[Today’s guest post comes from Jeff Turner, who recently completed a master’s degree at Claremont Graduate College where he worked with Patrick Mason in the Mormon Studies Program. This fall he will be a PhD student in history at the University of Utah.]
As far as I can tell, it’s been at least a year since JI has featured a post on conversion, which means that it’s time for us to take a trip back in our Delorean and uncover a topic that might be forgotten under a layer of dust.
Take, for example, two stories of two different English converts to Mormonism in the 1850s. First, in 1853, an Englishman attended his first Mormon meeting, encountered religious enthusiasm, and converted: “At this meeting, a testimony meeting, one young woman spoke in tongues and many of those present bore their testimony to the divine mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This was something new to us and had a great impression upon our minds as being the truth and reasonable… So we were then and there baptized by James Woods in the baptismal font of the chappel yard… We attended meetings as often as circumstances would permit and our minds began to be lit up by the Holy Spirit which caused our hearts to rejoice.”
Second, 100 miles away, another Englishman attended a Mormon meeting, encountered religious enthusiasm, and also converted to Mormonism: “In prayer meetings, I have heard men and women get up and talk an unintelligable mass of gibberish for three or four moments and then some one also would get up and profess to interpret the same.” Even in spite of this fakery our second convert continues, “After attending their meetings for sometime and becoming thoroughly infatuated with their preaching, I was baptized by immersion in the River Colne.”
When taken at face value, these recollections seem to point to similar events (Englishman attends meeting, bumps into religious enthusiasm, reacts, and converts). Scholars may even point to comparable economic factors, generational and traditional biases, and theological underpinnings as variables that predisposed these two converts to the Mormon message and led to the point of conversion. Others might suggest that Mormonism supplied the two with a unique opportunity that other religions couldn’t offer. A regional study could shed light on both ends of attraction for the two Englishmen; attempting to combine the answers to the questions: what predisposed these men to Mormonism? And what did Mormonism offer that other religions didn’t? That is, why Mormonism in particular? These are helpful questions with important methodologies that shed light on the nature of conversion in early Mormonism, and could shed light on our two seemingly similar situations.
But one story isn’t like the other, and employing any one of these methods might miss that fact. The world of Mormonism that our first convert inhabited was vastly different from the one that our second convert failed to remain in. One operated on external experiences, religious authority, and participation in a sacred community for religious truth-making while the other depended on reason, democratic values, and the pluralistic nature of truth and its hidden-but-accessible relationship with the universe. Although the comparison isn’t perfect, one convert might as well have been Hume and the other Descartes.
What, exactly, was the Mormonism that these two converts approached so differently? Studying early Mormon conversion as microhistory suggests that the freelance and ad hoc nature of early Mormon missions allowed for a diversity of conversion experiences. As a result, it seems likely that, for many early converts, Mormonism was a live option because of a variety of trivial and momentous reasons: some individual, some social.
Since multiplicity marks early Mormon conversion, we ought to employ various methodologies to study it; otherwise we run the risk of masking the above two conversion stories with superficial sameness. The question is: whither now, Mormon conversion studies? I look forward to the future avenues that our scholarly community ventures into.
 William Jex, autobiography, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2.
 Stephen Forsdick, autobiography, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 5.
 See, for example, Whitney Cross, The Burned Over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1950), Mario S. De Pillis, “The Social Sources of Mormonism”, Church History, 37 (1968): 50-79, and Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).
 John L. Brooke, The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and Val D. Rust, Radical Origins: Early Mormon Converts and their Colonial Ancestors (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004).
 Marianne Perciaccante, “Backlash against Formalism: Early Mormonism’s Appeal in Jefferson County”, Journal of Mormon History, 19 (1993): 35-63, Steven C. Harper, “Infallible Proofs, Both Human and Divine: The Persuasiveness of Mormonism for Early Converts”, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 10 (2000): 99-118, and Steven J. Fleming, “The Religious Heritage of the British Northwest and the Rise of Mormonism”, Church History, 77 (2008): 73-104.
 This is based on JI’s own Stephen Fleming’s historiographical framing in Steven J. Fleming, “”Congenial to Almost Every Shade of Radicalism”: The Delaware Valley and the Success of Early Mormonism”, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, 17 (2007): 129-64.
 Methodology that is best shown in Perciaccante, “Backlash against Formalism,” Polly Aird, “Why Did the Scots Convert?”, Journal of Mormon History, 26 (2000): 91-122, and Fleming, “”Congenial to Almost Every Shade of Radicalism.””
 David J. Whittaker, “The Web of Print: Toward a History of the Book in Early Mormon Culture”, Journal of Mormon History, 23 (1997): 1-41, Steven C. Harper, “Missionaries in the American Religious Marketplace: Mormon Proselyting in the 1830s”, Journal of Mormon History, 24 (1998): 1-29, and Polly Aird, “Without Purse or Scrip in Scotland”, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 39 (2006): 46-69.