Harding—Convicted by the Holy Spirit

Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The Rhetoric of Fundamental Baptist Conversion

by Susan F. Harding

[Harding, Susan F. 1986. “Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The Rhetoric of Fundamental Baptist Conversion.” American Ethnologist, Vol. 14, No. 1, Frontiers of Christian Evangelism (Feb., 1987), pp. 167-181]

  • Rhetorical witnessing as practice
  • enacting a conversion (in the listener) from lost to saved
  • ethnography as a space between belief and disbelief that fundamental Christianity disallows

works in five rhetorical movements:

  1. equating listener with listeners in the narrative
  2. defining the listener as “lost”
  3. defining the speaker as “saved”
  4. transforming narrative listeners into speakers
  5. exhorting present listener to speak (become saved)


Born-again Christian belief follows conversion, an inner transformation that quickens the supernatural imagination. Among fundamental Baptists, rhetoric, not ritual, is the primary vehicle of conversion. Witnesses “speak the gospel,” the ramifying discourse and narrative of Christ. Listeners “come under conviction” as they appropriate the gospel in their inner speech. At “the moment of salvation,” listeners become public speakers of the gospel. They “believe” in the sense of em- bracing a narrative tradition that rewords their experience in terms of a personal, triune God who intervenes in daily life and in history.

keywords – conversion, rhetoric, religion, evangelicalism, America

Annotation Summary for: Harding – Convicted by the Holy Spirit

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The Moral Majority and, more generally, the current political activism among fundamentalists are evidence of a deeper movement within American fundamentalism to abandon its historic separatism from “the world.””

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “they are transforming the fundamentalist mind and community, and altering what it means to be a fundamentalist.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Their culture is premised on a commitment to assimilate “the world” on fundamentalist terms, and, indeed, fundamentalists routinely re-produce their cultural modes of interpretation through encountering, reconfiguring, and incor- porating specimens of alien, worldly, culture. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Most specifically, at the center of the language of fundamentalism is a bundle of strategies-symbolic, narrative, poetic, and rhetorical-for confronting individuals, singly and in groups, stripping them of their cultural assumptions, and investing them with a fundamentalist mode of organizing and interpreting experience.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This bundle of strategies is the rhetoric of conversion, and my purpose here is to scrutinize a sample of that rhetoric to decipher its sources of efficacy. In particular, how does the language and performance of fundamental Baptist witnessing convict and convert the unsaved listener?”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Baptist witnessing is not just a monologue that constitutes its speaker as a culturally specific person; it is also a dialogue that reconstitutes its listeners. My focus is on this latter aspect, on witnessing as the practice, the rite, of conversion.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Contemporary social scientists have in- vestigated “who” converts for some indication of “why” they convert. The notion is, appar-ently, that those who convert are somehow susceptible, vulnerable, in need, so the question is: “Why, what’s wrong, what’s unsettling them?” Or, “What’s setting them up, how have they been predisposed to convert?””

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “There is also considerable literature, both popular and academic, on how various ritual prac-tices and psychological techniques trigger experiences that result in a conversion from one worldview, or mind-set, to another.3”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “What this approach, at least when plied by those who see conversion as a kind of brainwashing, tends to overlook is how persuasive in a quite unsensational way the recruiting rhetoric, the language of conversion as such, may be, how much it itself contributes to “dividing” the mind and bring- ing about conversion.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The presumption that I think accounts for this oversight, and which in more muted form also guides many social scientific studies, is that “nobody in their right minds would believe this stuff.” Since “belief” is irrational, some sort of suspension of normal thinking must have taken place and caused the convert to lose his or her grip on reality.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Among orthodox Protestants, and especially among fundamentalists, it is the Word, the gos- pel of Jesus Christ, written, spoken, heard, and read, that converts the unbeliever.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Witnessing and preaching are the two main situations in which believers “speak the gospel” most intensely.”

Page 3, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Preaching-the sermon-is a formal oration addressed to a body of believers and nonbelievers by an ordained or anointed speaker in church services and revivals”

Page 3, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Preaching”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Witnessing is more informal and often occurs in the course of what appears to be no more than a conversation between the witness, who is saved, and an unsaved listener.”

Page 4, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Witnessing”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Witnessing aims to separate novice listeners from their prior, given reality, to constitute a new, previously unperceived or indistinct, reality, and to impress that reality upon them; makeit felt, heard, seen, known, undeniably real.”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the principle of conversion, of one person insinuating his or her mode of interpretation into the mind of another,”

Page 4, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “principle of conversion,”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “preacher and gospel”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A witnessing session minimally includes the gospel story (an exegesis of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ), and a confrontation between the witness and his or her listener in which the witness invites or exhorts the listener to receive Christ as his or her personal Savior.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “testify (give accounts of encounters between themselves and God, and other narrative evidence of God’s intervention in the natural world)”

Page 5, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “testify”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Witnessing, “is intended to create a spiritual crisis by calling to the fore one’s desperate and lost condition, which one may have been totally unaware of” (Hill 1985:26).”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “what fundamentalists call “coming under conviction,””

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “; cast into a limbo that is to say, somehow in a liminal state,”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Gospel talk is public and targets outsiders, nonbelievers; but, as in witchcraft, there isno such thing as a neutral, “participant-observer” position, no place for an ethnographer who seeks “information.” Either you are lost, or you are saved. ”

Page 6, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “”nominal Christian,””

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” what they call a “nominal Christian,” someone who might think she was a Christian but who had never been saved”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “five distinct rhetorical movements in Reverend Cantrell’s witnessing talk: equating his present listener with the listeners in his stories; defining the listener as lost; defining the speaker as saved; transforming his narrative listeners into speakers; exhorting his present listener to speak.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “enlisting the listener”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “lostness”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “because he had put me in his narrative in his place, he was also describing me; indeed, he was refashioning me. I am emptied, stripped of all vestiges of personality and uniqueness. I am primarily distinguished by what I lack, and, given my lack-ing, by what I need. My consent is not sought; I am implicated, already enlisted as a collaborator, in my own metamorphosis.”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “instilling the spirit”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “As well as constituting the listener as a lost soul, Reverend Cantrell in his conversion storybegan to fashion the speaker, the saved soul, as he narratively moved himself, you could say, converted himself, from lost listener to a saved speaker of the Word of God. ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit converts sinners, but he (the fundamental Baptist Holy Spirit is amale person) speaks through those who preach the gospel. Preachers speak the Word of God; God speaks through them.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I could throw a rock at you and you could throw another one at me. But if I make a statement from the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit bears me up, and he begins to deal with your heart about it, then when we have parted company, he’s still working, and I’m gone.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “t like a mother with a child, she’s not seen her unborn baby, but she knows he’s there. You say, “How does she know?” She feels life and movement within her. Now the spirit of God is like another voice, like anotherparty. And he is not a figment of the imagination. But the Bible says, he’s a real personality, a real person. And actually he can catch your next word and stop it, if you’re sensitive to him.”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” Now once he’s in here, the things that I used to love to do-and I mean I had a real passion for some things before I got saved-and when he came to live within me, all of a sudden I found that I hated and despised those things. Well, it wasn’tmy flesh, it was Christ living within me that was despising those things because they were anti- and alien to his nature. ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Fundamental Baptists, especially preachers, are acutely aware of the power of witnessing andof the gospel, of the rhetoric of conversion in general. They attribute its transforming power to the workings of the Holy Spirit, that is, to supernatural agencies, but their glosses on those agencies invariably refer to words, to speaking and hearing and reading. In effect, in a coded way, they recognize language as a medium, even a subject, of religious experience, and they coach the unconverted in the linguistic dimension of conversion. ”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “second birth”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “do you know Christ?”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “conclusion”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “If conversion is a process of acquiring a specific religious language, and witnessing is an orthodox Protestant rite of conversion, then, if you are willing to be witnessed to, if you are seriously willing to listen to the gospel, you have begun to convert. Listening to the gospel initiates the unwashed into the Word, the language of God.”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: ” I was given to think my credibility de- pended on my resisting any experience of born-again belief. The irony is that this space be- tween belief and disbelief, or rather the paradoxical space of overlap, is also the space of eth-nography. We must enter it to do our work.9″

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “. Disbelief is a conscious refusal to accept a particular version of reality, and believ- ing involves the conscious acceptance of “doctrines,” of particular claims about reality and one’s relationship to it. But disbelief is also, in the case of evangelical Christianity at least, an unconscious refusal to participate in a particular narrative mode of knowing reality. Likewise, belief also involves an unconscious willingness to join a narrative tradition, a way of knowing and being through storytelling, through giving and taking stories. ”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “there is no such thing as a coincidence in born-again culture; God’s hand is everywhere.”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A cynic, second-guessing Reverend Cantrell’s motives, would say he was manipulative, thathe used this painful story to “get to” his listener. But from within born-again culture, this telling was the ultimate evidence of belief, Cantrell’s moment of maximum authenticity.”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This was his own conclusion: “Now I’m saying that, Susan, because he is real. This is not mythology. I’m 46 years old, and I’m no fool. God is alive. And his Son lives in my heart.””

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Listening to the gospel enables you to experience belief, as it were, vicariously. But generative belief, belief that indisputably transfigures you and your reality, be- lief that becomes you, comes only through speech. Among fundamental Baptists, speaking isbelieving. ”

Page 16, Underline (Red): Content: “Bakhtin, Mikhail 1981 Discourse in the Novel. In The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Michael Holquist, ed. pp. 259-422. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bauman, Richard 1977 Verbal Art as Performance. In Verbal Art as Performance. Richard Bauman, ed. pp. 3-58. Pros- pect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.”

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