The Social Sources of Denominationalism
by H. Richard Neibuhr

The author makes the point that the fact that Christianity has become divided into denominations proves that it has failed. Most of the worldly success of the Christian churches has been as a result of ignoring the precepts of its founder. Yet, at the end when he advises Christians what to do, he can only recommend that they go back to the original, communistic, pacificistic, and impractical philosophy that made martyrs of Jesus and his early followers.

He stresses the point that official creeds are not the only or even the most significant differences between the denominations.

"... in modern times the churches have represented the ethics of classes and nations rather than a common and Christian morality." Denominations are "emblems, therefore, of the victory of the world over the church, ... of the church's sanction of that divisiveness which the church's gospel condemns. Denominationalism thus represents the moral failure of Christianity." (p. 25)
The new sects generally grow out of an enthusiasm that comes from the lower economic strata: people who are unreflective, who can have unconditioned faith in divine revelation, people who are naive, and people who are in need. These untutored people can be aroused to emotional fervor. They are relatively uninhibited in their emotional expressions. They are not so disposed to formal liturgy as to inner experience. They are prone to believe in apocalypticism. They have a deeper belief in the radical character of the ethics of the gospel and are less apt to compromise with the morality of power than their more wealthy brethren.

Christianity began as a religion of the poor, but it lost its spontaneous energy amid the quibblings of abstract theologies and it abandoned its apocalyptic hopes as irrelevant to the well-being of a successful church.

Religious revolts from the Diggers and Levellers to the Quakers were marked by the doctrine of inner experience as the source of authority and the hope of Christ's kingdom on earth. These doctrines implied the rejection of professional clergy and dependence on lay preaching, the spiritualistic interpretation of the scriptures, and the rejection of monarchy.

The enthusiasm of the first generation of a sect does not usually carry over to the second generation. One reason for this, which the author overlooks, is that by the time the second generation comes along, the apocalyptical predictions have again failed to materialize. Another reason, which he does point out, is that the sects that promote virtue tend to thereby promote the economic success of their members. So later generations in the sect are no longer poor and no longer have the same needs and temptations as the original generation that established the sect. The virtues that these sects typically promote include productivity, sobriety, and abstinence from consumption. This results in savings and investment, which result is more economic prosperity, which leads to respectability rather than radicalism.

Methodism appealed to the emotionalism of the lower class, even though its founders were educated men from the middle class. Its founders were more upset by blasphemous use of the name of God than by blasphemous use of His creatures. They were more concerned about swearing in soldiers' camps than about the ethical problem of war.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was fully aware of the cycle of religious enthusiasm:

"Wherever riches have increased, the essence of religion has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore I do not see how it is possible in the nature of things for any revival of religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase so will pride, anger, and love of the world in all its branches. How then is it possible that Methodism, that is, a religion of the heart, though it flourishes now as a green bay tree, should continue in this state? For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionately increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away. Is there no way to prevent this--this continual decay of pure religion?"
For a religion of the poor to endure, it must preach values that will keep the poor poor. Too many protestant sects began by appealing to the emotionalism of the poor but became respectable, unemotional religions, by teaching values that led their people out of poverty.

Middle-class religions reflect the psychology of middle-class people: an activistic attitude toward life, belief in personal responsibility for success or failure, the doctrines of natural rights and individual liberty, personal merit and demerit rather than fortune or fate, special appreciation of the family, and the belief that poverty is not so much a misfortune to be pitied as a moral failing to be condemned. Middle-class martyrs die for liberty not for fraternity or equality. Roman Catholicism, with its persistent tendency to regard economic life from the point of view of consumption rather than of production, with its suspicion of all economic enterprise as worldly employment, with its prohibition of interest and its efforts to establish fixed prices drove many middle-class people out of the church and into more compatible protestant sects. Laissez faire and the spirit of liberty have flourished most in the countries where the influence of Calvanism was greatest, Switzerland, Holland, England, and America. Calvanism teaches, contrary to what Jesus taught, that diligence will be better repaid than reliance on providence which gives harvests to idle birds and unearned beauty to lilies.

Churches have nationalistic ties. Presbyterians are Scotch and Scotch-Irish, Lutherans are German or Scandinavian, Episcopals are English, the two Reformed Churches are Dutch and German, and the United Brethren are German in origin. Going further back, the Roman Catholic Church became one of the different aspects of the Roman state. The first great schism, when the church divided into East and West was due to political and cultural motives rather than to theology. The Concordant of 1516 virtually separated the Gallican church into an independent establishment subject to the king rather than the pope.

The medieval church taught reverential obedience to authority. Protestant Christianity adopted the principles of nationalism and accepted in place of papal sovereignty the rule of a divinely appointed king or parliament.

"From the Nicene symbol, formulated at the instance of Constantine, to the Westminster Confession, which was framed by an assembly of divines who had been selected, appointed and maintained by the Long Parliaments, the major creeds of Christendom have been born of the union of church and state." (p. 126-127)
National churches are liturgical. The Lutheran and Anglican churches reflect the relation of those churches to princes who were friendly toward the Reformation. So in these two religions, the doctrine of the divine right of kings was most explicit and kingship lasted longer in those countries. Lutheranism became an established church, predominantly an aristocratic and middle-class party of vested interest and privilege.

Calvinism ran into conflict with unfriendly rulers, but found support in a friendly populace. So even though it doctrines started out authoritarian it evolved into a more democratic form.

Sects are frequently designed to call forth individual phenomena of conversion and inspiration. A sect may challenge the authority of the state. Sects may condemn war. Nationalist churches must regard war as part of the divine order. They adopt a conservative attitude that allows a good churchman to live with an easy conscience amid the evils of slavery, the oppressions and privileges of the ruling class, the exploitation of the backward races, and the shambles of war.

In the end, nationalism is more powerful than the common ethical ideas of Christianity.

Sectionalism affected religion in the United States. The East clung to the established forms of European religions. The frontier attracted the independent and fearless as well as rebels against the established order. People on the frontier developed an appreciation for equality and natural rights. The isolation of frontier life fostered a craving for companionship and a susceptibility to crowd suggestion. In the camp-meeting and the political gathering, formal, logical discourse was of no avail. Because of the lack of intellectual stimulation, people had an uncritical emotional response to religious stimulation, which gave rise to the phenomenon of revivalism. New England Federalist Congregationalists were political opponents of Western Jeffersonian Methodists and Baptists. Baptists evangelized the South and Southwest. The rural churches are the champions of prohibition legislation. The urban and Eastern churches are more tolerant. When Southern states seceded in the Civil War the churches split up accordingly, but the sects divided on the issue of slavery rather than geography.

"The history of schism has been the history of Christianity's defeat."

Year Read: 1992


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