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Review: Jack Weatherford on Genghis Khan

Published on 13 August 2018 under Books

As part of my amazing Wesley Advocates study group, we’ve embarked on a study of Jack Weatherford’s 2017 book Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom. This follows our prior study of his best-selling 2005 book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

Weatherford artfully guides us through a period of history which is too often a blur to the unfamiliar Western reader. How important is Genghis Khan to our study of history? Here’s an idea:

In twenty-five years, the Mongol army subjugated more lands and people than the Romans had conquered in four hundred years. Genghis Khan, together with his sons and grandsons, conquered the most densely populated civilization of the thirteenth century. . . . Genghis Khan conquered more than twice as much as any other man in history. . . . At its zenith, the empire covered between 11 and 12 million contiguous square miles, an area about the size of the African continent and considerably larger than North America. . . . The majority of people today live in countries conquered by the Mongols; on the modern map Genghis Khan’s conquests include thirty countries with well over 3 billion people.

The entire Mongol tribe was no more than one million people, with perhaps one hundred thousand warriors. But rather than just throw out a dry recitation of facts, Weatherford provides a gripping narrative and places it in broader human and sociological contexts.

My quibble in both books is that Weatherford may overstate his reading of Genghis Khan’s personality and character given relatively sparse and unreliable historical records on the subject. In particular, he relies heavily on a single source, The Secret History of the Mongols, a 13th-century biography of Genghis Khan. But by and large the works are thoroughly researched and well-documented.

In Genghis Khan and the Quest for God, Weatherford focuses on religion’s role in ruling the largest empire the world has ever known. Unlike nearly every conqueror who came before him, Genghis Khan gave his subjects freedom of religion. Perhaps most striking of all, Weatherford asserts that the Great Khan’s attitude toward religion in governing influenced the American separation of church and state. For this conclusion, Weatherford relies heavily on the fact that Genghizcan the Great by Pétis de la Croix was a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies and was read by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. This provides only a tenuous connection between Genghis Khan and the American First Amendment.

But even setting aside Weatherford’s over-reliance on certain sources, the book provides a wonderful account of the Khan’s religious freedom for his subjugated millions to “live together in a cohesive society under one government.” They had no walls and few religious tests so long as they swore fealty to Genghis as supreme ruler on Earth. If we believe Weatherford, many of the West’s achievements have significant origins in the East.