This is an abridged English version of Hans L Zetterbergís Three-Semester Thesis ("trebetygsuppsats") at the Department of Sociology, Uppsala University, Sweden, Spring semester 1949.

 

Reprinted from Sociology and Social Research

Vol. 36, No. 3, January-February 1952

 

THE RELIGIOUS CONVERSION

AS A CHANGE OF SOCIAL ROLES

HANS L. ZETTERBERG

University of Minnesota

Occasionally revivalist groups have been used by social psychologists as examples to illustrate different forms of collective behavior. The present paper also deals with behavior in a revivalist group but offers no analysis at a psychological level. Some correlations with conventional sociological variables will be presented which may provide a point of departure for a psychological analysis but which seem sufficiently interesting at a sociological level.

The data, from a youth organization of a revivalist church in Sweden, have been collected by the Rev. Erland Sundstrom and treated and analyzed by the present author. A stratified area sample of nine clubs affiliated with the Swedish Mission Covenant Youth (SMCY) was selected. They had 568 registered members who returned 399 questionnaires in a form suitable for use (70.3%).

The respondents are between 18 and 40 years of age. They are mostly from middle-class homes, and rural areas dominate over urban. They reflect the fact that there are considerably more women than men in SMCY: for every 10 men there are 16 women. The surplus of women is essentially a surplus of single women. More than half the number of women in our sample are single, while among women in the same age group in the whole country only a third are single. in the urban clubs in our sample there are 24 single women for every 10 single men, and in the rural clubs there are 14 for every 10.

It is essential to point out the fairly fundamentalist theology and the moral strictness of the group. The rules state that only those who openly confess that they possess or seek communion with God are admitted as members. A number of activities are denounced as "worldly enjoyments" and forbidden by role expectation. Thus, negative demands are found around card playing, reading secular novels and magazines, drinking alcohol, using lipstick, smoking, and going to movies. As an example we can take the distribution of answers to the question, "Do you think a Christian can take part in dancing?"

Yes

4.3

 

 

N=399

No

89.4

Donít know

6.3

 

100.0

[p. 160] Since the members are prohibited so many things common in social intercourse among nonmembers of their age group, they tend to withdraw from their "secular" agemates and to stick to each other. In other words, they spend a large amount of time in church activities. The following table gives details.

Evenings per Week

Per Cent

0.5

18.0

0.5-2.0

19.8

2.0-3.5

35.3

3.5-5.0

19.0

5.0

7.9


Apparently, the church must control almost all the spare time of Ďa con siderable number of members.

To summarize, we find that an SMCY member has a social roh marked by eager church participation and by a personal religious confession colored by fundamentalist ideas and restraining attitudes aboul conventional social intercourse. Our hypothesis is now that members religious conversions are predictable details in the learning of this role,

The learning of this social role starts, in 8 cases out of 10, in the parentsí home, since 8 members out of 10 have been brought up in family in which the father and/or mother is a member of the Covenani church. A number of church institutions supplement the training. We asked whether our respondents had participated in Sunday school, Bible classes, and teen-age religious clubs. The result is summarized in the following table.

Institutions Attended

Per Cent

Sunday school, Bible classes, and religious clubs

81.1

Sunday school, Bible classes, but not religious clubs

10.6

Sunday school, religious clubs, but not Bible classes ,

3.8

Bible classes and religious clubs, but not Sunday school

1.3

Sunday school, but not Bible classes and religious clubs

1.8

Bible classes, but not Sunday school and religious clubs

1.5

Religious clubs, but not Sunday school and Bible classes

- -


The members obviously have a strong background of religious influence when they enter the SMCY. No one in the sample has been without opportunity to be influenced by at least one of the listed institutions.

It is against this background that the religious conversions in the group occur. More than two thirds of the SMCY members in our sample talk [p. 161] about a religious conversion dated to a certain day and a certain place but, as we have seen,they have all been influenced previously by at least some religious institution and almost all of them have been brought up in religious homes. The sudden character of their religious conversions must not prevent us from remembering these earlier influences.1

Another of the popular conceptions about religious conversions should be modified also. The conversion is generally thought of as constituting or marking a change in opinions and habits, a change of philosophy of life and way of life. There are evidences that such conversions do occur that imply changes in attitudes and habits. But there are also religious experiences that occur in much the same fashion and which do not imply any particular change in habits and belief. The reason simply is that the "convert" already has the pious habits and the "right" belief. The "conversion" serves in these cases as a mark of a more conscious acceptance of these habits and this belief. The fact that conversions which are placed at a certain time and at a certain place comprise these two different phenomena has been stated by Elmer T. Clark after an analysis of introspective reports on the religious development of 2,174 men and women.2 Clark found three types of what he called "religious awakening":

1. The Definite Crisis Awakening. The definite crisis type of awakening is, as its designation implies, the type of awakening in which a real emotional crisis is reached and passed and in which a definite change of attitude seems to have taken place. (p. 39)

2. The Emotional Stimulus Awakening. The emotional stimulus type is that in which the emotional upheaval is much reduced in intensity, or even entirely absent, and in which no special change is effected, but the subject looks back to some event which served as a stimulus to awaken the religious consciousness. Life and attitude remain unchanged, but the stimulus stands out in memory as the dawn of a definite religious acceptance. (pp. 42-43)

3. The Gradual Awakening. In the gradual category fall all persons whose religious life has flowed onward like a stream, enlarging and growing but striking no obstructions and forming no cataracts. (p. 45)

I am not going to discuss Clarkís methods and framework of reference except to note that observation showed that the types described by Clark existed in SMCY. With his intimate knowledge of language [p. 162]

habits among the members, the Reverend Sundstrom formulated the following question to discriminate among them: Which of the following examples is most similar to your own experience?

It is evident that these three examples denote three different ways in which the learning of what we have called the social role of the SMCY member seems to have taken place in the eyes of the members. Let us try to translate them into more general terms.

1. The essentials in the first example are the words sin and the world. They represent to this group everything opposite to the role expectations we previously have analyzed. Those who come from "sin and the world" to the SMCY have changed their habits to conform with the social role of SMCY. This type of religious conversion may be called a "sudden change of role."

2. In the second example there is no pronounced role change. It deals with a case where a person suddenly gets more involved in a group of which she is already a member. It may be denoted as "sudden role identification."

3. The third example implies a learning process without sudden changes in role or role identification. It may be called the "role assimilation." A role assimilation process may have its starting point in learning in childhood as well as having taken place later on in the form of a slow change of role.

A survey of the answers to this question revealed that 23 persons did not answer the question. The distribution of the others is: sudden change of role, 16.0; sudden role identification, 55.8; role assimilation, 28.2 (n=376). The sudden role identification dominates, while the genuine conversion, the sudden change of role, is the exception rather than the rule.

The observer cannot distinguish between the sudden change of role and the sudden role identification when he watches a revivalist meeting [p. 163] where both occur. In an SMCY revivalist meeting, after a leaderís appeal for conversion, the candidates go to the first row of seats, kneel, and remain there for some minutes praying together with their leader, sometimes under observable emotional upheaval and crying. A closer examination of the external setting of these phenomena, however, reveals significant differences in the situations for sudden role changes and sudden role identifications.

Setting

Sudden Change of Role

n=60

Sudden Role Identification

n=210

Revivalist meeting

81.7

41.9

Camps

6.7

26.2

Other formal meetings

3.3

10.9

Informally

8.3

21.0

 

100.0

100.0

The sudden-change-of-role type of learning probably is dominant in the first generation of a revivalist movement. The children of first generations are taught the role by their parents, and their way of imitating their parentsí experience of conversion takes the shape of the sudden role identification. The young generation, in other words, imitates the conversion ritual of the old generation, but gives it another content. It marks a reinforcement of a previously learned role rather than a change of roles. The different content in the same ritual explains why an observer cannot see any difference between the types when he watches a revivalist meeting. However, as the table above indicates, it is easier to elicit the sudden role identification outside the revivalist meeting than the sudden change of role.

The age at the experience of a sudden change of roles and a sudden identification is presented in the following table. It refers to persons between 25 and 50 years of age in the SMCY.

 

Number of Persons Presenting

Age

Sudden Change of Role

Sudden Role Identification

10-11

-

1

12-13

-

11

14-15

2

52

16-17

5

25

18-19

6

16

20-21

Ď 5

9

22-23

4

3

All

22

117

 

[p. 164] We find that the sudden role identification takes place almost exclusively during puberty. It has the mode of 14-15 years of age and the mean at 16.6 for the boys and 15.6 for the girls. The sudden change of role seems to occur later than the identification experience; the small number of role changers, however, makes a definite conclusion on this point impossible.

We have found three correlations of the ways of learning the social role of the SMCY which we want to discuss. Significant relationships exist between sudden change of role and domicile, education, and sex. It occurs more often among those who live in rural districts than among those who live in urban districts (significant at the 5% level) ; second, it is more common among those who have limited education than among those more highly educated (significant at the 1% level); and, third, it is more common among men than among women (1 % level).

However, our variables are intercorrelated. The census shows that there are more men than women in rural districts, that the education generally is lower in rural districts than in urban, and that men in general have higher education than women. We, therefore, make a partial correlation with the following designations: (1) persons who report a sudden change of role, (2) persons who live in rural districts, (3) persons who have graduated only from grammar schools, and (4) persons of male sex. The relationships mentioned are the following ones expressed in tetrachoric coefficients computed with Thurstoneís Diagrams:

r12=0.22

r12.34=0.03

r13=0.32

r13.24=0.32

r14=0.30

r14.23=0.33

We are now able to explain the relationships found and throw some light upon the phenomenon of the sudden religious conversion.

1. That the sudden change of role is more common in the rural districts than in the urban is explained by the fact that in the rural districts there are more persons with limited education than in the urban districts and by the fact that there are more men than women in these districts. If the sex distribution and the education level are held constant, as in our partial correlation, there is no relationship between domicile and existence of change of role. If we can explain the relationships established as to education and sex, we have also explained the relationship concerning domicile. [p. 165]

2. That the sudden change of role is more common among those with limited education than among the better educated is probably due to factors in the educational system. In the first place, it may be assumed that any higher education is a threat to any fundamentalist belief. A person with some amount of higher education has, in general, to give up more of his philosophy of life if he accepts the SMCY role than his less educated brother. Second, at the high school level the school training is already accompanied by a variety of extracurricular activities. The one who changes to this religious role has to give up a number of enjoyments connected with these activities, since SMCY maintains some strict standards about what a member must not do in social intercourse. Third, the philosophy of democratic education in Sweden implies a strengthening of the studentís intellectual and emotional life so that he will not be quickly swayed by an opinion or ideology. He is simply taught not to make a sudden change of roleópolitical, vocational, religious, etc.óin a stage of emotional upheaval. Finally, it may be supposed that there are more opportunities in higher education than in elementary education for coming in contact with what in SMCY is called "secular" attitudes, i.e., attitudes incompatible with the role expectations of the SMCY.

3. That the sudden change of role is more common among men than among women may be due to differences between the male and the female role. It may be asserted that the female role is more similar to the SMCY role than the male role is. In Sweden, especially in the lower-middle class, men often are allowed to smoke, drink alcohol, play cards, and sometimes also to indulge in sexual habits which are not condoned among women. The restraining attitude demanded of women on these matters is very similar to the attitude demanded of SMCY members. This affinity between the female role and the social role of the SMCY members explains why there are more women than men in SMCY. In the second place, it also makes the point of view reasonable that a manís change to the habit system of the SMCY will be more violent than that of a woman. As in the case of education, it may be suggested also that the male in Swedish society in general has a social role which gives him more opportunities to be in touch with secular attitudes. The womanís life is still often limited to a home, but the manís includes a working place where there is greater probability of meeting "secular" attitudes.

Summary. The religious conversion proper is a sudden acceptance of a social role advocated by a religious group. In the group studied it occurs mostly in a setting that is manipulated by the group, the revival

[p. 166] meeting. The converts are mostly in late puberty or older. Men are more apt to convert than women, and the lesser educated are more apt to convert than the higher educated. All converts have previously been exposed to religious influences, and the conversion is a detail in a larger socialization process.

In a revivalist movement that is old enough to have a second or third generation a kind of quasi conversion might occur. It constitutes an emotional reinforcement to the indoctrination given by the older generation. in the group studied this sudden increase in identification with the group occurs almost exclusively during puberty, with a peak at midpuberty. It is not so dependent on a setting in the form of a revival but often follows the same ritual as the conversion proper.

 

1 Cf. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Ed. in The Modern Library, New York, 1936, p. 207.

2 Elmer T. Clark, The Psychology of Religious Awakening (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929).