Steeped in religious language, the ‘convert’, as a noun, was a figure of both intrigue and fear in the early modern era, while the related verb ‘to convert’ applied this idea of change to a range of contexts at a time that saw drastic changes in medicine and natural philosophy. Alongside spiritual or mental conversion, early moderns conceived of a physical conversion which involved invisible and visible changes in character. ‘Convert’ and ‘conversion’ always related to transformation and alteration, but the confessional split caused by the Reformation, as well as more frequent English encounters with ethnographic peoples beyond Europe, heightened the potency of ‘convert’ in English definitions of their own identities. For the English, encountering other peoples was a double-edged sword. On one side, these exchanges provided the opportunity for the English to fulfil what they saw as their biblically-ordained evangelical responsibility to convert peoples and environments for both the Protestant faith and English state. On the other, cross-cultural encounters also placed the English at risk of conversion to other faiths and cultures.
After the Reformation, Protestant fears of conversion back to Catholicism, and away from the ‘true doctrine’ of the reformed faith, could happen within the realm as much as beyond it. Because Henry VIII’s break from Rome had unprecedently placed the English monarch at the head both church and state, conversion was a political as well as a spiritual issue, becoming a concern for policy-makers and churchmen alike. Spanish agents of Iberian Counter-Reformation, as well as English Catholics who fostered ties with the Jesuit colleges in Europe, sought to claim converts in their attempt to return England to the fold of the papacy. ‘I hope that Our Lord will blind [the Protestants] and temper the situation’, wrote the Spanish woman Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza from London in 1606, ‘otherwise soon there will be no Catholics left’. The conversion of individuals could have implications on a national or international scale. Carvajal reported that when men and women in the streets of London discussed confessional difference, they also invoked the religion of their rulers, and she expressed a sympathy for James, ‘for he had been left a child without his santly Catholic mother and in the puritans’ hands’. In response to Catholic attempts to drawing converts, Protestants used print and pulpit to proclaim the rightness of their doctrines, often offering staged conversions to reinforce the providentialism of the Protestant order. Once such example is evidenced in the sermon by Anthony Tyrell. A renegade priest and spy, Tyrell converted and reverted at least six times from Protestantism and Catholicism during the 1580s. His sermons in 1589 aimed to ‘publish unto the world yet once againe the constancie of my faith’, declaring that ‘I do from my hart … relinquish and abandon the Pope and the sea of Rome so far forth as it mainteineth Idolatrie, favoureth superstition, nourisheth schisme and devision, teacheth disobedience both to God and Princes.’ ‘I wyll not the death of a sinner’, the Swiss reformer Theodore de Beze wrote, in a translation by John Stockwood, ‘but I wyl rather than the sinner convert, repent and lyve’.
As Carla Pestana argued in Protestant Empire, much of the English zeal to convert came as a result of their desire to compete with the conversion efforts of Catholic Spain in the Atlantic. Early European encounters in the Atlantic and Indian oceans were dominated by the Spanish and Portuguese. In 1588, the Spanish Jesuit missionary José de Acosta argued that the reason for the success of the Iberian nations was that ‘in the holy Scripture it was foretold long before, that this new worlde should be converted to Jesus Christ by the Spanish nation.’ Like many others Europeans, de Acosta believed that it was not only the duty of Spain but also all Catholics to ‘convert many Nations unto the Lorde.’ Aware of Iberian attempts to convert the peoples of America, and of the wealth they had acquired through their commercial expansion, English imperial thinkers sought to use similar methods to legitimize English global expansion, creating a fundamental relationship between the conversion of souls and the conversion of landscapes. In his Discourse Concerning Western Planting (1584), Richard Hakluyt proclaimed that the first aim of western discovery ‘will be greatly for the inlargement of the gospel of Christe, whereunto the princes of the refourmed religion are chefely bounde’, but this document was also profoundly influenced by commercial competition with Spain. The term ‘convert’ appeared in the directions given to the Virginia Company in 1609, calling for ‘the conversion and reduccion of the people in those partes unto the true worshipp of God and Christian religion’. A similar instruction given in the 1620 charter of the New England Company required that the company ‘tendeth to the reducing and Conversion of such Savages as remaine wandering in Desolacion and Distress, to Civil Societie and Christian Religion.’ Early expansion and the perceived paganism of ‘savages’ presented the English with the opportunity to convert Native Americans to Christianity, fulfilling the nation’s God-given responsibility whilst preventing Spanish expansion. One of the highest-profile conversions of the period, used by many in England as a justification for colonizing Virginia and for advertising expansion more broadly, was the conversion of Pocahontas. Pocahontas’ conversion, her subsequent marriage to the planter John Rolfe, and the birth of her son Thomas Rolfe, led to a request from the Virginia Company in 1616 to bring Pocahontas and her family to England. In the lead-up to her voyage to England, John Smith wrote to Queen Anne suggesting that it would be crucial for the Queen to meet Pocahontas, as she was the ‘first Christian ever of that Nation, the first Virginian ever spake English, or had a childe in marriage by an Englishman’ and as such God had made ‘her his instrument’. For Smith, any refusal to meet her would have been detrimental to the fate of the English and Christian mission in Virginia, as ‘her present love to us and Christiantie, might turne to such scorne and furie, as to divert all this good to the worst of evill’. Smith’s plan to use Pocahontas to promote the Christianizing of Virginia never came to fruition, as Pocahontas fell ill and passed away in 1617. Her story is illustrative of the much wider policy of conversion that the English adopted in Virginia, where Algonquian children were taken from their parents and instructed in English customs and religion.
As with Native Americans in the Atlantic, English commercial expansion in the Mediterranean and Indian oceans increased the number of encounters with Muslims, Jewish, and Hindu peoples. For many in England, the role of England commercial companies that operated in the east was conversion alongside commerce. One influential chaplain of the East India Company (EIC), Patrick Copland, is mostly remembered or canonised for instigating the first company conversion in 1614 of an Indian boy. Returning from India that year with the converted boy, Copland managed to arrange for the company to provide a stipend for the boy to attend school in London to be ‘taught and instructed in religion’ and the EIC hoped that educating the child would lead God to be ‘soe pleased to make him an Instrument in roundinge some of his nation.’ One year later, Copland reported on the success of the boy’s education, proclaiming him to have ‘profited in the knowledge of the Christian religion’ and that it may benefit the company to hold a baptism ‘publiqielie’, as he was the 'first fruites of India.' However, Copland’s success was not shared by many in the EIC. Edward Terry, chaplain to Thomas Roe, bemoaned the inability of the English to convert compared to the success of the Jesuits in India, writing that only they ‘have liberty to convert, any they can work upon, unto Christianity.’ Another Company chaplain, Henry Lord, wrote upon his return to England about the Hindu and Parsi faiths he encountered. One of the aims of his work was to ensure that ‘good Christians in England’ were able to learn ‘to convert the Heresies of the Heathen’ in the east.
As English subjects ventured further afield, English authorities became increasingly concerned with apostasy or, in the case of encounters with Ottomans, ‘turning Turk’ [see ‘Turk’]. Regardless of attempts to prevent the conversion of English subjects, it was often the case that English authorities only had the power to rectify it once it had happened. One such case illustrating this took place in the spring of 1649, when EIC agent Thomas Breton wrote of his grief to ‘imparte unto you a sad story’ of how one man’s conversion to Islam had brought both ‘dishonour to our nation, and (which is incomparably worse), of our Christian profession’. According to Breton, Joshua Blackwell, a company employee at Agra, had converted to Islam and in doing so had been ‘irrecoverably lost’. Breton’s surety that Blackwell was beyond reformation was an acknowledgment of Mughal legal acts, or farmans, which prevented any interaction that would lead to the reconversion of an individual who had become Muslim. Yet despite Breton’s assertion that he was beyond ‘redemption’, in the months that followed, Blackwell initiated a series of correspondences which would lead to him being readmitted into the Company, and to the Protestant community it represented. Even ‘upon the acknowledgment of his sin and promise of perseverance in his Christian profession’, Blackwell still faced problems that would lead to him being sent back to England, as he would be ‘subject to the abuse of every Mahometan that knowes your condition’. When it came to apostasy, English authorities abroad provided two services; firstly, to prevent apostasy and, secondly, to clean up after it.
Conversion affected places and spaces as well as souls: many English travellers lamented the loss or destruction of Christian religious spaces by an invading force or faith. These narratives emphasised the role of external ‘foreign’ forces in the conversion of sacred places. Like with cases of apostasy, Muslims and Catholics were often perceived to be antagonists in accounts where churches were converted to other uses. In one English account of the Ottoman attacks of the Hungarian city of Buda in 1541, the ‘Christian Religion was now by sufferance’, with the ‘Churches were converted to Mosques.’ To Christian observers, one of the most horrific repercussions of the siege was the transferal Christian spaces into Muslim ones, something that occurred with increasing frequency as the Ottoman empire expanded its bounds into Europe and the Mediterranean. Even within the Christian faith, ‘false’ conversions might abound. In the 1690s, an English traveller recounted the condition of Protestants in the Palatinate, lamenting the conversion of Protestant churches to Catholic ones. According to the observer, ‘at Creutznach the Church that stands upon the Egg Market, they [Catholics] converted to their own use with the Latin Schools’, where Catholics used the money found in the church ‘imploy to pay Popish School-masters, and for Popish uses.’ For the author, the conversion of the Protestant church to a Catholic school was doubly troubling. Not only did the loss of the space signify a loss to Protestant advancement, but its conversion to a centre of Catholic education lay the foundations for a future generation of Catholic converts. These instances highlight the role of the visual, and the build environment, in marking the successes of forms of conversion. This had been underway in the British Isles since the second half of the sixteenth century, as Protestants established regional ascendancy through the dissolution of monasteries, where the building of reformed spaces of worship created a radical reconfiguring of the landscape. In a text ‘against sacriledge’, the Devonshire minister Roger Gostwick recounted a tale in which the emperor Justinian sought to tear down a church in Constantinople to build a political space within the palace, where subjects could visit him. Justinian reasoned that ‘it was neither displeasing to God, not offensive to any, to convert Churches to other uses, as those had done that had overthrowne the heathen temples’. But the Archbishop, Gotswick wrote, had replied, ‘God forbid, that ever I should use my tongue in perwading men to pull down Churches, who have neede to incite them all I can to build more’. Far from a random anecdote, the story directly spoke to contemporary concerns within the Jacobean Church on the importance of the built environment in establishing obedience and conformity within the realm, as much as beyond it.
English authorities were conscious of the damaging effects conversion from Protestantism would have on the reputation of the faith and nation both at home and abroad. For many, the biggest fear was conversion to Islam. In the Ottoman, Persian and Mughal Empires, conversion not only meant a switch in faith, but also national identity. The legal implications of conversion or possible conversion affected the status of numerous people across the early modern English world. In the British Isles several acts, such as the Test Act, Corporation Act and the Clarendon codes (four Acts introduced by Charles II chief minister, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon) imposed harsh legal penalties on recustants and dissenters, discouraging conversion from the state faith. Passed in 1661 the Corporation Act forbade anyone from taking public office who refused to take ‘the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper according to the rites of the Church of England.’ Reinforced again in the 1672 Test Act, also called the An Act for preventing dangers which may happen from Popish recusants, both acts effectively barred any convert to Catholicism, or dissenting protestant groups, such as Quakers and Baptists, even if they were English born from certain rights and privileges. In London and other English towns and cities this could even prevent individuals from becoming citizens, as any one outside of the Church of England was unable to hold municipal office. In the Atlantic world, authorities also attempted to curtail the legal freedoms that religious conversion had traditionally offered non-Europeans, in particular enslaved Africans. For slaves conversion and baptism had been traditionally seen as a form of manumission, allowing them to legally obtain their freedom and the rights and privileges that came with it. However, during the seventeenth century a number of English colonies attempted to prevent slaves from obtaining their freedom through conversion. In 1667 the Virginia Assembly were the first body in America to legislate this, declaring that ‘Baptisme doth not alter the condition of a person as tho his bondage or freedom.’ Officials in Maryland followed Virginia’s lead, passing an Act for the Encouraging of the Importation of Negroes and Slaves (1671) which also declared that baptism and conversion did not ‘any opinion to the contrary withstanding’ mean manumission. For much of the early modern era English authorities, both at home and abroad, saw conversion as a threat to established social hierarchies. In response to this officials legislated to curtail any social freedoms, either to prevent conversion from happening or to restrict the transmission of legal privileges through conversion.
The Reformation, global expansion, and the rise of empirical methods of medical or ‘scientific’ research thus imbued ‘convert’ with ideas of cultural difference, the transferal of properties, and the potential for transformation. Poets, were compared to alchemists in their ability to transform and perfect language. ‘All minerals … thou couldst convert to gold’, acclaimed Arthur Wilson in his commendatory verses to the metaphysical poet John Donne, ‘And with thy flaming raptures so refine,/ That is was much more pure then [sic] in the Mine’. As an alchemical term, natural philosophers and doctors noted, conversion involved continual change. The results might be welcome — the conversion of the Indian boy, Peter Pope, to Christianity, or the earth’s conversion of rocks into precious stones — but it might also bring deception or religious degeneration. As such, a ‘convert’ was a person who underwent profound changes, triumphing over — or failed to combat, in the case of apostasy — the forces of sin and evil.