Alan Strathern on Religion and Political Authority in the Pre-Modern World


Click on the images below to open the gallery and view them full-size.

Welcome to the first episode of the Global History Podcast. We would like to extend a warm welcome to Dr. Alan Strathern, Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford, Fellow at Brasenose College, and Lecturer at St. John’s College. Alan’s work has, in his own words, focused on “the global history of religious encounter and conversion, particularly in those regions that came into contact with European travelers in the early modern period (1500-1800).”

Initially specializing in Sri Lankan history, his first monograph, published in 2007, was entitled Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth-Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land, and he has written on such diverse themes as origin myths, sacred kingship, and ethnic identity. His latest work, Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History, will be published by Cambridge University Press this spring. This is the first of a planned two-part series, the companion volume of which is called Converting Kings: Central Africa, Oceania, Japan and Thailand Compared, 1450-1850.

Unearthly Powers is a very exciting new book, and one which asks interesting and expansive questions about the relationship between religion and political authority across many areas of the pre-modern world. Cambridge University Press summarizes the key questions Alan poses in the book like this: “Why was religion so important for rulers in the pre-modern world? And how did the world come to be dominated by just a handful of religious traditions, especially Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism?” The book draws extensively on sociological and anthropological literature, with wide-ranging implications for the writing of global history. 

If you have any thoughts, questions, or comments about this episode, or would like to pitch us an idea for a new episode, feel free to email us at, or send us a message on our website’s contact formfacebooktwitter, or instagram.

Image 1 Pendant: Saint Anthony of Padua, 16th–19th century. Kingdom of Kongo. Partially hollow cast brass. Height: 4 in. (10.2 cm). Width: 13/8 in. (3.5 cm). Depth: 11/8 in. (2.9 cm). Accession Number: 1999.295.1. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photograph by Peter Zeray. Public Domain.

IMAGE 2: Buddha Expounding the Dharma, late 8th century. Sri Lanka (Anuradhapura). Copper alloy. Height: 10 1/2 in. (26.7 cm), Width: 11 in. (7.9 cm), Depth: 4 1/2 in. (11.4 cm). Accession Number: 2009.60. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Public Domain.

IMAGE 3: Crucifix, 16th–17th century. Kingdom of Kongo. Brass (solid cast); Height: 10 3/4 in. (27.3 cm). Width: 7 in (17.8 cm). Depth: 3/4 in. (1.9 cm). Accession Number: 1999.295.7. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photograph by Peter Zeray. Public Domain.

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