Back in London, Equiano began to reflect on his near brush with death and on the necessity of acknowledging the grace of God. He left the service of Dr. Irving and spent a great deal of time thinking about the salvation of the soul and how he might become a better Christian. He wandered around various churches, from Quaker to Roman Catholic to Jewish temples, but he still felt ill at ease, as he failed to get a satisfactory answer from anyone about how to gain eternal life. He saw no one around him who kept all the ten commandments, and he felt that the Turks were in fact much more righteous than those calling themselves Christian; he decided to return to Turkey.
Equiano’s introduction to Christianity was originally linked to his difficult and painful attempts to establish a new life and gain new meaning for himself in a strange, foreign landscape. Now, though, he finally begins to grapple at length with many of the questions that have arisen more implicitly throughout the narrative, including the hypocrisy between Christians’ apparent beliefs and their actions towards other people.
In early 1774, Equiano found a captain bound for Smyrna and he recommended a black man, John Annis, to join on as cook. Annis had formerly been a servant of a man named Mr. Kirkpatrick who lived in St. Kitt’s. Though Annis left Kirkpatrick’s plantation with his agreement, at one point on the way to Smyrna the former master learned that Annis was on board and took him away by force. Equiano tried to regain his friend’s liberty, but failed: he later learned that when Annis arrived at St. Kitt’s, he was whipped brutally and put into irons.
This is another example of the ways in which being a free person is often not enough if one is black, as well. Equiano does have more power than slaves, for instance, but it is frustrating to him how little power he does have to assist a friend in a time of need, given the established legal inequalities between the races.
Equiano was suffering himself during this time, worrying about his own sins. His only comfort was reading the Bible, especially the verse that reads “there is no new thing under the sun.” But he began to blaspheme again and he continued to wish for death, though instead he received terrifying visions at night. He prayed to be introduced to any holy person who might show him the light. One day, as he was wandering through Smyrna, he was directed to a house occupied by an old former sailor. This man was confident in God’s love, and Equiano eagerly began to question him. The man gave Equiano some things to read, and invited him to his chapel that evening for a feast.
Although Equiano profoundly desires to remain a Christian and to find a way to repent for his sins on earth, he begins to feel as though death is the only means of escape from such torture (even though he believes that he may well be destined for hell after death). It is perhaps fitting that it is in a non-Western place (Turkey) that Equiano embarks on an intentional spiritual journey (rather than in England, where spiritual hypocrisy is so evident to him).
That evening, Equiano was surprised to see many ministers but no eating and drinking. Some speakers began to relate their experiences of God’s providence and mercy. Amazed and admiring, Equiano desired to be as content and grateful as them; he’d never seen this kind of Christian fellowship, which ended with a simple meal together.
Equiano had been impressed by the majesty of the Christian churches in England, but now, concerned with what he sees as misguided values, he is cheered to see that it is not necessarily Christianity that’s at fault. This passage shows that Christianity can look quite different than its English incarnations.
Equiano returned home and was newly shocked to hear God’s name taken in vain so often at his lodgings. He vowed to put an end to playing cards and indulging in empty joking and swearing. He returned to see his new acquaintance Mr. C— the next day, and received from him a book called “The Conversion of an Indian.” He found it fascinating and continued to study and learn for two months.
Surrounded by people who may be nominal Christians, but who don’t seem worried about the fate of their soul, Equiano decides that part of his cultivation of self will involve surrounding himself with other kinds of people, people whose priorities are more aligned with his own.
Then Equiano heard of a man who died fully assured of going to heaven. Equiano asked how, and learned that if he didn’t experience rebirth and forgiveness of sins before he died, he wouldn’t enter heaven. Equiano was concerned, especially because he knew he only kept eight out of ten commandments, but a clerk in the chapel told him that only Christ could keep all the commandments: the sins of the chosen were already atoned for and forgiven during their life, and only by experiencing this could Equiano be saved. Equiano was upset and confused to hear that the clerk claimed that he too was certain of reaching heaven. Equiano didn’t know whether to keep believing in salvation by works or faith only, but he couldn’t figure out how one could know his sins were forgiven in life. At the chapel, Equiano spoke with a reverend who recommended that Equiano simply continue to read the scriptures, go to church, and pray to God.
Much of Equiano’s concerns regarding religion and spirituality are worries about the next life—whether Equiano, who has suffered so much on earth, could possibly know if he will have to suffer again or not after he dies. Equiano also struggles to understand the meaning of Christian commandments given the belief in both human frailty and predestination. If humans cannot possibly keep all the commandments, and if they are either chosen or barred from heaven from the time of their birth, what difference does it make to be holy and act righteously? Neither Equiano nor this reverend seems to have an answer.
Equiano was hired again for a ship to Cadiz in Spain, and was upset to hear God’s name often taken in vain. He also struggled to understand how he couldn’t be saved by good works: he was seized by confusion and wanted to die. Indeed, he nearly once threw himself off the ship, but he remembered the Bible’s injunction against suicide. Then he decided he’d rather beg on land than spend time with such men at sea, but the captain refused to discharge him. He did get many chances to read the scriptures on the way.
Equiano had embraced the idea of doing good works as a means to secure salvation, but now he is grappling with the thought that if he is destined to go to hell (or to heaven), it may not matter how he acts on earth. The fact that the Bible on which he so relies also bars him from suicide, the most drastic means of ending his struggles, seems to trap him.
One evening, while reading the Bible, Equiano began to think that he had indeed lived a good life, but still wondered whether this was enough to reach salvation. Suddenly, the light of God broke in on him and Equiano saw a vision of Jesus crucified on the cross, bearing the sins of all. He recognized that he was born again, and sensed the sweetness of the word of God. He recognized that God’s hand had invisibly guided and protected him, even at his darkest moments. He instantly stopped fearing death and hell, but wept at the thought that God would save a sinner like him.
Throughout his struggle with faith, Equiano has seemed to assume that he could reason his way into the truth. This conversion scene—part of a broader genre of narratives of sin and conversion at the time—changes the logic entirely: rational arguments no longer seem to matter as they’re replaced by a vivid, multisensory experience that sweeps away all Equiano’s prior concerns.
On the ship, few people believed Equiano’s story, and he longed to be in London among more like-minded people. His only comfort was the Bible: in these pages of the narrative Equiano cites a number of Bible verses to help explain his state and situation. The ship returned to London a month afterwards.
Although Equiano feels that his life has changed irrevocably, that his very self has been altered, he’s still trapped in an environment where he feels misunderstood.
Equiano was still puzzled about a certain Bible verse, so he went to see a famous reverend preach at Blackfriars church, where he happened to be preaching on that very text: Equiano left reassured about the difference between human works and the elect, that the latter was entirely up to God’s will. He returned to the chapel, where his friends were delighted at the change in him. Here Equiano transcribes a poem about his conversion: it begins with the dangers of his youth, his enslavement, and his desires for death. The poem recounts his dejection and despair as he wandered over the seas, and finally the moment of light when he felt spiritually reborn.
Equiano still thinks about faith and good works, but this intellectual question fails to touch his newfound contentment and feelings of faith and rebirth. His spiritual epiphany allows him to understand his entire life as a trajectory from darkness into light; this trajectory is not just one of knowledge, education, or wealth, but also of the identity as a Christian that he now feels he was always working towards.