Conversion in America

A Conversation with Lincoln Mullen


April 18, 2019


Lincoln Mullen, author of The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America, joins Kristian Petersen in a conversation about the spectrum of religious identity in American history and how the phenomena of conversion is an opening which allows scholars to study a variety of religious groups—and their relationships to each other.

Mullen is the winner of the 2018 Best First Book in the History of Religions.


Kristian Petersen:
Welcome to Religious Studies News, I'm your host Kristian Petersen, and today I'm here with Lincoln Mullen. He is an Assistant Professor of History at George Mason University and winner of the Best First Book in the History of Religions from the AAR. He's here to speak to us about his book, The Chance of Salvation, The History of Conversion in America, which was published with Harvard University Press. Congratulations Lincoln. And thanks for joining me.

Lincoln Mullen:
Thank you. And thank you for inviting me to talk about the book.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah, it's really a wonderful book. I think, as somebody who doesn't work in American religions, I really gained a lot of it in terms of it's kind of framing and I really enjoyed kind of the rich detail you go into in terms of giving various narratives from your examples that you bring into the story. So congrats on writing a great book.

Lincoln Mullen:
Well, thank you.

Kristian Petersen:
So one of the main claims that the book is trying to demonstrate is that in the 19th century in America, religious identity went from a matter of inheritance as you call it, to one of choice. And one I think that you in one place call, an obligated choice. So what exactly do you mean by this and what are the kinds of historical conditions that made this shift possible?

Lincoln Mullen:
What I'm trying to get at in the book is the way that the religious identity changes over time and especially that it changes over time for many different kinds of religious groups that typically haven't been studied together, at least outside of survey textbooks and the like. So when I talk about religion becoming a choice, there's a couple of ways that I mean that, that are different than the perhaps straight forward thing that comes to mind when you think about religion as something that's been chosen perhaps most typically when this has been written about in revivals or things like that in American religious history. So one thing that I'm trying to describe is how religious identity shifts along a spectrum.

And I really want to emphasize that I don't think that absolutely everybody has exactly the same kind of religious experience and at some defined moment in the history of conversion, people go from inheriting their religion to choosing it. But that gradually, and for many people, it moves along the spectrum from religion being something that you inherit from your family, that you're taught as a child, that you're raised in and that many people stay with throughout their lives, to being something where even if you remain in your religion, but especially if you move from one religion to the other, you have had to change the terms under which you are affiliated with that religion, that you've had to make some kind of a choice about that.

And I'll give you an example of that, that comes from the introduction of the book. In the introduction of the book, I talk about somebody who is raised in 18th century New England, who was very clearly affiliated with Christianity from his parents. And this man, Samuel Hill, then goes off to sea, as many people in New England did at that time. He was by all accounts, a pretty terrible person and he became irreligious. He would have called himself an infidel. He was quite well-read. He read Voltaire, he read Tom Payne. He explicitly mocked the Christianity that he grew up with. So he consciously sort of made this choice to disaffiliate from religion. He tried to get his wife to disaffiliate too, she seems to have persisted in her Christian affiliation. But when it gets to China of all places, he encounters a Protestant missionary, actually an Anglican missionary.

He takes some books and Bibles with him and then as he's reads them on his way back across the Pacific, he converts back to Christianity. And the Christianity that he converts back to is not so very different from the Christianity that he grew up with. It's a kind of a Protestant Christianity, congregationalist, it emphasizes the need for our kind of an inner heart religion. But whereas those things had been inculcated in him from his youth and then he consciously rejected them, he turns back to them in his adulthood. And so the religious affiliation that he has is more or less the same, but the conditions under which he holds it have changed. And so throughout the book I tried to explain how people have different religious groups. I have experienced changes under the conditions under which they hold their, their religious affiliation. And so the first difference is that it moves in a kind of a spectrum.

The second way that I think the meaning of the word choice that I'm using there is different, is that I'm borrowing a phrase from William James, who talks about choices being obligated. So we tend to think about a choice as being something that's free. And if there's a phrase in American religious history at least, which is overused and not thought about as much as it could be, it's the phrase that American religion is a free marketplace. This idea can sometimes be elaborated at great length and it implies a kind of homo economic as sort of a utility maximizing kind of a person. But I don't think that's what religious choice, at least in the 19th century United States was like at all. If people described what their religious choices were like, they often regretted that they had to make them.

Now, it's certainly true that you can find people, perhaps Evangelical Protestants would be the sort of the classic case, who think of this sort of opting in to the new birth as being a very positive thing. I'm not saying that that doesn't happen, but many people emphasize the fact that they were presented with other religious options, that those options that were presented to them, perhaps by missionaries, perhaps by moving to a new place, the most common occurrence would be a course marrying across religious lines. They really regret that those choices obligated them to think about their religious affiliation and that they had to decide either to remain or decide to leave. And it's deciding more than the actual moving that I'm trying to get at in this book. And so you can find some very interesting takes on what it means to have a kind of a chosen religion.

And in the chapter on Judaism, for instance, I emphasize the degree to which American Jews resisted attempts to be converted to Christianity, for the most part quite successfully. But that the Christian missionary endeavor in fact pressed a kind of a choice on American Jews that they didn't want to have to make in the first place. And then when I talk about American Catholics, what I found striking about conversions to Roman Catholicism in the United States was that people talked about going to Catholicism as being a kind of a choice to not have to make a choice, that they were going to the form of Christianity with the best historical tradition by their lights. One that was a more authoritative one in which they could be received into the church rather than choose the church. And so what's American about American religion, I want to argue, is not simply that it's a kind of a system of sex to borrow, a very old language from even the 19th century. But that there's a longing to get outside that system, that that choice is not a universally positive good, then or now.

Kristian Petersen:
Now the conversion in your title kind of sets up a theoretical vantage point in many ways. And part of what you do early on in the book is talk about the varieties of conversion in a way. And you are using this term in a very particular way among your subjects. So can you talk a little bit about how you use conversion as an analytical framework? A little bit about a typical pattern or cycle of conversion that you encounter from your many, many examples. And then also I'm really interested to hear about how you think thinking about conversion as a domain of inquiry can help provide a synthesis of American religious history, which I think is one of the things you accomplish in this book.

Lincoln Mullen:
So what do I mean by a conversion in the title. The word could mean lots of different things and I try to talk about the ways that it was actually used by historical actors. The way that I'm using it here is as a movement across religious boundaries. This could be a cross religious boundaries that were pretty widely recognized in the 19th century. So for instance, moving from Christianity to Judaism or from Judaism to Christianity was a pretty big step. I also talk about this as being movements between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as being a jump across religions, not because I don't think that they're both part of Christianity, quite obviously that they are, but for many people in the 19th century United States, they didn't recognize those kinds of boundaries. What was interesting is that Roman Catholics had a kind of theology that could explain Protestantism, but Protestants didn't have a theology that could explain Roman Catholics at least as Christians.

And so I, I regard that as kind of a jump across faiths. As a kind of a rule of thumb, a conversion across religions is one in which you need to have some kind of a ritual or some kind of a formal theology to explain what is going on. So it could be a baptism in the case of Christianity or a ritual and Halakhic conversions in Judaism, for instance, that demarcate that step of transition. Maybe a sort of a much looser rule of thumb would be that a conversion, as opposed to just religious switching, is something that would make your parents mad. It's the kind of thing that would have a kind of a familial and social repercussions to it. But within that kind of vein, I think that there can be movements that people regard it as being across religious boundaries.

Even if as scholars, we, we would probably think of them in a different sort of category. And the example that I talk about in chapter one about Protestant conversions, is that, if you look at say 17th century Puritan narratives, people tend to talk about themselves as moving to a kind of a fuller step in their faith in their, their conversion narratives, that those narratives are not so much questioning whether they are actually Christian or not, but about whether they should have access to the Lord's table and to the sacrament. But what I found striking about 19th century conversion narratives, especially those in the American Trek Society or in others places, is that Protestant Christians who are by all accounts, not just a Christian affiliated having been baptized, perhaps as children attending church, learning the catechisms, reading the Bible and so forth. Biomarkers, participants in their congregations, until they had a kind of an experience of the new birth, hey regarded themselves as heart infidels because the major antagonist, more felt than real, was infidelity.

And so I think that they sort of recategorize their conversions as being away from moving from one step in affiliation to sort of a higher step in affiliation to moving from what they regarded as no sort of meaningful affiliation at all to an actual genuine kind of belonging. I appreciate the question about how this leads to a kind of a synthetic view of American religious history. What I was looking for was a topic that would let me talk about many different kinds of religious groups.

And in the book I talk about white Protestant Christians. I talk about Cherokee converts in the Southeast, about African American converts around the time of the Civil War, about latter day saints and about Jews and Catholics. So that's not every American religious group to be sure, but it was a lot, or at least it felt like a lot while I was researching the book. And I needed a topic that would let me discuss them and conversion occurred to me because conversion is the place where in the actual practice of religion people move from one boundary to the other and it's also not just in terms of practice, but in terms of religious thought, it's where different religious groups think about their relationship to other groups.

Do we need to rebaptize somebody? Is a different ritual appropriate? For example, Catholics, if they were converting a Protestant, didn't think that baptism was necessary, but sometimes they would perform conditional baptisms if they weren't sure that the original baptism had been properly performed. On the other side, Baptist would of course always rebaptized of Roman Catholic and you can talk about those sort of connections and theologies at different places.

And then I also appreciate the question about the way that this allows us to theorize American religion. I have great appreciation for the people in our field who are sort of keen theoretical thinkers. I don't think that that's my gift as a scholar to be sure. And so the way that I tried to bring in some religious theory was by talking about people that are sometimes regarded as religious study theorists, but putting them in the book as historical actors. And so the book starts with Hannah Adams and her dictionary of religions, but then really it ends on with William James and his varieties of religious experiences and his essay, The Will To Believe. But what I'm trying to do there is not use him naively as a kind of religious theorist, although I certainly find a lot to appreciate there, but to try to say that what James was saying about American religion, or pardon me about religion in general, was not something that was timeless or theoretical, but that was, it was very much historically conditioned and actually part of the conditions of American religion at the very beginning of the 20th century.

Kristian Petersen:
Yeah, I found that really interesting and there was a couple of points where I was not expecting to kind of cross paths in terms of the things I'm interested in as a scholar of religion and your history of kind of American religion here, but it was very, very useful. I'm wondering from your perspective as the author of the book, what you imagine others in the study of religion, how they might benefit from your work, either in applying some of these conclusions or thinking about the method you use. How might scholars of religion benefit from your work?

Lincoln Mullen:
One thing that I would hope might come out of reading this book, would be to encourage other religious studies scholars or historians of American religion to try to think synthetically about our field. It's such an exciting field to be a part of and so many people are doing really exciting work. And where the history of American religion has really been rewritten and I think the time is ripe to try to put a lot of those pieces together and explain the American religious landscape as a whole. I'm going to try to make my own sort of modest attempts at that with, with data analysis and a project to map the 1926 census. But I would really love to see other people in the field take other approaches to doing a kind of a synthesis of American religion, to find ways to bring these different groups together and see if they can be put together in a single angle of vision.

But I don't mean to imply that when I say that this book is a kind of a synthetic history, that it's the only one that could be written or should be written. I think we're not in the kind of a model of some giant tome that that seeks to explain everything that could be said about American religion. Far from it. This is definitely not that book to be sure, but I hope that reading about these six different chapters about six different groups might encourage other people to try to do the same thing. And of course there are people in our field who are doing that already.

Kristian Petersen:
Well Lincoln, congratulations on a wonderful book. I think you've certainly added to our collective efforts in thinking about American religions specifically, but also the study of religion more broadly. So congratulations, and thanks for making some time to talk about your book.

Lincoln Mullen:
Well, thank you for talking to me about it.