David Anixter - Institute of European Studies

David Anixter
Draft Prospectus – September, 2009
Born again for the first time: modernity, selfhood and the culture of conversion in
Britain, c. 1750-1850
We are all evangelicals these days—at least in the sense that conversion has
become a hackneyed trope that we moderns use to organize and give meaning to our
lives. It seems everyone is undergoing conversion experiences: politicians “convert” to
different political or humanitarian causes; the more conscientious among us “convert” to
new dietary regimes or “greener” lifestyles. Desultory dalliances with different forms of
spiritual expression are the order of the day. A recent survey by the Pew Forum on
Religion and Public Life found that almost half of all Americans end up professing a faith
different from the one they were born into.1 As with so much else in our culture,
celebrities have pioneered these fickle habits of faith (one thinks of Madonna’s and
Brittany’s well-publicized, though ultimately fleeting flirtations with Jewish mysticism).
Conversion is often invoked in a conscious or semi-conscious manner. In a paper given at
the recent “Queer Bonds” conference at Berkeley, for instance, Tim Dean described an
emerging homosexual subculture in which a man infected with HIV transmits the disease
to another in an act of “consensual rape.” The newly-infected is said to be a “convert” to
the disease, and the whole act is often expressed as the man’s “conversion” to a more
authentic, more hardcore homosexuality.2 But the language and symbols associated with
conversion are so deeply embedded in our culture that we often invoke them
unknowingly. According to two sociology professors, “The Dr. Phil Show” frequently
Tim Dean, “Towards a Theory of Consensual Rape,” unpublished paper given at the Queer Bonds
Conference, UC Berkeley, 20 February, 2009.
and unconsciously employs the structure of conversion narratives to sensationalize its
stories of personal transformation.3 How many of us really know that the lyrics of
“Amazing Grace”—often called the most popular song in the world—really describe a
conversion, written, as they were, by the English evangelical clergyman, John Henry
Newton. Conversion is a ubiquitous—if discordant—concept in our professedly secular
This has not always been the case. At least as ancient as Paul’s fateful journey to
Damascus, the word “conversion” originally enjoyed a less expansive existence. Deriving
from the Latin infinitive convertere, meaning “to turn around,” conversion signified a
dispositional (re)orientation—a turning away from something and towards another—from
a life of sin to a life of holiness, from heresy to orthodoxy. During the Middle Ages its
meaning was even more limited. “Conversion” simply connoted a person’s entrance into
a religious order.4 As some of the more careful historians of Christianity have noted,
conversion seems to have been a rather marginal concept within Christianity until
relatively recently. In an influential article written in the 1970s, Krister Stendahl argued
that Paul’s Damascus road experience was really more akin to the model of prophetical
calling found within the Hebrew Bible, and thus should not be interpreted in the modern
fashion as the sudden “relief for a plagued conscience.”5 The foremost historian of
evangelical conversion, D. Bruce Hindmarsh, makes much the same point regarding
R. Danielle Egan and Stephen D. Papson, “’You either get it or you don’t’: conversion experiences and
the Dr. Phil Show”, Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, vol. 10 (2005): 1-47.
“Conversion”, OED. The Oxford cataloguers first date the word in English to the 14 th century.
Krister Stendahl, Paul among the Jews and Gentiles (1976).
Augustine, Luther and Calvin.6 Like so much else and despite appearances to the
contrary, conversion seems to be a product of modernity.
The central questions of this study are: How and why does conversion go from
being a relatively recondite religious concept to a culturally pervasive practice,
representation and expression? How did conversion, in both its religious and secular
incarnation, become a cultural norm for depicting personal transformation?
Why conversion?
I am interested in conversion for its inherent liminality, for the way it straddles
the realms of religious practice and cultural expression. The tendency among historians
has been to treat the Religious and the Secular as two inviolate domains—one expanding
or declining at the expense of the other. Even the questions they have asked and sought to
answer—what are the causes and symptoms of religious decline? When, and to what
extent can British society be said to be secular?—betray this bias. Yet if we free
ourselves from the enduring preoccupation of explaining and measuring religious decline;
if we no longer accept the premise that religion and modernity must necessarily be
antagonistic, then we can define religion in new ways—not as something that people do
or believe (and thus not as any observable and quantifiable category), but as an
amorphous collection of tropes, idioms, scripts or identities on which a person may draw
upon to interpret and make sense of their world. This is to treat religion as culture—a
culture contained within, but also significantly informed by and influencing, the wider
culture of 18th- and 19th-century British society.
D. Bruce Hindmarsh, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern
Europe (Oxford, 2005), pp. 16-17, 26.
This is not an altogether novel approach. Historians long ago discerned an
evangelical ethos that suffused Victorian society, but the propensity to interpret all
culture as a form of ideological hegemony meant that 19th-century evangelicalism was
often reduced to an expression of middle-class respectability.7 A more sophisticated
model with which to describe the cultural influence of religion is found in Callum
Brown’s recent and influential contribution to the hoary debate on secularization. Unlike
so many clergy and social scientists before him, Brown does not believe that the social
and cultural significance of Christianity can be gauged using any empirical or
quantifiable metrics: church attendance figures, levels of belief, the function of religion
and religious institutions within civil society—none of these are adequate rubrics of a
society’s religiosity. This is Brown’s preferred term, for it describes something deeper
and more diffusive than formal religion. By religiosity, Brown is attempting to get at the
extent to which individuals consciously or unconsciously internalize the expectations,
values, and rhetoric of Christianity. (This is what Brown terms “discursive Christianity.”
In his words, people “subscribe” to the discourses of evangelical Christianity and then
express their “subscription” or “subjectification” of these discourses by acting upon the
“protocols” of behavior inherent within the discourse.) By redefining the terms of his
inquiry, Brown is able to make a persuasive case that Christianity remained an exigent
and even pervasive cultural force long into the 20th century in the sense that it was
integral to the ways in which men and (but mostly) women constructed their identities.8
G. Kitson-Clark, Making Victorian England; L. Davidoff and C. Hall, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English
Middle Class, 1780-1850 (1987).
Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: understanding secularization 1800-2000 (London:
Routledge, 2001), pp. 12-13.
I share Brown’s conviction that the discourses associated with evangelical
Christianity provided some of the essential components for constructing identities and
structuring personal narratives, but my focus on conversion—perhaps the central
component of these processes—shifts the parameters of inquiry into questions of extent
and becoming. What I call the “culture of conversion” stretched way beyond the
boundaries of religiosity, imbuing with evangelicalism cultural domains not commonly
believed to have been touched by religion—or even peculiarly resilient to it. Significant
ruptures in peoples’ lives, so-called “Eureka” moments, were often structured as
conversion narratives and expressed in the language and tropes of evangelicalism. Many
such moments can be imagined: Coleridge and Wordsworth’s disillusionment with the
French Revolution; Malthus’s or Bentham’s disenchantment with Enlightenment values;
the sudden humanitarian awakenings of the factory reformers; “conversions” to Marx or
Darwin or Temperance. If conversion can be shown to have been a common idiom for
understanding and articulating these myriad moments then we can discern how far, or
rather how deeply, evangelicalism permeated British culture.
A simple question still remains: why conversion? Why, of all things, did
conversion become such a powerful and useful concept in both sacred and secular
settings? Of course, this question is really a version of a broader question: how can we
reconcile religion with modernity? Explanations have been legion. For those historians
who believe religion to be a fundamentally anomalous presence in the modern world,
some species of social or psychological functionalism has proved a particularly useful
tool in making sense of this problem. E. P. Thompson chalked up the dynamism of 19th-
century evangelicalism to the “chiliasm of despair.”9 Less sophisticated historians on the
Left have simply relied on the old Marxist chestnut, false consciousness. Functionalism
has even proved attractive to those who are, in some degree, sympathetic to religion.
Religion was a social palliative in a time of extreme dislocation by creating artificial
communities when the old communal bonds began to rent;10 with its emphasis on sin and
redemption, evangelical soteriology provided psychological solace to the dispossessed
and disaffected. More recently, however, historians have abandoned functionalist
explanations in favor of a kind of unveiling technique. Religion, they claim, was
deceptively modern all along, and thus its continued relevancy in the modern world
should come as no surprise.11 In the first version, religion is “successful” because it is
anti-modern—a regressive force tending to hinder the processes of modernization. In the
second version religion is successful because it is secretly modern, or in Bruce
Hindmarsh’s phrase, alternatively modern, for its opens up a space that retains all the best
modernity has to offer while at the same time rejecting its less desirable elements.12 Both
of these strategies are really two sides of the same coin, however: they presuppose that
“Religion” and “Modernity” are two monoliths that are either incompatible or
complementary. This is a paradigm from which I want to escape, since it tends to result in
a tendentious reading of the evidence. A more productive approach would be to view the
two as imbricated in one another, part of a more complex and dynamic process. Clearly
Modernity (however defined) is at least in part a product of religion; and clearly Religion
(in whatever form) has remade itself in response to the changing conditions of the
E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963).
James Obelkevich, Religion and Rural Society in South Lindsey, 1825-1875 (Oxford, 1976).
Bernard Semmel, The Methodist Revolution (New York, 1973); Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the
British Enlightenment (Cambridge, 2008); Hindmarsh, Evangelical Conversion Narrative.
Hindmarsh, pp. 356, vii, 5-10.
modern world. The culture of conversion—neither fully religious, neither entirely
secular—seems a particularly useful vantage point from which to view this dynamic
So why, of all things, conversion? One way to answer this question is to put
conversion in cultural context, to discover the ways the culture of conversion interacted
with and was imbricated in a more popular, more secular culture. I can think of at least
three different cultural contexts in which conversion had particular resonance:
Science: Recent scholarship has been keen on illuminating 18th-century
Christianity’s debt to Enlightenment intellectual currents. Frederick Dryer and Ann
Taves, in particular, have demonstrated how theologians like Wesley and Jonathan
Edwards borrowed extensively from Lockeian empiricism and Humean sensationalist
psychology to craft their new science of the soul.13 But I think the debt to science might
have gone deeper than mere intellectual borrowing. Even the very meaning of conversion
seems to have changed in the 18th century. In the 6th edition of his famous Dictionary Dr.
Johnson includes both the theological and the scientific, empirical definition of
“conversion.” Conversion signified a “turn from a bad to a good life,” “from repbrobation
to grace.” He also defined it as “transmutation”: a “change from one state into another,” a
“change into another substance.”14 By the time an “improved” and “abridged” American
edition was published in 1836 (complete with an appendix of “Americanisms”),
“conversion” was defined more simply and concisely as “a change from one state to
Ann Taves, Fits, Trances and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to
James (Princeton, 1999); Frederick Dryer, “Faith and Experience in the Thought of John Wesley,”
American Historical Review, vol. 88, no. 1 (1983): 12-30.
A dictionary of the English language . . . , 6th ed. (London, 1785), p. 476.
another; transmutation; change form one religion to another.”15 Rather than a mere reorientation—a turning towards God and away from the world—18th-century conversion
began to take on connotations of a more radical transformation. Just as a chemist or
alchemist might alter the molecular make-up of an object, converting it into an altogether
new property, religious conversion was understood as a similarly elemental
transformation of the core essence of an individual. Whether that essence was imagined
as the metonymic “heart” or construed as the more ethereal soul, the point was that the
convert had undergone a fundamental change.16 I am also particularly interested to
discover whether the influence could go the other way—whether the language of
religious conversion might have changed how people spoke of scientific discoveries or
how people emploted their own “conversions” to new scientific paradigms.
The culture of the self: Like a Thermidorian reaction, the Age of Romanticism
swiftly followed the Age of Enlightenment, and just as with the latter, evangelicalism
seems implicated here too. Peter Gay has written of the 19th century’s rage for
subjectivity, its intoxication with the hidden, the unseen, the elusive; its preoccupation
with interiority and inwardness.17 According to Charles Taylor, this was also the
“expressivist revolution,” a time when the modern self-identity was increasingly being
understood as something that had to be actively constructed to be authentic.18 The culture
of conversion was, of course, a part of this wider emphasis on subjectivity and
expression: it supplied a ready-made script for tales of bildung; it suffused the language
Samuel Johnson, Henry John Todd, John Walker, Johnson’s Dictionary, improved by Todd, abridged for
the use of Schools . . . (Boston, 1836), pp. 79-80.
The connotation of conversion meaning a change or alteration of form or properties is not indigenous to
the 18th century; the Oxford cataloguers date it from the 16 th century, though one of their first examples of
this usages comes, significantly, from Bacon. OED.
Peter Gay, The Naked Heart: the bourgeois experience from Victoria to Freud (New York, 1996).
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, 1992).
of interiority and feeling; and more practically, it gave legitimacy to the practice of
autobiographical writing.
The issue of authority: Despite the unusually protracted influence of the “Halevy
thesis,” any cursory glance at the sources would quickly reveal that evangelicalism, more
often than not, was often perceived to be a subversive force in British society. Historians
are increasingly catching on. For instance, Bernard Semmel turned Halevy on his head
when he argued that Methodism stabilized British society not for any repressive
functions, but because it was itself revolutionary force. According to Semmel, Wesley’s
Arminian theology constituted the uniquely British and pietistic incarnation of the
“Atlantic Democratic Revolution.” With its emphasis on free will, human potential,
individual moral responsibility and spiritual egalitarianism, Methodism presented a
revolutionary challenge to the values under-girding traditional society.19 Phyllis Mack
reaches as similar conclusion in her recent book. Dissatisfied with studies that either
celebrate Methodist spirituality and community life for its palliative functions during the
era of industrialization, or those more cynical and (inevitably) secular historians who
interpret Methodism as a vehicle for internalizing the repressive and disciplinary
ideology of the ruling class, Mack takes the religious experiences of ordinary Methodists
on its own terms. Her argument is that rather than repress individual agency, Methodist
theology and institutions inculcated “modern habits of self-analysis” and self-definition.20
I am particularly interested in the ways conversion presented a democratic challenge to
hierarchy and tradition by locating authority—moral, theological, supernatural—in an
individual’s subjective experience.
Bernard Semmel, The Methodist Revolution (New York, 1973), pp. 7-8.
Phyllis Mack, Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism
(Cambridge, 2008), pp. 14-18.
This project has implications for at least two of the grand narratives of modernity.
The first is the story of the creation of the modern self. Religion, traditionally and
unsurprisingly, is commonly afforded a significant part in histories and genealogies of the
self, for as Charles Taylor has observed, questions of self or identity have been intimately
bound up with ideas of God or The Good. For Taylor, religion was among the most
important “sources of self” in at least two respects. In the first place, Christianity helped
foster a sense of inwardness—the idea that man was constituted by inner depths. It is not
just that God or the Truth is contained within us—that, as Augustine asserted, “inward
lies the road to God.” It is also that Christianity encouraged a radically reflexive
orientation. Because the divine was located within us, because every person possessed an
immortal soul, knowledge of the self was also the surest way to knowledge of God. In the
second place, Protestantism—by rejecting the traditional distinction between the sacred
and the profane—affirmed the dignity and sacrality of everyday existence. Once work
and family, production and reproduction, were no longer understood to be lower forms of
life, but were recast as “the main locus of the good life,” then the cultivation of the self,
the development of human potential, became a sacred calling.21 Once Taylor reaches the
nineteenth century, however, religion disappears from his story. It is as if religion is the
midwife of modern forms of self-identity: once the modern self has emerged fully formed
around the year 1800, religious practices or theological prescriptions are no longer
significant to give it form or justify its existence.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, MA, 1989).
A similar nescience marks Michael Mascuch’s study of the pre-history of
autobiographical writing in England.22 Whereas Taylor focused on philosophical
formulations of the self, Mascuch deals with the self as the expression of the cultural
practice of autobiographical writing. According to Mascuch, the advent of modern
autobiography coincided with the appearance of the modern identity of the “egocentric
person who . . . regards himself as his own telos.” 23 As Mascuch traces the maturation of
autobiographical discourse from the 16th to the 18th centuries, it is clear that theology and
devotional practices were absolutely integral to the development of the form. Yet once
Mascuch arrives at the endpoint of his story—the publication of the first modern
autobiography in 1791—religion disappears, as it did for Taylor. This is even more
surprising considering that his case study of the first mature autobiographical expressing
the modern notion of self-identity—James Lackington—was steeped in the Methodist
tradition of spiritual autobiography.
Can it really be that sometime around 1800 religion stopped being a relevant
model for, or an important source of articulations of self-identity? This is unlikely. It
seems to me that an implicit model of secularization lies behind much of this historical
work on religion and the self. By very definition (the assumption is) the modern self
cannot be religious because it is modern. But as I have already argued, conversion—as
both a model of religious practice and a mode of (more secular) expression—can
circumvent this problem. My supposition is that conversion continued to supply both the
structure and the language for representations of self well into the 19th century, and that
Michael Mascuch, Origins of the Individualist Self: autobiography and self-identity in England, 15911791 (Stanford, 1996).
Ibid., 8.
in this way religion continued to be a relevant—perhaps the relevant—ingredient in the
modern self-identity.
The other grand narrative is the familiar though increasingly problematic narrative
of secularization. Rather than fixate on the dénouement of this story, I would emphasize
its beginnings. Historians have been so preoccupied with delineating the processes and
dating the moment of secularization that they have more or less taken for granted what
desperately needs to be demonstrated—that Britain was, in fact, culturally Christian in
the first place. This has never been evident to historians of early modern Europe, most of
whom recognize that Christianity was always in fraught competition with other patterns
of belief and practice (pagan rituals, magic, superstition).24 To fully comprehend the
“making of post-Christian Britain” we must first understand how Britain became
culturally Christian in the first place, how the discourses of evangelical Christianity,
almost non-existent in 1750, had achieved cultural dominance by 1850.25 In other words,
if the evangelical revival is best understood as a kind of cultural revolution, then the task
is to understand why it was so revolutionary and why it was so uniquely successful.
I have already implied that conversion may be a useful tool for understanding the
efficacy and diffusion of evangelical idioms in popular culture. I think it might also
reveal how the very success of the evangelical revolution carried within it the seeds of
secularization. Evangelicalism took over 18th- and 19th-century British society not as a
formal apparatus of institutions nor as a coherent system of belief or practices but as a
kind of insurgent culture that coincidentally happened to resonate with other trends and
Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York, 1971); Jean Delumeau, Catholicism
between Luther and Voltaire: a new view of the Counter-Reformation (London, 1977).
A. D. Gilbert, The Making of Post-Christian Britain: a history of the secularization of modern society
(London, 1980).
movements within British society. But the very dominance of cultural evangelicalism
meant that religion had been reduced (or transformed) into an identity culture—one from
which large portions of British society, both the professedly pious and the apparently
secular, drew upon to construct their identities and tell their stories. This seems like an
inherently unstable situation: religion (whatever it had meant before) now meant
something so diffuse as to be almost indistinct and meaningless. By the 20th century
Christianity had become the “invisible religion”—all around and yet no where in sight.26
Thomas Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: the problem of religion in modern society (New York, 1967).