Yale-Edinburgh Group
on the History of the Missionary Movement
and Non-Western Christianity

Consultations sponsored by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World at the University of Edinburgh , Yale Divinity School, and the Overseas Ministries Study Center

Theme for the 2003 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting:

"Conversion and Converts"

Andrew F. Walls and Lamin Sanneh

Like religion, conversion in some circles has a bad name. One standard manual defines it as a psychoanalytic phenomenon in which repressed material is translated into overt symptomatic behavior, normally in the form of conversion hysteria, something like a nervous disorder in which converts suffer memory lapse, hallucination, and loss of control of various sensory and motor processes. Others take a less jaundiced but no less evasive approach. To be converted at a revival, says a writer of distinction, belongs with the prerogative of youth, and occurs at the same time as other things, such as writing halting verses, and running a mile to see a fire. In neither of these cases, however, do we get any idea of conversion in its religious setting, which is overwhelmingly its milieu.

If we took a well-trodden Damascus road to the subject, we might say that conversion in any meaningful sense would be inconceivable if there were no religious frontier to cross, no difficult decision to make between two alternative views of life, and no passage to negotiate between personal choice and prevailing social constraints. Whether viewed as rupture or as fulfillment, and whether it involves individuals in the crises of change and reorientation, and in the resolution of issues of identity and loyalty, conversion is rooted in personal experience and identity. The challenge it contains might consist in the pressing obligation to abandon a discredited past and to embrace the alternative path to truth and salvation, and that may be enough to trigger a conversion experience, whether or not that leads to disruption of motor processes.

In cultures with long-standing Christian symbols, conversion may mean just the rekindling of old, dormant loyalties rather than the imposition of a wholly sudden break. The recovery of lapsed believers, or their periodic mending, would typically be the first order of business in such conversion movements. This is in recognition of the point Francis Bacon made about reclaiming the erring being more necessary in the order of things than winning the lost. According to Bacon, it were better to have no opinion about God at all, than such an opinion as is unworthy of God. And so revival leaders deploy arguments that are fitted to practice in a reversed order. Since the similitude of superstition to religion makes religion the more deformed, it is necessary to reverse practice and repair the damage caused by backsliders. When it comes to leading the people of God, partial blindness, as half-truths, is more dangerous than total blindness as falsehood.

Even when it seeks to apply only retroactive remedies and there is no mile to run or fire to see, conversion as 'awakening' may still involve a radical choice. An awakened conscience, a heightened sense of personal sin and of supernatural grace, or a sense of forlorn abandonment, may lead to a defining act of rededication and membership in a movement of likeminded people. Closet Christians become open believers, half-hearted observance turns into warmhearted devotion, and nominal adherence into principled attachment. What is spoken of as 'pricking of the heart' has characterized many conversions of scale. So also have revival-type missions, with appeals and counseling used to nudge the reluctant and timid to come forward.
A good deal of the evidence, as well as theories of conversion, comes from the history of such movements, and this kind of evidence stresses matters of technique, funding, timing, preparation, network organization, crowd psychology, central direction, advertisement, and publicity. The means and methods employed in conversion, as well as the accompanying social and economic processes, become crucial factors in the results and consequences of conversion. Explanations of conversion accordingly take account of the structures and techniques that shape and affect the experience of conversion and changes in society and morals. Conversion movements tend to gather moss as they roll along, and what starts out precariously as a haphazard impromptu meeting may assume a deliberate course as an organized movement by the end. Theories of conversion attempt to analyze incidents of conversion by overall causal explanations, with a tendency toward single-cause explanations based on the idea of a hierarchy of causes culminating in an independent variable. The removal of such an independent variable from a causal chain would drastically change the outcome. But theory, like salt, useful in small measures, can, in concentrated infusions, smother what it should enhance.


Another type of evidence, one not altogether unrelated to the historical and economic, is that representing the point of view of converts themselves, and here the results are often equally mixed and unpredictable. The role of converts in helping to define and characterize the conversion phenomenon is indispensable to gaining a fuller understanding of what seems a life-changing experience. Here barriers of race, gender, rank, status, creed, economics, and education seem scarcely to matter, at least in so far as the defining initial experience is concerned. Evidence at this level allows religious subjects to take center stage.


A classic statement of the theme is offered by a fluent master of the genre who describes how through trial and tribulation, and after much agonizing and dithering that produced disturbing psychosomatic symptoms, he could not resist the call to faith, all the more painful because in the end he could only grasp at a method, a path, of interior communion. As another restless soul put it, "I, being self-confined,/ Self did not merit, / Till, leaving self behind,/ Did self inherit." God as such proves elusive in that groping. Yet the language of the quest, of conscious choice between indifference and commitment, between hopelessness and assurance, between futility and fulfillment, such language is steeped in the perspective of the would-be convert, a willing but by no means a gullible subject whose will and conscience are overborne. In the breakthrough to faith and the anointing of assurance, such converts may play a significant role in directing the stream of their own salvation even though others may offer the seal of approval and the structures of a movement and vocation. The variety of uses and devotion that converts employ may be as illuminating about the conversion phenomenon as historical accounts. Stories of the drama of personal conversion should not just fill gaps in clinical historical or theoretical accounts of the phenomenon but should help track and elucidate what converts do with their experience.


The uses of conversion are, however, profoundly influenced by the circumstances and social context. The degree to which choices and options are or are not available to people will affect what prompts and defines conversion. 'Closed societies' in Karl Popper's sense would be less hospitable than 'open societies' to personal conversion and to changing identity. The fusing of religion and culture would inhibit conversion as an option for individuals. Historical upheaval, economic and political disruption, and epidemics, for example, would influence conversion. By the same token, the freedom as well as the effectiveness of a religion to translate and transmit its message would prepare the soil for conversion, and for open-ended periodic renewal.
Muslim conversion in this light offers another model. Islam is not invested in translation of the Qur'án or in the cultivation of the vernacular as a condition of its mission, and most converts, like most Muslims, cannot read the Arabic Qur'án. In these circumstances, historians speak of "adhesion" as the more accurate description of Islamic conversion than experiential or affective change. Or, to put it differently, Muslims who have an experiential spiritual encounter may, for example, seek affiliation to a Súfí fraternity rather than joining a new religion. Testimonies of conversion to Islam usually come from people with a Christian or a Western background because their cultural formation makes understanding conversion a recognized franchise of personal faith. By contrast, in conversion that occurs in a typical jihád situation, for instance, a structural realignment is brought about between pre-existing politico-economic institutions and religious directives. A poll-tax substitute for conversion may be instituted to redirect the inflow into Muslim society, as happened in the early Islamic caliphate. Such examples indicate that affiliation or adhesion is, therefore, a less inaccurate way of talking about what happens in Islam than conversion through the gateway of the vernacular.


A similar distinction has been drawn between "religions of structure" and "religions of salvation" on the basis of which members are classified accordingly. In religions of structure, such as African religions, members are removed from experience-induced choice and are riveted to this world, with the constant repetition and dramatization of symbols to drill the habit of submission to ritual alignment and conformity. Islam fits well into this category. In religions of salvation, by contrast, sensory experience of the world is replaced by a focus on subjective thoughts and awareness, that is to say, on the mind as the site of apprehending truth. Christianity belongs here. This distinction can, however, be criticized as an oversimplification, yet aspects of it resonate well with the facts on the ground. To take one example, the visible symbols of Muslim practice, the cultural forms of worship with their routine distinctive bodily movements, dietary observance, ritual washing, and Arabic chants, all draw attention to the outward appearance of the religion. Rote phonetic memorization of Arabic tones and sounds without comprehension, for example, provides a well-known illustration. Certainly in Muslim Africa many conversions take on the quality of 'structural' alignment in dress, food, washing, standing and sitting for prayer, daily custom, the weekly Friday mosque gathering, and the culminating annual pilgrimage to Mecca, personal or vicarious. Reform of religious life in theory takes the form of judgment on the duty of alignment to the prescribed structures. Conviction (and conversion) here is a matter of prescriptive judgment, not of individual disposition.


The evidence of conversion and the role of converts make it imperative that we examine the subject not just as an ideal type, whether as hysteria or illumination, but as a deeply human phenomenon entangled in matters of personal identity and social boundary. The subject defies a single-cause explanation, especially if converts themselves are disregarded in the process. The literature on conversion is rich on historical documentation and in theoretical sophistication, with descriptive accounts competing with explanatory models for our attention. Yet we should not neglect the human and personal aspects. In the end, whether or not we take the high road, conversion by general consent has depth of field that makes it suited to broad comparative review as well as to nuanced theoretical analysis.


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