“Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom” by Jack Weatherford
2017 Reading Challenge – Book 1: A Book About History
This book’s subtitle certainly grabbed my attention, and Weatherford did not disappoint as he argued compellingly for the claim that the freedom of religion currently enjoyed in most of the Western world owes a great deal to a 13th century Mongolian warlord. Definitely a fascinating way to kick off my goal of at least 52 books this year as part of Tim Challies’ 2017 Reading Challenge! (I’d originally chosen this as a biography, but since the scope of the book turned out to be much broader than the life of Genghis Khan, I elected to count this as a history book.)
As a pastor with a deep love of history and of this country, I’ll admit to some skepticism about any meaningful connection between Genghis Khan and the 1st Amendment. Then again, I must also admit to having spent very little time studying Eastern civilization, and so I really didn’t know much about “the world’s greatest conqueror” at all. I sure do now!
Weatherford’s lifelong devotion to the study of Genghis Khan is apparent in the depth of his research and the passion of his writing. He certainly presents a more positive view of the Mongol leader than I expected–after all, most of what little I had previously heard about Genghis Khan reduced him to little more than a bloodthirsty savage. And while he undoubtedly was often savage in the conquest of his enemies, in this book we also encounter a man of vision, with sincere interest in tackling the great spiritual and philosophical questions of life: Is there a god? If so, how can we know him? What is he like, and what does he want from us?
The history presented in this book is fascinating. I had no idea just how vast the Mongolian empire was! In addition to conquering and controlling an unprecedentedly large span of land (with relatively few resources initially at his disposal), Genghis Khan had to effectively administrate an empire consisting of Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and shamanistic citizens; not to mention all the competing sects within each of those faiths. To combat the religius factionalism he encountered during his conquests, he decreed that “each should abide by his own religion and follow his own creed.” This edict became known as the Great Law of Genghis Khan.
As the book points out, this was not the first example of religious tolerance in history, but the empire ruled by Genghis Khan was the first to make freedom of religion an individual right. And while the ruler himself never became an adherent of any particular religion (with the possible exception of the steppe religion of his ancestors), he successfully cobbled together an administration consisting of leaders and spiritual advisors from all walks of life who, remarkably, all coexisted relatively peacefully (provided they submitted to his ruling authority) throughout his reign.
The final chapter and epilogue was perhaps the most compelling, as this is where Weatherford connects the 13th century with the 21st. He recounts how interest in the life and rule of Genghis Khan was revived periodically throughout history, with writers as prominent as Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Voltaire writing of him. The Enlightenment was one era in which this interest was especially strong, particularly among Deists, who looked for historical examples of religious toleration outside of Western civilization.
And so it was that biographies of Genghis Khan came to be found in the libraries of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. And while Jefferson never explicitly mentions Genghis Khan in his writing, the similarity in wording between his “Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” (which was later incorporated into the US Constitution as the First Amendment) and Genghis Khan’s Great Law is unmistakable. And so it now seems plausible–if not probable–that, to some extent, this great conqueror really did “give us religious freedom.” Amazing!
Two and a half centuries later, the influence of Genghis Khan remains prominent in both the Eastern and Western worlds, and interest in his life and his policies is once again on the rise. If this review has piqued your interest, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Genghis Khan and the Quest for God here.