Is Conversion Essential?

By way of context, I sometimes refer to myself as a lower-case baptist. I was baptized by my father by full immersion in the baptismal tank at the Evangelical Free Church in Bay City, Michigan.

David Gushee’s captivating account of his own spiritual pilgrimage from Roman Catholicism to the Baptist tradition curiously reverses the pathway of Christine Wassell from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism and, to a somewhat lesser extent, my own journey from evangelicalism to the Episcopal Church. This raises for me a fascinating question about inherited traditions and conversionist spirituality.

One of the real challenges facing people of faith, especially in traditions that expect some sort of dramatic conversion, is passing the faith from one generation to the next. This is illustrated beautifully in Chaim Potok’s novel The Chosen. Reb Saunders wants desperately to pass the mantle of leadership in his Hasidic congregation to his son, Danny. The son is extraordinarily gifted; he can recite recondite passages of the Torah from memory, but he cannot conjure the requisite piety to inherit his father’s role. Following an anguished farewell, Danny leaves the faith of his childhood for an uncertain future in the secular world.

So, for someone fully to inhabit the faith must she convert into a tradition other than the one into which she was born? This question is obviously tied into issues surrounding adolescence and need to differentiate from one’s parents, but it’s also a matter with historical precedents.

The founding generation of the Puritans in New England, for instance, wanted to pass their faith on to their children. One of the requirements for full membership in the church, however, was that candidates for membership stand in the meetinghouse and give an account of their own spiritual pilgrimages.

For the second generation in New England, that task proved nearly impossible because it meant standing in front of their parents and their parents’ peers. This was the cohort who had left family and fortune back in England to make the perilous Atlantic crossing in order to carve a godly commonwealth out of the howling wilderness of Massachusetts, a journey often compared to that undertaken by the Children of Israel. How could this second generation hope to match the spiritual heroism of their parents? (The predicament was compounded by the fact that the founding generation in New England—unlike that in the Chesapeake, for instance—was long-lived. They refused to die!)

The rest of the story is well-known to historians. The second generation defaulted on becoming full members; for the sake of the third generation, the Puritans compromised their religious rigor with the Halfway Covenant of 1662; and by the conclusion of the seventeenth century the entire Puritan experiment had begun to disintegrate.

Some years ago, I embarked on a project to study people in middle age and beyond who had grown up within the evangelical subculture. For various reasons, the project never came to fruition, but my general observation was that those reared in evangelicalism either rejected it entirely or embraced it altogether, often uncritically.

And so I pose the question: Does religious ardor, such as that Mr. Gushee demonstrates for the Baptist tradition, necessarily correlate with conversion?