The Chance of Salvation

A History of Conversion in America

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Lincoln A. Mullen
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , August
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America is a marvelous book. Lincoln A. Mullen’s style of writing is lucid, dynamic, and illuminating. Mullen focuses on religion in 19th-century America, offering a panoramic overview of the vicissitudes and complex interactions of religion, politics, and culture. 

The book focuses on the centrality of religious choice. Mullen argues persuasively that the disestablishment of religion in the United States after the War of Independence—the separation of church and state—gave Americans a wide range of options for their religious identity. For the first time, many people in the 19th century were not confined to their inherited religious orientations. Instead, given the proliferation of sects, denominational splits, and harsh debates between various groups, Americans were confronted with a cacophony of voices, each arguing that their particular religion was the true faith and thus the only path to salvation. 

Each of the six chapters provides readers with fascinating and complex stories that illustrate aspects of the historical matrix—the dynamics of various components of personal, political, cultural, and religious forces. Each describes the contours of people’s movement from their “inherited religion” (the religion—or irreligion—of their family and community) and the forces that resulted in new religious options, which in some cases were vigorous and sophisticated challenges or even attacks from other religions. 

Chapter 1 (“Prayer”) provides a rich, complex, and compelling description of evangelistic Protestantism, most notably the growth and development of revival meetings that called sinners to face the reality of their predicament and promised them a path of salvation via the “sinner’s prayer” and their instant, profound turning from sin and toward God. Revivalists such as Charles G. Finney and Dwight L. Moody conducted massive gatherings for the purpose of converting sinners and revitalizing and purifying the church and the nation. In addition, the American Tract Society distributed thousands of tracts that gave guidance for conversion. Evangelists, pastors, and “ordinary” Christians felt a sense of urgency to share the gospel of Christ and the necessity of being born again. A major contribution of Mullen’s scholarship is the numerous examples he provides of the contents of the tracts, including vivid narratives of conversion. 

Chapter 2 (“Gift”) recounts the extension of this missionary fervor to the indigenous peoples of America. Mullen focuses on the Cherokee Nation as an example of the vigorous “civilizing” and “Christianizing” mission of Christians during this period. In this context, it is clear that the missionaries viewed Native Americans as “savages” who needed to comply with the language, rules, and ideas of the dominant Christian majority. Over time, the indigenous peoples of America were forced to relocate to reservations, often far from their homelands. In this mix of denigration, degradation, and colonialization, a growing number of the Cherokee people converted to Christianity despite the radically different cosmologies, religious myths, rituals, and symbols of the two civilizations. 

Chapter 3 (“Hope”) offers a poignant chronicle of the depredations of slavery forced upon millions of African Americans who were exploited daily for their labor and whose bodies were crushed in the attempt by their White owners to rid them of their humanity. Many of the slaves, who learned the basics of the Bible and Christianity via hymns and the fragments of learning they were sometimes granted by their owners and in “underground” gatherings, found hope and salvation in the Christian faith. Mullen’s section about the African American incorporation of Christian values and stories of deliverance is deeply moving.

Chapter 4 (“Kingdom”) tells the story of Joseph Smith and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormons. In this time of ongoing battles among the growing number of sects and fragmenting denominations, Joseph Smith and his disciples offered a new revelation via the Book of Mormon: the enticing proclamation of a quest for a pure, ancient Christianity. Many were attracted to this, even though the more “established” denominations sought to crush the new movement. Gradually hundreds and then thousands of converts began vigorous missionary efforts around the United States, and eventually they continued their mission work in other parts of the world.

Chapter 5 (“Sincerity”) explores the complex and difficult relationship between Jews and Christians during the 19th century. Some Jews converted to Christianity and some Christians converted to Judaism, but both sets of converts faced harsh condemnation. Seen as aliens in a “Christian” nation, Jews were viewed as a mission field by those who wished not only to save them but also to “normalize” them into the fabric of the dominant Christian ethos (no matter how fragmented that fragile “union” might have been). On the other hand, some Christians found it incomprehensible that a Christian would jettison Christianity in favor of what many Christians saw as a primitive, alien, ethnic religion.

Chapter 6 (“Repose”) documents the conversion of Protestants, Jews, and atheists to Roman Catholicism. Even though anti-Catholic views were pervasive in the 19th century, many people began to explore Roman Catholic doctrines and rituals. This transition was often painful, shattering families and communities, but many found comfort in the embrace of a worldwide community and in its sacraments, central authority, and vibrant theology.

Mullen has made a stunning contribution to the emerging field of conversion studies and to the history of the religious life of America. The endnotes of the book provide scholars with a treasure trove of resources for further exploration. Recognizing that all conversions contain losses and gains, Mullen approaches his topic with both intellectual depth and nuance and with empathy for the struggles, losses, and victories of the millions of people who took new paths in their spiritual and religious lives in 19th-century America.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lewis R. Rambo is Senior Research Professor at San Francisco Theological seminary, author of Understanding Religious Conversion (1993) and co-editor with Charles E. Farhadian of The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion (2014).

Date of Review: 
May 3, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Lincoln A. Mullen is assistant professor of history and art history at George Mason University.


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