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The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England
D. Bruce Hindmarsh
Oxford University Press, 2008
394 pp., $61.00
John R. Tyson
Nothing in My Hands I Bring
Evangelicals are fascinated by conversion stories. Witness the continuing popularity of Charles Colson's Born Again! (republished in 2004), and C.S. Lewis' Surprised by Joy (1966); both books are read and reread long after the events that gave rise to the written narrative. D. Bruce Hindmarsh, in The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England, explains why. Conversion narratives supply evangelicals with a foundational sense of identity as well as a point of view from which they can articulate the entire scope and span of their lives.
Hindmarsh traces the emergence of the evangelical conversion narrative from its inception among the 17th-century Puritans, through the efforts of the Wesleys and Whitefield, as well as their followers and successors, to the end of the 18th century. Along the way he takes the reader through a rich and variegated tapestry of evangelical autobiographical literature. He concludes, and I think rightly, that these narratives show, on the one hand, how 18th-century evangelicalism participated in the increasingly individualistic spirit of the age but, on the other hand, found its identity in the communion of saints and the word of the gospel: "modern" in one sense, but decidedly "not modern" in another. Hence Henry Rack's description of John Wesley as a Reasonable Enthusiast (1989).
Like David Bebbington, whose Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (1989) has shaped the subsequent conversation, Hindmarsh views evangelicalism as being essentially "conversionist" in nature. Hindmarsh expands the picture significantly, however, by exploring conversion not only as the gateway to vital piety but also as a source of individual identity and as a way of looking at a person's whole life. Considered thus, conversion becomes the lens through which 18th-century evangelicals understood themselves and their lives.
When, at the outset, Hindmarsh traces the antecedents of the 18th-century movement, ...