The Heathen

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.[1] 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.

[1] 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.”


  1. Fun post, WVS. Even Alexander Campbell admitted that he believed that the heathen would be saved in God’s heaven.

    That said, the interplay between the Vision (1832) and later cosmological and liturgical developments is pretty interesting. In the Vision JS describes the celestial kingdom excluding the heathen. As you point out in the final excerpt, the whole idea of proxy work and the interconnected network of heaven hinge on the idea that the heathen (and everyone else) can sign up.

  2. Yeah. The Heathen show up in this way in D&C 45, 75. Not much hope there, but consistent with 76.

  3. Definately.

    “…then shall the heathen nations be redeemed, and they that knew no law shall have part in the first resurrection; and it shall be tolerable for them.”

    Though I tend to think that the modern idea of “tolerable” as applied to heaven probably doesn’t catch the right tone (grin). How is heaven? “Not bad.”

    The tie in to those that die without the law is pretty key, I think. Again, they are stuck in 76, but with the Alvin vision, JS gets the expanded view.

  4. It can get a little tiring at times, but McDermott’s Jonathan Edwards Confronts the Gods is very useful on this point. I suspect the heathen are usually the non-Christian groups and early LDS didn’t trouble themselves too much over it. I prefer the term “highlander” in any case.

  5. My Alabama-born grandmother didn’t have a trace of the heavy southern accent that her sisters still did after 60 years in Utah. When I asked her about that, she said her accent had been just as heavy as her sisters’, but she had started Utah life as a school teacher in a mining camp and had trouble managing the 5th and 6th grade boys. “I realized that if I was going to teach those little heathens, I’d have to learn to talk like them.”

    So that’s always been my personal definition of the heathen. I suppose it’s not so different, really, from J.’s identifying them as those without the law. 5th graders. Outlaws. Yeah, that’s it.

  6. Jonathan Green says:

    Just a note on your first paragraph. According to Kluge, the Gothic word is a borrowing from the Greek plural ethne ‘peoples.’ (And this is the basis of the usage of ‘gentile’ via Latin, correct?)

  7. Thanks for the extension, Jonathan. Ardis, I’ve seen some like that.

  8. The heathen are all my daughter-in-laws friends.

    suggests it’s uncertain whether it’s from ethne or heath-dwellers. not sure how credible the source is.

  10. Oooo. annegb. Gotta be some stories there.

  11. Sam, I took a look at the OED, it suggests the version I gave. So it’s not a sure thing, apparently.

  12. John Mansfield says:

    Elder Dallin Oaks in the April 1998 conference:

    Elder Russell M. Nelson and I called on the leader of the Orthodox Church in one of these countries. [. . .]
    He asked, “Will your missionaries preach only to unbelievers, or will they also try to preach to believers?” We replied that our message was for everyone, believers as well as unbelievers. We gave two reasons for this answer–one a matter of principle and the other a matter of practicality. We told him that we preached to believers as well as unbelievers because our message, the restored gospel, makes an important addition to the knowledge, happiness, and peace of all mankind. As a matter of practicality, we preach to believers as well as unbelievers because we cannot tell the difference. I remember asking this distinguished leader, “When you stand before a congregation and look into the faces of the people, can you tell the difference between those who are real believers and those who are not?” He smiled wryly, and I sensed an admission that he had understood the point.

    Comparing this with the 1948 conference passage from George Albert Smith quoted above, I am tempted to check if Elder Oaks has 50th anniversary allusions in all his talks.

  13. My jaw must have dropped the first time someone told my companion and me “Ich bin Heiden.” (I am a heathen.)

    Although I had never spent any time thinking about the word, my understanding prior to that had been that the word meant approximately what was mentioned in the OP and what Ardis explained (a pejorative term), or some vague notion of a remote tribe that practiced a primitive religion, probably including cannibalism. (Something out of Robinson Crusoe.)

    Like I said, I never spent any time wondering about the word, so it was a surprise the first time someone applied it to himself.

    I came to find that the Germans used the term for themselves if they had not been baptized as an infant and did not belong to an organized religion.

  14. All this mystery about heathens is one more reason to rue the passing of that 19th century missionary song, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” with it’s wonderfully non-PC reference to “heathens [who] in their blindness/Bow down to wood and stone.”

    Not knowing that song also prevents one from appreciating Eugene Field’s gentle sarcasm in “Jes’ ‘fore Christmas”:

    Gran’ma says she hopes that when I git to be a man,
    I ‘ll be a missionarer like her oldest brother, Dan,
    As was et up by the cannibuls that lives in Ceylon’s Isle,
    Where every prospeck pleases, an’ only man is vile!

  15. Jonathan Green says:

    Please pardon the continuation of a tangential discussion.

    For questions of Germanic etymology, Kluge (= Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache) is a much better reference than anything available in English, including the OED. First published in 1883, it’s now in its 24th edition and has been constantly revised and improved to reflect advances in research. It’s entries include a bibliography, so you can dig into the development of scholarly opinion if you want more detail. In the case of Heide (= English heathen), the latest article it cites is from 1999.

    In comparison, the OED cites “Prof. S. Bugge (Indog. Forsch. V. 178).” That would be Sophus Bugge, “Über den Einfluss der armenischen Sprache auf die gotische,” Indogermanische Forschungen 5 (1895): 168-180. That’s not a bad source, but in this case the OED reflects scholarly opinion that is a full century behind Kluge.

  16. Er, I really did mean “Heide.” I’m not sure how that extra “n” got in there. : )

  17. 15. I’d say Kluge is definitely more recent. (grin)

  18. John Mansfield says:

    Was Heidi an heide?

  19. #16: And I thought your investigator was really saying, “Ich bin Hayden!” and wanted you to ask him to play…

  20. I knew I was missing something with my missionary aproach! Letting my co-workers know they are heathens is important to set context. ;-)

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