the expansion of Christ’s kingdom and to its greater peace. At least that’s how things worked out in Robinson Crusoe.

Unless otherwise noted, paintings by N.C. Wyeth

1 Wm. Anderson, “Daniel Defoe and His Church,” The Catholic Presbyterian, Vol. IX (Feb 1883)
2 George A. Starr, Defoe and Spiritual Autobiography (New York: Gordian Press, 1971), 5
3 Ibid., 6-9, 18-19
4 Ibid., 17
5 Ibid., 36, 37
6 Ibid., 35-36
7 Philip Zaleski “Strange Shipwreck of Robinson Crusoe,” First Things (May 1995)
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Peter Leithart, “Bunyan, Defoe, and the Novel,” <>
11 Defoe, Jure Divina, preface, xxi