- The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England
The Evangelical Conversion Narrative offers a stimulating 'biography of a genre' from its seventeenth-century origins through its decline in the nineteenth century, with emphasis on the conversion narratives of the eighteenth-century evangelical revival. Drawing on hitherto unexplored archival sources, D. Bruce Hindmarsh offers critical insight into the way that laity and clergy alike framed their spiritual lives in narrative form. The book traces the cultural changes that shaped the conversion narratives of this period, including technological and social change, [End Page 246] and the reasons why individuals turned to religious community as a means of shaping their lives. After a brief exploration of the early modern origins of the conversion narrative, Hindmarsh offers a useful exploration of the transatlantic evangelical revival in the 1730s, with an emphasis on 'how plastic religious identity had become by the mid-eighteenth century.' This chapter also argues for the social dimensions of conversion 'to stimulate parallel experience and allow the formation of a narrative community.'
Much of the book is given over to a consideration of how the doctrinal, cultural, and social differences between religious groups might have shaped the kinds of narratives produced by individual believers, whether the evangelical Presbyterians of the Cambuslang revival in Scotland, moderate Calvinists within the Church of England, or Moravians. Hindmarsh's rich account covers a wide cross-section of people in the period, in large part because of his impressive work with archives and primary sources. As one example among many, he recognizes the 'special significance' of a collection of letters to Charles Wesley in the John Rylands Library, which contains 'the diverse testimony of women and men, those literate and barely literate, and persons of higher and lower ranks in society.'
Hindmarsh offers powerful analysis of the interaction of self and community in the period, noting that conversion narratives were 'located at the cusp of modernity but also sharing all the assumptions of a fading Christian hegemony,' thus involving 'both creativity and discovery, both individuation and discovery.' With this expansive understanding of life narratives, it is regrettable that Hindmarsh does not draw on contemporary life-writing theorists who work on 'relational autobiography' (such as Paul John Eakins, Richard Freadman, and Nancy K. Miller), although he uses classic theorists of individualistic autobiography (such as Georges Gusdorf and James Olney) very effectively. Any scholar of the eighteenth century might productively consult this book as an alternative to secular Enlightenment models of the self. In writing the 'biography of a genre' Hindmarsh takes on a challenging task. With historical sensitivity, deep research, and engaging writing he brings to life not just the conversion narrative genre but the thousands of people who turned to it to recount their experiences.