Schism: An Overview

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Schism is the process by which a religious body divides to become two or more distinct, independent bodies. The division takes place because one or each of the bodies has come to see the other as deviant, as too different to be recognized as part of the same religious brotherhood. Often disputes over doctrine or organization brew for years before some triggering incident incites the final break. During that preparatory period, groups of adherents slowly come to understand their procedures and convictions as being fundamentally different from those of the opposing group. The psychological and sociological process of separation is often complete before an organizational break occurs.

Types of Schisms

One way to classify schisms is to look at who defines whom as deviant. Either the parent group or the departing group, or both, may see the other as having diverged from the true faith. In the first instance, when the parent group defines the schismatic group as deviant, the charge against it (or more often against its leader) is usually heresy. Ironically, such heretics do not usually set out to leave the parent body. Rather, they have new ideas about how the faith should be practiced or how the religious body should be organized; but in the course of promulgating their ideas, these reformers are found intolerable by the parent body and forced out. Such a process was most visible in the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. But it also occurred within Protestantism as, for instance, when Puritan dissidents such as Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams were cast out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as heretics, forcing them to form new schismatic groups. Although reformers may declare the current leadership and practice of their body to be corrupt, in this kind of schism the body itself is not usually condemned until the separation is imminent.

In the second instance, schism may occur when a departing group declares the parent body to be illegitimate, and the parent body seeks to retain the schismatics within the fold. Such an occurrence is most common when the schism parallels clear political or ethnic divisions. The parent body seeks to retain a broad definition of itself and its power, and the schismatics seek more local, independent control. For instance, the Philippine revolution of 18971898 was followed in 1902 by a schism of many local churches away from the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Because the church had become a symbol of imperial rule, religious schism followed political independence. Throughout their history, the Sikhs of the Punjab have claimed that their way of life should be both politically and religiously independent of Hindu India, whereas India has taken a more inclusive (some would say imperialistic) stance. In the United States, various nineteenth-century Protestant schisms resulted from ethnic and cultural differences introduced by immigrants. As in the 1963 split in the (American) Serbian Orthodox church, these schismatic groups came to see the parent body as unresponsive to their needs and probably irredeemable. Schisms took place despite protests from the parent group.

The third kind of schism is probably the most common. Here each side comes to see the other as having deviated from the true path. Although each may try for a time to convert the other, their final separation is a recognition that they can no longer work and worship together. This pattern has been typical for American Protestantism, from the regional divisions of the mid-nineteenth century to the fundamentalist departures of the 1920s. Since no single Protestant body monopolizes religious authority, charges of heresy can be made by almost anyone. When the charge has found fertile ground in popular discontent, Protestant doctrinal disputes have often led to schism.

Ideological Factors

Religious schism, of course, by definition is an ideological matter. Differences in belief and practice are almost always at stake. In Eastern cultures, the scale is likely to tip toward differences in religious practice as the source of division, whereas in Western society, dogma assumes a more central role. The ultimate values of most groups are vague enough to allow for differences in practical interpretation. In religious groups those practical differences can create divergent paths to salvation and opposing definitions of good and evil, with each side nevertheless seeking to justify its beliefs in terms of the same core of sacred values.

Even organizational and political disputes, when they occur within religion, are infused with sacred meaning. In The Religion of India (1958), Max Weber argues that the original division between Hinayānā and Mahāyāna Buddhism was more organizational than dogmatic. The Mahāyāna tradition began to allow more leniency in relationships to worldly affairs, the laity, and money. Today, leaders of religious organizations are not just subject to accusations of inefficiency and poor administration but to charges of violating a sacred trust. When dissidents seek to reform a religious organization, they often charge that those in power have corrupted the true ideals of the group. Typical bureaucratic intransigence can become proof of evil intent. The battle cries of religious conflict originate in arguments about ultimate truth, and for that reason they must be taken seriously as factors in the divisions that occur from time to time.

Social Factors

It is, however, impossible to treat religious schism exclusively as a theological matter. The ideas over which believers fight and divide make sense only as a part of the lives of people in a given time, place, and social position. When social change occurs, people's understanding of the religious life changes as well. Separation occurs not only because people come to hold incompatible views about salavation but because those views are born of different life experiences. The kinds of social differences that can lead to religious schism fall into three broad, interrelated categories.

Economic differences

H. Richard Niebuhr claims that "the division of the churches closely follows the division of men into the castes of national, racial, and economic groups" (1929, p. 6). Although class divisions are rarely a perfect predictor of religious schism, they often play an important role. Niebuhr's argument is that sects (that is, schismatic groups) arise as the socially disinherited seek a religion that more nearly meets their needs. They are more concerned with emotion, informality, ethical purity, and the coming new age than more established, well-to-do believers either need or wish to be.

More recently, Dean R. Hoge (1976) has demonstrated that the class base for current divisions is not so much in objective differences in income, occupation, or region as in the degree to which individuals perceive middle-class values to be threatened by change. At a theological level, the differences are seen in disagreements over the dualistic nature of humanity. At an organizational level, the two parties differ on how the church should order its priorities. The result is an incipient schism across American Protestantism that pits the traditional conservatism of the upper class and of the lower middle class against the innovation of those in the upper middle class who are neither so entrenched nor so insecure as to feel threatened by change.

Beyond these divisions within advanced capitalist societies, changes in the world economic order as a whole can also create a climate for schism. When either masses or elites find themselves in a new economic context, displayed from old loyalties, living in a world that operates by different rules, religious revolutions are possible. In medieval Japan, political and economic chaos provided the setting in which the Pure Land and Nichiren sects were formed within Buddhism. It was no accident that the Protestant Reformation occurred in the context of declining feudalism and rising nationalism. It is also no accident that the independent churches in Africa today have arisen with the decline of imperialism. Again in Japan, cultural change since the middle of the nineteenth century has been enormous, and there has been a parallel proliferation of new religious movements. Changes in the economic and political order create new religious questions and leave spaces into which new religious solutions can fit.


Much of the social change that leaves people open to religious reorganization and schism can be seen as part of the longterm process of modernization. To be modernized is, among other things, to learn new skills for encountering and manipulating the world, among the most important being literacy. Having personal knowledge of sacred texts often distinguishes a schismatic group from its parent body. As early as the fourteenth century, reformers such as John Wyclif were teaching their followers to read and thereby sowing the seeds of the revolt from Catholicism that would follow. More recently, David B. Barrett (1968) has demonstrated that African independent churches are springing up most predictably in the areas where the Christian scriptures are available in the vernacular. Having personal access to scripture is part of a climate of individualism that is neither necessary nor possible in an unmodernized world. It is also part of the social process of religious schism.

Modernization not only creates social dislocation and encourages individualism, it also creates a world in which there are multiple versions of truth, in which there is pluralism. Ironically, one of the factors most important in predicting schism is a preexisting state of division. Where differences are already an everyday fact of life, religious schism is more likely and more easily accomplished. For this reason, it is not surprising that in the Philippines, Protestantism was most successful in precisely the same areas that had first experienced schism from the Roman church as part of the development of the Philippine Independent Church. When Islam began to dominate India in the fifteenth century, one of the responses to its spread was new religious differentiation within Hinduism. Likewise, Barrett has documented that schism in Africa is more likely where independent African churches have been established in neighboring tribes, where the culture is not dominated by Islam, and where there is a relatively large Christian population. Where monolithic religious authority is absent and examples of divison are at hand, schism is more likely.

Political differences

Religious schisms also occur because religious life cannot be separated from the political circumstances in which people exist. The Donatist schism, among the earliest divisions in the Catholic church, happened in part as a result of political tensions between North Africa and Rome. Later, during the Middle Ages, the formal schism between the Eastern and Western churches had its greatest practical reality in places like Russia, where religious schism followed the lines of political animosity between Russians and Poles. The Protestant Reformation might have taken very different form but for the rivalries among various heads of state and between them and Rome. Likewise, the shape of Protestantism in America has been undeniably affected by divisions among ethnic and immigrant groups, divisions over slavery, and divisions between frontier and city, local and cosmopolitan.

In most of Asia, religion and communal life have been so inextricably intertwined that political change has, by definition, meant religious change, and vice versa. The nineteenth-century Daibing rebels in China adopted a religious synthesis of Christian and Confucian thought that propelled them into military conflict with the Manzhu rulers. Today, religious divisions often parallel political ones within the Indian subcontinent. The prejudices and divisions of everyday life are more often reflected in religious separation than overcome by religious unity.

Organizational Dynamics of Schism

All of the theological, cultural, economic, and political factors that give rise to schism are necessary causes, but they are not sufficient causes in themselves. They cannot explain why one missionized culture experiences schism and another does not, why some ethnic groups share a religious heritage, and others see each other as religiously alien. To explain those differences, one must take into account the organizational structures in which divisions are encountered. Some organizations make schism likely, whereas others prevent division from occurring. Those who have studied social movements have identified various ingredients in organizations that may make schism possible. The factors they list may be divided into two broad categories.

Conditions in the parent body

Most basically, conditions that produce cohesiveness also inhibit schism. If there are strong incentives of loyalty and reward binding people to the parent body, splinter groups will have difficulty forming. Likewise, when the members have few competing ties to other organizations, their religious commitments are more central and less likely to be disturbed.

However, since conflict is always a possibility in the application of religious values to everyday life, organizations that learn to control conflict can avoid schism. Often this means simply hearing and responding to grievances. It may mean establishing structures in which disagreements can be contained and made useful (e.g., the establishment of monastic orders in Catholicism). When organizational hierarchies are too authoritarian to change or to allow diversity, they may be confronted by schism.

Conversely, organizations that have too little dogma, too loose an identity, are equally vulnerable. The incredible diversity of Hinduism can in part be accounted for by the lack of concrete dogma, organized clergy and congregations, or any central group giving it limits of belief and practice.

Equally important, the form of authority in the organization provides the raw materials out of which schisms can occur. The more democratic the group's polity and the more autonomous its constituent units, the more it is susceptible to division. As authority is dispersed, it is more easily claimed and protected by dissident groups. Schism is, after all, at least in part a struggle for organizational power. It is an attempt to impose one group's views on the whole. That imposition can take place only as long as the instruments of power are also under the group's control. Decentralized religious organizations provide niches of power that can be used by dissidents mobilizing a revolt.

An implication of the foregoing is that parent bodies with effective means of social control are less likely to experience schism. When organizational hierarchies know what their members are doing and are able to apply effective sanctions, dissidents are less able to mobilize. Heretics who are banished or burned only occasionally become the inspiration for later schisms.

Conditions in the dissenting body

To achieve a successful withdrawal from a parent body, dissenters must mobilize a variety of resources. They must make it rewarding for people to participate in their movement by offering them opportunities to lead, to be recognized, and to feel they are defending important values. Followers must be promised not only a more sure path to eternal salvation but a way to achieve more tangible goals as well. Where punishment seems more immediately likely than reward, reformers must be able to turn even that to their advantage.

Most especially, dissenters must be able to manipulate symbols of good and evil so as to define the conflict in cosmic terms. A dissenting group must therefore develop effective means of communicating its ideas and overcoming the counterarguments of the parent body. The emphasis on literacy in schismatic groups nicely serves this purpose.

All of these undertakings require resources of time, money, and skill. Often it is those at the bottom of the social structure who can contribute time, a powerful benefactor who can contribute money, and trained people on the fringes of the parent organization who can contribute skill.

Finally, most schismatic movements need a charismatic leader. One person provides the ideas and inspiration that motivate others to follow.


Schism, then, is a division in a religious body in which one or each of the separating groups defines the other as having departed from the true faith. It always involves conflict over what is ultimately true and how that truth should affect human lives. Yet schism also occurs in a social context in which economic divisions and changes, the process of modernization, and political differences impinge on the way people organize themselves into religious bodies. Those structural conditions provide the background and raw materials of schism, and specific organizational conditions provide the means by which a separation is finally accomplished.

See Also

Heresy; Modernity; Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy; Orthopraxy.


Baker, Derek, ed. Schism, Heresy and Religious Protest. Cambridge, U.K., 1972. This collection of papers read at the Ecclesiastical History Society in London illustrates the diverse theological and social sources of the many divisions that have affected the Christian church.

Barrett, David B. Schism and Renewal in Africa: An Analysis of Six Thousand Contemporary Religious Movements. Nairobi, 1968. A thorough study of the political, historical, and cultural factors that explain the explosion of new, independent African churches.

Hoge, Dean R. Division in the Protestant House: The Basic Reasons behind Intra-Church Conflicts. Philadelphia, 1976. An excellent piece of research from the Presbyterian denomination that examines the intertwining of theological, psychological, and sociological factors in creating two opposing parties in contemporary American Protestantism.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929). New York, 1957. The classic statement of the causes of schism in Protestantism.

Takayama, K. Peter. "Strains, Conflicts, and Schisms in Protestant Denominations." In American Denominational Organization: A Sociological View, edited by Ross P. Scherer, pp. 298329. Pasadena, Calif., 1980. A leading researcher in the sociology of religious organizations proposes hypotheses for predicting schism and examines two recent divisions in light of those propositions.

Wilson, John. "The Sociology of Schism." In A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 4. London, 1971. A littleknown article that provides a useful model for understanding the organizational processes involved in schism.

Zald, Mayer N. "Theological Crucibles: Social Movements in and of Religion." Review of Religious Research 23 (June 1982): 317336. A leading proponent of "resource mobilization" theory applies his ideas to religious movements. He first reviews the cultural conditions that make religious change and division more likely and then argues that such movements can happen only if the organizational conditions are also right.

New Sources

Clarke, Peter B. Mahdism in West Africa: The Ijebu Mahdiyya Movement. London, 1995.

Hillis, Bryan V. Can Two Walk Together Unless They Be Agreed?: American Religious Schisms in the 1970s. Brooklyn, 1991.

McKivigan, John R. Abolitionism and American Religion. New York, 1999.

Rochford, E Burke, Jr. "Factionalism, Group Defection, and Schism in the Hare Krishna Movement." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28 (June 1989): 162179.

Walker, Deward E. Conflict & Schism in Nez Percé Acculturation: A Study of Religion and Politics (1961). Reprint. Moscow, Id., 1998.

Zuckerman, Phil. "Gender Regulation as a Source of Religious Schism." Sociology of Religion 58 (Winter 1997): 353373.

Nancy T. Ammerman (1987)

Revised Bibliography