Crossing Boundaries

Craig Harline’s captivating book about the family dynamics of conversion gives the reader a three-for-one. Interwoven chapter by chapter are two stories: the conversion from Dutch Reformed Protestantism to Catholicism of Jacob Rolandus in seventeenth-century Holland, and the double conversion of a friend of Harline’s in twentieth-century California, first from evangelical Protestantism to Mormonism and then from Mormonism to life as a homosexual. The third story concerns the author himself, whose serendipitous archival discoveries, Mormon background, and personal ruminations make him a visible presence throughout the book.

Harline can relate the story of Jacob Rolandus in riveting detail because he discovered in the National Archives of Belgium a journal that Rolandus kept in 1654 and 1655, the period of his conversion, and because further archival sleuthing unearthed a wealth of correspondence, local documents, and church records relevant to the story. Jacob’s father and grandfather were pastors in the Dutch Reformed Church. They were both held in high regard for their ability to expose the perfidious errors of Roman Catholicism. But Jacob’s father fell into seemingly unending contentions with his clerical peers, and the family’s move to Boxtel, a small town in southeastern Holland with a predominately Catholic population, precipitated another round of controversy involving the Rev. Rolandus and local Protestants. Jacob seems to have become disillusioned with Dutch Calvinism because of these quarrels. At the same time, he encountered Catholics and Catholic literature that began to turn his heart toward Rome. The revealing primary sources that Harline discovered let him describe the twenty-one-year-old Jacob’s midnight flight from his parental home; his early days as a Catholic refugee in Antwerp; the emotionally wrought correspondence that followed between Jacob, his parents, and his sister; his eventual acceptance into the Jesuit order and service as a missionary priest in Brazil; and, finally, his death in 1684 shortly after taking up a new assignment in São Tomé, off the coast of Africa. Remarkably, Jacob’s journeys at one point intersected with the travels of Queen Christina of Sweden, the daughter of the great Protestant champion, Gustavus Adolphus, and herself the era’s most famous convert to Catholicism. Most memorable, however, is Harline’s account of the mingled angst, affection, and anger that prevailed between the Catholic convert and the Protestant family he left behind.

Family emotions are also central to the story of the man Harline calls Michael Sunbloom. Harline met Michael when the latter was serving as president of the Mormon young-adult fellowship in California, where both Harline and Michael grew up. Michael’s parents were sincere evangelical Protestants when their son joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The resulting alienation from their son was severe, though never complete. Harline’s own inside knowledge of Mormonism and its particularly strong commitment to family solidarity, combined with his diligent interviewing of Michael and a wide circle of people connected with him, leads to a kind of biography very different from the one he writes about Jacob Rolandus, but it is just as affecting. The emotional drama intensified when, in his mid-twenties, Michael became increasingly self-conscious about his reluctance to marry and increasingly aware of his sexual attraction to men. As Michael slipped away from the Mormon Church and eventually met the man with whom he would share his life, relations with his parents hung in limbo. They were pleased to see him withdraw from the Mormons; he hesitated to explain the reason. Finally, in a tense confrontation, Michael came out to his parents, who were stunned and incredulous. Yet, after a period in which they were convinced that Michael had found rather than chosen his homosexuality, his parents were reconciled with their son. Michael even came to meet—and get along well with—the pastor of his parents’ Assemblies of God church. When Michael and his partner attended his mother’s funeral as a couple, the pastor and congregation accepted their presence calmly, in large part because Michael’s mother had for so many years been so open about her son’s living arrangement.

This book appears in a series from Yale University Press titled “New Directions in Narrative History.” Harline does a superb job of interweaving two unusually interesting life stories. The questions that remain concern Harline himself. Occasional comments in the text and then a very full bibliographical essay explain the fascinating story of how Harline found the Jacob Rolandus materials, how he figured out the code in which Rolandus had written his diary, and how he obsessively pursued the archival and published material needed to flesh out the Rolandus family saga. Almost as noteworthy were Harline’s efforts to reconstruct the Mormon milieu in which he first met Michael, his care in approaching Michael with the proposal for this dual biography, and his diligence in supplying the details required for a thick account of Michael’s life-altering changes.

Describing Harline’s illuminating research in these terms exposes an obvious question that his book does not answer directly: Is the choice to become a Catholic (or a Mormon) the same kind of choice as coming out as a homosexual? Michael’s parents were able to accept Michael and his partner lovingly after they focused on scriptural admonitions to charity and became convinced that, as his father put it, Michael did not “choose to be homo.” Harline describes how the feelings Michael had when he accepted his homosexuality gave him the same sense of personal fulfillment that becoming a Mormon had. But, apart from these feelings, Michael’s two “conversions” seem quite different. The first was a choice, the second a recognition. Strongly Calvinist teaching could provide an explanation to equalize the book’s conversions: that God had pre-ordained Jacob’s attraction to Catholicism, Michael’s temporary attraction to Mormonism, and his later acceptance of his homosexuality.

Harline’s interpretive guides, however, are not theological, but social and psychological. Lengthy passages toward the end of the book, backed by another long section of the bibliography, tell readers why the American Psychological Association no longer considers homosexuality a personality disorder, why many Bible scholars now read scriptural prohibitions against homosexuality as contingent on ancient cultures, and how modern ideas about “new cognitions” and reactions to “the Other” explain the phenomena of conversion and the sharp family traumas that can follow. Harline’s own Mormon faith is most evident not in reference to formal LDS teachings about non-Mormon religions, evangelization, or homosexuality, but when he draws on his own Mormon socialization to describe evocatively the mystic cords of familial loyalty.

Yet this third “story” that Harline himself contributes is not as convincing as his interwoven accounts of Jacob Rolandus and Michael Sunbloom. Some Bible scholars, and not just brazen homophobes, question the reinterpretation of traditional scriptural prohibitions against homosexual acts. Some Catholics, while affirming the full human dignity of all persons whatever their sexual orientation, are still working out how to balance that all-important affirmation with the church’s definition of homosexual acts as “intrinsically disordered” and “contrary to the natural law” (Catechism, 2357). Some, both believers and nonbelievers, may continue to think that the differences between Catholics and Protestants in the seventeenth century, as well as between Mormons and non-Mormons in the present, involve questions of dogmatic truthfulness as much as psychological truthfulness. In other words, compared to the life stories of Jacob Rolandus and Michael Sunbloom, which Harline narrates so empathetically, the conclusions he draws from his own convictions are not so convincing.

Still, two out of three isn’t bad. If Harline’s explanatory interventions in this beautifully written book do not match the force of his biographical narratives, those narratives are reward enough for the reader.

Published in the 2012-09-28 issue: 

Mark Noll, author of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, is an Evangelical Presbyterian who teaches history at the University of Notre Dame.

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