Book Review: Lincoln Mullen–The Chance of Salvation

By December 14, 2018

Lincoln A. Mullen, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017).

In The Chance of Salvation, Lincoln Mullen argues that nineteenth-century religious conversion fundamentally changed American religion. Conversion, Mullen argues, made religion a forced choice for Americans rather than ethnically inherited tradition. Mullen’s conversion history is a creative study that should change both American Religious History and provoke Mormon historians to further analyze early Mormon conversion. Moreover, Mullen peppers The Chance of Salvation with mini-biographies of converts and clear prose. The Chance of Salvation should stand as an important piece of scholarship, and a pleasure to read.

The argument that conversion turned religion into a forced choice rather than ethnically inherited tradition has historiographic importance. Scholars often remember the Second Great Awakening as (at least partially) a product of disestablishment—religious groups flourished because missionaries had to persuade potential proselytes since the state did not allow for the political preference of one religion. Some historians and sociologists instead pin the development of individual religious autonomy after World War II as a facet of increased immigration and modernization. Conversion, Mullen argues, synthesizes these narratives by focusing on the development of the forced nature of religious choice. In doing so, the proliferation of religions in the Second Great Awakening reflected a burgeoning cultural inheritance of religion-as-choice whereas the pluralism seen after World War II demonstrates the entrenched nature of this religion-as-choice in twentieth-century America. A history of religious conversion also helps explain America as simultaneously more religious and more secular.[1] Overall, conversion helps reduce the “jack-in-the-box” sporadic narrative of religion in American history.[2]

The Chance of Salvation follows conversion narratives among six different communities. (Seemingly) white Protestant converts during the Second Great Awakening printed stories of immediate conversions that followed a “sinner’s prayer.” A web of print helped distribute tracts that prescribed conversion in stages for readers: reading biblical prayers, adopting those prayers, feeling immediate repentance, and experiencing grace.[3] These tracts used agentive language that helped readers understand conversion as an experience within their control, which helped instantiate religion-as-choice. Cherokee converts instead “translated” Christianity into language and symbolism resonant with Cherokee cosmology. Mullen’s use of sources related to translation, here, is one creative way to read against the grain of largely Moravian, Baptist, and Methodist colonialist-missionary voices to find historical agency for a community whose narratives remain largely unheard. Conversion, too, became translated into a context of religion-as-gift.

African-American converts, Mullen argues, experienced conversion in the context of slavery and emancipation. African-American spirituals rendered conversion into eschatological and hopeful song. Slave time represented secular time, and emancipation rejected this secularity which placed African-American converts into sacred time. Jewish converts entered Judaism through a bathing ritual called “mikveh.” However, the contested nature of Jewish social citizenship in America meant that Americans perceived Jewish converts with an eye of suspicion. Catholic conversion attracted those who rejected the sect system altogether. Mullen states, “Many Catholic converts found the central characteristic of American religion—its multiplicity, its pluralism—incompatible with the expression of their faith.” They instead experienced a “yearning for catholicity,” or a desire for religion to be all-inclusive rather than denominationally exclusive. Consequently, Catholic converts did not need to be rebaptized in order to become Catholic.

Mullen devotes a chapter in his book to early Mormon conversion. One of the strengths of the chapter is the American historical context that Mullen places Mormonism into. Mormonism was a marginalized religious offshoot with distinctive origins and new revelation or interpretation of the Bible, much like Shakers, Black Israelites, the Oneida Community, and Kingdom of Matthias the Prophet. Yet, Mormonism was specifically restorationist and espoused the revival of a primitive church. A primitive gospel, Mullen writes, led converts to see “themselves as returning to the epitome of the religion to which they already belonged—a familiar rather than a foreign faith.”[4] Next, Mullen walks through the varying accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision and argues that they provided a blueprint for Mormon converts because of their emphasis on choice. Earlier accounts, though, mirrored Protestant conversion narratives because they more strongly emphasized Smith’s feeling of personal forgiveness. I wondered about the distribution of the First Vision among early Mormons, which might hedge its importance as a model for early conversions. One way that future studies might address the importance of the First Vision for lay conversion experiences would be to trace the printed media which contained Smith’s conversion narratives and compare them with personal descriptions of conversion experiences. Doing so will help determine which other texts, Parley Pratt’s Voice of Warning might be another prescriptive conversion text, might have influenced lived experiences. Mormon conversion,much like the prescription model of the First Vision, was institutionally-driven. One of Mormonism’s structural strengths, according to Mullen, is that the religion required converts to continually choose to remain Mormon in the face of persecution. Yet, a hidden implication of this continual choice-making and adult baptism is that converts “also retained the ability to later reject the gospel.”[5] Missionaries brought converts into millennial and sacred time while encouraging the migration to sacred space through in-gathering.

Mullen incisively outlines a new narrative in American religious history. That narrative should prompt us to ask new questions. The history, for the most part, follows converts to institutional religions. Conversion accounts to specifically non-institutional religions might provide a helpful counterpoint to the study. How did Spiritualists, for example, interact with this conversion history? Counterexamples like this might reveal limits to the pervasiveness of Protestantism’s influence on conversion.[6] Likewise, the thematic nature of conversion narratives is triumphant—they are stories of the success of entering a religious community. As such, historians need to be careful not to miss the nuances and multiplicities of conversion experiences that do not fit within a triumphant and successful narrative. What happens to the history of conversion if we consider such a history in terms of conversion careers?[7] Does switching between traditions carry over any elements of conversion narratives between these traditions? How should historians make sense of the, admittedly few, deconversion narratives in nineteenth-century America? Lastly, this narrative implies that religion-as-choice wins out against traditionally-inherited ethnic religion. When, largely, did this happen? How did immigrants and the native-born encounter religion-as-choice? In what ways did ethnic religious traditions incorporate religion-as-choice into their communities, symbolism, and theologies? How, exactly, might this contest/contribute to theories of secularization? These are questions that The Chance of Salvation prompts us to ask in future studies.

[1]Lincoln A. Mullen, The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America(Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2017), 7–15.

[2]Jon Butler, “Jack-in-the-Box Faith: The Religion Problem in Modern American History,” Journal of American History 90, no. 4 (March 1, 2004): 1357–78.

[3]For Protestant print networks, see Candy Gunther Brown, The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004). I’m using “web of print” from David J. Whittaker, “The Web of Print: Toward a History of the Book in Early Mormon Culture,” Journalof Mormon History 23, no. 1 (1997): 1–41. Web of print is my shorthand,Mullen uses other language.

[4] Mullen, The Chance of Salvation, 135.

[5] Mullen, 151.

[6]For an eighteenth-century study of the spread of Protestant conversion narratives, see Douglas L. Winiarski, Darkness Falls on the Land of Light: Experiencing Religious Awakenings in Eighteenth-Century New England., Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

[7]See James T. Richardson, ed., Conversion Careers: In and Out of the New Religions (Beverly Hills: Sage Publications,1978), Lewis R. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), and Henri Gooren, Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010) for provocative models of understanding conversion careers.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Cultural History Historiography


  1. The historiographical situating was really helpful for me. Thanks, Jeff!

    Comment by J Stuart — December 14, 2018 @ 10:39 am

  2. Thanks Jeff. Great analysis and I’ll want to look at this.

    Comment by Terry H — January 2, 2019 @ 9:16 am

  3. I certainly appreciate you taking the time to acknowledge my. Great Aunt. I am her neice from Mississippi My grandfather was Alice Snow son .and I share some of the same scars as well I am honored and so pleased at your edification.

    Comment by LaToya Snow — January 3, 2019 @ 4:09 pm


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