The conversion narrative is an important genre in American history, one that played an indispensable role in the formation of our cultural and religious identity during the seventeenth century and the First Great Awakening. The genre as a practiced form hardly exists today, although its iterations are evident whenever a Christian states his or her “testimony.”
Allow me to share mine. The conversion narratives of two eighteenth-century American writers in many ways reflect my own Christian experience.
John Woolman, a Quaker, recorded his narrative in a series of journal entries. As a young boy, Woolman intuited the existence of good and evil and felt the manifest presence of a superintending God in his everyday experience. He learned of his own propensity for wickedness and felt shame and remorse whenever he sinned. He came to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, through Whom he found love and repentance. The teenaged Woolman, however, gradually abandoned his pious obedience to God.
“Having attained the age of sixteen years,” Woolman laments in his narrative, “I began to love wanton company, and though I was preserved from profane language or scandalous conduct, still I perceived a plant in me which produced much wild grapes.” Only through God’s grace was Woolman saved from his backsliding and led back to the path of truth and repentance.
When Woolman began to backslide yet again, God visited sickness upon him. “I was filled,” Woolman writes, “with confusion, and in great affliction both of mind and body I lay and bewailed myself. I had not confidence to lift up my cries to God, whom I had thus offended, but in a deep sense of my great folly I was humbled before him, and at length that Word which is as a fire and a hammer broke and dissolved my rebellious heart. And then my cries were put up in contrition, and in the multitude of his mercies I found inward relief, and felt a close engagement that if he was pleased to restore my health, I might walk humbly before him.”
Jonathan Edwards, a New England Calvinist and one of the last prominent American Puritan ministers, wrote what he styled a “Personal Narrative,” which opens with an account of his boyhood inclination for religious matters. The young Edwards experienced an “awakening” in his father’s congregation. “I was then very much affected for many months,” he says in his account, “and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul’s salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys, and used to meet with them to pray together.” The power of God energized the exuberant, young Edwards. “I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion,” Edwards intones about these early years.
Like Woolman, however, Edwards began to backslide as he grew older. “But in the process of time,” he says, “my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin.” Also like Woolman, Edwards was struck with illness, pleurisy, which riled him with inner conflict and compulsive introspection. Edwards emerged from his illness both healthier and spiritually rejuvenated. Although still immature in his faith, he “felt a spirit to part with all things in the world, for an interest in Christ.”
My grandmother led me to believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior when I was in the third grade. She instilled in me an understanding of God’s grace and an equally important fear of his divine judgment. As I grew older, I, like Woolman and Edwards, suffered from my own forms of backsliding. I fell into the company of other boys who were not interested in religious matters. During my freshman year of high school, my appendix ruptured, and I nearly died after waiting two days to visit the hospital. At this time, fear for my life and the state of my eternal soul caused me to consult scripture and to pray to God with a renewed sense of urgency.
I was for a few years devout once again, attendant to God’s teachings and careful with my thoughts and actions. Still I found myself in college—and the immediate years thereafter—drifting from God’s teachings even as I acknowledged their authority and believed that departure from them was sinful. I delighted in Bacchanalian parties and festivities of a degree I can only imagine to have been comparable to those described by Augustine in reference to his own youth. My immersion in unholy and rambunctious activity was so complete that I continue to struggle to witness to others, afraid they may discount my message in light of my past sins.
It was not until law school, when I was diagnosed with melanoma and treated with major surgery, including the removal of two lymph nodes, that I truly turned back to God, but even then the process of regeneration involved backsliding and psychological intensity.
Since my marriage and the birth of my two children, I have sought after the Lord with more discipline and seriousness. I have matured in Christ and seek daily to understand the scriptures and God’s nature. I have learned that sanctification is a complex process that requires correction and tenacity, and I have found joy in my relationships with other believers and in the awesomeness and enormity of life itself. Like everyone, I am susceptible to certain sins. But I believe in the power of God’s saving grace, and, after much study and prayer, attempt to exercise the ability he has provided me to overcome my inherent limitations and innate propensity for sin.