Conversion: A Family Affair


Michelangelo, The Conversion of Saul, c. 1545 (detail)

by Craig Harline

What are the choices when a family member converts to another faith (or non-faith)? Or, takes a path that upsets the family’s perceived traditions?

One good place to look for answers is Reformation Europe, where the problem of individual conversion on a massive scale was born in the modern West. I looked there myself, and found, among hundreds and thousands of others, the story of a young Dutchman named Jacob Rolandus, who in 1654 converted from his family’s Reformed religion to Catholicism. Because he was too young (considered a minor until age 25), Jacob felt that the only way he could practice his faith freely was to leave home, and country (the Dutch Republic), for good. Therefore, one night in May 1654, he climbed out of his bedroom window and ran away to Antwerp, across the border to the Spanish Netherlands, which was officially Catholic.

His upset father, who was not only Reformed but also a preacher, soon followed him with a posse of family and friends, and finally found Jacob and arranged to meet with him. When persuasion didn’t work, the father and a brother-in-law tried force, but Jacob managed to escape. Three months later, after several more attempts, Jacob’s father finally gave up, and returned home distraught.

Jacob’s sister Maria tried next, writing long, emotional letters for the next three years, pleading with her brother to return and lamenting his most assured damnation if he stayed in his new Catholic faith. Jacob wrote back just as passionately, just as sure that his family would be the ones to suffer damnation. Convinced that Jacob would never change, his sister at last gave up too. He never heard from any of his family again for the last 27 years of his life.

I liked this story not only because it was moving and unusually well-documented, but because it raised bigger issues that hadn’t much been studied: how did people of the Reformation deal with the conversion of family members? There were tens of thousands of religiously mixed families around Europe by 1650. Did they have no other solutions to their differences than what the Rolanduses chose? The answers are not entirely clear.

We know increasingly more about how rival churches and believers got along, or how they didn’t, thanks to the long popularity among historians of the subject of tolerance. And we know incidentally through studies of various prominent families the upsetting role that conversion might play among blood relations. But in general we know poorly about what happened within this most emotionally charged institution of society when some members chose one faith and some another. We know just as poorly what mental, emotional, or spiritual tools mixed families had available to them to cope with such changes. The story of the Rolandus family was a good place to explore some of those questions.

I learned that there were in fact plenty of other solutions besides the drastic version the Rolanduses chose. Probably no one will ever be able to say exactly how many mixed families there were, or exactly how many behaved in a particular way, but I’m convinced that the Rolanduses were the exception in completely cutting off their son and brother. Yes, some other families cut off relatives too, or even killed them, but the most common solution in mixed families was probably some form of tolerance.

Tolerance was not considered a virtue by most people of the time, but most practiced it anyway as a choice preferable to banishing or killing. The varieties of tolerance ranged from barely speaking to peacefully interacting, but all tolerant people kept up some level of contact, and all hoped for the day that other-believers would see the light and change. The root meaning of tolerance was, after all, putting up with, enduring, or bearing — in this case, someone’s unfortunate decision, or condition, or religion. Tolerance, as has often been pointed out, was inherently intolerant. You didn’t kill or banish, but you still might despise, and you still regarded other-believers as deviant, and inferior, not merely different. So it was in tolerant mixed families too. And yet I also found a few mixed families who went beyond tolerance and achieved something like genuine acceptance of each other. This wasn’t grudging or even peaceful coexistence with inferiors, or hoping that others would change, but instead mutual respect and understanding among equals. Accepting families were hardly abundant, but those that existed required more from relationships than mere tolerance.

I might have stopped the book there. It had a dramatic story and larger significance, and could have stood perfectly well on its own. But I had a nagging feeling that I wanted to do more with this book, especially because the Rolanduses’ story felt more personal and familiar than anything I’d ever written, as if this story were happening to me, as if I had a stake in the outcome, as if I’d heard it before. I wanted to understand why.

Historians are usually quite good at sensing connection to the past, even such remote pasts as the Reformation. But we don’t usually write about those connections: the past is too other to bear detailed comparisons with the present, and explaining your emotional connections to a particular past might turn out to be terribly embarrassing. But for once, despite the difficulties, I wanted to say explicitly how I thought a Reformation story connected to the present; not as some exercise, or experiment, but because I was convinced by now that not only are we most interested in the past when we see what it has to do with us, we learn most deeply from it too. Sometimes, however, that connection isn’t immediately clear, especially when it goes across centuries and oceans and doesn’t involve your own family or religion or country or some famous person; that’s when it needs a little translation, or conversion, into familiar terms. This sort of historical conversion, something like what is done in a conversion table, is another meaning of the book’s title besides the obvious meaning of religious conversion.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my strongest connection to the Rolanduses’s story was the story of an old friend, whom I call Michael Sunbloom. His story from the 1970s and 80s included precisely the same dilemma faced by the Rolanduses: what to do when a family member abandons the family faith, or family ways? But this time the outcome was drastically different, and the story took modern twists and turns that involved present-day forms of old dynamics. Still, to me, the stories seemed in essentials to be the same: Michael’s story might just help convert the Reformation story for modern readers. I therefore decided to tell it too, in alternating chapters with the Rolanduses’ story, thinking that such a side-by-side comparison might deepen the meaning of each story more than if each were simply told alone.

In 1973, 22-year-old Michael Sunbloom broke his parents’ Evangelical hearts and converted to Mormonism. They didn’t disown their son, but they came close to it, and their relationship grew cold. So far, it was a story that might have occurred in the Reformation too, save for the religions involved. Then came the modern twist: after three years as a Mormon, Michael realized that he was gay, which made him feel that he had to quit his new church. His parents were thrilled by his quitting, but when they discovered the reason behind it they were more perplexed than ever. Unlike the Reformation family, however, the Sunbloom family eventually figured out a way to reconcile; and not only to tolerate each other, but to accept. And they did this on the basis of their religious faith, as Michael’s parents came to believe that the imperative to love outweighed any other aspect of their religion.

I’d always liked Michael’s story, but I certainly had my doubts about including it in a book that began as a study of the Reformation. Among other things, I worried that historians might dislike my pursuit of the psychological sameness of the past rather than its otherness. But I decided to tell it anyway, maybe out of some adolescent need to show that historians matter in modern society, but mostly, I think, to try to show the immediacy of even the distant and faraway past to our present.

In previous books I’d tried to suggest the significance of the Reformation by writing stories that were meant to be accessible to modern readers, but this time I wanted to spell out exactly what one such story might mean right now. I wanted to be an evangelist of the Reformation, not a high priest; a characterization I recently heard an orchestra conductor use to help his musicians to find the attitude they needed to widen interest in classical music. And I wanted to try even at the risk of being a heretical evangelist.

If it was uncomfortable in various ways to write such a personal book, a book that tried to make such clear connections to the present, I also have to say that I’ve never had such emotional responses to anything I’ve written as those I’ve had so far, which is probably no coincidence.

About the Author:

Craig Harline is currently professor of History at Brigham Young University, and author of the just-released Conversions: Two Family Stories From the Reformation and Modern America, published by Yale University Press. Yale has also published four of his other books on religious history, including the new paperbacks Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl, and Miracles at the Jesus Oak.