Stranger in a Strange Land By Robert Heinlein

The actual Church of All Worlds:

  1. Background information on Heinlein and on Stranger in a Strange Land (1991 Edition)

Robert A. Heinlein has been praised as one of the most prominent science fiction authors whose books were some of the first to be published on the New York Times Best Sellers list. According to The Heinlein Society, a membership society which preserves his work, he was born in Missouri in 1907 and was enamored with astronomy and science fiction by the time he entered High School. Some of his favorite authors that were mentioned include Tom Swift and H.G Wells. In 1929, he graduated from the Naval Academy and served in the Navy until he was medically discharged in 1934. After a stint in politics, he ended up entering learning about Thrilling Wonder Stories’ new policy that encouraged submissions from unpublished writers. He wrote his first short story, “Life-Line”, and instead sent it in to Astounding Science Fiction. Heinlein continued his writing and eventually met Virginia, a friend of his from the Navy, who would be his third and final wife. He was a four-time winner of the Hugo Award, an award for great works of science fiction and fantasy work. The Heinlein Society also credits him with urging the Navy to take up space exploration and creating the waterbed (hydraulic bed, Page 19).

The earliest edition of Stranger in a Strange Land was published in 1961 with the removal of scenes that the editors believed would be offensive to public taste. In the novel, both parts four and five explore the idea of religion and free love which were not the norms of the conservative culture in the fifties. According to the preface in the 1991 original uncut version, Heinlein’s wife, Virginia, states that his publishers feared that this book was “too far off the beaten path”. Originally, he was asked to cut the manuscript down to 150,000 words from 220,000 words, removing almost a quarter of the book. Heinlein was able to cut the book down to 160,087 and the cut version remained in print for 28 years. After Heinlein’s death in 1988, Virginia was given authority under the new Copyright Law of 1976 to renew the book and cancel all of the old contracts. She obtained the original uncut version from archivists at the University of California at Santa Cruz and realized that it was a mistake to cut out so much of the book.

As far as the concept of the book, Virginia reveals in the preface that she suggested the idea of human infant, raised by an alien race. After brainstorming for a short story to publish in a 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, Heinlein liked his wife’s idea but left the notes alone for several years. It was not until eleven years later that Stranger in a Strange Land was completed and readers were introduced to Valentine Michael Smith and The Church of All Worlds. Contrary to popular belief about the novel, this was not a “blueprint for a new society”. According to the 1990 New York Times article entitled “Heinlein Gets the Last Word” by Kurt Vonnegut, “The novel was not written, he explained to one fan, to promulgate any set of beliefs. ‘I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines. In consequence, each reader gets something different out of that book because he himself supplies the answers … It is an invitation to think — not to believe.’” The Library of Congress named the 1961 edition as one of 88 “Books that shaped America”. According to the Library of Congress, it was the first science fiction novel to become a bestseller.


  1. Summary of Stranger in a Strange Land (1991 Edition)

The novel is broken up into five parts: His Maculate Origin, His Preposterous Heritage, His Eccentric Education, His Scandalous Career, and His Happy Destiny. It chronicles the life and death of the stranger, Valentine Michael Smith, who is returning to earth at age 25 from Mars. He has no understanding of humans or our peculiar ways.

A quarter of a century after Envoy was sent to Mars and crashed, a second space ship called Champion is sent. When the new space mission arrives, they discover that there is life on Mars and there is one survivor of Champion – Valentine Michael Smith, also known simply as Mike in the novel. Since he was raised by a group of Martians for the past 25 years, it is obvious he will not be able to adjust to life on Earth. Captain Willem Van Tromp radios ahead to Bethesda Hospital and states, “my passenger must not, repeat, must not be subjected to the strain of a public reception (Page 19)”. The public was hoping that the expedition would bring a Martian back with them to “gawk” at but it seems the crew becomes more focused on the discovery of Mike. Later, the reader learns that Mike is the rightful heir to a large inheritance as the sole survivor of the Envoy expedition. It does not take long for the public to learn about Mike and for the government to use a body double to present to the public.

After hearing from her boyfriend Ben about Mike and that the government is keeping him a secret, Jill is determined to meet Mike. Pretending to be a nurse, she sneaks into his room and they share a glass of water. In Mars, sharing water is considered sacred and they become Water brothers. Every person Mike shares water with becomes another Water brother. Jill dresses Mike up as a nurse and sneaks him out of the hospital. When the police arrive at the apartment where they are hiding, the reader learns that Mike is able to make people vanish out of existence. “The older ones have taught him well…he reached out and Berquist was no longer there (Page 92).” In need of a place to hide, Jill reaches out to her friend Jubal E. Harshaw, L.L.B., M.D., Sc.D., bon viviant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, and neo pessimist philosopher, to take care of them. The introduction of Jubal in the novel represents the beginning of Mike’s education and assimilation with human life. Since he had spent the last 25 years living on Mars, he must learn all aspects of how humans live as well as the language. Out of all aspects of human life, Mike seems to love using his powers to take off women’s clothes and having sex. Eventually, Mike is tracked down but the government is forced into negotiations for his fortune with Jubal as Mike’s lawyer.

The end of the negotiations leads to the beginning on a long list of adventures that Mike embarks on with his money. The most significant adventure is when he discovers the Fosterites. It is a religious movement that mixes gambling, drinking, and sexuality with evangelicalism and decides to commit himself to creating his own church – The Church of All Worlds. Ben, Jill’s friend and once lover, discovers that the parishioners of the Church of All Worlds are learning the Martian language and their philosophy. Everyone is a nudist and can have multiple sexual partners. Once they can understand Mike’s teachings, they can gain Martian powers. At first, Ben seems very disgusted but the reader learns that he ends up joining the church. In the end of the book, Mike’s church is burned to the ground. An angry mob forms outside Mike’s hotel and when Mike attempts to preach to them about God and his offering of the water of life, the crowd throws bricks at him. Even as he is attacked, he still smiles at the crowd of people. When they douse him with gasoline and set him on fire, he still tells them that he loves them. Mike’s message is carried on through Jubal and Mike goes to heaven where he is greeted as Archangel Michael. Jubal, who some critics believed was Heinlein himself, begins writing a story titled “A Martian Named Smith” and Mike goes to the afterlife.


III. Historical context and religious references

Although Heinlein wrote the book throughout the fifties, it became an important part of the counterculture movement in the 1960s. Some writers credit Stranger in a Strange Land with starting the counterculture movement. There was a huge anti-establishment movement occurring in the sixties as the West attempted to contain communism. In the novel, there is this element of government control as they try to keep the discovery of Mike a secret and fool the public. The sixties were also a time of questioning America’s conservative values and experimenting with free love and drugs. The Church of All Worlds is symbolic of the rejection of conservatism and the acceptance of experimentation. On page 447, Ben asks Jubal if he finds the Church of All Worlds to be moral. Jubal responds, “I haven’t had a chance to examine details – but yes: all of it. Group orgies, and open and unashamed swapping off at other times…their communal living and their anarchist code…and most especially their selfless dedication to giving their perfect morality to others.”

This entire novel has satirical references to religion from the choice of character names to the death of the “stranger”, Valentine Michael Smith. The title itself is a reference to Exodus 2:22 in the King James Bible which states “And she bore him a son, and he called his name Gershom [that is, A stranger there]; for he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land.” Before the novel begins, it states “NOTICE: All men, gods and planets in this story are imaginary. Any coincidence of names is regretted.” Throughout the novel, I found there to be a number of parallels between Michael and Archangel Michael as well as Jesus. In the preface, Heinlein’s wife writes that the given names of the chief characters have great significance – Michael stands for “Who is like God?” This is a direct reference to Archangel Michael, the top angel to God. Additionally, the first part of the book is “His Maculate Origen” is a reference to the Immaculate Conception. Unlike the Virgin Mary who became pregnant free of the original sin, Mike was conceived sex. As Mike creates his church, The Church of All Worlds, he gains disciples that are all working towards becoming like him. Mike’s death is also very similar to the death of Jesus. When Mike goes to meet the crowd of people to preach to them, he is stoned and beaten. Eventually, the crowd sets him on fire but he still preaches and tells the people he loves them (pages 516-517). When Jesus was crucified, he did not curse the people who killed him. Instead, he asked God to forgive them. In the preface, Heinlein’s wife states that Jubal is also a religious reference whose name means “the father of all”. Jubal does guide and support Mike throughout his time on earth. He is the patron saint of The Church of All Worlds (Page 416). On page 519, Mike says “I’ve got some things to attend to. I love you, Father. Thou art God.” After Mike goes on to the afterlife, Jubal takes charge of carrying out Mike’s will.


IV: The Church of All Worlds as the Utopia

I struggled with identifying whether this was a utopian or dystopian novel. It was not until the fourth part of Stranger in a Strange Land that I realized where Heinlein was going with the meaning of his novel. After Mike experiences the human world, he finds his purpose for being there – to be ordained and start a church. The reader learns about this church through Ben and Jubal’s interactions with each other and with Mike.

The most prominent aspect of The Church of All Worlds is the concept of the Nest which is where a group of people live together and have deep feelings for each other. There are about twenty people in the Nest but not all of them have fully reached this enlightened stage associated with being a Martian. Since this is a communal group, there are bowls of money next to the door. If someone needs to leave to go shopping, they can take money as they walk outside. When Ben asks if anyone keeps track of the money, Patty (one of the members) is confused as to why they would need to. Members of the church also practice free low and there is no jealousy in regards to sharing partners. Members are also nudists. They also do not have medicine because they believed they did not need it.

There were rumors that Charlie Manson used Stranger in a Strange Land as his bible but this was a rumor put out by an anonymous publisher. However, there is an actual Church of All Worlds in California that was set up after the founder read this book and fell in love with the concept of the Nest.



4 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land By Robert Heinlein

  1. Stranger in a Strange Land reminds me somewhat of the Oneida Community. They are both religious communes that practice free love. The Church of All World’s love is a bit more “free” than Oneida’s because Oneida actually paired people while the CAW’s people paired themselves. Also, Stranger has allusions to Christianity and the Oneida Community’s members were Christians who thought that their free love was religiously ordained.

    It’s interesting that it takes a Martian to found the Church of All Worlds – possibly Heinlein thought that a human raised in a conventional society wouldn’t be able to come up with these ideas or possibly would run afoul of the authorities the way the Oneida members did.

  2. The tittle is so aptly named. I remember when you presented the novel, the whole time i was just thinking “strange…”.

    I’m surprised that sex is depicted as something that one needs to perform in order to gain enlightenment. Firstly, because religion in our world doesn’t promote sex as a “teaching”, rather sex may be seen as more of a defilement to the mind. Secondly, as opposed to what Robin said, I find that we have learned about more utopian communities (fictional and non fictional) that depict sex as something to avoid in order to gain enlightenment (e.g. people in Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, the Shakers community, John from Brave new world..)

    Moreover, I wonder if the multiple sex partner practice would be sustainable to the community (that s, if the church was not burned down). If the people started growing feelings for a sex partner, wouldn’t he/she be angry at whoever that’s sharing their partner?

  3. The title “The Church of All Worlds” is interesting because there is a hint that people from different worlds come together and worship there. Even with the language barrier people in this story can learn the Martian language. This story reminds me of the one about Jesus Christ and how the people treated him terribly and how he never retaliated. What I’m wondering is why he never fought back or how he could do nothing and just be passive. It was not as if he didn’t have the power to defend him. He willingly allows them to treat him that way.

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