In 1735, the Northampton, Mass., pastor Jonathan Edwards, later acclaimed as America’s greatest theologian, recorded one of the oddest conversions in history. His convert was a 4-year-old, Phebe Bartlett, a child in his parish. In a chronicle designed to rally support for what turned out to be the First Great Awakening, Edwards recounted the agony of little Phebe as she tried to “find God.” She spent long hours in her “prayer closet” and asked for forgiveness from “all” her sins. When outside the closet, Phebe wept, writhed “to and fro” and uttered in “anguish of spirit” a fear that she would “go to hell.” If this had happened 350 years later, neighbors and church members might have called social services. But in the classic transformation of despair to ecstasy, Phebe came out of her darkness into the bright light of “the kingdom of heaven,” complete with a “smiling countenance” and an affirmation of the doctrine of the Trinity.
Of the too-many-to-number conversion narratives that Susan Jacoby includes in her latest book—ones that run from Augustine and John Donne to Whittaker Chambers and Muhammad Ali—the author neglects little Phebe. This is a surprise, partly because Ms. Jacoby’s perspective is candidly hostile to belief. The author has written several books that promote secularism and atheism—her most recent is a biography of Robert Ingersoll, late-19th-century America’s most famous agnostic—and this might lead readers to expect critique if not ridicule of religion. Yet “Strange Gods” is a fascinating, instructive history of the various ways, both noble and self-serving, by which people have come “into the light” not merely of Christianity but also Judaism, Islam and even anti-Communism.
In a chronological narrative that runs from antiquity to the current war in Syria, Ms. Jacoby makes the point (hardly objectionable) that coerced conversions are at odds with sincere belief. And if the book only examined instances where theocratic states forced conversions, “Strange Gods” would be tedious and tendentious. But coerced conversions eventually blur with voluntary realignments for social advantage, prestige or simply as a matter of cultural adaptation. This is more fertile territory.
The complicated social and psychological aspects of conversions, even when narrated by a skeptic, are readily evident. For Judaism, Ms. Jacoby’s inclusion of Paul of Burgos and Edgardo Mortara captures the poignancy of conversion. Paul of Burgos, who became a papal appointee, advisor to the King of Castile, and archbishop of Burgos, started life as Solomon ha-Levi, the son of one of Castile’s most respected Jewish families. Prior to his conversion in 1390, ha-Levi was the leading Talmudic scholar in Spain. Jewish apologists might resort to the 1391 outbreak of Christian-led violence against Jews and Muslims to account for Levi’s conversion. But Paul’s eventual propagation and defense of Christianity undermines such a conclusion. The best Ms. Jacoby can muster is to say that if Paul’s conversion was genuine, “it was conveniently timed.”
Almost half a millennium later, the case of Edgardo Mortara is equally difficult to explain. Secretly baptized in 1858 by a Roman Catholic servant working for the boy’s Jewish family, Mortara was “kidnapped” by…