The Varieties Of Religious Experience, By William James
be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to
experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many
phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by
which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior
and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior
and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious
at least is what conversion signifies in general terms,
whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation
is needed to bring such a moral change about.
entering upon a minuter study of the process, let me enliven
our understanding of the definition by a concrete example.
I choose the quaint case of an unlettered man,
Stephen H. Bradley, whose experience is related in a scarce
A sketch of the life of Stephen H. Bradley, from the age
of five to twenty four years, including his remarkable
experience of the power of the Holy Spirit on the second
evening of November, 1829. Madison, Connecticut, 1830.
select this case because it shows how in these inner alterations
one may find one unsuspected depth below another, as if
the possibilities of character lay disposed in a series
of layers or shells, of whose existence we have no premonitory
thought that he had been already fully converted at the
age of fourteen.
thought I saw the Saviour, by faith, in human shape, for
about one second in the room, with arms extended, appearing
to say to me, Come.
The next day I rejoiced with trembling; soon after,
my happiness was so great that I said that I wanted to
die; this world had no place in my affections, as I knew
of, and every day appeared as solemn to me as the Sabbath.
I had an ardent desire that all mankind might feel
as I did; I wanted to have them all love God supremely.
Previous to this time I was very selfish and self-righteous;
but now I desired the welfare of all mankind, and could
with a feeling heart forgive my worst enemies, and I felt
as if I should be willing to bear the scoffs and sneers
of any person, and suffer anything for His sake, if I
could be the means in the hands of God, of the conversion
of one soul."
years later, in 1829, Mr. Bradley heard of a revival of
religion that had begun in his neighborhood.
"Many of the young converts," he says,
"would come to me when in meeting and ask me if I
had religion, and my reply generally was, I hope I have.
This did not appear to satisfy them; they said
they KNEW THEY had it.
I requested them to pray for me, thinking with
myself, that if I had not got religion now, after so long
a time professing to be a Christian, that it was time
I had, and hoped their prayers would be answered in my
Sabbath, I went to hear the Methodist at the Academy.
He spoke of the ushering in of the day of general judgment;
and he set it forth in such a solemn and terrible manner
as I never heard before.
The scene of that day appeared to be taking place,
and so awakened were all the powers of my mind that, like
Felix, I trembled involuntarily on the bench where I was
sitting, though I felt nothing at heart.
The next day evening I went to hear him again.
He took his text from Revelation:
'And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before
he represented the terrors of that day in such a manner
that it appeared as if it would melt the heart of stone.
When he finished his discourse, an old gentleman
turned to me and said 'This is what I call preaching.'
I thought the same, but my feelings were still
unmoved by what he said, and I did not enjoy religion,
but I believe he did.
will now relate my experience of the power of the Holy
Spirit which took place on the same night.
Had any person told
me previous to this that I could have experienced
the power of the Holy Spirit in the manner which I did,
I could not have believed it, and should have thought
the person deluded that told me so.
I went directly home after the meeting, and when
I got home I wondered what made me feel so stupid.
I retired to rest soon after I got home, and felt
indifferent to the things of religion until I began to
be exercised by the Holy Spirit, which began in about
five minutes after, in the following manner:--
first, I began to feel my heart beat very quick all on
a sudden, which made me at first think that perhaps something
is going to ail me, though I was not alarmed, for I felt
no pain. My
heart increased in its beating, which soon convinced me
that it was the Holy Spirit from the effect it had on
me. I began
to feel exceedingly happy and humble, and such a sense
of unworthiness as I never felt before.
I could not very well help speaking out, which
I did, and said, Lord, I do not deserve this happiness,
or words to that effect, while there was a stream (resembling
air in feeling) came into my mouth and heart in a more
sensible manner than that of drinking anything, which
continued, as near as I could judge, five minutes or more,
which appeared to be the cause of such a palpitation of
my heart. It
took complete possession of my soul, and I am certain
that I desired the Lord, while in the midst of it, not
to give me any more happiness, for it seemed as if I could
not contain what I had got.
My heart seemed as if it would burst, but it did
not stop until I felt as if I was unutterably full of
the love and grace of God.
In the mean time while thus exercised, a thought
arose in my mind, what can it mean?
and all at once, as if to answer it, my memory
became exceedingly clear, and it appeared to me just as
if the New Testament was placed open before me, eighth
chapter of Romans, and as light as if some candle lighted
was held for me to read the 26th and 27th verses of that
chapter, and I read these words:
'The Spirit helpeth our infirmities with groanings
which cannot be uttered.'
And all the time that my heart was a-beating, it
made me groan like a person in distress, which was not
very easy to stop, though I was in no pain at all, and
my brother being in bed in another room came and opened
the door, and asked me if I had got the toothache.
I told him no, and that he might get to sleep. I tried to stop.
I felt unwilling to go to sleep myself, I was so
happy, fearing I should lose it-- thinking within myself
'My willing soul would stay
In such a frame as this.'
while I lay reflecting, after my heart stopped beating,
feeling as if my soul was full of the Holy Spirit, I thought
that perhaps there might be angels hovering round my bed.
I felt just as if I wanted to converse with them,
and finally I spoke, saying 'O ye affectionate angels!
how is it that ye can take so much interest in our welfare,
and we take so little interest in our own.'
After this, with difficulty I got to sleep; and
when I awoke in the morning my first thoughts were:
What has become of my happiness?
and, feeling a degree of it in my heart, I asked
for more, which was given to me as quick as thought.
I then got up to dress myself, and found to my
surprise that I could but just stand.
It appeared to me as if it was a little heaven
upon earth. My
soul felt as completely raised above the fears of death
as of going to sleep; and like a bird in a cage, I had
a desire, if it was the will of God, to get released from
my body and to dwell with Christ, though willing to live
to do good to others, and to warn sinners to repent.
I went downstairs feeling as solemn as if I had
lost all my friends, and thinking with myself, that I
would not let my parents know it until I had first looked
into the Testament.
I went directly to the shelf and looked into it,
at the eighth of Romans, and every verse seemed to almost
speak and to confirm it to be truly the Word of God, and
as if my feelings corresponded with the meaning of the
word. I then
told my parents of it, and told them that I thought that
they must see that when I spoke, that it was not my own
voice, for it appeared so to me.
My speech seemed entirely under the control of
the Spirit within me; I do not mean that the words which
I spoke were not my own, for they were.
I thought that I was influenced similar to the
Apostles on the day of Pentecost (with the exception of
having power to give it to others, and doing what they
breakfast I went round to converse with my neighbors on
religion, which I could not have been
hired to have done before this, and at their request
I prayed with them, though I had never prayed in public
now feel as if I had discharged my duty by telling the
truth, and hope by the blessing of God, it may do some
good to all who shall read it.
He has fulfilled his promise in sending the Holy
Spirit down into our hearts, or mine at least, and I now
defy all the Deists and Atheists in the world to shake
my faith in Christ."
much for Mr. Bradley and his conversion, of the effect
of which upon his later life we gain no information.
Now for a minuter survey of the constituent elements
of the conversion process.
you open the chapter on Association, of any treatise on
Psychology, you will read that a man's ideas, aims, and
objects form diverse internal groups and systems, relatively
independent of one another.
Each 'aim' which he follows awakens a certain specific
kind of interested excitement, and gathers a certain group
of ideas together in subordination to it as its associates;
and if the aims and excitements are distinct in kind,
their groups of ideas may have little in common.
When one group is present and engrosses the interest,
all the ideas connected with other groups may be excluded
from the mental field.
The President of the United States when, with paddle,
gun, and fishing-rod, he goes camping in the wilderness
for a vacation, changes his system of ideas from top to
presidential anxieties have lapsed into the background
entirely; the official habits are replaced by the habits
of a son of nature, and those who knew the man only as
the strenuous magistrate would not "know him for
the same person" if they saw him as the camper.
now he should never go back, and never again suffer political
interests to gain dominion over him, he would be for practical
intents and purposes a permanently transformed being.
Our ordinary alterations of character, as we pass
from one of our aims to another, are not commonly called
transformations, because each of them is so rapidly succeeded
by another in the reverse direction; but whenever one
aim grows so stable as to expel definitively its previous
rivals from the individual's life, we tend to speak of
the phenomenon, and perhaps to wonder at it, as a "transformation."
alternations are the completest of the ways in which a
self may be divided.
A less complete way is the simultaneous coexistence
of two or more different groups of aims, of which one
practically holds the right of way and instigates activity,
whilst the others are only pious wishes, and never practically
come to anything.
Saint Augustine's aspirations to a purer life,
in our last lecture, were for a while an example.
Another would be the President in his full pride
of office, wondering whether it were not all vanity, and
whether the life of a wood-chopper were not the wholesomer
destiny. Such fleeting aspirations are mere velleitates, whimsies.
They exist on the remoter outskirts of the mind,
and the real self of the man, the centre of his energies,
is occupied with an entirely different system.
As life goes on, there is a constant change of
our interests, and a consequent change of place in our
systems of ideas, from more central to more peripheral,
and from more peripheral to more central parts of consciousness.
I remember, for instance, that one evening when
I was a youth, my father read aloud from a Boston newspaper
that part of Lord Gifford's will which founded these four
that time I did not think of being a teacher of philosophy,
and what I listened to was as remote from my own life
as if it related to the planet Mars.
Yet here I am, with the Gifford system part and
parcel of my very self, and all my energies, for the time
being, devoted to successfully identifying myself with
it. My soul
stands now planted in what once was for it a practically
unreal object, and speaks from it as from its proper habitat
I say "Soul," you need not take me in the ontological
sense unless you prefer to; for although ontological language
is instinctive in such matters, yet Buddhists or Humians
can perfectly well describe the facts in the phenomenal
terms which are their favorites.
For them the soul is only a succession of fields
yet there is found in each field a part, or sub-field,
which figures as focal and contains the excitement, and
from which, as from a centre, the aim seems to be taken.
Talking of this part, we involuntarily apply words
of perspective to distinguish it from the rest, words
like "here," "this," "now,"
"mine," or "me"; and we ascribe to
the other parts the positions "there," "then,"
"that," "his" or "thine,"
"it," "not me."
But a "here" can change to a "there,"
and a "there" become a "here," and
what was "mine" and what was "not mine"
change their places.
brings such changes about is the way in which emotional
Things hot and vital to us to-day are cold to-morrow.
It is as if seen from the hot parts of the field
that the other parts appear to us, and from these hot
parts personal desire and volition make their sallies.
They are in short the centres of our dynamic energy,
whereas the cold parts leave us indifferent and passive
in proportion to their coldness.
such language be rigorously exact is for the present of
no importance. It
is exact enough, if you recognize from your own experience
the facts which I seek to designate by it.
there may be great oscillation in the emotional interest,
and the hot places may shift before one almost as rapidly
as the sparks that run through burnt-up paper.
Then we have the wavering and divided self we heard
so much of in the previous lecture.
Or the focus of excitement and heat, the point
of view from which the aim is taken, may come to lie permanently
within a certain system; and then, if the change be a
religious one, we call it a CONVERSION, especially if
it be by crisis, or sudden.
us hereafter, in speaking of the hot place in a man's
consciousness, the group of ideas to which he devotes
himself, and from which he works, call it THE HABITUAL
CENTRE OF HIS PERSONAL ENERGY.
It makes a great difference to a man whether one
set of his ideas, or another, be the centre of his energy;
and it makes a great difference, as regards any set of
ideas which he may possess, whether they become central
or remain peripheral in him.
To say that a man is "converted" means,
in these terms, that religious ideas, previously peripheral
in his consciousness, now take a central place, and that
religious aims form the habitual centre of his energy.
if you ask of psychology just HOW the excitement shifts
in a man's mental system, and WHY aims that were peripheral
become at a certain moment central, psychology has to
reply that although she can give a general description
of what happens, she is unable in a given case to account
accurately for all the single forces at work.
Neither an outside observer nor the Subject who
undergoes the process can explain fully how particular
experiences are able to change one's centre of energy
so decisively, or why they so often have to bide their
hour to do so. We
have a thought, or we perform an act, repeatedly, but
on a certain day the real meaning of the thought peals
through us for the first time, or the act has suddenly
turned into a moral impossibility.
All we know is that there are dead feelings, dead
ideas, and cold beliefs, and there are hot and live ones;
and when one grows hot and alive within us, everything
has to re-crystallize about it.
We may say that the heat and liveliness mean only
the "motor efficacy," long deferred but now
operative, of the idea; but such talk itself is only circumlocution,
for whence the sudden motor efficacy? And our explanations then get so vague and general that one
realizes all the more the intense individuality of the
the end we fall back on the hackneyed symbolism of a mechanical
mind is a system of ideas, each with the excitement it
arouses, and with tendencies impulsive and inhibitive,
which mutually check or reinforce one another. The collection of ideas alters by subtraction or by addition
in the course of experience, and the tendencies alter
as the organism gets more aged.
A mental system may be undermined or weakened by
this interstitial alteration just as a building is, and
yet for a time keep upright by dead habit.
But a new perception, a sudden emotional shock,
or an occasion which lays bare the organic alteration,
will make the whole fabric fall together; and then the
centre of gravity sinks into an attitude more stable,
for the new ideas that reach the centre in the rearrangement
seem now to be locked there, and the new structure remains
associations of ideas and habits are usually factors of
retardation in such changes of equilibrium.
New information, however acquired, plays an accelerating
part in the changes; and the slow mutation of our instincts
and propensities, under the "unimaginable touch of
time" has an enormous influence.
Moreover, all these influences may work subconsciously
or half unconsciously. And when you get a Subject
in whom the subconscious life--of which I must speak more
fully soon--is largely developed, and in whom motives
habitually ripen in silence, you get a case of which you
can never give a full account, and in which, both to the
Subject and the onlookers, there may appear an element
of marvel. Emotional occasions, especially violent ones, are extremely
potent in precipitating mental rearrangements.
The sudden and explosive ways in which love, jealousy,
guilt, fear, remorse, or anger can seize upon one are
known to everybody.
Hope, happiness, security, resolve, emotions characteristic
of conversion, can be equally explosive.
And emotions that come in this explosive way seldom
leave things as they found them.
Jouffroy is an example:
"Down this slope it was that my intelligence
had glided, and little by little it had got far from its
first faith. But
this melancholy revolution had not taken place in the
broad daylight of my consciousness; too many scruples,
too many guides and sacred affections had made it dreadful
to me, so that I was far from avowing to myself the progress
it had made. It
had gone on in silence, by an involuntary elaboration
of which I was not the accomplice; and although I had
in reality long ceased to be a Christian, yet, in the
innocence of my intention, I should have shuddered to
suspect it, and thought it calumny had I been accused
of such a falling away."
Then follows Jouffroy's account of his counter-conversion,
quoted above on p. 173.
One hardly needs examples; but for love, see p. 176, note,
for fear, p. 161 ; for remorse, see Othello after the
murder; for anger see Lear after Cordelia's first speech
to him; for resolve, see p. 175 (J. Foster case).
Here is a pathological case in which GUILT was
the feeling that suddenly exploded:
"One night I was seized on entering bed with
a rigor, such as Swedenborg describes as coming over him
with a sense of holiness, but over me with a sense of
GUILT. During that whole night I lay under the influence
of the rigor, and from its inception I felt that I was
under the curse of God.
I have never done one act of duty in my life--sins
against God and man beginning as far as my memory goes
back--a wildcat in human shape."
his recent work on the Psychology of Religion, Professor
Starbuck of California has shown by a statistical inquiry
how closely parallel in its manifestations the ordinary
"conversion" which occurs in young people brought
up in evangelical circles is to that growth into a larger
spiritual life which is a normal phase of adolescence
in every class of human beings.
The age is the same, falling usually between fourteen
and seventeen. The
symptoms are the same,--sense of incompleteness and imperfection;
brooding, depression, morbid introspection, and sense
of sin; anxiety about the hereafter; distress over doubts,
and the like. And
the result is the same--a happy relief and objectivity,
as the confidence in self gets greater through the adjustment
of the faculties to the wider outlook.
In spontaneous religious awakening, apart from
revivalistic examples, and in the ordinary storm and stress
and moulting-time of adolescence, we also may meet with
mystical experiences, astonishing the subjects by their
suddenness, just as in revivalistic conversion.
The analogy, in fact, is complete; and Starbuck's
conclusion as to these ordinary youthful conversions would
seem to be the only sound one:
Conversion is in its essence a normal adolescent
phenomenon, incidental to the passage from the child's
small universe to the wider intellectual and spiritual
life of maturity.
says Dr. Starbuck, "takes the adolescent tendencies
and builds upon them; it sees that the essential thing
in adolescent growth is bringing the person out of childhood
into the new life of maturity and personal insight.
It accordingly brings those means to bear which
will intensify the normal tendencies.
It shortens up the period of duration of storm
The conversion phenomena of "conviction of
sin" last, by this investigator's statistics, about
one fifth as long as the periods of adolescent storm and
stress phenomena of which he also got statistics, but
they are very much more intense. Bodily accompaniments, loss of sleep and appetite, for example,
are much more frequent in them.
"The essential distinction appears to be that
conversion intensifies but shortens the period by bringing
the person to a definite crisis."
E. D. Starbuck:
The Psychology of Religion, pp. 224, 262.
conversions which Dr. Starbuck here has in mind are of
course mainly those of very commonplace persons, kept
true to a pre-appointed type by instruction, appeal, and
example. The particular form which they affect is the
result of suggestion and imitation. If they went
through their growth-crisis in other faiths and other
countries, although the essence of the change would be
the same (since it is one in the main so inevitable),
its accidents would be different. In Catholic lands, for
example, and in our own Episcopalian sects, no such anxiety
and conviction of sin is usual as in sects that encourage
sacraments being more relied on in these more strictly
ecclesiastical bodies, the individual's personal acceptance
of salvation needs less to be accentuated and led up to.
No one understands this better than Jonathan Edwards understood
it already. Conversion
narratives of the more commonplace sort must always be
taken with the allowances which he suggests:
rule received and established by common consent has a
very great, though to many persons an insensible influence
in forming their notions of the process of their own experience.
I know very well how they proceed as to this matter,
for I have had frequent opportunities of observing their
often their experience at first appears like a confused
chaos, but then those parts are selected which bear the
nearest resemblance to such particular steps as are insisted
on; and these are dwelt upon in their thoughts, and spoken
of from time to time, till they grow more and more conspicuous
in their view, and other parts which are neglected grow
more and more obscure. Thus what they have experienced is insensibly strained, so
as to bring it to an exact conformity to the scheme already
established in their minds.
And it becomes natural also for ministers, who
have to deal with those who insist upon distinctness and
clearness of method, to do so too."
Treatise on Religious Affections.
every imitative phenomenon must once have had its original,
and I propose that for the future we keep as close as
may be to the more first-hand and original forms of experience.
These are more likely to be found in sporadic adult
Leuba, in a valuable article on the psychology of conversion,
subordinates the theological aspect of the religious life
almost entirely to its moral aspect.
The religious sense he defines as "the feeling
of unwholeness, of moral imperfection, of sin, to use
the technical word, accompanied by the yearning after
the peace of unity."
"The word 'religion,'" he says, "is
getting more and more to signify the conglomerate of desires
and emotions springing from the sense of sin and its release";
and he gives a large number of examples, in which the
sin ranges from drunkenness to spiritual pride, to show
that the sense of it may beset one and crave relief as
urgently as does the anguish of the sickened flesh or
any form of physical misery.
Studies in the Psychology of Religious Phenomena, American
Journal of Psychology, vii. 309 (1896).
this conception covers an immense number of cases. A good one to use as an example is that of Mr. S. H. Hadley,
who after his conversion became an active and useful rescuer
of drunkards in New York.
His experience runs as follows:--
Tuesday evening I sat in a saloon in Harlem, a homeless,
friendless, dying drunkard.
I had pawned or sold everything that would bring
a drink. I
could not sleep unless I was dead drunk.
I had not eaten for days, and for four nights preceding
I had suffered with delirium tremens, or the horrors,
from midnight till morning.
I had often said, 'I will never be a tramp.
I will never be cornered, for when that time comes,
if ever it comes, I will find a home in the bottom of
the river.' But
the Lord so ordered it that when that time did come I
was not able to walk one quarter of the way to the river.
As I sat there thinking, I seemed to feel some
great and mighty presence.
I did not know then what it was.
I did learn afterwards that it was Jesus, the sinner's
walked up to the bar and pounded it with my fist till
I made the glasses rattle.
Those who stood by drinking looked on with scornful
said I would never take another drink, if I died on the
street, and really I felt as though that would happen
Something said, 'If you want to keep this promise,
go and have yourself locked up.'
I went to the nearest station-house and had myself
was placed in a narrow cell, and it seemed as though all
the demons that could find room came in that place with
was not all the company I had, either. No, praise the Lord:
that dear Spirit that came to me in the saloon
was present, and said, Pray.
I did pray, and though I did not feel any great
help, I kept on praying.
As soon as I was able to leave my cell I was taken
to the police court and remanded back to the cell.
I was finally released, and found my way to my
brother's house, where every care was given me.
While lying in bed the admonishing Spirit never
left me, and when I arose the following Sabbath morning
I felt that day would decide my fate, and toward evening
it came into my head to go to Jerry M'Auley's Mission.
I went. The
house was packed, and with great difficulty I made my
way to the space near the platform.
There I saw the apostle to the drunkard and the
outcast--that man of God, Jerry M'Auley.
He rose, and amid deep silence told his experience.
There was a sincerity about this man that carried
conviction with it, and I found myself saying, 'I wonder
if God can save me?'
I listened to the testimony of twenty-five or thirty
persons, every one of whom had been saved from rum, and
I made up my mind that I would be saved or die right there.
When the invitation was given, I knelt down with
a crowd of drunkards.
Jerry made the first prayer.
Then Mrs. M'Auley prayed fervently for us.
Oh, what a conflict was going on for my poor soul!
A blessed whisper said, 'Come'; the devil said,
'Be careful.' I
halted but a moment, and then, with a breaking heart,
I said, 'Dear Jesus, can you help me?'
Never with mortal tongue can I describe that moment.
Although up to that moment my soul had been filled
with indescribable gloom, I felt the glorious brightness
of the noonday sun shine into my heart.
I felt I was a free man.
Oh, the precious feeling of safety, of freedom,
of resting on Jesus! I felt that Christ with all his brightness
and power had come into my life; that, indeed, old things
had passed away and all things had become new.
that moment till now I have never wanted a drink of whiskey,
and I have never seen money enough to make me take one.
I promised God that night that if he would take
away the appetite for strong drink, I would work for him
all my life. He has done his part, and I have been trying to do mine."
I have abridged Mr. Hadley's account.
For other conversions of drunkards, see his pamphlet,
Rescue Mission Work, published at the Old Jerry M'Auley
Water Street Mission, New York City.
A striking collection of cases also appears in
the appendix to Professor Leuba's article.
Dr. Leuba rightly remarks that there is little doctrinal
theology in such an experience, which starts with the
absolute need of a higher helper, and ends with the sense
that he has helped us.
He gives other cases of drunkards' conversions
which are purely ethical, containing, as recorded, no
theological beliefs whatever.
John B. Gough's case, for instance, is practically,
says Dr. Leuba, the conversion of an atheist--neither
God nor Jesus being mentioned. But in spite of the
importance of this type of regeneration, with little or
no intellectual readjustment, this writer surely makes
it too exclusive.
It corresponds to the subjectively centered form
of morbid melancholy, of which Bunyan and Alline were
we saw in our seventh lecture that there are objective
forms of melancholy also, in which the lack of rational
meaning of the universe, and of life anyhow, is the burden
that weighs upon one--you remember Tolstoy's case.
So there are distinct elements in conversion, and their
relations to individual lives deserve to be discriminated.
A restaurant waiter served provisionally as Gough's 'Saviour.'
General Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army,
considers that the first vital step in saving outcasts
consists in making them feel that some decent human being
cares enough for them to take an interest in the question
whether they are to rise or sink.
The crisis of apathetic melancholy--no use in life--into
which J. S. Mill records that he fell, from which he emerged
by the reading of Marmontel's Memoirs (Heaven save the
mark!) and Wordsworth's poetry, is another intellectual
and general metaphysical case. See Mill's Autobiography,
New York, 1873, pp. 141, 148.
Starbuck, in addition to "escape from sin,"
discriminates "spiritual illumination" as a
distinct type of conversion experience. Psychology of
Religion, p. 85.
persons, for instance, never are, and possibly never under
any circumstances could be, converted.
Religious ideas cannot become the centre of their
spiritual energy. They may be excellent persons, servants of God in practical
ways, but they are not children of his kingdom.
They are either incapable of imagining the invisible;
or else, in the language of devotion, they are life-long
subjects of "barrenness" and "dryness."
Such inaptitude for religious faith may in some
cases be intellectual in its origin.
Their religious faculties may be checked in their
natural tendency to expand, by beliefs about the world
that are inhibitive, the pessimistic and materialistic
beliefs, for example, within which so many good souls,
who in former times would have freely indulged their religious
propensities, find themselves nowadays, as it were, frozen;
or the agnostic vetoes upon faith as something weak and
shameful, under which so many of us today lie cowering,
afraid to use our instincts.
In many persons such inhibitions are never overcome.
To the end of their days they refuse to believe,
their personal energy never gets to its religious centre,
and the latter remains inactive in perpetuity.
other persons the trouble is profounder. There are men anaesthetic on the religious side, deficient in
that category of sensibility.
Just as a bloodless organism can never, in spite
of all its goodwill, attain to the reckless "animal
spirits" enjoyed by those of sanguine temperament;
so the nature which is spiritually barren may admire and
envy faith in others, but can never compass the enthusiasm
and peace which those who are temperamentally qualified
for faith enjoy.
All this may, however, turn out eventually to have
been a matter of temporary inhibition.
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
cases more than any others suggest the idea that sudden
conversion is by miracle.
So long as they exist, we must not imagine ourselves
to deal with irretrievably fixed classes.
Now there are two forms of mental occurrence in
human beings, which lead to a striking difference in the
conversion process, a difference to which Professor Starbuck
has called attention.
You know how it is when you try to recollect a
Usually you help the recall by working for it,
by mentally running over the places, persons, and things
with which the word was connected. But
sometimes this effort fails:
you feel then as if the harder you tried the less
hope there would be, as though the name were JAMMED, and
pressure in its direction only kept it all the more from
rising. And then the opposite expedient often succeeds.
Give up the effort entirely; think of something
altogether different, and in half an hour the lost name
comes sauntering into your mind, as Emerson says, as carelessly
as if it had never been invited.
Some hidden process was started in you by the effort,
which went on after the effort ceased, and made the result
come as if it came spontaneously.
A certain music teacher, says Dr. Starbuck, says
to her pupils after the thing to be done has been clearly
pointed out, and unsuccessfully attempted:
"Stop trying and it will do itself!"
Psychology of Religion, p. 117.
is thus a conscious and voluntary way and an involuntary
and unconscious way in which mental results may get accomplished;
and we find both ways exemplified in the history of conversion,
giving us two types, which Starbuck calls the volitional
type and the type by self-surrender respectively.
the volitional type the regenerative change is usually
gradual, and consists in the building up, piece by piece,
of a new set of moral and spiritual habits.
But there are always critical points here at which
the movement forward seems much more rapid. This psychological fact is abundantly illustrated by Dr. Starbuck.
Our education in any practical accomplishment proceeds
apparently by jerks and starts just as the growth of our
physical bodies does.
athlete . . . sometimes awakens suddenly to an understanding
of the fine points of the game and to a real enjoyment
of it, just as the convert awakens to an appreciation
of religion. If he keeps on engaging in the sport, there
may come a day when all at once the game plays itself
through him--when he loses himself in some great contest.
In the same way, a musician may suddenly reach
a point at which pleasure in the technique of the art
entirely falls away, and in some moment of inspiration
he becomes the instrument through which music flows. The
writer has chanced to hear two different married persons,
both of whose wedded lives had been beautiful from the
beginning, relate that not until a year or more after
marriage did they awake to the full blessedness of married
it is with the religious experience of these persons we
Psychology of Religion, p. 385.
Compare, also, pp. 137-144 and 262.
shall erelong hear still more remarkable illustrations
of subconsciously maturing processes eventuating in results
of which we suddenly grow conscious.
Sir William Hamilton and Professor Laycock of Edinburgh
were among the first to call attention to this class of
effects; but Dr. Carpenter first, unless I am mistaken,
introduced the term "unconscious cerebration,"
which has since then been a popular phrase of explanation.
The facts are now known to us far more extensively
than he could know them, and the adjective "unconscious,"
being for many of them almost certainly a misnomer, is
better replaced by the vaguer term "subconscious"
the volitional type of conversion it would be easy to
give examples, but they are as a rule less interesting
of the self-surrender type, in which the subconscious
effects are more abundant and often startling.
I will therefore hurry to the latter, the more
so because the difference between the two types is after
all not radical.
Even in the most voluntarily built-up sort of regeneration
there are passages of partial self-surrender interposed;
and in the great majority of all cases, when the will
had done its uttermost towards bringing one close to the
complete unification aspired after, it seems that the
very last step must be left to other forces and performed
without the help of its activity.
In other words, self-surrender becomes then indispensable.
"The personal will," says Dr. Starbuck,
"must be given up.
In many cases relief persistently refuses to come
until the person ceases to resist, or to make an effort
in the direction he desires to go."
For instance, C. G. Finney italicizes the volitional element:
"Just at this point the whole question of
Gospel salvation opened to my mind in a manner most marvelous
to me at the time.
I think I then saw, as clearly as I ever have in
my life, the reality and fullness of the atonement of
salvation seemed to me to be an offer of something to
be accepted, and all that was necessary on my part to
get my own consent to give up my sins and accept Christ.
After this distinct revelation had stood for some
little time before my mind, the question seemed to be
put, 'will you accept it now, to-day?' I replied, 'Yes;
I will accept it to-day, or I will die in the attempt!'"
He then went into the woods, where he describes
his struggles. He could not pray, his heart was hardened in its pride.
"I then reproached myself for having promised
to give my heart to God before I left the woods.
When I came to try, I found I could not. . . .
My inward soul hung back, and there was no going
out of my heart to God.
The thought was pressing me, of the rashness of
my promise that I would give my heart to God that day,
or die in the attempt. It seemed to me as if that was binding on my soul; and yet
I was going to break my vow.
A great sinking and discouragement came over me,
and I felt almost too weak to stand upon my knees.
Just at this moment I again thought I heard some
one approach me, and I opened my eyes to see whether it
were so. But
right there the revelation of my pride of heart, as the
great difficulty that stood in the way, was distinctly
shown to me. An
overwhelming sense of my wickedness in being ashamed to
have a human being see me on my knees before God took
such powerful possession of me, that I cried at the top
of my voice, and exclaimed that I would not leave that
place if all the men on earth and all the devils in hell
surrounded me. 'What!' I said, 'such a degraded sinner as I am, on my knees
confessing my sins to the great and holy God; and ashamed
to have any human being, and a sinner like myself, find
me on my knees endeavoring to make my peace with my offended
sin appeared awful, infinite.
It broke me down before the Lord."
Memoirs, pp. 14-16, abridged.
had said I would not give up; but when my will was broken,
it was all over," writes one of Starbuck's correspondents.--
Another says: "I
simply said: 'Lord,
I have done all I can; I leave the whole matter with Thee,'
and immediately there came to me a great peace."--Another:
"All at once it occurred to me that I might
be saved, too, if I would stop trying to do it all myself,
and follow Jesus:
somehow I lost my load."--Another:
"I finally ceased to resist, and gave myself
up, though it was a hard struggle.
Gradually the feeling came over me that I had done
my part, and God was willing to do his."--"Lord
Thy will be done; damn or save!" cries John Nelson,
exhausted with the anxious struggle to escape damnation;
and at that moment his soul was filled with peace.
cit., pp. 91, 114.
Extracts from the Journal of Mr. John Nelson, London,
no date, p. 24.
Starbuck gives an interesting, and it seems to me a true,
account--so far as conceptions so schematic can claim
truth at all--of the reasons why self-surrender at the
last moment should be so indispensable.
To begin with, there are two things in the mind
of the candidate for conversion:
first, the present incompleteness or wrongness,
the "sin" which he is eager to escape from;
and, second, the positive ideal which he longs to compass.
Now with most of us the sense of our present wrongness
is a far more distinct piece of our consciousness than
is the imagination of any positive ideal we can aim at.
In a majority of cases, indeed, the "sin"
almost exclusively engrosses the attention, so that conversion
is "a process of struggling away from sin rather
than of striving towards righteousness." A man's
conscious wit and will, so far as they strain towards
the ideal, are aiming at something only dimly and inaccurately
imagined. Yet all the while the forces of mere organic
ripening within him are going on towards their own prefigured
result, and his conscious strainings are letting loose
subconscious allies behind the scenes, which in their
way work towards rearrangement; and the rearrangement
towards which all these deeper forces tend is pretty surely
definite, and definitely different from what he consciously
conceives and determines.
It may consequently be actually interfered with
(JAMMED, as it were, like the lost word when we seek too
energetically to recall it), by his voluntary efforts
slanting from the true direction.
Starbuck, p. 64.
seems to put his finger on the root of the matter when
he says that to exercise the personal will is still to
live in the region where the imperfect self is the thing
most emphasized. Where, on the contrary, the subconscious
forces take the lead, it is more probably the better self
in posse which directs the operation.
Instead of being clumsily and vaguely aimed at
from without, it is then itself the organizing centre.
What then must the person do?
"He must relax," says Dr. Starbuck--"that
is, he must fall back on the larger Power that makes for
righteousness, which has been welling up in his own being,
and let it finish in its own way the work it has begun.
. . . The
act of yielding, in this point of view, is giving one's
self over to the new life, making it the centre of a new
personality, and living, from within, the truth of it
which had before been viewed objectively."
Starbuck, p. 115.
extremity is God's opportunity" is the theological
way of putting this fact of the need of self-surrender;
whilst the physiological way of stating it would be, "Let
one do all in one's power, and one's nervous system will
do the rest."
Both statements acknowledge the same fact.
Starbuck, p. 113.
state it in terms of our own symbolism:
When the new centre of personal energy has been
subconsciously incubated so long as to be just ready to
open into flower, "hands off" is the only word
for us, it must burst forth unaided!
have used the vague and abstract language of psychology.
But since, in any terms, the crisis described is the throwing
of our conscious selves upon the mercy of powers which,
whatever they may be, are more ideal than we are actually,
and make for our redemption, you see why self-surrender
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
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 altogether, to pure "liberalism"
or transcendental idealism, whether or not of the mind-cure
type, taking in the mediaeval 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 machinery.
and religion are thus in perfect harmony up to this point,
since both admit that there are forces seemingly outside
of the conscious individual that bring redemption to his
psychology, defining these forces as "subconscious,"
and speaking of their effects, as due to "incubation,"
or "cerebration," implies that they do not transcend
the individual's personality; and herein she diverges
from Christian theology, which insists that they are direct
supernatural operations of the Deity.
I propose to you that we do not yet consider this
divergence final, but leave the question for a while in
abeyance--continued inquiry may enable us to get rid of
some of the apparent discord.
then, for a moment more to the psychology of self-surrender.
you find a man living on the ragged edge of his consciousness,
pent in to his sin and want and incompleteness, and consequently
inconsolable, and then simply tell him that all is well
with him, that he must stop his worry, break with his
discontent, and give up his anxiety, you seem to him to
come with pure absurdities.
The only positive consciousness he has tells him
that all is NOT well, and the better way you offer sounds
simply as if you proposed to him to assert cold-blooded
will to believe" cannot be stretched as far as that. We can make ourselves more faithful to a belief of which we
have the rudiments, but we cannot create a belief out
of whole cloth when our perception actively assures us
of its opposite. The better mind proposed to us comes in that case in the form
of a pure negation of the only mind we have, and we cannot
actively will a pure negation.
are only two ways in which it is possible to get rid of
anger, worry, fear, despair, or other undesirable affections.
One is that an opposite affection should overpoweringly
break over us, and the other is by getting so exhausted
with the struggle that we have to stop--so we drop down,
give up, and DON'T CARE any longer.
Our emotional brain-centres strike work, and we
lapse into a temporary apathy. Now there is documentary
proof that this state of temporary exhaustion not infrequently
forms part of the conversion crisis.
So long as the egoistic worry of the sick soul
guards the door, the expansive confidence of the soul
of faith gains no presence.
But let the former faint away, even but for a moment,
and the latter can profit by the opportunity, and, having
once acquired possession, may retain it.
Teufelsdrockh passes from the everlasting No to the everlasting
Yes through a "Centre of Indifference."
me give you a good illustration of this feature in the
That genuine saint, David Brainerd, describes his
own crisis in the following words:--
morning, while I was walking in a solitary place as usual,
I at once saw that all my contrivances and projects to
effect or procure deliverance and salvation for myself
were utterly in vain; I was brought quite to a stand,
as finding myself totally lost.
I saw that it was forever impossible for me to
do anything towards helping or delivering myself, that
I had made all the pleas I ever could have made to all
eternity; and that all my pleas were vain, for I saw that
self-interest had led me to pray, and that I had never
once prayed from any respect to the glory of God.
I saw that there was no necessary connection between
my prayers and the bestowment of divine mercy, that they
laid not the least obligation upon God to bestow his grace
upon me; and that there was no more virtue or goodness
in them than there would be in my paddling with my hand
in the water. I
saw that I had been heaping up my devotions before God,
fasting, praying, etc., pretending, and indeed really
thinking sometimes that I was aiming at the glory of God;
whereas I never once truly intended it, but only my own
saw that as I had never done anything for God, I had no
claim on anything from him but perdition, on account of
my hypocrisy and mockery.
When I saw evidently that I had regard to nothing
but self-interest, then my duties appeared a vile mockery
and a continual course of lies, for the whole was nothing
but self-worship, and an horrid abuse of God.
continued, as I remember, in this state of mind, from
Friday morning till the Sabbath evening following (July
12, 1739), when I was walking again in the same solitary
in a mournful melancholy state I was attempting to pray;
but found no heart to engage in that or any other duty;
my former concern, exercise, and religious affections
were now gone. I thought that the Spirit of God had quite
left me; but still was NOT DISTRESSED; yet disconsolate,
as if there was nothing in heaven or earth could make
me happy. Having
been thus endeavoring to pray--though, as I thought, very
stupid and senseless--for near half an hour; then, as
I was walking in a thick grove, unspeakable glory seemed
to open to the apprehension of my soul.
I do not mean any external brightness, nor any
imagination of a body of light, but it was a new inward
apprehension or view that I had of God, such as I never
had before, nor anything which had the least resemblance
to it. I
had no particular apprehension of any one person in the
Trinity, either the Father, the Son, or the Holy Ghost;
but it appeared to be Divine glory.
My soul rejoiced with joy unspeakable, to see such
a God, such a glorious Divine Being; and I was inwardly
pleased and satisfied that he should be God over all for
ever and ever. My
soul was so captivated and delighted with the excellency
of God that I was even swallowed up in him, at least to
that degree that I had no thought about my own salvation,
and scarce reflected that there was such a creature as
continued in this state of inward joy, peace, and astonishing,
till near dark without any sensible abatement; and then
began to think and examine what I had seen; and felt sweetly
composed in my mind all the evening following.
I felt myself in a new world, and everything about
me appeared with a different aspect from what it was wont
to do. At
this time, the way of salvation opened to me with such
infinite wisdom, suitableness, and excellency, that I
wondered I should ever think of any other way of salvation;
was amazed that I had not dropped my own contrivances,
and complied with this lovely, blessed, and excellent
way before. If
I could have been saved by my own duties or any other
way that I had formerly contrived, my whole soul would
now have refused it.
I wondered that all the world did not see and comply
with this way of salvation, entirely by the righteousness
Edward's and Dwight's Life of Brainerd, New Haven, 1822,
pp. 45-47, abridged.
have italicized the passage which records the exhaustion
of the anxious emotion hitherto habitual.
In a large proportion,
perhaps the majority, of reports, the writers speak
as if the exhaustion of the lower and the entrance of
the higher emotion were simultaneous, yet often again
they speak as if the higher actively drove the lower out.
This is undoubtedly true in a great many instances,
as we shall presently see.
But often there seems little doubt that both conditions--subconscious
ripening of the one affection and exhaustion of the other--must
simultaneously have conspired, in order to produce the
Describing the whole phenomenon as a change of equilibrium,
we might say that the movement of new psychic energies
towards the personal centre and the recession of old ones
towards the margin (or the rising of some objects above,
and the sinking of others below the conscious threshold)
were only two ways of describing an indivisible event.
Doubtless this is often absolutely true, and Starbuck
is right when he says that "self-surrender"
and "new determination," though seeming at first
sight to be such different experiences, are "really
the same thing.
Self-surrender sees the change in terms of the
old self, determination sees it in terms of the new."
Op. cit., p. 160.
W. B., a convert of Nettleton's, being brought to an acute
paroxysm of conviction of sin, ate nothing all day, locked
himself in his room in the evening in complete despair,
crying aloud, "How long, O Lord, how long?"
"After repeating this and similar language,"
he says, "several times, I seemed to sink away into
a state of insensibility.
When I came to myself again I was on my knees,
praying not for myself but for others.
I felt submission to the will of God, willing that
he should do with me as should seem good in his sight.
My concern seemed all lost in concern for others."
A. A. Bonar: Nettleton
and his Labors, Edinburgh, 1854, p. 261.
great American revivalist Finney writes:
"I said to myself:
'What is this?
I must have grieved the Holy Ghost entirely away.
have lost all my conviction.
I have not a particle of concern about my soul;
and it must be that the Spirit has left me.' 'Why!' thought
I, 'I never was so far from being concerned about my own
salvation in my life.' . . . I tried to recall my convictions,
to get back again the load of sin under which I had been
tried in vain to make myself anxious.
I was so quiet and peaceful that I tried to feel
concerned about that, lest it should be the result of
my having grieved the Spirit away."
Charles G. Finney:
Memoirs written by Himself, 1876, pp. 17, 18.
beyond all question there are persons in whom, quite independently
of any exhaustion in the Subject's capacity for feeling,
or even in the absence of any acute previous feeling,
the higher condition, having reached the due degree of
energy, bursts through all barriers and sweeps in like
a sudden flood.
These are the most striking and memorable cases,
the cases of instantaneous conversion to which the conception
of divine grace has been most peculiarly attached. I have
given one of them at length--the case of Mr. Bradley.
But I had better reserve the other cases and my
comments on the rest of the subject for the following