American Spaces of Conversion: The Conductive Imaginaries of Edwards, Emerson, and James

American Spaces of Conversion: The Conductive Imaginaries of Edwards, Emerson, and James

American Spaces of Conversion: The Conductive Imaginaries of Edwards, Emerson, and James

American Spaces of Conversion: The Conductive Imaginaries of Edwards, Emerson, and James


The religious precepts of the Puritans continued to affect intellectual life in the U.S. long after the immigrants arrived at Massachusetts Bay, circulating through New England culture well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Using three emblematic figures--Jonathan Edwards, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William James--American Spaces of Conversionexamines how the Puritan legacy, especially the concept of conversion, shaped developments in American literature, theology, and pragmatist philosophy.

Knutson grounds her study with the testimonies collected by the Puritan minister Thomas Shepard, which reveal an active pursuit of belief occurring at the intersection of perception, intellection, affection, and doctrine. This pursuit of belief, codified in the morphology of conversion, was originally undertaken by the Puritans as a way to conceptualize redemption in a fallen state. It established the epistemological contours for what Edwards, Emerson, and James would theorize as a conductive imaginary-consciousness, a state both receptive and active, as a force responsible for translating the effects of experience and generating original relations with self, community, and God.

With an interdisciplinary approach that combines religion, literature, and philosophy, Knutson demonstrates how the triad of writers discussed here "ministered" to their audiences, encouraging the attachment of new meaning to ordinary contexts in a continual effort toward regeneration.


In Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards explains the fourth sign of what he calls the “spiritual sense” having been laid in the foundation of the soul by claiming that gracious affections arise from a new understanding of divine things. He states that “the change made by this spiritual opening of the eyes in conversion, would be much greater, and more remarkable, every way, than if a man, who had been born blind … then at once should have the sense of seeing imparted to him, in the midst of the clear light of the sun, discovering a world of visible objects.” the ecstatic nature of vision described here is only one result of conversion, which transforms an individual through the saving operations of grace in such a way that motives, choices, and actions all become signs of holy inclinations that guide conduct in the world. Aligned with the will of God, the individual is granted the ability to discern a new “world of visible objects,” an experience analogous to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s when he crosses the “bare common” and claims “I am nothing; I see all.” However, the centrality of these ecstatic imaginings of new visual acuity to American literature must be considered alongside their less ecstatic but no less important correlative—the incremental process of what Emerson calls at the end of Nature “the advancing spirit,” whose slow progress is assured to the extent that an individual can detect a pattern of development in how the world is perceived.

Though Nature begins with an image of ecstatic transformation through the metaphor of the transparent eyeball, that image is contrasted with, or balanced by, the succession of chapters that follow which represent the stages of “spiritual advancement” he claims will realize “the kingdom of man over nature.” in addition, at the end of “Compensation”

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