Evangelicalism has always emphasized the necessity of personal conversion through a born-again experience in which the Holy Spirit supernaturally changes a person’s heart.
From the 18th century to the present, many evangelical churches have required a personal testimony of conversion as a prerequisite for church membership. And most of the time, this involves a personal experience of divine transformation.
But what happens if someone doesn’t have this kind of transformative experience? What if a person believes not because of any perceived religious encounter but simply because of a reasoned conviction about the truth of God’s declarations? Are such individuals really saved? And even if so, can they still consider themselves evangelical Christians?
This was the dilemma faced by Francis Wayland (1796–1865), an ordained Baptist minister and early 19th-century president of Brown University. He never had what he considered to be a born-again experience—and for the president of a leading Baptist college in the 1800s, that was a problem.
I briefly encountered Wayland in my study of early 19th-century American antislavery activism, but I only recently realized that this opponent of slavery and professor of “Christian evidences” also struggled with assurance of his salvation because of lacking what he considered an authentic born-again experience.
For much of his early life, Wayland believed such an experience was required to become a Christian. After all, he had grown up steeped in the evangelical theology of Jonathan Edwards in a Calvinist Baptist home. He believed true conversion required a supernaturally wrought change of one’s affections and will. And like many evangelicals of his day, he believed this change manifested in a conviction of sin followed by a sudden sense of bliss.
For Wayland, the conviction came—but not the ecstatic experience.
Wayland grew up going to church and learning theological truth, and he was never a profligate sinner by conventional worldly standards. He continued to attend church after leaving home, and he lived what his evangelical contemporaries would have considered an upstanding moral life. By his own account, he also fully believed the claims of Jesus and the theological doctrines of Christianity.
And yet he realized in his final year of medical school that he was living for himself rather than for God. “When my purposes were crossed, my spirit, as I well remember, rose against the government of God,” he wrote. “I knew that had there been any universe to which I could have fled, where God did not reign, I would at once have gone thither.”
In other words, he discovered he had no real love for God. In his pursuit of success in his medical studies, he found he was living for his own interests rather than for God’s priorities.
As he reflected on this, he suddenly realized how spiritually hazardous his secret enmity with God was. “I believed all that the Bible said of my condition and my danger,” Wayland wrote. “Jesus Christ came to save sinners; yet I had never sought his forgiveness.”
He therefore resolved to seek God in the way that he had been taught to do as an evangelical Calvinist in the 1800s—that is, to spend hours in concerted prayer until God in his sovereign grace chose to save him.
Wayland therefore opened his Bible and spent the entire day doing nothing but reading scripture and praying. Nothing happened. So, he tried again the next day. And yet he still felt no discernible change in himself—no sense of assurance or feeling of a supernatural entrance of the Holy Spirit into his heart. He tried again for a third day but still saw no results.
He eventually had to return to his daily activities and medical college studies, but he resolved that in his spare time he would read only scripture and Christian books. He attended church with more enthusiasm. He even went to a revival meeting. He now had a love for other believers that he had never experienced before, as well as a new concern for the lost and a desire for others to believe in Jesus. He “loved the doctrines of the gospel” in a way that he never had before. And he had a sorrow for his earlier life of secret rebellion against God.
But he did not consider any of these new desires and emotions as indicative of the conversion experience he expected. Instead, when he reflected on his faith, he felt it was based entirely on reason—and therefore could not be the result of the Holy Spirit’s direct work.
“I could not believe that the light which had gradually dawned upon my soul was anything more than what was taught by the precepts of men,” Wayland wrote. “Everything in religion seemed to me so reasonable, that all which I felt seemed to arise from the mere logical deductions of the intellect, in which the heart, the inmost soul, had no part.”
He believed in the existence of God based on the evidence of design from nature. He believed that the Bible came from God and that Jesus really had risen from the dead after being crucified—based on historical evidence and logical deduction. And based on the evidence of biblical prophecy and the testimony of the gospel writers, he believed that Jesus was indeed the divine Son of God who had given his life for sinners.
Given these beliefs, he thought it was only logical that he should trust Jesus for salvation and live his life for God rather than for his own selfish desires. From there, it was only logical that he now “earnestly desired” the salvation of others who were lost. It was logical that he should seek the company of other believers and devote himself to worshiping the Lord and finding joy in such activity.
But since all of this was so logical, was it possible that he had arrived at such beliefs solely through his own intellect—meaning it was not really a saving faith at all since, according to him, it was not produced by the Holy Spirit?
“I could not deny that there had been a change in me, but the change had been so reasonable [that is, produced through reasoned reflection] and so slight in degree, that I could not be a child of God,” he reasoned.
And since he had never experienced the divine heart transformation he sought, Wayland was convinced that he was still lost—a thought that terrified him.
It took another Baptist minister to convince Wayland that he really had experienced a divinely produced regeneration. Wayland did believe and had been changed, the minister argued. And if that was the case, then Wayland had truly been converted and received the Holy Spirit—regardless of whether he came to saving faith through reasoned reflection or a dramatic experience.
Wayland eventually admitted that the minister was right. He would have preferred a more direct experience that would have given him greater assurance, but God “in mercy disappointed me, and made me willing to accept his grace in any manner that he chose to bestow it.”
Yet in his older years, Wayland continued to wrestle with recurring doubts about his own salvation, because he could not honestly point to a single moment when the Holy Spirit entered his heart and changed his life.
Even with his supposed moment of conversion as a young medical student, he said, “everything was gradual, and seemed to have proceeded in the line of logical deduction. The precise time when a moral change took place in my character I cannot determine.”
Since that time, he wrote, “I have had many seasons of religious declension and revival; I have been harassed with many doubts of my state before God, and have rarely attained to that full assurance of faith which is the privilege of so many of the disciples of Christ.” He repeatedly prayed for such assurance, but it never came.
Instead, Wayland resolved to live a life of obedience and submission to the Lord. For decades, he taught Brown University’s class on “Christian evidences.” (This, of course, was an era when Brown, like several other Ivy League schools, was still a Christian college.) If he could not find assurance in his own experience, he could nevertheless find objective, nonexperiential grounds to know that God was real and had revealed himself in Jesus Christ—and that those who trusted in Jesus could be assured of God’s promises.
In talking with his students and acquaintances, he also came to realize that there were many more people like himself than he had first supposed—people, that is, who had grown up in evangelical homes and wanted to serve the Lord but who felt they never had an experience of salvation. Oftentimes, their spiritual counselors encouraged them to seek the Lord through prayer and contrition in the way that Wayland had, in hopes that such an encounter would come.
But Wayland advised a different course. Instead of continuing to seek after an experience that may never come, people simply needed to believe the gospel and do the things God said to do—not to earn a sense of assurance through good works but to serve the kingdom with the confidence that God has accepted them and that this is what God wants them to do.
Wayland came to see that God could work through reason just as much as through experience and that, in God’s sovereign grace, not everyone would receive a feeling of the miraculous in their lives. Some people are blessed with a dramatic conversion or a sense of peace. Others, like himself, may never have such an experience and so constantly struggle with the temptation to believe that their faith could not be genuine.
Wayland could not give an exact date for his conversion. He could not say with confidence that he felt the Holy Spirit living within him in any sort of experiential way. He could not say that his own faith in Christ transcended reason. But he could say that he loved the Lord and wanted to give up everything to follow Jesus. As Wayland said, “If I know my own heart, I do really with pleasure submit myself and all that I have to God.”
And if that was true, he decided, it must mean he really had been born again.
Personally, I found it reassuring to encounter someone like Wayland in my research, since I, too, have faced similar struggles. While I can give some sort of testimony of salvation, in moments of honesty I’m forced to admit that I don’t always find my experience very convincing.
Like Wayland, my connection to God has usually seemed so logical that it’s tempting to wonder whether it was produced by the Holy Spirit or was instead a counterfeit faith produced by my own reasoned efforts. And if my faith in Christ or confidence in my salvation were dependent entirely on my own experience, I would feel as lost as Wayland did—especially after seeking the Lord and feeling no sense of assurance.
But Wayland’s testimony is a reminder that evangelical Christians who sincerely love the Lord and are humbly surrendering themselves to God’s won’t always have the religious experiences their theology might predict. God’s promise of salvation and regeneration does not rest on our experience but on something much more objective, as Wayland discovered.
Wayland chose to believe the promises of God in Scripture—and in the end, that was enough. I have no doubt that he truly was “born again,” even if he did not perceive it at the time.
Daniel K. Williams is a professor of history at the University of West Georgia and the author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade.