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1956 Article

Denomination, a form of church organization in American church life, to be contrasted both to ecclesiastical institutionalism (state church type) and the brotherhood type of church life. In England with its established Anglican church, the analogous though mainly negative term is "Nonconformism"; in Germany likewise the Freikirche is distinguished from the Landeskirche or Volkskirche, the national church. In the United States, however, with its complete separation of state and church, a distinction of this kind has no clear meaning. All churches in the U.S. are free churches and no church is "conformist." Hence a new kind of distinction has developed, based in the main on the type of church government, that is, on a sociological principle. The older distinction by Ernst Troeltsch (1912) between church and sect (Kirche and Sekte) seems no longer to hold true. To him the state church, in which everybody participates and of which everybody automatically becomes a member by infant baptism, no matter how much or little interest he later on takes in the work of the church, is the Kirche; its essential feature is its objective, institutional character. The Catholic Church is perhaps the best example of this type; yet also the Church of England, the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, and the Lutheran churches in Germany or Scandinavia are in a sense comparable to it. According to Troeltsch, everything else belongs to the "sect"-type of church organization, the term being used here in its best sense. The concept of a denomination was not yet fully developed by this outstanding sociologist of religion. As a specific type it was first studied by De Jong in 1938 ("The Denomination as the American Church Form"), and then in 1946, again by Joachim Wach (see Bibliography), who clearly distinguished between ecclesiastical church bodies, denominations, and sects. The ecclesiastical bodies all claimed exclusiveness, authoritatively defined doctrines, sacraments and distinct orders. Under the denominational type Wach classified the Congregationalists, the Baptists, the Disciples, and similar church bodies in which the local churches had more autonomy. For them the local congregation was the basic unit of the church; they were less bound by tradition, open to "liberal" reforms, were in brief "a voluntary society for carrying on the work of Christ . . . ." (Neve, 552.) The denomination showed the typical substitution of dignity of church office for spiritual charisma (grace). It evidenced a weakening, both in authority (discipline) and inspiration. The "sect," finally, represented the morally rigid brotherhood type of church organization, the gathered church or believers' church, the Christian fellowship or a "Society of Friends" (as the Quakers call themselves). Among the sects, E. T. Clark distinguished eschatological, charismatic, holiness, and communal groups.

The denomination was obviously the least demanding of the three groups, liberal in spirit and democratic in the sense of having no supreme central authority. Intellectuals flourished in this free atmosphere of the typical American denomination. Their "free" spirit shrank from the rigid organization of the ecclesiastical bodies and from the rigid moral demands of the sectarians. Thus the denominational churches became seedbeds of "liberal Protestantism," gradually dissolving the original substance of the church. From this sprang the ever-repeated yet not too successful revival movements. All of this was primarily true for the situation in the United States and Canada.

The implications of this analysis for the Mennonite Church here as elsewhere are quite obvious. Essentially Anabaptism and Mennonitism in its original form was a brotherhood church, the fellowship of committed disciples, with all the rigidity of such a group of conscious "nonconformists to the world." This was the type among them everywhere during the 16th century, and in Switzerland, Moravia, and Prussia even up to the 18th century. But in the Netherlands with its free and tolerant atmosphere and the absence of any oppression the shift to a denominational type (Freikirche) was soon achieved, hardly noticed at first, but completed in the 18th century. The same happened, perhaps slightly later, in Emden, Hamburg, Danzig, in the Rhineland (Krefeld), and in the 19th century also in the Palatinate. The church became well settled, and its prophetic tradition vanished, giving way to routine and tradition. The urbanization of the congregations helped in this process.

In America the situation was at first different. Though oppression was totally absent here, the brotherhood type survived among the Swiss-South German Mennonite immigrants to Pennsylvania because of their social isolation due to ethnic characteristics and the strongly conservative mind of the rural congregations. The same was true among the large rural congregations of Dutch-North German Mennonites in Prussia and Russia and their emigrant descendants in America, distinguished by their strong adherence to traditional Mennonite principles of separation, simplicity, and Biblicism during the 19th century, and in the American groups on into the 20th century. But almost inevitably in America, too, came the trend from the brotherhood type with all its implications to the denominational type, the adjustment to surrounding Protestantism. Evidences of this while subtle in some cases are nevertheless noticeable to some extent in all Mennonite groups, with the exception of the Old Order Amish, most Old Order Mennonites, and Old Colony Mennonites.

The most rapid shift occurred in those groups which were formed in America by the schism of more liberal elements from the old-line conservative groups, and in those which, having broken away from their historical and traditional moorings, have come under the heavy influence of modern American Protestantism, either liberal or conservative.

The call "back to the forefathers" (Menno Simons, Conrad Grebel, Pilgram Marpeck, etc.) might be taken as an awakening toward a reverse movement, away from the denomination toward the gathered church of regenerated believers and disciples. Its success would depend exclusively upon a leadership with vision and dedication.

In conclusion it should be remarked that the same development toward the denominational type has occurred in most of the other "sectarian" groups of America. The Church of the Brethren was painfully aware of this "broken cup" (J. Ziegler). Also the Quakers with their principle of "birthright membership" were in full transition toward an established denomination with paid ministers instead of charismatic leaders. But it was true that responsible members of these groups were aware of this temptation and were trying to counteract it. -- Robert Friedmann

1990 Article

Denominationalism is the characteristic form of church organization and identity in North America. In contrast to the European pattern of dominant state church and tolerated (or persecuted) sects, American denominationalism accorded legitimate religious status to all kinds of churches. Each church or denomination came to recognize the place of the others in the national religious mosaic. As a religious social system, denominationalism was not the product of an ideology or a plan but rather resulted from the experience of religious pluralism in America. In the 19th century American denominations fostered identity and gained vitality through voluntary activities for church renewal and world reform -- missions, Sunday Schools, benevolent institutions, and other activities. The denominations often retained an ethnic quality which helped members sustain distinctive identity in the face of rapid social change.

American denominationalism deeply affected Mennonites who had been persecuted as sectarians in a European system which was dominated by established state churches. In times of peace Mennonites in America increased their contacts with non-Mennonite neighbors and sectarian consciousness declined. in times of war and military conscription, however, Mennonite pacifists refused military participation and lost something of their claim to denominational respectability in the face of a militant civil religion. The American War for Independence (1775-83) and the American involvement in World War I (1917-18) both had the effect of marginalizing Mennonites after periods of increasing accommodation to American society. In the late 20th century, after the Vietnam War and the threat of nuclear war, pacifist convictions became more acceptable in America and served as a respected denominational distinctive rather than as a sectarian quirk.

Mennonite historian Paul Toews has suggested that progressive Mennonite groups (especially the "old" Mennonite Church [MC], the General Conference Mennonite Church, and the Mennonite Brethren) have experienced a denominational revitalization of three successive and overlapping stages in the late 19th century. and the 20th century. The first was a surge of new institutional development before World War I. The new institutions included Sunday schools, Bible conferences, church periodicals, mission boards, colleges, and national conference (denominational) organizations. The second stage was a more clearly articulated theology focused on the Anabaptist story. The third stage was an acceleration of inter-Mennonite activity for relief work, missions, mutual aid, historical study, etc. While the progressive groups became denominationalized the traditionalist or Old Order groups survived and grew by maintaining the boundaries which separated them from the larger society. The Hutterites and Old Order Amish have demonstrated that it is possible to grow and to thrive while resisting pressures of denominationalization.

There is no commonly accepted theory or definition of denominationalism to determine whether the various Mennonite and Amish groups in North America should be considered one denomination or many, or at what point a sectarian group should be considered a denomination. Nor do the sociological types of "church" and "sect" adequately describe American Mennonite pluralism. Mennonites of various kinds have sustained a sense of common peoplehood, despite the wide variation of life-style and religious practice from the traditionalist Old Orders to the more acculturated groups. The fact that nearly all groups cooperate in inter-Mennonite efforts for peace and nonresistance, as well as in relief and development work under Mennonite Central Committee suggests a shared denominational identity. -- James C. Juhnke


De Jong, "The Denomination as the American Church Form." Nieuw theologisch tijdschrift (1938): 347 ff.

Garber, E. "Cultural Adaptation in the Church of the Brethren." Schwarzenau (1940): 17-61.

Hudson, Winthrop. "Denominationalism," in The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987: 292-98.

Juhnke, James. "The Role of Women in the Mennonite Transition from Traditionalism to Denominationalism." Mennonite Life 41 (September 1986): 17-20.

Kyle, Richard. From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and Their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History. Hillsboro, Ks.:, Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies, 1985.

Littell, Franklin. The Anabaptist View of the Church, An Introduction to Sectarian Protestantism. American Society of Church History, 1952.

MacMaster, Richard K. Land, Piety, Peoplehood: the Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America, 1683-1790. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1985.

Neve, J. L. Churches and Sects of Christendom. Burlington, 1940.

Niebuhr, Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. New York, 1929.

Pannabecker, S. F. "The Development of the General Conference of the Mennonite Church of America." Yale, 1944, unpublished dissertation.

Richey, Russell E., ed. Denominationalism. Nashville: Abingdon, 1977.

Toews, Paul. "Dissolving the Boundaries and Strengthening the Nuclei." Christian Leader (27 July 1982): 6-8.

Troeltsch, E. The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches.German, 1912; English at London, 1930.

Wach, Joachim. Church, Denomination, and Sect. Evanston, 1946.

Ziegler, J. The Broken Cup, Three Generations of Dunkers. Elgin, IL, 1942.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
James C. Juhnke
Date Published 1989

Cite This Article

MLA style

Friedmann, Robert and James C. Juhnke. "Denominationalism." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 13 Apr 2024.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert and James C. Juhnke. (1989). Denominationalism. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 13 April 2024, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 37-38, 5, p. 226. All rights reserved.

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