In a Land of Liberty, it makes sense that the national religion is centered on choice. That’s the thrust of Lincoln Mullen’s argument in his new and ambitious book, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Harvard UP, 2017). Throughout the nineteenth century, Mullen argues, Americans shifted from seeing religion as something one would inherit to something they would freely choose. This had broader implications. Conceiving how one converted to a faith shaped proselytization efforts, ecclesiastical authority, and ritualistic experience. It also framed one’s theology. Mullen is focused on conversion not just to understand what Americans believed, but what options they created for belief. What was the world of possibilities available to a nineteenth-century seeker?
In some ways, The Chance of Salvation is a throwback to classic traditions within American religious historiography. It is framed around theological development, denominational competition, and, most importantly, seeks to provide a synthetic framework for understanding American religions over an entire century. In a scholarly age of fracture, Mullen offers an attempt at coherence. But the book is also reflective of today’s academia: it consciously moves away from an Anglo-Protestant focus—only one of six chapters if focused on white Protestants—and devotes substantial time to those previously found on the demographic and denominational margins. Can there be a work of synthesis that accounts for the diversity of America’s past? As I outline below, Mullen’s answer to this contemporary problem is actually to hearken back to previous historiographical structures.
Mullen is a gifted writer with a nose for a good story. Anecdotes fill many of the pages—though at times, like in the Mormon chapter, perhaps overshadowing the argument—and readers will encounter lots of colorful characters. They will also learn about a broad range of movements. Chapters are broken up into different case studies scattered across the nineteenth century. The overall thesis revolves around how different groups came to place choice at the forefront of their religious experience. This was not a radical change that happened in the wake of disestablishment, but rather a long process with many moments of gradual evolution. Nowhere was this shift from religious “inheritance” to “choice” more prominent than in the Protestant world. Infant baptisms, representing the former model, were largely replaced by adult conversions, symbolizing the new. Conversion was no longer seen as switching from one denomination to another, but rather from personal infidelity to deep commitment. It was a change of heart. The prominence of the Sinner’s Prayer, a routinized though dynamic ritual, embodied the culmination of this slow development. Through the preaching of Charles Finney and publications by the American Tract Society, the format of an instantaneous conversion took shape.
But this was far from a merely White Protestant phenomenon. The next two chapters are focused on Cherokee Indians and African Americans. Both groups took Christianity, made it their own, and remodeled it to their own purposes. In the latter case, black ministers and congregants alike framed conversion around eschatological concerns—a “jubilee” that brought hope to practitioners. I appreciated these two chapters in helping break down the artificial categorizations of religion and attempting to cover divergent groups within a synthetic structure. Yet they were also somewhat forced. Both chapters mostly focused on the years leading up to momentous events—the forced removal of the Cherokee to the West on the one hand, and the abolition of slavery on the other—and failed to trace the developments long-term. (Chapter 2 had one paragraph on post-Removal, and Chapter 3 had five pages on post-emancipation.) Indeed, although the book argues that historians must understand the extended trajectories of these religious evolutions, the first three chapters are chronologically limited.
The final three chapters take a much longer view. These sections focus on Mormonism, Judaism, and Catholicism. Indeed, I thought the latter two chapters were the strongest of the bunch and the most enlightening in the volume. They trace how Catholics and Jews interacted with their Protestant neighbors in constructing a religious marketplace—or at least, adapting to a religious marketplace forced upon them. Though these marginalized faiths, often ostracized as ethnic others, originally tried to reject the new libertarian marketplace, they eventually came to embrace it. Mullen expertly outlines the different waves of transformation that took place across the long-nineteenth century.
But here is what brings me to my overall and—blessedly–final point. Mullen deserves praise for attempting a synthetic framework for understanding America’s diverse religious traditions. But in doing so, he mostly casts them within the Protestant model. Indeed, as Philip Hamburger noted in his foundational Separation of Church and State, it was the Anglo-Protestants who created the “Christian libertarianism” that shaped the religious marketplace. So when I mentioned above that The Chance of Salvation seeks to solve a contemporary concern with a classic answer, I’m meaning that he’s following the “democratization” path championed by the Nathan Hatch school of historiography. That’s perfectly fine, and Mullen is certainly adding important nuances and revisions, but I think it’s also worth noting its implications. Most especially, by centering the narrative around religious “choice,” one can easily overlook the role of religious coercion. A number of groups, most prominently within but not exclusive to the Catholics and Mormons, were not happy with the very model of a purely democratic marketplace, and they in turn created more hierarchical systems. Mullen persuasively showed that they indeed still picked up some of the Protestant traits, but I wonder if there are also non-Protestant principles that similarly shaped the overall religious arena. Did the adaptation only flow in one direction?.
But these types of quibbles are inherent to the very task of synthesis, which Mullen readily acknowledges. This is a strong work with important insights. When most scholars are dedicated to destabilizing traditional frameworks, it’s refreshing to find someone dedicated to searching for a coherent whole. I look forward to the conversations that it prompts.