Race, Religion, and The History Behind ‘Heathen’

“A Negro camp meeting in the South,” wood engraving, August 10, 1872 (Wikimedia Commons)

Heathen: Religion and Race in American History, by Kathryn Gin Lum, argues that the label of “heathen” denotes a broad and elastic category that has been applied to vastly different people all over the world by white Christian Americans seeking to define themselves in juxtaposition to a presumably inferior “other.” Though the term heathen eventually fell out of common usage in favor of a racialized social hierarchy, its foundational concepts remained. Significantly, Heathen is about continuity as much as it is about change. Gin Lum sees the notion of heathen as part of “a modernist project which has developed alongside imperial beliefs about the Other” (17).

Heathen covers a relatively broad time period as well as a vast geographic scope. The work begins broadly in the seventeenth century and continues to the present era. It first establishes the origins of the heathen world imagined by some white Christians. As Gin Lum argues, the heathen label did not differentiate between skin color; it only saw those direly in need of the saving grace of God. The heathen world was one where “religious error” and paganism were cast as “the underlying factor explaining the inability of heathens to care for their lands and bodies,” making them ripe for conversion and in need of paternalistic guidance (72).

Part II of this book, titled The Body Politic, demonstrates Gin Lum’s “replacement” narrative, in which Americans, having defined the heathen world and their responsibility to help, began the “humanitarian” work in those regions they had economic and political interests in. In this section, Gin Lum examines how the notion of heathenism “both challenged and helped to define the American racial state, justifying inclusion and exclusion from the body politic” (18). While Heathen’s first and third parts draw examples and evidence from multiple communities throughout the narrative, the second part functions as a series of case studies throughout three chapters. It covers nineteenth-century America and white Christian American actions at home and abroad. In the chapter “Barometer,” Gin Lum draws on the experiences of Africans and African Americans to illustrate how heathenness was applied by both whites and Blacks within the domestic sphere, and how this domestic use became the “heathen barometer” by which many white Christians determined who did and did not belong in America (130). Building off this, Gin Lum then examines anti-Chinese sentiment in the “Exclusion” chapter and Native American, Hawaiian, and Filipino assimilation in the “Inclusion” chapter.

The final part of Heathen looks at the persistence of the heathen notion into the modern day, despite the unpopularity of the term itself. Decline of the word “heathen” coincided with a growing American appreciation for other world religions, especially following the 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions. Nonetheless, the foundations of heathenism within American society remained and the heathen barometer endured as a useful tool. Gin Lum asserts that the concept of heathen exists alongside and informs racialized demarcations of society. Every racial hierarchy inevitably hits the “heathen ceiling” that “works to keep all members of the former heathen world in a position of inferiority vis-à-vis the white Christian West,” the author maintains (252). However, communities of color continue to pose “counterscripts” by asserting their own Christianness and embracing their unique conceptions of what it means to be Christian.

Topically, the content of Heathen is diverse in its representation. Gin Lum supports her assertion that the category of heathen was “elastic” and “could stretch to incorporate people from all over the world” with evidence from communities across the globe: various tribes across Native America like the Wampanoag and Yankton Sioux; native Hawai‘ians; Filipinos; Africans and African Americans; Muslims from the Middle East; Hindus from the Indian subcontinent; Chinese and Chinese Americans; and more (9). However, though Gin Lum covers an impressive number of different communities, she does not examine how people of mixed identities fit into this white Christian framework. To what extent could they adopt or distance themselves from the heathen label? Also in contrast to this diversity, Gin Lum approaches white Christians as a relatively monolithic group. Though the author tackles the broad conception of religion in American history, she does not necessarily encompass those outside of the Protestant demographic. Gin Lum also does not sufficiently examine liberal white Christians who opposed discrimination and preached religious tolerance. While Gin Lum is primarily focused on centering the “heathen” voice, her generalization of those who identified as white and Christian in America cuts off possible analysis of different characterizations of how “heathen” was applied as a term.

Heathen relies primarily on written sources by missionaries and other religious figures, travel narratives, and reflections on Christianity by both white Christians and those of color. Gin Lum has pulled from a wide variety of publications, lithographs, and pamphlets across the period that Heathen covers. However, records produced by actors and communities outside the white Christian framework do not often appear in this study, especially in the final section that focuses on the modern world. I expected more community engagement, considering that her initial Prologue reflects on her personal stake in the topic as a Christian Chinese American. As she states,

I realize that childhood me could be a primary source for adult me. Actually, adult me could still be a primary source for historian me…This book is the attempt of a historian and scholar of religion, then, to wrestle with the tradition that shaped me…This book also seeks to highlight the voices of those considered as [heathens], who have taken on the concept and in some cases reclaimed and adapted it as an alternative to the ills that plague Western society (6).

Engagement with the various communities who continue to resist and reclaim the heathen label would have provided a very real connection between past and present, as well as offer insight into how these communities continue to exist and shape their own futures.

Gin Lum’s work connects previously separate scholarship in both religion and race through the lens of the heathen. Heathen tackles a vast array of communities and functions as an effective connection between past and present. Though terminology changes, ideology has a pervasive nature that defies simple renaming. As Gin Lum put it, “so much has changed, and yet so much remains the same” (282).


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Hayley Madl

Hayley Madl is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University. She currently works as a Graduate Research Assistant at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media and as a Podcast Producer at R2 Studios. Her current research focuses on the applications of 3D modeling and digital reconstruction to community memory and lost landscapes, especially within Indigenous communities.