This chapter examines the shifting language of conversion in New England Congregationalism - the bastion of Puritan culture in North America - from the period of settlement in the 1630s to the eve of the Civil War. Evidence is drawn from a database of more than a thousand church-admission narratives from nearly three dozen communities scattered across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. Throughout this period, most Congregational ministers remained committed to a Calvinist theology that emphasized innate human depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace. Yet the importance of conversion - the sacred calculus through which God winnowed saints from sinners - waxed and waned through the centuries, and New Englanders affiliated with local churches for a variety of reasons, including, but not always limited to, their hopes for eternal salvation. By the mid-1800s, recurrent waves of religious revivalism had recast the extended Puritan "morphology of conversion" into a discrete and often instantaneous temporal experience of being "born again" in the Holy Spirit- the hallmark of American evangelicalism. In tracking the generic conventions of New England church-admission narratives over two centuries, we can begin to appreciate the important role that early American evangelicalism played in mediating larger processes of cultural change and modernization.
Copyright © 2010 Augsburg Fortress Press. This chapter first appeared in Modern Christianity to 1900.
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Winiarski, Douglas L. "Religious Experiences in New England." In Modern Christianity to 1900, edited by Amanda Porterfield, 209-32. Vol. 9. A People's History of Christianity. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2010.