How America Became Conversion Nation

When your religion is something you choose, not to choose is not an option.

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.”

 

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.”

Forced Choice

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).

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