For most evangelicals in America, conversion is a central part of one’s religious experience. They are accustomed to hearing testimonies at church, on television, or in print. They would not be surprised, then, by historian Lincoln A. Mullen’s identification of conversion as a major American religious theme. What might come as a surprise, however, is Mullen’s claim that conversion is not unique to evangelicalism. Instead, he argues, it is perhaps “the defining feature of what American religions had in common.”
Mullen’s new book, The Chance of Salvation, is a history of conversion in 19th-century America. Relying on numerous conversion stories, literature promoting conversion, and polemics against conversion, Mullen has crafted a religious synthesis akin to Sidney Mead’s The Lively Experiment (1963) or Sydney Ahlstrom’s Religious History of the American People (1972). As a work of synthesis, the book is less concerned with the specific nuances of each religious tradition and more concerned with what all the traditions held in common. And one essential commonality, according to Mullen, was conversion. The fact that there was such “variety of conversions” in the United States actually helped create a shared understanding of religion—that religion is something you choose, as opposed to something you inherit. This freedom to choose, however, implied an obligation. The book speaks of “obligatory religious choice” or the “burden to choose.” As Mullen states it: “…in the United States, people not only may pick their religion, they must.”
Mullen works within two overarching frameworks to build this argument. First, he borrows the concept of “forced choice” from William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In this influential work, James speaks of a “forced choice” as an unavoidable one. Surveying the religious landscape of his own day, James noted the vast array of religious options in America. Along with these options, however, James felt the burden to choose among them. Drawing on James’s idea of “forced choice,” The Chance of Salvation argues that 19th-century Americans “gained every possible religious option except the option of not choosing at all.”
But here’s the irony: While forced choice may have helped create a more religious United States, it simultaneously made the country more secular. To support this argument, Mullen borrows from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), which distinguishes between different kinds of secularity. One kind of secularity is when a society moves from having an unchallenged belief in God to regarding this belief as one option among many. The widespread attention given to conversion in the United States made it impossible for people to ignore religious options (thereby making them more religious). But it also made people more aware of the fact that options existed (thereby making them more secular).
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.
Mullen then shifts his focus to Christians who changed their allegiances, concentrating primarily on Mormonism. While individuals in the Protestant mainstream saw Mormonism as a new, anti-Christian religion, converts to this movement saw themselves as restoring the ancient Christian faith. Not only did Mormonism provide Americans with yet another religious option, it allowed converts to express that choice through a number of rituals. The key ritual was baptism, which was the mark of Mormon conversion. This practice was highlighted in the Book of Mormon, which spoke explicitly of religious faith as choice. By the late 19th century, Mormons had been pushed to the geographic margins of America, but according to Mullen, in terms of their emphasis on conversion and religion as choice, they were well within the mainstream.
While missionary efforts had been successful among the Cherokee, they made less headway among Jews in the United States. Within Judaism, conversion (whether into the faith or out of it) was most common when religious intermarriage occurred. In both cases, the sincerity of the convert was key. Jewish converts to Christianity “had to conform to the requirements of heart religion,” while Christian converts to Judaism had “to meet the test of their motives required by the halakah,” the Jewish Law. The sincerity and motivations of converts were constantly called into question when they left one religion for another. This was especially true of American Jews who were constantly encouraged to convert and therefore had to “continually justify their refusal.” In this way, although relatively few Jews converted to Christianity, their Jewish religious identity increasingly rested less on habit or tradition and more on conscious choice.
The dizzying array of religious options in the 19th century led some Protestants down the path to Roman Catholicism. Dissatisfied with the endless variety of Protestant denominations, they chose a faith tradition that seemed to reject this pluralism. These “yearnings for catholicity,” as Mullen puts it, were satisfied in the Catholic Church. Catholicity appealed primarily to two groups: those closest to Roman Catholicism, such as members of the Episcopal Church, and those farthest away, such as members of liberal Protestant denominations. By embracing Catholicism, these converts were attempting to reject the whole system of religious choice in America, instead finding comfort in the unity, universality, and tradition of the Catholic faith.
The Chance of Salvation deftly captures the chaotic nature of American religion in the 19th century. It handles conversion narratives with respect, but without abandoning a critical, scholarly eye. And yet, while the book demonstrates the centrality of religious choice in the United States, it is largely silent on why this transformation occurred. While Mullen points to religious disestablishment (freedom of religion) as one piece of that puzzle, he neglects any discussion of what historian Nathan Hatch calls “the democratization of American Christianity,” a force that gave common people unprecedented power in defining their religious traditions and choosing their religious loyalties.
Like all works of synthesis, the book cannot give as much attention to nuance and distinction between different traditions. However, to use an old cliché, we often miss the forest for the trees. While focusing on one religion or movement opens our eyes to the rich details of a specific tradition, it can also blind us to commonalities and larger trends across religions. Mullen helps us see how a distinctly evangelical approach to salvation had ripple effects beyond evangelicals, and he should be commended for it.
Josh McMullen is the general education department chair at Regent University. He is the author of Under the Big Top: Big Tent Revivalism and American Culture, 1885-1925 (Oxford University Press).