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Outside the Fold:
Conversion, Modernity, and Belief
Gauri Viswanathan

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COPYRIGHT NOTICE: Published by Princeton University Press and copyrighted, © 1998, by Princeton University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means (including photocopying, recording, or information storage and retrieval) without permission in writing from the publisher, except for reading and browsing via the World Wide Web. Users are not permitted to mount this file on any network servers. Follow links for Class Use and other Permissions. For more information, send e-mail to

Chapter 1


Religious Minorities And Citizenship

On the assumption that genealogy is often a function of historical narrative and that the history of cultural developments can best be told through the stories (both historical and literary) that chart their transitions, this chapter offers a genealogical account of the construction of the English tolerant state from its colonial provenance. Although conversion remains, as it does for the rest of the book, the lens through which cultural formations (including the factors shaping secular culture and religious identity) are observed, historicized, and analyzed, it is also evident that the book's main thesis--that conversion is a subversion of secular power--can best be grasped as an outcome of a particular historical conjuncture.

That conjuncture, I suggest, does not consist exclusively of Britain's domestic transition from a religious to a secular order, or from church authority to the authority of law. Rather, the expanded international context of Britain's history and culture reveals that ecclesiastical history is as subject to the notations of an imperial history as are other spheres of English culture. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, the realignments between religious and secular culture in England were affected by such apparently distant events as the introduction of British education in the colonies.1 The challenges posed by managing far-flung colonies from a metropolitan center plainly showed the advantages of secular governance over the more risk-laden goal of Christianizing colonial subjects. The official promotion of missionary activity was especially perilous in British colonies like India, which had entrenched religious traditions and laws that derived in turn from these traditions.

Rule by the efficient machinery of bureaucracy (which Max Weber describes as a form of administrative rationality),2 unsanctioned by church authority, may appear to be the natural result of England's internal evolution from an exclusionary Anglican culture into a "tolerant" civil society com prising a plurality of religious groups. Yet Britain's successful experimentation with secular policy in the colonies places the negotiations between religious and secular cultures in a perspective that reaches far beyond the limited domestic purview of England. Not simply internal to English culture but strategically affected by the mode of governing England's colonial subjects, these negotiations cannot be adequately analyzed solely in terms of theories of secularization that draw exclusively upon European history.3 Rather, working in the narrative interstices between metropolitan and colonial histories, secularity is as much a function of England's imperial expansiveness as it is that of altered church-state relations within Britain. For this reason, only a transcultural perspective can fully illuminate the international dimensions of secularization.

The organizing principle of this book draws upon the dictionary definition of "cross current" as a "current of air or water moving across a main stream; a conflict of feeling or opinion." Reading works from metropolitan and colonial cultures together, or reading them contrapuntally, to use Edward Said's resonant term, is virtually to experience not only the interdependence of histories and cultures--the "overlapping territories" that Said describes in Culture and Imperialism--but also the ripples and currents that interrupt, retard, reverse, or accelerate what would otherwise be an undisturbed flow of history, ideas, movements, and lives. Such a reading strategy produces discordances where there might be a will to hear only tonality and harmony. This is vastly different from reading one culture in terms of another, a feature of Orientalist scholarship and knowledge that has left a legacy of diminished understanding of other cultures and their right to be known on their own terms. Rather, a changed picture emerges when one culture is studied as at once the condition and the effect of the other. If cultural histories can be understood as woven together in an intricate design, cultural criticism then becomes an act of disentangling them from their knotted past. What might thus appear as interdependence will be more accurately understood as mutual limitation.

Strikingly, interweaving and disentangling are the metaphors that most accurately describe the conversion experience, which meshes two worlds, two cultures, and two religions, only to unravel their various strands and cast upon each strand the estranged light of unfamiliarity. Viewed thus, conversion is primarily an interpretive act, an index of material and social conflicts. Such an approach does not reject the Jamesian model of conversion as epiphany or sudden "turning," but rather locates religious subjectivity more precisely in relation to the culture that produces, inhibits, or modifies it. If spiritual autobiography shades into critiques (or, in other instances, defenses) of such things as national consolidation, racial/caste/gender hierarchy, and bureaucratic rationality, it does so during the crucial transitions to secular societies in the nineteenth century, shaping the particular forms of conversion narratives produced in this period.

By juxtaposing narratives representing both metropolitan and colonial locations, we may detect a noteworthy fact: the period between 1780 and 1850 (that is, between the time of the Gordon riots in England over Catholic emancipation and of the disempowerment of ecclesiastical authority following the Gorham judgment) marks the simultaneous growth of English colonial influence in India. The English parliament's decision to assume responsibility for Indian education enabled England to incorporate colonial subjects into the civil structures of governance at precisely the same time that, at home, it was deliberating legislation to admit religious minorities and relieve them of their civil disabilities. By undertaking the education of its subjects in Western sciences, languages, and literature, England was able to insert Indians into the colonial administrative apparatus and make them useful servants of empire. The delicate balance sought by English educational policy in India was essentially a secular project to transform Indians into deracinated replicas of Englishmen, even while they remained affiliated to their own religious culture. The colonial project, however, did not necessarily imply giving English-educated Indians a place in the English political system. The strategic objective of turning Hindus into non-Hindu Hindus, or Muslims into non-Muslim Muslims,4 has been memorialized in Macaulay's infamous pronouncement on the goal of an English education to produce Indians who would be "Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."5 Less noted, however, is that by 1850 there occurred a parallel process in English social and political life that aimed to turn Jews into non-Jewish Jews, Catholics into non-Catholic Catholics, Dissenters into non-Dissenters, Nonconformists into non-Nonconformists, and so forth.

At first glance, these two developments--the lifting of religious discriminations against non-Anglicans in England and the Anglicization of Indians--would appear to bear little or no relation to each other. Indeed, they almost have the semblance of contrary developments. In fact, the mid-nineteenth-century relaxation of penalties against non-Anglicans is more in tune with the East India Company policy of involvement with India in the late eighteenth century. This policy coincides with the Orientalist phase of scholarship, when indigenous systems of learning, culture, and religion were allowed to flourish without any interference from the company officials.6 So it might seem that civil relief in England has more in common with the Orientalist encouragement of Indian learning. The bills to enfranchise Jews, Dissenters, and Catholics in England, however, were far closer to Macaulay's Anglicization of Indians than they were to Orientalist policy. If religious tolerance and emancipation won grudging acceptance by even the most die-hard Tories and Anglicans, it had a great deal to do with the appeal of securing a nation of good Englishmen promised by such legislation, a goal shared by Macaulay's avid program of cultural assimilation. After all, the Catholic Emancipation Bill of 1828 was sponsored by Tories under Robert Peel, driven by unease over Irish restiveness. The Tory support of the bill was motivated in part by the conviction that aiming for a nation of good Englishmen was a more realistic goal than achieving a nation of good Anglicans. Similarly, in the expectation that Indians were more acceptable if they were no longer practicing Hindus or Muslims, it was considered profitable to make good Englishmen of them, even if it was unlikely or even undesirable for them to be good Christians. In these ways the Macaulayan educational project coalesced imperceptibly into the emancipatory legislation admitting excluded religious minorities into the English nation.

The more than speculative link between these two events lies in Macaulay himself. As the figure most closely identified with the English education of Indians, Macaulay also fought strenuously for the lifting of restrictions against Jews in England and for absorbing them as citizens of the English state. It is no accident that the figure responsible for the Anglicization of Indians also happened to be one of the most strident voices in the English parliament for the removal of Jewish disabilities. If the making of good Englishmen privileged national over religious identity, this was no doubt Macaulay's pragmatic concession to the fact that it was impracticable to aim for the making of either good Christians in India or good Anglicans in England. As Israel Finestein points out, Macaulay's "robust advocacy" of the cause of Jewish civil emancipation blended indistinguishably with the radical agenda of the Whigs to enfranchise the Jews as a necessary step in the teleological progress of English liberalism.7 That the Anglicization of Indians was crafted from the same political philosophy that advocated the emancipation of religious minorities in England establishes Macaulay's colonizing mission of humanistic education as the international counterpart to his domestic revision of criteria for citizenship.

Macaulay's formal involvement with Jewish emancipation began with his strong support of a parliamentary measure introduced in 1830 by Sir Robert Grant to remove the civil disabilities of Jews. In an 1830 article published in the Edinburgh Review (about which I will have more to say), Macaulay pleaded eloquently for the removal of restrictions against Jews and threw the weight of his prestige as a Whig spokesman to persuade the English public to reconsider the criteria of citizenship that had thus far prevailed. However, Grant's bill, which would have placed Jews largely in the same legal position as Catholics, was defeated in the House of Commons. In April 1833 Grant introduced another bill, which came to be regarded as "the classic presentation by a Gentile" of the case for opening municipal office and parliament to professing Jews.8 This time the bill had more success in the House of Commons, but it was decisively rejected by the House of Lords. Not until the 1840s was the Jewish question taken up again, this time successfully. In 1845 the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel passed legislation that opened municipal office to Jews. Ironically, the momentum for Jewish emancipation that had begun under liberal auspices reached fruition only under a conservative regime.

Macaulay's espousal of Jewish civil relief inevitably brought him into conflict with the family of Clapham Evangelicals in which he grew up. Their eagerness to reclaim Jews as converts to Christianity led the Evangelicals initially to oppose Jewish emancipation. Yet there were within this missionary community certain reformist tendencies that Macaulay had imbibed, even though many of these tendencies divided the Clapham Evangelicals on several fronts. One aspect of Evangelical reform was decidedly conservative. The approval of Jewish emancipation was based on the understanding that it would facilitate Christian conversions, since the absorption of Jews as English citizens would presumably diminish their alienation from Anglican culture--an alienation that Anglo-Jews had turned into forms of group cohesion and community consolidation. From a conversionist point of view, England's long-standing exclusionary politics had the deleterious effect of creating a separatist consciousness and pride in Jews that Christian missionaries were unable to penetrate or undo. When, therefore, in the 1830s, Sir Robert Grant presented a series of bills in parliament urging Jewish civil emancipation, support from Evangelicals was not entirely grudging, and Lord Bexley, former chancellor of the exchequer, declared that admitting Jews fully into public life "will be a great step to bring them back from the Talmud to Moses and the Prophets--from there to Christ the transition is comparatively easy."9

But for his part Macaulay was completely unmoved by Evangelical efforts to yoke Jewish emancipation to Christian conversion. Driven less by conversionist zeal than expediency, he had a pragmatic sense of the political gains to be reaped by merging his liberal agenda with that of the Radicals, who called for the extension of the franchise and the elimination of religious disabilities. Though historians cite Macaulay's spirited defense of the natural rights of all native-born Englishmen, irrespective of their religious orientation, as evidence of his "plain fairness and justice,"10 his History of England offers clues to another set of motivations. In this work he underscored his acute perception of Britain's expanding imperial and commercial power by evolving a doctrine of political liberalism to explain English growth. In developing the theory that civic equality gave English history its incomparable monumentality, enabling England to spread its domain to the far corners of the earth, Macaulay expressed a classic Whig position on the constitutive role of liberalism in British ascendancy.

In essence, this allowed him to argue for domestic reforms on the principle that they were consistent with the destined international course of English history. He elaborated this argument more systematically in an extraordinary essay, "Civil Disabilities of the Jews," published in 1830 in the Edinburgh Review. In a period when Englishmen were breaking out of their crippling parochialism, settling in places of the world far outside England's borders and calling themselves "British residents" in the colonies they ruled, it was foolish, argued Macaulay, to believe that the nationalism spurring Englishmen to extend England's borders could be sustained for long if English society continued to be run on exclusionary principles. Invoking a long history of religious persecution in Europe that forever complicated national loyalties, Macaulay pointedly observed that oppressed groups had greater affinity to kindred groups outside the country than to their own countrymen--certain proof, he claimed, that policies of exclusion harmed the nation's long-term interests more than it could have imagined:

If there be any proposition universally true in politics, it is this, that foreign attachments are the fruit of domestic misrule. It has always been the trick of bigots . . . to govern as if a section of the state were the whole and to censure the other sections of the state for their want of patriotic spirit. If the Jews have not felt towards England like children, it is because she has treated them like a step-mother. . . . Till we have carried the experiment, we are not entitled to conclude that they cannot be made Englishmen altogether. The English Jews are, as far as we can see, precisely what our government has made them.11

In this passionate call for admitting Jews, Macaulay turns the tables around by denouncing as unpatriotic not the Jews but rather the English state for failing to extend the virtues of good government to all sections of society. If Jews were imbued with a greater sense of their religious than their national identity, Macaulay tried to rationalize Jews' apparent lack of English feeling by arguing that their disloyalty was state-produced. By shifting the Jews' insularity to an effect of state policy, rather than a cause of their exclusion from citizenship, Macaulay brilliantly undermined the rhetoric of patriotism cushioning the English state, which found it convenient to condemn the very behavior it created.

At the same time, Macaulay's interest in Jewish emancipation was not driven solely by his wish to see the liberal promise of the English state fulfilled. The language he employed in arguing for Jewish civil relief on the grounds of administrative efficiency had a strongly utilitarian dimension, echoing his Anglicist philosophy of making colonized Indians "good subjects of the empire":

On our principles all civil disabilities on account of religious opinions are indefensible. For all such disabilities make government less efficient for its main end; they limit the choice of able men for the administration and defense of the State; they alienate it from the hearts of the sufferers; they deprive it of a part of its operative strength in all contests with foreign nations.12

When this passage is compared with Macaulay's proposed program to educate Indians in English language and literature, the strength of his belief in the power of secular governance appears almost uncanny in hindsight:

In India, English is the language spoken by the ruling class. It is spoken by the higher class of natives at the seats of Government. It is likely to become the language of commerce throughout the seas of the East. . . . There is now in that country a large educated class, abounding with persons fit to serve the state in the highest functions, and in no wise inferior to the most accomplished men who adorn the best circles of Paris and London. There is reason to hope that this vast empire, which in the time of our grandfathers was probably behind the Punjab, may, in the time of our grandchildren, be pressing close on France and Britain in the career of improvement.13

The debate on citizenship, as worked out by Macaulay in such pragmatic terms in both the Indian and English contexts, is clearly less focused on cultural adaptation than on progressively secularizing religious identity into an autonomously conceived national identity.

In the great secularization movements of the nineteenth century from which the modern state takes its present form, it is possible to discern, if not the origins of modern religious and ethnic strife, then at least prototypical enactments of the drama of citizenship. This drama unendingly complicated itself by questioning and rethinking the possibilities of dual allegiances brought on by such things as--in England, for instance--legislation to enfranchise religious minorities in the wake of national union and disestablishment: Could an Englishman be both English and Catholic, Jewish, Nonconformist? As a result of altered relations between church and state the concept of nationality, which had hitherto relied on an unquestioned equation of Englishness with mainstream Anglicanism, had necessarily to undergo drastic transformation. No longer characterized by formal oaths of allegiance to doctrine and creed, Englishness accretes in significance as a function of the incorporative logic of law, administrative rationality, and constitutional principles of liberty. When swearing by the Thirty Nine Articles of the Anglican creed or by parliamentary oaths ceases to be the primary condition for admission to Oxford or Cambridge, parliamentary seats, or voting rights, a new order of citizenship is called forth based on criteria of legal rather than religious inclusion.

The first phase of the movement for legal emancipation of religious minorities culminated in the legislative successes of 1828, when Protestant Dissenters, including Unitarians who repudiated the doctrine of the Trinity, won civil relief from disabling legislation--the Test and Corporation Acts--that had until then prevented them from sitting in parliament, among other restrictions. M.C.N. Salbstein comments on this moment as one of the most dramatic in the history of the English nation: "The vital Anglican principle of the constitution had been breached."14 Yet, despite this initial breakthrough, certain disabilities still remained. Until 1830, Dissenting chapels could not be registered for marriage and Dissenters were obliged to have their marriages solemnized in the Church. Nor were Dissenters entitled to perform their own burial rites in parish churchyards until the Burial Bill of 1880 became law. Church rates, always a source of discontent, were not remedied until as late as 1868. But the parliamentary repeal of the loathsome Test and Corporation acts in 1828 provided some relief to Dissenters, and this legislation was soon followed, in 1829, by parliamentary emancipation for Catholics.

The charge of divided loyalty leveled against Catholics in the decades prior to the emancipatory legislation of 1829 had kept alive the specter of foreign sources of power, such as the fear of papal supremacy that threatened to subvert England's power from within. Denial of foreign allegiance and dual loyalty became an obligatory feature of Catholic arguments, so much so that members of a committee formed in 1787 for the purpose of negotiating with the governent to win emancipation decided to call themselves the Protesting Catholic Dissenters. The Test Acts of the 1670s, along with the required vows of allegiance to the tenets of Anglican England, had functioned for some time as safety valves against the augmentation of Catholic power. By the late eighteenth century, however, some relaxation of restrictive legislation was in evidence, and though Catholics and Jews were still excluded from public office, annual indemnity acts to Protestant Dissenters showed a new mood of permissive practice that augured well for other religious groups.

In part, the concessions to Catholics in 1829 were inevitable responses by the English government to the volatility of the Irish situation and the political pressures created by it. Although Catholic Ireland remained associated with external threat to British civil peace, summoning up the fearsome image of powerful foreign enemies consolidating their strength through the covert support of England's Catholic subjects, a distinctive feature of the discourse on dual loyalties emphasized attachments to the Irish Catholic hierarchy rather than to Rome. This emphasis specifically linked the growth of Irish identity with the resolution of the Catholic question. Within Ireland the movement for Catholic emancipation served to redress social and economic ills, protest against which had begun to shape Irish peasant nationalism. Because Irish identity was so closely imbricated with the destiny of Catholicism--as distinct from the papal attachments that made Catholicism so foreign in the minds of Englishmen--the threat posed by civil dissension on religious principles substantially persuaded the English parliament to relax the entrenched disabling legislation of the past. That the chroniclers of English parliamentary history chose to present religious emancipation not as the result of revolutionary change but rather as the consummation of a "liberalizing adjustment to the constitution" has remained an abiding definition of English tolerance.15 Downplaying its own anxiety over the Irish question, Britain's collective memory highlighted an emerging climate of tolerance and goodwill as the motive-force of Catholic emancipation. To help their former opponents make the best of a potentially humiliating situation, many English Catholics gladly went along later with the myth that emancipation represented "not a triumph of strength but rather a victory for abstract principles of liberality."16

These developments in the Dissenting and Catholic communities encouraged Anglo-Jews to believe that the time was ripe for a similar extension of civil liberties to their own community. The Jews in Britain, like the Roman Catholics, saw themselves as part of a larger religious group having ties that superseded national boundaries. When Anglo-Jews perceived that Catholic emancipation was not stymied by the vexing problems of dual loyalty to spiritual and temporal authority, they were encouraged to believe that their claims to English citizenship too would receive a more favorable hearing than had historically been the case.

But even after the acts of 1828 and 1829 conferred substantial benefits on Dissenters and Catholics, the Jews remained the only major religious group to whom civil restrictions still applied; it took much longer, for instance, for their exclusion from municipal office and parliament to be reversed. Far from preparing the ground for Jewish emancipation, Catholic relief stiffened Anglican opposition to extending the same reform momentum to Jews. Citing the profession of Judaism as categorically disqualifying Jews from public office, Gladstone distinguished between the admission of non-Anglican Christians and the admission of professing Jews. The operative word is "professing." In 1847 Gladstone delivered an impassioned speech in support of removing Jewish disabilities, noting that such a move would develop a secular community of Jews rather than "professing" believers, who ironically thrived in a culture that practiced politics of exclusion.

By this time, of course, Gladstone had done an abrupt volte face and openly embarked on the road to liberalism. His earlier position, as adumbrated in The State in Its Relations with the Church (1839), made different claims about integrated church-state relations, which left him open to fierce attack. For instance, Macaulay's review of Gladstone's theory "that the propagation of religious truth is one of the principal ends of government, as government" is one of the most sustained critiques of this seasoned politician in nineteenth-century letters.17 In "Gladstone on Church and State," Macaulay minutely tears apart Gladstone's effort to yoke temporal and spiritual interests and categorically asserts that "no two objects more entirely distinct can well be imagined" than "the protection of the persons and estates of citizens from injury" and "the propagation of religious truth."18

Not only do these two goals create a conflict of interests: Macaulay believes that Gladstone's philosophy confounds the purposes of government, obliging it to assume responsibity for the religious character of the state when its true raison d'ątre is the protection of its citizens' material interests. Macaulay's trenchant critique of Gladstone's moral state rests on the fear that the obligatory profession of religion reintroduces practices of exclusion and discrimination, despite Gladstone's reassurance thathe was less interested in the propagation of Christianity than in the profession of religion in general, even one as unpalatable to Gladstone as Islam.

In any event, despite Gladstone's intervention in the 1840s, the formal admission of Jews to parliament came only in 1858, well after the concessions to Nonconformists and Catholics. Concurrent with attempts to admit atheists into parliament, which bore fruition only as late as 1882 when Charles Bradlaugh became the first atheist to assume a seat in parliament, Jewish admission consolidated the secular state by detaching religious qualifications from national identity. Until this time, as long as allegiance to the articles of faith remained a prerequisite to such things as a seat in parliament and education at Oxford or Cambridge, an Englishman was defined in terms of his membership in the Anglican church. Whig attempts to modify the parliamentary oath, which contained the words "on the true faith of a Christian," were repeatedly defeated in the House of Lords. When the Jewish Relief Act was finally passed in 1858, other developments were already under way in the mid-nineteenth century that facilitated the admission of Jews. In the 1850s Oxford University ceased to require submission to the Thirty-Nine Articles on matriculation. Practically speaking, however, full access to the degrees of Oxford and Cambridge was available to all non-Anglicans only after 1871, when Gladstone's government passed the Universities Tests Act, finally removing all disabilities. This act opened all degrees and offices to individuals of any religion, as well as to those who practiced none. Despite the latter clause, however, atheists still had a difficult time circumventing the residual pull of the parliamentary and promissory oaths that, by the 1880s, had acquired the weight of tradition and practice. When Charles Bradlaugh was elected from the borough of Northampton in 1880 but was debarred from sitting in parliament because he insisted on making a solemn declaration rather than taking an oath, his fight to sever the nation's ties to religious oaths took England into the last phase of the move to lift civil disabilities. On gaining his seat, Bradlaugh introduced a general affirmation bill, replacing oaths, that became law in 1888.

The incorporation of Dissenting groups, Catholics, and Jews now dispensed with the concept of heretic as defining what a true Englishman was not. By the mid-nineteenth century, with criteria of doctrinal allegiance no longer determining Englishness, national identity increasingly required a differentiation between political and civil society. Civil society emerged as the privatized domain onto which were displaced a variety of religious distinctions that had no place in political society, or in what came to be construed as the more transcendent plane of secularism. Secularization not only polarizes national and religious identity; it also privatizes belief and renders it subordinate to the claims of reason, logic, and evidence. Henceforth all these claims are identified with the rationality of the state and its institutions.

Not coincidentally, 1858 is also the year when the English Crown formally wrested control of India from the private East India Company. The Crown's consolidation of colonial governance, however, continued to honor the Company's policy of administering India by secular principle, for example, in such fields as education. The overlapping of a secular educational agenda for colonial subjects with the decline of ecclesiastical authority in England has several implications that become positively combustible when these developments are juxtaposed to the effects of emancipatory legislation admitting excluded religious minorities in England. First, this concurrence of events introduces a politics of identity into both English and colonial life, where the grounds for Englishness are increasingly determined by the individual's ability to become detached from the content of local or regional affiliations while maintaining their form. Second, the strengthening of the English state is predicated not by a single unified framework of ecclesiastical or missionizing doctrine but by the absorption of racial and religious "others" into a secular, pluralistic fabric. And third, a centralized administrative machinery is set in place whose legislative capacity displaces the authority of religious bodies to determine the criteria for membership in the community.

But the overlay also contains a number of problematic dimensions that suggest the uneven development of colonizing and colonized societies, even while both may be driven by a comparable trajectory. The difference crucially hinges on the issue of civil enfranchisement. The possibilities of religious emancipation in the English situation permit religion to be more "naturally" identified as a necessary prior stage in the progression toward nationhood. Religious differences, although present as established social categories, are neutralized as they are subsumed within a national identity. The split occurs along the axes of citizenship and subjecthood. Religious tolerance in England is, by definition, the process that emancipates religious minorities from existing civil disabilities and enables previously marginalized groups to participate in the nation state. Of course, the fact that religious enfranchisement effectively displaces the extension of the franchise across social classes creates tensions of another kind that have persisted in English social history. These social tensions are vividly exemplified by the fraught narrative structures of a number of important Victorian novels about sectarian conflict, such as Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.

Although the modern English state is constructed on the premise that formerly excluded religious groups are duly given the rights of citizenship, such a premise can be no more than conditional in colonial societies, and religion continues to be an unassimilable and resistant marker of political difference. Secularization in the colonies remains a flawed project, even more than in England, because of the absence of an emancipatory logic that steers a once monolithic religious culture into the gradual absorption of pluralized groups into the nation state. Secularization in India has always been a fraught process driven by unresolvable tensions, due partly to the fact that parliamentary reform, which enabled religious minorities in England to be absorbed as citizens, failed to perform a comparable function in India. There, obviously, state formation is basically incorporation of subjects into a colonial state and, following national independence, into a hegemonic state in which the social relations sanctioned by colonialism continue virtually uninterrupted.

Furthermore, England's policy of religious neutrality had always officially resisted endorsing missionary proselytization and substituted "Englishness" for "Christianity" as the defining principle of subjecthood, even while retaining the moral foundations of Christianity. The administration of colonial law in matters involving Christian conversions is a case in point. Even when Hindus or Muslims were converting to Christianity, the decisions made by the civil courts denied that such conscious change occurred, and the Christian convert was treated as essentially someone who had not converted. The particular situations that brought the British resistance to religious change out into the open also challenged colonial administrators, paradoxically, to defend the rights of converts against the punitive actions of Hindu or Muslim personal law. But while seeming to protect the rights of converts, the application of English law severed Christian converts from a larger communion of Christians to which native converts erroneously believed they had been admitted. Their religious identity was subsequently recast in the form of the religion they had renounced.

The nexus between the convert as religious dissenter and the convert as colonial subject broadens the scope of conversion narratives to include a trans-cultural perspective not otherwise visible in nineteenth-century texts. By the mid-nineteenth century, the disempowerment of ecclesiastical authority in England gave civil courts the right to refuse judgment on the truth value of dissenting opinion or to make determinations about doctrinal meaning. Although belief is placed outside the space of public discourse in English culture, such a move is rendered problematic in the culture of the colonies. The clean separation between belief and law is less manageable when applied to converts in colonial India. For, like religious minorities in England, converts struggle against punitive restrictions imposed by their former community and seek to reverse their condition of exile and excommunication.

Yet, unlike minority groups who accepted emancipation as their right of entry into England's public life, even at the cost of renouncing the specificity of their religious identity, for colonial converts such renunciation is a denial of their conversion itself and therefore not reconcilable with the state's offer to protect them from caste disabilities. The resistances of converts to the legislated solutions worked out in colonial courts cannot be construed as local events, pertinent only to relations of colonial subordination. Rather, the appeal made by converts to the legitimacy of their religious subjectivity forced a reform-oriented English law to deal instead with the question of their rights under the law, even as it also sought to minimize the relevance of converts' religious beliefs. The norms of liberal discourse set by the alignments between state, religion, and culture in nineteenth-century England are ultimately exposed as insufficient and hollow. For although these norms propose religious subjectivity as part of a privatized realm of meaning--and therefore beyond the purview of the secular courts--the challenge of managing colonial conversions required the British government to disavow this notion and publicly adjudicate the claims of converts, often in civil courts. That a legislated subjectivity resulted from such adjudication introduces an even more conflictual element into the already fraught relations between belief and law.

The colonial disturbance of the categories of liberal humanism as well as of the norms of public-private transactions exposes a deeper split in English social and intellectual history. The cultural ideology within which narratives of conversion in British colonialism are interpretable is obviously not limited to the discourse of civil law, though it is within the secular structures of civil legislation that the social rewriting of conversion takes place most regularly. The liberal spirit of tolerance that entered English public life by the mid-nineteenth century did indeed enfranchise Dissenters, Roman Catholics, and Jews, whose incorporation into the structures of political governance showed an England moving toward a more open pluralism in which a multiplicity of beliefs was seemingly acknowledged. One critic describes the new public space created by enfranchisement as the "deregulated market of religious belief."19 Certainly the ascendancy of courts of appeal--with the state's refusal to pronounce judgment on the rightness or wrongness of dissenting opinion--appeared to rob the church of its spiritual authority. The Gorham judgment of 1850 opened up a breach between church and state that Gladstone had long feared would overtake England; when the determination of doctrinal meaning was declared outside the function of a secular body like the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, the break seemed to be complete. It is no coincidence that the Privy Council was originally intended primarily to hear appeals from the colonies, even though later, as a secular body, it came to exercise jurisdiction as a court of final appeal in ecclesiastical cases.

But what did it actually mean for civil courts to desist from deciding what was theological truth--and from placing "tariffs on dissent"20--and leave matters of faith to private judgment? The state's relegation of doctrine to private interpretation followed from its insistence on preserving the so-called heretic's legal rights to whatever position he or she held prior to being accused of heresy. As long as a dissenter's beliefs were basically compatible with the doctrines laid down in the Church's Articles, the question of heresy did not arise. What might have been an opinion contrary to accepted doctrinal meanings was declared nonheretical by the Privy Council according to the standards of compatibility. Accentuated by the spirit of secularization, the new tolerance may have been the first step toward separating religious belief from social identity. The abolition of tests of religious belief in parliament, the relaxation of the laws of blasphemy, and the removal of divorce from the ecclesiastical realm all combined, as Anton Lentin notes, to "shift religion to the ceremonial margins of state affairs."21

In a regime mediated by law, the tolerant secular state is the foundation for an English national identity in which differences of belief are effaced. While individual rights are protected--and the rectitude of law is upheld--the self-definitions and beliefs held by individuals are made irrelevant in the national incorporation of previously excluded dissenting sects. In not only rendering self-perceptions of religious identity no more than a formal subset of social classification but also leaving no place for private faith altogether, the usurpation of spiritual authority by the mid-nineteenth-century English state highlighted the failure of Anglicanism and the national church to provide such authority. The British census of 1851 placed half of England's worshiping population as Nonconformists, indicating the extent to which the language of dissent was expressed as belief.22 If dissent is framed as a protest against the legislation and standardization of religious belief, it is just as stridently a revolt against a political society obliged to efface self-definitions in order to protect individual rights. The fact that many Tractarians were prompted to convert to Roman Catholicism following the decline of church authority reveals how steadily dissent was being consolidated as the religion of belief. The growing incidence of conversions to Roman Catholicism points to a rejection of national definitions and national institutions, even when (or perhaps because) the national spirit was expressed as tolerance and liberalism.23

If dissent expresses itself most powerfully as conversion, particularly to minority religions, the reasons are not hard to understand. By undoing the concept of fixed, unalterable identities, conversion unsettles the boundaries by which selfhood, citizenship, nationhood, and community are defined, exposing these as permeable borders. Shifts in religious consciousness traverse the contained order of culture and subtly dislodge its measured alignments, belying the false assurance that only change from the outside has the power to disrupt. The indeterminacy of conversion poses a radical threat to the trajectory of nationhood, and this is not only because it scrambles the categories of religious identification neatly kept in place by bureaucratic logic. Conversions to a mainstream religion are as disruptive to the state as are conversions to alternative or minority religions.

Of course, value-laden terms like "majority" and "minority" have a numerical significance, which corresponds to the power relations that produce them. On one hand, conversion to a dominant religion consolidates the making of a cohesive nation by bringing renegade individuals and disparate religious communities into a unified single tradition. It is, after all, through such a cobbled tradition that social identities are fashioned. But on the other side, conversion undoes the settled patterns of a community's composition and the certainty with which its practices are followed and regularized. These disruptions produce antagonistic relations between individuals and families, majority and minority cultures, and religious communities and their renegade offshoots.

At the same time these conflicts also constitute the necessary tensions from which the modern state derives its own identity as supreme legislator and arbitrator. Transcending the internal antagonisms set off by departures from the fold, the state acts to establish its authority as disinterested judge and protector of rights. As disruptive as it might seem, conversion also brings to a focus an essential role of the state in modernity: the restoration of a fixed, unassailable point of reference from which cleavages within communities are addressed. If conversion precipitates breaches within the fold, it also sets in motion a dynamic social process that confers a new power and role on the state.

Although conversion histories are undoubtedly a source of oppositional expression, the degree to which these potentially counterhegemonic narratives are undermined by legislative processes or economic rationality deserves much closer attention than they have thus far received. Because its threatening capacity to alter social symmetries generates the internal conflicts that bring about state intervention, conversion both as a process and an event is crucially relevant to the state's self-definition as a regulator of belief. The paradox, of course, lies in the fact that the value of conversion for the state lies not only in its assimilative but also its dissenting aspects. Dissent, as much as assimilation, is the necessary disruptive mechanism for the exercise of tolerance by the state. Incidents of conversion in society enable the state to demonstrate a unity larger than the community, splintered as the latter is by the departure of members from its fold.

For this reason, the resistances of converts to the erasure of their subjectivity are split equally between two objects: on the one hand, against their former community, which threatens to excommunicate and impose civil disabilities; and on the other, against the state, which promises to protect converts' civil rights but in exchange for subsuming converts' religious conviction and belief within predetermined official categories. This latter maneuver has been recognized in feminist scholarship, which points out the problematic nature of the modern state for women by presenting itself as both guarantor of rights and usurper of female subjectivity. But this contradiction has yet to be adequately theorized as a position of liminality created by the nature of religious dissent from prevailing class and gender codes, cultural norms, religious orthodoxies, and systems of authority. One of the most notorious cases in recent Indian history illustrates the fraught relations between the modern state and female subjectivity. In a 1986 civil suit that went up to the Indian Supreme Court, a divorced Muslim woman, Shah Bano, vainly sought maintenance support from her husband under the Criminal Procedure Code after he had divorced her, claiming the prerogatives of Muslim personal law.24 If resistance to patriarchal authority often leads women to seek protection from the state for injustices and cruelties perpetrated on them--as did Shah Bano--the conditionality of state support closes off room for the articulation of female oppositional energies as female. The protection extended to women on the grounds of their constitutional rights is conceived primarily in the abstract and without regard to gendered circumstances. In the case of female converts like Huchi, whose affecting case is the core of Chapter Three, the double dislocation is even more striking, because not only female subjectivity but also religious belief is transmuted into a category of social identity. Trapped in a liminal space of nullified private experience, the female convert is banished from the public space of legislative reason and patriarchal authority, both of which combine to render her conversion experiences not only irrelevant but also subversive.

Indeed, the cooptation of oppositional voices in conversion histories by prevailing norms of national definition presents a set of textual problems that can best be studied in relation to the formative secular discourses of the state. The principal textual phenomenon is the disappearance of converts' subjectivity altogether in texts (legal as well as literary) that advocate their essential rights under the law. The peculiar challenges of self-representation are no different for converts than they are for dissenters and heretics, whose legal identity is at variance with their professed faiths. If the secular state's task is to accommodate the rights of disenfranchised religious dissenters to the proper functioning of organic communities, without diminishing either, the defense of constitutional liberty places abstract principles over and above the religious subjectivity of converts. An account of their own spiritual and material needs is virtually refined out of existence, rendering their religious identity hollow and insubstantial.

When the problem of self-representation of converts and religious dissenters appears as an issue in colonial texts, it merges with the problem of representation of colonial subjects in general in the English novel. Because the nineteenth-century English novel has considerable salience in highlighting vexing questions of voice, agency, and representation, and because these questions also dominate analysis of the textual presence of converts--a presence at times so elusive and impalpable as to turn converts into abstractions--a methodological convergence between the representation of converts and that of colonial subjects is not surprising. In a subtle Bakhtinian reading of how the novel form employs complex, multivocal systems only to deny them, Graham Pechey has argued that, though dialogism in the English novel exists as the liberal incorporation of hegemonic and subaltern voices, it finally affirms only the voice of the dominant subject as the voice of active agency.25 The colonized, he argues, are never the second person in dialogue; in the bulk of nineteenth-century English novels, as Edward Said too has shown in Culture and Imperialism, the peripheral places occupied by colonial subjects are a mute testimony not only to the imperial reach but also to an imperializing literary form.26

If the English novel limits the essential dialogism of the material it works with into a monologism based on lines of class, gender, and racial power, this is no less true of the judicial narrative. In court cases such as the ones described in Chapter Three, testimony provided by the convert is repeatedly challenged by the dramatic structure of cross-examination, interruption, interrogation, and judicial pronouncement framing the testimony. In each case, again both historical and literary, converts are the ground rather than the subject or even object (the British records are neither of or about converts) on which the whole question of rights is worked out. The crucial point of reference is the state, which performs the dual move of effacing the religiosity of individuals and groups, while at the same time ensuring their rights to such things as property, conjugality, and guardianship. In so doing, the state ensures its own self-constitution, indeed its very genealogy, from the disinterested principles of tolerance.

Prominent in judicial records, this dual move is repeated in literary writing, though not unproblematically. Indeed, the difficulties of sustaining a seamless narrative without suppressing the voice of active agency often cause narratives to buckle under the sheer weight of insupportable contradictions. Novels about the civil emancipation of religious minorities particularly reveal the fragility of secular postures. Such novels bear comparison with narratives of conversion because both types of works are centrally concerned with exploring questions of inclusion and exclusion. If the former works more narrowly within existing religious categories, even effacing them in order to assert the supremacy of the tolerant state, the latter by definition must be capacious enough to imagine different positions within society. Such differences illuminate the generic possibilities of the conversion narrative as it, too, seeks to find a place for converts without denying the fact of their difference.


By working in the interstices of simultaneous developments in the English metropolis and the colonies, we may productively examine how discourses of religious identity are produced, contained, or opposed by the languages of law, reason, and classification identified with the modern secular state. Our specific challenge is to evaluate the degree to which English texts (both literary and nonliterary) participate in--as well as offer the terms for--the constructions of religious identity and selfhood in the culture at large. The critical question at hand, in other words, is how English texts reflect both the uncertainties of official definitions and the legitimacy of their operative premises.

If sectarianism can be understood as one of the effects produced by discourses of religious identity, a cross-referential approach may yield a more complex picture of intertwined histories and intertextualities. Consequently, such an approach will obviate the facile turn to a language of differential development often deployed to describe religious violence in developing societies, as for example in Ernest Gellner's recent book on the subject.27 No doubt, sectarianism in postcolonial societies such as India has been extensively studied as a byproduct of British representational strategies, which reduced socioeconomic conflicts in indigenous societies to incidents of religious fanaticism.28 However, the same degree of critical attention has not been given to the proposition that a convulsive history of religious dissent and discriminations in English culture functions as an interpretive grid through which religious identity is re-imagined and re-presented in colonial and postcolonial texts.

In this and the chapters that follow, I shall offer readings of several different types of narratives--literary, historical, ethnographic, and juridical--to argue, among other things, that the secular state's struggle to preserve difference while striving for religious tolerance and inclusiveness is often too overwhelming for narrative form to handle. The overburdened narrative structure of two striking nineteenth-century works--Maria Edgeworth's Harrington (1817) and Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge (1841)--slips into contradictory class and gender positions that reveal the difficulties of sustaining the logic of emancipation. The lapse occurs even as these novels attempt to work out incorporative strategies of containing religious difference while making gestures toward its recognition and protection. As responses to Jewish and Catholic relief, respectively, Harrington and Barnaby Rudge reveal that their authors were deeply conversant with the most pressing debates of the time about civil emancipation. Yet the novels also reflect a fundamental ambivalence about the absorption of religious minorities, as indicated by their common search for a touchstone of moral values lying beyond the pluralistic composition of the English state. Both novels aspire to acknowledge and accept Jewish and Catholic difference, while making a claim for religious tolerance as the essence of English Protestantism and an English national identity transcending sectarian affiliations. In the long run, Maria Edgeworth's Harrington and Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge end up affirming the dominant community of English Protestants, while making gestures toward extending political rights of citizenship to Jews and Catholics. Indeed, the pressures on literary form to manage conflicting social tendencies, which are often resolved by neutralizing and absorbing religious difference into a uniform social identity, uncannily reproduce the anxieties of a secular world in dealing with threatening religious excess.

Edgeworth's novel is in some respects a psychological rather than political exploration of Jewish emancipation. Though Harrington rehearses the various political debates about the status of English Jews, its real interest lies in a discovery of the sources of anti-Semitism. Maria Edgeworth wrote the novel in 1817 primarily as a corrective to the impression of anti-Semitism conveyed by her earlier novels. Piqued by one of her readers in America, Rachel Mordecai, who plaintively wrote a letter asking why the author allowed herself to perpetuate prevailing stereotypes of Jews, Edgeworth set out to correct both her own prior misunderstandings and the historical record in general. Absorbing an enormous amount of Anglo-Jewish history through her wide reading, she planned to write a novel that charted the progress of England toward the enlightened acceptance of Jews, paralleling her own gradual embrace of a more receptive attitude toward Jews.

However, at several crucial points Harrington belies its author's intents. Edgeworth's novel battles to preserve Jewish difference while arguing for religious tolerance and the positive virtues of Jewish naturalization. At the sametime Harrington strives uncomfortably to accommodate the concept of an English Jew: a rich Spanish Jew, however, poses fewer problems, making it possible for Edgeworth to delineate the foreign banker Montenero as if he were an English aristocrat. As one of the novel's major characters, Harrington senior, remarks, "Mr. Montenero, I observed, looked down upon Baldwin all the time with so much the air of a high-bred gentleman, that I began to think he could not be the Jew--Montenero." His comment is followed up by Baldwin's observation that "your Jew, Harrington, came up to me and with such a manner as I did not conceive a Jew could have--but he is a Spanish Jew--that makes all the difference, I suppose."29 The novel's proliferation of different classes and nationalities of Jews--the poor English Jacob, the wealthy Spaniard Montenero, the self-consciously extravagant Hebrew scholar Israel Lyons, and then of course the ultimate simulacrum of a Jew, namely, the English Macklin playing Shakespeare's Shylock--reflects the author's uneasiness in dealing with the Jewish question on its own terms, as well as her failure to define Jewishness beyond the typologies in which her comprehension was trapped. Edgeworth's narrative revives issues brought up by the Jewish Naturalization Bill of 1753, which was proposed in order to help foreign-born Jews overcome trading hurdles by removing the difficulties they faced in seeking naturalization. But by conflating the conflict over the bill with the Gordon riots of 1780 against the proposed Catholic Relief Act, Edgeworth broadens the discussion of anti-Semitic stereotyping to encompass the extension of citizenship rights to religious minorities in general. And by further yoking anti-Semitism to francophobia, she explicitly introduces the idea that religious and national identities are fundamentally overlapping:

The very day before Mr. Montenero was to leave town, without any conceivable reason, suddenly a cry was raised against the Jews: unfortunately Jews rhymed to shoes: these words were hitched into a rhyme, and the cry was "No Jews, no wooden shoes!" Thus without any natural, civil, religious or moral or political connexion, the poor Jews came in remainder to the ancient anti-Gallican antipathy felt by English feet and English fancies against the French wooden shoes.30

The novel's conclusion, which reveals that the daughter of the wealthy Jew Montenero is Christian and English even as it distances the father as Jewish and Spanish, rehearses the public debates over the legal status of the Jews since readmission. The difficulty of assimilating Jews in English society, even from a seemingly liberal point of view, has a narrative counterpart in the figurative conversion of Berenice to Christianity. Her "conversion" is not only a convenient device to smoothe the plot's ragged edges but also a concession to the limits of tolerance. The novel responds to the sensitive issue of Jews having to accept the sacrament shortly before their naturalization by preempting such a potentially volatile situation altogether: the heroine Berenice is presented as already Christian and her father Montenero as irreversibly foreign. Berenice is reassuringly preserved as English, and the threat of miscegenation is indefinitely deferred and successfully kept outside the history of the English nation.

Edgeworth describes the history of religious identity in relation to the nation as always contradictory and conflictual. At its core the nation is profoundly irrational (as seen in its racial bigotry), but at the level of official secularism the nation is also capable of showing tolerance. The novel strains to resolve these fundamental contradictions, but it can do so only by two means: first, by reverting to figurative conversion as a principle of narrative closure; and second, by discharging its persistent bigotry on the socially alienated or disenfranchised classes, so that the myth of religious tolerance is still upheld as a principle of the social whole.31 In Harrington the disaffected servant Fowler functions as the chief purveyor of sectarian prejudice. Her apparently infinite capacity for anti-Semitism is undiminished by newly issued legal measures against religious discrimination, yet her usefulness for the plot lies in her being at once outside the (untarnished) class system and a necessary rallying point for an English nationalism still driven by a majoritarian logic. Just as Dickens later makes the subaltern classes of servants, unskilled workers, and women the chief instruments of religious bigotry--and synonymous with the malevolence of the body politic--so too, in her novel about religious tolerance, Edgeworth confines the culture's ineradicable intolerance to the dispensable servant classes. For instance, in an ironic reversal of the anti-Semitic novel where the Jew is sent into exile from England, the maid Fowler (whose name is a deliberate pun on "foul") is banished to America at the end of the novel.32 The novel's depiction of England's linear progression toward civil emancipation is fractured by its own rationalizations of a lingering anti-Semitism in England, which is rendered as class prejudice.

Both Edgeworth's and Dickens's novels cite the threat of continued unrest and agitation by militant Protestants against Jewish and Catholic emancipation as the chief cause for the reluctance of English civil authority to emancipate religious minorities fully. One of the most memorable images of Dickens's Barnaby Rudge is that of Dennis the hangman, whose identification with English legislative processes is so complete that he sees his profession as literally allowing him to be the executor (in more senses than one) of Parliament's will: "So I do [truly hate Papists]. . . . I'm a constitutional officer that works for my living, and does my work creditable. . . . My work is sound, Protestant, constitutional, English work."33 Recounting the hanging of Mary Jones, a poor woman condemned for stealing a piece of cloth, he boasts:

That being the law and the practice of England, is the glory of England. . . . If our grandsons should think of their grandfathers' times, and find these things altered, they'll say, "Those were days indeed, and we've been going down hill ever since." . . . If these Papists gets into power, and begins to boil and roast instead of hang, what becomes of my work! If they touch my work that's a part of so many laws, what becomes of the laws in general, what becomes of the religion, what becomes of the country?"34

Dennis's complete identification with English law suffers from a time lag. The laws that he believes he is carrying out as hangman are themselves altered, and the anti-Catholicism that defines his vocation and gives it a weighty purpose is undone by the very state he serves--and strengthens--with every hanging. Catholic emancipation disorients Dennis precisely because it alienates his work from constitutional will. His comical egocentrism cannot absorb the changefulness of the state. Nor can it accept the fact that parliamentary laws do not embody the certainties of religious distinctions, which give Englishness and Protestantism their durable character. Threatened by a sense of his own superfluity, Dennis allays his anxieties by imagining that it is the state which is under threat, its will having been hijacked by antinational forces.

At the same time, Dickens's novel, like Edgeworth's, is also determined to present the English state's full commitment to promoting national consolidation beyond sectarian borders. That goal, however, is attainable only when the state acknowledges its obligation to protect the rights of all groups--with the tacit understanding, of course, that those rights do not conflict with the religious creed of the majority faith. In amalgamating the particular identity of Jews, Catholics, and other religious minorities into a generalized secular identity, the English state presented in these novels upholds national identity in its most diffuse form. Conceived thus, religious tolerance achieves its supreme expression as an act of incorporation, consolidation, and homogenization.

For this reason, the discourse of tolerance cannot abide either militant actions against the state or state actions against expressions of popular will. Dickens may be advocating religious tolerance, but he is also aware that incidents of popular anarchy based on religious bigotry cannot be reductively analyzed in terms of an irrational, easily manipulatable populace against a just, rational state. The mob's irrationality is the visible part of the sublimated religious bigotry of the nation, which Dickens seeks to present as the embodiment of reason. Yet Dickens rejects the state as a source of tolerant behavior and reverts to a romantic revival of pure belief as the only solution to sectarian violence. Barnaby Rudge epitomizes the historical dislocations between literature and legitimations of nation. In this work the state does not emerge as a hero for protecting Catholics against the mob. Instead, the timidity of figures like the Lord Mayor and the ineffectiveness of the city aldermen and magistrates expose the vast gap between civil and military authority, much to the frustration of the army, which regards the recourse to law as a major cause for the deferment of direct action. Impatient to quell mass rebellion by the use of military might, the English militia represents a nationalism that works in a direction contrary to a nationalism based on the doctrine of rights and equal protection under the law. Dickens's novel is unable to negotiate this split; consequently, he cannot present the state as the protagonist of his political drama because it is itself riven by two forms of action/inaction. Indeed, Steven Marcus interprets the novel's lower status in the Dickens canon as a result of readers' "discomfort" with its political nature, especially since Dickens "apparently came out for the wrong side" in the struggle for political power in England.35

Dickens's Barnaby Rudge repeats many of the issues raised by Sir George Savile's petition for the emancipation of Catholics back in 1778--an act that sparked off numerous anti-Catholic riots. Yet however serious Dickens's purpose may be in seeking a place for religious minorities in the English political system--even those, like Catholics, for whom he had no real sympathy--he is not able to invest enough faith in Englishness as a positive ideal to replace religious identification. On the contrary, Englishness is associated with the worst traits of the most evil character in the novel, Sir John Chester, whose Machiavellianism is a suitable complement to the sectarian passions of the mob:

I thought I was tolerably accomplished as a man of the world. I flattered myself that I was pretty well versed in all those little arts and graces which distinguish men of the world from boors and peasants, and separate their character from those intensely vulgar sentiments which are called the national character. Apart from any natural prepossession in my own favour, I believed I was. Still, in every page of this enlightened writer [Lord Chesterfield], I find some captivating hypocrisy which has never occurred to me before, or some superlative piece of selfishness to which I was utterly a stranger. I should quite blush for myself before this stupendous creature, if, remembering his precepts, one might blush at anything. An amazing man! a nobleman indeed! any King or Queen may make a Lord, but only the Devil himself--and the Graces--can make a Chesterfield.36

No doubt lacking in subtlety, Sir John exemplifies a macabre hollowness that Dickens holds up as the horrifying outcome of a decaying political order. If the desired endpoint of religious emancipation is the creation of a new order of cultural citizens, less Christian than English, as Macaulay had anticipated, then Sir John Chester proved how pernicious that ideal really was. His Englishness is too inefficacious to offer a suitable alternative to religious identification. Hence, even as Dickens explored the possibilities of Catholic emancipation, he dreaded its eventual realization because of the cultural vacuum that the secular state signified, a vacuum that the mannered, machiavellian Englishness of a character like Sir John Chester (and his great forebear, Lord Chesterfield) only served to accentuate.

Dickens was no doubt alarmed to see the task of political protection moving from parliament to such regimented forces as the army or the police. But the very indecisiveness of the political process to put a stop to the carnage caused by the masses clearly indicated to him that religious tolerance could not be guaranteed by legislative fiat alone. In Barnaby Rudge there is a clash between what Simon During calls the "civil Imaginary" (the set of practices by which the order of the public world informs everyday life) and the decentering effect of a desired religious pluralism that dispenses with the monolithic will of the civil Imaginary.37 The state figures in Dickens's novel as a body committed to the protection of the rights of religious minorities; but, though Dickens writes a novel ostensibly about religious tolerance, he feels no special empathy for the plight of Catholics. Nor, for that matter, does the chapel culture of dissent win his attention, either. For instance, the attempt at the end of Barnaby Rudge to assimilate the city of London into the natural order notably excludes Dissent: Only "the spires of city churches and the great cathedral dome" rise "up beyond the prison, into the blue sky, and clad in the colour of light summer clouds."38 And yet the paradox is that if, as Valentine Cunningham argues, Victorian novels about cities are also inevitably about Dissenters,39 Dickens's Barnaby Rudge reveals a fundamental disjunction between its author's penetrating exploration of the horrors of urban squalor and his disdain of the culture of Dissent that was often found in its midst.

Dickens transforms his novel into an abstract exposition of the threat to state authority by impassioned mobs, but his solution is neither a valorization of "the people" nor an affirmation of state authority. Rather, his point of reference lies somewhere else, as reflected in the title of the novel, which is named after a character who is peripheral to the novel's main developments. As a figure of the idiot savant, Barnaby Rudge is an innocent victim of both the mob and the state. Dickens's nostalgia for a romantic version of Protestantism is the final reference point for his solution to English sectarianism; law has no further appeal than the containment of civil tension.

If, as Simon During observes about a different group of texts, the novels of Walter Scott and Jane Austen are silent about the occasion of their writing and present a fictional world directly adjacent to the nation state, Barnaby Rudge on the other hand is more overtly didactic and aware of its address to sectarian politics. But rather than directly portraying Chartist agitation (which was its immediate contemporary event, referring to the series of petitions from 1838 to 1848 demanding extension of the franchise to England's lower-middle and working classes), the novel instead goes backward in time and depicts the Gordon riots, which took place in 1780 when Protestants objected to Catholic relief measures. Dickens furnishes a context for the novelistic recreation of the Gordon riots in the legal will of the English nation. Yet neither Dickens nor Edgeworth, for that matter, is able to offer a concept of Englishness defined in terms other than cultural. If culture is posited as a successor to discredited religion, how is it possible for a concept of Englishness to be an effective secular vehicle for establishing religious tolerance, when Englishness is itself polarized from religion? Dickens is too aware of the inherent contradictions in a project of religious tolerance founded on secular culture to look toward leadership in a secular elite. For the culture of the elite is too weak to carry the weight of fighting the inequalities of religious discriminations. Recognizing this limitation, Dickens accords more importance to marginalized characters like Barnaby Rudge, Mrs. Rudge, and Gabriel Varden than to other characters occupying responsible civic positions. Dennis Walder appropriately describes Dickens's "romantic" sense of a nondogmatic Christianity as a religion of the heart, a religion based upon profound feelings about man, nature, and God: "These feelings by definition transcend sectarian barriers, and offer a unifying rather than divisive faith."40

Dickens's reversion to a romanticized notion of Christian belief, however, does not obscure the fact that he clings to Protestantism as the touchstone for the evolution of English society. Unlike Edgeworth's tale, where the Jewish banker's daughter Berenice is discovered to be Christian after all, Dickens's story has no surprise conversions. The marriage of the Catholic heroine Emma Haredale to Edward Chester, a Protestant, has one thing in common with the couple's subsequent departure to the West Indies, where they spend the rest of their married lives: the two events are both narrative closures that assimilate Emma at once to Protestant and colonial culture. Marriage enables her incorporation into the mainstream culture in a way that legal emancipation does not. Presented as an alternative to legal emancipation, intermarriage functions ultimately to affirm the dominant culture and the majority religion.

The narrative paralysis of these two works by Edgeworth and Dickens is brought about by their authors' inability to resolve directly the question of incorporating Jews and Catholics into the English nation. The problematic closures in both novels lead one to speculate whether there is a generic link between novels of sectarian conflict and novels of conversion. We might well ask whether the narrative form of the latter picks up from the point where the former breaks down; whether novels about and by converts introduce alternative perspectives to achieve the resolution eluded by the sectarian novel; and whether conversion, though threatening to a society's demographic composition, offers imaginative possibilities for exploring questions of inclusion and exclusion more freely than is permitted by novels still working within the accepted religious categories, such as Edgeworth's and Dickens's. Arguably, the conversion narrative offers the ground for the literary exploration of how to integrate marginalized social groups (figuratively represented by converts) into the nation without effacing their claims to difference.

Indeed, converts function as strategic displacements of religious and ethnic groups, allowing writers to probe questions of selective incorporation and exclusion not easily approached by more direct means. It is no accident that novels about the conversion of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity had wide popular appeal in nineteenth-century England, not merely as wishful testimony to the efficacy of missionary ideology but more compellingly as exotic displacements of the pressing and often explosive issue of whether to admit Jews, Catholics, and Nonconformists into the English nation state. The emplotment of conversion often in terms of a narrative of romance and adventure further suggests a play of desire and imaginative freedom belying the urgency of its central dynamic--namely, the recovery of the imagined community of the nation, whose very idea slips into incoherence even as its established categories are unfastened by the opposed testimony of converts' will and belief.

An unusual narrative in which Hindu-Christian conversions are played out against the backdrop of European sectarianism is Sydney (Lady Morgan) Owenson's Luxima the Prophetess (1859), a novel that inspired the final cantos of Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Revolt of Islam. First published as The Missionary in 1811, the novel was reissued, after the Indian revolt of 1857, in a revised edition in which even the title was changed to reflect the new centrality of the female protagonist, Luxima.41 Luxima's displacement of the missionary as the plot's main figure is Owenson's concession to the progressive irrelevance of missionaries in the confrontational atmosphere immediately preceding and following the 1857 rebellion. Marked by an experimental adventurousness unusual for romances of the same era, the novel collapses different time periods and locales, emplotting the conversion of a Brahmin priestess in a much larger story set in seventeenth-century Goa. The central historical event around which all other events in the novel converge is the inquisitorial persecution of Portuguese Franciscans by Spanish Jesuits and Dominicans. From a Jacobin, feminist perspective, Sydney Owenson produced a string of "national tales," primarily about Ireland but also including India, Greece, and Belgium, which were all characterized by an often wild juxtaposition of genres. Most often her plots were a cross between travel and romance, but her use of both genres reveals that she saw history deeply embedded in ideological systems. This is most dramatically shown in Owenson's exploration of romantic desire and its motivations.

To an extent, Luxima bears kinship with a certain tradition of romantic writing about India that includes conventional celebrations of English Protestantism pitted against both the arcane religions of the East and an obscurantist Roman Catholicism, both rendered in the most predictable and stereotypical terms.42 However, though Nigel Leask is right to suggest that the novel is placed in a classical Orientalist tradition whose heavily overlaid European deism rewrites Hinduism into a familiar monotheistic religion,43 Luxima is more than a derivative work taking its main inspiration from William Jones's idealizations of vedanta, or a tradition of philosophical commentaries on the Hindu religious texts, the Upanishads. In fact, the novel's setting provides the occasion for a devastating critique of the sectarian savagery at the heart of European history.

As a novel of conversion, Luxima begins as a conventional essay on repressive Hindu customs, including the notorious practice of sati, or widow burning. This initial emphasis falls in line with the missiological literature, in which the conversion of native females is presented as a crucial preliminary step to fighting the practice of sati and thereby securing the nation as a whole for the colonizers; for instance, M. Mainwaring's novel, The Suttee; or The Hindoo Converts (1830), falls unambiguously in the progressive "abolition of sati by Christianity" mold.44 But in Luxima, sati is given a new twist, and convention takes off in unexpected directions as the heroine Luxima confronts her choices of either ascending her husband's funeral pyre or becoming a priestess. Her lament that it would have been better to die a sati, since her husband's death now closed off a life of active love for her, does not prevent her from pursuing the goal of a "profession" (in more senses than one, for she chooses to avow not Christianity, as the romance tradition would suggest, but a vocation typically identified with males). Her celebrated status as a Brahmin priestess makes her a desirable target for proselytizing attempts, and she receives (and reciprocates) the attentions of a Franciscan missionary, Hilarion, whose unrestrained passion for her subsequently causes her to be cut off from caste and declared civilly dead.

Owenson refuses to present Luxima's conversion as an inevitable acceptance of Christian tenets, nor even as a natural consequence of romantic attachment. On the contrary, her conversion is staged as the enactment of a doubt that resides stubbornly in the margins of the European religious tradition--a doubt that destabilizes the false certainties of religious absolutes. If Luxima resists the missionary while clinging to an ambiguous conception of Hinduism as "a religion which unites the most indifferent toleration to the most obstinate faith" (L, 105), Hilarion in turn, driven by "objectless longings and fears" (L, 152), admits the failure of his rhetoric and concedes to "an incoherence in her ideas, which was not to be reconciled, or replied to" (L, 108). His own alternating attraction to her physical beauty and repulsion from her idolatry produces a disordered conception of Christian conversion as a form of romantic possession. This troubling compulsion mimes the uncertainty of his convictions and undercuts the complacency of his proselytizing ambitions: "There is no love where there is no cause for solicitude; and the first moment when hope and fear slumber in the perfect consciousness of exclusive and unalienable possession, is perhaps the first moment when the calm of indifference dawns upon the declining ardor of passion" (L, 150).

Luxima has more than historical interest in its complex interweaving of religious identity with issues of free will, agency, subjectivity, and political consciousness. The novel's almost obsessive interest in its heroine's excommunication prevents readers from accepting its narrative line exclusively in terms of a straightforward, overdetermined spiritual movement to Christianity. Whether for purposes of plot development or the requirements of realist fiction, the novel presents the experience of spiritual change as an experience of social disruption, threatening to dislodge the convert as the subject of her own spiritual narrative. Nor is excommunication merely a metaphor for alienation or a metaphysical abstraction, for the social isolation of Christian converts is carefully grounded in an elaborately drawn historical reality. In a deliberately anachronistic gesture, details taken from civil court records and judicial proceedings provide the defining strokes in the features of the novel's excommunicated characters who inhabit an otherwise purely literary landscape.

Hilarion discovers that excommunication--the tyranny of custom and law--is an obstacle to the consummation of love, not only because it severs ties with community and nation but also because it obsessively nourishes a continuing attachment to whatever is forever lost. Excommunication translates as exile in Luxima's psychic imagination, and the divorce from community becomes the loss of an entire nation. Pointing to what Hilarion describes as her "pagan" icons, she cries out, "I have nothing left now but these! nothing to remind me in the land of strangers, of my country and my people, save only these" (L, 203). The language of nationhood defines the religion of one's birth as equivalent to the ties of nature, and Luxima is compelled to ask whether her new faith commands her to break these ties. At every instance, when the missionary believes he is close to claiming Luxima both for himself and for Christ, he finds emblems of her persistent devotion to her former creed:

He felt his enthusiasm in the cause weakened, by the apparent impossibility of its success; for he perceived that the religious prejudices of Hindustan were too intimately connected with the temporal prosperity of its inhabitants, with the established opinions, with the laws, and even with the climate of the country. . . . He almost looked upon the Mission, in which he had engaged, as hopeless; and he felt that the miracle of that conversion, by which he expected to evince the sacred truth of the cause in which he had embarked, could produce no other effect than a general abhorrence already paid the forfeit of all most precious to the human breast, for that partial proselytism to which her affections, rather than her reason, had induced her (L, 217).

What moves the missionary to accept Luxima's lapse into her old practices is his recognition that excommunication is a condition of self-alienation inherent in the nature of all custom and law, producing the psychic disjunctions that void all attempts at positive human relations. Paving the way to his detachment from European norms, Hilarion's own conversion is marked by his recognition that "the rites of excommunication were the same in both religions, equally terrible in their denunciation, and equally inhuman in their results" (L, 248). As victims of mistaken zeal, both Hilarion and Luxima learn to reject the false distinctions introduced by laws and institutions, which produce the human suffering wrongly attributed to the "natural tendencies" of men and women (L, 288).

Recognizing the coercive power of law to create outsiderness in contrast to the tenderness of religious sensibility--a sensibility that, as Hilarion comes to realize, links Luxima's attachment to her Hindu icons with his own devotion to the rosary given him by his dying mother--the missionary is led to a profound consciousness of the bigotry and intolerance of his profession. As the Spanish inquisitors who later hunt him down suspect, his fiery passion has turned into "temperance in doctrine"; his attitude of "languor" and "tolerance" is denounced as being more characteristic of the people he is instructed to convert than of the true Christian spirit of proselytizing zeal (L, 262). In turn, the missionary denounces European culture for making its doctrines part of an oppressive system of control, with little or no connection to the spiritual lives of its practitioners. He inveighs against the hypocrisy of colonialism by reminding his accusers that "we bring them a spiritual creed, which commands them to forget the world, and we take from them temporal possessions, which prove how much we live for it."45 Hilarion is condemned to die on the stake for heresy, a crime that has a double edge in its protest against both religious and colonial authority. By daring to say that faith must be freely chosen rather than authoritatively imposed--that it is "an act of private judgment or of free will, which no human artifice, no human authority, can alter or control" (L, 264)--the missionary rouses sympathetic Indians to perceive the political tyranny under which they labored and mobilize against their oppressors.

But it is the tragic spectacle of seeing their "celebrated and distinguished" priestess condemned to death that fully releases the suppressed anger of colonial Indians against "oppressions they had so long endured," and they rush forward in a frenzied but futile attack on the Spanish forces (L, 311). In the meantime, Luxima, who had been separated from her lover by a bizarre intrigue hatched by Spanish Jesuits, sees the smoke of the piles meant for Hilarion's execution. By this time mentally disoriented herself, she immediately confuses the spectacle of her lover's impending burning at the stake with the self-immolation "that Brahmin women present." The images, presented thus to her disordered mind, produce a strange illusion: "She believed the hour of her sacrifice and triumph was arrived, that she was on the point of being united in heaven to him whom she had alone loved on earth" (L, 312). This hallucinatory blurring of the scene of the missionary's intended execution with the scene of Luxima's own sati has to be read against an earlier exchange where the missionary admonishes her for wishing that she had died a ritual death at the time of her husband's passing. The missionary says to her: "If you have abandoned that religion, the ties it formed are broken, and with them should their memory decay" (L, 141). But memory does not only not decay for Luxima; it becomes the counterweight to the conversion experience. With images of Kamadev (the god of love) adorning her wrist, even as a cross dangled from her neck, so that she alternately resembled "a Christian Magdalene or a penitent Priestess of Brahma" (L, 195), Luxima the exile, doomed to a life of civil death, is the embodiment of a liminality created by her crossing over into another religious space, as she clings to past relics of her earlier, happier life in the community from which she is now cast off. Far from renouncing Hindu customs and turning her back on sati as an archaic practice, Luxima reverts to her former social identity. Her symbolic sati undoes the effects of her conversion to Christianity, and she dies saying, "Now I die as Brahmin women die, a Hindu in my feelings and my faith--dying for him I loved and believing as my fathers have believed" (L, 324).

To modern readers, this uncritical return to traditional practices that have a history of patriarchal oppression behind them is troubling. That Luxima's regression to an earlier mindset is prompted by the novel's rejection of European sectarianism makes the conclusion even more problematic. The novel's temporal and spatial blurring produces repetitions of central events in the lived experience of its characters, as we have just seen with regard to sati. But it does so in other instances too, as when the place of Hilarion's execution is remade into the site of Luxima's excommunication. If the double focus provides the occasion for a penetrating critique of religious absolutism as the source of both colonial and patriarchal oppression ("Man, the minister of error, was then, as now, cruel and unjust, substituting malevolence for mercy, and the horrors of a fanatical superstition for the blessed peace and loving kindness of true religion," L, 304), the critique, however, cannot get beyond the tyrannies of custom, law, and doctrine to point the way to "true religion," which remains undefined and deliberately vague. Owenson's novel is hobbled by its inability to carve out a space where religious sensibility might flourish as a product of the self-creating experience of conversion. Instead, the novel's reaction against sectarian excesses produces a regressive, backward-looking movement into known and familiar (albeit retrograde) practices. And so the novel concludes uneasily by laying itself to rest between these twin poles of coercive practice and doctrine, identified as integral to both western and eastern religions.


As a potentially destabilizing force in culture because of its radical displacements of meaning, conversion is variously employed as a trope in narratives to speculate on the possibilities of national identification, while at the same time allowing for religious difference. The potential ambiguity of tropes of dual affiliations--especially during moments of transition between exclusionary politics and legal emancipation--is often resolved in terms of positing syncretic rather than separatist identities. George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) has as its central character a hybrid figure whose Englishness is dependent for its vitality on a redemptive mark of difference--the protagonist's Jewish origin. Likewise, as Mordecai Cohen remarks in appreciation of the Teutonic-looking Deronda, Jews as a febrile race can only be regenerated by a racial graft from hardy Anglo-Saxon stock. Deronda might well be considered the product of a historical moment when cosmopolitanism is too uncertainly poised between secular and religious definitions to be an appropriate ideal of modernity. Regarding Jewish emancipation, two related questions dominated as points of debate: "Where would Jews, first as individual disputants in discussion and ultimately as a community in agreement, come to draw the line between religious tradition and secular innovation?" and "How would they satisfy both themselves and the gentile majority in reconciling expectations of due conformity with the retention of a dignified distinctiveness?"46

The deliberate adoption of a religion defined as "minority" or "other"--whether it is a matter of becoming Jewish in a largely Christian society, Muslim in a predominantly Hindu society, or Episcopalian in a Greek Orthodox culture--obliges one to ask what is being reclaimed, recovered, or revived by such an act. To answer in terms of the preservation of tradition would be a fairly standard response, especially in contexts of almost certain persecution and savage suppression culminating in total annihilation of religious minorities. Mordecai Cohen in Eliot's novel appropriately evokes tradition to explain why Jews who had converted to Christianity in eras of persecution are returning to the fold several generations hence.

The moral center of the novel is defined by a stirring speech given by Mordecai in which he argues vigorously against cosmopolitanism because it destroys tradition, memory, and race. He delivers this speech even as his more worldly peers argue for a progressive nationalism based on pride of race rather than religion. In response to Pash's assimilationist Judaism and barely disguised Anglophilism (fitting Gladstone's model of the non-professing Jew), Mordecai twists English citizenship into a self-alienating concept designed to turn the Jews into deracinated exiles from Judaism: "Can a fresh-made garment of citizenship weave itself straightway into the flesh and change the slow deposit of eighteen centuries? What is the citizenship of him who walks among a people he has no hearty kindred and fellowship with, and has lost the sense of brotherhood with his own race?"47 The language of alienated insiderness characterizing Mordecai's description of English citizenship is shown as disconnected from the body, defined as the bedrock of racial consciousness ("the slow deposit of eighteen centuries"). Such descriptions depend on the symbols of evolutionary development, which affirm species-and race-consolidation as having a natural logic that secular developments have subverted. Pash's brashly secular posture further provokes Mordecai to expatiate on the self-denying implications of calling oneself "a rational Jew," and he accuses Pash of

los[ing] the heart of the Jew. Community was felt before it was called good. I praise no superstition, I praise the living fountains of enlarging belief. . . . I say that the effect of our separateness will not be completed and have its highest transformation unless our race takes on again the character of a nationality. That is the fulfilment of the religious trust that moulded them into a people, whose life has made half the inspiration of the world.48

Embedded within these lines is a resistance to Jewish emancipation on the grounds of civil relief alone, especially relief offered under the aegis of a secular polity. Almost in confirmation of Gladstone's fear of the "professing Jew," Mordecai insists on going against the grain of his Jewish peers' desire for integration and rather seeks to salvage Jewish belief from the annihilative force of secularizing impulses. It is also significant that Mordecai conceives of nationality not as the convergence of plural identities but as the distinctive expression of a single race. At a time when English legislation was seeking to annul the distinguishing characteristics of racial and religious origins by subsuming all such characteristics within a national identity disembodied from race and religion, Mordecai calls for the preservation of these categories as markers of identity.

Mordecai's message to younger Jews emphasizes the recovery of tradition as a motive for conversion to practicing Judaism. This message, however, does not, illuminate the sources of his defiant assertion that "our race takes on again the character of a nationality." Mordecai proposes an innovative though controversial formulation: not legal principle nor political edict but belief as racial consciousness is the foundation of community. Mordecai's racial pride transforms what might have been a recounting of Jewish victimhood and near-annihilation into a passionate speech on Jewish superiority, extolling the Jewish sense of moral community as the ideal foundation of a nation fast losing its moorings. What we hear in these lines is not a separatist call for ethnic consolidation but a dispassionate statement of Hebraism as the very basis of modern Christianity. This assertion is given the weight of cultural authority by Eliot's contemporary, Matthew Arnold, who in Culture and Anarchy reconstructs English culture as the product of Teutonic and Hebraic elements, though it also has to be noted that Arnold was far less interested than Eliot's character in celebrating Judaism as proto-Christianity.49 Mordecai, on the other hand, was primarily intent on arguing that the real hybridity and pluralism of English culture derives from the grafting of Hebraic belief onto Anglo-Saxon stock. By an extension of the same argument, Mordecai was able to argue that parliamentary relief, on the other hand, produces only a hollow hybridity: its pluralism is not the natural outcome of evolutionary principles but, rather, is contrived, the result of an artificial manipulation of the legislative process.

A new and powerful image of conversion emerges in these passages, which has less to do with retrieving tradition than with bringing about attitudinal changes in England toward its minority populations. Mordecai does not see the offer of citizenship as a panacea to the Jews' rootless existence in England. Rather, the rootlessness is symptomatic of the erosion of moral standards and cultural depth in English life, which no amount of legal measures can obscure. The novel's opening scene of Gwendolyn Harleth at the gambling table is a marvelous tableau of England's desperado plight. Mordecai's transfer of the condition of anomie suffered by Jews onto the English cultural landscape furnishes an altogether different set of meanings that contextualizes Deronda's symbolic conversion to Judaism. Deronda's reclamation of Judaism signifies an intent not merely to strengthen the bonds of a dispersed people. More importantly, he turns to the only community surviving intact in England that remained uncontaminated by the corruptions of a nation drifting aimlessly from its once strong moral center. The broader conversion George Eliot has in mind is intended to lead to a recognition by the Anglican community that England's attenuated moral fiber could only be revitalized by minority groups still strongly imbued with religious feeling. Daniel Deronda's embrace of the spirit of Judaism is the strongest measure of the disintegration of belief in English public life. From being despised minorities whose admission into the nation is a matter of fierce, vitriolic debate, Jews are represented as England's only hope against being consumed by total moral anarchy. In Eliot's idealized account, the restoration of real citizenship rights to Jews is as much an act of conversion of Anglican England to particular conceptions of future relationships with minority populations as it is a political act gesturing toward a nation based on the principle of plurality.50

Herein lies the specific literary contribution to the debates on religious minorities and English citizenship. The creative possibilities of national regeneration offered by what one might describe as attitudinal conversion are played out alongside the moves toward lifting civil disabilities against England's religious minorities. Even as civil emancipation presumes that the distinctions between "majority" and "minority" religious cultures can be leveled by a secular national identity, obviating the need to negotiate their relations in society, attitudinal conversion keeps alive the fact that these negotiations are not yet complete. Literary interventions of the sort made by George Eliot redefined the extension of citizenship rights to non-Anglicans as an opportunity for Anglicans to reconceive their relation not only to previously excluded groups. Daniel Deronda also makes an eloquent plea for a necessary reorientation by Anglicans to the religious traditions that had always remained polarized from the Church of England. Among those for whom such literary revisions had considerable salience were political figures who came to power at these moments of transition. If literature complements history by imaginatively reconstructing moral community from the foundations of political community established by parliamentary measures, it is instructive to examine the careers of major public personalities to ascertain the degree to which they are equally engaged with both modes of creating community, that is, the moral and the political.

No figure of nineteenth-century English politics and letters better exemplifies the complex literary manipulation of conversion's potential for self-imagining in relation to community and nation than Benjamin Disraeli. As a Jew baptized at birth, Disraeli long struggled with the weight of Christian assimilation, but he did not rest content with either acquiescing to or berating the self-denying implications of his father's decision to Christianize him. Rather, having risen to the highest post of prime minister, he used the ascendancy he had gained in English politics to reflect on the reorientation of relations between Christians and Jews in light of civil emancipation. Disraeli's advocacy of Baron Lionel de Rothschild's right to sit in parliament was complemented by novelistic interventions to induce changes in attitude to Jews among his largely Anglican audience. But instead of basing his appeal on grounds of tolerance, Disraeli believed that a reorientation of Christian-Jewish relations would ensue only when the common origins of Christians and Jews were recognized as, paradoxically, the source of England's rich hybridity. He wrote Tancred: Or the New Crusade (1847) originally as a fictional examination of the position of the Church of England, but instead, by describing the protagonist's discovery of moral and religious influences lying beyond the Anglican fold, the novel reveals that it is far more concerned with what Disraeli describes as "the position of the descendants of that race who had been the founders of Christianity," namely, the Jews.51 The novel was published in a year--1847--when the debates in the House of Commons on the Jewish Disabilities Bill pushed Disraeli toward abandoning his customary stance of minimal resistance, if not outright acquiescence, to Anglican priorities; for once, he defied his Conservative allies in order to uphold principle.52 Rothschild's election as a member of parliament representing London was undermined by his refusal to take the parliamentary oath, which required that he swear "on the true faith of a Christian." As a result of his refusal, he was prevented from taking his seat. Rothschild's aborted entry into parliament exposed the lie to the Jews' recent victory in assuming most civil offices, which did not extend, however, to their right to sit in parliament; his case further laid bare the narrow limits within which British citizenship was defined for Jews.

Disraeli based his argument for the admission of Jews to parliament not on the expected liberal grounds of religious liberty and tolerance for diversity, derived from the broad brush strokes of John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, but rather on specific religious grounds. The Jews, Disraeli contended, were the "authors" of the Christian religion, and therefore could not legitimately be excluded by Christians from government. He directly accused the opposition of anti-Semitism and went on to conclude that "as a Christian . . . I will not take upon me the awful responsibility of excluding from the legislature those who are of the religion in the bosom of which my Lord and Saviour was born."53 Thus Disraeli strategically emphasized his own Christianity while simultaneously articulating the breakdown of boundaries between Christianity and Judaism (a theme he explored at length in Tancred).

Disraeli's defense of Rothschild's right as a Jew to sit in parliament exposes the dual life Disraeli lived out himself. Baptized as a child, he was fiercely defensive about his adopted Christian identity as alone enabling him to pursue a parliamentary career at a time when severe civil disabilities were imposed on Jews in England. Yet he spent his adult life recreating the contemporary fictional equivalent of marranos, fifteenth-century Spanish Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity to prevent forfeiture of their property as well as to avoid possible exile, but who often secretly practiced Judaism despite overt profession of Catholic precepts. Disraeli's most memorable character, Sidonia, who first appears in Coningsby (1844), is a Sephardic Jew who pursues the life of a cosmopolitan Englishman while living out another nationalism of sorts in his unwavering commitment to the principles of Judaism. A prototype for George Eliot's Mordecai Cohen, Sidonia is clearly a stand-in for Disraeli. But apart from the autobiographical interest, Sidonia, like Disraeli, is also a transitional figure who is attracted to religious difference but does not celebrate it outright, just as he feels a sense of national loyalty but does not entirely identify with England.

Indeed, Disraeli tranformed what might otherwise appear as ambiguity or hesitation into an attribute of uniqueness. That is to say, the combination of Jewish blood and Christian beliefs made the Sidonias of the world exceptionally qualified to have the necessary critical stance for enlightened citizenship:

[Sidonia] brought to the study of [a] vast aggregate of knowledge a penetrative intellect that, matured by long meditation, and assisted by that absolute freedom from prejudice, which was the compensatory possession of a man without a country, permitted Sidonia to fathom, as it were by intuition, the depth of questions apparently the most difficult and profound . . . independent of creed, independent of country, independent even of character.54

Disraeli gave the marrano figure, such as he was himself, a dynamic capacity for movement in English society, a capacity that derived from the marrano's simultaneous profession of Judaism and Christianity. No doubt, Disraeli's own political rise glorified the myth of the social mobility of Jews in England, and autobiography strongly overdetermined his representation of the successful marrano. The relatively easy maneuverability of the marrano in English society is, in fact, a reminder that Christians and Jews did not have equal access to power. In the figure of the marrano, the question of religious convictions is subordinated to pragmatic considerations of survival and stratagem.

Yet Sidonia is also the fictional product of an idealized English society that Disraeli could only imagine but not inhabit. The supposed tolerance of English religious life gave the fictional Sidonias the opportunity they needed to participate fully in Judaism, and partially in British society. Sidonia is immensely wealthy and powerful but excluded from the political realm, as "his religion walled him out from the pursuits of a citizen."55 During the course of his first meeting with the young English protagonist in Coningsby, Sidonia describes himself with a rhetorical flourish as "but a dreamer of dreams. . . . Action is not for me. I am of that faith that the Apostles professed before they followed their master."56 He further justifies his propensity for imagining rather than acting by referring to England's laws against religious minorities: "Although I have been rash enough to buy several estates, my own opinion is, that, by the existing law of England, an Englishman of Hebrew faith cannot possess the soil."57 Apart from being excluded from the political process, unconverted Jews were debarred for a long time from studying at Oxford and Cambridge. Still, despite his exclusion from British universities, Sidonia's privileged upbringing is made possible by the prodigious wealth of his family.

One of the most impressive scholarly works on Jewish identity and the English novel to appear in recent years is Michael Ragussis's Figures of Conversion. Detailing representations of Jewish identity in English culture not through the familiar inventory of anti-Semitic stereotypes but rather through the rhetoric of conversion, Ragussis offers an absorbing and learned account of how the Evangelical drive to convert the English nation resulted in repressions of Jewish identity through forcible assimilation. Forced conversions triggered off mechanisms of resistance in the Jewish population, even as many English Jews also permitted themselves to be absorbed into the general population.58 Whereas Ragussis's chapters on Scott, Edgeworth, Eliot, and Trollope contain rich material on the literary revision of English conversionist zeal to annex Jewish identity, his chapter on Disraeli stands apart for several reasons. First, it alone gives the Jewish response both to emancipatory legislation and the repression of Jewish identity by Christian conversion (which Ragussis significantly regards as equivalent acts); and second, the chapter allows for a more complex reading of conversion not as an annihilative activity but rather a form of strategic movement in societies with long histories of religious persecution.

Yet without detracting from the undoubted brilliance of Figures of Conversion, I believe that Ragussis, in assigning a normative value to the idea of conversion as (forcible) assimilation, restricts himself to a model of victimization that prevents him from exploring the self-constituting character of conversion. By this I imply an idea of conversion that signifies its use not just for strategic (or instrumentalist) purposes, nor even as a turn toward one's own roots, but rather as the embrace of multiple positions. In other words, conversion offers the possibilities of imagining more than one religious affiliation in the composition of the new Englishman. Disraeli's sustained reflections on his twin connections to Christianity and Judaism indicate how fervently he believed that hybrid identities embodied the imagined future of the modern pluralistic nation. If Disraeli himself was a double convert--having first embraced Christianity, he increasingly turned to Jewish themes in what looked to be a religious conversion--he aimed for a similar double conversion in his contemporary readers, though in reverse order. The Anglo-Saxon born into Christian beliefs is asked to reexamine his relation to the Jews whom he has kept out of the political process, just as he is also urged to reread his own Christianity from an estranged perspective.

Ragussis, on the other hand, while noting Disraeli's complex negotiation of the political culture of his adopted Christian identity, pursues an approach to his Jewish conversion as the reclamation of a suppressed identity. This approach recasts Disraeli as a nativist claiming Jewish identity as the basis also of Christian England's. To be sure, this argument is not entirely without merit, for there is sufficient evidence of ethnocentric pride in Disraeli. The Young England trilogy is replete with claims such as the one expressed by Sidonia, who declares in Coningsby that "the Hebrew child has entered adolescence only to learn that he was the Pariah of that ungrateful Europe that owes to him the best part of its laws, a fine portion of its literature, all its religion."59

Yet Ragussis's argument stops short of acknowledging Disraeli as one of the earliest and most important political figures who gave to conversion the function of scrambling the accepted categories of English nationalist politics, while simultaneously reconceiving the concept of citizenship in relation to the various possibilities generated by conversion. Indeed, wherever the word "conversion" appears in the context of Disraeli's writings, one is not entirely sure whether it means the adoption of Christianity or the return to Judaism. And that is precisely the point of a character like Sidonia, whose total immersion in the worldliness of English politics and commerce makes his expatiation on Jewish themes seem almost extraneous to his political insights and outside the main concerns of the novel. At times these discussions are so long-winded that Ragussis concludes they must serve as an oblique sign of Sidonia's actual disempowerment in English society.60

However, Sidonia's lengthy discourses on Jewish history are also the means by which he keeps his multiple affiliations alive. His wide-ranging conversations with young Coningsby are a reminder to his audience that he occupies more than one space in the circumscribed world of Anglican England. His is an ongoing conversion to the material and spiritual dimensions of identity, which shapes the outlines of the desired pluralism that would eventually give Jews a place in the English political process. That Disraeli does not believe civil relief can achieve real emancipation for Jews is apparent in his depiction of a restless, probing, and ceaselessly striving Sidonia, who continues to explore his location in English society as if legal emancipation had not occurred at all. Sidonia's dwelling on Judaism is less a form of nativist nostalgia or recuperation of tradition than a means by which he unravels the contradictions of a nation moving toward pluralism even as it presumes to be homogeneously composed.

Disraeli's subtle meditation on religious identity in changing political societies suggests another dimension of conversion that is not limited to its function in cultural criticism. Because conversion's alliance with cultural criticism is so apparent, especially when accepted as an activity rather than a state of mind, there is an obvious temptation to read conversion in general as originating in motives of critique. Undoubtedly, change of religion is not merely an oppositional activity, though it may begin as such. Furthermore, conversion expresses an altered consciousness deriving from the construction of norms within culture. This is a central point in William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, as it is indeed in a great deal of writing about religious experience. For James the experience of awakened religious consciousness validates the believing self. Its significance for cultural development lies in the fact that the culture in which conversion occurs lends its own structural features to the content of religious experience. In turn, the heightened religious subjectivity makes visible the range of meanings embedded in cultural forms.

But the more interesting question is whether or not there is an internal critique of those norms even as they are being assimilated in the sudden "turning" signified by conversion experiences. In other words, regardless of whether conversion is an assimilative or an oppositional gesture, the specific circumstances, historical context, and political climate in which conversion occurs might suggest a more complicated trajectory. In somewhat paradoxical fashion, assimilation may be accompanied by critique of the very culture with which religious affiliation is sought. Equally, dissent may aim at reforming and rejuvenating the culture from which the convert has detached herself.

These are considerations that have as forceful an impact on colonial conversions as on the conversions occurring in England during and after legal emancipation of non-Anglicans. And if, as I have been suggesting, religious minorities in England often shared the position of colonial subjects, the strategies deployed by such figures as Disraeli to find a place for Jews in Anglican England--a place not circumscribed by legal edict--bear comparison with the strategies developed by colonial converts to create an alternative community to that provided by custom and law. Again, the key factor lies in the multiple affiliations opened up by conversion--the possibilities of occupying several positions in relation to both nation and religion. The blurring between the objects to which the convert assimilates and those he (or she) challenges--with a free crossover between assent and dissent--is precisely the source of the power of conversion. Thus, assimilation and dissent often crisscross with motives not immediately attached to their apparent function in conversion. The result is that converts may be engaged just as readily in a critique of their adopted culture and religion as in a project to reform the culture that they have renounced. In either case, conversion's instrumental significance cannot be denied, nor can its dynamic engagement with either or both cultures with which the convert is affiliated.

To my mind, the colonial figure who perfectly illustrates this last point is Narayan Viman Tilak, a Maharashtrian Brahmin convert to Christianity in late nineteenth-century western India. Although he assimilated norms of Christian belief and conduct, Tilak also sought to indigenize Christianity and make it compatible with Hinduism. His syncretic project contained an implicit critique of the alienating effects of British colonialism. Though his conversion may have suggested a rejection of Hinduism in favor of the colonizer's religion, his subsequent use of Christianity to enunciate an anticolonial vision of Indian nationalism was far more damaging to British imperialist ambitions than if he were to have remained a Hindu.

A major nationalist figure in the renaissance of Marathi literature, Tilak devoted his creative energies to articulating possible modes of relating to a revitalized India, and (paradoxically it would seem at first glance) conversion to Christianity appeared to him to be the most effective way of expressing that relation. Tilak conceived of Christianity as embodying a necessary vision of the future, with the power to purge Hinduism of its most hated caste features, yet at the same time adapted to India as a truly indigenous religion in its own right. The English missionary J. C. Winslow claimed that Tilak had confided to him that he was the founder of a new religion, and indeed Tilak's writings suggest that he had distanced himself equally from traditional forms of both Hinduism and Christianity.61 Convinced that India's political enslavement was matched only by its own moral degradation through a coercive caste system enshrined in Hinduism, Tilak, like many other Christian converts, grew firmer in the belief that only a religious awakening would enable India to embark on a new era of reform and advancement.

But at the same time, Tilak wanted Indian Christians to be more truly Indian, claiming that the British missionary project had denationalized Christianity and made the West the exclusive reference point of Indian Christianity. In one of his poems he denounced the paternalistic attitude of missionaries in scathing terms: "We dance as puppets while you hold the strings;/How long shall this buffoonery endure?"62 Tilak undertook to teach Marathi Christians to study older Marathi literature, especially the devotional poetry of Jnaneshwar, Namadev, and Tukaram. He insisted that he came to Jesus Christ "over the bridge of Tukaram's verse"63 and continued to make it his goal to adapt Indian Christianity to the spirit of Indian cultural forms such as the bhajan, or Hindu devotional hymn. Interestingly, though deriving its force from the reformist impulse to which his Christian conversion gave him access, Tilak's nationalism was the means by which he also sought reconciliation with the former Brahmin community from which he had been excommunicated. His poetry is a combination of religious fervor, patriotic zeal, and antisectarian feeling; like his nationalism, his verse is conceived as much in a spirit of rapprochement as of critique:

Thrice blessed is thy womb, my Motherland,
Whence mighty rishis, saints, and sages spring!
A Christian I, yet here none taunteth me,
Nor buffeteth with angry questioning.
I meet and greet them, and with love embrace:
None saith, "Thou dost pollute us by thy sin!"
My Guru they delight to venerate; they say,
"He is our brother and our kin."64

Tilak's syncretic ambition was shared by converts from other regions of India, who also sought through conversion to recover a "national religion" that eliminated rather than preserved difference. The attempt to create a hybrid entity like "Hindu Christianity" was a keenly felt aspect of this synthesizing project. As the Bengali historian M. M. Ali has argued, the earliest symptoms of nationalist stirrings in Bengal, far from being a return to Hinduism and a revival of classical Sanskrit texts, were the setting up of Hindu Christian churches, which defiantly attempted to indigenize the Christianity introduced by English missionaries.65 This observation implicitly endorses Robin Horton's widely discussed thesis that African conversions were not so much a tribute to missionary success as expressions of African nationalism, through which the colonial ruler's religion was given a strong indigenist bent.66 In Horton's reading, conversion is a sign of acceptance of modernity, not of capitulation to colonial power, and the setting up of African churches introduced an Africanist discourse that not only indigenized Christianity but also brought what Horton calls a local-centered, "microcosmic" thinking in contact with ideas of nations and territories.

Horton's neat dichotomy between local and national community reproduces a premodern/modern split, which has inevitably come under attack by other critics, most notably by Terence Ranger, who argues that premodern African religions were never uniquely microcosmic but bridged ethnic and territorial boundaries.67 But despite these reservations, Horton's thesis still has a certain usefulness in understanding Christian conversions in colonial societies as signifying responses to internal changes that were already under way, and as a form of domesticating (and to some extent neutralizing) alien religious and cultural beliefs. In post-Independence India, for instance, interfaith dialogue has merged into a much more eclectic practice of Christianity and spawned varieties of indigenous expression, such as "Bhakti Theology."68


The trajectory of this book brings together English nationalist ideology and colonial conversions within the same frame of discussion and asks in each chapter: if nationalist ideology in nineteenth-century England is questioned by conversion as a mode of asserting difference within a broad range of possible national identifications, what implications do the metropolitan challenges to this ideology have for the function, role, and significance of colonial conversions? Just as pressingly, how does the nature of colonial conversions redefine the shape, form, and object of metropolitan dissent? Turning back again to English dissent as counterpoint, can colonial conversions be regarded primarily as a natural fulfillment of missionary ambitions and a form of cultural assimilation to the English imperialist agenda? What specific relation might there be, for instance, between the English Tractarians' antistate appeal for the recovery of a pre-Reformation religious authority, symbolizing a unified culture, and the motive-force of colonial conversions? What ideas of "the nation" emerge from these conversions that suggest a larger connection with metropolitan realignments between state, religion, culture, and empire?

Clearly, to ask these questions is to shift the focus of conversion away from a discourse dominated and controlled by missionaries, who are invested with the sole agency to effect religious transformations. A missionary-centered focus prevails overwhelmingly in the existing anthropological and historical literature on conversion, which is primarily concerned with how conversions take place, whether or not they are successful, and what further kinds of changes are triggered in the culture by way of a chain reaction from the original "transformation."69 The unidirectional flow of activity suggested by this model contradicts what is, after all, an exchange. Conceivably, a subject-centered discourse would do far greater justice to the transactions between missionaries and converts. If catechism is the ecclesiastical form of religious inculcation, dialogism would be its equivalent in literary terms. Indeed, some of the most penetrating analyses of colonial discourse have been missionary-native interactions, such as in studies by Homi Bhabha, Richard Fox Young, and Vicente Rafael.70 Significantly, all three are studies of missionary failure, or at least of the frustration of missionary objectives, and whether one turns to colonial ambivalence (Bhabha) or apologetics and caste power (Young) or the subversive effects of translation (Rafael), there is sufficient evidence to locate the failure in the nature of multivocal discourse itself.

It will also be apparent that asking questions about English nationalist ideology and colonial conversions independently of each other is an incomplete exercise. Although we must begin somewhere in reconstructing cultural history, just as we must end somewhere as well, to assume that there is a fixed place of origin and an equally finite destination is to presuppose that both can be safely encompassed by the same frame of reference--a frame whose boundaries depend on unifying concepts of nation, religion, culture, and the like. The back-and-forth nature of the questions I enumerated earlier shows how difficult it is to confine our search for explanations and effects to one place or one time. The fact that significant trends in English culture and society, such as the moves toward disempowering ecclesiastical authority and secularizing civil society, are more than the product of internal developments points to a much more diffuse and therefore less manageable concept of history. England's involvement with the world beyond its own borders cannot be excluded from this history.

Indeed, the indeterminacy of culture's trajectory is a function of the criss-crossing of motive, intention, condition, and effect in different cultural spaces. As soon as one set of questions about cultural formation is raised in the English metropolitan context, it provokes a related set in the colonial context, and back again in an indefinite chain sequence. The apparent unendingness and borderlessness of cultural developments describe the very process of history, whose fluidity, untidiness, and overlapping quality belie the ordering principles of national hagiography.

However, when English culture is narrowly viewed as self-generated, one specific outcome is that cultural identity as a value takes precedence over the historical discontinuities and asymetrical developments from which it emerged.71 In this chapter I have sought to restore these discontinuities to a writing of the history of secularization, and have focused on the figure of the convert as dramatically making visible--by catalyzing into a state of almost subversive clarity--these disparate, heterogeneous formations. If the convert as religious dissenter shares unmistakable features with the convert as colonial subject, that point of contact initiates and sustains a scholarly reconstruction of the order of governance produced during the realignments between ecclesiastical and secular spheres. That the most subtle and unexpectedly productive challenges to this new order came from converts suggests conversion has a much more dynamic and creative meaning than is captured by the phrase "the conversion experience," which signifies spiritual self-transformation primarily rather than a knowledge-producing activity.

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File created: 8/7/2007

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