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Religious Conversion Across Cultures


Editor's Introduction. A Working Typology of Cross-Cultural Religious Interaction

David Lindenfeld


     No one would deny the importance of religion as an engine of cross-cultural interaction and transformation. The very currency of the term "world religion" indicates the universally acknowledged global impact of religion in world history. Yet teaching religion in the schools as part of world history—especially in the modern period—can be difficult and sensitive, precisely because it touches on what countless people regard as sacred and therefore not up for discussion. For many American students, particularly Christians, the topic of religious conversion may well fall into this category—especially when faced with the negative and often stereotypical portrayal of Christian missionaries that one finds among respected fictional writers such as James Michener and Barbara Kingsolver.1 Yet it is hard to imagine any thorough historical treatment of cross-cultural religious interaction without a consideration of conversion in some form or other. One way around this problem is to suggest that conversion is, so to speak, a coat of many colors, taking many different forms in different parts of the world and, for any one actor at any one time, multidimensional and fascinating. One can do this, I think, without impugning the validity of any particular belief regarding conversion and its ultimate worth. The present collection of articles seeks to contribute to this unfolding.

     The term "conversion" derives from Judeo-Christianity, where it is defined as "turning", indicating a radical transformation of one's beliefs or identity (there is no terminological equivalent to it in Islamic discourse).2 But how this transformation occurs is subject to a great variety of conditions—whether we think of it as a sudden numinous experience, as Paul had on the road to Damascus, or a gradual process over an extended period of time, as expressed in a conversion narrative (sometimes, as with the Southern Baptists, given as testimony before a congregation). Conversion can take place at the individual level, but also can occur collectively—as when Dr. B.R.Amdbedkar, an Indian Dalit (Untouchable), led some half a million of his fellow outcastes to renounce Hinduism in favor of Buddhism on 14 October 1956. If one thinks that a conversion must be sincere, "from the heart," recall that it can also be coerced, as happened to the African slaves that were transported to the Portuguese, Spanish, and French colonies in the new world.

     In his comprehensive and insightful study, Understanding Religious Conversion, Lewis Rambo devotes special attention to the role of what he calls "the advocate", someone who urges conversion upon others.3 This suggests that in many, though not all, conversions there is a transaction between a proselytizer and a potential convert or group of converts. As our papers suggest, not all proselytizing religions have missionaries per se; merchants and mystics, among others, may take on that role. Nevertheless, imagining conversion as an artificially simplified encounter between two parties may help us to begin unpacking the complexities of the phenomenon by focusing on the question of agency. For it becomes immediately clear that "proselytizer" and "proselytized" do not simply translate into "active" and "passive". Both parties are active, and both will likely be changed by the encounter. Rare is the missionary who goes abroad and comes back the same person, as that irreverent musical The Book of Mormon points out. And the potential convert is obviously not a blank slate, but brings a whole host of prior habits, beliefs, and spiritual practices to the table. The result is typically a combination of indigenous and foreign practices that often goes under the label "syncretism." Again, the specific types of combinations under this term can be quite varied. So it may be more fruitful to view conversion—as well as syncretism—as involving a set of changing strategies employed by each side, strategies that one can find in more complicated situations as well.

     One tool for understanding and making sense of the variety of strategies that one finds in conversion situations is to develop a typology, such as the one presented here. This typology was developed inductively from my research into missionary encounters from the indigenous perspective, i.e. typically that of the convert or potential convert.4 I think many of these categories can be applied to the proselytizing side as well.5 Let me first, however, make a few disclaimers about what this typology attempts to do or not do. First, as a typology of strategies it is not a taxonomy of societies or religious movements in themselves. Any society or religion is too complex to be reduced to any one or two of these, but its members will employ different ones as the situation warrants, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes successively. Second, it is not meant to imply a narrative, say of stages from one type to another (in this it differs from Rambo's conceptual approach). Rather, it is simply an attempt to enrich our vocabulary. Hopefully, it can thereby provide a set of building-blocks, so to speak, out of which meaningful narratives may be constructed.

  1. Condemnation/Resistance—. Proselytizers can easily condemn the society they are seeking to change or fail to understand it. Conversely, resistance to conversion can be violent (as in the Boxer Uprising) or non-violent, such as non-cooperation, which may shade into simple indifference. There is also intellectual resistance, as in post-colonial writers such as Franz Fanon.
  1. Selective Incorporation—taking a few elements of the foreign culture and incorporating it into one's own without fundamentally changing the latter (e.g. the cargo cults of the South Pacific). On the proselytizing side, a Christian missionary might find it necessary or expedient to tolerate a foreign practice with which s/he disagrees (such as polygamy) without fundamentally changing his or her message.
  1. Concentration of Spirituality—a call for energized religious commitment, mainly through the elimination of portions of one's previous religion in order to concentrate on a few aspects, thereby purifying or intensifying one's religious experience. Often associated with smashing of "idols", or with ascetic behaviors, such as sexual abstinence or fasting. This can be initiated by either proselytizer or proselytized. A familiar example would be Luther's insistence on faith alone as a means to salvation, or Calvin's destruction of religious images in reformed churches. Very often, concentration occurs spatially: practitioners such as monks or mystics are segregated from the rest of society in in order better to practice concentration. It can also occur temporally, e.g. the millennialist belief in the "end times" can act as a spur to intensified religious feeling and commitment.
  1. Conservation of Form—indigenous religious content is largely abandoned, but foreign rituals are used to preserve social structure, such as clan relationships, or the underlying assumptions of native religion. The worship of saints in colonial Mexico as a substitute for Aztec deities would be an example. Proselytizers can contribute to the conservation of form by lending their own interpretations to indigenous rituals.6
  1. Translation—translation of sacred scripture into vernacular languages is a main preoccupation of Protestant Christianity and involves a degree of collaboration between the two parties. Missionaries spend much energy finding the right words for concepts like God and sin. Indigenous peoples likewise try to make sense of Christianity by "translating" its message into one's own terms, e.g. Biblical interpretation, such as seeing one's own people as descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.
  1. Dual Participation—practicing two religions simultaneously, without attempting to translate one into the other, e.g. the Lakota Sioux attending mission churches while practicing their Sun Dance clandestinely after the US government had banned it. Mixed marriages are conducive to this type of strategy.
  1. Selective Acculturation—identifying with a portion of a foreign culture and a willingness to accept its religion, together with such things as its education, customs, dress. Proselytizers often seek to adopt the customs of their target audience to achieve their goal. The Catholic Church has placed great emphasis on this strategy, especially since Vatican II, calling it "inculturation".
  1. Acceptance and Commitment—supererogatory dedication, as in doing charitable or missionary work; thus the proselytized become proselytizers themselves. This often arises as a response to persecution.

     The five papers that follow offer ample instances of one or another of these categories and also provide the reader an opportunity for testing their adequacy.

     Timothy May's paper, "Converting the Khan: Christian Missionaries and the Mongol Empire" is a study in failed conversion, despite the efforts of the papacy to convert the Mongols over much of the thirteenth century and beyond. May depicts how papal strategies changed during this time period, from condemnation to selective acculturation and incorporation. He also shows that Roman Catholicism was not the only strain of Christianity and that Nestorian Christians, who had intermarried with Mongolian ruling families, were more comfortable with dual participation. He provides a vivid picture of the Mongols' own religious beliefs and practices, illustrating a widely applicable generalization that a polytheistic culture finds it easier to be tolerant of foreign religions in their midst (as the case of the Yoruba in the third paper also illustrates). Nevertheless, the Mongol Khans believed that their conquests were heaven-ordained, no less than the Christian crusaders who opposed them. They resisted conversion in large part because they saw no practical advantage in doing so.

     Jacqueline Swansinger's longitudinal study, "Plow for Islam: Central Asia and Sufi Culture" complements May's in that it seeks to explain why Islam succeeded in eventually converting powerful central Asian rulers, including the Mongols, while Christianity failed. One key to the Sufis' success is that they proselytized by example rather than by preaching or proclamation. Their practices, designed to bring them closer to God emotionally, involved ascetic renunciation of bodily pleasures, privation, and sacrifice. Thus concentration of spirituality appeared to be their main strategy, at least initially. This put them at odds with the previously existing orthodoxy, tied as the latter was to interpretations of Islamic law. Gradually, however, the Sufis were able to integrate their practices with the more orthodox forms, thanks largely to the diffusion of their spiritual authority through networks of disciple-teachers (sheikhs). This took shape during the period where political authority was weak; eventually, however, Sufi sheikhs were able to gain influence on new, powerful dynasties such as the Safavids and the Ottomans.7

     The far-flung peoples known as the Yoruba are the subject of the next paper by David Lindenfeld. Originating in what is today southwestern Nigeria, many were transported as slaves and converted by coercion in Brazil and the Caribbean, especially Cuba. In the early nineteenth century, many others were intercepted by British ships, emancipated, and taken to Sierra Leone, whence some returned to their homeland as Christians, serving as missionaries to the people who had remained. Their dealings with Christian proselytizers on both sides of the Atlantic enables us to compare the multiple strategies they used in each situation—including of course their later encounter with British colonialism. The paper offers some interesting parallels with the Sufi case, namely an alternation between concentrated spirituality and a return to previous customs—although here on a much shorter time scale.

     The final two papers are set in twentieth-century East Asia. Sue Gronewold's "Missionary Institutions in China as Sites of Conversion" focuses on a single mission station, the Door of Hope, founded by Western women in 1901 in Shanghai as a home for prostitutes. One can see in its extraordinary effectiveness as a conversion site an example of spatial concentration of spirituality—approximating a "Foucaultian total institution" as Gronewold puts it. For the Chinese women, the mission was a place of salvation in the sense of refuge from the sordid and brutal world of the brothel; for the missionaries, it was a place where souls were remade, and it became this for the Chinese as well. Here too, however, there was an alternation of practices as circumstances changed. As China became more unstable in the 1910s and 20s, the mission was inundated by needy women and children so that the missionaries were no longer able to perform their spiritual exercises with the same depth. This led to a mood of resistance. In the 1930s, conversion returned, but in a very different form: millennialist movements that preached the end times, combining Chinese folk religion with Christianity. This new "remaking of souls" led to a rebellion against the missionaries, probably reflecting a growing anti-foreign sentiment in China during these years. But Gronewold emphasizes that the missionaries themselves were also drawn increasingly to fundamentalist and end-times beliefs, creating a division with the more pragmatically oriented denominations.

     In "Some Tears of Religious Aspiration: Dynamics of Korean Suffering in Post-War Seoul, South Korea," Jin-Heon Jung explores the bases of that country's becoming a center of acceptance and commitment. He points out that South Korea is home to the world's largest mega-churches and is the second-largest exporter of missionaries next to the United States. His argument highlights the role that suffering has played in the formation of this mentality, both at the individual and national level (due to such things as the Japanese occupation and the Korean War), by focusing on the conversion narratives of two leaders of the mega-churches. Thus, in Jung's analysis, individual and collective conversion are not completely distinct categories, but are mutually reinforcing—"the personalization of national suffering and the nationalization of personal suffering." The magnitude of these experiences finds its expression in a correspondingly high level of aspiration, reflected both in South Korea's material prosperity and her religious zeal, which can lead alternately to a heightened militancy or to a commitment to social justice. By showing how conversion can itself become a source of proselytization, Jung's piece forms a fitting conclusion to this forum.

David Lindenfeld is Professor of History Emeritus at Louisiana State University. He has co-edited Beyond Conversion and Syncretism. Indigenous Encounters with Missionary Christianity, 1800–2000 (Berghahn Books, 2011) and is working on a single-authored comparative history of indigenous encounters with Western Christianity across the globe. He may be reached at


1 For a more balanced, though on the whole sympathetic, portrayal of Christian missions throughout history, see Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission. How Christianity Became a World Religion (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2009).

2 According to the William H. Brinner's article on "conversion" in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1: 318, joining Islam is seen as a return to a natural state that had been interrupted since birth. See also Richard W. Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 33.

3 Lewis R. Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven: Yale Uniersity Press, 1993), chs. 5–6.

4 For earlier versions of this approach, see David Lindenfeld, "Indigenous Encounters with Christian Missionaries in China and West Africa, 1800–1920: A Comparative Study," Journal of World History 16 (2005): 327–69; Lindenfeld & Miles Richardson, eds., Beyond Conversion & Syncretism. Indigenous Encounters with Missionary Christianity, 1800–2000 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2011).

5 I am struck by the congruence between my categories and those that Steven Kaplan developed to apply to missionaries in Africa. See his "The Africanization of Missionary Christianity: History and Typology," Journal of Religion in Africa 16 (1986): 166–86.

6 Ibid., 174–77.

7 This pattern resembles the one posited by Humphrey Fisher in regard to the evolution of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa. Fisher claimed there were three stages of interaction in that region: 1) quarantine, in which Muslim merchants largely kept separate from the rest of society; 2) mixing, in which they attracted new followers through institutions such as schools; 3) reform, in which they returned to a more purified form of orthodoxy which could lead to jihad. See his "Conversion Reconsidered: Some Historical Aspects of Religious Conversion in Black Africa," Africa 43, no. 1 (1973): 25–40.

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