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The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America

Lincoln A Mullen
Published by Harvard University Press in 2017

Religion has been a matter of inheritance for most of Western history since at least the end of antiquity. From infancy, individuals were claimed by the religion of their parents or community through baptism, circumcision, or some other rite. One might be more or less closely affiliated with the religion’s institutions, practices, and beliefs, but the notion of “choosing” one’s religion was a concept so foreign as to be an oxymoron. Of course, this is not true today in the United States. Even Christian groups that maintain such faith-as-inheritance practices as infant baptism must contend frequently with the parent who resists baptizing her child, protesting that the only route to sincere faith is the path freely chosen. “I want him to decide to be a Lutheran for himself,” she says to the pastor, who often has no good rebuttal.

According to Lincoln A. Mullen’s new history of conversion in the United States, this condition is understandable only if we acknowledge that the faith-as-choice perspective has set the terms of discussion of religion in America. This is not simply a matter of the growth of power and influence of evangelical conversionism, although that is part of the story. Rather, all religious groups have come to understand religion as choice, so that even those who remain in the faith of their birth must be able to defend their religion as the better choice, or at least the right choice for them. No one expects us to defend our other inherited traits, like our eye color or height. William James, who performs as both theorist and historical witness in Mullen’s account, called it a “forced option.” So prevalent is this view in America that Mullen claims the history of conversion “provides a synthetic view of American religion” (10) in the tradition of historians like Sydney Mead and Sydney Ahlstrom. Herein lies a delightful irony. “The varieties of conversion,” writes Mullen, “produced a shared understanding about religion” (10). Pluralism birthed a strange uniformity.

Mullen locates the origins of religion as choice in the 19th century. In doing so, he consciously carves a path between previous historians, who tend to focus on the disestablishment clause, and sociologists, who tend to focus on the increased diversity in America after World War II. Mullen’s “longer history” (9) argues that the practices and mindset of religion as choice had not widely appeared by the end of the 18th century; likewise, they were already well established decades before World War II.

No one would dispute that the nineteenth century was an era of both innovation and mold-casting in American religion. But Mullen has distinctly shown how the bewildering developments of this era—and their long-term impact—can all be better understood through the lens of conversion. Historians are beginning to give more attention to this phenomenon. Bill J. Leonard’s fine A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the United States (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014) deals with how American Christians have encountered the divine and understood such encounters. But that is not always a story about conversion, nor is it the whole story of conversion. As Mullen’s study reminds us, conversion is about rituals, institutions, families, class, and much more.

Mullen focuses on six distinct groups: evangelical Protestants, Cherokee Indians, African Americans, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics. Each group gets its own chapter, with detailed stories about conversions of people in two of the groups (Cherokee, African American) to a form of Christianity or conversions to three of these groups (Mormons, Jews, Catholics) from other faiths. Evangelical Protestants form a distinct case among these, since converts to evangelical Protestantism often were not coming from other religious groups; their conversions were chiefly matters of the heart. The reader may desire a more consistent approach to the direction of conversion (either to or from the subject group) and the categories for groups of people (ethnic or religious). This apparent disorder raises the vague suspicion that Mullen is asking the reader to make unwarranted comparisons. But any concern here is quickly overcome by Mullen’s precise prose. Furthermore, charting religious conversion from multiple directions and among incongruent categories of community supports Mullen’s argument that conversion is a “starting point for a synthesis of religious history” (11). At the very least, the conversion theme allows Mullen to weave many of R. Laurence Moore’s “religious outsiders” with the insiders without a feeling of tokenism. Space requires Mullen to be selective, and it may be for other historians to build upon this work by addressing conversion related to groups Mullen has not covered, like the holiness movement, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christian Science.

For Mullen, conversion related to each group centered on a distinct practice, concern, or theological proposition. Protestants, led by Charles Finney, condensed the drama of conversion to some version of the “sinner’s prayer.” Cherokees who converted to Christianity saw conversion as a way to receive the benefits of contact with whites while asserting their authority over the forms and structures of their faith. After emancipation, African-American converts to Christianity elaborated the eschatological theme of hope, seeing in conversion the enveloping of human time into divine consummation. Early converts to Mormonism were unusually troubled by the proliferation of religious choice, explaining the appeal of Joseph’s Smith claim that the New Testament did not satisfyingly answer every question the denominations debated. In response to persecution, Mormons built their movement on safe and sanctified land, making the promise of this pure kingdom a crucial part of the movement’s appeal to potential converts. Jews were intensely suspicious of all forms of conversion, believing that Jewish converts to Christianity were motivated by greed and fearing that Christian converts to Judaism were motivated mostly by marriage. Ironically, this resistance forced them to devise their own perspective on the nature of conversion: the litmus test of sincerity, a commitment to the tenets of Judaism that was determined by the group. Converts to Catholicism sought unity above all else. Many passed through Transcendentalism, hoping for a creedless spiritual unity; or the Episcopal Church, hoping to find unity secured by apostolic succession. This drive for “catholicity” predictably led many to Rome, where they found not only unity but also—so important after their exhausting sojourns—repose.

Each chapter is richly illustrated through prolonged narratives of individuals’ conversions, struggles to convert, or decisions finally not to convert. Familiar stories are told in a new light, such as Joseph’s Smith’s disgust at the competing claims of rival denominations and Isaac Hecker’s indefatigable work in bringing others into the Catholic Church. Less familiar stories add considerable color, like the Cherokee Peggy Vann’s conversion to Moravian Christianity after the death of her abusive husband. Without the benefit of detailed stories, Mullen makes good use of the personal testimony of African American conversions found in the interviews of the Works Progress Administration.

Future scholarship may find rich themes to develop or debate in Mullen’s concise summary of each group’s driving concern. For instance, the Cherokee preference “to receive Christianity as a gift—that is, as a relationship of mutual obligation” (66) seems potent but is not well-defined. Additionally, Mullen only scratches the surface of the relationship between the fictionalized forms of conversion in the literature of the American Tract Society and actual flesh-and-blood evangelical conversions. In these and many other ways, Mullen’s work may very well set the terms of future scholarship. Historians of American religion will no doubt debate whether such a “synthesizing” project is possible or advisable. Mullen implicitly reminds sociologists that the tacit assumptions for much modern polling—which results in asking subjects to choose from a series of boxes—are themselves products of real and complex historical phenomena; as such, they are not inherent or eternal. Sociologists may also debate the limits of Mullen’s decision to categorize “unbelief” as a type of religious choice, especially as it works into an image of a uniquely vibrant religious culture in America, supporting Mullen’s belief that “the United States is the rock on which many theories of secularity have foundered” (19).

Mullen’s work raises many historical, sociological, ethnographic, and literary questions. But the greatest challenge, for Christians anyway, may be theological. Given that Americans overwhelmingly view religion as a matter of individual choice, in what way is it still meaningful to repeat to believers what Jesus told his disciples: “You did not choose me but I chose you”?

Cite this article
Christopher Richmann, “The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:1 , 99-101

Christopher Richmann

Baylor University
Christopher Richmann, Ph.D., is the Assistant Director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning (ATL) and affiliate faculty in the Department of Religion.