Several years ago, during an interview I was conducting with him on church-state relations, an adviser to a provincial governor in Siberia asked me suspiciously if I believed in "proselitizm." I replied that I not only believed in it but actually practiced it, having sponsored several American converts to Orthodox Christianity from Protestantism or Roman Catholicism. From his surprise at my admitting I was a proselytizer, it was clear that he had never before heard the word used except as a term of abuse.
The word "proselytism," which derives from the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, is now used more often in more languages than ever before in its history. Its connotation is almost always negative, even sinister. One cannot imagine a missionary organization today describing its own activities as "proselytism," though the original meaning of the term "proselyte" was positive. In the Septuagint and the New Testament it referred to Gentile converts to Judaism, such as those who were among the witnesses to the miracle at Pentecost (Acts 2:11). According to Acts 6:5 a certain "Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch," became one the Church's first deacons; he thus presumably converted twice, first from paganism to Judaism and then from Judaism to Christianity. (If he were our contemporary, would he be considered a double victim of religious fanaticism?)
We live in an age of persuasion, in which we are bombarded by political and commercial messages designed to change our thoughts and actions, but the unfavorable term "proselytism" is reserved for specifically religious persuaders. Phrases such as "feminist proselytism" or "environmentalist proselytism" are unknown; it is considered natural, even laudable, for adherents of those secular belief systems to seek converts all over the world, even in cultures where their beliefs are profoundly alien.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the term had broader application. In 1790 Edmund Burke applied it to the anti-Christian philosophes of the French Enlightenment, who he said "were possessed with a spirit of proselytism in the most fanatical degree." The 1828 edition of Webster's dictionary defined "proselytism" as "the making of converts to a religion or religious sect, or to any opinion, system, or party." The high-church Anglican Edward Pusey expressed regret in 1842 that "any exhibition of ourselves as a proselytizing Church would unsettle many of our own children."
Today's Christian missionaries often contrast "proselytism" with "evangelism"; the former is what they accuse rival denominations of doing, while the latter is what they claim to do themselves. Surprisingly, there is no rigorous distinction between the two terms in canon law or in theological dictionaries--or for that matter in legal dictionaries. The Greek Constitution, for example, has outlawed "proselytism" since 1911 without ever defining it. The term is sometimes used to denounce Christian "sheep stealers" who seek converts among...