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Denominational Diversity in North America: Why Are There So Many Denominations?

Two hundred years ago frontier revivalist Barton Stone was fed up with Presbyterianism. He found the denomination too theological, too elitist, and out of touch with the common frontier folk he ministered to in southern Kentucky. His biggest problem was that he believed Presbyterianism was not biblical. To Stone, pure Christianity must be built solely upon a plain reading of Scripture, and as he surveyed the Protestant denominations of his day he concluded that they all were contaminated with human traditions. He thus founded a new group that would not be another denomination but merely an organization of biblical believers bound together to worship God according to scriptural guidelines. To capture their anti-denominational spirit, they simply called themselves “Christians.”

Stone was not alone. Other groups in America’s early decades embraced similar ideals. Alexander Campbell, for instance, founded a movement known as “Disciples.” In New England, Abner Jones and Elias Smith formed a group of “Christians” from former Baptists. And in Virginia, James O’Kelly’s Republican Methodists sought a non-hierarchical, more biblical version of Methodism. In time, the two largest of these new groups—Stone’s Christians and Campbell’s Disciples—merged in 1831 to form what would become the Disciples of Christ, a movement known for its commitment to baptismal regeneration and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Ironically, what was intended to be a denomination-less movement of “mere Christians” wound up forming another denomination in the eyes of most onlookers.

Why do denominations form? Why are there so many of them?

These are complex questions with even more complex answers. Every denomination has its own unique mix of factors that influenced its origins. At the risk of over-simplifying, we can identify several of these factors that led to many denominations:

  • Fresh Biblical Insight: A denomination will form when a group of Christians discerns a teaching in Scripture that other Christians had previously overlooked. The new group will find the scriptural teaching so compelling that they find it necessary to form a new group of Christians. In time this group forms a new denomination. During the Reformation, Protestants found justification by faith so central to apostolic Christianity that they could not remain in fellowship with the broader Roman Catholic Church.
  • Biblical Primitivism: This is a subset of the last point. When a group consciously attempts to reduplicate certain features of the primitive, New Testament church, then historians sometimes call that group “primitivist.” Over the centuries different denominations emerged as they sought to reduplicate an aspect of New Testament Christianity which they considered to be central for the church.
    • Baptists sought to reduplicate the pattern of believer’s baptism found in the New Testament.
    • Congregationalists sought to reduplicate the New Testament pattern of autonomous churches operating directly under the apostolic authority of the Word.
    • Early Pentecostals sought to reduplicate the New Testament practice of speaking in tongues.
  • Political Changes: Sometimes denominations form because of changes related to the political climate of the host nation.
    • To a significant degree, Anglicanism arose when Henry VIII found it expedient for the English church to break ties with the Roman Catholic Church.
    • In contrast, the absence of an official state church in early America allowed for the rise to numerous denominations, some orthodox, others heretical.

These are just some of the reasons that denominations have emerged throughout in the history of the church.

With these observations we begin a new series on “Denominational Diversity in North America.” Over the next year we will be taking brief tours of the prominent denominations that appear in our North American context. Our goal is to take one denomination a month and explore its origins, distinctive views, history, and main leaders.

Due to constraints of space, the entries will be limited to description only; we will not be offering a detailed response to these groups from a Baptist perspective.

  • First, we will examine denominations that formed in England prior to the founding of America: Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Methodism.
  • Next, we will turn our attention to those denominations that emerged directly on American soil: the Disciples of Christ, Seventh Day Adventism, Mormonism, and Pentecostalism.

As this list indicates, some of these groups are far more orthodox than others; Mormonism, for instance, is outright heretical. It is our hope that these brief tours will help us understand the diverse religious landscape around us so that we can be better witnesses in our complex world.

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Robert Caldwell

Robert Caldwell

Assistant Professor of Church History at Southwestern Seminary Currently writing Theology of the American Revivalists: The Theology of the Great Awakenings from Edwards to Finney. IVP Academic, forthcoming 2014.

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