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DENOMINATIONALISM . Denominationalism is one of the least understood aspects of Protestantism. In both popular usage and dictionary definition, denominationalism is commonly equated with sectarianism. This is a strange reversal in meaning, for in origin and intention the concept of denominationalism was the opposite of sectarianism.

The fact that few Protestants take offense when their church is called a denomination is evidence of a lingering awareness that the term has a positive connotation quite different from the negative implication of sectarianism. A sect by definition is exclusive. It claims the authority of Christ for itself alone, whereas the word denomination was adopted as a neutral and nonjudgmental term that implied that the group referred to was but one member, denominated by a particular name, of a larger group to which other Protestant denominations belonged. It was an inclusive term conveying the notion of mutual respect and recognition. Albert Barnes, minister of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia (18301867), summarized the meaning of denominationalism when he said that the spirit it fostered

is opposed to all bigotry and uncharitableness; to all attempts to "unchurch" others; to teaching that they worship in conventicles, that they are dissenters, or that they are left to the uncovenanted mercies of God. The Church of Christ is not under the Episcopal form, or the Baptist, the Methodist, the Presbyterian, or the Congregational form exclusively; all are, to all intents and purposes, to be recognized as parts of the one holy catholic Church.

Denominationalism, in origin, was related to religious toleration and religious freedom. The latter were political and constitutional responses to religious diversity and were designed to enable a religiously diverse people to live together in peace. Denominationalism, on the other hand, was a response to problems created by the division of adherents of a single religious tradition into separate and competing ecclesiastical bodies. They shared a common faith but were divided by issues of church government and worship. Denominationalism took toleration and, later, religious freedom for granted, accepted arguments put forward in their defense, and then moved beyond the goal of peace among competing groups to a quest for unity in the midst of the acknowledged differences of those who shared a common faith. To this end, both an ideology and a system of relationships were devised that would permit members of the several Protestant denominations to acknowledge the unity that transcended their divisions and thus encourage them to maintain friendly coexistence and to engage in concerted action to promote shared concerns and forward common ends. It is interesting that a similar ideology and rationale for mutual respect and cooperative activity, utilizing the equally neutral term sector for denomination, was adopted by Jacob Neusner, noted professor of Judaic studies at Brown University, to explicate the unity that exists within a divided Judaism. (See his Sectors of American Judaism, 1975, pp. 259277.)

Denomination as a nonjudgmental term in Protestantism was brought into vogue in the eighteenth century by leaders of the Evangelical Revival in Great Britain and of the parallel Great Awakening in North America. John Wesley was representative of British leadership when he declared: "I refuse to be distinguished from other men by any but the common principles of Christianity. I renounce and detest all other marks of distinction. But from real Christians, of whatever denomination, I earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all. Dost thou love and fear God? It is enough! I give thee the right hand of fellowship." Gilbert Tennant, based in New Jersey but itinerating throughout the colonies, was even more precise in defining what the word implied: "All societies who profess Christianity and retain the fundamental principles thereof, notwithstanding their different denominations and diversity of sentiments in smaller things, are in reality but one Church of Christ, but several branches (more or less pure in minuter points) of one visible kingdom of the Messiah."

Although the revivalists made current coin of the term, it had been used as early as 1688 by Samuel Willard, minister of Old South Church in Boston, in a lecture later published as part of his Compleat Body of Divinity, in which he commented: "Through our knowing but in part, it is come to pass that professors of Christianity have been of diverse opinions in many things and their difference hath occasioned several denominations, but while they agree in the foundation they may be saved." Moreover, the denominational concept was implicit in the participation of Increase and Cotton Mather in 1717 in the ordination of a Baptist minister. And it was equally implicit at about the same time in the acceptance by Harvard College of funds from Thomas Hollis, a Baptist, for the endowment of a professorship of divinity and for a scholarship fund that would be available to Baptist as well as to other ministerial students. Such incipient manifestations of a irenic denominational temper were precipitated by policies of James II and then by the perceived consequences of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Act of Toleration of 1689. Still, the creative moment in forging the concept of denominationalism antedated the crisis of the years following 16881689 by almost half a century.

Seventeenth-Century Origin

Usually a movement or a theology is born before it is named. This was true of denominationalism. The denominational understanding of the church had been hammered out by non-Separatist Puritan preachers prior to and during the sessions of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, a body of clergymen summoned in 1643 during the English Civil War to advise the "Long Parliament" in the shaping of a religious settlement. The problem that stymied the Parliament and the Westminster Assembly was the splintering and fragmenting of a triumphant Puritanism. Puritans of several hues had united to bring down rule by "lordly prelates" in the church, but, having done this, they were unable to agree on an alternate policy. A solution to this problem was proposed by non-Separatist Independents (Anglicans of a congregational persuasion) both within and outside the assembly. Those who were members of the Westminster Assembly were called the Dissenting Brethren.

The non-Separatist Independents were indebted to the Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century for their basic insights. They recalled repeated cautions against sanctifying churchly forms. The true church, the reformers had insisted, is not an institution, although it finds institutional expression in the world. Calvin was more confident than Luther that external ecclesiastical arrangements could be deduced from the Bible; still, he had a word of caution for those "who are not satisfied unless the church can always be pointed out with the finger." This, he said in the preface to the Institutes, cannot be done in any final sense. The whole question of the boundaries of the church must be left to God, "since he alone 'knoweth them that are his.'" The reformers acted upon this insight only to a limited degree, but they did recognize as true churches, more or less adequate in external form, those possessing an essentially common faith, whether they were Lutheran churches as in various political units of Germany and Scandinavia, Reformed churches as in other political divisions of Europe, or an Anglican church as in England. The new element introduced in mid-seventeenth-century England was the application of this understanding to a situation where divisions were within a geographical area rather than between geographical areas.

As the fragmentation of Puritanism increased after 1640, the moderates associated with the Dissenting Brethren became increasingly aware of "the danger of rending and dividing the godly Protestant party" at its moment of triumph when there was "an absolute necessity of their nearest union." Not only did divisions threaten the achievement of reforms desired by all the godly, they constituted a denial of the spirit of Christianity itself. "We are wrangling, devising, plotting, working against one another," said Jeremiah Burroughes, their most eloquent spokesman in the Assembly, whereas "love and unity are Christ's badge." It was an unhappy fact that "we are divided notwithstanding we are all convinced of the evil of our divisions." The problem was to find a way to peace and unity when Christians did not all agree. "If we stay for peace and love till we come to the unity of faith in all things," Burroughes confessed, "we must stay for ought I know till we come to another world."

With this dilemma in mind, seventeenth-century Independents elaborated a series of principles as a basis on which Christians could be united notwithstanding their differences.

First, so long as people live "in this muddy world" and "deceitfulness" lurks within the human heart, it is inevitable that there shall be differences of opinion even among the godly.

Second, even when differing convictions do not involve fundamentals, they cannot be lightly regarded. Those who fear God must first be persuaded themselves before they can accept the judgment of others.

Third, differences must be approached with humility and a degree of tentativeness. No one put this more vividly than Thomas Hooker of Connecticut, as his contribution to the ongoing discussion in England. "The sum is, we doubt not what we practice, but it's beyond all doubt that all men are liars and we are in the number of those poor feeble men; either we do or may err, though we do not know it; what we have learned we do profess and yet profess still to live that we may learn."

Fourth, as a corollary to human fallibility, Burroughes contended that "God hath a hand in these divisions to bring forth further light. Sparks are beaten out by the flints striking together." How can people know that they are right, asked another, until they "by discussing, praying, reading, meditating, find that out?"

Fifth, "though our differences are sad enough," they do not make us of "different religions." While "godly people are divided in their opinions and ways they are united in Christ." Nor does the mere fact of separation constitute schism. It is schismatic only when it is not "loving and peaceable," only when it is "uncharitable, unjust, rash, violent."

Burroughes gave several illustrations of what he had in mind. Both Scots and refugees from abroad, he noted, had been permitted to have their own churches in England without being regarded as schismatics. This also had been true of Independents when they were in exile on the continent. Furthermore, persons of sufficient means in England had the liberty of "choosing pastors" by "choosing houses," moving from a parish where in good conscience they could not enjoy the means of grace to another parish where they could. When they did so, no cry of schism was raised. Should the same liberty be denied the less affluent who could not afford to move their dwelling from one side of the street to the other? Were they to be condemned as schismatics when their richer brethren were not?

What Burroughes and others were pleading for was a recognition that, although Christians may walk in different "ways" of outward obedience, they are still united in Christ and may work together for common ends of "godliness." They did, in fact, unite in defense of "the good old cause" of religious toleration. Many (those of Episcopal persuasion as well as Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists) did participate in Oliver Cromwell's "voluntary national establishment" during the 1650s. Later there were the "Heads of Agreement" of 1690, the joint petition to Queen Anne in 1702 from those who came to be called the "three old denominations," and the establishment in 1732 of a formal representative committee, known as "the Dissenting Deputies," to protect and expand the rights of the dissenting churches and their members.

Denominationalism in the United States

The denominational concept of the church was accepted in New England from the beginning. "We do not go to New England as Separatists from the Church of England," said Francis Higginson, "though we cannot but separate from the corruptions of it." As did their brethren at home, they adopted the neutral term way when explaining points of distinction from other orthodox Protestants (e.g., John Cotton, The Way of the New England Churches Cleared, 1648). Moreover, the elders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony expressed the same willingness to learn from others when responding to an inquiry concerning their practice. "We see as much cause to suspect the integrity of our own hearts as yours; and so much the more as being more privy to the deceitfulness of our own hearts than to yours which causeth us with great reverence to accept and receive what further light God may be pleased to impart unto us by you. But as we have believed, so have we hitherto practiced." They were upset, however, when dissidents challenged their attempt to fashion a new Zion in the American wilderness, since there was ample room for dissidents to establish their own communities. Banishment was the response, but as John Cotton explained, perhaps somewhat blandly, "Banishment in this country is not counted as much a confinement as an enlargement," pointing out that "the jurisdiction (whence a man is banished) is but small, and the country round about it large and fruitful; where a man may make his choice of variety of more pleasant and profitable seats than he leaveth behind him."

Although New Englanders did not always match profession with practice, their understanding of the church was well adapted to the situation in other colonies where religious diversity prevailed and no single group occupied a dominant position. Even North Carolina could be regarded as a southern Pennsylvania in its ethnic composition and religious complexion, and the valley of Virginia and late-blooming Georgia were not greatly different.

Not only was the denominational theory of the church popularized by leaders of the Great Awakening, since 1690 it had been reinforced by the growing influence of John Locke, who had adopted and set forth, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, a view of the churches that he derived from his non-Separatist Puritan antecedents. (See George L. Hunt, Calvinism and the Political Order, 1965, pp. 111113.)

By their acceptance of religious freedom following the American Revolution, most Protestant churches (with their general assemblies, general conventions, general conferences, general councils, or general associations) were committed to voluntarism and became, from a legal point of view, voluntary societies. They were under no legal restraint in dealing with their own internal affairs. Nor were most of them the least inhibited in following the practice developed during the years of the Great Awakening in joining together in efforts to promote concerts of prayer and religious revivals. In addition, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, out of their concern for the whole of society, a host of additional voluntary societies, both denominational and interdenominational, were founded to promote missionary, educational, benevolent, and reform activities. These societies became so ubiquitous that Orestes Brownson complained that "matters have come to such a pass that a peaceable man can hardly venture to eat or drink, to go to bed or get up, to correct his children or kiss his wife" without the guidance and sanction of some society.

This pattern of institutional activity persisted into the twentieth century, with new societies being formed as new needs were perceived to supplement the work of the older societies. Such newer societies were as varied as the Student Volunteer Movement, the League for Industrial Democracy, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In addition, Protestant churches became linked by such official agencies as the Foreign Mission Conference of North America.

Countervailing Attitudes in the United States

Not everyone was enamored with denominationalism as an expression of Christian unity. There were manifestations of "high church" sentiment by some groups (e.g., Landmark Baptists) who insisted that they alone represented the true church and refused to recognize or cooperate with those outside their ranks. Others (e.g., Old School Presbyterians) established official boards firmly under church control to carry on work hitherto delegated to voluntary societies. Still others, such as Thomas and Alexander Campbell, sought to fashion a unified movement in which denominational distinctions would disappear. They preempted the name Christian for themselves and called upon others to reject party names and nonbiblical creeds and practices that were a source of division and to unite instead on the basis of biblical names and practices alone. Typical of their point of view was the slogan "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." Although the adherents they gathered were regarded as a denomination by others, they repudiated the name and spoke of themselves as a brotherhood.

A major shift in attitude toward denominationalism began in the late nineteenth century. It grew out of a growing conviction among a few key leaders that unity should find expression in a comprehensive church sufficiently broad in outlook and tolerant in spirit to minimize differences of opinion. Phillips Brooks, pastor of Trinity Church in Boston (18691891) and briefly Episcopal bishop of Massachusetts, was one who helped cultivate the temper that led in this direction when he declared that humanity itself, not any organized body of believers, is the instrument through which God effects his purposes. This is the true church where "the great human impulses" lead people to do "Christian work in the spirit of Christ" even when they "studiously" disown him. Broad churchmanship, it was sometimes called, or catholic Christianity.

The roots of this catholic Christianity can also be traced back to seventeenth-century England, to the "latitudinarians" of the decades following 1660. Two streams converged to inform the views of the "men of latitude." One was derived from the Cambridge Platonists, non-Separatist Independents at the university, who, unlike fellow Independents serving as pastors, faced the problem of finding a basis for unity within an institution (the university) rather than between institutions (the churches). After 1660 they joined forces with those influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment to fashion a defense of diversity (latitude) within a comprehensive state-established church. Thus they stood in opposition to those who insisted upon a narrowly defined Caroline Christianity (i.e., during the reign of Charles II) as the only true faith of the Church of England. The latitudinarian apologetic initially had little relevance to a situation where religious diversity was widespread and there was no dominant state church. Additional changes in the climate of opinion were necessary before it could become pertinent.

Another impulse leading to unhappiness with the denominational concept was the belief that, from an organizational and administrative point of view, the denominational system was inefficient and financially improvident. John D. Rockefeller Jr., a Baptist who was deeply devout and devoted to the mission enterprise and whose social concerns had been awakened by men who surrounded his father, is a prime illustration of this second impulse. A careful steward, Rockefeller sought efficiency and economy through consolidation of missionary endeavor and other aspects of Christian activity. He used his influence and his money to make Christian outreach cost-effective by initiating such breathtaking schemes to redeem a global society as the Interchurch World Movement of 19191920 and the Laymen's Foreign Mission Inquiry of 19301932. In the end he ceased contributing to denominational projects, restricting his stewardship to consolidated efforts.

A third factor bringing denominationalism into disrepute was a by-product of German sociological studies, notably those of Ernst Troeltsch (18651923). The key concept was a typology that drew a distinction between "church" and "sect" applicable to countries with a predominant state church. A "denomination," however, was difficult to fit into this scheme, for it was neither "church" nor "sect" in terms of Troeltsch's analysis. Still, his views were intriguing. The most influential attempt to adapt Troeltsch's typology to the American scene was H. Richard Niebuhr's The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), which in a curious way idealized European state churches because they were institutions into which everyone was born, rich and poor alike.

A scathing indictment of denominationalism preceded Niebuhr's analysis of "the ethical failure of a divided church" and his descriptions of the churches of the disinherited, the middle class, and those produced by nationalism, sectionalism, and the color line. "Denominationalism in the Christian church," he declared,

is an unacknowledged hypocrisy. It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society. The division of the churches closely follows the division of men into the castes of national, racial, and economic groups. It draws the color line in the church of God; it fosters the misunderstandings, the self-exaltations, the hatreds of jingoistic nationalism by continuing in the body of Christ the spurious differences of provincial loyalties; it sets the rich and poor apart at the table of the Lord, where the fortunate may enjoy the bounty they have provided while the others feed upon the crusts their poverty affords.

Niebuhr acknowledged the insights he had derived from Troeltsch's typology. "Churches" are natural social groups "akin to the family or the nation" into which people of all classes are born, whereas "sects" are "voluntary associations." Sects compromise the universality of the Christian faith by their surrender to various caste systems. As generations pass, sects become denominations that are inclusive in the sense that people are born into them, with membership being determined by custom and family tradition. But as denominations, these former sects perpetuate in the body of Christ the caste systems of society. The volume closed with a summons to organic unity. Denominations were challenged to transcend their social conditioning and coalesce into a comprehensive church that would express the brotherhood of the Christian gospel.

By 1937 Niebuhr had second thoughts and published The Kingdom of God in America as a partial corrective to his earlier volume. He was still aware of the ways in which ethnicity, race, sectionalism, and economic circumstance had led to the formation of separate Christian groups. But this was not the whole story. He had not taken into account that denominationalism in its initial manifestation was the product of a new religious vitality with a dynamic sense of mission that placed primary emphasis on inner Christian experience. While differences of outward form and structure were not deemed unimportant and although there were competing claims as to their relative adequacy to express and advance the claims of Christ, stress was upon changed lives and a shared mission that encouraged cooperative activities and a not unfriendly coexistence. Slowly, however, the differing patterns took on greater importance as they became institutionalized. Here the problem was not compromise with caste systems but the process by which institutions over a long period of time begin to regard their own perpetuation as an end in itself. The earlier Puritan and the later evangelical sense of mission that provided the denominations with their reason for existence and bound them together in common causes began to fade. Becoming self-satisfied and self-congratulatory, they made peace with the world. This acculturation won from Niebuhr a stinging rebuke: "A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Niebuhr's summons was a call for renewal, for the recovery of a sense of mission that must precede and accompany any movement toward unity. Only a renewal that translated the love of God into love of brother would be powerful enough to overcome the walls of partitioninstitutional, ethnic, racial, sectional, economicthat fragmented the body of Christ.

The strictures of The Kingdom of God in America did little to mitigate the negative connotation evoked by the term denominationalism as a result of its being equated with sectarianism. Niebuhr's earlier Social Sources of Denominationalism continued for more than half a century to be his most influential book. Many Protestants seemed oblivious to his second thoughts. Instead of responding to the summons for renewal as a prerequisite for unity, many had become converts to a twentieth-century version of "latitudinarianism" or "catholic Christianity" that sought a united church that would be ample enough to accommodate the views and opinions of everyone. Instead of seeking renewal as a first step, such leaders opted for the more direct approach of tinkering with institutional arrangements to increase the scope of comprehension, a procedure that did not differ in kind from the preoccupation with institutional concerns that Niebuhr regarded as the nub of the problem.

Since the common core of Protestantism had become so badly eroded, it is possible that Protestant denominationalism may no longer be a viable term to indicate anything more than Protestant diversity. Perhaps Sidney Mead, author of numerous perceptive and incisive essays dealing with the shape of Protestantism in America, is right in using the words church, denomination, and sect as synonyms. There is an overabundance of Protestant denominations in this sense, but only minority segments are linked by a common faith and few of these segments possess a theological concept of denominationalism to express their unity and undergird their cooperative activities.

Recognizing this situation, and conceding that the use of the word denomination is likely to persist, Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago in 1982 made a sensible suggestion. As the Bible justifies the use of the word church only for a local congregation or the entire church, the word denomination can serve as a useful "in-between" term to designate existing ecclesiastical groupings that have provided "family tone" and clusters of memories and symbols that still can be invoked to sustain Christians in their daily lives. "Denominations," Marty noted, "are an offense only when they undercut the local church or the whole church," but when Christians are faithful to their "particular heritage," without condemning others, they enrich the whole church. Such an observation is not far removed from the spirit of those who initially fashioned the denominational concept of the church.

See Also

Anabaptism; Anglicanism; Baptist Churches; Christian Science; Church, article on Church Polity; Congregationalism; Disciples of Christ; Jehovah's Witnesses; Lutheranism; Mennonites; Methodist Churches; Moravians; Mormonism; Pietism; Presbyterianism, Reformed; Puritanism; Quakers; Salvation Army; Seventh-day Adventism; Shakers; Unitarian Universalist Association.


While there are many histories of individual denominations, numerous handbooks or guides with accounts of the different religious bodies (e.g., Arthur C. Piepkorn's Profiles in Belief, 7 vols., New York, 1977), and much discussion of the churches as voluntary associations, bureaucratic structures, and ethnic groupings, surprisingly little attention has been given to the theory and concept of denominationalism itself.

The most important discussions of denominationalism, from a variety of perspectives, have been assembled by Russell E. Richey in Denominationalism (Nashville, 1977). Richey includes a chapter from H. Richard Niebuhr's The Kingdom of God in America (Chicago and New York, 1937) and calls attention to the importance of Niebuhr's Social Sources of Denominationalism (Hamden, Conn., 1929). He includes Sidney E. Mead's essay "Denominationalism: The Shape of Protestantism in America," reprinted from Mead's The Lively Experiment (New York, 1963), which contains other pertinent material. Other essays included are by E. Franklin Frazier, Fred J. Hood, Winthrop S. Hudson, Martin E. Marty, Elwyn A. Smith, and Timothy L. Smith. Richey notes that the understanding of Protestant denominationalism presented in this entry represents a fairly general consensus, having been adopted by Sydney E. Ahlstrom in A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, Conn., 1972), pp. 96, 381382; Robert T. Handy in A History of the Churches in the United States and Canada (New York, 1976), p. 112; Winthrop S. Hudson in Religion in America, 3d ed. (New York, 1981), pp. 8182; Martin E. Marty in Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America (New York, 1970), p. 69; and The Westminster Dictionary of Church History (Philadelphia, 1971), "Denominationalism." For the most theologically informed explication of denominationalism, see Jacob Neusner's "Conservative Judaism in a Divided Community," in Sectors of American Judaism (New York, 1975), vol. 2 of his Understanding American Judaism.

New Sources

Brauer, Jerald C., ed. The Lively Experiment Continued. Macon, Ga., 1987.

Muller, Robert Bruce, and Russell E. Richey, eds. Reimagining Denominationalism. New York, 1994.

Newman, William M., and Peter L. Halvorson. Atlas of American Religion: The Denominational Era. Walnut Creek, Calif., 2000.

Winthrop S. Hudson (1987)

Revised Bibliography