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William Hale White’s The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford is one of the lesser-known works of Victorian fiction. In elegant prose, White recounts the journey of Mark Rutherford from non-conformist preacher to Unitarian minister and finally to nature mystic. White opens up the world of Puritan non-conformity in a respectful yet questioning mode. Rutherford’s journey is narrated in the same way that John Bunyan had described the progress of Christian. It is a kind of pilgrim’s regress of the Romantic type that C. S. Lewis also wrote about, only Rutherford travels from Christianity to theism and from theism to pantheism—exactly the opposite of Lewis.

While there are numerous turning points in the journey, the decisive moment occurs in college as Rutherford is preparing for ministry. During his third year, he discovers Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. The experience of reading the poems was so powerful it “could only be compared with that which is said to have wrought on Paul himself by the Divine apparition.” Drawing upon the language of conversion, Rutherford says: “it excited a movement and a growth which went on till, by degrees, all the systems which enveloped me like a body gradually decayed from me and fell away into nothing. . . [Wordsworth’s] real God is not the God of the Church, but the God of the hills, the abstraction Nature, and to this my reverence was transferred.”

White’s literary account of Rutherford’s defection from Christianity is highly religious despite its probing the contours of doubt and unbelief. Along the way, White reminds his readers that conversion is universal. Everyone converts. It is one of the most fundamental aspects of human development, the turning from one belief to another. Rutherford’s conversion occurs amidst the rush of push and pull factors, from stimulating conversations to urges for friendships and wonder at nature. Nearing the end of a walk on a wet day, he observes, “the clouds rolled off with the south-west wind into detached, fleecy masses, separated by liquid blue gulfs, in which were sowed the stars, and the effect upon me was what that sight, thank God, always has been—a sense of the infinite, extinguishing all mean cares.” Rutherford’s conversion, as with most all conversions, happens when thoughts and yearnings converge. The reasoning that may or may not support this vision comes after.

Atheists like to talk about “deconversion,” but such deconversions are but a species of turning, and they are made with all of the emotion and desire that accompanies any such event. Jean Paul Sartre once noted a reminder from a reader that most of his characters make their decisions in moments of crisis that effect a conversion. For all of the anti-religious rhetoric, atheists describe as religious events their turning from the transcendent to the immanent. 

William White’s story was not the only account of conversion in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. In her recent book on mainline Protestantism, Elesha Coffman describes the movement into liberal Christian commitments on the part of social-gospel advocates as one of conversion. Moreover, she argues that this conversion was a complex affair involving the quest for cultural capital, the role of intellectual mentors, and the crises raised by a host of social and intellectual issues. Coffman concludes, “read one after the other, the liberal conversion narratives begin to sound as formulaic as Fundamentalists’ tales of the sawdust trail.” 

Aristotle described this “reaching out” with the term orexis and the Stoics with the term horme. Both recognized it as a drive fundamental to the human constitution. Christian thinkers called it simply love. Plato had already postulated a role for eros in moral psychology, but Christian writers drew on Scripture to argue that conversion is a feature of life, a complex movement from love for this to love for that.

Augustine differentiated between charity and cupidity on the basis of the objects embraced, not the internal dynamics. Both represent movements of love outside of the self into the arms of another. Changing beliefs, then, is akin to changing lovers, and most humans have many lovers. Human desire launches out into the expanse of creation in a frenzy of wonder and delectation. Like a bee ranging over a garden of delights, people sip nectar from the many varieties of earthly life and, in the process, take on the shape of their loves. 

Everyone converts because everyone loves. If all reasoning about life occurs amidst love for life, then claims to rationality are also claims of attraction to a perceived beauty. As Augustine reminds us, the so-called clash of orthodoxies is a clash of loves in the end, and what kinds of love destroy since it is clear to everyone that some do. In its own way, William White’s Autobiography of Mark Rutherford does too. 

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