The  term denomination was innovated in the late seventeenth century  by  those  groups of Christians in England who dissented from the established Church of England, but considered themselves loyal to the British state and recognized the monarch as having rights with respect to the Church of England. In 1702, specifically, Presbyterian,  Baptist,  and  Congregationalist clergy formed  ‘‘the body  of  the  Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations in and about  the  City  of  London.’’ The  term  was introduced to counter the pejorative term sect, which in popular usage carried a sense not only of deviant or undesirable practices, but also, as sectaries, implied political radicalism. Denomination is  now used  in  pluralist  societies for those forms of organized religious expression that  generally support  the  established social order and are mutually tolerant of each other’s practices.

Typology of Denominations

The term denominationalism was significantly introduced into the literature of the sociology of religion by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929). The  central thesis of this  work is that  new religious organizations (‘‘sects’’)  begin among the socially ‘‘disinherited’’ within a population, but in the US, as these groups attain to higher social status, their religious expressions become more ‘‘respectable’’ or socially accepted; thus, there is a movement across generations from sectarian to denominational religious life – or else the sectarian group dies out. This strongly evolutionary view of religious innovation and organizational development has been consider ably modified today. A particularly important contribution to the study of denominationalism was  David   Martin’s   seminal  article  ‘‘The Denomination’’ (1962), wherein he argued for a reconsideration of this structural  form as a historically and culturally specific type of religious organization, rather than as a stage on a quasi evolutionary continuum.

A standard current definition of the denomination  has  been  provided  by  Wilson (1959: 4–5), who writes that the denomination is ‘‘a voluntary association’’ that ‘‘accepts adherents without imposition of traditional prerequisites of entry,’’ such  as belonging to  a particular ethnic or national group, or sectarian testimonies  of  spiritual  regeneration.  ‘‘Breadth and tolerance are emphasized … Its self conception is unclear and its doctrinal position unstressed … One movement among many … it accepts the standards and values of the prevailing culture  …  Individual  commitment  is  not  very intense; the  denomination accepts the  values of the secular society and the state.’’

Furthermore, and most significantly, individuals in a denomination coalesce around a notably open view of their religious purpose. The elusive goal of a denomination’s members is to build and maintain a particular identity as believers without losing sight of all that, at the roots, unites religious groups and  their  purposes in a free society.

The association between religious denominationalism and sociocultural pluralism is crucial to its organizational success. In pluralism one may belong to any denomination or none at all. Religion is pigeonholed and privatized. It is a voluntary activity undertaken or dismissed at the discretion of the individual. The  denomination is thus marked most significantly by this voluntarism  of  support   coupled  to  mutual respect and forbearance of all other competing religious groups. It  is indeed this  quality of competition that is the unique hallmark of the pluralistic religious situation; acceptance of the ‘‘free market’’ of religious ideas is the critical operating principle of denominationalism as an ideology. Denominations are the organizational forms that dominant religious traditions assume in a pluralistic culture. The distinction between monopolistic and pluralistic societies in typological differentiation between the church and the denomination appears particularly in Swatos’s (1979, 1981) church sect model.

Although  denominationalism is  now  characteristic of virtually all western societies, it reaches  its  quintessential  expression  in  the US; that is, American denominationalism has been the model for religious pluralism throughout the world. (Andrew Greeley, for example, titled  a  text  on  American religious life The Denominational  Society, 1972.) The  particular effect this had on American religiosocial development up to the 1950s is chronicled in Will Herberg’s    benchmark    volume    Protestant–Catholic–Jew (1955). Although, strictly speaking, denominationalism is a Protestant dynamic, it has become fully accepted in principle by all major religious groups in the US; in fact, one could say that the denominationalizing process represents the Americanizing of a religious tradition, which is at the same time and in the same measure a relativizing process. Religious groups that too strongly resist this process are likely eventually to face runins with the legal system.

Since the 1940s, social scientists have been particularly interested in the relationship between denomination and both social stratification and sociopolitical variables; the term class church was first applied as an equivalent to denomination by J. Milton Yinger in the 1940s.

Although some religious groups have made specific efforts to eschew the term as a label, denomination nevertheless has been the most neutral and general term used to identify religious organizations in the US. Denominationalism  is  an  institutional  pattern   that   both governs relations among religious groups and organizes contact between them and the wider community. Such common phrases in sociological research as organized religion and religious affiliation anticipate denominationalism as the dominant religious expression in society. Religious belief and action ‘‘work together’’ with the sociocultural system to develop a legitimation system as a result of mutual interdependence.

Denominationalism is a structure that allowed Americans to resolve religious differences peace fully. A concomitant result was to create a con text  for  both  a deemphasis on  and  eventual discrediting of theology as a source for authoritative knowledge in American civil society.

Denominations Today

Since the 1980s, and particularly with the publication of Robert Wuthnow’s The Restructuring of American  Religion  in 1988, there  has been considerable debate within the sociology of religion over the current significance of denominationalism in American society. This  debate was presaged by a distinction drawn  by the church  historian  Martin  Marty  in  Righteous Empire (1970) between two ‘‘parties’’ in American religion. According to Wuthnow’s elaboration  of this  view, each denomination is now divided between the two parties (roughly, liberals and conservatives) on critical sociopolitical issues, reflecting in  turn  the  relative rise in importance of  ‘‘the state’’ as a  socioculturalactor  since the  1940s, whereas prior  to  that time the state’s field was largely limited to the political economic  sphere.  The   ecclesiastical ‘‘party’’ with which people identify as a part of their cultural lifestyle hence is more important to both their spiritual and their moral lives than   is   a   particular   denominational  label, according to this theory.

This    realignment   involves   two   related changes in the structure of American religion. First,  official denominationalism, even that of the broadest sort analyzed by Herberg, appears to some analysts to be waning. They claim less and less distinctive information is conveyed by denominational labels, while more and  more these organizations have been reaping distrust and alienation from members. Second, in their place hosts of movements with narrower objectives have emerged, ordinarily ones that cluster loosely around items from either conservative or liberal political agendas.

Attention has thus turned away from inter denominational ecumenical activity, for example, not because the churches themselves deem it  to  be  unimportant,  but  because there  is no need to negotiate peace among noncombatants. ‘‘The primary axis defining religious and cultural pluralism in American life has shifted. The  important  divisions are no longer ecclesiastical  but   rather  ‘cosmological’’’   (Hunter 1988: 22). They no longer revolve around specific doctrinal issues or styles of religious practice and organization, but rather around fundamental assumptions about values, purpose, truth, freedom, and collective identity. (Thus  the most heated controversies swirl around such issues as abortion and sexual orientation rather than whether people kneel or stand or sit to receive Holy Communion or have or have not been confirmed by a bishop in apostolic succession. The growth  of  ‘‘nondenominational’’ and  ‘‘parachurch’’ organizations is seen as part  of this process.)

Others  argue that  this  view is historically shortsighted and  needs modification. Swatos, for example, uses the local–cosmopolitan distinction elaborated specifically in the sociology of religion by Wade Clark Roof to argue that denominationalism in the context of American voluntarism is preeminently a local dynamic, providing people ‘‘place’’ in a specific setting, and that this dynamic operates as much as it ever did to the extent that cosmopolitan elaborations (e.g.,  denominational  agency structures)  can be  discounted  from  analyses. Cosmopolitan denominational bureaucracies are not, according to this thesis, the crucial social dynamic of the typology, but a specific, transitory development. In addition, intra denominational debates have created more internally consistent denominational worldviews – conservatives now dominate the   Southern   Baptists,  while  liberals  have won the day among Episcopalians and the United  Church  of  Christ.  James Davidson  and colleagues have also shown that  the  various denominations continue to remain significantly disproportionately represented among elites in the US across the twentieth century, with corrections required only to accommodate specific immigration effects. Reform Jews, for example, are  now  also  significantly  over represented among elites, along with Episcopalians, Unitarians, and Presbyterians; Roman Catholics have achieved approximate parity with their share of the general population. On the other hand, conservative Protestants generally remain significantly   under represented   among   American elites,  which  may  explain their  attempts  to achieve greater political visibility, hence to influence both economic and cultural policies.

An often overlooked historical dimension of American denominationalism is the role women played in maintaining the life of the different denominations and in the social ranking system that they may have implied – again, particularly at the local level. The  decline of membership in some mainline denominations (e.g., Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists  [United  Church  of  Christ])  is  at least partially due to the increased presence of women in the workforce, which has resulted in a corresponding absence of women to undertake volunteer activities. Women in these denominations are also more likely to be in the professional classes and thus to have job responsibilities that do not end with the workday. Denominations that have declined in membership directly correspond to those that have most endorsed gender equality, while those that have gained member ship are more gender differentiated. They also tend to attract membership from the working stratum,  where even women working outside the home are, relatively speaking, more likely to be able to devote more of their discretionary time to church activities and are less likely to experience role redefinition in the home.

Regardless of which side of the debate on the significance of denominationalism is ultimately vindicated,  both  perspectives  emphasize the crucial role of the  congregation as the  place where religious ideology and the lived experience of the people who wear a particular denominational label meet. This  points to  a crucial dialectic in American religiosity between organization and action: denominationalism is not now nor has it ever been realized except through the life of specific local units or congregations.


Used in three interconnected senses, the term congregationalism emphasizes the  role of lay persons (or the laity, as contrasted to ordained, set apart clergy) within a religious organization. While congregationalism is especially important to understanding religion in the US, it is characteristic of denominationalism globally. Congregational religiosity may  be  contrasted  to both  historic state church  monopolies and to shrine or pilgrimage religion where a group of resident devotees maintains a shrine to which the  public  comes either  for  festivals or  for specific clientelistic needs (funerals, weddings, healing services, fortune telling, etc.). Religious congregations in the US form the largest and most significant community group that weaves through American society, but at the same time their diversity on crucial sociopolitical, socioeconomic, and sociomoral issues diffuses their potential impact on the larger society, as outsider stend  to  see these  cleavages in  central values as diluting confidence in the authority of the stance of any specific group.

One sense of the term is to refer to a specific denomination  of  Christians,  once  called the Congregational Church – since a 1950s merger with  the  Evangelical and  Reformed  Church now  formally  titled  the  United  Church  of Christ  (UCC).  This  body is the  inheritor of the established church of New England formed through a Pilgrim–Puritan alliance in the early seventeenth century, shortly after immigration from England. In  England today, historically Congregational churches are now part  of the United  Reformed  Church;  in  Canada,  most Congregational churches merged into the United Church of Canada in the 1920s; one group of Congregational churches in the US that did not join the UCC merger is now known as Congregational  Christian  Churches.  New  England Congregationalism spawned a number  of off shoots, including Unitarianism and virtually all Baptist churches.

The  name Congregational Church  is taken from  the  fact  that  this  denomination  vests authority in the local congregation; that is, it has a congregational polity, or  organizational structure. Other forms of polity are presbyterian, where authority is vested in the regional clergy associations, and episcopal, where authority is vested in a singular regional head, known in Christian traditions as a bishop. These forms of polity historically have named the major streams of American Protestant Christianity. (The United Methodist Church, for example, was origin ally named the  Methodist  Episcopal Church, contrasting  it  with  the  Protestant  Episcopal Church,  now known simply as the Episcopal Church in the US, the Anglican Church in most of the rest of the world.) Both the presbyterian and episcopal forms in actual practice in the US, however, are modified significantly by congregationalism. In strict usage, however, the core principle of congregationalism is that the local congregation is  the  church;  that  is, no other earthly institution can claim religious authority over the corporate worship of believers. It hires (‘‘calls’’) its own minister (and can fire him or her as well). It also decides acceptable forms of doctrinal profession, worship style, and so on, and decides on what forms of ‘‘fellowship’’ it will accept  with  other  churches  –  for  example, whether it will allow members who belong to a different congregation to receive various sacra mental ministrations, particularly Holy Communion, and the terms on which it will allow individuals who have belonged to some other congregation to join its congregation. The congregation also normally corporately owns the property  on  which  any  facilities it  uses  are located (e.g., the worship building, education facilities, and offices).

As a form of polity, congregationalism descends  from  the  Jewish  synagogue tradition (synagogue is  a  Greek  word  for  ‘‘gathering together’’), where in Orthodox practice a synagogue  is  created  whenever  10  men  gather together for prayer. In its modern usage, however, congregationalism has come to symbolize a greater principle – namely, the religious voluntarism of  denominationalism. The  upshot  of modern western political ideology is that religion is an entirely voluntary activity: one may not only go to whatever church one chooses, but one may also go or stay home whenever one chooses, and one does not have to go to or join any church at all. Furthermore,  the church is largely seen as serving the needs of its congregation, rather than the reverse. The  greater the extent to which, as in the US, support for the church is on an entirely voluntary basis as well, rather than through some tax scheme, the role of the congregation is correspondingly increasingly magnified. In this sense all churches in the US and other nations which lack either an explicit or covert system of government subsidization are congregationalist in  a  radical  way: unless  a church  has been extremely well endowed by prior  generations, if the  congregation leaves, the church must be closed. This is very different, for example, from some Scandinavian countries, where state support ensures that a regular program of activities will go on, even though only a tiny   percentage  of  the   population   attends church. By the same token, persons from these traditions may find offensive the practice of pas sing and offering (collection) plate or basket during worship – perhaps the one common worship experience that cuts across virtually all religious traditions in the US.

Steeped  deeply  in  the  Pilgrim  myth  and Puritan culture, the worldview of the Protestant  ethic,  the  voluntaristic principle  that  is inherent in congregationalism colors all religion in  the  US,   not  simply  the  Congregational Church or even Protestantism or even Judeo-Christianity. Buddhist, Islamic, Roman Catholic, and national Orthodox groups in the US all must  adjust  to  aspects of this  organizational norm in order to survive. Similarly, the missionary   activity   of   European    Protestants throughout much of the Southern hemisphere and Far East has made congregationalism normative at least as far as Christian congregations are concerned. There was also a Catholic version  of  congregationalism in  the  US  (called trusteeism) in the early years of the American experiment, but it was officially discontinued in the nineteenth century. Several recent studies of American Catholics, however, have emphasized continued popular attachment to a local parish as distinct from a hierarchical structure. Indeed, although the observation is most often credited to G. K. Chesterton, more than one commentator  has  remarked  that  in  America even the Catholics are Protestants!

Americans can and  do  worship as well as vote with their feet and their pocketbooks. A degree of accommodation to this aspect of the ‘‘American way of life’’ is structured into virtually all corporate religious practice. By the same token, Americans are more likely to see ‘‘religion,’’ whether  they  value  it  positively or   negatively,  as  a   congregational  activity (‘‘belonging to a church,’’ or sometimes ‘‘organized religion’’), and in recent usage to distinguish this from personal religiosity by referring to the latter as spirituality. Denominationalism, expressed through congregational religious life, provides definition for a sociocultural space in societies as they create institutional subsystems that attempt to differentiate public and private worlds.  In  historically monarchical  societies religious and political lines were certainly blurred  and  possibly obliterated.  To  hold  a religious opinion contrary to the official church was to  be disloyal to  state and society. The move toward a measure of separation between worlds of public obedience and private opinion began in the British Isles, but was almost immediately exported to the American colonies, where it grew far more rapidly and produced more abundantly.

Denominations and Globalization

From both American and British missionaries the   public/private   distinction  lying  behind denominationalism was widely exported  and has become internationally recognized as a normative principle for political–religious relations and articulations of religious freedom. At the same time,  however, specific denominational traditions in Anglo America have at times had to face up to global realities in ways they did not necessarily expect. While on the one hand denominations in the mother countries gradually came to support an end to ‘‘colonialism’’ both in practice and in the ideology that  lay behind it, they often were surprised that  the doctrinal  seeds they  sewed would  bloom as profusely as they have. For example, the largest number   of  Anglicans  now  reside  in   sub Saharan Africa, and from a number  of those countries they are being taken to task by their co religionists for what are perceived by those whom they evangelized as betrayals of the basic tenets of the Christian faith, particularly with respect to human sexuality. This  is also true for the southern cone of South  America and parts of Asia. A similar situation exists among African Methodists.  Some  denominations of specifically  American  origin,   such   as   the Church  of Jesus Christ  of Latter day Saints (Mormons) and Seventh day Adventists, have also globalized so successfully that their majority constituencies lie outside the US. In short, the denominational principle has been exported as a political solution but not necessarily as an ecclesiastical value  of  compromise  to  a  set of standards that  is not  characteristic of the indigenous population’s appropriation  of  the moral values of Christianity.

In Europe, by contrast, the denominational principle has been appropriated in terms of a gradual disestablishment of  specific religious expressions, but  not necessarily of state support. Thus,  it remains the case that ‘‘denominational’’ churches  that  have  had  historical state church ties remain largely the  province of small numbers of attendees, with clergy salaries and  building maintenance underwritten from state or parastate agencies. Potentially the most interesting cases for the future of denominationalism are in the countries of the former Soviet   Union,   where   religious  monopolies (primarily either Orthodox Christian or Islamic) vie with  challenges from religious groups of primarily western denominational origin (e.g., Baptists and Pentecostals, and to a lesser extent New Religious Movements). In Greece as well, the issue of European Union pluralism versus historic Orthodox primacy has arisen, primarily in respect to the inclusion of ‘‘religion’’ on pass ports  and  identity  cards in  contravention of EU standards, but also with regard to the treatment of adherents to such ‘‘marginal’’ denominations as Jehovah’s Witnesses.


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