Chapter 2a: British and Christian: An Unbeatable Combination?


One of the main battles over the existence of original sin took place between Robert Ballantyne’s The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

The Coral Island was written first in 1858 by Scotland-born Robert Ballantyne. He believed the English were superior and God had ordained them to rule over uncivilized people. The Coral Island is told from the perspective of 15-year-old Ralph Rover who is looking back on his boyhood adventure of being shipwrecked on a coral island with 18-year-old Jack Martin and 13-year-old Peterkin Gay.

Lots of adventures ensue including encounters with pirates and cannibals. Missionaries were spreading their Christian faith, going out into the world, civilizing it, Ballantyne believed. Jack, the oldest, is a natural leader who uses the principles of Christianity to take charge. It is the pirates lack of cooperative harmony that leads to their extinction, in his view.

The island they end up on is idyllic, full of fruit and fish. The three boys decide this is “the best thing that ever happened to us, and the most splendid prospect that ever lay before three jolly young tars. We’ve got an island all to ourselves. We’ll take possession in the name of the king. We’ll go and enter the service of its black inhabitants. Of course we’ll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs: white men always do in savage countries.”

The boys conclude they must have found the Garden of Eden. There is no discord among them and Ralph attributes this to the fact they are all tuned to the same key which he names as love.

When a hurricane strikes and ferocious savages [sic] shed blood, Ralph mulls over what he calls “the strange mixture of good and evil that exists not only on earth but in our natures.” This is in accordance with William Golding’s beliefs. Where they differ, it seems, is over whether young men can get along without descending into the chaos that erupts in Lord of the Flies. Ballantyne believes people who are saved by Jesus will naturally strive to get along and work things out. 

Since this book was written, it has never been out of print. It became a classic for primary school children in the early twentieth century in Britain and North America. It was translated into every European language within 50 years of publication and loved by teachers and parents.

Ballantyne claims the presence of the missionaries on the myriad of islands in the south seas taught the pirates and island inhabitants to live together in harmony, that many of their violent tendencies changed when they turned to Christianity. This is a complex topic, the various methods missionaries use when bringing Jesus to other people groups. The residential school system here in Canada is an example of robbing Indigenous people of their right to family, home, language, and culture.

When we consider the failures of some missionaries and clergy to treat people with respect, it may point to the pervasiveness of original sin. These days we have seen countless TV evangelists caught in scandals, clergy abusing children, and missionaries that sometimes had misguided ideas about sharing their faith. These facts are hard to reconcile with a faith based on love.

The success of Ballantyne’s book shows how it is possible to read a book and be so much a part of its ideology it becomes impossible to see his error in attributing British superiority over others.


Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you.

Anthropologist Wade Davis quoted in Joan Thomas’s Five Wives


Off the Beaten Path:

Robert Ballantyne’s The Coral Island is available as a novel, audiobook and miniseries. Here is a link to an audiobook recording:

Anthropologist and ethnobotanist Wade Davis’s TED Talk, Dreams from Endangered Cultures:

Joan Thomas’ Five Wives is an exploration of five missionaries to the Waorani people in Ecuador in the 1950s. Here Thomas discusses her book with Mary Tooley:

Many good books explore the sharing of Christianity including Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, Brian Moore’s Black Robe, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of WrathThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

Additionally, many movies have explored this topic as well including The Mission, Black Robe, Elmer Gantry, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Power and the Glory (two versions).