Proselytizing, or proselytization, is associated with fervent evangelization and has played a prominent, if controversial, role in American religious life. Contemporary examples of proselytizing include Mormon missionaries who go from door-to-door to spread their good news and evangelists who hand out religious tracts on street corners. Anyone who has ever been asked by a friend to join a religious organization or who has been "witnessed to" (as it is referred to in some circles) by a devout believer has been the subject of proselytization.
In order to fully understanding the role of proselytizing in America, it is important to examine its origins in Christian thought. Since before the time of the writing of the New Testament, 'the term proselyte has referred to a religious convert to Judaism. With the advent of Jesus, however, the term's meaning began to encompass any man or woman who joined the nascent Christian religion. Evangelizers, motivated by a theology in which Christian truth claims applied to all peoples, have since carried the "gospel," or good news of Jesus' ministry, throughout the world to every continent including North America.
Successive generations of European Christians who settled in America sought inspiration from the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is recorded to have said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (Mt. 28:19, NRSV). This text, commonly referred to as the Great Commission, has been interpreted by many Christians as a mandate to proselytize not only to non-Christians but also to others within the Christian tradition who differ on points of doctrine or practice.
In the early stages of European colonization of the Americas, much effort was expended on converting the indigenous populations to Christianity. Proselytization and missionary activities varied over time and place. However, we can loosely group them into Catholic and Protestant efforts.
Roman Catholic missionaries, like Father Junipero Serra, came to the Americas seeking to fulfill their obligation, as they understood it, to spread the domain of the Roman Catholic Church and to save the souls of American Indians. Serra, as other missionaries in the Spanish New World, worked closely with the political establishment. This intimate relationship between the Spanish government and missionaries was the result of the Patronato Real de las Indas of 1508. This agreement between the papacy and Spain ceded control of religious activities in the New World to the Spanish monarchy. Consequently, the government maintained de facto control over appointments to ecclesiastical hierarchy, the building of new churches and the expansion of missionary activities. Thus, it is not surprising that Serra, a Franciscan priest, was attached to a Spanish military expedition to the western American coast. When he arrived in Alta California in 1769, Serra proceeded to coordinate the construction of the now famous mission system along the Californian coast, as had been approved by the colonial government.
It is important to point out that, despite the best efforts of Serra and other missionaries, Native American Christian converts maintained many elements of their unique religious perspective. The result was a novel form of Christianity, containing elements of both orthodox Christianity presented by the proselytes and indigenous worldviews of the converts. For example, the Yaqui, who were converted by Jesuit missionaries, brought elements of their tradition to Catholicism. Christian rites were conducted by lay leaders, not priests. Though heavily Catholic in its orientation, Yaqui Christianity was not in communion with Rome.
For Protestant Americans, one of the most important early efforts at proselytization was the conversion of African slaves. While there was some initial opposition to the baptism of slaves because it was feared that baptized slaves would be set free, this opposition gradually gave way to organized evangelization efforts by the Anglican Church in the early eighteenth century. We have no accurate records on the rate of conversion of slaves and free blacks during this time period; however, historical accounts indicate that it was not until the Great Awakening of the mid–eighteenth century that large numbers of African-Americans were inspired to convert during the emotionally stirring revivals of the burgeoning Baptist and Methodist movements.
It is important to point out that, even though American Protestant colonizers did send missionaries to convert the American Indians, the Calvinist orientation of the colonists deterred extensive missionary efforts. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination promoted the idea that only a predetermined few were "elected" by God to be saved. Thus, proselytization efforts were seen as superfluous.
It was not until the nineteenth century that mainline American Protestants would reach the apex of their missionary efforts. Most denominations sent missionaries overseas, making foreign missions a prominent part of American religious life. There were also numerous ecumenical mission organizations, especially among liberal Protestants. Ironically, this ecumenicism, which invited a fledgling sort of pluralism (i.e., pluralism within the Protestant tradition) would lead many Americans to question the imperialistic assumptions of foreign missions. Thus, the early twentieth century became a period of reevaluation of proselytization by Americans. For example, the Laymen's Foreign Mission Inquiry released Re-Thinking Missions in 1932. This report suggested that collaboration and not proselytization should be the goal of foreign missions.
We have already examined several instances in which Christian missionaries tried to convert non-Christians. Yet of equal importance in American religious history is to understand how adherents of various Christian traditions have attempted to convert each other. Even in its colonial days, the United States offered immigrants a cafeteria-style choice of established churches. Over time, groups like the Puritans and the Anglicans became disestablished. In their stead rose denominations with which Americans were free to choose to affiliate themselves.
Even though there were differences in style and practice among denominations, the denominational system implied that denominations were essentially interchangeable. Thus, a system of competition among institutions for membership was created. In other words, while it may not have mattered to many Americans whether they attended a Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian church, it mattered very much to the denomination that it was able to attract and keep members. Winning converts became a sophisticated, market-driven process. The focus turned away from converting potential members to Christianity and more toward attracting Christians to a particular church. The result is that Americans found themselves in a religious marketplace in which they could seek their own spiritual path.
Pluralism and Evangelism
As previously noted, the term proselytization began to acquire a pejorative connotation for many Americans in the latter half of the twentieth century. It has often been identified with practices that are perceived as intrusive, invasive, and even culturally hegemonic.
As American culture has become more pluralistic, religious institutions have been forced to reevaluate their missionary efforts. One of the best examples of this evolutionary process is the "Declaration of Religious Freedom" (Dignitatis Humanae) released by the Second Vatican Council during the 1960s. Until 1908 the Catholic church in America was identified as a missionary church by Rome. Yet only half a century later, the Roman Catholic Church stated that "no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to [one's] religious beliefs." While not directly referring to proselytization, the "Declaration of Religious Freedom" opened the door to a more ecumenical outlook for American Catholics.
Yet proselytization is not seen as a negative activity by all Americans. Many traditions, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, still consider proselytization central to their tradition. The Southern Baptist Convention as recently as the 1990s asked member congregations to witness to American Jews. Evangelical Christians can even purchase board games with titles such as "Missionary Conquest" whose goals include conquering and Christianizing the entire world.
Marty, Martin E., and Frederick Greenspan, eds. Proselytism and Civility in a Pluralistic World. 1988.
Josephine C. McMullen