Conversions: Two Family Stories from the Reformation and Modern America

Craig Harline
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This powerful and innovative work by a gifted cultural historian explores the effects of religious conversion on family relationships, showing how the challenges of the Reformation can offer insight to families facing similarly divisive situations today.

    Craig Harline begins with the story of young Jacob Rolandus, the son of a Dutch Reformed preacher, who converted to Catholicism in 1654 and ran away from home, causing his family to disown him. In the companion story, Michael Sunbloom, a young American, leaves his family's religion in 1973 to convert to Mormonism, similarly upsetting his distraught parents. The modern twist to Michael's story is his realization that he is gay, causing him to leave his new church, and upsetting his parents again-but this time the family reconciles.

    Recounting these stories in short, alternating chapters, Harline underscores the parallel aspects of the two far-flung families. Despite different outcomes and forms, their situations involve nearly identical dynamics and heart-wrenching choices. Through the author's deeply informed imagination, the experiences of a seventeenth-century European family are transformed into immediately recognizable terms.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-16741-2
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. to the blesséd reader
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. one
    (pp. 1-6)

    The calm of late evening, in the unremarkable Dutch town of Boxtel.

    A river winding through.

    A single church tower in near-silhouette looming above a modest and jumbled skyline of brick, timber, plaster, and straw.

    Canals and ponds shimmering all across the flat and soggy countryside.

    A breeze pushing softly through leaves and mostly empty streets.

    And, around nine, a young man walking alone near the church, toward the rectory, home of the preacher and his family.

    But the tranquil scene is a ruse.

    For night is coming, and night always means fear, even in towns, where torches are too...

  5. two
    (pp. 7-12)

    Setting the latest bundle of crumbling documents onto the immense brown table before me, I plop wearily into a chair, scoot forward, and helplessly watch a drop of sweat run down the left lens of my glasses.

    The drop lingers for a moment at the bottom of the lens, then continues downward until landing with a tiny splash on the table, just missing the documents, thank goodness.

    I remove my glasses and wipe them with part of my damp shirt, wipe the drop on the table with my damp hand, and wipe at my forehead with the back of my...

  6. three
    (pp. 13-17)

    Bouncing in tandem with the bag lashed down behind him, Jacob rode as rapidly as he dared through the darkness of early morning.

    The long and flat terrain that sped his horse would also make Jacob stand out once it was light, around five. By then he wanted to be as far from home as possible, because he knew that his father, the preacher, would almost certainly come after him, and that his father, mother, and sister would be devastated at his flight.

    This last wasn’t something he had to think about, or articulate, or order neatly in his mind,...

  7. four
    (pp. 18-22)

    That the Rolanduses’ story was beginning to feel familiar, and personal, wasn’t exactly surprising.

    It happens all the time, and not only to historians (at any archive in the world at just about any hour of the day) but to readers as well (right in the comfort of their own living rooms). You might first be attracted to a story because it’s something new and exotic, but even in the most exotic story you sense something familiar, and your special History muscle goes into action to find it—flattening time in your head, dragging the past forward, pushing the present...

  8. five
    (pp. 23-29)

    At mid-morning, Jacob reached his first destination, a castle near the border, where his friend Christian Vlierden was waiting as promised, thanks be to God.

    Did Jacob interrupt the happy reunion with the thought that by now his family back in Boxtel was surely wide awake and already reeling from the shock of his departure?

    How long was it on that dread-inducing Monday morning, never to be banished from their hearts and nightmares and sobs, before they realized he was gone? Who went to see why he was late coming down for breakfast and prayer? Which unfortunate soul looked into...

  9. six
    (pp. 30-38)

    I often heard the names Carl and Mathilda while growing up, but I came to know them in a meaningful way only after a cosmic alignment of events at the crowded new Immigrant Museum on Ellis Island in spring 2004.

    Having already been in New York for several days with my family, I was weary of lines. So when my wife and daughter willingly joined another at the Immigrant Museum, this one leading to a bank of computer terminals where you could check whether any of your ancestors had passed through, I found a bench to rest, certain that there...

  10. seven
    (pp. 39-43)

    A restless Jacob was anxious to move on.

    He and Christian Vlierden breakfasted at the well-appointed table of their host,Seigneur(or Lord) Fildrack, and chatted politely with the ladies and young lord of the house. Though grateful for the hospitality, Jacob worried: it had long been daylight and he still had far to go across the flat landscape.

    He at last asked Vlierden whether their host might be willing to send someone to show the fastest way to the closest town across the border. Fildrack was only too willing, and the guide rode with Jacob to the town called...

  11. eight
    (pp. 44-52)

    After settling down from the excitement of finding Carl and Mathilda, I was surprised to feel bubbling up from even deeper inside yet another story of conversion I knew.

    How could any story be more meaningful than one involving your own grandparents?

    Then I remembered that the Rolanduses’ story had moved me even before I found Carl and Mathilda. Something else, someone else, had been working away inside me first, and it didn’t take long to recognize that it was Michael Sunbloom.

    Michael’s story was harder to see than Carl and Mathilda’s not only because it lay deeper but because...

  12. nine
    (pp. 53-61)

    At about the same time that Jacob reached Antwerp on that early Tuesday morning of May 26, Timothy Rolandus was, just as Jacob feared, making plans to go after his son.

    Various family members were, just as Timothy hoped, ready to go too: they would arrive shortly in Boxtel, or meet Timothy on the road. In the meantime, he had started asking questions around town to try and figure out just exactly where Jacob had gone, and just exactly who had enticed him to do so. As one of the prominent figures on the local scene, Timothy would have had...

  13. ten
    (pp. 62-67)

    Michael stayed with his roommate through college, but he pulled himself together to get his usual good grades and a degree in elementary education.

    The autumn after graduation, he started his first teaching job, at a school on the edge of sprawling Valleytown, where the heat waves rising from the pavement were a little less searing than those downtown.

    He also cut back on parties—thanks to unhappy experience, his new job, and especially one of his old girlfriends, Joni, with whom he’d stayed friendly. She had recently joined a non-partying religion that Michael hadn’t tried yet: Mormonism.

    He had...

  14. eleven
    (pp. 68-73)

    Jacob probably came into Antwerp through its easternmost gate, for just inside that gate he took a room at an inn called the Little Mill.

    Although awake for most of the past two nights, he was still too wound up to rest. After setting down his bag in a safe place, he decided to start immediately on the crucial business of finding new friends.

    Armed with names and addresses given him by friends in Boxtel, he asked his hostess for a couple of directions, then set out into the large and impersonal city.

    For most of the sixteenth century, Antwerp...

  15. twelve
    (pp. 74-78)

    When he first began studying Mormonism, Michael imagined that the things he was learning about the religion would interest his parents as well.

    Since the All Folks days, they had remained firm believers but still hadn’t found a permanent church. When Michael learned about such ideas in Mormonism as lasting family ties, he eagerly shared them with Mike and LuJean, thinking that maybe this idea, maybe this religion, might be the solution to their search.

    But his parents weren’t interested at all. In fact they were dumbfounded that Michael was studying Mormonism seriously. Surely their gifted son was too intelligent...

  16. thirteen
    (pp. 79-93)

    The full version of Jacob’s conversion story, which he adapted according to occasion, went like this.

    After his early troubles with the Reformed in Ouderkerk, in 1648, Jacob turned away from the church for good when the family moved to Boxtel, in 1653.

    Ironically, he hadn’t even wanted to go along on the move. At 20 years of age, he was eager to be off on his own—perhaps in Amsterdam or Leiden—to study. The last thing he wanted to do was continue studying with his father, as he had already done for years. But Timothy said that it...

  17. fourteen
    (pp. 94-100)

    His ties to family and old friends weakened, even severed, Michael continued seeking out the promised hundredfold of replacements.

    He began at school, among his students, with whom he spent most of his time. Although these were never relationships of equals, they mattered deeply to Michael. And his new faith made them matter even more.

    Despite the fears of a few fellow teachers, Michael never proselytized his sixth graders (although one of his Mormon students couldn’t stop calling himBrother Sunbloom, according to the Mormon custom of address, which Michael hoped no one else heard).

    Rather, his faith gave him...

  18. fifteen
    (pp. 101-106)

    Jacob had little control over whether his fellow Catholics in Antwerp accepted him and his conversion story, of course.

    All he could do was show through his living that his conversion was sincere, but living took time.

    In the meantime, he continued to seek out friends, and to revel in his newfound freedom to practice his religion openly. As he moved about the city in those first days after his arrival, he frequently ducked in and out of its abundant churches and chapels, to pray or to attend Mass—things he had done only in secret in Boxtel.

    If Jacob’s...

  19. sixteen
    (pp. 107-113)

    Michael’s reign as Young Adult president lasted for two years, as long as a Mormon mission.

    It was only fitting, for he regarded his new task as his mission, and he invested as much energy in trying to make the lives of his new friends interesting and meaningful as any white-shirted, short-haired elder invested in trying to convert someone.

    Between the spring of 1974 and the spring of 1976, Michael created some of the most memorable events ever seen in the rarefied world of Mormon Young Adults. In fact the events were memorable enough, and increased the sense of fellowship...

  20. seventeen
    (pp. 114-120)

    If Jacob found any comfort on the night that Canon van den Bosch heard angels, Timothy, lying in a strange bed in a strange city, certainly did not.

    He regarded the disaffection of his son, from the family and from the true faith, as an unalleviated disaster. Certainly nothing for any angels to sing about.

    In retrospect, Timothy could see the signs of trouble easily enough, starting with Jacob’s increasing orneriness about his studies. But what else could he have done? They both knew that no one around was better qualified than Timothy to teach the subjects Jacob needed to...

  21. eighteen
    (pp. 121-127)

    I heard only occasionally from Michael over the next decade, mostly in the form of postcards containing the barest of information, quite in contrast to his once overflowing letters.

    He mentioned in the autumn of 1977 that he was serious about quitting teaching, though he didn’t really say why (and even though he and two co-teachers had recently been asked to make a district-wide presentation about their methods).

    He mentioned months later that he had grown so enamored of Europe and travel that he had interviewed to become a flight attendant with Pan Am, had finally gotten that job in...

  22. nineteen
    (pp. 128-134)

    One can only imagine the anguish in Boxtel as Timothy, returning from his heartbreaking attempt to bring Jacob home, walked empty-handed through the door of the rectory and met the eyes of his hopeful wife and daughter.

    But the dominee, despite his weariness and disappointment, wasn’t finished yet. Within a few days, he hit the road again—not with abduction on his mind this time, but the courts. His world’s laws and assumptions regarding the strength of parental rights offered him one final hope for getting back his son.

    His destination was The Hague, capital city of the Dutch Republic...

  23. twenty
    (pp. 135-139)

    The first place that Michael found some help in dealing with his newly discovered feelings was among a few of his oldest friends: books.

    He had always been a great reader, and books could be consulted in private, so that no one had to know what he was up to. Soon he was devouring the works of well-known thinkers who had written not so much about homosexuality but about self-acceptance and self-knowledge generally.

    Paul Tillich wrote of thecourage to be, or to actaccording to one’s true nature. Affirming that nature meant affirming your uniqueness, and that takes courage,...

  24. twenty-one
    (pp. 140-147)

    As Timothy ceased his efforts to bring Jacob home, Jacob settled into his new life in Antwerp, amidst a new circle of friends and adopted family.

    Certainly the Jesuits continued to be the center of that circle, as they again offered crucial support that made it possible for Jacob to stay in town, and to flourish.

    Early in August 1654, the provost helped Jacob find a room of his own, away from the temporary lodgings with Canon van den Bosch. Over a two-week period, there emerged one place that was too expensive, a second that was too mean, and a...

  25. twenty-two
    (pp. 148-152)

    Michael almost didn’t make that fateful trip to Europe in the summer of 1976. In February he bought a ticket for a group tour that was to leave in July, but in April the tour was canceled. Moreover, his promised travel companion, the former Elder Jones, canceled as well. Given the late date, Michael doubted that he would find replacements for either.

    But he did, thanks to the stately Penelope Johnson, who Michael simply called Mom J. Michael had met the elderly and widowedSister Johnsonin 1975, when he came by to ask whether the Young Adults might be...

  26. twenty-three
    (pp. 153-161)

    If Jacob took heart at the canon’s glorious vision of a reunited and Catholic Rolandus family, he could hardly be blamed for wondering how it might ever come to pass.

    Except for his father’s attempts to abduct him, no one in Jacob’s family had been in touch since his escape three months earlier. And no one of them showed any sign of wanting to learn anything about Catholicism.

    Then just days after the canon’s revelation, the Red Sea finally parted and opened a way.

    On a Sunday in late August of 1654, while a torch-bearing Jacob walked near Antwerp’s great...

  27. twenty-four
    (pp. 162-169)

    Michael’s hesitation to come fully to terms with his feelings began easing during the autumn of 1976, thanks in no small way to his new friend Mom J.

    Although Michael had been drawing closer to his parents as he eased out of the Mormon Church, there were still subjects they didn’t really like discussing as much as he did, including politics, literature, travel, and of course the church. With the urbane Mom J, however, he could talk about such things freely, as these were her favorite topics as well.

    Mom J valued Michael’s conversation and company as much as he...

  28. twenty-five
    (pp. 170-180)

    Though all the letters between Jacob and Maria were remarkable for their passion, and for making the big theological arguments of the day so personal, two stood out.

    Jacob’s was dated November 10, 1654, still early in the correspondence. Since he had reestablished contact with Maria, and had in hand what he supposed were all of her objections to his conversion and flight, he was ready to put his energy and thought into one massive, irrefutable epistle.

    Over the next several weeks, he made time between classes to pray, to marshal evidence, to organize, to draft, and of course to...

  29. twenty-six
    (pp. 181-187)

    In January 1978 Michael Sunbloom fled Valleytown and began yet another life, hopeful that he would find another hundredfold of friends.

    On board a lurching crew bus during his first day of training in Hawaii, he literally bumped into a person who became one of his favorites: the alliterative Bette Bouchée, from Beaverton, Oregon.

    After the collision, they laughed and began a nonstop conversation. By that evening Michael was affectionately calling herBeavand they were already clutching each other’s hands so tightlyat the intoxication and sophistication of their new worldthat their circulation was nearly cut off. She...

  30. twenty-seven
    (pp. 188-196)

    The provost of the Jesuits had promised to support Jacob for one year only.

    As impressed as they were with the young man, as vigorously as they defended him, the Jesuits did not wish to support him, or any refugee, forever. It was expensive, and would not sufficiently test the convert’s mettle and sincerity—especially not if he was interested, as they hoped Jacob might be, in becoming a Jesuit himself.

    Jacob’s support ended in September 1655, just before the next school year was to begin. If he wanted to continue his schooling, he needed to come up with money...

  31. twenty-eight
    (pp. 197-202)

    Michael put off telling his parents about his sexuality for so long because he could imagine their reaction: first Mormonism, and now this!

    They were happy that he had given up Mormonism, taking it as a sign that he had rejoined them (always the simplest way for religiously divided families to reconcile). But he feared they would be even more perplexed by this new revelation than they had been by his Mormonism. So he kept telling himself that he was going to have the talk soon, in keeping with his determination to live authentically—but not yet.

    Moving away from...

  32. twenty-nine
    (pp. 203-210)

    Jacob recorded almost nothing about his thoughts or activities in Italy.

    Nothing about Venice, Livorno, Calliano, Dolce, or Ferrara, through which he passed. Nothing about the ancient Christian ruins he surely went to see around Rome, or the countless and spectacular churches inside the city itself—St. Ignatius, St. Maria Sopra Minerva, or the Jesuits’ Il Gesu, which looked so much like the Jesuit church in Antwerp.

    Perhaps he said nothing about Rome because of his disappointment at not getting the answer he wanted from either the Capuchins or the Jesuits. For despite all the trouble he took to make...

  33. thirty
    (pp. 211-219)

    In the early autumn of 1984, 34-year-old Michael Sunbloom went home to the winding streets and modest ranch houses of Hillcrest Estates to have a talk with Mom and Dad.

    No one was really in the mood. Mike was glad that his son at least wanted to keep a close relationship, which he knew didn’t always happen when grown children had a rift with parents—but he really didn’t know how to talk about this subject with Michael or what to expect.

    LuJean was still fuming about everything, including Mike’s hurtful outburst.

    Michael, though dreading the visit, was relieved his...

  34. thirty-one
    (pp. 220-229)

    The Rolanduses of Boxtel did what they could to cope with the loss of their son and brother, and the vicissitudes of living in Brabant.

    Timothy recovered enough from his blow-to-the-head state to pick up his full duties again in early 1655, even to begin serving the classis as an inspector of other parishes. But life was still hard for him.

    There was almost certainly a formal excommunication of Jacob by the classis, a ritual that was supposed to occur whenever a Reformed member converted to another faith.

    There was still a chronic lack of income, as Timothy complained in...

  35. thirty-two
    (pp. 230-242)

    Before the exhausting talk with his parents on that long autumn day in 1984, or before quitting organized religion altogether, Michael would have found it helpful to know that a few believers were in fact already beginning to incorporate the latest understanding of sexuality into their reading of the Bible and their religious traditions.

    They were hardly the first to try something of the sort. Over the centuries, countless other believers had, thanks to new ways of seeing, likewise rethought a variety of other matters also long held to be condemned by the Bible, such as usury, racial mixing, women...

  36. thirty-three
    (pp. 243-251)

    I wondered often while putting together the Rolanduses’ story whether they could have done things any differently.

    Whether they could have found a solution like the Sunblooms’, for instance.

    Was there no other possibility for mixed families of the Reformation than total alienation? Especially in the Dutch Republic, where people of various faiths famously lived side by side in remarkable peace? Didn’t neighborhood peace translate into domestic peace as well?

    I found no precise answer. No one could say (and no one may ever be able to say) just exactly how many mixed families there were in Reformation Europe, much...

  37. thirty-four
    (pp. 252-266)

    Recently. Taking the Number 11 tram from central station, I step off at Bellevue, on the edge of Lake Zurich, and walk a scant ten meters to reach the best sandwich shop in the city.

    The line is long, as usual at lunch (and breakfast), but Stefan, still trim at 60-something and affable as ever at the window, handles the crowd with ease and charm, for he knows many of them by name and also their lunchtime preferences. Currently the shop rotates 42 sorts of sandwiches (15 or so every day), many of American inspiration but all assigned suitably Swiss-German...

  38. Postscript
    (pp. 267-272)

    After finding the fantastic documents about the Rolanduses, after putting their story on paper, after thinking about the connection their story had to my own world—in other words, after going through the usual process of writing a history book—I started getting an urge that wasn’t usual at all: to put Michael Sunbloom’s story on paper too, right alongside theirs.

    I’d never had that sort of urge before, for any book I’d written. Certainly I’d felt connections to other books, but I’d never said much about them. I planned not to say much in this book either, but to...

  39. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 273-298)
  40. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 299-301)