Daniel Defoe, 1660 - 1731, was one of the earliest writers in the realm of fiction literature. In fact, he has been credited as one of the founders of the writing of modern novels. His book, Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, was the catalyst for many of the great novels and stories which are still read today. But no study of Robinson Crusoe is complete without a look at the theme of religion that is present throughout the book. It is referred to time and again by the author and his protagonist, and moreover, guides many of the twists and turns that occur. While Robinson Crusoe is a great and exciting adventure novel, it is also a purposeful and intriguing look at the place religion has in the heart and life of a man.
The era of history in which Daniel Defoe was born and during which he wrote Robinson Crusoe was a period during which great religious upheavals and conflicts occurred. Defoe was born in the midst of the Killing Times in Scotland, when Royalist dragoons were hunting down non-conformist Presbyterians for seeking to meet and worship separately from the Church of England and its practices. But early in the 1700’s, when Robinson Crusoe was published, the tide of religion was seemingly at its ebb. However, as Robinson Crusoe was becoming more widely distributed and read in the 1730’s and 40’s, so also were the great revivals, both in England and America, and more commonly known as the Great Awakening, taking place. These were the times of Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main character or protagonist in the novel is a man by the name of Robinson Crusoe, who after some adventures on the high seas, is shipwrecked on a deserted island somewhere in the Caribbean. Following the life of a shipwrecked mariner who lives in solitude on a single island may at first glance appear to be a boring storyline for a 200 plus page novel but as John Richetti, English Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in his introduction to the 2001 Penguin Classics Edition of Robinson Crusoe:
“The crucial narrative feature of Robinson Crusoe that makes it much more than a thrilling adventure, however, is the narrator’s retrospective and intensely thoughtful perspective on his life… …Looking back on his life, Crusoe will evoke an ambitious and aggressive younger individual but will tell his story from the perspective of a wiser and more mature man who has learned about the limitations on individual action and ambition and who has acquired the proper [recognition] of divine [and] providential arrangement in human affairs.”
In other words, the thing which takes Robinson Crusoe from being merely another adventure novel is his growth as a character throughout the story, and specifically the lessons he learns throughout his adventures.
When we are first introduced to Crusoe, he is a headstrong, wild young fellow who runs away from home to satisfy cravings for adventure against the entreaties of his family, and disregards the prodding of Providence. We read on of “how unashamed he was to sin and how ashamed he had become to repent, how concerned he was with wealth and adventure… …how he was born to be his own destroyer with his fancies and ambitions, how those ambitions lead him on a slave-trading voyage, and how a violent storm arose, and, battered by treacherous seas, the ship ran aground, and how all seemed lost.” Defoe emphasises the depravity of human nature in Crusoe – and thereby in all men – as he lives a life similar to that of John Newton before he was saved. Even when on the island, despite thanking God for the provision of food, and thereby acknowledging His presence, Crusoe still does not repent of his sin. Neither does he recognise his need for salvation, not just from past wrongdoing, but from himself. But very quickly certain things, and Crusoe’s heart, begin to change.
Crusoe begins to realize that despite his fortitude and skills at surviving on the island, he is not in control of everything, and everything does not happen the way he expects it to. There is a large earthquake which terrifies him greatly, and “sunk my soul within me, for fear of being buried alive”. Yet, “All this while I had not the least serious religious thought, nothing but the common, ‘Lord have mercy upon me!’ and when [the earthquake] was over, that went away too.” Later on Crusoe falls seriously ill with a fever, and there is no one to help him. And at this point there comes a change in Crusoe’s heart.
End of Part One - Part Two will be published this day next week.
Written and Posted by William A Moore
 Richetti, John, Robinson Crusoe, Introduction, Penguin Books (2001), P. IX
 Bond, Douglas, Guns of Thunder, P&R Publishing (2007), P. 66.
All other quotations from Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, published by Penguin Books, 2001.