Print historian

Imagine a photograph of a pile of pages, perhaps with a few glossy image reproductions and a cover letter, and a USPS envelope. Perhaps a few years ago I might have been able to take such a picture for this post. But without having to pay for postage, I’ve delivered the final revisions of my book manuscript to my editor before the end of December as agreed. The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2017. While there is still copyediting, proofreading, indexing and so on to be done, the book definitely feels like it is in the hands of the press and not my hands now.

Brainerd mission station
In lieu of a picture of the manuscript, here is an image of the Brainerd Mission Station of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Image from Penelope Johnson Allen research notes, correspondence, and photographs, Special Collections, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, MS-002-04-01-03-001.

If you want to know more about the book, here is an abstract.

In the nineteenth-century United States, thousands of people converted between religions, and many more faced the pressure to convert. These conversions changed the meaning of religious identity, as the explicit choices of converts forced an implicit choice of religion on others. Religion became less an identity to be inherited from family or community and more a choice that had to be warranted to oneself and justified to others. In the 1830s–40s, evangelical Protestants developed new theologies in response to revivals and mobilized those ideas in tracts. They created a new kind of conversion ritual, a “sinner’s prayer” which emphasized individual choice and made conversions more immediate. Protestants extended this kind of conversion in missions to the Cherokee and other Indian nations, yet Cherokee converts translated Christianity into their own language and accepted Christianity in the terms of a gift economy. Enslaved people and freedpeople developed their own form of conversion, based on eschatological passages from the Bible and crafted in contrast to slaveowners’ Christianity. Mormons called for people to turn to a restored Christianity and pressed home their claims with unusual missionary effectiveness, yet they sought to insulate their members from religious competition by a process of gathering in to their own Great Basin kingdom. Though evangelized more than any other group, Jews argued that Christians were literally buying converts and thus called into doubt whether any conversion from Judaism to Christianity could be sincere. Judaism also won converts from Christianity, proving to potential converts that Judaism could compete with Christianity within the denominational system. Competition between religious sects provoked thousands of converts to reject denominationalism and become Catholic. Because Catholicism recognized the validity of Protestant baptisms, new Catholics experienced conversion as a return from heresy to the unity of the church. Freethinkers, skeptics, and atheists found the multiplicity of religions a reason to abandon belief altogether, yet their presence, both real and imagined, persuaded other Americans of the need to convert and be converted. Infidelity removed the possibility that a religious identity could be a default. Because of conversions between religions, the United States became a place where everyone experienced religion as what William James called a “forced, living, and momentous” choice. This book thus explains why Americans change their religions so much, and why the United States is at once both highly religious and very secular.