Dr Alan Strathern

Featured Publication
unearthly powers

Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History (Cambridge 2019). 

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? Drawing on sociology and anthropology, as well as a huge range of historical literature from all regions and periods of world history, Alan Strathern sets out a new way of thinking about transformations in the fundamental nature of religion and its interaction with political authority. His analysis distinguishes between two quite different forms of religiosity - immanentism, which focused on worldly assistance, and transcendentalism, which centred on salvation from the human condition - and shows how their interaction shaped the course of history. Taking examples drawn from Ancient Rome to the Incas or nineteenth-century Tahiti, a host of phenomena, including sacred kingship, millenarianism, state-church struggles, reformations, iconoclasm, and, above all, conversion are revealed in a new light.

Unearthly Powers was awarded   the World History Association Bentley Book Prize for 2020.  

Find out more: https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/unearthly-powers/2A53B703811A4344B65CF37CC9C6E143 


Global Early Modernity and the Problem of What Came Before, Past & Present, Volume 238, Issue suppl_13, 1 November 2018, Pages 317–344

Find out more: https://academic.oup.com/past/article/238/suppl_13/317/5230767?guestAccessKey=f3ca0a74-7dd6-4aaf-9f39-a9dbcd5584a0

‘Religion and Empire’, Encylcopedia of Empire, ed. John MacKenzie (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016).

  • Religious Conversion
  • Ethnic Identity
  • Global Comparative History

Current projects:  

I work in the global history of religious encounter. I have recently completed a book drawing on anthropology and historical sociology to offer a new theoretical understanding of religion and its relationship with politics across premodern history: Unearthly Powers: Religious and Political Change in World History (Cambridge 2019). A companion volume will look at why the rulers of some societies converted to Christianity and others did not: Converting Kings: Kongo Hawaii, Thailand and Japan c. 1450-1850 (Cambridge, forthcoming).  Underlying both books is a large question: Why does the religious map of the world today look the way it does? Why, for example, did large stretches of Asia remain immune to monotheism? In two or three publications, I have also begun to extend this line of thinking to the expansion of Islam.

Much of my primary research has concerned those parts of the world that came into contact with European seaborne expansion in the early modern period c. 1500-1800. I first specialised in Sri Lankan history, as in my first monograph, Kingship and Conversion in Sixteenth Century Sri Lanka: Portuguese Imperialism in a Buddhist Land (Cambridge 2007), and articles on such themes as origin myths, source criticism, and the development of ethnic consciousness. More recently I have co-edited a book with Zoltan Biedermann ranging across all of Lankan history before 1850: Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (UCL Press, 2017): available free here http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/sri-lanka-at-the-crossroads-of-history. In the past ten years, however, my research has increasingly taken a comparative, inter-disciplinary and global approach. This is reflected in a volume I am co-editing with Azfar Moin on Sacred Kingship in World History: Between Immanence and Transcendence , following a conference of the same name held in Oxford in 2019: https://global.history.ox.ac.uk/event/conference-sacred-kingship-world-history-between-immanence-and-transcendence/

Longer-term research projects now include a general overview of religion and state in the early modern world, and a global investigation of so-called apotheosis interpretations in moments of first encounter.


  • Tensions and Experimentations of Kingship: King Narai and his response to missionary overtures in the 1680s

  • Unearthly Powers Religious and Political Change in World History

  • Sacred Kingship under King Narai of Ayutthaya: Divinisation and Righteousness

  • Global Early Modernity and the Problem of What Came Before

  • Catholic missions and local rulers in subSaharan Africa

  • Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History

  • Global Patterns of Ruler Conversion to Islam and the Logic of Empirical Religiosity

  • Introduction: Querying the cosmopolitan in Sri Lankan andIndian Ocean history

  • The digestion of the foreign in Lankan history, c. 500– 1818

  • 'Thailand’s first revolution? The Ayutthaya rebellion of 1688 and global patterns of ruler conversion to monotheism'

  • More

I would be willing to hear from potential DPhil students regarding:

  • Early Modern Asian history
  • History of Sri Lanka
  • Global comparative early modern history                            

I currently teach:


FHS Masters

European and World History III: 1400-1650

European and World History VIII: Eurasian Empires, 1450-1800.

Global and Imperial History: Themes and Concepts

Approaches to History: Sociology and Anthropology

Further Subject 11: The Iberian Global Century, 1550-1650

Global and Imperial History: DPhil Training Seminar

Optional Subject 10: Conquest and Colonization: Spain and America in the Sixteenth Century Disciplines of History

Dawn of the Global World, 1450-1800