Equiano, Liberty, and the Evangelical Conversion Narrative

Though the bulk of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative falls clearly into the genre of travel or adventure narrative, in Chapter X he makes an interesting narrative turn.  Moving from a narrative of his life on the sea and struggle for freedom and acceptance in white society, Equiano begins to relate the details of his conversion experience and moves into a very clear and recognizable evangelical conversion narrative.  No doubt this chapter seems strange compared to the high seas adventures that occupy the bulk of the book, yet this conversion narrative is nevertheless intimately related to both the travel narrative that comes before it and Equiano’s search for freedom throughout the book.

Interestingly enough, the relationship between travel narrative and conversion narrative had a rather notable precedent.  Both John Wesley and George Whitefield (whose Methodism Equiano would later associate with) began their published journals with their own travel narrative, detailing their missions to Georgia.  In fact, Hindmarsh argues that “the first published journal of John Wesley originated and was first intended for the public, much like George Whitefield’s first journal, as a religious version of the familiar voyage or travel journal genre” (99-100).  Thus for these important evangelicals as for Equiano, there were important parallels between a physical sea journey to a foreign place and the spiritual journey towards conversion.  Thus the shift to conversion narration in the Interesting Account would not have seemed as strange to an Eighteenth Century reader as it may seem today.

Furthermore, in comparing John Wesley’s journal narrative and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, some startling similarities emerge in how they frame their journey towards salvation.  For example, upon returning to England from his nearly fatal voyage to the North Pole, Equiano reflects that he “was continually oppressed and much concerned about the salvation of my soul, and was determined (in my own strength) to become a firstrate Christian.”  Likewise, John Wesley was famously oppressed concerning his own salvation prior to his famous Aldersgate experience.  In fact, writing of his own journey to Georgia in his Journal, Wesley writes that, “Our end in leaving our native country was not to avoid want… nor to gain the dung or dross of riches or honor; but singly this – to save our souls; to live wholly to the glory of God.”  Thus Wesley, like Equiano began his journey to salvation by locating it within works – as Equiano keeps eight of the Ten Commandments, so Wesley sought to save himself through good works.

These parallels become even strong as both men approached their conversion experiences.  Both men become increasingly aware of their need for something beyond works, with Wesley even going so far as to write that “I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God.”  Likewise Equiano is increasingly convicted in the belief that good works are not enough to save him as he is told that if he does “not experience the new birth, and the pardon of… sins, through the blood of Christ,” he could not enter heaven.

Thus both men seem to be searching for this faith and assurance of forgiveness, attempting desperately to complete their spiritual journeys.  Equiano receives this assurance of salvation while meditating on Acts 4:12, a classic evangelical text which reads, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”  This throws him once again into deep despair, which nevertheless leads to his conversion:

In this deep consternation the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with his bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant, as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place….  I saw clearly, with the eye of faith, the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross on Mount Calvary: the Scriptures became an unsealed book, I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law, which came with its full force to my conscience, and when “the commandment came sin revived, and I died.”  I saw the Lord Jesus Christ in his humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, sin, and shame.  I then clearly perceived, that by the deed of the law no flesh living could be justified.  I was then convinced, that by the first Adam sin came, and by the second Adam (the Lord Jesus Christ) all that are saved must be made alive.  It was given me at that time to know what it was to be born again.

This is a classic expression of evangelical conversion – meditation on scripture that leads to a kind of mystical experience in which the subject comes to see, understand, or believe in Christ’s sacrifice.  This is followed by an expression of relief or freedom and a sensible feeling of being “born again.”  The classic example of this is John Wesley’s famous conversion experience:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Of course, as with all evangelical conversion experiences, conversion is all about a matter of degrees.  Both Wesley and Equiano were diligent, conventionally religious men before their “conversion” – men who followed the letter of the law.  Nevertheless, both felt the need for a more sensible experience of salvation – of assurance that their sins were forgiven.  As Hindmarsh writes, “not all conversions cover the same distance” (12).

Equiano’s evangelical conversion narrative also provides some unique texture to the rhetoric of freedom that runs through most conversion narratives.  Many conversion narratives consistently utilize the rhetoric of bondage before salvation and freedom afterwards to describe their experience.  Charles Wesley, for instance, in his famous hymn “And Can it Be,” (likely composed shortly after his own conversion experience, explicitly frames salvation in these terms:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

In Equiano’s Narrative, of course, this rhetoric takes on added layers of meaning, for not only is he describing his spiritual freedom; he is also referencing his physical freedom, which was gained at such labor and cost.  This contrast between physical freedom, which he labored hard to obtain, and spiritual freedom, which no amount of work could obtain, thus informs the dynamic of his experience.  For him, freedom from bondage through Christ is even more liberating than freedom from slavery in that he did nothing to obtain it.  As he writes in verse at the end of Chapter X:

Like some poor pris’ner at the bar,

Conscous of guilt, of sin and fear,

Arraign’d, and self-condemn’d I stood –

“Lost in the world and in my blood!”

Yet here, ‘midst blackest clouds confin’d,

A beam from Christ, the day-star, shin’d;

Surely, thought I, if Jesus please,

He can at once sign my release.

In this last line, Equiano thus conflates physical and spiritual liberation. Just as his manumission papers had to be signed by his master before he could be free, so must his release be signed by Christ before his salvation.  Furthermore, in bringing the rhetoric of physical and spiritual slavery together in this manner, he also calls on the supposedly Christian reader to consider the very real injustices of the slave trade.

All this might seem strange to a modern reader.  After all, why would someone who worked so hard for his own freedom want to give it up to a religious system?  However, this attitude represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what Equiano understood as freedom – a misunderstanding founded in the way “freedom” has been articulated since the Enlightenment.  As Phyllis Mack has pointed, any attempt to understand these types of religious narratives in terms of modern theoretical constructs like “freedom,” “agency,” or “individual autonomy” fundamentally misses the point of these narratives.  As she argues, “Methodists and others defined agency not as the freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to want and to do what is right…. since doing what is right inevitably means subduing at least some of one’s own habits, desires, and impulses, agency implied self-negation as well as self-expression…. The sanctified Christian wants what God wants; she is God’s agent in the world” (9).  Thus for Equiano, true freedom is defined not solely in physical terms (though that is important) but in the ability to create an underlying spiritual freedom for all who are oppressed.  In fact, due to the fact that even after his emancipation Equiano is largely still treated like a second class citizen without any rights, I would argue that it is only when he achieves spiritual freedom that he feels truly free.

References:

Hindmarsh, D. Bruce. The Evangelical Conversion Narrative: Spiritual Autobiography in Early Modern England. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.

Mack, Phyllis. Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotion in Early Methodism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

 

Though the bulk of Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative falls clearly into the genre of travel or adventure narrative, in Chapter X he makes an interesting narrative turn.  Moving from a narrative of his life on the sea and struggle for freedom and acceptance in white soceity, Equiano begins to relate the details of his conversion experience and moves into a very clear and recognizable evangelical conversion narrative.  No doubt this chapter seems strange compared to the high seas adventures that occupy the bulk of the book, yet this conversion narrative is nevertheless intimately related to both the travel narrative that comes before it and Equiano’s search for freedom throughout the book.

Interestingly enough, the relationship between travel narrative and conversion narrative had a rather notable precedent.  Both John Wesley and George Whitefield (whose Methodism Equiano would later associate with) began their published journals with their own travel narrative, detailing their missions to Georgia.  In fact, Hindmarsh argues that “the first published journal of John Wesley originated and was first intended for the public, much like George Whitefield’s first journal, as a religious version of the familiar voyage or travel journal genre” (99-100).  Thus for these important evangelicals as for Equiano, there were important parallels between a physical sea journey to a foreign place and the spiritual journey towards conversion.  Thus the shift to conversion narration in the Interesting Account would not have seemed as strange to an Eighteenth Century reader as it may seem today.

Furthermore, in comparing John Wesley’s journal narrative and Equiano’s Interesting Narrative, some startling similarities emerge in how they frame their journey towards salvation.  For example, upon returning to England from his nearly fatal voyage to the North Pole, Equiano reflects that he “was continually oppressed and much concerned about the salvation of my soul, and was determined (in my own strength) to become a firstrate Christian.”  Likewise, John Wesley was famously oppressed concerning his own salvation prior to his famous Aldersgate experience.  In fact, writing of his own journey to Georgia in his Journal, Wesley writes that, “Our end in leaving our native country was not to avoid want… nor to gain the dung or dross of riches or honor; but singly this – to save our souls; to live wholly to the glory of God.”  Thus Wesley, like Equiano began his journey to salvation by locating it within works – as Equiano keeps eight of the Ten Commandments, so Wesley sought to save himself through good works.

These parallels become even strong as both men approached their conversion experiences.  Both men become increasingly aware of their need for something beyond works, with Wesley even going so far as to write that “I who went to America to convert others was never myself converted to God.” Likewise Equiano is increasingly convicted in the belief that good works are not enough to save him as he is told that if he does “not experience the new birth, and the pardon of… sins, through the blood of Christ,” he could not enter heaven.

Thus both men seem to be searching for this faith and assurance of forgiveness, attempting desperately to complete their spiritual journeys.  Equiano receives this assurance of salvation while meditating on Acts 4:12, a classic evangelical text which reads, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”  This throws him once again into deep despair, which nevertheless leads to his conversion:

In this deep consternation the Lord was pleased to break in upon my soul with his bright beams of heavenly light; and in an instant, as it were, removing the veil, and letting light into a dark place….  I saw clearly, with the eye of faith, the crucified Saviour bleeding on the cross on Mount Calvary: the Scriptures became an unsealed book, I saw myself a condemned criminal under the law, which came with its full force to my conscience, and when “the commandment came sin revived, and I died.”  I saw the Lord Jesus Christ in his humiliation, loaded and bearing my reproach, sin, and shame.  I then clearly perceived, that by the deed of the law no flesh living could be justified.  I was then convinced, that by the first Adam sin came, and by the second Adam (the Lord Jesus Christ) all that are saved must be made alive.  It was given me at that time to know what it was to be born again.

This is a classic expression of evangelical conversion – meditation on scripture that leads to a kind of mystical experience in which the subject comes to see, understand, or believe in Christ’s sacrifice.  This is followed by an expression of relief or freedom and a sensible feeling of being “born again.”  The classic example of this is John Wesley’s famous conversion experience:

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans.  About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed.  I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Of course, as with all evangelical conversion experiences, conversion is all about a matter of degrees.  Both Wesley and Equiano were diligent, conventionally religious men before their “conversion” – men who followed the letter of the law.  Nevertheless, both felt the need for a more sensible experience of salvation – of assurance that their sins were forgiven.  As Hindmarsh writes, “not all conversions cover the same distance” (12).

Equiano’s evangelical conversion narrative also provides some unique texture to the rhetoric of freedom that runs through most conversion narratives.  Many conversion narratives consistently utilize the rhetoric of bondage before salvation and freedom afterwards to describe their experience.  Charles Wesley, for instance, in his famous him “And Can it Be,” (likely composed shortly after his own conversion experience, explicitly frames salvation in these terms:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
my chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

In Equiano’s Narrative, of course, this rhetoric takes on added layers of meaning, for not only is he describing his spiritual freedom; he is also referencing his physical freedom, which was gained at such labor and cost.  This contrast between physical freedom, which he labored hard to obtain, and spiritual freedom, which no amount of work could obtain, thus informs the dynamic of his experience.  For him, freedom from bondage through Christ is even more liberating than freedom from slavery in that he did nothing to obtain it.  As he writes in verse at the end of Chapter X:

Like some poor pris’ner at the bar,

Conscous of guilt, of sin and fear,

Arraign’d, and self-condemn’d I stood –

“Lost in the world and in my blood!”

Yet here, ‘midst blackest clouds confin’d,

A beam from Christ, the day-star, shin’d;

Surely, thought I, if Jesus please,

He can at once sign my release.

In this last line, Equiano thus conflates physical and spiritual liberation. Just as his manumission papers had to be signed by his master before he could be free, so must his release be signed by Christ before his salvation.  Furthermore, in bringing the rhetoric of physical and spiritual slavery together in this manner, he also calls on the supposedly Christian reader to consider the very real injustices of the slave trade.

All this might seem strange to a modern reader.  After all, why would someone who worked so hard for his own freedom want to give it up to a religious system?  However, this attitude represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what Equiano understood as freedom – a misunderstanding founded in the way “freedom” has been articulated since the Enlightenment. As Phyllis Mack has pointed, any attempt to understand these types of religious narratives in terms of modern theoretical constructs like “freedom,” “agency,” or “individual autonomy” fundamentally misses the point of these narratives.  As she argues, “Methodists and others defined agency not as the freedom to do what one wants but as the freedom to want and to do what is right…. since doing what is right inevitably means subduing at least some of one’s own habits, desires, and impulses, agency implied self-negation as well as self-expression…. The sanctified Christian wants what God wants; she is God’s agent in the world” (9).  Thus for Equiano, true freedom is defined not solely in physical terms (though that is important) but in the ability to create an underlying spiritual freedom for all who are oppressed.

Advertisements

4 responses to “Equiano, Liberty, and the Evangelical Conversion Narrative

  1. I wonder if Equiano read any of Wesley’s works or was aware of the Methodist conversion format? It seems to me that Equiano may have patterned his and Whitefield’s narrative. Also, although I read somewhere that Wesley supposedly read Equiano’s narrative on his deathbed… I wonder why Equiano mentions Whitefield but not Wesley (unless I missed it).

  2. Joan,

    That’s an excellent question. I wouldn’t be surprised if Equiano had read Wesley’s Journal – it was widely distributed – but I can’t prove it. Regardless, I have no doubt that he was familiar with the general format, one of the hallmarks of Methodism was this type of conversion narrative.

    Wesley was a subscriber to Equiano’s Narrative and, as he was a voracious reader, I have no doubt he read it even if ill – one of his last letters was written to Wilberforce, encouraging his efforts for abolition. As to why Equiano mentions Whitefield and not Wesley, my guess would be that this is because he identifies himself explicitly as a “predestinarian,” and thus would identify himself more with the Calvinist branch of the revival (and thus Whitefield) than Wesley’s Arminian branch. The Countess of Huntingdon, a Calvinist Methodist and one of Whitefield’s chief supporters, also subscribed to the Narrative and was one of Equiano’s champions.

    Andrew

  3. I came to the same conclusion about influence–Equiano may have read Wesley, but certainly he read similar earlier or contemporaneous works. He talks so much about the process of reading in that chapter. He was obviously familiar with the generic conventions of spiritual autobiographies and conversion narratives. And once we understand the spiritual structure, we must read all OE’s religious confusion and wranglings with God in the earlier chapters as leading up to this climax. The book about the young Equiano, after all, is written by the “born again” Equiano.

    By the way, the Broadview edition claims that Wesley read The Narrative “on his deathbed” (35).

  4. Coming from a family tree stocked with theologians (amateur and professional), I enjoyed this post very much. I agree that the concept of spiritual freedom is often misunderstood within the context of personal agency that we take for granted in today’s society. The conversion experience frees the convert from the struggle with sin and the doubts regarding redemption. It shows the path for continued spiritual growth. I find it interesting that the first thing Equiano thinks of after his conversion is “a deep concern for my mother and friends” (207). Perhaps the conversion experience made him feel further apart from fellow Africans. At any rate, he seemed to have trouble finding opportunities to perform missionary work. Perhaps this is what made him turn to the Abolition cause — an opportunity to put grace in action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s