Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

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 to be entirely loyal to the British state and recognized the monarch as having rights with respect to the Church of England. In 1702, specifically, the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists 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 had the sense of deviant or undesirable practices. The term 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.


The term denominationalism was significantly introduced into the subsequent literature of the sociology of religion by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929). The central thesis of this work was that new religious organizations ("sects") begin among the socially "disinherited," but in the United States, as these groups attain 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 has been considerably modified today. A particularly important contribution to the study of denominationalism was David Martin's seminal article "The Denomination," published in 1962, where he forced a reconsideration of this organizational form as a historically specific type sui generis, rather than as a stage on a quasi-evolutionary continuum.

A standard current definition of the denomination would be that of Bryan 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.

The association between denominationalism and pluralism is crucial. In pluralism, one may belong to any denomination—or none at all! Religion is pigeonholed and privatized. It is a voluntary activity to be undertaken or dismissed at the discretion of the individual. The denomination is thus marked perhaps 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" situation in religious ideas is the critical operating principle of denominationalism. Denominations are the structural-functional 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 was drawn particularly in Swatos's church-sect model (1979; see Figure C.2).

Although denominationalism is now characteristic of virtually all Western societies, it reaches its quintessential expression in the United States; 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 [Scott Foresman 1972].) The particular effect this had on American development up to the 1950s was chronicled in Will Herberg's benchmark volume Protestant-Catholic-Jew (Doubleday 1955). Although, strictly speaking, denominationalism is a Protestant dynamic, it has become fully accepted in principle by all major religious groups in the United States; 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 will probably eventually face run-ins 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 United States. Organized religion or church affiliation both anticipate the denomination 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 a mutual interdependence. The cultural significance of denominationalism in the United States particularly is that it provided a structural-functional form for organizing communal relationships relating to the transcendent realm in a pluralistic sociocultural system that itself had a specific civilizational history.

Denominations Today

Since the 1980s, and particularly with the publication of Robert Wuthnow's The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton University Press) in 1987, 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 (Dial 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, "liberal" and "conservative" Christians) on critical sociopolitical issues—reflecting in turn the relative rise in importance of "the State" as a sociocultural actor since the 1940s. The ecclesiastical "party" with which people identify is more important to both their spiritual and their moral lives than is a particular denominational label, according to this theory. The growth of "nondenominational" and "parachurch" organizations is seen as part of this process.

Others argue that this view is historically short-sighted and needs modification. Swatos (1981, 1994), for example, uses the local-cosmopolitan distinction elaborated in the sociology of religion by W. C. Roof (1972) 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. Denominational bureaucracies are not, according to this thesis, the crucial social dynamic of the typology but a specific, transitory development. In addition, intradenominational debates have created more internally consistent denominational world-views—conservatives now dominate the Southern Baptists, while liberals have won the day among Episcopalians. Davidson and colleagues (1995) also have shown that the various denominations continue to remain significantly disproportionately represented among American elites across the twentieth century, with corrections required only to accommodate specific immigration effects. Reform Jews, for example, are now significantly overrepresented 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 underrepresented, which may explain their attempt to achieve greater political visibility.

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. 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 also are 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 membership 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 "free" time to church activities and are less likely to experience role redefinition in the home.

See also American Religion, Church-Sect Theory, Two-Party Thesis

William H. Swatos, Jr .


J. D. Davidson et al., "Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment," Social Forces 74(1995):157-175

D. Martin, "The Denomination," British Journal of Sociology 13(1962):1-14

W. C. Roof, "The Local-Cosmopolitan Orientation and Traditional Religious Commitment," Sociological Analysis 33(1972):1-15

W. H. Swatos, Jr., Into Denominationalism (Storrs, Conn.: Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1979)

W. H. Swatos, Jr., "Beyond Denominationalism?" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(1981):217-227

W. H. Swatos, Jr., "Western Hemisphere Protestantism in Global Perspective," pp. 180-196 in R. Cipriani (ed.), Religions sans frontičres? (Rome: Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri, 1994)

B. Wilson, "An Analysis of Sect Development," American Sociological Review 24(1959):3-15

J. M. Yinger, Religion and the Struggle for Power (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1946).

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500