When was the last time you heard about the religious conversion of an entire nation? A region? A city? A neighborhood? A family? In reading contemporary missionary literature, one does occasionally come across the conversion of whole families, and even more rarely, of entire clans. But these conversions take place in cultures deemed to be “primitive”, offering little hope to us in the “developed” world.
The fact is that Christendom was built on the conversion of groups, not individuals. And these conversions flowed hierarchically from the top of society to the bottom, not democratically as a “grass roots” movement.
In the most recent issue of the Saint Austin Review (if you are not already a subscriber, I hope you’ll rectify the situation and subscribe immediately), dedicated to “Religion and Politics”, you will find the following gem by the renowned historian Christopher Dawson:
The great missionary expansion of the nineteenth century was based on the principle of individual conversion … There is a fundamental contrast between this approach and the collective or communal form of expression which had dominated the Christian world for upwards of a thousand years. Western Christendom was not built up by the method of individual conversions. It was a way of life which the people accepted as a whole, often by the decision of their rulers, and which when accepted affected the whole life of society by the change of their institutions and laws …
Moreover it may well be claimed that the missionary Churches of the Dark Ages produced a richer harvest even in the sphere of culture than anything that the modern missionary movement can show. There is little in the new non-occidental Christianity that can be compared with Bede and Boniface, with the religious art of Northumbria or with the new vernacular Christian literature. For in the case of Anglo-Saxon England, the mass conversion of the people meant the rebirth of culture …
In the modern world there will continue to be individual conversions, and for these we can thank God. But there will be no conversion of our own nation, and certainly no revival of Christendom, apart from two essential things now universally disfavored: 1) an hierarchical society with respect and veneration for authority; 2) a strong, communal identity as a people. History shows us clearly how the twin evils of egalitarianism and individualism, embraced by both left and right in the current socio-political milieu, conspire against any hope for conversion on a communal level.
But perhaps it’s not really as hopeless as all that. There are still units of society, albeit small ones, that are potentially vehicles for the conversion of many. The most obvious unit is that of the family. The conversion of a family’s head, if it be a strong family, might be sufficient for the conversion of the unit as a whole and also for generations to come. The same might be true of any small to medium sized organization, if it operates in the old familial and patriarchal fashion, with an internal culture so pervasive that its members absorb the Faith almost by osmosis. That being the case, we can see how today's effeminate, unchallenging, non-threatening, emotion-soaked evangelism fails to reach those who exert the greatest social influence, starting with the men who lead families.
Only in these small units, where respect for hierarchy and authority and communal identity have not been altogether extinguished, does the possibility exist today of conversion en masse. Our task, in the interim, is to revive these prerequisites in a manner that is practical and harmonious with existing circumstances, neither accepting the lies of modernity nor denying the reality it has imposed upon us.