The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America by Lincoln Mullen
Lincoln A. Mullen's The Chance of Salvation: A History of Conversion in America is not, on its face, a book about Jews. Rather, it is a book about the idea that religion is a matter of choice. This is a topic of considerable relevance to American Jewish history, and, fittingly, Mullen includes a chapter on Jews alongside others on Protestants, Native Americans, African Americans, Mormons, and Catholics. Prior to the nineteenth century, Mullen argues, religion was primarily seen as an [End Page 106] inheritance from one's family. Over time, however, religious voluntarism, combined with increasing religious diversity and evangelistic fervor, destabilized this idea, leading people to more seriously consider their options. The result, he argues, drawing on Charles Taylor, is secularism: "Even people who remain in the religion of their birth feel the obligation to respond to other possible religions, or the possibility of no religion" (6).
Mullen's story centers on a wide array of published and manuscript conversion narratives. He reads these, alongside other sources, very carefully, with attention to their patterns and conventions. Protestant narratives in particular relied upon formulaic sinners' prayers and chronicled familiar trajectories from religious dissatisfaction to investigation, resulting in conversion and eventually in the evangelization of others. Each chapter focuses on a theme significant to conversion within a particular group, although there are echoes and commonalities throughout. Mullen argues that Native Americans and African Americans who converted were not passive recipients of Christianity but made it their own. Mormonism and Catholicism were appealing to converts precisely because their primitivism and catholicity, respectively, offered solutions to the dizzying sectarianism of the day. We spend a lot of time in these chapters learning about differing theories of baptism, and throughout Mullen points to the significance of both conversion as a concept and of individual converts to religious communities.
Jews, too, became part of this nineteenth-century American milieu. The chapter on Jews is entitled "Sincerity" because, as Mullen argues, "conversion between Judaism and Christianity took on a peculiar cast, and its possibility received greater scrutiny and doubt than other types of conversions" (178). Conversion to Judaism was a matter of law and ritual, not spontaneous experience, and the evangelization of Jews, while of extra theological significance to Christians, was for Jews themselves negatively associated with a history of forced conversion. The result was that on each side of the conversion boundary there were concerns about ulterior motives, most notably sex and money.
Mullen gives a useful overview of efforts to evangelize the Jews, showing that Christians funded missionary societies targeting Jews, created missionary tracts for Jewish children, and even read historical fiction, like Ben-Hur, that featured Jewish conversions to Christianity. The evangelization of Jews was seen as desirable by evangelicals, but also by intellectuals like Hannah Adams, author of an important early work of comparative religions, and by Catholics, who listed three "Jewish rabbis" on a 1907 list of Distinguished Converts to Rome in America (224). Few Jews actually converted, but those who did were likely to become vocal Christian ministers. For instance, Max Louis [End Page 107] Rossvally, who converted after attending a church service, went on to found the Hebrew Christian Association in 1876. As the nineteenth century progressed, the question of conversion was increasingly shaped by the blurry boundaries between radical Reform Judaism and liberal Christianity, especially Episcopalianism and Unitarianism.
Mullen chronicles conversions out of Judaism, but also, valuably, conversions into Judaism. He writes of women who converted before or after their marriages to Jewish men and of intra-Jewish debates about the necessity of circumcision for adult male converts. We also learn the fascinating case of Warder Cresson, who converted to Judaism while serving as US consul to Jerusalem; upon returning home with sidelocks and a velvet kippah, his family tried (unsuccessfully) to seize his property, claiming that his conversion was an indication of insanity. Conversions were targets of suspicion by onlookers, but they could also become matters of doubt for converts themselves. Sarah Jane Picken Cohen converted to Judaism but eventually left it, along with her Jewish husband. Samuel Freuder was, "a jobless rabbi turned seminary student, then missionary, then colporteur or Bible salesman, then lecturer demonstrating the 'morning prayers of a Jew' before paying Christian audiences, then finally a missionary again, who turned into an anti-missionary Jewish publisher" (218).
Mullen seeks to offer a new synthesis of American religious history, and he succeeds in chronicling how a wide array of religious actors grappled with a central question. He includes a considerable number of women, although a more substantial treatment of how gender shaped conversion and conversion narratives would have been welcome, particularly in the chapter on Jews. The book's structure has the effect of raising unanswered questions across different groups. For instance, were Jewish-Christian conversions the only ones to raise questions of sincerity? Nonetheless, this book offers a welcome contribution to American Jewish history that could be fruitfully placed in conversation with recent scholarship on conversion in the European context by Todd Endelman and Ellie Schainker.
This work is also notable as part of a wider trend of including Judaism within broader thematic treatments of American religion. Tisa Wenger's Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideall (2017) and Ronit Y. Stahl's Enlisting Faith: How the Military Chaplaincy Shaped Religion and State in Modern America (2017) are two recent titles that also take this approach. This development is, to my mind, good for scholars of American Jews. It shows that there is an audience outside of Jewish studies for our scholarship, and, by offering context and comparison, it has the potential to deepen our own understandings [End Page 108] of Americans Jewish history. Mullen's book helps to show that American Jews' encounter with Christianity was not sui generis but was shaped by a broader culture in which inherited religion—for Jews, the primary means of religion—was, if not completed rejected, then seriously questioned.
Shari Rabin is assistant professor of Jewish studies and director of the Pearlstine/ Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture at the College of Charleston. Her book Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America (New York University Press, 2017) won the National Jewish Book Award in American Jewish Studies and was a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature.