Many of us as children read Robert Louis Stevenson’s best-selling books like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and a Children’s Garden of Verses. He was a popular celebrity in his own time. Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame, wrote to Stevenson speaking of “all the pleasure you have given me during my lifetime – more than any other living man has done.” Rudyard Kipling called him ‘his idol’. GK Chesterton said that Stevenson “seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing pick-up-sticks.” Recently, Stevenson was ranked, just after Charles Dickens, as the twenty-sixth most-widely-translated author in the world.
Few have realized the deep Christian message that he wove into his many novels. There are hundreds of biblical references in his over thirty books. In Treasure Island, a pirate brings a curse on himself by using a ripped-out page of the Bible to give Long John Silver a ‘black spot’ of death. The bible verse was Revelation 22:15: “Without are dogs and murderers.” Greed for false treasure leads to nothing but violence and death. The true treasure brings peace and life. Treasure Island is a spiritual application of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 13 44: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.
In Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson gives one of the most profound analyses of Romans Chapter 7 in its struggle between good and evil. In Kidnapped, the hero David Balfour is urged to be constant in his prayers and reading of the Bible. The missionary Henderland “inquired (of David Balfour’s) state of mind towards God…he had not spoken long before he brought the tears into my eyes. There are two things that men should never weary of, goodness and humility; we get none too much of them in this rough world among cold, proud people;…he soon had me on my knees beside a simple, poor old man, and both proud and glad to be there.”
In the days before film, TV, and the internet, Stevenson had a remarkable ability to take you on a journey, giving you eyes to see a part of the world that most people had never visited. In bringing you by imagination to foreign lands, he also took you on a safari for your own soul.
Born in 1850 in Edinburgh, Scotland, Stevenson battled bronchial health issues for most of his short life, but never let it stop his writing. A key spiritual influence on his life was his nurse Alison Cunningham (known as Cummy). She read him stories from John Bunyan and told him stories of the Covenanters revivalists who brought spiritual renewal to Scotland. Stevenson’s favourite game as a child was to make-believe that he was a clergyman and to preach from an improvised pulpit. As a child, Stevenson commented, “I would lie awake to weep for Jesus, but I would fear to trust myself to slumber lest I was not accepted and should slip, ere I awoke, into eternal ruin.” Self-condemnation and fear of hell crippled his young spiritual life.
During his Edinburgh University years, Stevenson got involved in drunkenness and visiting prostitutes. Rebelling against his father’s strict religiosity, he briefly identified himself as a ‘red-hot socialist’ and an atheist. He formed a club with the motto “ignore everything that our parents taught us.” When his father learned of this motto, he said to his son, “You have rendered my whole life a failure.’ In a letter to a friend, Stevenson mocked his father’s prayers as nothing better than praying to the chandelier.
By age 26, he regretted his foolishness. Stevenson wrote to his father, stating that: “Christianity is among other things, a very wise, noble and strange doctrine of life … You see, I speak of it as a doctrine of life, and as a wisdom for this world…I have a good heart, and believe in myself and my fellow-men and the God who made us all…There is a fine text in the Bible, I don’t know where, to the effect that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord. Strange as it may seem to you, everything has been, in one way or the other, bringing me nearer to what I think you would like me to be. ‘Tis a strange world, indeed, but there is a manifest God for those who care to look for him.”
When he married his wife Fanny in 1880 at age 29, he described himself as “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” Being addicted to cocaine and opium did not help his frail health.
In 1890, he and his wife Fanny settled with their children in Samoa in the South Sea islands where he taught Sunday School. The Samoans called him Tusitala (the Storyteller), building a ‘loving heart’ road right up to his house. Many missionaries in Samoa deeply impressed him: “Those who have a taste for hearing missions, Protestant or Catholic, decried, must seek their pleasure somewhere else than in my pages. Whether Catholic or Protestant…with all their deficiency…the missionaries are the best and the most useful whites in the Pacific.”
Stevenson described the missionary James Chalmers as “a man who took me fairly by storm for the most attractive, simple, brave and interesting man in the whole Pacific.” He also deeply admired the missionary Rev. W.E. Clarke who later took his funeral: “…a man I esteem and like to the soles of his boots; I prefer him to any one in Samoa, and to most people in the world.” S.J. Whitmee, Stevenson’s missionary interpreter, had many conversations with him, saying that “He was nearly all the time I knew him, reading the Old Testament prophetic Scriptures.”
Robert Louis Stevenson died tragically of a stroke in his island home in 1894 at age 44. Ten years after his death, his wife printed Vailima Prayers, a small book of his prayers.
May Robert Louis Stevenson’s example inspire many Christian writers to be Christ-centered authors of God’s Kingdom.