Reviewed by Rachel O'Toole (Department of History, University of California, Irvine)
Published on H-Atlantic (March, 2006)
Comparing Conversions: Linguistic Transformations, Local Practices, and Religious Identities in the Early Modern and Modern World
In this ambitious anthology, Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton have published selected papers from a two-year seminar entitled "Conversion: Sacred and Profane" held at the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies. The book is intended to complement a previous publication (Kenneth Mills and Anthony Grafton, Conversion in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages: Seeing and Believing ) by bringing a wider geographical and temporal scope to the question of conversion "to, within, and around forms of Western Christianity" (p. ix). By bringing together articles on western Europe, imperial China, early modern and modern India, highland Peru, the midwestern United States, and colonial Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), the anthology builds on previous comparative anthologies that explore the meaning of religious conversion. The editors suggest that while scholars have considered Christian conversion in the context of military conquest and colonial exploitation, understanding a change in religious practices and identities within the realm of cultural exchange opens new avenues of inquiry. Organized chronologically, the essays speak to three recurring themes that move beyond the question of syncretism or assimilation. First, the authors explore the language of conversion and religious responses to demonstrate the possibilities for miscommunication as well as the opportunities for subaltern appropriations and transformations of religious terms and practices. Second, the authors suggest that complete conversion was rare, as "local Christians" inserted themselves within the religion that often accompanied colonization or imperialism. Third, the essays explore how long-time practitioners constructed new Christian identities that rejected Church hierarchies and mandates.
First, for missionaries language was a critical tool for communication in imperial China that converts in Tamil-speaking south India and nineteenth-century midwestern United States could employ for their own interests. In "Translating Christianity: Counter-Reformation Europe and the Catholic Mission in China, 1580 " 1780," R. Po-Chia Hsia charts a shift in Jesuit conversion practices that began with intentional conversations between missionaries and the Chinese elite, beginning in the sixteenth century, and shifted to a singular goal of catechism-education by the end of the eighteenth century. Court officials and urban scholars were impressed with the linguistic deftness and the intellectual vigor of early Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci, whose dialogical model of conversion was a free, frank, and affectionate conversation among peers (p. 88) on all topics except religion (p. 91). Printed books expanded these conversations, but also allowed for the institutionalization of conversion into catechism (p. 100) as missionaries focused on the conversion of commoners by the 1780s.
Further elaborating on Jesuit linguistic skills, Ines Zupanov argues that Jesuits divorced Catholicism from Portuguese imperial goals to blend saints with local deities, and thus invited Tamil-speaking Parava fishing communities in south India to construct new identities on this early modern colonial frontier. In "Twisting a Pagan Tongue: Portuguese and Tamil in Sixteenth-Century Jesuit Translations," the author chronicles "the gradual failure of Portuguese linguistic 'colonialist' domination" (p. 111), as the Jesuits adapted to their Tamil surroundings and even transported south Asian vocabularies to a growing literate Portuguese public. While royal officials roughly translated Tamil into Portuguese, the Jesuits employed Tamil "as a refined tool of conversion" (p. 119) that was required to access and to transform "pagan" minds to Christianity (p. 126). In turn, the Parava communities seized on Catholicism as a means to secure their status as Portuguese clients and adapted Latin or Portuguese words to signify particular sacred occasions firmly rooted in south Indian contexts.
Andrew Isenberg demonstrates that the dedication of missionaries to learning the Dakota language reveals how Yankee Presbyterians and the Lac qui Parle, an Eastern Dakota village in northern Minnesota, initially shared a common mission of withdrawal or independence from secular Euro-American society in the 1830s and 1840s. In "'To See Inside of an Indian': Missionaries and Dakotas in the Minnesota Borderlands," the author explains how the missionaries brought livestock, seeds, and tools necessary for intensive corn agriculture that would allow the Dakotas of Lac qui Parle to transition from the fur trade and possibly survive the encroachment of Euro-American settlers. In the same period, inspired by the Second Great Awakening, the Presbyterian missionaries retreated from an increasingly commercialized society and came to admire Dakota morals and charity. As primarily Dakota women converted to Christianity, the community integrated the missionaries into social kinship networks by bestowing Dakota names and adopting the missionaries' children as the Presbyterians struggled to learn the Dakota language. Following the Lakota Uprising of 1862, the missionaries followed Lac qui Parle men to the forts where they were imprisoned to serve as spiritual guides and advocates. Yet the next generation of Presbyterian missionaries discarded living among Dakota peoples in favor of boarding schools and a categorical repression of native culture as settlers overwhelmed the midwestern borderlands.
Gauri Viswanathan emphasizes the importance of language within controversies regarding conversion and Indian nationalism in her essay, "Literacy in the Eye of India's Conversion Storm." The author argues that conversion can be a liberating practice, allowing individual choice of community affiliation in the late twentieth century during a "sudden surge of hostility toward Christians" in modern India (p. 272). In the 1940s and 1950s, Indian nationalism was imbued with "a Hindu ethos" (p. 273) and while the constitution assured the right to propagate alternative faiths, Indian nationalists constructed conversion as a threat. Viswanathan re-reads scholarly texts and political campaigns to suggest a post-nationalistic reading of conversion as a means to resist fixed categories of ethnicity, race, religion, and language (p. 276). Thus, Christian mission schools that teach English literacy skills to lower-caste individuals allow for the creation of new selves as well as the means to access technical and vocational skills that lead to higher-paying occupations and professions. Conversion, thus, cannot be understood strictly within a paradigm of violence and imposition, but also can serve as an entry into democratic processes and economic development.
Second, the essays suggest that complete conversion was rare, as "new converts" adapted Christianity to fit with local practices, beliefs, and rituals in colonial Peru, Quebec, and Zimbabwe as well as the modern Atlantic world. In "Converting the Ancestors: Indirect Rule, Settlement Consolidation, and the Struggle over Burial in Colonial Peru, 1532-1614," Peter Gose suggests that conversion was "a cultural project ... central to Spanish colonial rule in Peru" (p. 140), producing divergent and sometimes contradictory results. In the sixteenth century, Christian missionaries believed Andeans would and could convert as indigenous people saw conversion as a sign of alliance and post-conquest reconciliation. By the late sixteenth century, however, religious indoctrination intensified with mandated inhabitation of colonial towns and clerical campaigns to extirpate Andean "idolatry." The new impositions of Spanish Catholic culture included Christian burial, while Andean peoples continued to worship their ancestors in hidden tombs. Three positions emerged among Andeans: those who accepted exclusive Christianity, others who rejected rigid Catholicism, and still others who accepted Christianity "but did not share its sense of boundaries or exclusivity" (p. 163). Gose concludes with an example of a community which requested the Catholic baptism of ancestral mummies, indicating the ambiguity of converted status and the suggestion of conversion as a long-term process with few definitive "victories" (p. 168).
Allan Greer also focuses on early American encounters in his exploration of the Jesuit mission among the Iroquois on the St. Lawrence River near Montreal in seventeenth-century Quebec. Migrant Iroquois settled in the Jesuit mission where baptism meant membership into a new community, and Catholic ritual reinforced collective identities that bonded distinct Iroquois nations (p. 183). In "Conversion and Identity: Iroquois Christianity in Seventeenth-Century New France," Greer argues that the Iroquois did not completely accept Catholicism or reject native practices, but created new religious identities that expressed the "middle ground" of Iroquois Catholicism (p. 179). Rather than belief, Catholicism was a system of behaviors that migrant Iroquois employed to mark themselves apart from "pagan" natives and even Jesuit missionaries.
European and Euro-American travelers, writers, and scholars also sought to fit Christian definitions of religiosity into their own needs to mark modern racial hierarchies. In "Object Lessons: Fetishism and the Hierarchies of Race and Religion," David Murray traces how nineteenth- and twentieth-century U.S. narratives constructed the idea of fetishism that distinguished between "Indians" and African Americans. While Europeans and Euro-Americans gradually commodified indigenous religious objects, the same authors constructed African-American religious objects as dangerous. Observers linked African-American object usage to non-religious practices (idolatry or magic), while U.S. ethnographers elevated Native American spiritual uses of objects to religion and spirituality "by downplaying the material specificity of their fetish practices and objects" (p. 210). Murray ascribes these changes to an increasing disassociation of religion from materiality in nineteenth-century western discourses and the increasing need in the United States to distinguish the "economic and material role of Indians and African Americans" (p. 212).
Carol Summers continues the exploration of local Christian practices in her essay, "Tickets, Concerts, and School Fees: Money and New Christian Communities in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1900-1940" to explain how Zimbabwean Christians infused missionary impositions with their own interests. In the early twentieth century, Africans flocked to new missions in search of education, Christian identities, and relief from the colonial labor economy. On the British Wesleyan mission, students and parents funded the schools with their labor and by paying fees that qualified them for respectable membership and marked economic and religious positions in the new mission community, and, in many ways, access to God (p. 254). Still, Christian Zimbabweans organized concerts which missionaries found sinful, and benefited from a superior education to become teachers and a nascent middle class in colonial Rhodesia, as "becoming Christian meant assembling the money necessary to sponsor and maintain a school" (p. 262) that was African rather than European.
Third, the essays also explore how western European Christians redefined religious identities to the point of resistance against church authorities. In "Conversion and Compromise in Thirteenth-Century England," Valerie Flint explores the agency of women adherents to the veneration of a relic, the Precious Blood shed by the crucified Christ. For devotees, the blood symbolized the suffering of martyrs as well as the shedding of blood in warfare, while elevating women who had made these sacrifices. A "second-stage" conversion of women, especially married women and invalids, to a fervent devotion of the Blood was also an internal criticism of thirteenth-century English ecclesiastical authorities, as the devotion allowed medieval women to object to sending their husbands on military crusades against Muslims in the Middle East (p. 13). Constant clerical admonishments suggest clerical suspicions that the firmly converted Christian women also may have been nominally devoted to supporting a resistance position.
In "Conversion and Conformity in the Early Fifteenth Century," John Van Engen explores how western Europeans understood conversion as an intensification of Christian practice that could include illiterate peasants. In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, medieval Christian clerics sought to defend the prestige of the traditional cloister, as western lay Christians "repudiated the 'world' around them ... [turning] away from their families, neighbors, and countrymen" (p. 35). Even religious orders experienced a split between traditionalists and "Observants" (reformists) who proposed conversion as a rejection of customary practices and demanded more regulated devotion. Thus, conversion fit within a renewed effort of western Europeans to purify Christian practices from below.
In a further exploration of how European Christians marked their resistant devotions, Brad S. Gregory provides three examples of resisters to conversion whose religious identities were rooted in scriptural reading. In the essay entitled "'To the Point of Shedding Your Blood': The Bible, Communities of Faith, and Martyrs' Resistance to Conversion in the Reformation Era," Gregory explores how martyrs resisted attempts at conversion to Catholicism or Protestantism based on their individual readings of Biblical texts and shared convictions with others in a community of faith (p. 71). In this way, Gregory questions the scholarly trend to doubt the sincerity of faith. Instead, the example of the three western European martyrs demonstrates that Christian convictions based on orthodox interpretations of texts could be in both support and opposition to early modern secular and ecclesiastical authorities.
One weakness of the anthology reflects its inception as a series of seminar papers. In some cases, the essays reflect their preparation for presentation (pp. 4, 33) rather than publication. Four of the essays (those by Flint, Hsia, Van Engen, and Viswanathan) require more attention to setting the particular context of their case studies. Without an understanding of "the Conquest" of medieval England (p. 2), or the European context of the early fifteenth century (p. 30), or the imperial background to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century China, or the political parties of contemporary India (p. 271), even world historians are left to guess the larger impact of the authors' arguments. Yet most of the essays (especially those by Gose, Greer, Isenberg, and Zupanov) provide sufficient background that even scholars from outside their respective fields can appreciate their useful contextual summaries.
The strength of the anthology, however, lies in its comparative nature. The careful contextualization allows the reader to pick out significant themes, but also to observe significant theoretical frameworks and suggestive conclusions for religious histories. Flint questions the religious depth of those assumed to be fully converted, such as thirteenth-century English married women, to question the scholarly assumption that all European Christian communities maintained uniform and orthodox Christian practices. Likewise, Gregory calls our attention to understanding "reconversion" (p. 70) within Protestant-Catholic contexts where Christian texts still provide a unifying discourse. Gose, Isenberg, Summers, and Zupanov highlight the agency of newly converted Andean, Dakota, Zimbabwean, and Tamil-speaking communities. Together, these authors suggest that scholarly work demonstrating why non-Christians would or would not convert, including a wide range of adaptations, choices, and rejections, still is a fruitful avenue of inquiry. In fact, the comparative colonial examples disrupt any categorical assumptions about colonization and conversion. Furthermore, Hsia and Isenberg not only highlight subaltern agency, but also describe missionary perspectives, intentions, and motivations with sensitivity reminiscent of Inga Clendinnen's masterful work, Ambiguous Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517 " 1570 (1987). The narrative of imposing missionaries and passive natives is no longer even a straw man within these articles.
The anthology also sparks some highly suggestive directions for comparative colonialisms. Zupanov directs our attention to how an imperial project failed in south India as Tamil language colonized Portuguese and local communities employed Catholicism as a means to access transregional trading networks. Greer suggests that the Jesuit missionaries and Catholic Iroquois developed parallel societies that, rather than clashing or evading, fed off of each other in a curious yet mutually beneficial relationship. Viswanathan moves beyond the colonial context to explore not just the economic and cultural possibilities of Christianity, but uses them as a way to understand conversion as liberating on personal and collective levels. Thus, we need to ask: where else did cultural colonialism fail? What did "failure" mean for those colonized and those colonizing? What were the conditions for coexisting communities of mutually dependent colonizers and colonized? How can we re-read colonial tropes into a national present and a post-national future?
In this way, conversion provides a lens to see not the similarities of religious identities or practices, or even uniform responses to religious imposition. Instead, "conversion" provides a way to understand religious practice as available for public, cultural consumption. By examining beliefs and rituals through "conversion," the editors suggest that actions and transformations lie at the core of religions and religiosities. Thus, the anthology would serve an advanced undergraduate or a graduate class on transregional religious or colonial history. Individual essays that deftly set the particular context could also be assigned (Gose, Isenberg, and Zupanov) in colonial Latin American, Native American, and World History courses to spark larger connections about the impact of Christian conversion processes.
. Robert W. Hefner, ed., Conversion to Christianity: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives on a Great Transformation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Peter van der Veer, ed., Conversion to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity (New York: Routledge, 1996); and John Wolffe, ed., Religion in History: Conflict, Conversion, and Coexistence (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004).
. For other examples of this rich and growing scholarship in colonial Latin America, see Carolyn Dean, Inka Bodies and the Body of Christ: Corpus Christi in Colonial Cuzco, Peru (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999); Serge Gruzinski, Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner (1492 - 2019) (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), esp. "Images in War," pp. 161-207; and Irene Silverblatt, "Political Memories and Colonizing Symbols: Santiago and the Mountain Gods of Colonial Peru," in Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past_, ed. Jonathan D. Hill (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), pp. 174-194.
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Rachel O'Toole. Review of Mills, Kenneth; Grafton, Anthony, eds., Conversion: Old Worlds and New.
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Copyright © 2006 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.