(And already, you know this will be long.)
In the context of the Reformation, “piety” is usually used to refer to the introspective, mystical, “heart religion” that emerged most profoundly among German Protestants in the seventeenth century, but also among the English Puritans. The Germans Jakob Boehme and Philip Spener, the Puritan Lewis Bayly, and the Anglican William Law are the important writers here. The two traditions, of course, were not independent; John Wesley owned books by all four of these folks. And he did not only read them; he _used_ them. These writers were not theologians, but pastors. Their works were devotional manuals. They contained not theory, but instruction on how to pray, to read scripture, to meditate; how, in short, to cultivate a personal relationship with God. About twenty years ago, Charles Hambrick-Stowe borrowed Bayly’s title and wrote a book called _The Practice of Piety_, detailing the elaborate patterns of devotion, of worship, of method by which Puritans sought to know their Father, and since, historians have used the term “piety” to describe these devotions. This is not pure theology, but a way of life; not doctrine, but the way to embrace of a loving God, and to feel that embrace returned.
And of course, conversion is the the birth of that relationship.
“Conversion” is a notoriously sticky word, even if we limit it to the religious, and within that, Christian, and within that, Reformed Protestant tradition. The Biblical Hebrew and Greek so translated generally mean something like “turn,” or “return.” In much of Christian theology, it has then not only to do with believing something, but also with, simply, being. Conversion is a change of mind, but also of spirit, a reorganization of the relational networks that we understand ourselves to be in, and even a reformation of our inclinations – those things that our instinct and desires foist upon us. It is a conscious, but also unconscious change. As St Augustine realized, to be converted was not merely to believe in God; rather, it was a series of steps that first began with exposure to knowledge of God, but was followed, by necessity, by knowledge of the self. The second was much more difficult than the first; we can accept God only in the abstract, but to know ourselves in the light of that knowledge is to know of our own fallen and incomplete state, to be aware how much we depend upon the Creator. Evangelicals call this often devastating movement conviction of sin. But, paradoxically, to be convicted is to be freed, to know of your weakness is to plead for God’s grace, and for Augustine, to find that he was no longer ruled by the concupiscence, or desire to sin, that had afflicted him before. Conversion brought him both awareness of sin’s foreignness, but also the spiritual strength to confront it. (Though to what degree remains a matter of debate.)
A sidenote: This is key. It is paramount to understand that ‘sin’ as St Paul and other great theologians speak of it, is not wrong action but rather that state of being which prods us to engage in wrong action. Conversion is a transformation of that state. Behaviors themselves, therefore, are secondary expressions, not primary causes. As St Paul asks, wondering why he wrongs others knowing that it’s not what God would have him do:
For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:18-20)
Conversion, then, is a regeneration of this corrupted nature. It is perhaps not its eradication (for Paul, of course, still struggles; a thorn rests in his flesh) but the gift of a new nature that saves from this bondage, and is derived of Christ.
You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. (Romans 8:9-10)
So: two questions, drawn from these above paragraphs. 1)what is conversion for the Mormons? and 2)how is it gained?
Eventually we’ll make it to Parley Pratt. Promise.
The archetypical model of the convert is of course Paul, whom God threw stricken to the dirt of the Damascus road. This overpowering religious experience translated his motivations, sense of morality, and even identity in the twinkling of an eye. Many Christians still privilege, or at least value, this sort of charismatic experience. The revivals of the First Great Awakening in the eighteenth century, among many Calvinist evangelicals and holiness Christians in the nineteenth, and in the spiritual eruptions of Pentecostalism in the twentieth all celebrated conversion as, to use Jonathan Edwards’s language, an outpouring of the grace of the Holy Spirit; or, in the dialect of modern Pentecostalism, the latter rain. Notice the words here; conversion and awakening are not sought or earned or gained. Rather, they come. Here is the echo of Calvinist sovereignty theology and the rigor of Puritan piety. It was conversion as an event unwilled by humans, and instead inflicted, as was Paul’s, by God. Critically, this sort of conversion changes our natures. It makes us something we are incapable of becoming on our own. It is not about acting in a new way, or believing something new – those are incidental effects of a much deeper reorientation of the soul.
These Christians craved such events, but believed they were not theirs to choose; their piety was rigorous, but also, to a certain extent, quietist. They believed in human depravity, and thus that salvation would come only and entirely through a gracious act of God, unearned. They prayed for revival, but ultimately placed their fate in the hands of the Spirit. They did know, however, the channels God had ordained for such experience; as Paul taught, “faith comes through hearing.” (Romans 10:17) God interacted with the world through the Word – the command of creation, the Incarnation of Christ, and the text of scripture. This was why the Bible was a book different from any other; it was why preaching replaced the Mass as the center of the liturgy.
And these convictions invented their piety. “Methodism,” like “Mormonism,” was originally a term of derision, for Wesley and his followers strove to rigorously, or even methodically, pattern their lives following the Word – the hours of their days were marked off by Scripture study, by prayer, and by worship. They desired nothing more than the possibility of a transcendent encounter with the Word, for it was to encounter the saving event embodied in Christ, and it was, if God so chose, to be reborn a Christian, a new person, elected to salvation, and birthed in the Holy Spirit. Conversion changed the Puritans’ natures as it did those of Augustine.
But in the ecstacies of the First Great Awakening lay the seeds of an alternative interpretation of conversion, that flavored not only by Methodist Arminianism (ultimately, the belief that the human will could play a role in its salvation), but by the developing contours of American psychology. The revivalist Charles Finney, who seized the pole position among American evangelicals in the 1830s, believed that human beings were fallen, but also that they were not incapable of accepting the mercy God held out to them. God held out personal regeneration to us; we had only to overcome our sinful natures enough take it. And we could know the truth upon hearing it; this was Common Sense theology. Depravity merely meant that we could not truly choose to do so unless our spirits were sufficiently pummeled. Thus, borrowing from the emotional techniques of the Methodists, Finney reconceived of the conversion event as an emotional choice that people had to be persuaded to make, under duress, if necessary. He thus stared at them with his creepy eyes, exhorted them to weep, called the converted to walk down the aisles and was willing to keep his listeners praying for spiritual manifestation in his tabernacles until late at night, all of which created a sufficiently emotional atmosphere that would invite the Holy Spirit to aid his listeners to the natural reticence of the sinner. This was piety as theatrical technique. (Kathryn Teresa Long’s The Revival of 1857-58 is an interesting study of the wrestling between advocates of these two notions of conversion.)
Finney, and many others influenced by Methodist theology, also amplified the effects of conversion, and ultimately developed a notion of “perfectionism” from a concept called “sanctification” that Wesley had toyed with. That is, as Finney and some of Wesley’s more radical followers eventually concluded, a convert could become so aligned with the Holy Spirit as to eradicate any trace of the sinner’s nature. This could be lost, but also gained. Some Calvinists bought into this were more hesitant, and preferred to speak of “covering” or “subduing” the sinful nature rather than destroying it. Such people were never the majority of American Protestants (and eventually became the parents of today’s Pentecostals) but we see in them perhaps the most dramatic confidence in what conversion could make of a sinner.
Many contemporary evangelicals still concieve of themselves as Finney-ites; Billy Graham and his children are the most famous. But a third conception of conversion Mormons might find relevant emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. The Congregationalist minister Horace Bushnell was among those who found Finney’s spin on the conversion-as-immediate-experience distasteful. Rather, Bushnell insisted that if Christians began bringing their children up correctly, they need never know that they were unsaved. Conversion, for Bushnell, was not an event but a process, a gradual weaning away from the selfishness of the natural man toward the faithfulness of the Christian. Thus, piety became domesticated, transformed from the rigorous religious practices of the Puritans toward the moral niceties of the Victorian class. Like Finney, he believed conversion was within human capabilities – that is, conversion is a process we can initiate. Unlike Finney, Bushnell actually minimizes the divine role at all. For Bushnell, Christians did not become such through the abrupt intervention of the Holy Spirit, but through, simply, acting as though they were Christians all along, bathing their lives in God’s grace, line upon line.
Now, which of these models seems most particularly Mormon? This is a more complicated question than it might seem. Mormons tend not to speak of “conversion” as a sort of divine intervention that changes our natures. Conversion, for Mormons, is not the immediate transformation of the fallen soul, but the choice we are all capable of making, given the evidence of the spiritual experience. The Bible Dictionary defines it as the “conscious acceptance of the will of God,” citing Acts 3:19.* Our wills work in tandem with the Holy Spirit; faith is the result of seeking spiritual experience, which experience in turn produces increased confidence in the Spirit, which in turn produces increased spiritual experience. The Preach my Gospel missionary manual speaks of “the witness of the Spirit,” quoting Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve: “”When individuals feel the Spirit working with them, or when they see the evidence of the Lord’s love and mercy in their lives, they are edified and strengthened spiritually, and their faith in him increases.” (93) In this, Mormons would side with Finney against Edwards, though they might find his methods distasteful, preferring the decorum and optimism about human capability that Bushnell offers. And as in Bushnell, there’s little sense of the radical regeneration of a depraved human soul in Mormon language about conversion.
And this is where Parley Pratt might help. Here is what Mormons would generally call his conversion experience.
I opened [the Book of Mormon] with eagerness, and read its title page. I then read the testimony of the several witnesses in relation to the manner of its being found and translated. After this, I commenced its comments by course. I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.
As I read, the spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows he exists. My joy was now full, as it were, and I rejoiced sufficiently to more than pay me for all the sorrows, sacrifices, and toils of my life.
Parley’s is a paradigmatic Mormon conversion experience. It is how things are supposed to work, based, of course, on the claim of the text itself (Moroni 10, of course) and the way Mormons have applied it since; Pratt’s is the model missionaries are taught to pursue with potential converts. As Preach My Gospel instructs, “Reading, pondering, and praying about the Book of Mormon are critical for an enduring conversion,” and “The honest seeker of truth will soon come to feel that the Book of Mormon is the word of God.” (38) But, in light of the way too many words I just wrote, I want to make some observations about what precisely Mormon conversion is.
First, Pratt’s conversion would have sounded entirely typical to an evangelical of the early nineteenth century. It was an encounter with the word as the Word; scripture as the medium of God’s grace. Many evangelicals treated – and still treat – the Bible as a tool of devotion in the same ways Mormons treat the Book of Mormon; studying it, praying about it, speaking of it as a miracle and evidence of God’s benevolence. And finding it a revelation of God.
What might startle Pratt’s evangelical contemporaries was that his experience was less an encounter with the Christ of the Atonement than it is the acquisition of knowledge about the truth of the book itself. He does not report that his experience assured him of his salvation, but rather that it convinced him of a particular metaphysical truth. His conversion was, then, _not_ of a type that evangelicals like Edwards or Finney presented; for them, Parley’s truck would have lurched to a stop halfway. This was not a regeneration, but rather, a coming to knowledge. Parley had learned of the true nature of God’s cosmos, but his own soul had not been reborn. This forces us to reconceive, perhaps, what conversion exactly is to Mormons, and how we talk to evangelical Protestants about it.
All Christians believe that conversion is a process, really; the difference is what parts of that process one compresses and what parts one speeds up. For evangelicals, the moment between the conviction of sin and the reception of grace can be but a breath; the lifelong struggle is the progression toward sanctification. For Mormons, as Pratt demonstrates, conviction has always already occurred; all human beings have what Mormons call the light of Christ, or what Methodists call prevenient grace, setting in them a hunger for the truth. The moment of contact, therefore, is not the plunge into despair followed by the glory of relief that the evangelical conversion is, but rather, a sense of homecoming, and a call to the new life that this knowledge brings. This, more than anything, illustrates the full extent to which Mormons repudiated from the very beginning the depravity of humankind.
Finally (at last), I want to point out one more interesting fact about Mormon piety. In 1737 Jonathan Edwards wrote A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, a work which, along with his later The Life of David Brainard, laid the patterns of evangelical piety – how conversion looked when it happened to people. Pratt’s narrative, along, of course, with Joseph Smith’s own narrative of his search for knowledge of the divine, gave Mormons their own models. And unlike Edwards’s work, which closely tracked the Reformed theology as it manifested itself in the lives of the believers of Northampton, Massachusetts, Smith and Pratt provided in their lives not doctrine, but stories which their followers imitated. Mormon piety, I would argue, is about modeling, and imitation, replication of the behavior experiences of preceding generations in hopes of gaining similar results. It’s why works like Lucy Mack Smith’s history of her son, the Autobiography, and the countless life chronicles that spew forth from the pen of Sheri Dew sell at Deseret Book; it’s why we already had three or four Mormon produced biographies of Joseph Smith before Fawn Brodie first walked into Church Archives; heck, it’s why Joseph’s own autobiography is canonized. The Mormons are not seeking cheap inspiration here; they’re reading how Parley and Joseph and Gordon B. Hinckley and Neal Maxwell were converted to understand how they themselves can be also.
*This does not strike me as the most definitive citation; the verse reads ” Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” But then, that’s how everybody uses Scripture.