Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.10.17

Calvin B. Kendall, Oliver Nicholson, William D. Phillips, Jr., Marguerite Ragnow (ed.), Conversion to Christianity from Late Antiquity to the Modern Age: Considering the Process in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Minnesota Studies in Early Modern History.   Minneapolis:  Center for Early Modern History, 2009.  Pp. ix, 449.  ISBN 9780979755903.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by B. N. Wolfe, Wolfson College, University of Oxford (

The broad scope of the work under review is apparent already from its title. As a collection of papers presented at a May 2001 conference, it makes no attempt at comprehensiveness; its value is instead found in the wide-ranging selection of periods, areas, and approaches. Not only is this selection exceptionally interesting and intellectually stimulating, but the essays individually are well-written and thoroughly enjoyable. This combination means that ‘Conversion to Christianity’ will be appreciated by scholars in many different fields.

The Introduction (by C. Kendall) begins by describing how the word ‘conversion’ can be used in two related senses when describing a personal occurrence. The first, in William James’ words, is ‘to be regenerated, to receive grace’ (quoted on p1): It is to pass from an unfulfilled state within one belief system to a fulfilled one. The second sense is perhaps the more common, where an individual replaces one belief system with another (or, rarely, acquires a belief system for the first time). Historical instances of large group conversions are made up of many cases of personal conversion in the second sense.

Much longer and more theoretical than the Introduction is F. Fernández-Arnesto’s Prologue, ‘Conceptualizing Conversion in Global Perspective: from Late Antique to Early Modern’. His opening observation that Christian history can be read either optimistically or pessimistically is welcome: The pessimist, whom he recommends, is pleasantly surprised by the great success of Christianity, and its constant appeal in the ancient, medieval, and modern world. The Christian optimist, by contrast, must be disappointed by the superficiality of much Christian belief, the incomplete evangelization of the world, the co-options and the failures. Fernández-Arnesto suggests that the disparity between these readings is largely explicable by the mass conversions of peoples and nations being held to the heroic standard of exemplary, individual converts. He further suggests that an arc may be traced in Christian conversion strategies, which begin with a concentration on individual converts, but gradually shift to a focus on elite conversions leading entire groups into the faith. That strategy climaxes in the high Middle Ages, before returning equally gradually to an emphasis on individual evangelization. While this arc likely conveys a historical truth about how conversion proceeded, it is open to question how much strategy accounts for the pattern, as opposed to responses to outside forces. As will be seen in the further summaries, this is very much a non-theoretical book, and although one may see why the editors chose (or were required by the publisher) to include this chapter, it remains somewhat out of place. On top of this, statements such as ‘It is rationally impossible to believe, for instance, in a king converted by the sight of a cross in the sky; or of [sic] a former persecutor by a temporary visitation of blindness, on the model of St Paul…’ must come as a surprise to the majority of those interested in Christian conversion. What ‘rationally’ means here is unclear. Reason certainly argues against the historicity of some cases of supernaturally-sparked conversion, on grounds of derivativeness, lateness of attestation, and so forth. Perhaps it even argues against all such cases as we have them. There are unquestionably, however, entirely rational people whose fundamental assumptions do not make believing some such cases impossible. The prologue concludes with comparisons to Islam and other religions.

The first contribution to the main body of ‘Conversion to Christianity’, set in Late Antiquity, is Oliver Nicholson’s ‘Constantinople: Christian City, Christian Landscape’ (Chapter One). Beginning with the 4th century, Nicholson discusses how the pre-Christian landscape of the Roman Empire was not religiously unaffiliated or neutral, but rather suffused with pagan shrines and significance. Although this was as true of the Hellespont as anywhere, Constantinople was dedicated to the Christian God from its foundation. The chapter treats the civic-religious life of a pagan city, and describes how Christian processions and buildings created a similar synthesis. The accounts of the doings of heroes and gods in the area were replaced by tales of the mighty struggles of stylite saints and ascetics. Nicholson does not neglect the quasi-pagan elements of Constantine’s city, but rejects the description of ‘syncretism’, preferring instead to view them in the context of Lactantius’ appropriation of oracles, and other such organized, intellectual assimilation. A particularly strong point of the chapter is its emphasis on Constantinople as not just uniquely Christian, but uniquely imperial, lacking a local powerbase of landowners, and dependent upon imperial organization for its grain intake.

Chapter Two, ‘Pagans and Christians in Late Antique Aphrodisias’ by L. Herbert details the survival into the late 5th century of a important civic cult of Aphrodite, centred on a temple subsequently converted into a cathedral. The chapter sets out both the historical and archaeological record of the settlement and place of worship, focussing especially on the turning point in the late 5th century when Christianity seems to have been accepted by the civic elite.

Chapter Three, by R. D. Young, is entitled ‘The Conversion of Armenia as a Literary Work’. Young argues that the histories of the first importation of Christianity into Armenia are characterized by anachronism, that is, by importing the 5th-century situation into the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Thus, the hagiography of Gregory the Illuminator is assimilated to the later story of Mashtots, and Armenian vernacular Christianity is read backwards into the earliest period.

In Chapter Four, ‘Modeling Conversion: Bede’s “Anti-Constantinian” Narrative of the Conversion of King Edwin’, C. B. Kendall assumes that the Venerable Bede had pastoral motives in addition to historical ones in writing his ‘Ecclesiastical History’, and was ‘aware of the problem both of achieving and of representing genuine conversion’. These factors led him to construct a new model of top-down conversion contrasting with that offered by Constantine, one that was ‘sensitive to political necessities, social realities, and the varieties of individual experience’ without neglecting the individual element in coming to belief in God. Kendall collects Bede’s references to Constantine, and suggests a negative or even dismissive attitude; he also alludes to other conversion stories in Bede’s text. The centrepiece of Kendall’s argument, however, is the famous account of the conversion of King Edwin (chapters 9-14 of Book II of the ‘Ecclesiastical History’). The story of the sparrow flying through the hall is well known, but Kendall points out that this is just one of three ‘conversion stories’ Bede recounts for Edwin, and shows how taken together, they portray the complexity of Edwin’s decision: His own doubts and hesitations, his motives, and his political manoeuvres.

Chapter 5, by C. Aggeler, is entitled ‘A Path to Holiness: Hagiographic Transformation and the Conversion of St. Guthlac’. St Guthlac was not born a saint (although he was baptized as an infant), but only after a career as warband leader became a monk and then a hermit. His life is recounted in numerous sources in Latin and Old and Middle English. Aggeler suggests that the differences in these accounts can be related to ‘differently-situated communities in medieval England’. The chapter focuses on the oldest Latin life of the saint (c. 730), an Old English poem, the Guthlac Roll (a c. 1200 ‘comic strip’ life of the saint), and a Middle English life. Aggeler is very subtle in noting differences of emphasis among these accounts, and in showing how they exhort the reader to different kinds of spiritual renewal in himself, with the exception of the Guthlac Roll, which presents the sainthood of the protagonist as unattainably distant.

Chapter Six is ‘The Coming of Christianity to Rus: Authorized and Unauthorized Versions’ by J. Shepard. The authorized versions are the thoroughly Constantinian accounts of Rusian churchman Ilarion’s ‘Sermon on Law and Grace’ from the 1040s, and the Rus ‘Primary Chronicle’, compiled later. Although they differ in many respects, both present Prince Vladimir as the principle agent of conversion. Shepard uses archaeology as well as Arab and Byzantine sources to show that Rusian interaction with Christianity was much older than this period, and included significant Norse influence neglected by the pro-Byzantine authorized version. Shepard also argues that despite their own rhetoric, the Byzantine government did not wholeheartedly seek the conversion of barbarian nations. Rus, in the conversion period, is depicted by Shepard as thoroughly multi-religious, with Christian, Muslim, pagan (Slavic, Norse) and Khazar-Jewish components.

‘The New Constantinianism: Late-Antique Paradigms and the 16th-Century Strategies for the Conversion of China’ is the seventh chapter, by P. Provost-Smith. Its focus is the fascinating and wide-ranging debate within the Jesuit Order about the preconditions to the conversion of China. The arguments on both sides were exceedingly complex, drawing upon the theology of St Augustine, the knowledge that the seal of the church’s Roman success had been Constantine’s conversion and legitimization, but also profound disquiet about using coercion or the state to aid evangelization. Some Jesuits argued for the outright conquest of China by Spain, but given the results of such conquest in the New World, this was bitterly opposed by others. Of course, the potential linkage between Iberian expansionism and Christian evangelization occurred to the Chinese as well, and formed a perception which Matteo Ricci, a key participant in the debate, and one of the few missionaries admitted to China, long combated. This chapter is one of the best in the collection, and defies summary.

Chapter Eight, ‘Conversion, Engagement, and Extirpation: Three Phases in the Evangelization of New Spain, 1524-1650’ is by J. Schwaller. The three phases are characterized as ‘Conversion by Example’, in which Franciscan friars sought to live inspirationally as the apostles. This phase came to an end when a prominent convert was discovered still to be worshiping the pagan gods. ‘Intellectual and Cultural Engagement’ followed, during which time first Spanish catechetical and devotional works were translated into Nahual (the language of the Aztecs or Mexica), and then friars with exceptional linguistic skills, notably Bernardino de Sahagún, began composing new materials in the native language. Schwaller shows that Sahagún used stock phrases and forms borrowed from Aztec religious language to express Christian stories, paralleling for example the arrival of the first missionaries in Mexico with the Nahual creation myth. The third phase, ‘Identification and Excision of Idolatry’, saw the development of tools to prevent and identify backsliding in the native population, such as Nahual confessional guides, and records of charms and incantations associated with the old religion.

Chapter Nine, by J. Koegel, covers ‘Music and Christianization on the Northern Frontier of New Spain’. It describes the nature and use of music in the northern missions of New Spain, based upon inventories of instruments such as organs, guitars and violins, and records of natives trained to sing. The missionaries sought to replace native customs of dance and song, which they related to paganism.

Chapter Ten, by J. Tueller, is entitled ‘Networks of Conversion: Catholic Congregations in the Marianas Islands, 1668 to 1898’. Tueller describes the circumstances of the conversion of Guam, before looking at the social networks that strengthened and were strengthened by Christianity’s role on the island. Already at an early point in the conversion, note is made of native parents thoroughly instructing their children in doctrine; later organizations like the laywomen’s Congregation of the Most Holy Mother of the Light provided spiritual and moral support. The chapter concludes with evidence from personal names.

The Epilogue, ‘Conversion in Retrospect’ by J. Headley, fulfills the traditional role in an essay collection of summarizing and relating the various contributions, and identifying strands that run through the book. Headley chooses the model of conversion exemplified by Constantine and ‘the acculturation of the civilizational component within the religious system’ as the themes to be emphasized.

The work as a whole is to be recommended to anyone interested in historical events of conversion. Its breadth and diversity will suggest new approaches and possibilities across disciplines and periods. As a collection of disparate essays, it cannot be called ‘essential’, but ‘Conversion to Christianity’ is certainly to be recommended to any scholar considering conversion in any historical period.

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