Sacred Kingship and the Expansion of Monotheism in the Early Modern World

My project attempts to answer the following question: why is that the rulers of some societies could convert to monotheism and sustain or enhance their authority, while rulers of other societies knew that conversion would lead to a disastrous loss of legitimacy? Ultimately, therefore, I hope to contribute to our understanding as to why the religious map of the world today should look the way it does. In 2007 I published a theoretical response to this question, which suggests that the presence of an established ‘transcendentalist’ basis to religion seems to be key and which also attempted to explain why that should be so. However, I see that essay very much as a starting point, and I now need to ground my reflections through the use of certain case-studies, including Nzinga Nkuwu of the Kongo, who was baptized in 1491, Narai of Siam, who flirted with Christianity and Islam in the 1680s; the Japanese Daimyo of Kyushu and the Gokinai, 1562-1578, who represent the greatest success of Christianity among Asian elites; and Kamehameha II of Hawaii, whose reign oversaw the collapse of local sacred kingship ideology and the arrival of the first mission in 1820.

The project is quite profoundly inter-disciplinary, given that my work relies heavily on sociology and anthropology for its theoretical framework. In turn, my theory should help explain elite conversions at any time or in any place.


Dr Alan Strathern (History, Churchill/Murray Edwards) is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2011


Tel: +44 1223 766886