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Psychology of Sudden Religious Conversion

Psychology of Sudden Religious Conversion

Building on the pioneering work of William James, Morton Prince explores the phenomenon of sudden religious conversion. 

The subject of religious conversion is psychologically so complex that it is out of the question to attempt to deal with it as a whole within the limits of a fifteen-minute paper, and so I have selected one phase of the subject; namely, the phenomenon of sudden conversion. Indeed, as will appear, I am really only concerned with a particular type of sudden conversion, for I doubt not that the psychological mechanism, by which the point of view of the individual is instantaneously shifted and a new system of ideas, with a glowingly intense focus, becomes dominant, is not always the same. Let it be understood, then, that I am dealing only with a particular type of sudden conversion. 

For those who have occupied themselves with experimental researches in subconscious processes of thought, William James, in his study entitled "Varieties of Religious Experiences," — a study in human nature which is as important as it is path-breaking, — has given a very plausible and seductive explanation of sudden conversion. After stating in descriptive terms the psychological meaning of conversion, James points out that while normal psychology is able to describe the alterations which have taken place in the point of view, the shifting of the focus of excitement, etc., it is incapable of giving the how or the why; that is, the mechanism which has brought all this about'. He then goes on, following Starbuck, to classify cases of conversion into the volitional type, and the type by surrender. It is to the latter class that the sudden cases belong. Now James's theory is that these individuals possess very large fields of ultramarginal or subconscious thought (p. 237), and that in this field there has been going on for some time an incubation of motives deposited by the experiences of life (pp. 210, 230, and 236); finally, when these motives come to maturity, they burst forth like a flower into the conscious life of the individual. 

That the subconscious plays a part in certain types of sudden conversion, I think there can be no doubt, and it is possible that, in certain cases, James's theory of an incubative mechanism may be substantially correct. These cases would be analogous to those in which problems of one kind or another have been experimentally or spontaneously solved subconsciously. Nevertheless, three difficulties may be raised to the acceptance of the theory as a general proposition: 

1. If sudden conversion is to be accepted as a normal phenomenon, it has not yet been demonstrated that in normal life there is any active subconscious field sufficiently large to develop the ideas which have been noted. Still, as the experiences in question may well be, and as I believe are, abnormal, this is not a fatal objection. 

2. The theory lacks experimental demonstration in any particular case. No case has yet been produced in which subconscious ideas of the kind in question have been shown either to have been, or to be, actually present in a state of incubation. 

3. James, himself, remarks that "candor obliges him [me] to confess that there are occasional bursts into consciousness of results of which it is not easy to demonstrate any prolonged subconscious incubation," and cites as examples, among others, the case of Ratisbonne and " possibly that of Saint Paul" (p. 236). These, in his opinion, apparently constitute a class by themselves. As I have had an opportunity to examine experimentally the content of the subconscious field in an instance of sudden ecstasy with change of view and belief, the whole, though not of a religious nature, being in every other way identical with religious conversion of the type last mentioned, I have thought it worth while reporting the observation here. It is particularly interesting because the case resembles the Ratisbonne case in a remarkable way, both in the conditions under which the ecstatic state developed, and in the subsequent mental state of the subject. I wish time permitted me to cite in full the account given by James of the Ratisbonne case, in order that the two cases might be compared. For the present, suffice it to say that for several days Ratisbonne had been unable to banish from his mind the words of a prayer given him by a proselytizing friend, and that the night before the crisis he had had -a sort of religious nightmare. Then, after entering a church, some kind of a psychical accident happened; all the surroundings vanished and the crisis came. It would seem clear from Ratisbonne's own account that he must have gone into a trance in the church at the moment when " the dog [which was with him] had disappeared, the whole church had vanished," and he "no longer saw anything" about him, but had a religious vision accompanied by ecstatic emotions. Or, at any rate, he went into a state which was abnormal, and presumably identical (although followed by partial memory, i. e., the vision of the Virgin) with that state into which my own case fell. In the case I am about to report there was similarly suddenly developed a state of exaltation or ecstasy with the formation of a "new center of personal energy " or focus of excitement in a new system of ideas.

The case was that of Miss B. The heralding of the sudden change in her personality was contained in a letter to me which ran:

"I want you to be the very first to hear my glad tidings of peace and joy. They have come to me at last, after all these years of unrest and suffering, come despite my impatience and unbelief, despite my little faith, my much sinning," and so on.

On examination I found her to be in a high state of mental exhilaration, because, as she averred, she was cured at last. All her symptoms had vanished, and she experienced a feeling of well-being and physical health. She believed herself well, and plainly interpreted every event through her dominant idea of physical, if not spiritual, "conversion" to health. She thought she was more like her old self, as she had been before her trouble came upon her, and she was supremely happy. She was also highly excited over the scheme of joining the Catholic Church, and going into a convent. The recovery of her health would allow her to follow a religious life in accordance with her ideals. Her condition was one of ecstacy. Although she had not slept more than an hour a night for several nights, nevertheless she was not a bit tired, although under ordinary circumstances she would have been a physical wreck.

Psychologically, this new mental condition plainly afforded an opportunity to. observe an example of that state of exaltation into which notoriously so many religious enthusiasts have fallen when the feeling of a new spiritual life was awakened in them. Inquiry into the origin of Miss B.'s belief proved an interesting study. She was examined in three hypnotic states, each differing markedly from the other. These were known as B Ia, BII and B III; B II having broader, and B III the broadest, memories in comparison with B Ia. From B Ia the following was learned:

For several days Miss B. had been anxiously dwelling upon the distressing troubles which her infirmity had brought upon her, and upon the uncertainties of the future. In a condition of hopeless despair she had betaken herself to church, thinking that through self-communing and prayer she might find some way out of her difficulties. The church was empty, and, as she communed with herself, her feeling of self-despair and hopelessness deepened.

Then, of a sudden, all was changed, without her knowing how or why. She became filled with a great emotion of joyousness and of well-being; a "great load seemed to be lifted from her," she felt "as light as air." A great feeling of peace, of restfulness, and happiness came over her. She felt well and believed herself well. With these emotions came religious memories, memories of her own experiences and of religious visions which she had had a long time ago. She remembered, for instance, visions of the Madonna and of Christ, and scenes of a religious character. Her cure seemed miraculous, and she felt and believed that she had had a visitation. Under the influence of these exalted religious feelings the idea naturally came to her of entering a convent. The life appealed to her and she thought that the freedom from care and anxiety which it offered would solve the problem of her own life, and that she would remain well. This was all the light that B Ia could throw upon the change in Miss B.'s condition. She was able to state the facts, but was unable to explain by what psychological process the transformation had been suddenly made from the state of hopeless depression to that of religious exaltation and happiness. A fuller explanation was obtained from B II.

There was a gap in B la's knowledge, i. e., between the ending of the depressed state and the inrushing of the exalted state. This gap B II was able to fill. (This hypnotic personality clearly recognized Miss B.'s condition as purely one of ecstasy, indeed so clearly that she analyzed her mental condition for me. The point is worth noting that Miss B. hypnotized into B II became a perfectly rational person who recognized the previous quasi-delirium of herself.) B II's account of the origin of Miss B.'s ecstasy was as follows: While Miss B. was communing with herself, her eyes became fixed upon one of the shining brass lamps in the church. She went into a hypnotic or trance-like state, of which neither Miss B. nor B la has any memory. In this trance state her consciousness was made up of a great many disconnected memories, each memory being accompanied by emotion. There were memories of religious experiences connected with her own life, and other memories of a religious character; and these memories were accompanied by the emotions which they had originally evoked. There were also memories of her early life, memories of happy times when she had been well; these memories also were associated with the emotions which she had at the time experienced. For instance, to take a few specific illustrations and tabulate them with the accompanying emotion:


of a scene at -----, a view of the sea with the light of the setting sun playing upon the water.


of well-being: peacefulness and happiness.


of walking with a friend near the same place; conversing.


of peacefulness and rest.


of driving in the country with a friend.


of peacefulness and rest.

[The above were all real incidents of her girlhood.]


of different visions of Christ and the saints. [All or most of these she had had at different times in the past.]


of exaltation, of lightness of body, of mental relief, peacefulness, and joyousness.


of a vision of herself shut up in a dungeon.


of restfulness, happiness, lightness of body.


of music which she had heard in a church.


[Not the usual emotional thrills of music, but] of lightness of body and great joy.

There was no logical connection between these memories; all were jumbled and without order, but the accompanying emotions were very strong.

After a short time Miss B. awoke, and, on waking, all the memories which made up the consciousness of the trance state were forgotten. At first her mind was a blank so far as logical ideas were concerned. She thought of nothing definite, though isolated ideas rapidly flitted through her mind, and yet she was filled with emotions. These were the same emotions which belonged to the different memories and visions of the trance state.

These emotions persisted. They were of lightness of body, of physical restfulness, and well-being, besides those of exaltation, joyousness, and peace, largely of a religious nature. Presently logically connected ideas began to come into her mind. The emotions were now accompanied by a lot of ideas, and memories of religious experiences, those which B la had described. It is significant that these ideas were not those originally associated with the emotions in hypnosis, but newly suggested ideas; at least, they appear to have been suggested by the emotions. She felt well and believed herself cured at last. The idea of a convent life naturally followed this religious exaltation. As Miss B. did not know what occurred during the time gap when she was in the trance-like state, she thought that the sudden change in her mental condition and physical health was miraculous and due to a "visitation."

Recently, since the above was written, some additional details have been obtained from both B II and B III. These details relate to the trance and the question whether subconscious ideas were present after waking from the trance. When the original observation was made, B II's memory was not tested for such ideas, though their presence was suspected from their having been so often present in analogous phenomena. Accordingly, to clear up this point, Miss B. has recently been examined again in hypnosis as B II in regard to any memories she may now have of ideas that may have been present at the time in question, but of which she was not then conscious (i. e., subconscious ideas). The following was elicited: B II recalls the scene following the crisis; the whole arises before her almost as vividly as a vision. She remembers innumerable pictures that passed as in a panorama subconsciously through her mind The pictures were fanciful and apparently without relation to one another, — pictures of nature (sunsets), and of persons, and religious pictures. For instance, a picture of "Christ walking by the olive trees," and "the Virgin with the child in her arms; the Virgin is just about to go away, and she turns back and looks at me. It was dear!" B II visualizes her memory in a marked way, describing vividly the situations, and using her hands to point out the different relations of the actors and the surroundings, as if the scene were still before her. She describes exactly how the Virgin stands; "the expression of her face is most beautiful; she has brown eyes, and there is more color in her face than is usually painted in pictures." (B II does not remember any painting resembling this visualized memory.) None of these subconscious pictures that she now recalls were identical with the memories (pictures) of the trance state, though similar in kind. (The patient volunteers the remark that at the time of the first examination she recalled these subconscious pictures.)

B II now describes the emotions which accompanied these various kinds of subconscious pictures. They were all "exalting, uplifting, and satisfying," and she, as Miss B., at the time, consciously felt them. (As B II recalled the religious subconscious pictures, she experienced over again the same emotions in a minor degree.) B II cannot say, however, that these emotions came from the subconscious pictures, as they were consciously " present there, anyway," as a residue of the trance state, and continued although the subconscious pictures changed from moment to moment. The examination of the third state, B III, was made by means of automatic writing which was performed during the hypnotic state, B II. The memory of B III for the trance in the church is, at the present time, at least, more complete than that even of B II. The same I have found to be generally the case, particularly in connection with subconscious, trance, delirious, dream, and allied phenomena. It is, therefore, likely that B III describes a momentary condition of which B II has never had a memory, as she has not to-day. The mental content of this trance moment was not important, being made up of a dreamlike conscious state, accompanied by emotions of joyousness. B II cannot recall this dream to-day, although she can revive, as has just been said, all the other memories with great vividness. Whether or not any of the ideas (memories, visions, etc.) of the trance state persisted subconsciously as such, after coming out of the crisis, is not clear. The evidence of the automatic writing was to the effect that this was in a fragmentary way the case, but the specific instances given could not be identified for various reasons. Nevertheless the memory of B III corroborates that of BII to the effect that numerous subconscious ideas were present after the crisis, as already described.

One point of interest and of practical importance in this observation is the difference in the completeness of the memories of the several hypnotic states, B Ia, B II, and B III. This conforms with what is known of memory synthesis in hypnosis, and emphasizes the fallacies which may follow from relying upon any given group of memories, whether of the waking or other states.

In this case, then, there was no incubation or flowering of subconscious ideas deposited by the experiences of life through a long period of time; there were simply emotions of the moment which had developed in a trance state, which persisted after coming out of the crisis as a state of exaltation, and which, of themselves, through their naturally associated ideas, suggested the beliefs which took possession of her mind. These emotions were reinforced by those belonging to a series of subconscious ideas which were a sort of subconscious continuation of the trance dreams. Besides the evidence of B II and B III, other experimental evidence obtained in this case, in connection with other phenomena, went to show that after waking, in all probability, there were subconsciously present a certain number of discrete ideas similar to those which, in the trance state, originally had given birth to the emotions; and that, on waking from the crisis, these subconscious ideas still continued to keep the emotions alive. On numerous occasions I have been able to demonstrate the presence, in the waking consciousness, of emotions due to the contemporaneous presence of subconscious ideas. Time will not permit me to review this evidence here.

The evidence then, as a whole, goes to show that the part played by the subconscious mind consisted in furnishing emotions rather than ideas. It may again be repeated that the subconscious fanciful ideas, with which the emotion of ecstasy in the above observation was associated, formed no part of that system of ideas which constituted her waking belief.

The striking similarity between the conversion of Miss B. and that of Ratisbonne may be pointed out:

Ratisbonne, from his own account, clearly must have gone into a trance in the church, and, on coming out of this state of mental dissociation, he was filled with ecstatic emotions, as was Miss B. As he was not interrogated in hypnosis, it is not possible to determine the content of his mind in the trance state, and we can only infer that the psychological mechanism in his state was substantially the same as that of Miss B., and that they both belong to the same class. How large a class of cases of sudden conversion this type represents, it is impossible to say from the data which are at present before us, but I suspect it is larger than one would imagine from the published accounts. James thus sums up the mental condition of the subject in the supreme moment when the ecstasy develops:

"It is natural that those who personally have traversed such an experience should carry away a feeling of its being a miracle rather than a natural process. Voices are often heard, lights seen, or visions witnessed; automatic motor phenomena occur; and it always seems, after the surrender of the personal will, as if an extraneous higher power had flooded in and taken possession. Moreover, the sense of renovation, safety, cleanness, lightness, can be so marvelous and jubilant as well to warrant one's belief in a radically new substantial nature." 

All this shows mental disintegration, and that the subjects at such moments are not in a stable condition of mind, but1 are often in a trancelike or hypnoid condition, or whatever name you may choose to call it by. The development of disintegration is facilitated and often started by the mental strain ordinarily induced by the doubts, fears, anxieties, and other emotions which go with the intense introspection which religious scruples call forth. Torn and distracted by doubt, the personality is easily disintegrated, and then the ecstatic emotions associated with religious hopes and longings take root. At this crucial moment the subject, perhaps half oblivious of his surroundings, sees visions which are apt to be the expression of his doubts, and hears a voice which speaks his own thoughts. On coming out of this hysteroid, or hypnoid, state, the exalting emotions persist, along with an incomplete or possibly complete memory of all that has taken place. These emotions then give an entirely new shape and trend to the individual ideas, just as the distressing emotions following hysterical accidents determine the form of the mental content. From this point of view, a study of the conversion of Saint Paul shows us, so far as we are able to determine it from the biblical accounts, the same psychological phenomenon. Saint Paul, while in the midst of his persecution of the heretic Jews and while empowered as a special commissioner to take as prisoners to Jerusalem any that he found, was journeying to Damascus for the purpose of continuing the persecution. As he came near to Damascus, suddenly he saw a bright light round about him. Then he fell down and heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" etc. Besides hearing the voice, Paul, himself, preached that he had "seen Jesus Christ." It is noteworthy, as characteristic of the dissociated state which such morbid phenomena imply, that Paul was blind for three days following the event, undoubtedly an hysterical blindness. In the absence of precise information it is useless to attempt a psychological analysis of the condition of Paul's consciousness preceding these hallucinations, but, nevertheless, it may be pointed out that psychical factors amply sufficient to produce disintegration were present. "He became not only a persecutor, but a leader among persecutors. (Gal. I:14.) What he felt was a very frenzy of hate; he 'breathed threatening and slaughter,' like the snorting of a war horse before a battle, against the renegade Jews who believed in a false Messiah. (Acts 9:I; 26: 2.) . . . He, himself, speaks of having ' made havoc ' of the community at Jerusalem, spoiling it like a captured city (Gal. I:13, 23); in the more detailed account given in the Acts it is said that he went from house to house to search out and drag forth to punishment the adherents of the new heresy (8.-3)." Such a person must have been in a condition of intense religious passion and exaltation, pursuing his persecutions in "vindication of the honor of God."

The second point that I wish to make is that there is no difference, fundamentally, excepting in the content of consciousness, between a state of ecstasy with its corresponding system of ideas and beliefs, and an obsession of fear or anxiety with its system of ideas and beliefs. Both often may be traced to emotional influences as a primary disintegrating cause, and to a secondary hysterical crisis followed by a final obsession, the origin of which is unknown to the subject. It would seem as if it were of little consequence whether the emotion is an exalting one, like ecstasy, or a depressing one, like fear. Both give color to a systematized delusion, which may be characterized in accordance with the common usage of language as a "belief," but which may be equally well described as a systematized delusion in relation to the inadequacy of the data to which the belief relates.

A third point which I should have liked to make, if time had permitted, is that in other cases of sudden conversion, perhaps the most numerous class, the new system of ideas is not an "uprush" from a co-active subconsciousness (that is, a coconsciousness), but is rather an automatic crystallization of past experiences out of what may be termed the potential or latent consciousness. These memories of past experiences, until this moment not in systematized activity, now become, as a sort of emotional automatism, an independent focus of energy and the persistent dominant consciousness. I think there is considerable experimental evidence in favor of such a hypothesis, but its consideration does not lie within the scope of this paper.

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