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.
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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- Hunter, (1988) American Protestantism: Sorting Out the Present, Looking Toward the Future. In: Neuhaus, R. (Ed.), The Believable Futures of American Protestantism. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 18 48.
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- Swatos, (1994) Western Hemisphere Protestantism in Global Perspective. In: Cipriani, R. (Ed.), Religions sans Frontie`res? Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri, Rome, pp. 180 96.
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- Yinger, (1946) Religion and the Struggle for Power. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
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