Renaissance and Reformation Conversion
Abigail Shinn
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0498


Conversion was a phenomenon that defined the post-Reformation world in multiple ways. The fracturing of the Catholic Church meant that Christians were faced with choosing which way to turn, whether toward Rome or the new reformed faith of Luther. Increased travel and trade in the period also resulted in exposure to new faiths, and anxieties about seamen who “turned Turk” came to define English attitudes to the perceived threat of the Ottoman Empire and Islam. Such anxieties resulted in conversion being explored expansively on the early modern stage and in poetry. It also produced its own genre in the form of the conversion narrative, a strand of spiritual autobiography that became increasingly prolific and a widespread print phenomenon by the mid-seventeenth century. The Counter-Reformation and the evangelizing missions of the Jesuits also placed the conversion of the indigenous peoples of the New World as well as the inhabitants of countries in the Far East and Africa at the forefront of a now-global mission to convert.

General Overviews

There are a number of useful general overviews related to the history of conversion. Mills and Grafton 2003 offers a global perspective on the phenomenon from the thirteenth through to the twentieth century. Questier 1996 provides a detailed examination of the political and theological underpinning behind decisions to convert during the immediate post-Reformation period in England. Berbara 2022 focuses on conversion in the Atlantic world, using the lens of sacrifice. Ditchfield and Smith 2017 looks at the intersection of conversion and gender in Europe. Mazur and Shinn’s special issue of The Journal of Early Modern Studies (Mazur and Shinn 2013) looks at the production and dissemination of narratives of religious change in a global context. Morrison 1992 looks to the eleventh and twelfth centuries and outlines a useful methodology for approaching a phenomenon that is always ineffable and can only be experienced by scholars via the mediating influence of texts. Hendrix, et al. 2012 foregrounds the intersection of conversion with literary and artistic cultures across Europe. Rambo and Farhadian 2014, a handbook, provides a survey of approaches to conversion through time and from a global perspective.

  • Berbara, Maria, ed. Sacrifice and Conversion in the Early Modern Atlantic World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022.

    This edited collection looks at the phenomenon of conversion in the Americas through the lens of sacrifice. A way of understanding cultural exchange and power struggles, differing understandings of sacrifice shape encounters between Europeans and indigenous populations and their attitudes to conversion.

  • Ditchfield, Simon, and Helen Smith, eds. Conversions: Gender and Religious Change in Early Modern Europe. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2017.

    An edited collection that examines the fluid and creative relationship between gender and conversion in a variety of contexts. Chapters by historians, art historians, and literary scholars examine how conversion was gendered in literature and life writing; consider the intersection of gender, conversion, and race; and explore the material aspects of conversion.

  • Hendrix, Harald, Todd M. Richardson, and Lieke Stelling, eds. The Turn of the Soul: Representations of Religious Conversion in Early Modern Art and Literature. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2012.

    This edited collection makes important links between conversion, literature, and the visual arts in Europe. Chapters consider both the use of art to express the experience of conversion and to act as an instigator of religious transformation. Broad in geographical scope, topics covered include poetry, conversion narratives, drama, sermons, rhetoric, aesthetics, and religious art.

  • Mazur, Peter, and Abigail Shinn, eds. Special Issue: Conversion Narratives in the Early Modern World. The Journal of Early Modern Studies 17 (2013).

    This special issue on the topic of conversion in a global context foregrounds how stories of conversion were disseminated, advertised, and translated to a wider audience. Articles cover stranger baptisms in London; the Roman Inquisition; Jesuit representations of the conversion of native peoples in Brazil and India; the visual representation of ambassadorial visits to Rome by emissaries from Kongo, Japan, and Safavid Persia; and the stories of serial conversions of Portuguese Jews in the Ottoman Empire.

  • Mills, Kenneth, and Anthony Grafton, eds. Conversion: Old Worlds and New. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003.

    This edited collection explores conversion from a global perspective and across a broad time period, ranging from the thirteenth through to the twentieth century. Of particular interest for early modernists will be chapters by Brad S. Gregory on Reformation martyrs’ resistance to conversion, R. Po-Chia Hsia on the Catholic mission in China (1580–1780), Ines Župarov on 16th-century Jesuit translations, Peter Gose on colonial Peru (1532–1614), and Allan Greer on Iroquois conversion in New France.

  • Morrison, Karl F. Understanding Conversion. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1992.

    Focusing on Western paradigms of conversion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, Morrison emphasizes the inherent difficulties in studying conversion as a phenomenon, as we have to analyze the experience through surviving texts. This study is a useful work for early modernists wishing to track points of continuity and rupture with earlier periods, but it also provides a valuable model for approaching conversion as a mimetic process.

  • Questier, Michael C. Conversion, Politics and Religion in England, 1580–1625. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    Questier reads the Reformation as an “experiment in conversion” and analyzes the experiences of individual converts, how they were persuaded to convert, and negotiated pressures to conform. Of particular note is Questier’s attention to the matrix of religious and political factors out of which conversion emerges.

  • Rambo, Lewis R., and Charles E. Farhadian, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    A major survey of religious and theoretical perspectives on conversion, global in scope, and concerned with the multifarious nature of religious change. While not focused on the early modern period, the handbook is nonetheless of interest to scholars who wish to think about the study of conversion in a broader context.

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