The Character of US Protestantism

Table 7.1 provides a summary view of major churches in the United States, showing several distinguishing characteristics of faith and structure. While practically all the new faiths were Bible-centered, a few maintained a higher authority in the figure of God himself. Quakers, for example, believe that Christ holds authority over the Bible.

To describe a faith as "eucharistic" means that it accords a prominent place to the Lord's Supper in its doctrinal base; "episcopal" refers to a hierarchic administration (i.e., bishops) not based on principles of representative democracy; "congregational" refers to an organizational structure that allows leaders to be chosen by election or other democratic process.

Table 7.1 makes no attempt to be complete or comprehensive. The number of non-traditional religious sects and denominations in the United States and in the world has continued to proliferate to the present day, but there is little point in scrutinizing every doctrinal or organizational peculiarity. Nor should this table be interpreted in a rigid fashion,

Table 7.1

Major Protestant churches in the United States

Doctrine Organization

Table 7.1

Major Protestant churches in the United States

Doctrine Organization

Church

Bible-centered

Eucharistic Episcopal

Congregational

Adventists

X

X

X

Baptists

X

X

X

Church of God

X

X

X

Congregational Christian

X

X

Episcopal (Anglican)

X

X

X

Friends (Quakers)

X

Lutheran

X

X

X

Mennonite

X

X

X

Methodist

X

X

X

Mormon

X

X

Moravian

X

X

Pentecostal

X

X

Presbyterian

X

X

Unitarian

X

because it is difficult to put some churches into precise categories on matters of doctrine or organization. Nevertheless, it serves to illustrate, at a glance, the general process of product differentiation that manifested itself in the establishment of churches once the market was opened by successful market penetration in the sixteenth century. The fact that it took decades, and in some cases centuries, for new "products" to emerge is of no particular consequence, because intermittent and ongoing product differentiation is to be expected in any market as long as that market remains viable.

With respect to church governance we find, for the most part, the same forces at work here as before. Churches that adopted the episcopal form in Europe maintained that form in the United States; for the most part, so did their offshoots. Methodism, for example, derived from the Anglican Church. Its founder, John Wesley, was a high Anglican prelate before he broke away from that staid institution to establish his new church. His disagreement, however, apparently did not extend to the matter of church governance. Moravians and Methodists were inter twined early on (Wesley is said to have derived his inspiration from a pious group of Moravians he met while aboard ship en route to the American colonies in 1736). The Moravian emphasis on conversion and holiness became and remains central to Methodism. Pentecostalism is a broad term that describes a large number of revivalist sects in the United States, most of which come out of Methodist or Baptist backgrounds. These churches have a tendency to preserve the governance structure of their root institution. The Mormons have had the most tempestuous history of any church in the United States. Attacked by angry mobs and by U.S. Army troops, they sought protection through isolation in the Utah desert, where they built a religious empire that defied the odds and became one of the fastest growing denominations in the United States. It is controversial to categorize the Mormon Church as Protestant, but we do so here in the interest of drawing meaningful generalizations rather than adhering to categorical precision. The Mormon religion appeals to people who yearn for discipline and are willing to grant loyalty to strong, centralized authority. This church influences every phase of the lives of its members, providing education, recreation, employment, and relief in illness or poverty. The Church of God is the name given to at least two hundred independent religious bodies in the United States, making it difficult to characterize in exact terms. Some of these churches elect leadership; some appoint.

Given the economic and political history of the United States, it was perhaps inevitable that even those American Protestant churches that organized around the episcopal system would nevertheless succumb over time to democratizing influences. The Episcopal Church in the United States is somewhat more democratic than the Anglican Church from which it derived. This merely affirms the fact that churches must respond to the market environment in which they operate as well as the demands of their (local) customers.

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