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Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America

Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America

by Craig Harline

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This powerful and innovative work by a gifted cultural historian explores the effects of religious conversion on family relationships, showing how the challenges of the Reformation can offer insight to families facing similarly divisive situations today.

Craig Harline begins with the story of young Jacob Rolandus, the son of a Dutch Reformed preacher, who


This powerful and innovative work by a gifted cultural historian explores the effects of religious conversion on family relationships, showing how the challenges of the Reformation can offer insight to families facing similarly divisive situations today.

Craig Harline begins with the story of young Jacob Rolandus, the son of a Dutch Reformed preacher, who converted to Catholicism in 1654 and ran away from home, causing his family to disown him. In the companion story, Michael Sunbloom, a young American, leaves his family's religion in 1973 to convert to Mormonism, similarly upsetting his distraught parents. The modern twist to Michael's story is his realization that he is gay, causing him to leave his new church, and upsetting his parents again—but this time the family reconciles.

Recounting these stories in short, alternating chapters, Harline underscores the parallel aspects of the two far-flung families. Despite different outcomes and forms, their situations involve nearly identical dynamics and heart-wrenching choices. Through the author's deeply informed imagination, the experiences of a seventeenth-century European family are transformed into immediately recognizable terms.

Editorial Reviews

Choice - Outstanding Academic Title

Selected as a Choice Academic Title 2012 for Religion within the Humanities category.
Publishers Weekly
A cultural historian at Brigham Young University, Harline (Miracles at the Jesus Oak) narrates the histories of two individuals who changed faiths at personal cost to them. Jacob Rolandus, son of a Dutch reformed preacher, became a Catholic in 1654, when religious enmity was part of the social order. In 1973, Michael Sunbloom converted to Mormonism. Both young men caused turmoil in their families. Sunbloom's story adds a modern twist; his realization that he is gay eventually prompts him to leave the Mormon church. Harline has done deep research, but the story wears it lightly, as both compelling narratives roll down parallel tracks. A beautiful book, illuminating in a time when almost half of Americans report switching religions. (Sept. 15)
Diarmaid MacCulloch
“Once I started, I could not put it down. It is hugely compelling. All the narrative skills which are so apparent in Harline’s earlier work are now bent towards a purpose which shows what history is for: illuminating present concerns through wise, informed, and serious reflection upon the past. A superb, important book.”—Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
John Demos and Aaron Sachs
“We are pleased to add Craig Harline’s remarkable book Conversions to Yale University Press’s series New Directions in Narrative History. This bold work builds on Harline’s deep knowledge of early modern Europe to forge powerful connections with events and people close to the present—all in the service of exploring themes of trans-historical significance. The focus moves, in alternating sequence, between two compelling personal stories. The first is that of a young 17th-century Dutchman, in the process of converting from Protestantism to Catholicism. The second follows a 20th-century American, moving in and out of Mormonism while passing at the same time from straight to gay life-ways. Though manifestly different in surface particulars, they are profoundly linked by underlying concerns with family and community tensions and with the puzzle of personal identity. Harline’s gifts as a writer enable him to describe, to evoke, to analyze, in seamless combination. Readers will be moved not only by his portrayal of the main characters; they will feel as well the tremors of connection to their own lives.”—John Demos (Yale University) and Aaron Sachs (Cornell University), Series Editors
Carol Lynn Pearson
“I have never seen put more clearly or potently the divisions that occur in families because of religious differences. Conversions is great storytelling, combining history and heart in a splendid, remarkable way.”—Carol Lynn Pearson, author of Goodbye, I Love You 
Booklist - Ray Olson
“Though every inch a professional historian, Harline writes accessibly, personally when appropriate, and so vitally overall that those he writes about become near-tangibly human.”—Ray Olson, Booklist
Juvenile Instructor - Ben Park
“Eloquent . . . fascinating and relevant . . . The narrative is fluid and readable, and I had trouble putting the text down.”—Ben Park, Juvenile Instructor
Choice - A.W. Klink
"This creative, engaging work shows why history matters and invites readers to learn from the past. It deserves a wide readership."—A.W. Klink, Choice
Columbia Journalism School/Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism - The Mark Lynton History Prize
Finalist for the 2012 Mark Lynton History Prize sponsored by the Lukas Prize Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The Lynton History Prize is awarded to a book length work of history on any topic that best combines intellectual distinction with felicity of expression.
Journal of Religion - Christopher D. Cantwell
“In its most gripping passages Conversions is as captivating as a well-written novel. . . insightful and eloquent."—Christopher D. Cantwell, Journal of Religion
Lauren Winner
“An absorbing, creative book… it will definitely become a go-to book for readers interested in the history and psychology of conversion.”—Lauren Winner, author of Girl Meets God: A Memoir
Affirmation.org - Gerald S. Argetsinger
“An unexpected joy. . . . A compelling, insightful examination. . . . Conversions is a journey well worth taking.”—Gerald S. Argetsinger, Affirmation.org
Deseret News - Rhett Wilkinson
“Will appeal to lovers of history, Christians, and religious enthusiasts alike.”—Rhett Wilkinson, Deseret News
Carlos Eire
“A beautiful and moving book. Harline is a master at narrative and at making the most painstaking research look effortless. These two unconnected stories required very different approaches, yet Harline's writing binds them together with an odd, yet arresting symmetry, overflowing with integrity and insight.”—Carlos Eire, Yale University
Though every inch a professional historian, Harline writes accessibly, personally when appropriate, and so vitally overall that those he writes about become near-tangibly human.—Ray Olson, Booklist

— Ray Olson

Deseret News
Will appeal to lovers of history, Christians, and religious enthusiasts alike.—Rhett Wilkinson, Deseret News

— Rhett Wilkinson

Juvenile Instructor
Eloquent . . . fascinating and relevant . . . The narrative is fluid and readable, and I had trouble putting the text down.—Ben Park, Juvenile Instructor

— Ben Park

An unexpected joy...A compelling, insightful examination...Conversions is a journey well worth taking.—Gerald S. Argetsinger, Affirmation.org

— Gerald S. Argetsinger

Catholic Sentinel
“Highly readable and in many ways fascinating.”—Catholic Sentinel
This creative, engaging work shows why history matters and invites readers to learn from the past. It deserves a wide readership.—A.W. Klink, Choice

— A.W. Klink

Columbia Journalism School/Harvard's Nieman Foundation for Journalism
Finalist for the 2012 Mark Lynton History Prize sponsored by the Lukas Prize Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. The Lynton History Prize is awarded to a book length work of history on any topic that best combines intellectual distinction with felicity of expression.

— The Mark Lynton History Prize

Library Journal
Cultural and Reformation historian Harline (Brigham Young Univ.; Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl) takes readers through the sometimes engaging personal stories of two converts: a young 17th-century Dutch Calvinist who converts to Catholicism, setting up a struggle by his family to rescue him and return him to the fold; and a contemporary Pentecostal college student (and author's friend), estranged from his parents when he converts to Mormonism, only to leave the church as he becomes aware of his gay identity. As a contribution to the "New Directions in Narrative History" series, the book seeks to use historical cases to illuminate contemporary concerns while maintaining historical scholarly rigor. That Harline does not succeed is in part owing to poor scholarly decisions (e.g., forgoing footnotes and using a friend as one of his subjects), lack of insight into conversion generally, and a sloppy handling of primary sources. VERDICT While Harline's storytelling skills may engage general readers, the experimental form will raise serious issues for scholars.—Steve Young, McHenry Cty. Coll., Crystal Lake, IL

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
New Directions in Narrative History Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
8.80(w) x 5.70(h) x 0.90(d)

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Read an Excerpt


Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America
By Craig Harline


Copyright © 2011 Craig Harline
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-16701-6

Chapter One

May 24, 1654, a Sunday, near sunset.

The calm of late evening, in the unremarkable Dutch town of Boxtel.

A river winding through.

A single church tower in near-silhouette looming above a modest and jumbled skyline of brick, timber, plaster, and straw.

Canals and ponds shimmering all across the flat and soggy countryside.

A breeze pushing softly through leaves and mostly empty streets. And, around nine, a young man walking alone near the church, toward the rectory, home of the preacher and his family.

But the tranquil scene is a ruse.

For night is coming, and night always means fear, even in towns, where torches are too few to reveal every scoundrel, and too dim to chase off every demon.

And the young man is carrying a message for the preacher's son that will shatter the preacher's heart, if the preacher hears it.

The knock at the rectory door stirs the family inside.

They have already locked up for the night, after all, but the preacher decides to open anyway when he realizes who is calling.

The young man at the door is no stranger, but a friend to both of the preacher's children and a member of the local nobility. He greets the preacher, then asks whether the daughter of the household, Maria, might be allowed on such a fine evening to stroll to the home of a mutual and highly respectable friend.

Despite the young nobleman's enviable breeding, and the worthy destination, the preacher says no. Is it the late hour? Or perhaps even the company, about which the preacher has more cause to worry than he knows?

The reason doesn't really matter, because the young nobleman isn't there to stroll at all; in fact he probably knew the answer to his question before asking it. Rather, he is there to whisper his message to the preacher's son, Jacob, who comes to the door to say hello while the slightly agitated preacher withdraws, rejoining his wife and (disappointed?) daughter in the background.

Privacy isn't complete, but it's enough for the young nobleman to convey his message in two or three words—enough for Jacob to know that the moment has arrived at last.

When the visitor leaves, the house is locked again, and Jacob goes back inside to his family, for the last time in his life.

Soon afterward, the family retires.

But how is Jacob to sleep, after what he has heard? Which was this: that a saddled horse, the getaway horse, would be waiting for him in a nearby field later that night.

It was the last and most difficult piece of the plan. Jacob had already arranged for the young nobleman and another friend to come by at 11 (when the last rays of May sunlight finally vanished), so that they can carry his heavy traveling bag to the field for him. This way he won't risk walking noisily down the stairs with it, or dropping it heavily to the ground from his bedroom window above the back garden, or being slowed by it as he climbs the back fence.

He now packs that bag quickly, making it a little heavier than necessary by stuffing in his father's Hebrew Bible and lexicon, reasoning that these would be useful in his studies. Then at 11, Jacob opens his bedroom window and sees the friends waiting in the garden below, as promised. He lowers the bag to them, and they take it to the field.

Perfect so far. One of the friends stays with the bag, keeping nervous watch. The other, the young nobleman, goes to fetch the horse.

Jacob remains in his room a while longer, giving his friend time to get the horse, his family time to fall more deeply into sleep, and himself time to sleep a little as well. But mostly he frets. Will he get enough of a head start? Will his parents realize too soon that he is gone and track him down before he reaches the border?

To calm himself, he prays, then tries to sleep, and dream.

He had been putting together his escape for three weeks now.

Ever since his secret conversion to the One Holy Catholic Roman and Apostolic Church. Ever since he decided that he could no longer pretend to be one thing on the outside while another inside. Ever since he realized that the good people of Boxtel, almost all of them Catholic, were being wrongfully deprived of their religion—their true religion—by his own father, leader of the tiny but state-sanctioned Reformed congregation here in town.

How long during those weeks of planning did it take Jacob to decide where to go?

Though he had plenty of relatives around the land, they professed the same Reformed religion as his parents and were unlikely to be sympathetic to his change of faith. He finally decided to leave the country altogether, and go south, to Antwerp, seventy miles away by land but an eternity by heaven, for Antwerp was gloriously Catholic, and there he could practice his new religion freely instead of secretly and thus work better to save his soul. Besides, he would not be among complete strangers there, for some of his friends in Boxtel had family and friends in Antwerp, who, it was promised, would help him when he arrived. And the big city's 50,000 people would provide him some badly needed anonymity.

Much simpler had been his decision of how to go: it had to be by horse, and by night, in order to stay ahead of pursuers.

But it was no simple matter for a young man without means, who wanted to leave his parents, to find a horse. Again local friends had been ready to help, starting with the young nobleman. Another friend had agreed to serve as guide on the unfamiliar road south and to bring back whatever horse Jacob managed to arrange. A third (the town's deposed Catholic pastor) had given Jacob 25 florins for expenses along the way. And a fourth—Jacob's best friend, another young nobleman named Christian Vlierden, who had headed south that very afternoon to war—had offered to meet Jacob the next morning near the border, at the home of yet another nobleman, where the travelers could refresh themselves and plan further.

There had been some close calls these past weeks, as might be expected with more and more friends learning of Jacob's plans and needs: which of them might let something slip? Just days before, the local sheriff had approached to ask about rumors that Jacob was thinking of going off to war with Vlierden: there was nothing to it, said an undoubtedly shaken Jacob. Stay at home and keep studying with your father, said the suspicious sheriff.

Today was nerve-wracking too, for while Jacob sat in church listening to his father's sermon, as he did every Sunday with his mother and sister, his mind was filled not with the mysteries of heaven but rather with the decidedly earthly matter of finding a horse. Just yesterday he thought he'd found one, but this morning had come word that it wasn't available after all. Yet he had to leave tonight, as he couldn't bear to stay another day. Besides, he had to meet young Vlierden at the border the next morning, or never.

The horse problem was solved only hours after the sermon, and thus only hours before the escape, when the first young nobleman came knocking at the Rolanduses' locked door and whispered in Jacob's ear. And it was solved, Jacob knew, by dubious means, which would complicate things for everyone.

Still, the appearance of a horse at the last possible moment must have seemed nothing less than a gift from heaven. He would ride it then.

Whatever sleep Jacob manages to find, whatever dreams cross his mind, he is at the window again at two, this time to leave forever.

He pushes it open and climbs through, quiet as a housecat, then scampers down into the garden.

Any sleepless neighbor looking out, any mischief-maker come to cast stones at the rectory's windows, would have paused, kept to the shadows, and held still. The preacher's home has been the gathering place, the pin cushion, for all the curséd troubles of late, and any action there is sure to be worth watching.

Jacob moves across the back garden now, and climbs over the fence of his despised neighbor, the schoolmaster. Though his destination is the field where horse and bag are supposed to be waiting, he makes two stops along the way.

The first is at the home of the friend who'd promised to serve as guide—but this friend now quietly declares, through a cracked door or window, that he cannot go after all. Disappointment, but not disaster. Because the would-be guide assures Jacob that the friend waiting in the field will gladly go along instead.

The second stop is at the town's only convent, just around the corner, where in the darkness Jacob quietly, and sadly, bids farewell to two of the inhabitants.

And now the field at last! But here more disappointment: the horse still hasn't arrived, and the friend waiting with the bag says that he can't make the journey either, because he has a bad foot.

Jacob doesn't quit his plan, or see these obstacles as warning signs from God. More likely he sees the devil at work, trying to block his escape, just as the devil tried, through Pharaoh, to block the escape of the Children of Israel from Egypt. But the devil will have no more luck with Jacob than he had with Moses.

The sudden arrival of the young nobleman with the horse surely bolsters Jacob's resolve: he will go on alone, without a guide, bravely and perhaps foolhardily, like the legendary Roland figure on the Rolandus family crest—Roland who in the medieval epic waded hopelessly and heroically into battle against the infidels, not counting the cost.

After loading the bag onto the horse, and after hushed words about directions and where he should leave the animal, Jacob says goodbye and rides off. The young nobleman who borrowed the horse heads north for a few days, to lie low, until it's brought back. The other friend hurries home to rest, as he is the one, bad foot and all, who's been designated to do the bringing back.

Yes, anyone witnessing these scenes would have marveled, precisely because Jacob was the preacher's son: his unsettled, 21-year-old, minor (until 25), and only, son.

Certainly many in and around town (more than the preacher preferred) knew that things were not right between him and Jacob. But the generational struggle was old news by now, and rarely resulted in children—especially preachers' children—running away from home. That's why neighbors would have marveled that Jacob actually did so.

Some in town would rejoice when they heard the news later that day. Others, including even a few of the preacher's rivals, would grieve for the ruptured family.

And from the rectory itself, just as from Ramah in ancient Israel, there would be heard within hours lamentation, and bitter weeping ... weeping for her children ... because they were not.

Jacob's flight would help to make him not, for his devoutly Reformed family. He was leaving them, and their home, and their faith, to follow a religion they had rejected a century before, and had ever since regarded as the whore of Babylon, the kingdom of the devil, the fountain of all wickedness.

His family would never forgive him. And that is the heart of his story.

Chapter Two

July 1999, a weekday, after noon.

Setting the latest bundle of crumbling documents onto the immense brown table before me, I plop wearily into a chair, scoot forward, and helplessly watch a drop of sweat run down the left lens of my glasses.

The drop lingers for a moment at the bottom of the lens, then continues downward until landing with a tiny splash on the table, just missing the documents, thank goodness.

I remove my glasses and wipe them with part of my damp shirt, wipe the drop on the table with my damp hand, and wipe at my forehead with the back of my damp forearm, but not a damp thing gets dry.

It's hot and muggy in the archives in summer.

You'd think that an archive would be the coolest place around, even in air-conditioning-loathing Belgium, because everyone knows that heat and humidity damage documents.

In fact there is air-conditioning in some archives around Europe, including here at Belgium's national archive, but usually it blows only in the depot, where documents are stored, and rarely in the reading room, where documents are brought out temporarily to wilting researchers. Though healthy for documents, you see, air-conditioning is expensive, polluting, and most of all, according to northern Europeans I know, unhealthy for homo sapiens.

The natives in the reading room soldier on bravely and virtuously, buoyed by the thought that they are avoiding the sore throats and colds and horrible diseases sure to result from artificially chilled air. Foreigners have no choice but to soldier on as well, if lethargically and grumpily, with hair a little wet around the edges and forearms perpetually sticky, so that despite gallant efforts to hold elbows aloft in order to avoid touching fragile 400-year-old documents you still manage to drip a little sweat on them anyway, while they get a little of themselves on you as well—usually grains of sand that some scribe scattered across the once-fresh ink to help it dry but that now stick stubbornly to your skin.

Archives always post rules forbidding you to write on documents, or to bring a pen within a mile or so of the reading room (pencils and computers only). But they never post suggestions for how to stop sweating on everything, or what to do with leftover sand.

These trips to Europe are cooler when made in autumn or winter, but usually I'm teaching then. Besides, in winter the archives are crowded with local students who have just remembered that they'd better do some research for their senior thesis, and some archives are so cold that you have to keep your coat and gloves on while working, not to mention suffer the noise of the inevitable vintage radiator clunking so loudly in the background that you'd swear some goblin was whacking away in there with a crowbar to get the thing going.

And so I keep traveling to archives in summer, even when it's hot inside.

These aren't exactly Everest-like conditions, but they're unpleasant enough to make you wonder what else you might be doing with your time.

What keeps me and many other historians going back to archives, year after year, whatever the elements, is the hope of finding a fantastic new document.

Naturally one historian's fantastic can be another historian's yawner. For some, fantastic might mean discovering an old phone book, or a thrilling tax register filled with endless columns of figures. For others, it could mean the tiniest new morsel about any over-studied historical celebrity (the ever-exploitable Leonardo da Vinci), or at least someone in that celebrity's inner circle (did you hear about Anne Boleyn's sister?).

And for still others (including me) a document is fantastic because it shouts out the drama of forgotten lives, revealing in astonishing detail people and ideas and assumptions and conditions that you've never imagined or heard of.

It's hard to find a document like that from the sixteenth or seventeenth century, even about the famous, and not just because many such documents were the victims of heat and fire and water and mice and rampaging clerks, but also because you have to sift through so many non-fantastic documents along the way. Even for the hopelessly unfashionable field of study that I prefer (religious life during the Reformation), far more documents have survived than anyone can hope to read, most of these documents are rather dull, many are barely legible, and almost all were written in languages not my own—and in older versions of those languages to boot.

No wonder that you come across fantastic documents (at least my sort) so rarely, and almost by accident. You're actually looking for something else. Or the archivist mistakenly brings you a document you didn't request. Or the archivist miraculously allows you to walk behind the forbidden door into the depot itself, the holy of holies, and pull out whatever you please.

Despite the hard going, you keep at it anyway, because you've found treasures before, and the memory of them makes you believe that somewhere inside the latest massive pile is another nugget, waiting just for you—not for you to see it first, of course, because just about every document from the Reformation has probably been seen already by someone else, but for you to see it with your particular eyes.

So far today, the documents have been, as usual, less than fantastic.

In fact it's been a superabundance of laws, charters, deeds, financial accounts, church decrees, and other official sorts of things, all about as lively as the straight-angled, sterile decor of the mostly brown reading room itself. Though useful, such documents have little flesh and blood, little drama, little story.

But all that changes as I undo the usual red ribbon that holds together the usual pile of faded tan papers, and take into my sweaty hands the not-so-usual sort of document I'm always looking for: the secret journal of Jacob Rolandus.

It wasn't even that hard to find—it wasn't squirreled away in some locked cabinet by an overprotective archivist, for instance—but was clearly described in the archive's easily accessible catalogue. The word journal was what grabbed me, as it would most any historian who studies far-off centuries, because ego documents (the rather clinical name for diaries and autobiographies) were rare before 1700. Certainly some disappoint, because they end up being grocery lists or account books rather than revealers of hearts. But you check anyway, just in case, even if you're working on something else, as I was.


Excerpted from Conversions by Craig Harline Copyright © 2011 by Craig Harline. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Craig Harline is professor of history at Brigham Young University.

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