American Converts and their Possessions: A Review of Lincoln Mullen’s The Chance of Salvation

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Mullen, Lincoln A. The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017. Pp. 384. $39.95 (hardcover).

by Charlie McCrary

These days, Americans choose their religions. Even those who seem to start with a religion, those “raised religious,” must choose to continue to be religious, or to switch religions, or to cease to be religious, maybe become “spiritual” instead, or adopt the label “atheist” or “freethinker” or “agnostic.” Pick one. This imperative, Lincoln Mullen argues, originated in the nineteenth century, during which “Americans came to think of religion as an identity that one could and must choose for oneself” (10). Mullen does not use the language of the “Protestant secular,” but that language might be helpful to describe the model he proposes. Because Protestants—especially the revivalist sort, obsessed with individual choice, the moment of decision at the anxious bench, the desire to be made new—defined the terms of religion, other groups, would they too become legible as “religious,” began to work with the same frameworks. By the end of the nineteenth century, “for everyone,” Mullen argues, “religion was becoming more of a chosen identity, even in a religion [such as Catholicism] marked strongly by ethnicity and inheritance” (267). Furthermore, “the possibility of not having a disposition toward religion at all—of simply not having considered religion one way or the other—was becoming less of an option” (275). In this way, Mullen brilliantly highlights a fundamental irony of American religion: it’s a “marketplace,” a smorgasbord of options, but you must participate, and only liberal subjects get to buy.

Through six chapters, The Chance of Salvation excavates dozens and dozens of stories of individuals, families, and communities changed by conversions. Each chapter—on (white) Protestants and the “sinner’s prayer,” Cherokees, African Americans, Mormons, Jews, and Catholics, respectively—brims with vignettes. In these stories, we glimpse the drama of life: marriage, separation, birth, death, violence, displacement, enslavement. Each chapter rests on a theme and historical argument. For example, Mullen shows how African American Christians narrated their conversions in “eschatological time” as opposed to “human time,” and how the eschatological imaginaries of enslaved Christians differed from those of post-Emancipation African American Christians. The chapters are well constructed and rich with historical details. For the most part, though, the strong theoretical claims advanced in the introduction, the larger argument about the advent of the religion-choosing imperative, leave the text until the conclusion. That conclusion, a fascinating meditation on William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, does not offer neat answers but prompts more questions.

Mullen correctly notes that, although James studied religious conversion to get at something universal and timeless, what he was really doing was reflecting a new turn-of-the-century imagination of religion. But what is Mullen really doing? Ostensibly, he is historicizing, contextualizing, theorizing. But these analyses are always subtle, underdone, hinted more than stated outright. And sometimes Mullen rejects explanations without offering different ones instead. Unlike James’s Varieties, The Chance of Salvation is a history. So, my central question about it is a historical one: What was it about the nineteenth century?

If religion-as-chosen-identity is a nineteenth-century innovation, it might be helpful to analyze it in the context of nineteenth-century conditions. What about capitalism? In a few places, Mullen critiques the common “marketplace” metaphor, most interestingly in the chapter on Cherokees, where the idea does not track with their gift economy. And he mentions money here and there, as when conversions for obvious personal gain come under scrutiny. Concepts like “fraud” come up too. Throughout the text, Mullen dismisses Marxian analyses that might chalk up religious conversion to self-interested, class-conscious ladder-climbing. And religious positions might be connected to economic or political positions, but they are never reducible to them. For instance, after noting that those who converted to Catholicism sometimes did so as part of their rejection of capitalism, Mullen carefully qualifies, “This is not to say that conversions to Catholicism were driven primarily by political or economic concerns; they were not” (233). Then what is it to say? What or who did the primary driving? Mullen does not tell us. The ghosts stay unnamed.

But ghosts always have context, if not names. And even if religious experience is somehow wholly other, outside of time, conversions are still somehow related to material realities. Mullen writes, “For the Cherokee who were asked to choose between conversion to Christianity and renewed zeal for Cherokee cosmology, the choice was bound up with other choices—whether to acculturate, whether to adopt American-style agriculture and market trade, whether to enter into treaties, whom to right in the War of 1812. To choose conversion had different religious meanings over time, but it also had different political, economic, and social meanings” (68). Here, “religious meanings” are a node in a network, or maybe a piece of an assemblage. They connect with but are not the same as the political, economic, and social. Religion is something else.

My question remains: What was it about the nineteenth century? In addition to capitalism, settler empire defined that century. That could be an insightful avenue for analysis. I wonder if this whole business of religion-as-chosen-identity is a product of post-Enlightenment thought forged in the context of settler colonialism. This drive to name and classify, to craft taxonomies of race, sex, plants, worked to naturalize and legitimize hierarchical difference and exploitation, including enslavement. So, in the nineteenth century, identities became fixed. But, unlike race or gender (some exceptions apply!), religion was not totally fixed. It was changeable. Many Americans, influenced by Protestant revivalism, thought of their new religious identities as being “born again,” a “new creation.” They did not theorize religious identity as performative. It was changeable, but these changes were internal, even ontological in their transformations. In this way, nineteenth-century modes of identification and naming depended on colonialist mentalities. This is clear not just in missionizing, converting the heathen, but more broadly in the scientistic obsession with classification. Regarding some queer theorists’ use of the term trans*, Jack Halberstam explains, “the asterisk modifies the meaning of transitivity by refusing to situate transition in relation to a destination, a final form, a specific shape, or an established configuration of desire and identity.” [1] My point is, in Mullen’s book there is no Catholic* or Jew*, but maybe this would be a helpful way to frame conversion. In so many of the vignettes, the convert felt compelled to this new religion. Yet, despite the way revivalist Protestants conceptualized it, as a sudden and definitive event, a moment in time when an individual is made new, the on-the-ground process was messier, more gradual, always social. So, here we might see a colonialist framework—naming, classifying, ranking, fixing, concretizing—creating the possibility of (a certain kind of) religious conversion, even as the converts themselves, and perhaps more so the ghosts and gods compelling them, push against that framework.

How did these two contexts, capitalism and colonialism, converge in the discourse and experience of nineteenth-century religious conversions? It comes down, in large part, to liberal subjectivity. And the American liberal subject was (and is, in many ways) implicitly white. The first three chapters are mostly about Protestants, but the titles respectively indicate “Protestant,” “Cherokee,” and “African American” converts. That first chapter, which is primarily about white revivalists, sets the template for the rest of the book. It’s not just the Protestant secular at work; it’s the white Protestant secular, each of these categories’ pretensions to universality leaving its particularity unmarked. [2] Whiteness peeks through in sentences like “African Americans crafted their own alternative form of Christianity” (119; emphasis added), reminding the reader just who set the terms here. There is no index entry for “whiteness.”

Scholars of nineteenth-century American religion have been preoccupied with questions of agency. While Mullen does not devote much extended discussion to this issue, it pops up repeatedly throughout the text. One reason agency is important, beyond the stilted frameworks of “social control” versus “democratization,” is how nineteenth-century Americans’ concerns with it (not to mention historians’ concerns) betray their indebtedness to mythic liberal subjectivity—and, most relevant here, the ways that the nineteenth-century (and beyond) model of religious conversion supposes and imposes a particular way of being and universalizes it. Mullen’s exploration of this problematic is one of his best contributions. Here again we see whiteness at the crux of conversion as a colonial and capitalist project. In the chapter on Cherokee converts, Mullen emphasizes repeatedly that did not receive Christianity passively but, rather, recrafted Christianity, such that it “became as much a Cherokee religion as was traditional Cherokee cosmology” (67). To “make it your own” (much in the same way that twentieth-century young evangelicals, raised in the church, are implored not to rely on the faith of their parents but instead to “make your faith their own”), to conquer, possess, and (sincerely) hold something, was to become religious. But “religious choice was in no simple sense a new kind of freedom; it is better understood as an obligation” (16). Subjects did not choose religions happily at whim, like selecting breakfast cereal in a supermarket. “Rarely did converts write about their conversion in terms of taking advantage of a religious freedom, though that is often the mode in which scholars write about religious choice. Almost all converts described themselves as compelled to convert” (16). So, to be religious is to hold a belief, but first, something might take hold of you.

The Chance of Salvation offers an exciting topic, provocative set of questions, and a trove of intriguing vignettes. It is one of the most thought-provoking books I have read in a long time. I had a hard time figuring out exactly what Mullen is doing. What’s he really getting at? The ambiguity and uncertainty around the book’s central questions, laid out in the introduction but then never quite resolved, make the book all the more fascinating. By writing in the conclusion about William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, Mullen begins to categorize his own work by contrasting it with James’s. So, what kind of book is Varieties? What was James doing, and how might that help us figure out what exactly Mullen is doing? Amanda Porterfield has argued that “Varieties is a modernist collage in which snippets of recorded experience come together apart from their original settings, reframed through James’s canny use of his own subjectivity to showcase contradictory aspirations to wholeness.” [3] The Chance of Salvation is not a modernist collage, but it is not postmodern either. I don’t think Mullen leverages his own subjectivity to achieve a “wholeness.” And he certainly does not extract these narratives from their historical context; his goal is the opposite. He is a historian, and James was not. And yet, recall, Mullen argues that converts were compelled, sometimes seemingly against their own will (to believe). Something unnamed, maybe unnamable, did the compelling.

What should we make of Mullen’s choice not to name the ghosts? We might read this book as a sort of exercise in post-critical “thin description.” Maybe it’s something like “abundant history.” Or perhaps it’s borne of a similar historical methodological imperative to let the subjects speak “for themselves.” Mullen describes his method as grounded in “historical empathy,” as opposed to “a rigid posture of critical distance” (xi). It is not simply letting them speak for themselves, but it’s not speaking for them either. And, besides, if the subjects are the religious converts, their own accounts are not enough, since they usually could not articulate exactly why they converted. And they generally did not historicize or critique or deconstruct their own conversions, so historians cannot look to their subjects to do the critical analysis for them. The historian, then, emphatically contextualizes the converts but does not critique them, per se. The religious converts are not the only subjects, though. What about the ghosts? As I read and re-read this book, I heard their voices growing louder.

We are back, as ever, to the agency question. And I recall the scene in Moby-Dick: Captain Ahab, after years of searching, finally raises a harpoon to plunge into the horrible haunting white whale. And he wonders,

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozzening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm?” [4]

Lots of nineteenth-century Americans converted. We can count them, albeit inexactly. And we can chart an individual’s movements from one religion to another and sometimes back again. We can read hundreds of stories and notice patterns and catalogue them. We can study conversion narratives and show how the templates were replicated. And Mullen does all this, skillfully. And that’s a lot, but it’s not enough, he admits. With his final sentence, Mullen concludes, “The difficulty is not in finding evidence, but in figuring out what it all adds up to” (288). I wonder, sincerely, what that means. Does the evidence, this collection of conversions, add up to some Jamesian “wholeness” after all? If so, what is it? What “nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it”?

Notes

[1] Jack Halberstam, Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2018), 4.

[2] Some scholars already have argued that the American Protestant secular is white. See Tracy Fessenden, Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007) and most of the essays in Jonathon S. Kahn and Vincent W. Lloyd, eds., Race and Secularism in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[3] Amanda Porterfield, “William James and the Modernist Esthetics of Religion,” Church History 83, no. 1 (Mar., 2014), 158.

[4] Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851), chapter 132, “The Symphony.”

 

Charlie McCrary is a PhD student at Florida State University, where he recently defended his dissertation, “Sincerely Held Religious Belief: A History.”

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