This book collects the Christian conversion stories of sixty people, most of them famous and all in his or her own words (with a short introduction to each by the editor). They are fairly short accounts: The book is about 400 pages long, so that’s less than seven pages apiece, minus the intro and page breaks. The author is a Presbyterian minster and writer, and a former professor (including at Princeton) and seminary president; he includes a moving conversion experience of his own in an afterword.
An earlier edition (co-edited with Hugh T. Kerr) appeared 30 years before this one, and the new version makes a special effort to include more people who are not dead white males (the introduction also dolefully acknowledges the “masculinist language” in some of the conversion stories); one conversion (Bartolome de Las Casas) has nothing to do God but recounts instead how someone became anti-slavery. Sigh. More thoughtfully, there’s a short but interesting discussion (xxi-ii) of individuals he’d like to conclude but can’t because an adequate record of their conversion experience isn’t there (Francis of Assis, Thomas Aquinas, etc.).
Some political correctness aside, then, it’s a terrific collection. The stories start with those of St. Paul and include (deep breath): Constantine, Augustine, Luther, Loyola, Calvin, Pascal, Bunyan, Wesley, Tolstoy, Billy Sunday, Albert Schweitzer, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, Muggeridge, Mother Teresa, Merton, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr., Chuck Colson, Alvin Plantinga, Francis S. Collins, and Bono. I noted that at least a couple of the conversions (Francis Collins and Chuck Colson — the latter’s (340-42) being especially moving, by the way) got impetus after the convert had read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.
There’s an apologetic meta-text here: So many intelligent, stable, honest people come to believe, often with very similar revelatory experiences — doesn’t all that suggest that those experiences were real and that the Christian God was behind them? In this regard, I noted for example the experiences of Alvin Platinga’s (351, first paragraph) and Festo Kivengere (319-20). Are there any other religions where this kind of personal revelation is so common?
Some other notes:
- “As T.S. Eliot notes in his introduction to the Everyman’s Library edition of Pascal’s Pensees: ‘Because of his unique combination and balance of qualities, I know of no religious writer more pertinent to our time.'” (55)
- Here’s the last paragraph in the excerpt for the seventeenth century Puritan minster Richard Baxter (53): “And yet, after all, I was glad of the probabilities instead of full undoubted certainties; and to this very day, though I have no such degree of doubtfulness as is any great trouble to my soul or procureth any great disquieting fears, yet cannot I say that I have such certainty of my own sincerity in grace as excludeth all doubts and fears of the contrary.”
- In 1792, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton) gave honorary degrees to John Newton, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson (87). Wow — an impressive trio!
- It’s funny that, after his conversion, Billy Graham suddenly became enthusiastic about his schoolwork, and notes (298), “It was about this time that I read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”
- In Oral Roberts’s story (306), he not only comes to Christ at a tent meeting but is cured of tuberculosis and loses his stammer!
- There’s this famous excerpt from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s story (312-13, emphasis in original):
It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains… an unuprooted small corner of evil.
Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
- It’s odd that Mulder includes an analysis of a Latina’s conversion that sounds like it was written by an nonbelieving social worker (388-89).
- The last convert discussed is Bono, and I like his last few lines (393), discussing the Incarnation: “… [L]ove needs to to find form, intimacy needs to be whispered. To me, it makes sense. It’s actually logical. It’s pure logic. Essence has to manifest itself. It’s inevitable. Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”