Can You Be Born Again Without ‘Feeling’ It?

Like Francis Wayland, some of us may doubt our religious conversion experience.

Evangelicalism has always emphasized the necessity of personal conversion through a born-again experience in which the Holy Spirit supernaturally changes a person’s heart.

From the 18th century to the present, many evangelical churches have required a personal testimony of conversion as a prerequisite for church membership. And most of the time, this involves a personal experience of divine transformation.

But what happens if someone doesn’t have this kind of transformative experience? What if a person believes not because of any perceived religious encounter but simply because of a reasoned conviction about the truth of God’s declarations? Are such individuals really saved? And even if so, can they still consider themselves evangelical Christians?

This was the dilemma faced by Francis Wayland (1796–1865), an ordained Baptist minister and early 19th-century president of Brown University. He never had what he considered to be a born-again experience—and for the president of a leading Baptist college in the 1800s, that was a problem.

I briefly encountered Wayland in my study of early 19th-century American antislavery activism, but I only recently realized that this opponent of slavery and professor of “Christian evidences” also struggled with assurance of his salvation because of lacking what he considered an authentic born-again experience.

For much of his early life, Wayland believed such an experience was required to become a Christian. After all, he had grown up steeped in the evangelical theology of Jonathan Edwards in a Calvinist Baptist home. He believed true conversion required a supernaturally wrought change of one’s affections and will. And like …

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