George Bethune English

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George Bethune English (March 7, 1787 – September 20, 1828) was an American adventurer, diplomat, & soldier.

The oldest of four children, English was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was baptized at Trinity Church on April 1, 1787. He later attended Harvard College, where his dissertation won a Bowdoin Prize; he received a Masters in theology in 1811. During his studies, however, English encountered doubts about Christian theology, and went on to publish his misgivings in a book entitled The Grounds of Christianity Examined, which earned him excommunication from the Church of Christ in 1814. English addressed some of the criticisms and controversies caused by his first book in a second tract, "A Letter to the Reverend Mr. Cary," as well as in published responses to Unitarian leader William Ellery Channing's (1780–1842) "Two Sermons on Infidelity." Subsequently he edited a country newspaper, during which time he may have learned the Cherokee language.

English was nominated by President James Madison on February 27, 1815 and commissioned on March 1, 1815 as a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps during the War of 1812 and assigned to Marine Corps headquarters. He then sailed to the Mediterranean, and was among the first citizens of the United States known to have visited Egypt. Shortly after arriving in Egypt he resigned his commission, converted [1] to Islam in order to join Isma'il Pasha as the Topgi Bashi (chief of artillery) in an expedition up the Nile River against Sennar 1820, winning distinction as an officer of artillery.[2] Some historians have noted that "there is a high probability that he became a secret agent" and that his service in Egypt was a part of that intelligence service.[3] He published his Narrative of the Expedition to Dongola and Sennaar (London 1822) regarding his exploits.[4] A colleague from Harvard, Edward Everett, published a rejoinder to English's book "The Grounds of Christianity Examined," to which English responded with his 1824 book "Five Smooth Stones out of the Brook."

After his work for Isma'il Pasha, English worked in the Diplomatic Corps of the United States in the Levant, where he worked to secure a trade agreement between the United States and the Ottoman Empire, which had trade valued at nearly $800,000 in 1822. In 1827, he returned to the United States and died in Washington the next year.


  1. ^ Islam and ‘Scientific Religion’ in the United States before 1935, by Patrick D. Bowen, " In the 1820s, George Bethune English, a Harvard-educated critic of Christianity, not only wrote respectfully about Islam, but also participated with Muslims in prayer and quoted from a Qur'an translation, though he denied that he had converted"
  2. ^ Americans in Egypt, 1770-1915, by Cassandra Vivian
  3. ^ Americans in Egypt, 1770-1915, by Cassandra Vivian, page 76
  4. ^ Alan Moorehead, The Blue Nile, revised edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 203
  • Disputing Christianity, by Richard H. Popkin, with Jeremy D. Popkin; Prometheus books ISBN 1-59102-384-X
  • Americans in Egypt, 1770-1915, by Cassandra Vivian, 2012, ISBN 9780786463046
  • The Déja Vu of American secret diplomacy, by Edward F. Sayle, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Volume 2, Issue 3, 1988
  • The historical underpinnings of the U.S. intelligence community, by Edward F. Sayle, International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence, Volume 1, Issue 1, 1986
  • Islam and ‘Scientific Religion’ in the United States before 1935, by Patrick D. Bowen, Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, Volume 22, Issue 3, 2011

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