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DENOMINATIONALISM. Religion scholars developed this term to account for the variety of faiths in the United States. Because of its associations with religious pluralism, denominationalism also implies ecclesiastical disestablishment and religious freedom, in the sense that no particular religious body receives the endorsement of nor financial support from the government. Prior to the last quarter of the twentieth century, the concept was usually a Protestant term that referred to a cooperative spirit among the largest Protestant denominations in the United States. But after 1970, as those denominations lost members and influence, and as public institutions began to reflect the United States' religious diversity, denominationalism expanded to include all faiths, even those for whom the idea may be foreign.


In sociological theory, "denomination" is a category that stands midway on the spectrum of ecclesiastical structure, with "church" at one end and "sect" at the other. Max Weber was one of the first sociologists of religion to develop the dichotomy between church and sect. According to him, a sect is primarily a voluntary association of adults who affiliated on the basis of a shared religious ideal, while the church, in contrast, is an inclusive arrangement with less stringent demands for conformity and self-consciousness. Weber's student Ernst Troeltsch, a theological ethicist, however, popularized the term for many Protestants in the United States with his book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1912). He used the concept more prescriptively than had Weber. Troeltsch elevated churches above sects because the former are capable of ministering to society's needs, while the latter are socially withdrawn and reinforce among their adherents a sense of religious purity.

Although denominationalism has been a construct used throughout the twentieth century to understand Protestantism, the idea first gained currency several centuries earlier. During the English Civil War of the 1640s, when Parliament called the Westminster Assembly to set the theological and liturgical direction for the Church of England, the Independents were the most vigorous advocates of the idea that the true church could not be confined to any particular ecclesiastical institution, whether the Church of Rome, the Church of England, or the Scottish Kirk. Instead, Independents argued that believers should be free to assemble without fear of coercion from the state or its established religious body. Although such a view would have meant religious disestablishment—something contrary to the very purpose for which Parliament had called the Westminster Assembly—the Westminster Confession of Faith reflects the influence of Independents and hints at the idea of denominationalism in its chapter on the church: "The catholick church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members there of, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and publick worship performed more or less purely in them." Crucial to the notion of denominationalism here was the idea that several churches, despite disunity, were part of the true church.

This was the outlook that the earliest Protestants took to the British colonies in North America. In fact, Protestantism in the United States was largely comprised of groups who were religious dissenters in England. The British context for the emergence of religious disestablishment in effect gave denominationalism plausibility. The churches in the United States would not attempt to set themselves up as the only church with legitimacy, as the Church of England had. Instead, they agreed to recognize each other as sharing a common mission, even if holding to different creeds or forms of worship. In the United States, the Presbyterian Church's 1787 revision of the Westminster Confession demonstrates exactly the spirit that the Independents had expressed in the seventeenth century, and how the word "denomination" would become the primary means for tolerating diversity. The church revised the chapter on the civil magistrate to say that "the duty of civil magistrates to protect the church of our common Lord, without giving the preference to any denomination of Christians above the rest, in such a manner that all ecclesiastical persons whatever shall enjoy the full, free, and unquestioned liberty of discharging every part of their sacred functions, without violence or danger." In effect, the word "denomination" was a glorified way of speaking about bodies that in England would have been regarded as dissenting or, worse, sectarian.

The diversity of churches encouraged by religious disestablishment proved to be baffling to observers of religious life in the United States. Throughout the nineteenth century, foreign visitors to the new nation commented regularly on the array of religious practices among Americans, but they used "sect" and "denomination" interchangeably. Achille Murat, for example, a son of French nobility and living in exile, wrote in 1832 that he believed it would be impossible even to catalogue "all the dogmas of the thousand and one sects which divide the people of the United States." When writing of government assistance for religious bodies, however, Murat noted that public lands had been set aside for a "school and a church, of any denomination whatever." Similarly, Frances Trollope, an Englishwoman who resided briefly in Cincinnati, observed in her book The Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832) that, "besides the broad and well-known distinctions of Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Calvinist, Baptist, Quaker, Swedenborgian, Universalist, Dunker, &c. &c. &c., there are innumerable others springing out of these." This "queer variety," as she called it, suggested that denominationalism was little more than a form of sectarianism, where each group has "a church government of its own," headed by "the most intriguing and factious individual." Although denominations in the early United States may have looked sectarian from a European perspective, most visitors agreed with the English reformer, Harriet Martineau, who attributed American religious pluralism to the "Voluntary Principle" of "professing to leave religion free."

Only a few Protestant churchmen in the United States tried to give order to this diversity. Robert Baird, a Presbyterian whose Religion in the United States of America (1844) was the first religious history of the United States, followed Martineau in locating the nation's religious diversity in its decision to make belief a voluntary and private matter. Yet, despite the number of denominations, Baird believed far more unity existed than was commonly acknowledged. He offered two interpretive schemes. One was to divide the denominations theologically between the Calvinists and the Arminians. The other was to notice differences in church polity with three large groupings: Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist. Otherwise, religion in America was generally homogenous, except for such "unevangelical" denominations as Unitarians, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and atheists. Philip Schaff, a German American theologian, was less optimistic than Baird about the unity of American religion. In lectures he gave to German audiences and published as America: A Sketch of its Political, Social, and Religious Character (1854), Schaff praised the voluntaristic impulse running through American Christianity: "It is truly wonderful what a multitude of churches, ministers, colleges, theological seminaries, and benevolent institutions are there founded and maintained entirely by freewill offerings." But he feared that such religious freedom also nurtured the Protestant tendency toward sectarianism, thus preventing the harmony Christianity required.

Denominationalism and Post-Denominationalism

In Baird and Schaff's books, a new understanding of denominationalism was beginning to emerge. It was no longer simply a way of recognizing all British Protestant dissenters as members of a true church that transcended ecclesiastical particularities. Instead, denominationalism was becoming a way of forming a quasi-religious establishment, where the Protestants who joined the ecumenical enterprise were regarded as a denomination of the true church, and those who resisted cooperation were deemed sectarian. In other words, from the late nineteenth century until the 1960s, denominationalism lost its association with religious dissent and functioned as a form of ecclesiastical establishment.

The impetus for this new meaning was a concerted effort among Anglo American Protestant leaders after the Civil War to make common cause against infidelity and preserve Christian civilization in the United States. The culmination of these endeavors was the founding in 1908 of the Federal Council of Churches (FCC), renamed the National Council of Churches in 1951. The aim of the organization was to "manifest the essential oneness of the Christian churches of America" and to "secure a larger combined influence … in all matters affecting the moral and social condition of the people." Although the intentions of the FCC's organizers were to be as broad as possible (while excluding Roman Catholics and Unitarians, for instance), over time the Federal Council emerged as the glue of mainstream American Protestantism, with member denominations constituting the denominational ideal and dissenting groups manifesting a sectarian spirit. Not only was this outlook reflected in books justifying Protestant ecumenism, such as Samuel McCrea Cavert's The American Churches in the Ecumenical Movement, 1900–1968 (1968), which argues that competition among churches was analogous to the divisions caused by race and class; it also proved to be a unifying perspective for historians of religion in the United States, whose narratives focused on the ecumenical Protestant denominations.

By 1970, however, the Protestant mainstream was no longer synonymous with American religion, and denominationalism began to return to its earlier designation as a form of religious, as opposed to Protestant, pluralism. Some sociologists of religion attribute the decline of denominationalism to the Protestant mainline's inability to retain members and recruit new ones, as well as the concomitant rise of special-purpose religious organizations that replaced the services of ecumenical Protestantism. Another factor has been the shift since the 1960s from the ideal of assimilating the diversity of American culture into a common whole to one that relishes ethnic and cultural particularity. Because the impulse behind Protestant ecumenism was largely assimilative, when cultural diversity replaced the melting pot as the preferred way to understand variety in the United States, the idea of denominationalism also shifted from one that set boundaries between cooperative and sectarian faiths to one where all religions were equal and, so, transcended distinctions among church, sect, or denomination. The historian R. Laurence Moore exemplified this changed outlook and argued, as did nineteenth-century observers of American religion, that division and the creation of new religions—not interdenominational cooperation—is the religious "mainstream" in the United States, precisely because of the nation's tradition of religious freedom and faith's capacity to give identity to people living in society without clear structures and delineated social roles. As Moore writes, "The American religious system may be said to be 'working' only when it is creating cracks within denominations, when it is producing novelty, even when it is fueling antagonisms."

The recognition that diversity and change are at the heart of religious life in the United States has returned denominationalism to earliest usage in the nation's history. In handbooks and directories on churches and religion in America, denominationalism lacks a sense that some religious bodies are denominations of one whole, say, Protestant or mainline. Instead, denominationalism has become a way to affirm that each faith (whether Methodism, Hinduism, or Eastern Rite Catholicism) constitutes but one particular expression of generic religion. Because of its Christian and Protestant origins, denominationalism may not be the most felicitous way of describing religious diversity in the United States. But, as a term that is bound up with the nation's tradition of religious freedom and ecclesiastical disestablishment, the term "denominationalism" possesses advantages that may account for its ongoing usage.


Baird, Robert. Religion in the United States of America. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Cavert, Samuel McCrea. The American Churches in the Ecumenical Movement, 1900–1968. New York: Association Press, 1968.

Greeley, Andrew M. The Denominational Society: A Sociological Approach to Religion in America. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1972.

Moore, R. Laurence. Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Mullin, Robert Bruce, and Russell E. Richey, eds. Reimagining Denominationalism: Interpretive Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. New York: Meridian Books, 1957.

Powell, Milton, ed. The Voluntary Church: American Religious Life, 1740–1865, Seen Through the Eyes of European Visitors. New York: Macmillan, 1967.

Richey, Russell E., ed. Denominationalism. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon, 1977.

Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.

D. G.Hart

See alsoReligion and Religious Affiliation .

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