Alexander Selkirk Inspired More than a Novel

Dan Graves, MSL

Alexander Selkirk Inspired More than a Novel

In this day, February 2, 1709, a ship picked up a British sailor from the Chilean island of Juan Fernandez where he had been marooned for five years. It was Alexander Selkirk's own fault he had been abandoned there; he had demanded to be let off his ship after a quarrel with his Captain, the privateer, William Dampier. As strange as it may seem, the hotheaded sailor is relevant both to world literature and Christian history.

He told his story to Richard Steel, who printed it. Selkirk had built two huts, made clothes from goat skins, and tamed cats to keep down the rats that otherwise gnawed his feet and clothes while he slept. His reading consisted of a Bible and math books. When his knife wore out, he made a new blade by rubbing an iron barrel hoop against stone.

Daniel Defoe, a Presbyterian businessman and political writer found Selkirk's tale fascinating. Defoe had experienced his own share of adventure. Once Algerian pirates held him captive. Combining Selkirk's story with his own, he wrote the world's first true narrative novel, Robinson Crusoe. The book has an unusual ring of truth because of its realistic details and the hero's spiritual awakening. "...I took up the Bible, and began to read; but my head was too much disturbed with the tobacco to bear reading, at least at that time. Only having opened the book casually, the first words that occurred to me were these: 'Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me.' The words were very apt to my case, and made some impression upon my thoughts at the time of reading them...

"July 4. In the morning I took the Bible; and, beginning at the New Testament, I began seriously to read it... It was not long after I set seriously to this work, but I found my heart more deeply and sincerely affected with the wickedness of my past life.

"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 [island]... 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... And I add this part here, to hint to whoever shall read it, that whenever they come to a true sense of things they will find deliverance from sin a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction."

Who knows how many people have been helped by Defoe's Christian novel? It was through reading Robinson Crusoe that a pagan Japanese boy, Neesima Shimeta learned to pray.

Bibliography:

  1. Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Various editions available.
  2. "Defoe, Daniel." Webster's New World Companion to English and American Literature. Edited by Arthur Pollard. New York: Popular Library, 1976.
  3. Sampson, George. The Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961, especially chapter IX, "From Steel and Addison to Pope and Swift."
  4. Sutherland, James. Defoe. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1938.
  5. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated May, 2007.

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