Narrative history tells tales of conversion from 17th, 20th centuries


“Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America” by Craig Harline. Yale University Press (New Haven, Conn., 2011). 320 pp., $27.50.


Reviewed by Eugene J. Fisher

Catholic News Service


Craig Harline, the author of “Conversions,” a highly readable and in many ways fascinating exercise in “narrative history,” is a Mormon, a fact not unrelated to his study, and professor of history at Brigham Young University.

The basic narrative is that of a young man, Jacob Rolandus, son of a Reformed preacher and grandson of a famous Reformed preacher and scholar, who in the 17th century left his family and his home in the Netherlands, fleeing to the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium) to become a Catholic, ultimately joining the Jesuits and becoming a missionary.

CNS photo

Jacob’s story, written in novelistic fashion, is based upon his journals and extensive correspondence, especially with his sister, who remained staunchly Reformed despite Jacob’s lengthy treatises proving, to his satisfaction if not hers, the superiority of Catholicism to Reformed Christianity. Her counterarguments likewise fail to move Jacob from his faith commitment, which he sincerely believes to be a response to God’s call.

In the sister’s letters and in statements especially from Jacob’s father, one sees an astounding display of anti-Catholic diatribe, misinterpretation of Catholic doctrine, and invective in which terms such as “papist” for “Catholic” and “whore of Babylon” to refer to the pope are among the less incendiary, with Jacob returning anti-Reformed rhetoric common to Catholic usage of the time.

Though Harline does not go into the issue (as I believe he should have), it is no wonder that our immigrant Irish, Italian, Polish and now Hispanic ancestors encountered and still encounter today so much systematic anti-Catholicism and discrimination.

The Rolandus narrative is helpful for contemporary Catholics to understand our not-so-distant past in this country, while the inability of the Rolandus family to reconcile themselves to Jacob’s “apostasy” can help Catholic families to overcome and embrace similar situations of Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and other non-Catholic.

We live today, thanks to the Second Vatican Council, in an ecumenical age in which Catholic families can place love over sectarian differences without diminishing their own basic faith commitments.

Interspersed with the historical narrative is one from the 1960s and 1970s in which a young evangelical Christian becomes a Mormon, which is hard enough on his parents, but then in effect leaves Mormonism as he realizes he is homosexual and enters into a relationship that will last over three decades until his partner dies. Again, the lesson of the author is that family love should overcome not only religious difference but also sexual orientation.

On the pastoral level Catholic families will relate to the ability to continue to love and embrace one’s children and siblings despite serious differences. But the analogy between religious conversion and homosexuality, which is simply presumed and discussed by the author, is not really an automatic equivalency on all levels. And while accepting the principle of family love which is espoused, Catholics will need to look to Catholic sources to understand church teaching on the biblical, theological and moral issues involved.


Fisher is a professor of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University in Florida.