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June 11, 2014


Well... Protestants sort of keep this thing straight because they don't actually run into all the possibilities at once.

Small towns in the Midwest once upon a time -- 60 years ago, say -- would have had a Baptist and a Methodist church. Poorer folk usually were Baptists; other people were Methodists. I don't recall that differing views on theology were mentioned, but I was a kid back then. "Small" means well under a thousand, FWIW. In New England, you'd substitute Congregationalist for Methodist. What went on the south, I can't say.

At 1500 to 2000 people ("souls") it'd be possible to find a Catholic church. Roman Catholic -- I never dreamt there was any other sort till I was in my twenties. A step up demographically to county size (10- 20,000 say) brings one into evangelical territory. There's usually an EUB Fellowship or a Church of God or Church of Christ which serves the community. Generally these are lower-income folks.

Once you've hit city suburb levels (20,000 or so) you'll run into Lutherans, who are like Methodists with more money. You might find there are Catholic churches for people with lots of money and Catholic churches for people who are poor. Within an actual city (50,000 people or more) you'll probably find Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists (lower income but exceptionally respectable).

In a middling major city -- 200,000 to 500,000 -- you'll meet all these folk plus Unitarians, Mormons, Ethical Culturalists, and maybe Catholics who don't identify as Roman Catholics. Also -- I realize this is going to be a shock -- there may be a Reform Jewish synagogue; in larger communities there might also be a Conservative synagogue.

One step up, to multi-million person levels, and you'll encounter Sikhs and Buddhists and Orthodox Jews, and a batch of Moslem congregations apparently divided on ethnic or national grounds You'll also find Presbyterian churches with lesbian pastors, Lutheran churches filled with gays, one or more "super-churches" with ten to twenty thousand worshippers each week. There might be one or a dozen not-quite-a-congregation "fellowships" aimed at Christian ex-cons, repentant child molesters, abstinent drug abusers, etc.

This hits the limits of my personal observance. Mostly, the church that people attend is determined by prior membership ("I've always been a Lutheran!" or economic status rather than theology. It generally comes as a great surprise to most Christians, somewhere about 20 or so when they discover this, that Methodists and Lutherans and Catholics and Evangelists do not agree about whether faith alone or good works plus faith is sufficient to gain salvation, and so on.

Ah well. G*d, does that bring back a lot of my childhood to memory!

Anyhow. Income and family history determine which variety of Protestantism appeals to most western non-Catholic Christians. You must understand such people acquire their faith as children and only extraordinary circumstances (reaching adulthood, say) can alter such bedrock convictions.

I dunno if this is what you were looking for...

So that was longwinded and what else can I say? Except this:

When I was in 9th grade, back about 1960. I lived in town of about 500 people in southern Ohio, attending a school that had about 500 students, from 1st thru 12 th grade. And one of my classmates died that summer. Congenital heart failure.

Gweena had always been a little (okay, more than a little) pudgy, a bit less active, but nobody ever thought to comment on it. She was pleasant and clever and a very good student and everyone, old or young, liked her as much as she liked them.

And suddenly she was dead, and there was a memorial service, which I and all her classmates -- and virtually the whole damned town -- just had to attend. Which was at the local Baptist church. And I recall being sort of bewildered at the time -- and half a century later, to be honest -- that someone as bright as Gweena had attended a Baptist church instead of being a Methodist.

Uh-hhhh. I won't say "That's Protestantism!
" But that's a part of Protestantism.

And these days, I define myself as an exceptionally cynical agnostic.

The city of Lowell MA (pop. 90K, when I was a kid) has 4 Greek Orthodox churches and 1 Syrian Orthodox church. It has a boatload of Catholic churches that used to be known locally as either Irish Catholic or French Catholic; there are Catholic churches with Hispanic names also. Nowadays, there must be a Buddhist temple or three. A couple of Jewish synagogues. Oh, and an Assembly of God.

With all that to keep track of, I never even knew there were different kinds of Protestants until I was in high school -- and then only because Jimmy Carter was in the news. So on your specific request, Doc: I got nuthin.

I do want to point out that if I were to take my religious upbringing seriously, I would lump Catholics and Protestants together as schismatics and heretics.


There is a famous quote (at least among linguists) that "functionalism is like Protestantism: it is a group of warring sects which agree only on the rejection of the authority of the Pope."

I think I've related how I was raised Methodist, the local Methodist minister (James Terauchi) would minister to the young people by riding around loaded with baseball equipment, which embedded the young people in the church. link

My dad went to UW Madison, where the Wesley Foundation had the 'Three Square Eating Cooperative', founded during the depression, and called that because it offered three square meals a day. My mother, who was raised Church of England, got involved in the Wesley foundation where she met my dad.

When we moved to Maryland in the mid 60's, my parents were involved in starting the Methodist Church there, and when we moved to Mississippi, there didn't seem to be any question that we would go to another church, but it was another world. The First Baptist Church was this huge building next to city hall. A book about the town 'Outside the Southern Myth' is quite interesting, though the MSU page on it doesn't do it justice, and this piece is basically lifted from his book. Though (and this is what prompts me to write) , as mike shupp writes, Baptist may have traditionally been poorer people, in my town, they were the upper crust, the Methodists were below them on the social scale (but not by much).

In fact, the book above has some interesting observations like this

Southern Baptists deny we are Protestant. We teach that as a body, we were never part of the Roman Catholic Church: we proudly trace our spiritual and theological heritage in a straight undeviating line directly back to Christ; we alone have been completely true to Christ's teaching; we did not dilute the power or meaning of Christ's message by verring off through St. Peter into Mariolatry or other forms of idolatry or intercession. THus we proclaim that we are the one true scriptural Church, no matter what Catholics say.

The distinction of being the one true church is a crucial one for Baptists, because being right is central to the enterprise of being saved. To the outsider, such doctrinal quibbling may seem pointless, but to the insider nothing less than eternal life hangs in the balance; being right (no doing, I say: being) is precisely the point, the only point, the one point that does matter, Being right is the most important unofficial sacrament of fundamentalism; its two official sacraments are mostly adjuncts to it, and even they usually function more to define our difference from others than to celebrate or commemorate their essential meaning.

being right is central to the enterprise of being saved. ... Being right is the most important unofficial sacrament of fundamentalism

Holy Hell, and I mean that literally.

As someone raised (mostly) Catholic, I find this appalling. You're a human, who are you to EVER think you're truly "right"?!?

It does explain why so many fundamentalists have a mental block against the idea that they may have made mistakes.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone have a handle on how often Protestants change denominations for reasons of actual theology? As opposed to because they have moved up economically, and want/need to be where their peers attend. This for both networking purposes and as a status indicator.

For that matter, does anyone have any personal experience regarding that?

My sense is that the evangelical churches gain some members this way. Especially from those who are mostly indifferent to theology, but want something visceral to cling to. But none of the other denominations haven't gained significantly in the US for theological reasons in a century or more.

To be sure, that's the observation of a person who takes an observer's stance, rather than the observation of a true believer. And that does have an interesting counterpart with the Catholic belief that Joyce talks about in Dubliners

' Yes, because when the Pope speaks ex cathedra,'* Mr Fogarty explained, ' he is infallible.'
' Yes,' said Mr Cunningham.
' O, I know about the infallibility of the Pope. I remember I was younger then. ... Or was it that ? '
Mr Fogarty interrupted. He took up the bottle and helped the others to a little more. Mr M'Coy, seeing that there was not enough to go roimd, pleaded that he had not finished his first measure. The others accepted under protest. The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable inter-* lude.
' What's that you were saying, Tom ? ' asked Mr MCoy.
' Papal infallibility,' said Mr Cunningham, ' that was the greatest scene in the whole history of the Church.'
' How was that, Martin ? ' asked Mr Power.
Mr Cunningham held up two thick fingers.
' In the sacred college, you know, of cardinals and archbishops and bishops there were two men who held out against it while the others were all for it. The whole conclave except these two was unanimous. No ! They wouldn't have it ! '
'Ha!' saidMrM^Coy.
' And they were a German cardinal by the name of Dolling ... or Dowling . . . or '
' Dowling was no German, and that's a sure five,' said Mr Power, laughing.
'Well, this great German cardinal, whatever his name was, was one ; and the other was John MacHale.'
' What ? ' cried Mr Keman. ' Is it John of Tuam ? '
' Are you sure of that now ? ' asked Mr Fogarty dubiously. 'I thought it was some Italian or American.'
' John of Tuam,' repeated Mr Cunningham, ' was the man.'
He drank and the other gentlemen followed his lead. Then he resumed :
' There they were at it, all the cardinals and bishops and archbishops from all the ends of the earth and these two fighting dog and devil until at last the Pope himself stood up and declared infallibility a dogma of the Church ex cathedra. On the very moment John MacHale, who had been arguing and arguing against it, stood up and shouted out with the voice of a lion: ''Credo!'''
' I believe ! ' said Mr Fogarty.
' Credo ! ' said Mr Cunningham. ' That showed the faith he had. He submitted the moment the Pope spoke.'
' And what about Dowling ? ' asked Mr M'Coy.
' The German cardinal wouldn't submit. He left the church.'

For comparison, so you can see why the Sprogs feel that are just too many kinds of Christian, here are the churches (etc) in the school district, total pop. 20,000:

catholic: 3
episcopalian: 1
presbyterian: 3
methodist: 3
white baptist: 2
black baptist: 2
AME: 1
Lutheran: 1
Assembly of God: 2
Church of the Nazarene: 1
Filipino-American evangelical: 1
Reform Jewish: 1
Unitarian Universalist: 1
evangelicals I don't know how to classify: 2

Each of the three built-up villages that date back to the 18th C has a Catholic, a Presbyterian and a Methodist church, as a kind of starter set -- though actually the (white) Baptist church is one of the oldest.

They also have friends who are Quaker, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, or Korean evangelical, who have to travel longer distances to their places of worship. Not to mention the cradle Wiccans, who usually met outdoors or in someone's home.

As far as I can tell, New Jersey has *never* had a religious majority, even back in the colonial period.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone have a handle on how often Protestants change denominations for reasons of actual theology?

I have no numbers to offer, but over the years I've known a generous number of folks who have changed either denomination affiliations, or just which particular church they went to, for theological reasons.

I'll also second LJ's cite about the focus on being theologically *right* that characterizes a lot of fundamentalist denominations.

The fate of one's soul can, apparently, hang on the question of whether one is pre- or post-millenial, or whether one adheres to the doctrine of once-saved-always-saved vs the idea that salvation, once gained, could be somehow lost through backsliding.

One thing I've found curious recently is the number of folks who I've always known as conservative Protestants who are now moving toward Catholicism.

Tony P.,

With all that to keep track of, I never even knew there were different kinds of Protestants until I was in high school

My experience was similar.

I was a kid in Providence. My neighborhood had Jews and Catholics. The Catholic family next door had a son my age, a friend, who attended parochial school just as I attended a Jewish religious day school.

It all made perfect sense. Catholics had their schools, we had ours. They had their language - Latin - for religious stuff, we had Hebrew. Our "interfaith" conversations, mostly about baseball and other things important to boys, were in English. There were vague rumors of people called "Protestants" but we had no idea what they protested, and thought they must be a small group indeed, since we didn't know any.

Class is big in church ID. My father was raised Baptist (and working class) and my mother Methodist (and middle class). But, they were upwardly mobile, so they compromised on Episcopalian. My two grandmothers remained loyal to their Baptist and Methodist denominations, respectively, until they died.

Southern Baptists deny we are Protestant. We teach that as a body, we were never part of the Roman Catholic Church: we proudly trace our spiritual and theological heritage in a straight undeviating line directly back to Christ;

Wow, that's just completely untethered to reality. If the Southern Baptists trace their theology back directly to Christ, then where were they in, say, the 13th Century? This strikes me as being more of a foam finger "We're Number 1" kind of a claim than a serious theological statement.

Getting back to the original question, the easiest way of looking at a lot of the bigger Protestant denominations is to remember that they started as national churches of countries that rejected Catholicism for one reason or another. Lutheranism was the national church in Sweden and a lot of the non-Catholic German states. Presbyterianism was the national church of Scotland, and Anglicanism was the national church of England. That status as national established church was probably more significant in practice than the theological distinctions that supposedly justified the separation.

As a non-Christian, I share your bewilderment. I know the theological and historical differences among the denominations, because that's objective stuff you can read up on. But the cultural connotations in the US, those are never explicitly discussed, because everyone assumes you already know them. Garrison Keillor makes jokes about Lutherans, and everyone seems to get them except me, because I don't know what "Lutheran" means culturally. I was deeply surprised when I learned that a connotation of Episcopalian was "northeastern liberal", because 1) I thought that was the meaning of Unitarian, and 2) when you say "Episcopalian", the first person who comes to my mind is George H.W. Bush, not exactly a liberal.

You can find an informative overview of denominations in black rural Texas in the 1920's from Washington Phillips: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoOX9-kcv7g
That's Part 1. In Part 2, he has a more general religious theme, including a verse about a man who jumps from church to church "his conversion don't amount to much." When I was growing up in rural Virginia, there were people who would repeatedly wear out their welcome in one church and go to another. That was generally considered behavior in line with the rest of their personality.

For DB, please don't consider all Epicopalians to be like George H. W. Bush (http://shipoffools.com/mystery/2013/2632.html). You could also check Bishop Curry at the NC Moral Mondays.

Not all Episcopalians are rich and liberal. I'll be taking a food donation from my (upper middle class liberal) Episcopal Church to an Episcopal church in a poor neighborhood later today. One of my good friends is an Episcopalian and ultra-right in most of his beliefs. He's even wondering if maybe the universe is just a few thousand years old and gave me the human population creationist argument some weeks back. (In case you're interested, the argument is that if humans had been around tens of thousands of years there should be many more of us. I pointed out that the invention of agriculture, sanitation and other things make the argument worthless.)

"You're a human, who are you to EVER think you're truly "right"?!?

It does explain why so many fundamentalists have a mental block against the idea that they may have made mistakes."

I think that's about right.

Tghe timeline is correct, but it is inaccurate from doctrinal viewpoint. If you think about the Catholic Church as "right wing" of theology, the anabaptists are the "left wing". Everything else is in the between. (Of course, this is mainly about ecclesiology, but it provides a good scheme.)

Of the protestant denominations, Anglicans and Lutherans are the most right-wing. They have, at least in their own mind, apostolic succession, and in Europe, they are a single denomination for practical purposes: The priests of one Porvoo convention church can officiate in other churches. E.g in Finland, the Lutheran Church actually celebrates mass according to the Common Worship for the benefit of resident Britons and other English-speakers in major cities. (See this for an example).

When you go towards left, you get wilder and wilder ecclesiology: the importance of charismatic gifts and personal revelation increases, while the importance of tradition and the acceptability of infant baptism decreases. Left of Lutherans, you have calvinists (the reformed and presbyterian churches). They don't have bishops and don't believe in real presence, but they do baptise infants and have some national-level structures. Left of that, we have the methodists and then come the pentecostals. They eschew infant baptism.

Then we get the "traditional" baptists, like the Amish. They are, theologically, pretty wild, but not really that charismatic, because they are mature and stable organisations. On the extreme left flank, we have the Baptists and various charismatic groupings.

The LDS and Jehova's witnesses are on a totally different scale. They deny trinity and don't accept the Nicean Creed. I don't count them among Christians at all.

One thing I've found curious recently is the number of folks who I've always known as conservative Protestants who are now moving toward Catholicism.

On this side of the big pond the main reason for that seems to be that the mainline churches clearly tend liberal while one can always find a Roman Catholic congregation that see Vaticanum II like US right-wingers see the New Deal, i.e. something akin to original sin that one day has to and will get torn out by the root to usher in the new kingdom of G#d. Those converting conservative protestants prefer these reactionary guys to the of-this-world wihywashies of their protestant churches. That the reactionaries also do not actually recognize even the most reactionary pope as long as he does not root out the evil of Vaticanum II makes the transition even easier.
On the other end, many (mainly German) Catholics that leave their church because of its conservatism switch to Old Catholicism. No change of rites necessary and they may even get their old parish priest back that switched earlier in order to stay priests while getting married (there is even a League of Catholic Priests and their Wifes).
In Britain the RCC openly called for Anglican priests to switch when the Church of England allowed women to become priests. They could even keep their wifes much to the chagrin of original Catholic priests that found that (and justly so) extremly unfair.

Lurker, I always got the impression that Calvinists are to the right of (mainline) Lutherans. The days of Lutheran Orthodoxy seem long past to me. But Germany and Scandinavia are a bit different there.

They deny trinity and don't accept the Nicean Creed. I don't count them among Christians at all.

I think you could say they aren't orthodox, but I'm not sure you can say it makes them not Christian.

There were Christians for, minimally, about 300 years before the Council at Nicaea.


My definitions of "left" and "right" are mostly based on sacramental and ecclesiological grounds. On social and political levels, Calvinists are definitely more conservative. However, unlike the Anglicans and Lutherans, the Calvinists consider communion to be a memorial supper for Christ. We Lutherans see the bread and wine as true, actual body and blood of Christ. (Don't ask for details, we definitely frown on theorising about it: transubstantiation is Catholic rationalism. We like our mysticism pure of reason.)

The German Lutherans don't usually have bishops because German Catholic bishops didn't defect to Lutheranism, unlike the Swedish, Danish and Norwegians bishops who mostly obeyed their kings.

On the matter of Lutheran orthodoxy: it actually was almost Calvinist, because it was much more important for 17th century Lutherans to differentiate themselves from Catholics than from the Reformed. This is particularly true in Germany, where the Prussian government forced the two churches together, and where Leuenberg Concordia has brought several Lutheran and Reformed churches very close to each other.

Then we get the "traditional" baptists, like the Amish. They are, theologically, pretty wild, but not really that charismatic, because they are mature and stable organisations. On the extreme left flank, we have the Baptists and various charismatic groupings.

This is a bit of a misleading statement. I mean, it may be half-right depending on what you mean by "traditional", but it strikes me as quite odd to see you refer to Anabaptists as "'traditional' Baptists". There is a certain tendency in some of the Anabaptist denominations to reject modernity and in that sense I suppose they're "traditional", but they're not traditional Baptists.

The non-charismatic part is accurate, though.

I'm not sure how you're defining "left" and "right" here, BTW; I'd put the various non-hierarchical pacifist churches you find amongst the Anabaptists generally further "left" than most Baptist denominations if we're talking traditional political usages of the terms, though of course what I should be saying is this is an area where a one-dimensional spectrum will cause more confusion than clarity.

(For reference, I was raised Church of the Brethern before succumbing to adolescent apostasy. For further clarity, CotB is a very non-hierarchical pacifist peitist (non-Mennonite) Anabaptist denomination within the broader Brethern movement. Yes, I know that doesn't clarify much, so let's just leave it at Distinctly Not Baptist.)

Ah, and now I see what you mean by left and right.

Write the post, proof the post, re-proof the post, refresh to make sure no new post has superseded it, and only then post. Got it.

In the US at least, I think of Protestant denominations as sorting themselves out in terms of a few different dimensions or aspects.

What's their position on the Bible, i.e., is it inerrant, is study of the Bible by laity a normal part of religious practice.

Are they liturgical or not.

What's their polity like, i.e., congregational vs some kind of hierarchy.

Are they separatist, and if so to what degree.

What are their eschatological views, and how large do they loom in their beliefs and practice.

Do they require some kind of explicit, personal salvation experience as a basis of membership and participation. I.e., is there some concept of being personally saved.

Most US protestant denominations are generally orthodox, at least in the sense of (at least nominally) affirming the major creeds. Some not, but most are.

But within the scope of nominally (or fervently) orthodox denominations, there's a lot of variation on the points above.

Lurker, the Brandenburg/Prussian meddling in the Reformed/Lutheran affairs muddied the waters so much that I guess 9 out of 10 (if not 99 out of 100) protestants in the area cannot say for sure what they formally are* (provided that they even know the theological differences). Although I am effectively an agnostic, I am far more a Lutheran one than anything else but I am pretty sure that there are reformed elements mixed in.

*strictly spoken that includes me. Formally it's a united church (EKD) but that's administrative mainly. I assume that the brick and mortar church I live right next to (and formally belong to) is Lutheran but even on their webpage I cannot find any specific statement.

Disclaimer: Details below may be spotty, also I am an athiest (the non-organized kind):

Growing up Lutheran in Iowa -- in what used to be called the "Iowa Synod" which has subsequently merged with somethingorother to become the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America - I think?) -- I was shocked the first time I had to attend a wedding or something in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.

"Regular" (or whatever - mainstream/midwestern/Garrison Keillor) Lutherans are fairly liberal, which to me is most importantly codified by the idea that the pastor's word is his interpretation of the Book and not to be taken as Word. Plus we sang a lot, which was nice.

Missouri Synod Lutheranism seemed to me to be much closer to a dogmatic, ultraconservative -- or at least militantly literalist -- theology closer (to my naive perception) to southern Baptism. When I questioned my mother about it at the time she said, yes, the Missouri Synod Lutherans have little in common with "our" [sic] brand of easy-going religion.

PS: I am not a theologian. Just my $.02 and recollections.

I am not a theologian

Go to link:


And then there's this:

The Social Sources of Denominationalism Paperback
by H. Richard Niebuhr (Author)

1929. The following discussion of the social character of the Christian churches is intended to be a practical contribution to the ethical problem of Denominationalism. The effort to distinguish churches primarily by reference to their doctrine and to approach the problem of church unity from a purely theological point of view appeared to be a procedure so artificial and fruitless that the author turned from theology to history, sociology, and ethics for a more satisfactory account of denominational differences and a more significant approach to the question of union. Contents: The Ethical Failure of the Divided Church; The Churches of the Disinherited; The Churches of the Middle Class; Nationalism and the Churches; Sectionalism and Denominationalism in America; The Churches of the Immigrants; Denominationalism and the Color Line; and Ways to Unity.

You want to know how Protestant the US is? How many of you ever asked or was asked, "Are you Catholic or Christian?" You could only get away with asking that question that way in a Protestant nation.

I grew up hardcore Pentecostal and switched to Calvinism (Presbyterian). My friends would say something like..."so, you going where the money is." That comment certainly expresses a sociological view of a denomination.

On the "Catholic or Christian," two asides:

1) In 1902 President McKinley famously explained/justified our acquisition of the Philippines (to a group of Methodist ministers, IIRC) by saying it was our duty to, among other things "Christianize" them. And the Philippines was probably 80% Catholic at least (with zero Protestants - the rest would have been Muslims and animists, mostly)

2) In Hong Kong (English speech) today, the major distinction made in this realm is still between "Catholic" and "Christian."

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