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Conversion & Community: Revisiting Modern Protestant Anxieties Over “Pietistic Conversion” in Light of Conversion Narratives From the First Great Awakening



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Mc Craw, Austin 


This thesis addresses modern protestant theological concerns with the notion of conversion by examining the operative theologies of conversion implicit in 18th-century anglophone conversion narratives. A number of modern protestant theologians have expressed significant worries over what is regularly referred to as “pietistic conversion.” This theological trope has come to represent problematically subjectivistic, individualistic, and mechanistic views of conversion within protestant theology. Theologians such as Herman Bavinck, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Jürgen Moltmann, Leslie Newbigin, John Stott, and J. I. Packer all warn of the influence of “pietistic conversion” in the popular theological imagination, particularly in connection to the circulation of first-person accounts of conversion experiences amongst Pietists and evangelicals. However, despite the routine assumption that such conversion narratives are often sentimentally distorted and theologically deficient, modern theological critics of popular theologies of conversion rarely engage directly with such texts. This thesis seeks to address this oversight.

Methodologically, this thesis engages with a representative set of twelve conversion narratives from the First Great Awakening in the 18th-century (a period that has proven particularly influential for later protestant ideas about conversion), putting them in conversation with modern protestant theologians, as well as with insights from discussions of conversion-like phenomena in recent critical theory. Chapter 1 demonstrates the existence of the modern protestant anxiety over “pietistic conversion,” outlines the various theological problems associated with the trope and proposes a method for reading 18th-century popular conversion narratives in light of contemporary theological concerns. Chapter 2 examines how the narratives navigate the objective-subjective binary, demonstrating that the notion of conversion implicit in the operative theologies of the narratives offers an integrative account of the relationship between “objective” divine realities and “subjective” feelings in experiences of “conversion.” Here assistance is drawn from literary theorist Rita Felski’s notion of “attunement.” Chapter 3 examines how the narratives resist simplistic readings as theologically individualistic, presuming instead a dynamic interplay between the convert and their community in conversion, in which the community is understood to mediate divine agency in complex ways. This chapter further explores how the narratives handle problems of “advocacy” within a non-competitive view of divine-human agency, demonstrating the layered and textured “distributed agency” presumed in the narratives, particularly in connection with the notion of divine “presence.” Chapter 4 explores how the narratives account for the possibility of manipulation in attempts to influence conversion, engaging also with a set of texts from the debate between Jonathan Edwards and Charles Chauncy over tactics used to help foster the kinds of conversion experiences typically associated with 18th-century revivals. It concludes by identifying several theological categories for navigating the distinction between mediation and manipulation.

In the end, this thesis challenges modern protestant theological anxieties associated with “pietistic conversion” by demonstrating that 18th-century conversion narratives, as highly influential works of popular theology, are more complex and nuanced than is often presumed, in order ultimately to offer in the Conclusion a fresh and contemporary angle on the notion of conversion from a theological perspective.





Zahl, Simeon


Conversion, Conversion Narrative, First Great Awakening, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Modern Theology, Pietism


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge