In today’s post I am interviewing Lincoln A. Mullen about his new book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard University Press). Mullen is assistant professor of history and art history at George Mason University.

[TK] You note that “religious identity in the United States is profoundly a matter of individual choice,” and that it has been that way since at least the era of the Second Great Awakening (early 1800s). How does this focus on individual choice set America apart from much of the rest of the world?

Lincoln Mullen
Lincoln Mullen

[LM] That idea that religion is a choice more than an inheritance developed in a set of circumstances particular to the United States. The disestablishment of religion freed different religious groups not just to hold religious beliefs but, as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom says, “by argument to maintain” them. Protestant and Catholic missionaries made persistent efforts to proselytize, while members of other religions such as American Jews tried (often successfully) to resist them.

New religious groups—whether the Methodists who had next to no adherents in the United States in the 1780s, or the Mormons who grew from nothing following Joseph Smith’s revelations in the 1830s—brought even more religious options to the table. Over time, more and more Americans felt the pressure to convert between religions. The result is that today Americans switch religions more frequently than people in any other country.

You say that as conversion became more central to American religion, America became both more religious, and more secular. How can that be simultaneously true?

Most people probably understand secular in the sense of lacking a religious affiliation. For a long time scholars of religion batted around the (now discredited) idea that as societies become more modern, they become less religious. But in the United States, more people became affiliated with more religious groups over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In terms of rates of affiliation, the United States became more religious.

But secularism as the presence or absence of religious affiliation is less interesting than an understanding proposed by the philosopher Charles Taylor, who calls it as “a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged . . . to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace.”

This book shows how the proliferation of religious options undercut the ability of Americans to regard their faith as something they had simply inherited. For instance, the book starts with the story of Samuel Hill. Raised as a Congregationalist, when Hill became a sailor and sea captain, he turned into an outspoken skeptic. He eventually experienced an evangelical conversion in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The religion he had inherited—or perhaps, failed to inherit—became a religion he chose for himself.

Many of the converts I describe in the book initially had their religious identities destabilized by encountering other faiths. One New Yorker, for instance, was a disciple of Christian Science at the same time that he attended Congregationalist or Methodist preaching on Sundays and joined Catholic classes for potential converts. People who encountered other faiths couldn’t think of their faith as an unquestioned default.

In other words, the book is not dealing primarily with the question of whether more or fewer Americans had a religious belief but rather with the changing conditions that shaped what it meant to hold a religious belief.

Many evangelicals would say that true faith must entail a choice, as one cannot inherit salvation. (Calvinists would also say that the choice is God’s, not ours.) Is this story of religious choice the story of evangelical dominance in America?

Evangelicals were certainly major players. The first chapter shows how evangelicals in the first half of the 19th century sharpened their idea of “heart religion” expressed in conversion, and later chapters show how evangelical missions affected other groups, such as Cherokee Indians and American Jews.

But this development wasn’t simply about evangelical dominance. For one thing, evangelicals were hardly the only group trying to make converts. Though influenced by evangelicalism, Mormons thought that all Christian denominations were corrupt. Mormon missionaries were effective in pressing a choice on people who heard their restored gospel.

Jews in the United States felt much more free to make converts than they did in Europe. While they did not make many converts, the rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, for example, loved to publish news of conversions because it demonstrated the possibility that Christians could become Jews. In 1858 the convert to Catholicism Isaac Hecker founded a new missionary order called the Paulist Fathers. Its aim was to convert the United States to Catholicism, and those missionary priests crisscrossed the country preaching to Protestants.

Then too, evangelicals weren’t always successful. The chapter on Judaism, for instance, shows how Jews managed to defend themselves against missionaries.

Why do you focus on the 19th century as the pivot point in your story? What sets the 19th century apart from, say, the era of the First Great Awakening in the mid-1700s?

The revivals of the 18th century were undoubtedly significant as the beginning of evangelicalism, but the 19th century saw the development of some key features of evangelicalism. Earlier conversions were slow moving, taking weeks or more. Nineteenth-century revivalists made instantaneous conversions the model. Jedidiah Burchard claimed he could win converts in five minutes.

Evangelicals also developed the sinner’s prayer as a spontaneous but ritualized form of conversion. They came to devalue baptism as a covenant in favor of adult conversions, and they more and more regarded even very young children as needing to convert.

The main reason to tell a 19th-century story is that it wasn’t just Protestants—even highly evangelistic ones—who turned religion into a choice. It took competition and friction between many different religions, whether that was the Cherokee who had to decide what to do with missionary Christianity, or Jews who felt free to make converts and publicly refute Christians. Those were all developments in the 19th century.

You note that African-American Protestant conversions during the 19th century were similar to white evangelical conversions, but that African-American conversions took on a distinct “eschatological pattern.” How so?

The chapter on African-American Protestants focuses on the period around Emancipation, since after the Civil War freedpeople joined black denominations at an extraordinary rate. The Civil War was understood to be an eschatological moment. As W. E. B. DuBois wrote, “When emancipation finally came, it seemed to the freedman a literal Coming of the Lord.” Black conversions from that time quoted the eschatological scriptures to a striking degree.

Black and white Protestants shared a theological tradition, but black Protestants had to reckon with the fact that white Christians justified slavery and white supremacy. When black Christians experienced conversion, they often saw themselves as typologically close to Jesus in his sufferings, and they thought that God would vindicate them just as he had Christ. When Henry Box Brown escaped slavery in Virginia by shipping himself to Philadelphia in a box, he compared his journey to “a sojourn in a temporary tomb,” where he “waited patiently for the Lord, and he inclined unto me.”

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