"Such a Means of Promoting His Work Amongst Us": Evangelicalism and Autobiography in Early American Conversion Narratives

Peltier, Kathryn Ann , Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Rust, Marion, Department of English, University of Virginia

In his 1736 defense of the Northampton awakenings, Jonathan Edwards wrote, "There is no one thing that I know of that God has made such a means of promoting his work amongst us, as the news of others' conversion" (Edwards "Narrative" 40). Twenty-first century American idiom, steeped in the vocabulary of post-colonialism, associates "conversion" with a dramatic change of religions (from Hinduism to Christianity), or at the very least a change of denomination (from Catholicism to Unitarianism); the conversions of which Edwards speaks, however, were quite a different matter. During the First Great Awakening (typically considered to have peaked in the late 1730s and early 1740s), "conversion" referred to the process of finding a spiritual connection to a doctrine already accepted by the intellect. According to Patricia Caldwell, who cites Edmund S. Morgan, the typical "'morphology of conversion'" included six steps: "'knowledge, conviction, faith, combat, and true, perfect assurance'" (Caldwell 164). If surviving texts are any indication, emphasis should perhaps be placed on "combat," although whether this is indicative of the actual conversion process or of the dramatic appeal of struggle is uncertain.

This website is intended to be an introduction to the evangelical conversion narrative as it developed during the years immediately preceding and during the First Great Awakening in America, including an anthology of six conversion narratives. The works surveyed here cannot be considered as wholly representative of the genre or period; they were chosen for both generic and chronological span, and illustrate the wide range of available uses and forms of conversion narrative during a critical period in the evolution of American religious, philosophical, and social history. What these works do illustrate, however, is the vast range of expressive modes available to narrators of conversion, and the wide array of uses to which their narratives were placed.

While my selection of narratives is chronologically and demographically balanced, with works drawn from a wide range of years and originating with a wide variety of people (all speaking with various degrees of authority over their texts), individual narratives illustrate several different attempts at balance. The "Chronology" section emphasizes the official use of conversion narratives by Puritan ministers, arguing that these narratives were crafted in attempts to balance between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace; meanwhile, the "Genre" section addresses the question of the individual speakers' relationship to these narratives, suggesting that however public their uses, they nearly always contained some discernible personal motive.

Although this is perhaps an unusually text-heavy site, I have constructed it with the intention of illustrating that the internet does not necessarily foreclose upon discussion of any topic for which multimedia resources are few. I have chosen to capitalize upon what I see as the web's greatest features: its accessibility, and the opportunity it presents for context. To that end, my site design intentionally guides the reader through each section, so that that context is reasonably controlled. Some of the narratives included herein are readily available; others, however, are somewhat obscure. My hope is that this site will provide a useful teaching tool to anyone seeking information regarding the origins of American evangelicalism, the first Great Awakening, and America's social, textual, or religious history.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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