This article was originally published in Home School Digest, Volume 18, Number 3. At the time it was published, around seven years ago, several publishers and distributors were actively marketing Henty’s books to homeschooling parents as safe, educational books for their children, written from a Christian worldview. When this article came out, it caused so much of a stir that I’m still asked about it frequently. So it seems as though there’s enough enduring interest that I may as well post it here. The article started as a much-longer 15-page document, edited down to this length to fit in a magazine format. This is the condensed version; the longer version is now available for the first time, here.
Several years ago, I read a catalog review that described G.A. Henty’s books as being written from a strong Christian worldview. Since I had noticed several passages of concern during casual reading, this caught my attention and prompted a systematic examination of his books.
In this article, I primarily discuss his children’s novels to see how they align with a Biblical worldview. He wrote several books for adults, which I also cite where pertinent. All of the books discussed are readily available today; most are available for free on Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org.
G.A. Henty believed that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God and are that there were no major differences between the three religions.
In The Dash for Khartoum, the hero is captured by a sheik. The sheik is so pleased with his industriousness that he decides to see if the hero wants to convert to Islam so that he could adopt him. Before this transpires, the sheik’s wife speaks to the hero. She says: “You do not believe in Allah, Muley, you are a Kaffir.”
“I beg your pardon,” the hero responds, “we and you worship the same God. We call him God, and you call him Allah; but it is the same. Your prophet acknowledges Moses and Christ to be prophets. The only difference between us is that you believe that Mohammed was also a prophet, and the greatest of all, while we do not acknowledge that, but in other respects there is no great difference between us.”
In another book, With Kitchener in the Soudan, the hero discovers an account written by his late father. In a conversation between the father and a Muslim, Henty puts the following ecumenical sentiments into the father’s mouth: “We Christians feel no enmity against the followers of Mahomet—the hatred is all on your side. And yet, ‘tis strange, the Allah that you worship and the God of the Christians is one and the same. Mahomet himself had no enmity against the Christians, and regarded our Christ as a great prophet like himself.”
In a third book, Under Drake’s Flag, Henty interjects this ecumenical statement while discussing the Spanish Inquisition: “Nowadays we believe—at least, all right-minded men believe—that there is good in all creeds, and that it would be rash indeed to condemn men who act up to the best of their lights, even though those lights may not be our own.”
Henty put similar sentiments into the mouth of a character in A Search for a Secret, who says: “In my opinion, the sect to which a man belongs makes but little difference, if he does but do his best according to his belief.”
Portrayal of Christians
Several of Henty’s novels contain disparaging portrayals of Christians and Christian activities. In All But Lost, Henty described the daily routine of a boy living in a Christian home in these words: “…his father would take his place at the head of the table with a large Bible before him, which he would read and expound in a stern harsh manner, eminently calculated to make the Scriptures altogether hateful to those who heard him. This with prayer lasted for an hour.”
A similar portrayal is found in Won By the Sword. One character complained about his “dreary” upbringing, “living as I did in the house of a Hugenot pastor.” He added that “it is one thing for men who regard the Sunday gathering as the chief event in the week to listen to lengthy discourses, but quite another for soldiers, either in the field or a city like Paris, to do so.”
Orange and Green describes the conflict between Catholic landowners and a Protestant family who had displaced them. The grandsons of the former Catholic owner and current Protestant owner become friends. The Protestant grandson describes his grandfather as “crazed with religion and hate,” and adds: “It is awfully sad, Walter, though it is strange, to see such a travesty of religion as the tenets of my grandfather and some of the old men who, like him, represent the views of Cromwell’s soldiers.
“Their religion cannot be called true Christianity. It is the Judaism of the times when the Jews were among the most ignorant of peoples. To me it is most shocking, and I would infinitely rather be a Mohammedan than hold such a faith as theirs. I thank God that my father and mother have shaken off such a yoke, and brought me up according to the teaching of the New Testament rather than that of the Old.”
Several of Henty’s novels involve astrology, witchcraft, and other occult activities. Fortune-telling occurs in scenes in several stories; in one, The Lost Heir, the main character becomes a fortune-teller at a fair (a scene described in detail for two chapters) and ends up marrying one of the men whose fortunes she foretold.
In At Agincourt: A Tale of the White Hoods of Paris, an astrologer becomes a main character in the story when he tells the hero his future. Later, the astrologer helps the hero rescue his master’s wife and children. At the end of the story, the hero marries the astrologer’s daughter.
In The Tiger of Mysore, the hero’s attempt to find his long-lost father was prompted by his mother’s “second sight,” which supposedly alerted her every time her husband was in danger. She believed he was still alive since she would have known if he had died.
In one scene in the book, the hero is in a grove and feels as though cold water is running down his back and that someone is whispering to him, “Be on your guard, be on your guard.” Later, he was told that his mother had dreamed he was in danger and “tried with all her might to warn you.”
The main character in Rujub the Juggler is an Englishman who saves the life of the daughter of an Indian juggler with supernatural powers. The juggler makes predictions which enable the hero to escape a native rebellion. He also warns the hero of impending danger via audible words. Rujub describes his prophecies as “the work of the power of the air, whose name I whisper to myself when I pour out the incense, and to whom I pray. It is seldom that I show these pictures; he gets angry if called upon too often. I never do it unless I feel that he is propitious.”
Henty’s belief in evolution is reflected in many of his writings. In Those Other Animals, a book with chapters on various animals, Henty made numerous evolutionary statements. In a chapter on the crocodile, Henty referred to “the days when he and his relatives ranged undisputed masters of a swampy universe, undisturbed even by anticipations of changes and cataclysms that should render the world an unsuitable place of habitation for, at any rate, the larger species among them.”
The chapter on the camel begins with these words: “During the countless ages that must have elapsed in its upward progress from the original germ, by the various processes of survival of the fittest, selection, and adaptability to circumstances, it is clear that the camel kept its eyes strictly to business. The object of the germ and its descendants was to build up an animal that should be capable of enjoying existence in the desert.” Henty added that this was done to the neglect of beauty.
Elsewhere in the book, Henty said that the “legend” of the Garden of Eden explained Europeans’ prejudice against the snake but did not account for the similar antipathy of “Orientals and others who are still in ignorance of the legend.” He concluded that the prejudice must be a “natural and instinctive antipathy throughout the whole human race,” evidently not considering that it could have been passed down from Adam and Eve, even in cultures that forgot the story itself.
Henty’s belief in evolution led him to conclude that several evolutionary stages in the development of humanity were currently co-existing. Some of his “lower races of humanity” statements contain not only evolutionary but also racist assumptions.
In By Sheer Pluck, one of the characters says: “The intelligence of an average Negro is about equal to that of a European child of ten years old. A few, a very few, go beyond this, but these are exceptions, just as Shakespeare was an exception to the ordinary intellect of an Englishman. They are fluent talkers, but their ideas are borrowed. They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power. Living among white men, their imitative faculties enable them to attain a considerable amount of civilization. Left to their own devices they retrograde into a state little above their native savagery.”
Henty also compared negroes to children in another novel, With Lee in Virginia, where the hero’s father advises his son to be firm and kind with the slaves, but “not over-indulgent, because they are very like children and indulgence spoils them.”
In At the Point of a Bayonet, Henty states that the natives of the Andaman Islands “are among the lowest types of humanity known,” with an appearance “almost that of a deformed people.”
A Roving Commission is set during a slave insurrection in Haiti. Henty concluded the story by saying that the forebodings of the insurrection’s leader “as to the unfitness of the blacks for self-government have been fulfilled to the letter.”
The book concludes with these words: “Civil wars, insurrections, and massacres have been the rule rather than the exception; the island has been gradually going down in the scale of civilization, and the majority of blacks are as savage, ignorant, and superstitious as their forefathers in Africa. Fetish worship and human sacrifices are carried on in secret, and the fairest island in the western seas lies sunk in the lowest degradation—a proof of the utter incapacity of the negro race to evolve, or even maintain, civilization, without the example and the curb of a white population among them.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Henty used his evolutionary beliefs to justify slavery. In A Woman of the Commune, Henty referred to slavery as being the “nature of the negro,” adding that “servitude is his natural position.”
In addition to lowering the level of Africans, Henty also raised the level of monkeys, sometimes comparing them to children. The heros of By Sheer Pluck and With Cochrane the Dauntless both express hesitation to shoot monkeys since they seemed too much like human beings.
Missionaries and native Christians
Some of Henty’s references to Christian missionaries and native Christian converts were influenced by his evolutionary racist views. In The Curse of Carne’s Hold, missionaries and native Christians are portrayed in these words: “Local magistrates and commissioners are scattered about among them, and there have been a lot of schools and missionary stations started. They say that they are having great success. Well, we shall see about that. In the last war the so-called Christian natives were the first to turn against us, and I expect it will be the same here, for it’s just the laziest and worst of the natives who pretend to become Christians.”
A satirical nonfiction work Henty wrote called Those Other Animals contains the following passage concerning Maoris and missionaries: “The Maori has always been regarded as a remarkably fine specimen of a savage, and his liking for ‘missionary’ has never been imputed to him as a grave failing. Man’s likes and dislikes are unfortunately sadly tinged with selfishness. Many men go to sea, and therefore the man-eating propensities of the shark excite in us a feeling of indignation. The proportion of men who went out as missionaries to the Maori was so small as to be altogether inappreciable, and the majority therefore regarded the weakness of the Maori for them from a purely philosophical point of view.”
In many of Henty’s novels, characters use objectionable language. In a few of his novels, his characters will refer to another character as a witch, comment that a ship sails like a witch, or exclaim, “I’m bewitched!” Vulgar synonyms for “condemn,” “of illegitimate birth,” “donkey,” and “negro” occur with varying frequency in many of Henty’s works for children and adults.
Henty did not write from a Biblical worldview. That said, though some of his novels contain objectionable material integral to the plot, many of his books are valuable historical accounts that only contain easily editable minor problems.
I am not advocating that homeschoolers should completely stop using his books. Rather, I suggest using discernment when considering whether to add his flawed but sometimes valuable books as part of your history curriculum.
 Henty, The Dash for Khartoum, chapter 17. For this article, I cited the book and chapter. I omitted the page number since there are many different editions, with no one being both authoritative and consistently available.
 Henty, With Kitchener in the Soudan, chapter 18.
 Henty, Under Drake’s Flag, chapter 15.
 Henty, A Search for a Secret, chapter 1.
 Henty, All But Lost, volume, chapter 3.
 Henty, Won By the Sword, chapter 6.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 14.
 Henty, Orange and Green, chapter 14.
 Henty, The Tiger of Mysore, chapter 20.
 Henty, Rujub the Juggler, chapter 21.
 Henty, Those Other Animals, chapter “The Snake.”
 Henty, By Sheer Pluck, chapter 8.
 Henty, With Lee in Virginia, chapter 1.
 Henty, At the Point of the Bayonet, chapter 14.
 Henty, A Roving Commission, chapter 19.
 Henty, A Woman of the Commune, chapter 5.
 Henty, By Sheer Pluck, chapter 10. Henty, With Cochrane the Dauntless, chapter 4.
 Henty, The Curse of Carne’s Hold, chapter 8.
 Henty, Those Other Animals, chapter 7.Read More