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"Denomination" is a term that is often used when describing the variety of Christian religious groups in American life. In the contemporary United States "denomination" is a relatively neutral term, denoting a large, nationally oriented, religious organization based on voluntary membership.

The Denomination as a Sociological Concept

Sociological approaches have attempted to classify the denomination as an intermediate type of religious organization on the church-sect continuum defined by Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch. This typology poses the church and the sect as two polar organizational types on a conceptual continuum. The church is characterized by its alliance with secular political authority and its goal of worldwide conversion. The pursuit of this goal forces it to compromise its religious ideals with worldly values. The sect is characterized as a small, voluntary band of believers who separate themselves from society to follow a disciplined and ascetic lifestyle consistent with their conception of pure religious values untainted by secular priorities. While these two types are polar opposites of one another, Troeltsch saw them coexisting in a dynamic tension. Because of the conflict between secular and religious values, Troeltsch saw the existence of the church as a continual impetus for the formation of revolutionary sects. He also saw that successful sects would inevitably be drawn toward the worldly values characteristic of the church.

There is a tendency among some scholars to view the denomination as an advanced or mature form of the sect (Niebuhr 1929). It is argued that the sect-type organization is inherently difficult to sustain over time for two reasons. First, the religious fervor of the original members is seen as diminishing with succeeding generations of followers. Second, the disciplined ascetic lifestyle practiced by sect members is likely to lead to worldly success that will consequently make separation from the secular world more difficult for successive generations. H. Richard Niebuhr (1929) predicted that as the sect develops, the institutionalization of its original charisma inevitably results in an increasing pressure to make compromises with secular values, resulting in the "denomination." However, J. Milton Yinger (1946) noticed that the process of accommodation was not inevitable. In some cases, sects were able to maintain their separation from society over succeeding generations, resulting in what he called "established sects," among which he classified such groups as the Quakers, Amish, and Mennonites.

D. A. Martin (1962) also disagrees with the argument that denominations are a mature form of the sect. He argues that sects generally succeed in maintaining their sectarian character over time, and that denominations such as the Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists have tended to possess a denominational character—that is, a pragmatic relationship with society—from the very beginning. He sees the denomination as neither universal in the churchly sense nor sectarian, but as defined by a unity of experience. Organizationally he sees the denomination as pragmatic and instrumental. Sacramentally, he sees the denomination as being defined by subjective individualism. Martin feels that the denomination is in part a reflection of the social environments found in Britain and the United States, specifically as they are characterized by liberalism, individualism, pragmatism, and consensual pluralism.

The Denomination as a Theological Concept

Although the term tends to be used in a rather neutral and generic fashion by many scholars, Niebuhr (1929) and his followers have argued that in a theological sense, denominationalism represents a failure of the universal Christian church. In his book The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), Niebuhr views denominationalism as the unfortunate fragmentation of the Christian churches into various religious bodies organized along class, caste, ethnic, regional, and national cleavages. Niebuhr sees denominationalism as a sign of the moral failure of the values of love, unity, and brotherhood—universal values of the Christian churches—to overcome the divisions of secular society. In this sense, "denominationalism" signifies a condition of failure rather than a neutral description. It is often equated with the term "sectarianism," implying competing and exclusive claims to the authority of Christ.

An alternative view of denominationalism is that put forward by the historian Winthrop Hudson (1955), who sees the original meaning of the term "denominationalism" in a more positive light. His argument is that the true church is not identified with any exclusive type of ecclesiastical institution. No denomination, he argues, can claim to represent the whole church of Christ; rather, "the outward forms of organization and worship are at best but differing attempts to give visible expression to the life of the church in the life of the world." Using historical sources, Hudson argues that as originally used in the United States, "denominalationism" is an inclusive term conveying mutual respect and recognition. He associates the term with the principles of religious toleration and freedom that prevailed in the early part of the nineteenth century and sees it as a response to the problems created by competing Christian bodies that shared a common faith but were divided by differences in church government and worship. In this sense denominationalism is viewed positively, as a flowering of the plural expressions of Christian faith.

Stages of Denominational Development in America

In addition to approaches that have studied the denomination as a theological concept and as part of the church-sect typology, there have been numerous studies of specific denominational histories, and smaller areas of study that have treated the denomination as a voluntary association, as an organization, and as an ethnic group. However, it may be more useful to see these different approaches as being consistent with different stages in the development of the denomination within the context of American history.

Russell Richey (1994) proposes that one can discern five American denominational styles or stages within the historical development of this institutional form. The first stage is located in colonial America and is characterized by what he calls "ethnic or provincial voluntarism." In this stage, religious bodies in America tended to be defined by their ethnic community, and organizationally still viewed themselves as under the authority of the European churches from which they had emigrated. While the First Great Awakening provided some of the dynamics by which these separate groups began to see themselves as theologically part of a wider religious community, their primary identity was still largely ethnocentric.

The second stage is what Richey calls "purposive missionary association" and emerged in the early national period after the American Revolution. In this period, denominations began to see themselves as American institutions rather than as European missionary outposts, and these denominations elaborated a public theology oriented around the construction of a morally ordered civil society. To this end, a number of highly entrepreneurial voluntary societies were launched, devoted to various aims such as proselytization, the formation of Sunday schools, the distribution of Bibles and religious tracts, temperance, and the funding of international missions. Eventually many of these independent agencies were incorporated into the associations of local churches, creating a new form of missionary-oriented denominationalism.

In response to this missionary or purposive denominationalism, Richey identifies the development of a third stage of denominationalism, which he calls "churchly denominationalism." He argues that purposive denominationalism resulted in an identity crisis among traditional elements of the denomination that led to a reemphasis on the traditional markers of ecclesial identity, including the churchly, sacramental, and catechetical traditions. At the same time, the organizational divisions resulting from such explosive issues as the abolition of slavery exposed weaknesses in the theological foundations and organizational authority animating the narrowly instrumental purposes of these denominational movements, and further reinforced the grounding of denominational identity along theological and ecclesiological principles.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, denominations entered a fourth stage of development, the "corporate denomination," again propelled by an instrumental approach to missionary outreach. In this stage, denominational leaders adopted lessons from the revolution in organizational management and began to redesign their internal structures into "corporate organizations." Denominational agencies were reorganized, functions were specialized, volunteer staffs were replaced by professionals, and decisionmaking processes became increasingly dependent on expert, as opposed to ecclesiastical, authority.

The current stage is what Richey calls "postdenominational confessionalism" and is characterized by the loss of a distinct identity to attract and retain members. He argues that the mainline denominations have lost their claim to the larger purpose that previously shaped them: the building of a Christian society. This agenda has instead been captured by evangelical denominations and transdenominational conservative organizations that have transformed "Christian America" into a series of issue-oriented moral campaigns involving abortion, school prayer, family values, and homosexuality. Meanwhile, most denominations are increasingly divided by a liberal-conservative split that results in internal battles over the identity of the denomination and the distribution of denominational resources. All of this has resulted in a collapse of denominational purpose as well as confusion over why denominations should remain together as a unified collective. Richey ends his essay by raising the possibility that denominationalism may have outlived its usefulness.

While the analytical utility and social meaning of the denomination as a concept and as a historical entity may be contested, more than half of the population of the United States claims membership in something called a "denomination," and its empirical reality therefore suggests that it will not fade easily.

See alsoChurch; Churchand State; Creeds; Cult; Ecumenical Movement; Heresy; Megachurch; Missionary Movements; Namesand Naming; New Religious Movements; Popular Religion; Postdenominational Church; Proselytizing; Sect; World Councilof Churches.


Hudson, Winthrop. "Denominationalism as a Basis for Ecumenicity: A Seventeenth-Centur y Conception." Church History 24 (1955): 32–50.

Martin, D. A. "The Denomination." British Journal ofSociology 13 (March 1962): 1–14.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. 1929.

Richey, Russell E. "Denominations and Denominationalism: An American Morphology." In Reimagining Denominationalism, edited by Robert Bruce Mullin and Russell E. Richey. 1994.

Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the ChristianChurches, vols. 1 and 2, translated by Olive Wyon. 1981.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, vols. 1 and 2, edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. 1978.

Yinger, J. Milton. Religion in the Struggle for Power. 1946.

Patricia Mei Yin Chang

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de·nom·i·na·tion / diˌnäməˈnāshən/ • n. 1. a recognized autonomous branch of the Christian Church. ∎  a group or branch of any religion: Jewish clergy of all denominations. 2. the face value of a banknote, a coin, or a postage stamp: a hundred dollars or so, in small denominations. ∎  the rank of a playing card within a suit, or of a suit relative to others: two cards of the same denomination. 3. formal a name or designation, esp. one serving to classify a set of things. ∎  the action of naming or classifying something: denomination of oneself as a fat woman.

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denomination, denominationalization A denomination is a religious organization which, in the church–sect typology, stands mid-way between the church type and the sect type. It is a voluntary association with a formal bureaucracy. There is a trained ministry and lay participation is restricted to particular limited activities. It is tolerant about belief and practice, and expulsion of members who deviate from orthodoxy is rare. Individual commitment is not intense, and recruitment is through socialization. Denominationalization refers to the historical process by which certain sects (such as the Methodists) acquired the characteristics of a denomination without necessarily becoming a church.

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a set of the same persons, called by the same name and therefore of the same views. See also communion, confession.

Examples: denomination of Bapists; of Christians; of Epicureans, 1716; of the faithful, 1746; of malefactors, 1814; of methodists; of peripateticks, 1716; of Stoics, 1716.

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Denomination. A religious group within a major religion, having the same faith and organization. See also SECTS.