William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Lectures 9 & 10: Conversion

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In these lectures, James studies the phenomenon of religious conversion. It is not theological conversion he looks at, conversion from one set of religious beliefs to another, but moral conversion among Protestants, from sinfulness to what is called conviction of sin.

James understands conversion in terms of groups of ideas. In his view of our mental processes, a person's attention switches between various agglomerations of ideas, each of which is relatively independent of the others. But within each of us there is one group that tends to dominate, what he calls the habitual centre of [our] personal energy [p 196]. Conversion happens when the group of religious ideas, previously peripheral, becomes central.

Explosive emotions

The writer suggests that conversion can be triggered, as we might say, by explosive emotions:

Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely potent in precipitating mental rearrangements. ... Hope, happiness, security, resolve, emotions characteristic of conversion can be ... explosive. And emotions that come in this explosive way seldom leave things as they found them. [p 198]

A normal adolescent phenomenon

James sees

the ordinary conversion which occurs in young people brought up in evangelical circles [p 199]

as a particular version of a normal adolescent phenomenon [p 199], the change from childhood to adulthood.

Inability to convert is a weakness

He points out that some people are incapable of conversion. In some cases, this is because they are lacking in some way or another: they have an instinct for religion, but it is somehow inhibited. Thus, the writer speaks of:

the agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and shameful, under which many of us to-day lie cowering, afraid to use our instincts. [p 204]

In other cases:

the trouble is profounder. There are men anaesthetic on the religious side, deficient in that category of sensibility. [pp 204-205]


Even late in life, some thaw, some release may take place, some bolt be shot back in the barrenest breast, and the man's hard heart may soften and break into religious feeling. [p 205]


James distinguishes between two types of conversion, the volitional and the self-surrender types: the former is conscious and voluntary; the latter is unconscious and involuntary. He is interested in the latter. He indicates that:

the latter has been and always must be regarded as the vital turning-point of the religious life, so far as the religious life is spiritual and no affair of outer works and ritual and sacraments. [p 210]

The spiritual evolution of Christianity

In fact, he makes self-surrender a criterion of religious progress historically. What he has to say needs to be quoted in full:

One may say that the whole development of Christianity in inwardness has consisted in little more than the greater and greater emphasis attached to this crisis of self-surrender. From Catholicism to Lutheranism, and then to Calvinism; from that to Wesleyanism; and from this, outside of technical Christianity, to pure liberalism or transcendental idealism, whether or not of the mind-cure type, taking in the medieval mystics, the quietists, the pietists, and quakers by the way, we can trace the stages of progress towards the idea of an immediate spiritual help, experienced by the individual in his forlornness and standing in no essential need of doctrinal apparatus or propitiatory apparatus. [p 211]

Instantaneous conversion

In the second of his two lectures on conversion, James studies instantaneous conversion, starting by reproducing several accounts of it. He points out that it is most important in Methodism, where salvation depends on an acute crisis of self-despair and surrender, followed by relief [p 227] and reaffirms his assessment of Methodism as spiritually superior to the more usual sects of Protestantism and to Catholicism:

Methodism surely here follows, if not the healthier-minded, yet on the whole the profounder spiritual instinct. [pp 227-228]

Subliminal consciousness

The writer seeks to explain how instantaneous conversion can arise in terms of a then fairly recent discovery in psychology, which he refers to as the subliminal consciousness [p 234]. This is a repository outside of an individual's consciousness, where memories, thoughts and feeling can accumulate without the individual being aware of what is going on. At a given moment, such subconscious materials can break suddenly through into the consciousness of the individual. James suggests that notable instantaneous conversions occur in people whose region of subliminal consciousness is particularly large. Such people accumulate more subconscious religious material and, when in the conversion event it bursts through into consciousness, the impact is correspondingly greater.

The psychological superiority of Protestantism

The writer notes how well Protestantism accords with human nature in this matter. He speaks of

the admirable congruity of Protestant theology with the human mind. [p 244]

Then, having quoted Luther at length, he comments:

Nothing in Catholic theology, I imagine, has ever spoken to the sick soul as straight as this message from Luther's personal experience. [p 246]

And again:

the adequacy of his view of Christianity to the deeper parts of our human mental structure is shown by its wildfire contagiousness when it was a new and quickening thing. [p 246]

The results of conversion

James concludes his survey of conversion with an analysis of the results as felt by the subject. He identifies four features.

  1. the loss of all the worry, the sense that all is ultimately well with one. [p 248]
  2. the sense of perceiving truths not known before. [p 248]
  3. there is a sense of clean and beautiful newness within and without. [p 248]
  4. the ecstasy of happiness produced. [p 254]

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