Conversion and testimony interest me. On the first Sunday of every month, fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bear their testimonies in the main meeting. I have been attending such meetings since before I can remember. In our own way, we each speak about conversion, God’s tender mercies, and the faith that inspires us, if only bit by bit.
In addition to personal belief, my interest in conversion and testimony is also academic. As a historian I am fascinated by individual and societal stories of transformations, changes, and conversions. We have accounts from many times and places of testimonies and conversions. Paul, in the New Testament, recounted his conversion to Christianity. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, told of his conversion in his Confessions. The testimony of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon typifies the miraculous change of heart that comes with conversion. And yet, historical interests have mostly been in large societal conversions. World history texts draw a student’s attention to the success of the Buddha’s message along the Silk Roads from India into East Asia and Southeast Asia. The Germanic conversions to Christianity after the collapse of the Roman Empire set the foundations of subsequent European states. Some say the conquest and conversion of the Americas after 1492 began the modern world. The conversion to Islam during Muhammad’s lifetime and the Arab conquests transformed vast swaths of Asia, Africa, and Europe. The impact of rapid Christianization and Islamization of Sub-Saharan Africa contributes to a dynamic global community in the twenty-first century. People’s choices of religious affiliation and personal belief remain an integral part of the human condition.
Conversion includes the challenges of acculturation, mixing, and mestizaje, and the documentation of those changes. In my own research interests I have explored conversion, assimilation, and personal behavior within the early modern Spanish Empire. For example, during the expulsion of the Moriscos from Spain in the early seventeenth century, Juan de Idiáquez, as advisor to Philip III, commented on his concern that identifying “Christians of the heart” would be very difficult. Conversion and religious change can be extremely destabilizing, as Gauri Viswanathan has pointed out in her research about Hindus and Muslims in India. Conversion and converts bring potential suspicion into communities, asking “whose heart has changed?” I distinguish between conversion and adhesion. Adhesion refers to the attaching of individuals and societies to the surrounding community and culture. For more than three centuries the indigenous people of Spanish America eventually adhered to Catholicism, even as many European, African, and American traditions merged into a New World. However, conversion refers more powerfully to the individual experience and the mighty change of heart that Alma addresses when he preaches to the people of Zarahemla or that Paul refers to in his second epistle to the Corinthians about the fleshy tables of the heart. Looking into the past and judging someone’s motivations to convert presents a puzzle that endlessly intrigues me.
And yet, equally, my own ongoing conversion and those of my contemporaries draw my attention and love. I eagerly attend testimony meetings on the first Sunday of the month, listening for the stories of a heart’s conversion. Be it in the Laie Eighth Ward or in any other chapel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I attend those meetings and share in the individual stories of human conversion. The stories of conversion and testimony remind me of times when personal prayers have been answered. I lived for six months while on a Church mission in Los Llanos de Aridane on the island of La Palma. With less than 20,000 residents, Los Llanos was one of the larger towns on La Palma. I learned about personal conversion, belief, and behavior during that time with just my mission companion and another pair of missionaries, becoming acquainted with the people and occasionally teaching missionary lessons. Three individuals chose to accept baptism, but initially it was just four of us on the island. After Los Llanos, I served next in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the largest city in the islands with over 300,000 inhabitants. The LDS Church in Las Palmas had four congregations with probably one hundred people attending the neighborhood Sunday meetings. After months of small meetings in Los Llanos, with either me or my companion conducting the meetings and teaching the lessons, I loved sitting in the congregation of the Las Palmas IV Branch Sunday services. I can still recall the joy and inner peace I felt to be one with the Saints and to be blessed by a shared faith in our God. Experiences like these strengthen my faith.
Believing, knowing, and doing encompass my personal and intellectual experience of conversion. Blaise Pascal’s (1623-1662) famous quotation—the heart has its reasons which reason cannot know—inspires me in the infinite study of humanity and our universal environment. My change of heart continues even as I read the testimonies posted on this website. Hardy’s choice to believe, Bushman’s “mostly practical” answers, and Bitton’s obituary along with the other valuable contributors create a community of fellow saints. It’s a good place for me to be. I hope my students and children will practice this faith.
James B. Tueller has been a member of the faculty at BYU-Hawai’i since August 1997. Before moving to La‘ie, he received his Ph.D. in history at Columbia University in New York City. He has taught at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York and BYU in Provo, Utah. Professor Tueller was born in Morocco, where his father worked as Vice-Consul in the Tangier Consulate of the United States of America. Because of his father’s assignments, he also lived in Caracas, Venezuela; Panama City, Panama; Manila, Philippines; and Madrid, Spain. His first book, Good and Faithful Christians: Moriscos and Catholicism in Early Modern Spain, was published by the University Press of the South in 2002. It examines the Morisco expulsion from Spain in 1609 and how the descendants of forcibly-baptized Christians adapted to a century’s worth of Catholicism. He currently researches and writes on the Spanish Empire in the Pacific Ocean, focusing on conversion to Christianity among the eighteenth-century Chamorros of Guam. He and his wife Beth are the parents of five children.
Posted June 2010