The Experience of Conversion


Transcendentalists and Evangelicals regarded the inner spiritual transformation of the individual as the central event of human existence. This experience of conversion involved a transcendence of the specious pleasures and routine miseries of everyday life, into the joy and righteousness that was to be found in a new, or renewed, relationship with God. The transformation took place on a subjective level; both movements shared the antinomian belief that an individual's relationship with the divine could be, and indeed should be, unmediated -- by institutions, by history, by conventions, or by other people. The only "requirements" were that one indeed experienced the flowering of an inner faith in the existence and benevolence of God and that one thereupon determined to lead one's life more in accordance with this spiritual wisdom. Following conversion, obviously, one remained a human being who necessarily continued to live and toil in the material world, but conversion would have transfigured one's understanding of the world and of the matrix of relationships involving the world's inhabitants, objects, and natural forms.

Both Transcendentalists and Evangelicals believed that, as a prerequisite to conversion, both individuals and their communities needed to disencumber themselves of various impediments to spiritual growth. Since conversion was understood to take place on a subjective level, the multifarious structures and habits of social existence threatened to interfere with or even prevent the communion of humanity and divinity. Retaining the ancient belief that spiritual progress necessitated the sloughing off of the base hindrances of quotidian life, Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism began to define these hindrances in a radical fashion, turning their sights on certain institutions in their own culture. The principal impediments to spiritual "rebirth" included the ossified and stagnant modes of thinking characteristic of adulthood; the distractions and depravities of the larger society, particularly the kind of coarse materialism that seemed increasingly rampant in American society; and those forms of Christianity that had grown dogmatic, formalist and outdated. The interaction between these obstacles -- for instance, the habitual quest of adults for status, inadequately countered by the modern clergy, and leading to various types of sin -- served to reinforce and perpetuate the psychological and social hindrance of personal spiritual fulfillment.

A recurrent theme of the Romantic era was that children were closer to God than adults, who had spent so much time in the material world competing and sinning that their spiritual natures were numbed or crippled. Intuition seemed to operate more freely in children, since their minds had not yet accumulated the various forms of social education and modes of rationalistic inquiry which represented the common lot of growing up. The religious philosophies of Transcendentalism and Evangelicalism placed a high value on intuition because they thought the human soul needed to be sensitive to its inner stirrings or impulses in order to feel the touch of the divine spirit. One of the more florid statements of this idea came from Theodore Parker in "A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion":

Now to many men, who have but once felt this [the "inspiration of God in man"]; when heaven lay about them, in their infancy, before the world was too much with them, and they laid waste their powers, getting and spending, when they look back upon it, across the dreary gulf, where Honor, Virtue, Religion have made a shipwreck and perished with their youth, it seems visionary, a shadow, dream-like, unreal. They count it a phantom of their inexperience; the vision of a child's fancy, raw and unused to the world.31

Parker did not think that adults should despair of ever recapturing that "vision of a child's fancy" and discovering that it is not illusion but divine inspiration. Yet he grew vague in his solution to the dilemma of adulthood, writing that "he that is faithful to Reason, Conscience, and Religion, will, through them, receive inspiration...."32 Amos Bronson Alcott, in an effort to be more practical and precise, conceived of the idea of questioning children about the Bible in order to educate adults about the true meaning of religion. The result, published in 1836, was his "Conversations with Children on the Gospels" (which struck orthodox Christians not just as folly but as a corruptive influence on the children). In the preface to the work, Alcott made his intent clear:

...hoped that, through their simple consciousness, the Divine Idea of a Man, as Imaged in Jesus, yet almost lost to the world, might be revived in the mind of adults, who might thus be recalled into the spiritual kingdom .... [T]he bright visions of childhood [are] the promise of the soul's future blessedness.33

The concrete threat to the spiritual well-being of adults consisted of the materialism to which capitalist society inclined them and which distracted their minds and souls from the higher pursuits of a spiritual life. "Money is money," wrote Henry Ward Beecher, "and, though locked up in the deepest and darkest vault, every coin is one more coin of the world's wealth. The heart is God's mint ...."34 Like the Transcendentalists, the Evangelicals regarded the disease of materialism as an affliction peculiar to adults, and "stressed Christ's words that men must become like little children if they would understand God's will."35

Perhaps the most formidable obstacles to "true religion" were the existing religious institutions. In the opinions of both movements, the major American denominations -- Anglicanism, Congregationalism, Unitarianism -- had lost much of their power to move the hearts of their flocks, and Transcendentalits and Evangelicals sought to return to a purer, more visceral form of religion that derived its strength from emotion rather than convention or duty. Modern Christianity seemed to them to have become clotted with doctrine, defined by superficial ritual, and overly rationalistic. Under the influence of stale "priest-craft" and tiresome theological disputes, a pall of religious malaise seemed to have spread over the land. As Emerson told the aghast members of the Harvard Divinity School, "it is still true that tradition characterizes the preaching of this country; that it comes out of the memory, and not out of the soul...."36 The most comprehensive formulation was given by Theodore Parker in his "Discourse of the Transient and Permanent in Christianity." Here, Parker rhetorically separated the chaff from the wheat; the mere outward forms and methods of historical Christianity from the enduring principles that Christ taught. Waxing uncharacteristically aggressive in his indictment of passionless theologians, Parker declared: "They have piled their own rubbish against the temple of Truth where Piety comes up to worship; what wonder the pile seems unshapely and like to fall?" By contrast, he wrote, "true" Christianity has nothing to do with theological sophistication; it "is absolute, pure morality; absolute, pure religion, -- the love of man; the love of God acting without let or hindrance."37

The Evangelical critique of Christianity also centered around the presumed inefficacy of traditional preachers in promoting "absolute, pure religion." Social discord and resentment may have played as much of a part in this critique as spiritual longing, since many of the Evangelicals had little wealth or formal education, and had come under contemptuous criticism from the established clergy for their rough-hewn and emotional preaching style. In retaliation, the Evangelicals painted the clergy as a corrupt fraternity of bland men who often succumbed to the temptations of wealth and prestige to which their offices exposed them. In The Clergyman's Looking Glass, Elias Smith, one of the central figures in the Disciples of Christ, offered the "men of the cloth" a sarcastic challenge:

The reverend clergy who are with me I advise, who am also a clergyman ... feed yourselves upon the church and parish, over which we have settled you for life, and who are obliged to support you, whether they like you or not; taking the command by constraint, for filthy lucre, not of a ready mind, as lords over men's souls, not as ensamples to them, and when commencement day shall appear, you shall receive some honorary title, which shall make you appear very respectable among the reverend clergy.38

For the Evangelicals, the importance of preaching lay, above all else, in the ability to bring about a spiritual transformation in members of the preacher's flock, to help them find the faith in Christian teaching that would lead them away from a life of ignorance and sin. The rituals and formal preaching of established Christian churches seemed to hinder ministers' ability to accomplish this.

Such were the negative impediments to spiritual progress, but equally important in bringing about conversion, in a positive sense, were certain activities or circumstances that played a catalytic role. An unmediated personal relationship with divinity did not spring into being on its own, but depended in large measure on the conscious effort of the individual and on the participation of other people. The Transcendentalists tended to emphasize the former and the Evangelicals the latter, but both movements, in accordance with their belief in free will, regarded conversion as an active more than a passive process. Put more precisely, the individual and his or her immediate circle could consciously and reliably prepare for an influx of the divine spirit. In simple terms, Transcendentalist conversion consisted of a newfound awareness of the benevolence and interconnectedness of the universe, while Evangelical conversion consisted of an inner faith in one's eventual reconciliation and reconnection with God.

The Transcendentalists can be exasperatingly vague in their prescriptions for spiritual transformation, a vagueness which derives principally from their distrust of all forms of ritual and inherited religious forms. The transcendent individual is often a solitary figure, contemplating his soul (and by analogy, the soul of all humanity), and contemplating other souls through the reading of serious literature. But the central recurring theme that emerges is a return to nature, where the artifice and depravity of society cannot reach. Thus Thoreau leaves Concord and heads for Walden Pond to explore the great truths of the natural world. Thus Jones Very, in his poem "The Silent," distinguishes between the sounds that strike the ear and those that strike the soul when one walks in the woods:

'Tis all unheard; that Silent Voice,
Whose goings forth unknown to all,
Bids bending reed and bird rejoice,
And fills with music Nature's hall.
And in the speechless human heart
It speaks, where'er man's feet have trod;
Beyond the lips' deceitful art,
To tell of Him, the Unseen God.39

Emerson, in "Nature," tries to capture the feeling of conversion as experienced during his (or his narrator's) sojourn in the woods. In a famous passage that has become a classic yet frequently parodied description of the "transcendent moment," he writes:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, -- no disgrace, no calamity (leaving me my eyes), which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, -- my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.40

For the reading or listening audience of the Transcendentalists, however, the question remained whether this kind of spiritual experience was the inevitable result of a walk in the woods. It is a question that the Transcendentalists would have answered indirectly, implicitly, through the demonstration of spiritual transformation rather than instruction in its causative methods. That is, they were less interested in mapping out the precise route to conversion than in describing the general feeling of spiritual awakening. Experiencing nature was of critical importance because the natural world was the face and essence of God; becoming physically closer to nature, contemplating it, understanding it -- these were the actions that brought man closer to his maker.

In contrast to Transcendentalism's romantic emphasis on solitude and nature, the Evangelical conception of conversion was a highly pragmatic and communal one. The Evangelicals were in the business of saving, or "winning," souls, and they developed a definite program to carry it off. Charles Finney had outlined the methods and goals of a revival, famously asserting that preachers should "work up" a revival rather than "praying it down" as a miracle from God. Over time, the Evangelicals developed a clearly defined sequence of steps toward spiritual transformation, or a "morphology of conversion," in which the three stages were conviction of sin, conversion, and assurance of salvation.41 The spiritual transformation of the individual ordinarily occurred in the social setting of a revival or camp meeting, where the other people present -- in addition to the preacher -- played an instrumental role in one's conversion, through exhortations and singing and personal accounts of their own salvation. The first goal was to have the individual become aware, agonizingly aware, of the depth of his or her sin. D. Dickson Bruce described this awareness as "the point at which the tension between the worldly life and the religious became unbearable, the religious life being recognized as immensely desirable."42 Only in this state of conviction could the individual achieve the abject humility which turning away from sin required, and become open to conversion. Conversion depended on the active intervention of the divine spirit in the form of Christ, but this interposition would only take place if the self had become sufficiently alienated, through conviction of sin, from the material world. In the moment of conversion, one felt that the heart had been touched by the hand of God. Following conversion, the third stage was that of assurance of salvation, or the belief that one's sins were forgiven and that one could, after death, enter the realm of heaven and be reunited with God and with other saved souls.

Clearly, the theological differences between Transcendentalists and Evangelicals -- their divergent conceptions of the relationship between God, nature, and humanity -- lend a different tone to their respective descriptions of spiritual transformation. For the Transcendentalists, who more often emphasized the importance of the active imagination, conversion tended to resemble an intellectual epiphany as much as a visceral religious wrenching, whereby the transcendent individual achieves a conscious awareness of an internal divinity, and of the universal divinity present in the world and people around him. Since there was theoretically no division between God and God's world, and no corresponding need to bridge an insuperable gulf between matter and spirit, the transcendent moment was like the lifting of a veil enabling the immediate recognition of a present communion with divinity. For the Evangelicals, who believed that the individual mortal could not experience God directly, the feeling of conversion was more oriented toward the future. It consisted of the faith that, after death, and with continued observance of the laws of God, a sinful person could receive divine grace and admission into the kingdom of God.

However, the intended psychological impact of conversion in each case did not differ as much as these theological issues might suggest. In the first place, both movements expressed similar notions of "sin," even though they did so in frequently dissimilar terms. Evangelical descriptions of sinful behavior, in which Satan makes frequent appearances, generally invoked the traditional, vague categories of "wickedness," "sloth," "lust," or "greed." In his autobiography, Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright is somewhat more specific in identifying his own sins, recalling his youthful days of dancing, drinking, and card-playing.43 The Transcendentalists tended to employ a slightly less Biblical vocabulary in referring to "sinful" behavior, but their set of conceptual referents is remarkably similar. In the Divinity School Address, Emerson explained the idea of "moral sentiment" in terms of action and consequence: "He who does a mean deed is by the action itself contracted .... If a man dissemble, deceive, he deceives himself, and goes out of acquaintance with his own being."44 For both movements, the plight of the unconverted individual is that he does not feel in the fibers of his being a sense of connection with divinity, but rather a sense of alienation from a benevolent universe. The practical intent of Transcendental and Evangelical preaching was essentially the same, the fundamental message being: "renounce the distractions and temptations to which social intercourse or human nature expose you, and which will interfere with your spiritual development." Failing to do so resulted in what the Evangelicals would call damnation and what the Transcendentalists would call alienation from divinity.

The Transcendentalist and Evangelical beliefs regarding conversion also converged in regard to the subjective psychological feeling of spiritual transformation. Although for the Evangelicals conversion was understood theologically to take place through external agency -- the spirit of God touching a person who has become properly humbled -- their descriptions of conversion frequently invoke the individual's inner feelings: the sense of having "seen the light" or "heard the voice of God." Finney, for example, relates in his memoirs how he was converted after grappling with religious doubts for three days: "My heart seemed to be liquid fire within me. All my feelings seemed to rise and flow out ... it seemed as if I met the Lord Jesus Christ face to face." Finney then fell prostrate before the vision and "received a mighty baptism of the Holy Ghost ... [which] ... like a wave of electricity going through and through me ... seemed to come in waves of liquid love."45 Similarly, Methodist preacher John Hagerty recalled the moment he "received" assurance: "When I was on my knees crying to God for a full Deliverance I heard a voice inwardly say, 'I have sealed the pardon of thy sins with my blood'" [italics mine].46 Conversely, the Transcendentalists made room in their philosophy of conversion -- which generally accepted the mystical premise of pure inner vision -- for external agency. In the Divinity School Address, Emerson asserted that "if a man is at heart just, then in so far is he God; the safety of God, the immortality of God, the majesty of God do enter into that man with justice" [italics mine].47 In essence, while Transcendentalists and Evangelicals offered contrary theological explanations of the ultimate source of spiritual transformation, for both movements that transformation was itself fairly constant: a newfound self-awareness and an unshakeable inner faith in the benevolence and accessibility of the divine realm.

A major paradoxical corollary to this central common belief is that in the critical moment of conversion and self-knowledge a complete effacement or abnegation of self supposedly occurs; the contact of humanity with divinity entails an absolute suspension of ego. For the Evangelicals, the overwhelming majesty of the divine spirit acted to obliterate the ordinary concerns of the individual self during a revival. Indeed, the divine spirit, in the form of Christ, would intervene only after a suspension of individual identity had occurred, a state that D. Dickson Bruce terms "an unstructured or liminal condition in man."48 For the Transcendentalists the same theme is often expressed as a dissolving of individual identity in the supreme pattern of nature, or the recognition that one's soul is but a single part of a much greater overarching spirit. In "The Oversoul," Emerson expresses the fundamental Transcendentalist belief that a higher view of reality can only be achieved by ascending above the plane of individual subjectivity. He writes that

[f]rom within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all .... And the blindness of the intellect begins, when it would be something of itself. The weakness of the will begins when the individual would be something of himself.49

By stressing a negation of ego as a necessary stage of enlightenment, Transcendentalists and Evangelicals both drew on the ancient religious idea that the confines of the individual mind and soul limited the operation of spirit in a person. Significantly, they both held that such confines could be temporarily stretched or suspended to allow for spiritual development.

The theoretical and practical problem both groups faced revolved around the temporary nature of the ego-effacing moment of conversion: How could the post-conversion individual, once again an integrated identity, derive ongoing meaning from the experience? Could the experience be repeated, or prolonged? How was the experience to be communicated to or brought about in other people? The answers to these questions lie in the psychological "residue" of the conversion experience, that is, the ways in which a spiritual transformation resulted in transformations in other areas of a person's thinking. The following section addresses those issues surrounding the linguistic representation of spiritual transformation and a new understadning of the role of moral suasion in effecting conversion.


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