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Lecture IX CONVERSION
To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance,are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided,and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior andhappy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversionsignifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed tobring such a moral change about.

Before entering upon a minuter study of the process, let me enliven our understanding of thedefinition by a concrete example. I choose the quaint case of an unlettered man, Stephen H.

Bradley, whose experience is related in a scarce American pamphlet.[98]

[98] A sketch of the life of Stephen H. Bradley, from the age of five to twenty four years,including his remarkable experience of the power of the Holy Spirit on the second evening ofNovember, 1829. Madison, Connecticut, 1830.

I select this case because it shows how in these inner alterations one may find one unsuspecteddepth below another, as if the possibilities of character lay disposed in a series of layers or shells,of whose existence we have no premonitory knowledge.

Bradley thought that he had been already fully converted at the age of fourteen.

"I thought I saw the Saviour, by faith, in human shape, for about one second in the room, witharms extended, appearing to say to me, Come. The next day I rejoiced with trembling; soon after,my happiness was so great that I said that I wanted to die; this world had no place in my affections,as I knew of, and every day appeared as solemn to me as the Sabbath. I had an ardent desire that allmankind might feel as I did; I wanted to have them all love God supremely. Previous to this time Iwas very selfish and self-righteous; but now I desired the welfare of all mankind, and could with afeeling heart forgive my worst enemies, and I felt as if I should be willing to bear the scoffs andsneers of any person, and suffer anything for His sake, if I could be the means in the hands of God,of the conversion of one soul."Nine years later, in 1829, Mr. Bradley heard of a revival of religion that had begun in hisneighborhood. "Many of the young converts," he says, "would come to me when in meeting andask me if I had religion, and my reply generally was, I hope I have. This did not appear to satisfythem; they said they KNEW THEY had it. I requested them to pray for me, thinking with myself,that if I had not got religion now, after so long a time professing to be a Christian, that it was time Ihad, and hoped their prayers would be answered in my behalf.

"One Sabbath, I went to hear the Methodist at the Academy. He spoke of the ushering in of theday of general judgment; and he set it forth in such a solemn and terrible manner as I never heardbefore. The scene of that day appeared to be taking place, and so awakened were all the powers ofmy mind that, like Felix, I trembled involuntarily on the bench where I was sitting, though I feltnothing at heart. The next day evening I went to hear him again. He took his text from Revelation:

'And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God.' And he represented the terrors of that dayin such a manner that it appeared as if it would melt the heart of stone. When he finished hisdiscourse, an old gentleman turned to me and said 'This is what I call preaching.' I thought thesame, but my feelings were still unmoved by what he said, and I did not enjoy religion, but Ibelieve he did.

"I will now relate my experience of the power of the Holy Spirit which took place on the samenight. Had any person told me previous to this that I could have experienced the power of the HolySpirit in the manner which I did, I could not have believed it, and should have thought the persondeluded that told me so. I went directly home after the meeting, and when I got home I wonderedwhat made me feel so stupid. I retired to rest soon after I got home, and felt indifferent to thethings of religion until I began to be exercised by the Holy Spirit, which began in about fiveminutes after, in the following manner:-"At first, I began to feel my heart beat very quick all on a sudden, which made me at first thinkthat perhaps something is going to ail me, though I was not alarmed, for I felt no pain. My heartincreased in its beating, which soon convinced me that it was the Holy Spirit from the effect it hadon me. I began to feel exceedingly happy and humble, and such a sense of unworthiness as I neverfelt before. I could not very well help speaking out, which I did, and said, Lord, I do not deservethis happiness, or words to that effect, while there was a stream (resembling air in feeling) cameinto my mouth and heart in sensible than that of drinking anything, which continued, as nearasI could judg(a) e, five(more) minutes or more, (manner) which appeared to be the cause of such apalpitation of my heart. It took complete possession of my soul, and I am certain that I desired the Lord, while in the midst of it, not to give me any more happiness, for it seemed as if I could notcontain what I had got. My heart seemed as if it would burst, but it did not stop until I felt as if Iwas unutterably full of the love and grace of God. In the mean time while thus exercised, a thoughtarose in my mind, what can it mean? and all at once, as if to answer it, my memory becameexceedingly clear, and it appeared to me just as if the New Testament was placed open before me,eighth chapter of Romans, and as light as if some candle lighted was held for me to read the 26thand 27th verses of that chapter, and I read these words: 'The Spirit helpeth our infirmities withgroanings which cannot be uttered.' And all the time that my heart was a-beating, it made me groanlike a person in distress, which was not very easy to stop, though I was in no pain at all, and mybrother being in bed in another room came and opened the door, and asked me if I had got thetoothache. I told him no, and that he might get to sleep. I tried to stop. I felt unwilling to go tosleep myself, I was so happy, fearing I should lose it-- thinking within myself'My willing soul would stay In such a frame as this.'

And while I lay reflecting, after my heart stopped beating, feeling as if my soul was full of theHoly Spirit, I thought that perhaps there might be angels hovering round my bed. I felt just as if Iwanted to converse with them, and finally I spoke, saying 'O ye affectionate angels! how is it thatye can take so much interest in our welfare, and we take so little interest in our own.' After this,with difficulty I got to sleep; and when I awoke in the morning my first thoughts were: What hasbecome of my happiness? and, feeling a degree of it in my heart, I asked for more, which wasgiven to me as quick as thought. I then got up to dress myself, and found to my surprise that Icould but just stand. It appeared to me as if it was a little heaven upon earth. My soul felt ascompletely raised above the fears of death as of going to sleep; and like a bird in a cage, I had adesire, if it was the will of God, to get released from my body and to dwell with Christ, thoughwilling to live to do good to others, and to warn sinners to repent. I went downstairs feeling assolemn as if I had lost all my friends, and thinking with myself, that I would not let my parentsknow it until I had first looked into the Testament. I went directly to the shelf and looked into it, atthe eighth of Romans, and every verse seemed to almost speak and to confirm it to be truly theWord of God, and as if my feelings corresponded with the meaning of the word. I then told myparents of it, and told them that I thought that they must see that when I spoke, that it was not myown voice, for it appeared so to me. My speech seemed entirely under the control of the Spiritwithin me; I do not mean that the words which I spoke were not my own, for they were. I thoughtthat I was influenced similar to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost (with the exception of havingpower to give it to others, and doing what they did). After breakfast I went round to converse withmy neighbors on religion, which I could not have been hired to have done before this, and at theirrequest I prayed with them, though I had never prayed in public before.

"I now feel as if I had discharged my duty by telling the truth, and hope by the blessing of God, itmay do some good to all who shall read it. He has fulfilled his promise in sending the Holy Spiritdown into our hearts, or mine at least, and I now defy all the Deists and Atheists in the world toshake my faith in Christ."So much for Mr. Bradley and his conversion, of the effect of which upon his later life we gain noinformation. Now for a minuter survey of the constituent elements of the conversion process.

If you open the chapter on Association, of any treatise on Psychology, you will read that a man'sideas, aims, and objects form diverse internal groups and systems, relatively independent of oneanother. Each 'aim' which he follows awakens a certain specific kind of interested excitement, andgathers a certain group of ideas together in subordination to it as its associates; and if the aims andexcitements are distinct in kind, their groups of ideas may have little in common. When one groupis present and engrosses the interest, all the ideas connected with other groups may be excludedfrom the mental field. The President of the United States when, with paddle, gun, and fishing-rod,he goes camping in the wilderness for a vacation, changes his system of ideas from top to bottom.

The presidential anxieties have lapsed into the background entirely; the official habits are replacedby the habits of a son of nature, and those who knew the man only as the strenuous magistratewould not "know him for the same person" if they saw him as the camper.

If now he should never go back, and never again suffer political interests to gain dominion overhim, he would be for practical intents and purposes a permanently transformed being. Our ordinaryalterations of character, as we pass from one of our aims to another, are not commonly calledtransformations, because each of them is so rapidly succeeded by another in the reverse direction;but whenever one aim grows so stable as to expel definitively its previous rivals from theindividual's life, we tend to speak of the phenomenon, and perhaps to wonder at it, as a"transformation."These alternations are the completest of the ways in which a self may be divided. A lesscomplete way is the simultaneous coexistence of two or more different groups of aims, of whichone practically holds the right of way and instigates activity, whilst the others are only piouswishes, and never practically come to anything. Saint Augustine's aspirations to a purer life, in ourlast lecture, were for a while an example. Another would be the President in his full pride of office,wondering whether it were not all vanity, and whether the life of a wood-chopper were not thewholesomer destiny. Such fleeting aspirations are mere velleitates, whimsies. They exist on theremoter outskirts of the mind, and the real self of the man, the centre of his energies, is occupiedwith an entirely different system. As life goes on, there is a constant change of our interests, and aconsequent change of place in our systems of ideas, from more central to more peripheral, andfrom more peripheral to more central parts of consciousness. I remember, for instance, that oneevening when I was a youth, my father read aloud from a Boston newspaper that part of LordGifford's will which founded these four lectureships. At that time I did not think of being a teacherof philosophy, and what I listened to was as remote from my own life as if it related to the planetMars. Yet here I am, with the Gifford system part and parcel of my very self, and all my energies,for the time being, devoted to successfully identifying myself with it. My soul stands now plantedin what once was for it a practically unreal object, and speaks from it as from its proper habitat andcentre.

When I say "Soul," you need not take me in the ontological sense unless you prefer to; foralthough ontological language is instinctive in such matters, yet Buddhists or Humians canperfectly well describe the facts in the phenomenal terms which are their favorites. For them thesoul is only a succession of fields of consciousness: yet there is found in each field a part, or sub-field, which figures as focal and contains the excitement, and from which, as from a centre, the aimseems to be taken. Talking of this part, we involuntarily apply words of perspective to distinguish it from the rest, words like "here," "this," "now," "mine," or "me"; and we ascribe to the other partsthe positions "there," "then," "that," "his" or "thine," "it," "not me." But a "here" can change to a"there," and a "there" become a "here," and what was "mine" and what was "not mine" changetheir places.

What brings such changes about is the way in which emotional excitement alters. Things hot andvital to us to-day are cold to-morrow. It is as if seen from the hot parts of the field that the otherparts appear to us, and from these hot parts personal desire and volition make their sallies. Theyare in short the centres of our dynamic energy, whereas the cold parts leave us indifferent andpassive in proportion to their coldness.

Whether such language be rigorously exact is for the present of no importance. It is exactenough, if you recognize from your own experience the facts which I seek to designate by it.

Now there may be great oscillation in the emotional interest, and the hot places may shift beforeone almost as rapidly as the sparks that run through burnt-up paper. Then we have the waveringand divided self we heard so much of in the previous lecture. Or the focus of excitement and heat,the point of view from which the aim is taken, may come to lie permanently within a certainsystem; and then, if the change be a religious one, we call it a CONVERSION, especially if it beby crisis, or sudden.

Let us hereafter, in speaking of the hot place in a man's consciousness, the group of ideas towhich he devotes himself, and from which he works, call it THE HABITUAL CENTRE OF HISPERSONAL ENERGY. It makes a great difference to a man whether one set of his ideas, oranother, be the centre of his energy; and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of ideaswhich he may possess, whether they become central or remain peripheral in him. To say that a manis "converted" means, in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral in hisconsciousness, now take a central place, and that religious aims form the habitual centre of hisenergy.

Now if you ask of psychology just HOW the excitement shifts in a man's mental system, andWHY aims that were peripheral become at a certain moment central, psychology has to reply thatalthough she can give a general description of what happens, she is unable in a given case toaccount accurately for all the single forces at work. Neither an outside observer nor the Subjectwho undergoes the process can explain fully how particular experiences are able to change one'scentre of energy so decisively, or why they so often have to bide their hour to do so. We have athought, or we perform an act, repeatedly, but on a certain day the real meaning of the thoughtpeals through us for the first time, or the act has suddenly turned into a moral impossibility. All weknow is that there are dead feelings, dead ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones;and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything has to re-crystallize about it. We may saythat the heat and liveliness mean only the "motor efficacy," long deferred but now operative, of theidea; but such talk itself is only circumlocution, for whence the sudden motor efficacy? And ourexplanations then get so vague and general that one realizes all the more the intense individualityof the whole phenomenon.

In the end we fall back on the hackneyed symbolism of a mechanical equilibrium. A mind is asystem of ideas, each with the excitement it arouses, and with tendencies impulsive and inhibitive, which mutually check or reinforce one another. The collection of ideas alters by subtraction or byaddition in the course of experience, and the tendencies alter as the organism gets more aged. Amental system may be undermined or weakened by this interstitial alteration just as a building is,and yet for a time keep upright by dead habit. But a new perception, a sudden emotional shock, oran occasion which lays bare the organic alteration, will make the whole fabric fall together; andthen the centre of gravity sinks into an attitude more stable, for the new ideas that reach the centrein the rearrangement seem now to be locked there, and the new structure remains permanent.

Formed associations of ideas and habits are usually factors of retardation in such changes ofequilibrium. New information, however acquired, plays an accelerating part in the changes; andthe slow mutation of our instincts and propensities, under the "unimaginable touch of time" has anenormous influence. Moreover, all these influences may work subconsciously or halfunconsciously.[99] And when you get a Subject in whom the subconscious life--of which I mustspeak more fully soon--is largely developed, and in whom motives habitually ripen in silence, youget a case of which you can never give a full account, and in which, both to the Subject and theonlookers, there may appear an element of marvel. Emotional occasions, especially violent ones,are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. The sudden and explosive ways inwhich love, jealousy, guilt, fear, remorse, or anger can seize upon one are known to everybody.

[100] Hope, happiness, security, resolve, emotions characteristic of conversion, can be equallyexplosive. And emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them.

[99] Jouffroy is an example: "Down this slope it was that my intelligence had glided, and littleby little it had got far from its first faith. But this melancholy revolution had not taken place in thebroad daylight of my consciousness; too many scruples, too many guides and sacred affections hadmade it dreadful to me, so that I was far from avowing to myself the progress it had made. It hadgone on in silence, by an involuntary elaboration of which I was not the accomplice; and althoughI had in reality long ceased to be a Christian, yet, in the innocence of my intention, I should haveshuddered to suspect it, and thought it calumny had I been accused of such a falling away." Thenfollows Jouffroy's account of his counter-conversion, quoted above on p. 173.

[100] One hardly needs examples; but for love, see p. 176, note, for fear, p. 161 ; for remorse,see Othello after the murder; for anger see Lear after Cordelia's first speech to him; for resolve, seep. 175 (J. Foster case). Here is a pathological case in which GUILT was the feeling that suddenlyexploded: "One night I was seized on entering bed with a rigor, such as Swedenborg describes ascoming over him with a sense of holiness, but over me with a sense of GUILT. During that wholenight I lay under the influence of the rigor, and from its inception I felt that I was under the curseof God. I have never done one act of duty in my life--sins against God and man beginning as far asmy memory goes back--a wildcat in human shape."In his recent work on the Psychology of Religion, Professor Starbuck of California has shown bya statistical inquiry how closely parallel in its manifestations the ordinary "conversion" whichoccurs in young people brought up in evangelical circles is to that growth into a larger spiritual lifewhich is a normal phase of adolescence in every class of human beings. The age is the same,falling usually between fourteen and seventeen. The symptoms are the same,--sense ofincompleteness and imperfection; brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts, and the like. And the result is the same--a happyrelief and objectivity, as the confidence in self gets greater through the adjustment of the facultiesto the wider outlook. In spontaneous religious awakening, apart from revivalistic examples, and inthe ordinary storm and stress and moulting-time of adolescence, we also may meet with mysticalexperiences, astonishing the subjects by their suddenness, just as in revivalistic conversion. Theanalogy, in fact, is complete; and Starbuck's conclusion as to these ordinary youthful conversionswould seem to be the only sound one: Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescentphenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child's small universe to the wider intellectual andspiritual life of maturity.

"Theology," says Dr. Starbuck, "takes the adolescent tendencies and builds upon them; it seesthat the essential thing in adolescent growth is bringing the person out of childhood into the newlife of maturity and personal insight. It accordingly brings those means to bear which will intensifythe normal tendencies. It shortens up the period of duration of storm and stress." The conversionphenomena of "conviction of sin" last, by this investigator's statistics, about one fifth as long as theperiods of adolescent storm and stress phenomena of which he also got statistics, but they are verymuch more intense. Bodily accompaniments, loss of sleep and appetite, for example, are muchmore frequent in them. "The essential distinction appears to be that conversion intensifies butshortens the period by bringing the person to a definite crisis."[101]

[101] E. D. Starbuck: The Psychology of Religion, pp. 224, 262.

The conversions which Dr. Starbuck here has in mind are of course mainly those of verycommonplace persons, kept true to a pre-appointed type by instruction, appeal, and example. Theparticular form which they affect is the result of suggestion and imitation.[102] If they wentthrough their growth-crisis in other faiths and other countries, although the essence of the changewould be the same (since it is one in the main so inevitable), its accidents would be different. InCatholic lands, for example, and in our own Episcopalian sects, no such anxiety and conviction ofsin is usual as in sects that encourage revivals. The sacraments being more relied on in these morestrictly ecclesiastical bodies, the individual's personal acceptance of salvation needs less to beaccentuated and led up to.

[102] No one understands this better than Jonathan Edwards understood it already. Conversionnarratives of the more commonplace sort must always be taken with the allowances which hesuggests:

"A rule received and established by common consent has a very great, though to many personsan insensible influence in forming their notions of the process of their own experience. I knowvery well how they proceed as to this matter, for I have had frequent opportunities of observingtheir conduct. Very often their experience at first appears like a confused chaos, but then thoseparts are selected which bear the nearest resemblance to such particular steps as are insisted on;and these are dwelt upon in their thoughts, and spoken of from time to time, till they grow moreand more conspicuous in their view, and other parts which are neglected grow more and moreobscure. Thus what they have experienced is insensibly strained, so as to bring it to an exactconformity to the scheme already established in their minds. And it becomes natural also for ministers, who have to deal with those who insist upon distinctness and clearness of method, to doso too." Treatise on Religious Affections.

But every imitative phenomenon must once have had its original, and I propose that for thefuture we keep as close as may be to the more first-hand and original forms of experience. Theseare more likely to be found in sporadic adult cases.

Professor Leuba, in a valuable article on the psychology of conversion,[103] subordinates thetheological aspect of the religious life almost entirely to its moral aspect. The religious sense hedefines as "the feeling of unwholeness, of moral imperfection, of sin, to use the technical word,accompanied by the yearning after the peace of unity." "The word 'religion,'" he says, "is gettingmore and more to signify the conglomerate of desires and emotions springing from the sense of sinand its release"; and he gives a large number of examples, in which the sin ranges fromdrunkenness to spiritual pride, to show that the sense of it may beset one and crave relief asurgently as does the anguish of the sickened flesh or any form of physical misery.

[103] Studies in the Psychology of Religious Phenomena, American Journal of Psychology, vii.

309 (1896).

Undoubtedly this conception covers an immense number of cases. A good one to use as anexample is that of Mr. S. H. Hadley, who after his conversion became an active and useful rescuerof drunkards in New York. His experience runs as follows:-"One Tuesday evening I sat in a saloon in Harlem, a homeless, friendless, dying drunkard. I hadpawned or sold everything that would bring a drink. I could not sleep unless I was dead drunk. Ihad not eaten for days, and for four nights preceding I had suffered with delirium tremens, or thehorrors, from midnight till morning. I had often said, 'I will never be a tramp. I will never becornered, for when that time comes, if ever it comes, I will find a home in the bottom of the river.'

But the Lord so ordered it that when that time did come I was not able to walk one quarter of theway to the river. As I sat there thinking, I seemed to feel some great and mighty presence. I did notknow then what it was. I did learn afterwards that it was Jesus, the sinner's friend. I walked up tothe bar and pounded it with my fist till I made the glasses rattle. Those who stood by drinkinglooked on with scornful curiosity. I said I would never take another drink, if I died on the street,and really I felt as though that would happen before morning. Something said, 'If you want to keepthis promise, go and have yourself locked up.' I went to the nearest station-house and had myselflocked up.

"I was placed in a narrow cell, and it seemed as though all the demons that could find room camein that place with me. This was not all the company I had, either. No, praise the Lord: that dearSpirit that came to me in the saloon was present, and said, Pray. I did pray, and though I did notfeel any great help, I kept on praying. As soon as I was able to leave my cell I was taken to thepolice court and remanded back to the cell. I was finally released, and found my way to mybrother's house, where every care was given me. While lying in bed the admonishing Spirit neverleft me, and when I arose the following Sabbath morning I felt that day would decide my fate, andtoward evening it came into my head to go to Jerry M'Auley's Mission. I went. The house was packed, and with great difficulty I made my way to the space near the platform. There I saw theapostle to the drunkard and the outcast--that man of God, Jerry M'Auley. He rose, and amid deepsilence told his experience. There was a sincerity about this man that carried conviction with it,and I found myself saying, 'I wonder if God can save me?' I listened to the testimony of twenty-five or thirty perso............
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