Heathen. A rich and meaningful title I occasionally received between the ages of 12 and 19. Early on, heathens were those who were outside the pale of Christianity or Judaism. Probably invented by the Goths, the term was then even more exclusive, referring to rural bumpkins (dwellers on the heath) as opposed to the townsfolk where Christianity was much more common.
Joseph Smith uses the word in a New Testament way as reference to the Greeks [gentiles] via Paul:
some say I do not interpret same as you–they say it means the heathen God. Paul says there are Gods many &c it makes a plurality of Gods any how– witht. a revn. I am not going to give the God of Heaven to them any how–you know & I testify that Paul had no allusions to it–I have it from God & get over it if you can–I have a witness of the H. G.–& a test.that Paul had no allusion to the Heathen G. in the text— [Bullock report, June 16, 1844.]
A slightly ironic view, since while the present view of “heathen” has changed to exclude Muslims, it still includes the polytheistic religions. The intermediate opening definition is perhaps referred to in the following excerpt from President George Albert Smith in a 1948 conference address:
This morning we have over five thousand missionaries scattered throughout the world. For what purpose? “Surely,” as one minister said to me in England many years ago [about 1920 or so], we don’t desire you to come over here to preach; we have all the churches that we can fill.” And he said, “We have all the preachers that we can afford to pay. Why do you come over here?”
And my answer to him was, “My brother, we are over here without financial remuneration to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with the wonderful people who dwell in this part of the world.”
He asked, “Why don’t you go to the heathens like we do?” And I answered, “We do.” He asked, “Where do you go?” And I said, “We come right here.”
He looked somewhat annoyed, and I said to him, “Now don’t be disturbed, my brother. That isn’t intended as an offense at all. There are no finer people in the world than you have here, but what is a heathen anyhow?”
With some hesitation he answered, “Well, a heathen is a man who doesn’t believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Jesus Christ.”
I said, “Do you have any people like that here in Great Britain?” He dropped his head and said, “Yes, I am sorry to say we have.” Then I said, “Surely you are not going to complain about us if we come over here to help you convert them. You haven’t been able to do it, and that is why we are here. We want them all to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Maybe reclaiming the heathen is an object of missionary work among the Mormons, but we do enjoy doing a little bragging about claiming say, a Catholic Priest or a Protestant minister or two as converts, right? Walter Scott was pretty upset about the decimation of Disciples of Christ congregations in Ohio by the preaching of Oliver Cowdery, Parley Pratt and co.
Nevertheless, in Mormonism there’s good motivation for going after the Heathen:
And again, we saw the terrestrial world, and behold and lo, these are they who are of the terrestrial, whose glory differs from that of the church of the Firstborn who have received the fulness of the Father, even as that of the moon differs from the sun in the firmament. Behold, these are they who died without law;
The second class citizens of heaven are the heathen. But the same 1832 revelation hints at postmortem evangelization:
And also they who are the spirits of men kept in prison, whom the Son visited, and preached the gospel unto them, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh; Who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards received it.
This idea was not unique to Joseph, at least the hope part. Nonconformist preacher Phillip Doddridge (c1750) [Think D&C 137]:
none of the heathens will be condemned for not believing the Gospel, but they are liable to condemnation for the breach of God’s natural law: nevertheless, if there be any of them in whom there is a prevailing love to the Divine Being, there seems reason to believe that, for the sake of Christ, though to them unknown, they may be accepted by God
We usually think of Joseph Smith as going further and a few weeks before he died he offered this apparent extension of the D&C 76 idea, Thomas Bullock reports:
I do not believe the methodist doctrine of sending honest men, and noble minded men to hell, along with the murderer and adulterer – they may hurl all their hell and fiery billows upon me, for they will roll off me as fast as they come on – but I have an order of things to save the poor fellows at any rate, and get them saved for I will send men to preach to them in prison and save them if I can. There are many mansions for those who obey a celestial law – & there are other mansions for those who come short of that law – every man in his own order there is baptism &c for those to exercise who are alive, and baptism for the dead who died without the knowledge of the gospel
Who are the heathen? I’m curious how the group might be defined by modern Mormons. Got a definition? Be nice. SteveP can’t help it.
 In Smith’s day the going definition may be more precisely represented by Charles Buck: “Pagans who worship false gods, and are not acquainted either with the doctrines of the Old Testament or the Christian dispensation.”