Within existing historical and literary critical writing, conversion narratives are most often defined as a seventeenth and eighteenth century religious genre, in which a convert offers the testimony of his or her spiritual rebirth within a new Church or faith. In an important book, The Evangelical Conversion Narrative, Bruce Hindmarsh charts the rise of this kind of self-writing in the mid-seventeenth century, and its proliferation in the eighteenth century.
One of the aims of the ‘Conversion Narratives’ project is to rethink this popular paradigm, separating the idea of the conversion narrative from the closely related genre of spiritual autobiography.
We have been inspired by the influential work of Renaissance and late medieval historians, including Natalie Zemon Davis and Joel Rosenthal, who offer a broader and more flexible definition of ‘narrative’, recognising the ways in which people tell stories about their own experiences in all sorts of contexts. It is our belief that fictions (crafted, though not necessarily untrue, stories) about conversion can be found in a huge variety of places, including spiritual autobiography and evangelical polemic, but also interrogatories and court papers, private letters, travel narratives, religious dispute, poems and plays, and a host of other sources.
Recognising the narrative — or storytelling — elements of these sources will allow us to challenge and expand our sense of what constitutes a conversion narrative, and to demonstrate the ways in which seventeenth and eighteenth century spiritual autobiographies were rooted in a series of complex traditions, encounters, and records. It will allow us to better understand a complex period in European religious and political history, and –importantly — to investigate some motives other than religious faith for describing and repeating stories of conversion. When is a conversion narrative designed to convert others? When is it a show of military or political power? When is it a horror story about an alien culture or a way to reinforce national identity and pride?