Calvin B. Kendall
“Conversion” is a concept that is applied to two very different religious phenomena. One is the experience of being lifted from a lower to a higher level of spiritual harmony, of being “born again” in contemporary jargon. The person who undergoes this type of conversion is typically already a believer in the religion, but a dissatisfied or unhappy one. Conversion results in a state of exalted contentment. William James’ celebrated study of the psychology of religion concerns itself with this type:
To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the *process* [my emphasis], gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong, inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right, superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities.1
The other phenomenon to which “conversion” refers has to do with the replacement of one belief system by another. It applies to the individual who has been brought to abandon his or her old religion and to substitute for it a new and different one. Rarely is the movement simply from unbelief to belief. Like the first, this phenomenon involves a transformation of mentalités. The adoption of Christianity by whole peoples at different historical moments around the globe is, by and large, an aspect of this second type of conversion. These mass movements, to the extent that they were lasting, involved the collective transformation, to a greater or lesser degree, of individual consciousnesses. They represent the sum of the variety of religious experiences of the members of the group. The “conversion process,” as James calls it, can be discerned in the conversion of peoples as well as in individuals.
What precisely is meant by the conversion of a people to Christianity and how it can be measured are hotly debated topics. They have given rise to a proliferation of definitions and specialized terms -- e.g., “primary and secondary conversion,” “Christianization,” “evangelization,” “adhesion,” “assimilation,” and “syncretism” -- to account for different aspects of the process and its outcomes. Such terms register the ambiguities inherent in a transformation that was at once personal and collective, a matter of inner conviction and outward conformity, something that might be deeply felt or superficially accepted. With respect to the individual, the historical record rarely reveals much of the nature of the inward experience of conversion; in regard to peoples, what we speak of as conversion may refer to the formal acceptance of Christianity by rulers and/or elites, or the gradual spread of Christianity at the “ground level” or “from the bottom up” through contact with neighboring or indigenous Christianized peoples, in either case leaving the practices and beliefs of the silent majority deep in the shadows.2
The study of religious belief as a cultural construct has gained widespread popularity in recent years. Yet consideration of the larger cultural changes associated with Christianity often leave its religious aspects to one side, as in studies focused on the role of Christian belief in the spread of literacy, or the economic effects of turning a small market town into a popular pilgrimage site. Historical debates that do touch on the religious tend to focus on the nature and relationship of popular belief to state or official religion; recent studies specifically on conversion have been centered on Western Europe. Conversion to Christianity in the second sense is a phenomenon that recurs throughout the late antique, medieval, and early modern worlds and has had, in and of itself, a widespread cultural impact. Nevertheless, it is rare that the nature of the conversion process itself, the assumptions of the Christians, their missionary and/or military strategies, the attitudes and responses of the “pagans,” and the way conversion is remembered and utilized, become the focal point of study as it does in this volume. This seems shortsighted in a world where public and national ideologies are at core religious. Given the global nature of Christian conversion in the pre-modern world, there is ample justification for a comparative investigation of this phenomenon across time and space.
Although conversion in the first sense is a profoundly personal experience, this is not a study of transformative moments in the lives of exceptional individuals “on the road to Damascus.” As Felipe Fernández-Armesto observes in the Prologue, the central problem is “how individual conversion relates to mass ‘conversion’ or ‘the conversion of a people’.”3 Issues of change and continuity are central, whether the focus is on fourth- and fifth-century Constantinople, sixth-century Armenia, Anglo-Saxon England, medieval Rus, China or Mexico in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The conversion process is historically contingent. It cannot neatly be reduced to an atemporal formula. The modes and strategies of conversion employed in the global spread of Christianity from the time of the Anglo-Saxon missions to Germany in the Carolingian period to the Spanish Jesuit missions to the western Pacific in the seventeenth century and beyond varied widely. But the three-fold process adopted by Anglo-Saxon missionaries to northern Germany, which involved bringing the pagan to the “moment” of conversion, then leading the convert through understanding to entrance into the Christian community through baptism, and finally guarding the convert’s newly acquired faith by instruction in the teachings of the Church, may be taken, in a broad sense, as paradigmatic.4 Almost inevitably there is a period of preparation, a crisis when the tipping-point is reached, and finally a period of consolidation.
The concept of paganism is itself problematic; it suggests a monolithic body of superstitious practices undeserving of the term “religion.” In reality, most peoples that Christians faced on the frontiers where the struggles for conversion took place had well-established systems of religious belief. Similarly, the term “Christianity” tends misleadingly to imply a single, unchanging set of beliefs and practices, whereas it means different things in various places and times. When Christianity triumphed in a particular place and time, it cannot be assumed to have erased all traces of the pre-existing religion then or indeed ever. Pre-Christian survivals among the newly-converted groups modified the new religion in countless ways. We may speak of the co-optation or adaptation of paganism. Astute missionaries, while not regarding the problem in this light, made a practice of revealing the Christian significance of pagan beliefs by, for example, rededicating pagan holy places to Christian saints.
In the eyes of those effecting the change, missionaries and contemporary apologists, the conversion of a people from paganism to Christianity typically seemed analogous to the conversion of an individual -- something that occurred in a relatively short period of time with durable results. Their perceptions inevitably color our historical analysis. Archaeologists are disposed to find and tell a different story. The evidence on the ground is of continuity as much as change. Sculptures of mother goddesses were sometimes placed in the foundations of early Christian churches; there are examples of megalithic pillars that instead of being cast down were incorporated into or allowed to stand beside Christian churches. The belief systems of a people are deeply rooted and alter only slowly over time.
Evidence of the survival of Greco-Roman religious ritual well past the “moment” of Christian conversion can readily be found. In the ancient city of Aphrodisias in the heart of Asia Minor, the local elites continued to honor the cult of Aphrodite until late in the fifth century, long after the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as the state religion. The fate of pagan temples was in the hands of the Christian emperors, who vacillated according to the dictates of local circumstances and pressures between ordering their destruction and allowing them to be preserved as monuments to past glory. The conservative pagan aristocracy in Aphrodisias retained enough influence to be able to block the transfer of the Temple of Aphrodite to the Christian bishop. Only with the tardy conversion of the upper classes toward the end of the fifth century was the temple converted into a Christian basilica. And from that moment, evidence for the continuing existence of the pagan religion almost completely disappeared.5
The ordered, secure life promised by the Roman Empire proved in the long run illusory. One possible reason for the spread of Christianity in the second and third centuries was that it was able to provide a framework of ideas that explained the condition in which people found themselves, and provided hope for the future in a threatened world. The legalization of Christianity in the fourth century was a turning point in its history. The intersection of political imperium with theological authority had far-reaching consequences for future missionary efforts. The appeal of paganism was far from exhausted, and the old religion held on tenaciously, despite Christian persecution.6 Constantine’s city of Constantinople was a focal point of this fusion of religion and power into a new combination, utterly unlike, and transformative of, ancient religious beliefs and practices. The Christian appropriation of the landscape at Constantinople constituted a decisive preparatory step in conversion from the established cults of the classical world to the new religion. Precisely because it began as an imperial city, which owed little to the relatively small town that preceded it, Constantinople was more easily able to dispense with the local pagan observances that traditionally insured the safety and prosperity of the cities of the Roman Empire. Constantine himself was instrumental in effecting the transition to a new framework of distinctive Christian traditions.7
The “Constantinian model” associated success in battle with the adoption of the new religion. To many rulers, apologists, and missionaries, this was a more effective strategy for reaching the tipping-point than the gentle arts of persuasion. Violence is the persistent subtext of the narrative of the conversion of peoples to Christianity, and therefore of the essays in this volume. The earliest chroniclers of the conversion of the Rus under Prince Vladimir Sviatoslavich at the end of the tenth century explicitly regarded Vladimir as “the new Constantine,” approving his use of force and viewing him as the instrument of divine providence. As a result, the historical record, insofar as it is based on these sources, leaves the impression that the conversion was largely owing to the will of the individual ruler and that it happened at a definable moment in time. But evidence from Byzantine and Arabic literary sources and from archaeological investigations suggests that extensive contact between Byzantine Christendom and Rus merchants from as early as the ninth century, and numerous conversions among the Rus elite by the mid-tenth century provided a prolonged period of preparation, which complicates the impression of top-down conversion under the aegis of Prince Vladimir. 8
The ideology of force was by no means universally accepted. It aroused profound disquiet in the minds of some thoughtful Christians down the centuries. The Venerable Bede deliberately deflected the Constantinian model in order to set up a more spiritually-oriented model for royal imitation in his narrative of the conversion of King Edwin of Northumbria in the seventh century. Bede accepted the historical reality of top-down conversion among the Anglo-Saxon peoples, but with his clear-sighted commonsense he saw the need for individual reflection and community discussion -- the period of preparation -- if there was to be meaningful popular adhesion to the new religion.9
As late as the sixteenth century, the enduring tension between the Constantinian model and more pacifistic alternatives is reflected in the missionary tactics of Matteo Ricci in China, and in the quarrels of his Jesuit colleagues over a proposal championed by Sánchez to use force to open China to the permanent presence of Christian missionaries. The conventional historiographical view that Ricci pursued a classic top-down strategy of conversion, on the assumption that if the emperor converted his subjects would follow, distorts the historical record. Ricci was faced with the suspicion of the Chinese authorities that conversion would result in foreign political dominion or in dual loyalties to the Chinese emperor and to a Christian monarch. While Ricci strove to allay the fears of the Chinese, Sánchez was working to try to secure papal affirmation for Spanish rights to dominion in China. Ricci’s sometimes ambiguous maneuvers and his writings can be interpreted as part of an effort to resolve the tensions imposed by the millennium-old Constantinian model.10
In literary retrospective, which belongs to the consolidation phase, the narrative of conversion may begin as a developing memory, followed by the reinterpretation of the conversion story, and the development of dogmatic support for contested issues. Conversion is also an idea and a dream. As such, it can be appropriated for instrumental uses. Unlike the early Christian communities of the Mediterranean world, the Armenian Church did not emerge from Jewish roots, and therefore never developed an anti-Jewish polemic. Instead, out of hostility to the state-sponsored Zoroastrian religion of the Persian Empire to the south, elements of which had permeated Armenian religious practices, fifth-century Armenian literary authorities created a myth of a fourth-century conversion of the people in order to justify an indigenous national church. In an ironic reversal of historical reality, they projected the image of Armenian leaders of an ancestral religion defending themselves against foreigners, in the manner of the Maccabean revolt against Roman rule. The enduring result has been a unique case of a Christian people self-defined by their own Church and their own sacred language.11
The idea of conversion and the uses to which it was put changed over the course of time, as in England in the case of the Anglo-Saxon St. Guthlac, where it was shaped to suit the needs of different audiences, from the conflicted military interests of the aristocratic warrior class of early Anglo-Saxon England, to the desire for submission to God’s will of English monks at the time of the Benedictine reforms of the late tenth century, to the penitential concerns of lay audiences in the fourteenth century.12
Though Christianity at its inception was an Asian religion, large swaths of Asia, as well as Africa, remained immune or relatively so to its attraction. The dream of conversion inflamed the minds and distorted the judgment of Christian leaders in the latter part of the thirteenth century. They exaggerated the susceptibility of various Muslim, Jewish, and other peoples to the Christian gospel, and took measures to effect conversion that proved self-defeating. On the basis of optimistic reports of the readiness of Mongol leaders to convert, missionaries of the mendicant orders launched what appeared to be a promising missionary effort among the Mongols. However, in the face of a Mongol cultural inclination toward inclusiveness in religious matters and despite the absence of armed force to back them up, the missionaries rigidly insisted on the exclusive nature of Christianity -- believe in Christ or be damned. The success they anticipated never occurred.13
By the end of the fifteenth century, the dream of conversion had become a dominant motive in the exploration and colonization of the Americas. It lay behind Ferdinand and Isabella’s support for Columbus. The initial conversions of the native peoples in the New World occurred under circumstances as violent and coercive as those experienced by any peoples anywhere. Nevertheless, the Franciscan missionaries of New Spain (roughly Mexico and what is now part of the southwestern United States) were from the outset troubled by, and resistant to, the idea of forced conversion. The very existence of a centuries-long missionary effort implies a realization that meaningful conversion is best achieved and maintained by methods built on a sympathetic understanding of a people’s culture and an appeal to their senses. This is conversion from the bottom up rather than from the top down, and it necessitates a long period of preparation. The Franciscans grasped the importance of learning the native languages and of setting an example by their own conduct of the way of life they wanted to inculcate. Fr. Bernardino de Sahagún composed a number of texts in Nahuatl for the benefit of his fellow missionaries, and he drew upon native phraseology and habits of thought to express the teachings of the new religion.14
Another strategy effectively employed by the Franciscans in their conversion work along the northern borders of New Spain was the appeal of music -- that lure that St. Augustine famously agonized about, but finally approved.15 When they discovered that the natives had natural musical talents, both for instrument and voice, they imported a variety of kinds of musical instruments and incorporated both sacred and secular European music into the daily life of the northern missions. This proved an effective aid in attracting the natives to the missions and in bringing them to the tipping-point.16
The conversion of the Chamorros in the Marianas Islands in the western Pacific likewise began in the violence of Spanish conquest and was accompanied by a catastrophic decline in population as a result of the introduction of infectious disease. Nevertheless, the conversion proved enduring. An explanation for the long-term success of the Jesuit mission to the Chamorros can be found in new “dynamic social networks” created by the natives and the Jesuits alike in the wake of the cultural destabilization that followed the coming of the Spaniards. Traditional native beliefs and practices were assimilated to Catholic ritual. Like their Franciscan confreres in New Spain, the Jesuits recognized the importance of providing exemplary models of behavior to strengthen the attachment of converts to the new religion.17
In the Epilogue, John Headley offers new pairings and fresh insights. Like Fernández-Armesto, he observes that the subject of conversion has here been expanded from its traditional focus on the experience of the great religious personality to an engagement with the “social, political, and cultural dimensions of a community or an entire people.” And in contrast to Fernández-Armesto’s astringent pessimism, what Headley finds in the manifold successes and failures of the conversion process, its oscillations between violent coercion and gentle persuasion, the enduring conflict between potestas and caritas in the Constantinian model, is that Christianity “possesses at its best a unique and intrinsic commitment to the totality of humankind, which, since the seventeenth century has been increasingly recast theoretically into a largely secular register, most evident today, following the horrifying ravages of European imperialism, war, and exploitation, not simply in the global advance of Western science and technology but also in the continuing uncertain extension of the universal jurisdiction of humanity in programs of human rights to the peoples of the globe.”18
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: a Study in Human Nature (1902; rpt. New York, 2002), 210.
The literature on conversion is enormous. See, inter alia, Karl F. Morrison, Understanding Conversion (Charlottesville, 1992); Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity AD 200-1000 (1996, rpt. Malden, MA, and Oxford, 1997); Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (1997; rpt. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1999); on “primary and secondary conversion,” Simon Burnell and Edward James, “The Archaeology of Conversion on the Continent in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries: Some Observations and Comparisons with Anglo-Saxon England,” in St. Augustine and the Conversion of the English, ed. Richard Gameson (Stroud, UK, 1999), 83-106, at 83-4; on “conversion,” “Christianization,” and “syncretism,” Carole M. Cusack, The Rise of Christianity in Northern Europe, 300-1000 (London and New York, 1998), 15-23; on “evangelization,” Ian Wood, The Missionary Life: Saints and the Evangelisation of Europe, 400-1050 (Harlow, England, 2001); on three phases of “Christianization,” Wolfert Van Egmond, “Converting Monks: Missionary Activity in Early Medieval Frisia and Saxony,” in Christianizing Peoples and Converting Individuals, ed. Guyda Armstrong and Ian N. Wood (Turnhout, 2000), 37-45, at 38-39; on “assimilation,” Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries (New Haven, 1997), 103-49; on “syncretism,” Wood, The Missionary Life, 85; Ian N. Wood, “Some Historical Re-identifications and the Christianization of Kent,” in Christianizing Peoples, ed. Armstrong and Wood, 27-35, at 28-31; on “adhesion,” J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Early Germanic Kingship in England and on the Continent (Oxford, 1971), 28 and 71 n. 33.
Felipe Fernández-Armesto, “Prologue” of this volume, 14.
Marguerite Ragnow, “Bede, Boniface and the Anglo-Saxon Missions to the Continent, 690-754.” Paper presented to the “Conversion to Christianity: A Late Antique, Medieval, and Early Modern Phenomenon” Conference. Consortium for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Minnesota; Minneapolis, MN, May 2001.
Laura Hebert, “Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Aphrodisias,” chap. 2 of this volume.
MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism, 12-13 and 169 n. 37.
Oliver Nicholson, “Constantinople: Christian City, Christian Landscape,” chap. 1 of this volume; also published in The Making of Christian Communities in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Mark Williams (London, 2005), 27-47.
Jonathan Shepard, “The Coming of Christianity to Rus,” chap. 6 in this volume.
Calvin B. Kendall, “Modeling Conversion: Bede’s ‘Anti-Constantinian’ Narrative of the Conversion of King Edwin,” chap. 4 in this volume.
Patrick Provost-Smith, “The New Constantinianism: Late-Antique Paradigms and 16th-Century Strategies for the Conversion of China,” chap. 7 in this volume.
Robin Darling Young, “The Conversion of Armenia as a Literary Work,” chap. 3 of this volume.
Christian Aggeler, '”A Path to Holiness: Hagiographic Transformation and the Conversion of Saint Guthlac,” chap. 5 of this volume.
Peter Jackson, “The Mongols: A Case of Non-Conversion.” Paper presented to the “Conversion to Christianity: A Late Antique, Medieval, and Early Modern Phenomenon” Conference. Consortium for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Minnesota; Minneapolis, MN, May 2001. More recently, see Peter Jackson, The Mongols and the West, 1221-1410 (Harlow, England, 2005).
John F. Schwaller, “Conversion, Engagement, and Extirpation: Three Phases of the Evangelization of New Spain, 1524-1650,” chap. 8 of this volume.
St. Augustine, The Confessions 10.33.
John Koegel, “Music and Christianization on the Northern Frontier of New Spain,” chap. 9 in this volume.
James B. Tueller, “Networks of Conversion: Catholic Congregations in the Marianas Islands, 1668-1898,” chap. 10 in this volume.
John M. Headley, “Epilogue” in this volume, 362, 377-8.