Mullen examines several different religious groups in 19th-century America to make his case. The book is structured both chronologically and thematically, beginning with evangelicals in the early part of the 19th century and ending with Roman Catholics at the turn of the 20th century. In between, he discusses missionary efforts to southeastern Indians before the Trail of Tears, the conversion of both enslaved and free African Americans around the time of Emancipation, the growth of Mormonism in the pre–Civil War period, and attempts to convert Jews in the middle-portion of the century.
The book begins by highlighting a shift in evangelicalism, from religion as inheritance to religion as choice. This shift was seen in the declining practice of infant baptism, which treated the new child’s faith as an inheritance passed down; and in the turn toward forms of revivalism championed by Charles Finney, who emphasized conversion as an instantaneous experience. We see it also in the development and promotion of the formulaic sinner’s prayer, popular in the American Tract Society publications, or in the Sunday school movement, which emphasized converting children to Christ (consistent with religion as choice) above nurturing an already existing faith (consistent with religion as inheritance).
Evangelicals were not only interested in converting revival and Sunday school attendees. They also sent missionaries to the indigenous nations of the southeast United States. Focusing primarily on the experience of the Cherokee Nation, Mullen shows how the evangelical norm of religious choice influenced these encounters. Cherokee cosmology shaped all of life, from food to politics; therefore, missionaries were not only asking a Cherokee to “exchange one religion for another,” but also “to switch the way identity was categorized.” While Christianity never fully displaced traditional religions among the Cherokee, traditional religion could no longer be inherited; it had to be consciously chosen. Ultimately, Christianity thrived among the Cherokee, but this was largely because they took a part in shaping it for themselves. Cherokees, who lived in a “gift culture,” tended to view Christianity as a gift and “conversion as an invitation to mutual obligations in Christianity.” The Cherokee, therefore, received Christianity in “an idiom that they shaped themselves.”
Another group of converts who spoke of Christianity in their own idiom were African Americans around the time of Emancipation. African Americans, both slave and free, were “oriented toward hope.” Slaves were confronted with religious choice in the form of their master’s religion. Mullen highlights the fact that slaves rejected their masters’ form of Christianity but not Christianity as a whole. Rather, their faith “deliberately took on an eschatological pattern.” Conversion for African Americans was accompanied by eschatological visions, drawing on apocalyptic Scriptures, and ecstatic experiences, accompanied by physical effects such as fainting. Although slaves, and even free African Americans, often had to hide or mute their distinctive form of Christianity prior to Emancipation, after the Civil War they could exercise religious freedom by choosing this form of Christianity over others.