Occasionally, certain devout believers have even pushed this power of the written Word of God and inspired Scripture to the point of attributing their conversion directly to it.
The classic example of this is St Augustine, who describes how he was finally converted when he opened the Bible and happened to read: “Let us behave with decency as befits the day: no drunken orgies, no debauchery or vice, no quarrels or jealousies!”. Pelikan also points to the work of the British and Foreign Bible Society and the Gideons in distributing Bibles, at least partly for the purpose of bringing people to faith through reading the printed Word.
However, as Pelikan continues:
…if we probe the historical evidence, we will often find a human voice hovering somewhere in the vicinity of the written or printed page.
Hence Augustine was prompted to pick up the Scriptures by hearing a child’s voice calling out, “Pick it up and read it!”, and:
…the Bibles and tracts of the Bible societies were often distributed by the hand of a living and speaking human being, not just by mail or in a tract rack.
And as Pelikan points out:
No book of the Tanakh [i.e. the Old Testament] or the New Testament is addressed explicitly to unbelievers, though they are certainly present prominently in both.
…for every paragraph in a letter or every chapter in a spiritual autobiography detailing someone’s conversion through reading the Book, there are hundreds in which it is the voice of a parent, friend or stranger – perhaps sometimes even a teacher or preacher – that was the force which did the challenging and summoning and inviting.
The message that voice conveyed was, with or without quotation marks, the message of the Book, or at any rate it almost always claimed to be just that. And the bearer of the message had usually read the Book or had even memorised large portions of it. But the agency issuing the invitation and distributing the Book was not a library or a classroom but a community of faith and of worship.
So the words of St Paul continue to hold true as the general rule: “faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17).
It often strikes me that most accounts of conversions through the written Word alone, as with most accounts of conversions by “direct” means supposedly without the Word’s involvement (e.g. accounts of visions), come down to how the people frame and interpret and describe their own experiences. Those who experience conversions of this nature will almost always have had some prior contact with the proclaimed Word and the community of faith, even if the individual’s account of their conversion focuses on those aspects that took place apart from that Word and community.
That’s not at all to dismiss people’s experiences; just to say that people may have “had the experience but missed [or mistaken] the meaning”.