Friday, December 11, 2009

The case of the old age conversions

Historians of religion have a pretty strong sense of who converts to evangelical Christianity during the mid-eighteenth century: it's basically young people. The story goes: back in the seventeenth-century, Reformed Protestants (like the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, etc.) went through a long, extended conversion process during their early twenties, in which they suffered moments of doubt and then assurance about their salvation. Eventually, they came to a slow realization of their sanctity and became full church members (meaning, they could take part in the sacrament of communion).

During the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, conversion patterns changed. Young adults and teenagers reported having instantaneous conversion experiences, in which they were immediately aware of God's grace and their own salvation. Sometimes, these converts were barely out of childhood.

As this brief sketch illustrates, there are really two trends: first, converts became younger in the mid-eighteenth century. Second, conversions became shorter and more eventful. Instead of the prolonged cycle of doubt and assurance that characterized Reformed Christian conversion of the seventeenth century, eighteenth century evangelical conversions were sudden and emotional. More of the heart than of the head.

Anyway, I have just noticed an interesting pattern in the conversion African slaves in Jamaica. Unlike most Great Awakening-era conversion narratives, the majority of converts in the Moravian missions are old men. And their conversions are not instantaneous, but long and drawn out, largely because the Moravian missionaries wanted to make sure that the conversions were authentic.

So Jery, the first baptized slave in the Moravian mission of Mesopotamia, is consistently referred to as "old," as well as a number of other slaves who take an interest in the Moravians.

The question is, then: why did older (and often male) slaves turn to the missionaries more often than their younger compatriots? Franck, another old male slave, provides one possible answer. In the September 13, 1761 entry in the Mesopotamia journal, the author writes:

"September 13 - ...In the afternoon Franck visisted us and attested to his desire for baptism, and said further that he agreed that in his current condition and with his accustomed heathen ways, he could not become holy, and that this caused him much agitation; and now that he was already old and perhaps didn't have much longer to live he wanted to become a part of the great grace [of God] before he died etc..."

Franck, it seems, has no more use for his "accustomed heathen ways" and turns, in his old age, to God. I wonder, also, if this trend is an effect of the power relations among slaves on plantations. If older men and women are looking for alternative sources of power and validation, it implies that those at the peak of their strength have less need for such alternatives.

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