Conversion The Texts

In the fourth and fifth centuries, as Christianity became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, narratives of conversion instructed Christians on the profound significance of their religious affiliation. Christians composed and circulated stories of their own conversions and those of others to understand what their entry into Christian life could and should entail. These narratives became especially significant in this era during which Christianity achieved legitimacy and prominence: as emperors patronized the religion, and conversion came to be viewed as a politically savvy move, the emphasis on the spiritual vitality of conversion seemed more important than ever.

Three different types of conversion narratives are reproduced here. In them, we see conversion to Christianity as a consequence of personal introspection, often belabored and drawn out; as a consequence of persuasion and deliberation; even as a consequence of violence and coercion. In most conversion narratives of this period, we find the turn to Christianity idealized as a moment of excruciating awareness of both self and God, a "lightbulb" moment (drawing, to be sure, on the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus as narrated in Acts 9). It is, of course, impossible to verify to what extent people really experienced their religious identity in such a sudden, dramatic manner; sociologists of religion debate whether even first-person accounts of conversion, written after the fact, can be taken as reliable, influenced as they are by subsequent religious enculturation. In such accounts, we nonetheless catch sight of a widely circulated ideal of what it meant to embrace Christian identity, whether as the culmination of decades of searching or as the result of a sudden and unexpected encounter with the Christian God.

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