Mainline Protestantism

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Mainline Protestantism

The adjectives "mainline" and "mainstream" are often used interchangeably to distinguish social groups and ideas based on relative power, influence, or acceptability. The origins of the terms are not altogether clear. "Mainline" is often said to refer to the wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia's Main Line and the railroad that serves them or to drug users' attempts to inject substances directly into the blood system. "Mainstream" probably comes from the larger rivers into which tributaries flow. Both terms assume that some groups or ideas are more popular or acceptable than others. In politics, for example, policy positions that are widely held are viewed as mainline or mainstream; positions that deviate from popular consensus or challenge conventional wisdom are seen as nonmainline.

"Mainline" as Establishment

The use of the term "mainline" with reference to Protestant Christianity has a complex history that is peculiar to North America. Early European immigrants to the United States and Canada brought with them a variety of Protestant and Catholic religious traditions. Most immigrant groups were familiar with the Old World pattern of a single dominant faith community functioning as an established church (Anglicanism in England, Lutheranism in Germany, Catholicism in Spain, France, Italy, and elsewhere). Other groups (e.g., Puritans and Quakers) were dissenters and separatists but familiar with the European state-church tradition. The early American pattern resembled that of Europe, with Congregationalism functioning as the de jure establishment church in New England, as did Anglicanism in parts of the South.

Religious pluralism came early to the American colonies as new immigrant populations brought their own religious backgrounds and practices. With the passing of the first generation of Puritans, new groups brought challenges to the hegemony of Congregationalism in New England. The established church spawned its own dissenters. The more tolerant colonies of the Mid-Atlantic states, Virginia and the Carolinas, were more accepting of religious diversity. Over time, and culminating in the Bill of Rights and disestablishment at the state level, the European pattern of state churches was broken.

What remained for several centuries, however, was a religious culture in which some groups, in some areas, continued to hold more power and influence than others. As William Hutchison (1989) has pointed out, through the early years of the twentieth century, the social networks of Protestant clergy, leaders of business, culture, and government remained very strong. The legal establishment ended, but a fairly small number of Protestant churches and their leaders continued to occupy a special privileged place in American culture.

The first sense in which the term "mainline" is used with reference to Protestantism, therefore, is with respect to the early dominant churches. Mainline Protestant churches are those that once occupied the status of formal and, later, informal power in American society. They included colonial America's "big three" established churches: Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian, joined over time by churches of later waves of European immigrants—the German and Dutch Reformed churches and Lutheran churches of varying ethnic backgrounds—and by Protestant traditions of the expanding frontier, Methodist and the Disciples of Christ.

"Mainline" as Protestant Subcommunity

By the 1920s, it was clear that Protestantism was no longer the only major religious tradition contending for the hearts and souls of an increasingly diverse population. Roman Catholics of various national backgrounds were dominant in several major metropolitan areas, and Jews had come to positions of considerable influence in major centers of influence such as New York City.

Somewhat grudgingly, the religious establishment began to accommodate leaders of these traditions. The "mainline" was changing. By the 1950s Will Herberg could write a book entitled Protestant Catholic Jew, which he viewed as the three ways of being an American. The relationship of the historic black churches to the informal religious establishment remained ambiguous. Some African Americans were members of historically white churches, but most were members of major black Baptist and Methodist denominations, denied full participation in the religious as well as in other sectors of American life. Similarly, other faith traditions (e.g., Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism) and indigenous American faith communities (Mormons, Native American religions) occupied a peripheral role in the emerging American religious system.

Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, in American Mainline Religion, have argued that by the 1960s the notion of an integrated religious establishment had largely succumbed to the influence of religious individualism and true religious pluralism. They point to a new, much more pluralistic situation in which few religious groups may be said to hold lasting cultural power. In such a situation, groups once seen as marginal are granted a legitimate claim to be heard and to share in society's effort to define its core values and practices.

Also clear by the 1920s was the fact that Protestantism itself had come to include considerable internal diversity. Divided into a growing number of denominations, most of which reflected wider cultural divisions along national, regional, racial, and ethnic lines, Protestant Christianity had also become a center of theological and political controversy. The rise of industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century and the new "higher criticism" in biblical studies pioneered in Germany presented Protestant churches with major intellectual and strategic challenges. Responding to these challenges gave rise to the theological movement known as Christocentric Liberalism and its institutional counterpart, the Social Gospel movement. In turn, scholars and religious leaders seeing Liberalism, or Modernism, as a challenge to historic orthodoxy would come spawn the Fundamentalist movement, setting the stage for sustained conflict within Protestantism itself.

The Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, which continued in various forms throughout the twentieth century, revealed divisions both among and within denominations. These divisions have been the subject of numerous scholarly studies, most of which have reflected what historian Martin E. Marty has called the "two-party system" in American Protestantism. Most scholars agree that Protestant Christianity is too complex to reduce to only two groups or movements; the hundreds of Protestant denominations present in North America have different histories and theological traditions and differ in demographics and polities. Nonetheless, the intra-Protestant fissures that were apparent by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries remain evident today. Various labels have been used to describe the two "parties": liberal and conservative, ecumenical and sectarian, public and private, progressivist and orthodox, mainline and evangelical. Each of these pairs of labels refers to something different (theological orientation, stance toward interchurch and interfaith cooperation, openness to engagement of social and political issues, appeal to various sources of religious authority, and so on). Adding further confusion, these labels are attached to different populations: individuals, congregations, denominations, or interchurch organizations such as councils and associations of churches.

The first usage of the term "mainline," discussed above, emphasizes the status of a religious group or idea in relation to others. This second use points to particular religious groups and traditions, usually to distinguish between these groups and others. Mainline Protestantism, in this sense, refers to a substream of Protestant Christianity.

To what precise substream does mainline Protestantism refer? This is a more complicated question than it may appear on the surface. As noted above, the European churches that flourished and dominated during the colonial and frontier periods of American history (Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, followed by Methodists, the Reformed churches, Lutherans, and Disciples of Christ) enjoyed a special role in American culture. These churches also developed special relationships among themselves. The rise of the home missions and Sunday school movements, while strongly denominational in many respects, brought these churches into contact with one another, and in 1867 most of these churches were represented in the U.S. branch of the Evangelical Alliance. The early twentieth century saw the founding of national church women's organizations and federations of churches at the local and state levels. In 1908 most of these churches came together as the Federal Council of Churches. Their leaders were in close contact through a variety of national and international conferences concerning home and foreign missions.

While these churches and their leaders were aware of the presence of other Protestant groups in the United States, they paid them little attention. These other groups, while growing, were seen as little threat to ecumenical Protestantism's numerical and cultural dominance.

There was little expectation that these cooperating churches would unite or achieve full doctrinal consensus. Each church would retain its freedom, identity, and independence, but in the words of German Reformed theologian Philip Schaff in 1893, they would also recognize "one another as sisters with equal rights, and cooperating in general enterprises such as the spread of the Gospel at home and abroad, the defense of the faith against infidels, the elevation of the poor and neglected classes of society, works of philanthropy and charity and moral reform." The activist impulse was strong in the early years of interchurch cooperation and the ecumenical movement became associated with the Social Gospel. While Protestant Christianity remained relatively orthodox and broadly evangelical in its creedal formulations, its cooperative social and religious agenda had a decidedly progressive bent.

By the 1920s, with growing protest movements rising within the ecumenical denominations themselves over what Charles Hodge of Princeton and others described as "creeping liberalism" in the Presbyterian and other churches, it was clear that Protestantism was moving toward schism. Battle lines were drawn within most churches, with Presbyterians and Baptists being especially affected. These conflicts spawned new denominations and gave rise to what are today known as Mainline and Evangelical camps.

Both uses of mainline Protestantism are rather imprecise theologically and sociologically, though widely used by analysts of American religion in dealing with the liberal or modernist wing of Protestant Christianity. This family of churches and sensibilities is distinguished as much by an ethos and series of interrelationships as by doctrine, demographics, or organizational structure. Most of the nation's leading educational institutions and thousands of national and local cultural and social-service institutions were founded by mainline Protestant churches and laity. While most of the official ties between churches and institutions like the Ivy League and liberal arts colleges, or art museums and benevolence agencies and their founding churches are gone, they nonetheless share common origins and values.

The decades since the 1960s have been difficult for the institutions of mainline Protestantism, including denominational structures. Its churches have lost members nearly every year since 1965. These declines have reduced the membership of some denominations by a third or more. David A. Roozen and Kirk Hadaway (1993) report that in 1990 eight leading Mainline Protestant churches included 22.6 million members, down 6.4 million from 1965. Over four decades these churches' share of the U.S. religious "market" fell from 15.9 percent to 9.1 percent.

In addition, membership declines, combined with inflation and the desire on the part of local churches and members to have more choice in allocating mission support dollars, have increased the financial pressure on national and regional church bodies. As denominations have faced financial difficulties they have reduced contributions to regional, national, and worldwide ecumenical agencies.

One response to financial difficulties has been to attempt to reduce the psychological distance between national church settings and local churches. By the 1980s a long-term trend toward locating denominational offices in New York City, in close proximity to the offices of the National Council of Churches at 475 Riverside Drive, was reversed. Presbyterians relocated to Louisville, the new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to Chicago, and the United Church of Christ to Cleveland (McKinney 1991). The size of the National Council's program and staff was reduced radically as this national symbol of mainline Protestant cooperation struggled to find new direction.

While organized ecumenism has experienced great stress in recent decades interchurch cooperation has continued to flourish. In 1983 the Presbyterian Church (USA) brought together the northern and southern branches of Presbyterianism, which had been divided since Civil War times. The new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, founded in 1987, united three major Lutheran streams. The United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have covenanted to share several ministries, including their overseas mission work. Further, these churches have reached important ecumenical agreements leading to mutual recognition of members and ministries.

Diagnosing the Mainline

As public recognition of the changing shape of mainline Protestantism has grown, scholars, foundations, and consultants have given a good deal of attention to its current situation and future prospects. This attention has run the gamut from the analytical (changing birthrates, shifting denominational priorities, and so on), to the angry (who failed to lead the churches and why), and to the prescriptive (what to do next).

From the early seventies (with the publication of Dean M. Kelley's Why Conservative Churches Are Growing) through the 1980s these studies tended to be sociological in character. By the 1990s mainline Protestantism was receiving greater attention from historians and theologians. Among the many books that have attempted to understand changes affecting these churches are Roof and Michaelsen (1986), Roof and McKinney (1987), Wuthnow (1988), Hutchison (1989), Hunter (1989), and Roozen and Hadaway (1993). Ammerman's study of congregations and changing communities is an important resource for understanding mainline Protestantism in its congregational form. Miller (1997) looks at this family of churches in relation to Evangelical churches.

What is the future of mainline Protestantism in North America? Several things seem clear. Low internal birth rates, the slow growth of its traditional constituencies, and relatively low priority given to evangelism and membership growth make dramatic changes in its long-term pattern of declining "market share." Recent growth among racial-ethnic and immigrant populations should help stem declines.

Even more interesting than the future of its institutions is the question of the future of mainline Protestantism's ethos and value system. In a more pluralistic, competitive, and adversarial public square, this community's historic impulse to bridge conflicting ideas and movements becomes a greater challenge than was true when these churches enjoyed a privileged position in the society. The idea that these churches have a special responsibility for promoting the ways in which diverse groups can coexist in relation to one another is questioned from within and without. It has been an important component of the history and current identity of mainline Protestantism, and the need for bridging and mediating institutions continues. No question is more important to these churches as some of them enter their fourth century on America's shores.

See alsoBaptist Tradition; Culture Wars; Ecumenical Movement; Episcopal Churches; Evangelical Christianity; Fundamentalist Christianity; Lutheran Churches; Methodism; National Councilof Churchesof Christinthe U.S.A.; Presbyterianism.


Ammerman, Nancy T. CongregationsandCommunity. 1997.

Hunter, James Davison. CultureWars:TheStruggletoDefine America. 1989.

Hutchison, William R. Between the Times: The Travail ofthe Protestant Establishment in America, 1900 –1960. 1989.

McKinney, William. "Mainline Protestantism 2000." The Annals 558 ( July 1998).

Miller, Donald E. Reinventing American Protestantism:Christianity in the New Millennium. 1997.

Roof, Wade Clark, and Robert Michaelsen, eds. LiberalProtestantism. 1986.

Roof, Wade Clark, and William McKinney. AmericanMainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future. 1987.

Roozen, David A., and Kirk Hadaway. Church and Denominational Growth. 1993.

Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion. 1988.

William McKinney