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Protestantism in the United States:
II.  American Protestants Investigate Their Disunity

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

In a previous article (February, 1955), we have seen the extent to which American Protestantism is disunited on the two basic levels of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and doctrinal profession. Ninety denominations are separated into two hundred and thirty sects, which are further divided into thousands of autonomous churches where the final basis of authority is the board of trustees appointed by the local parishioners. Doctrinal differences cover every phase of Christian revelation, ranging from the condonation and condemnation of divorce to the admission and denial of three Persons in one God.

In the present study we shall examine this “unhappy division” through Protestant eyes, allowing their own church leaders to make the evaluation. In this way we can better appreciate the gigantic problem which faces the ecumenical movement, not only in the United States, but wherever Christianity has broken away from the unity of Roman Catholicism.

Reasons for the Disunity in American Protestantism

Protestant scholars have undertaken to analyze the background of the proliferation of their own denominations in America. They are frank in admitting that while Protestants have been divided into different sects from the very beginning, the division has not been so rapid or so radical as in the United States. The original reformers founded different churches in Germany, England, Switzerland and France. They were not only geographically separated, but also doctrinally opposed to each other on many points. Yet, for the most part, European Protestantism has followed the general pattern set by Luther, Cranmer, Zwingli and Calvin, with some, but relatively little, further fragmentation. How explain the abnormal situation in America?

I. The first explanation suggested is that the principle of religious liberty granted by the American Constitution tended to be carried over from the political sphere to the sphere of religion, that is, from the state to the church. This psychological transference was more or less unconscious: [1]

The neutrality and impartiality of the American state toward all forms of religion subtly predisposed Protestant people to assume that the creation of a new denomination was not only legally irreproachable but could be religiously approved. “This is a free country, isn’t it?” became the colloquial justification by which the withdrawal of a disaffected group to form a new denomination was appreciably relieved of any moral or religious reproach.

James Madison, fourth President of the United States, who was largely responsible for the “religious freedom” amendment to the American Constitution, [2] had said, “The more independent religious bodies, the more secure would be the government in its freedom from church influence.” [3] The Protestant mind mistakenly assumed that if this multiplication of sects were good for the government, it was also good for religion. “Sectarian diversity was therefore accepted as an ecclesiastical virtue.” [4]

II. Unlike European Protestantism which has a tradition of stability behind its denominations, the American churches had no valid objection to make when a disaffected group wished to secede. In fact, secession was part of the American tradition since practically every sect which migrated to the States had broken away from the parent denomination over in Europe: [5]

The parent denomination itself had originated in essentially the same kind of situation as that which it now confronted in the threatened secession of its own children. With what consistency, therefore, could the parent now chide her children for doing what she herself had done a century or two centuries or three centuries ago?

III. Another factor explaining the uninhibited growth of so many denominations on American soil may be found in the pioneer psychology of the nation. Until recent years the American people have always lived on the frontier. New regions had to be explored, new territory cultivated, new homes and institutions established—among them the churches. Except for those who were traditionally Catholic and were blessed with the services of a priest who moved along with them, the majority settled as small religious communities that were distinct from the original denomination, at first only geographically, but, later on, also in doctrine and religious discipline.

Add to this fact the circumstance of size of country, and the multiplication of sects becomes a logical corollary. The table below will illustrate the relative sparsity of population which made sectarianism a natural necessity in the United States.

Even in 1950, the per square mile population in the United States was only one-fourth that of Europe, exclusive of Russia. But in the middle 1800’s, with only ten to fifteen persons to a square mile in the States, with intercommunication rare and unnecessary, it is no wonder that small religious groups first migrated and then separated completely from the parent denomination.

Year Total Population of U.S. Population per Square Mile
1800 5,308,483     6.1
1840 17,069,453     9.7
1880 50,155,783     16.9
1920 105,710,620     35.5
1951 150,697,361     50.7

Protestant Attitude Toward American Denominationalism

It is difficult adequately to analyze the Protestant attitude toward the extreme sectarianism which prevails in America. For one thing, it is not uniform, but fluctuates from the perfectly complacent to the very critical, with certain churchmen undecided where precisely to stand. Fortunately for our purpose, there have been outspoken commentators among Protestant leaders, whose opinions may safely be regarded as representative of the churches themselves.

I. The Complacent Minority Opinion

In 1951 there appeared an illustrated volume, Protestant Panorama, which fairly described the minority attitude toward American denominationalism. The United States, with its more than fifty million Protestants, is called “the largest and most virile Protestant nation on the face of the globe.” [6] Ever since the English dissenters reached America in 1620; men in search of religious liberty have been coming to a free land, “each fiercely determined to find sanctuary for his right to believe and worship as he saw fit, and as God seemed to lead.” This mixture of religious sects is therefore the outgrowth of a heterogeneous assortment of individuals and groups from a variety of cultures in Europe and other parts of the world. Yet they had one thing in common: “their thirst for religious liberty.” Consequently, if America may be called a “melting pot” for diverse social and national customs, “it is even more of a melting pot of denominational diversity.” [7]

But this is nothing of which the sectarians should be ashamed: [8]

That diversity, so far from being something to carp at, is Protestantism’s glory. Only he who does not comprehend the patterns and processes of democracy can fail to understand and appreciate our profusion of sects. It conforms to the rich pattern of heterogeneity that characterizes so much of life in these United States. Americans glory in their system of economic “free enterprise”; American Protestants glory too in the spiritual free enterprise that is as much a part of the American idea as States’ rights and individual initiative.

Not only is such diversity not unhealthy but, we are told, it is part of the original tradition of the American Republic. “Did the Founders [of the country] look aghast at this religious coat of many colors?” On the contrary: “They helped design it.” Thus James Madison, previously mentioned, laid down the principle which was endorsed by his compatriots, that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” This political expedience “started us on our diversified way. [9]

Arguing on the subject with an Episcopalian who feared that the American Constitution did not sufficiently protect religion, Madison is reported to have said: [10]

Happily for the States, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. This freedom arises from that multiplicity of sects which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.

American denominationalism, therefore, is not to be deplored, but encouraged. According to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, difference of opinion in matters of religion is not only politically advantageous, but also beneficial to religion: [11]

The several sects perform the office of a censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.

Behind these formidable statements from political figures whose religion is known to have been desupernaturalized deism, [12] a sizable portion of American Protestants take pride in their sectarian diversity and call it the glory of democratic liberty.

II. Critical Majority Opposition

The majority of Protestants, certainly the leaders in church circles, are agreed that sectarianism in the States is an evil, and something that needs to be corrected as soon as possible. Outstanding among the critics have been the guest speakers at the University of Chicago who are invited every year to give a series of lectures on Christian Unity. The lectures are later published in book form and enjoy wide circulation.

The first series of lectures was delivered by the Episcopal Bishop of Washington and entitled “Prospecting for a United Church.” They were hailed as a godsend that “will give substance and vitality to the slumbering will for church union.” After describing in accurate detail the “division among the churches,” which “manifests itself in many forms and degrees,” he decried this hostile diversity as a scandal. Divisions among pagans and unbelievers are expected and understandable. “But for those who are called Christ’s people to be at enmity with one another, to withdraw from one another, to have no intimate, brotherly dealing with one another, is a scandal. It is a scandal even to the unbelieving and half-believing world around us.” [13]

It is a strange spectacle, he concludes, when those who call the world to be reconciled are themselves unreconciled:” [14]

We call the world, burdened with its own tragic divisions of race and class and nationality, to find its unity in the one Father and the one Christ, and then we add other divisions to those with which it already struggles. “Woe unto the world because of offenses.” The simple are confused and the sensitive are offended by the incongruity between the churches and the Church.

More specific and penetrating were the lectures in 1953, delivered by the ranking Protestant writer in the country, the late editor of the internationally respected Christian Century. Dr. Morrison’s lectures, published under the title of The Unfinished Reformation, were called by the reviewers a “hard-hitting critique” of sectarianism, and, when printed, were said to have been “written as only a great crusading editor, one of the outstanding religious journalists of this generation, could write it.” [15]

Morrison’s message claims to be that of the reformers of the sixteenth century, who earnestly tried for many years to unite the separate branches of original Protestantism. They failed, for historical reasons which he carefully sets forth. Then to bolster his fellow-religionists to take up the cause of the Unfinished Reformation and work toward a united Protestantism, he presents in a series of the following six propositions the evil of denominationalism in the United States, which he boldly stigmatizes as a sin.

A. Division and Waste

“Denominationalism is scandalously wasteful of Protestant resources.” [16] The prodigal waste of money applies to the support of local churches and to the overhead expenses of their many denominations. For one thing, there are too many local churches. The fifty-three million Protestants, most of whom are only occasional church-goers, operate a total of 260,000 church edifices, which means an average of only two hundred persons for each building. By comparison, the Roman Catholic Church with thirty-one million members has less than 16,000 churches, with an average membership close to two thousand.

This would be less serious if the Protestant churches were at least evenly distributed. “But this is notoriously not the case. Nearly all of them exist side by side and in competition with other Protestant churches in small and large communities.” [17]

Not only are funds thus wasted in too many churches, but the multiplicity of sects adds the further burden of multiplied overhead expense to run the separate organizations. If only the sects united, instead of spending their money in competition with other churches, they could use it “directly to the great enterprise of the Kingdom of God.”

B. Division and Missioners

“The missionary expansion of the Christian faith is seriously handicapped and misrepresented by our sectarianism.” [18] Put more bluntly, a divided church at home inevitably, and to a high degree, hinders the spread of the gospel to the people of non-Christian lands: [19]

When Christians in mission lands leave father and mother, caste and tribe, and the whole social order that has been home to them, for the sake of Christ, it is grievous and shocking to them to find the Christian community divided against itself. What can it possibly mean but confusion and distress of mind when a Northern Chinese joins the American Southern Baptists, thus adding the divisive heritage of the American Civil War to a country already cursed with its own civil wars! Every experienced missionary knows that this is scandalous.

C. Division and Social Efforts

“Denominationalism frustrates the efforts of Protestantism to discharge the unique responsibility which the social gospel lays upon the Christian Church.” [20] Here the author touches on a critical problem which besets the Protestant churches in their conflict with collectivist tendencies in the country: [21]

A disunited church is no match for the tremendous power of the social collectivities that have emerged in modern America. Great magnitudes of social organization have emerged, over against which our denominational churches present a picture of limp futility. Protestantism has not learned to live in the modern world.

The American mind is supposed to be “predominantly collectivist in its structure. It is molded by a relatively few massive blocs of secular interest, each under the control of its own center of propaganda and power.” [22] This allows us to make an invidious comparison between the relative strength of the Catholic Church and the Protestant sects. “The contacts of Protestantism with government, the labor unions, the movies and television, the press, industrial management, the educational system, the scientific enterprise, even the family, are tenuous and unimpressive.” [23] By contrast, “these blocs, of collectivist power have ample reason to be respectfully conscious of Roman Catholicism.” [24] Though fewer in number, Catholics are united and therefore represent a standing threat to the enemies of personal liberty, which Protestant churches cannot duplicate unless they unite.

D. Division and Catholic Strength

“The denominational system robs Protestantism of its inherent strength in its inescapable competition with a formidable and aggressive Roman Catholicism.” [25] The writer concedes that Protestantism and Catholicism are both engaged in resisting the gradual secularization of American life. This common purpose, he explains, has led many Protestants to believe that the two are therefore allies co-operating in a common cause: [26]

This notion, however, is not for a moment shared by Catholicism. The Catholic Church knows that itself and Protestantism represent two profoundly different kinds of religion, and it draws the line sharply between them. In the past, Protestants have always been clearheaded on this matter. It is only in our generation, under the influence of a sentimental and false conception of tolerance, that a considerable portion of the Protestant mind has been beguiled into the delusion that Protestantism and Catholicism are allies.

But they are not allies. They are competitors in the struggle for the soul of America, in which “Catholicism has been rapidly overtaking Protestantism.” The figures quoted are revealing: [27]

In the city of New York the Roman church membership outnumbers that of Protestantism by 5 to 1—2,225,000 Catholics to 478,000 Protestants. In Chicago, the ratio is 3 to 2. In Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland, San Francisco, Washington, Cincinnati, the ratio is roughly 50—50, with an edge in every one of these cities in favor of the Roman church. Boston from Plymouth Rock to the beginnings of the twentieth century the proud capital of New England, Protestantism is now overwhelmingly Roman Catholic.

How to meet the challenge? It can never be met, and Protestantism is doomed to failure while it persists in spreading its efforts, dividing its interests and localizing its forces, when the Catholic Church, strong in unity, “is aggressively out to win” America to its side.

E. Division and Spiritual Good

“Denominationalism provincializes Protestant mentality by erecting barriers against the free flow of Christian thought.” [28] This is another way of saying that “the denominational mind is necessarily narrow, provincial and short-sighted.” [29] The result is that, instead of being united under Christ and the Gospel, Christian peoples are separated from each other with serious detriment to their moral and spiritual welfare. Despising what others teach, the denominations deprive themselves of the richness of the gospel truth: [30]

Because the denomination is but a fragment of the church, its feeling and vision of the whole gospel is necessarily truncated. The full witness to the Christian faith finds no adequate expression in the “broken lights” of the denominational system. The truth of Christianity is not exhausted by the uniformities to which it is reduced by our sectarian creeds and ideologies.

As an example of truncating the Gospel and suffering thereby, the largest denomination in America, the Baptists, at least on principle deprive their children of sacramental regeneration because they disagree with the rest of the Protestants on the necessity or even the propriety of infant Baptism.

F. Division and Spiritual Specialization

“Denominationalism breeds a subtle and perilous moral insincerity among Protestant Christians.” [31] In the critic’s opinion, this is the most serious indictment that can be leveled at American sectarianism. He believes that Protestant denominations “are hardly more than survivals of an era that is well on its way out. The issues upon which they were founded are losing their vitality. Yet the structure, the shell, of the denomination persists.” [32] What happens? In order to maintain their position as ministers of a distinct religious group, churchmen feel compelled to resuscitate obsolete issues into a semblance of importance and reality; thinking there is no better way to inspire and preserve denominational loyalty. Many of the clergy, especially those who have been “enlightened by the ecumenical ideal,” recognize the situation as fostering insincerity. Yet they are victims of the system. A sectarian minister “is caught in it and cannot extricate himself from it. Protestantism provides him with no opportunity for a Christian ministry except one that is identified with and results in the strengthening and greatening of his denomination.” [33] Thus, instead of promoting the principles of Christ which are or should be the common heritage of all Christians, the sectarians are dividedly preaching their own peculiar specialty. Adventist ministers teach the imminent Second Coming, Baptists the necessity of Baptism by immersion, Quakers the idolatry of church ritual, Methodists the sinfulness of traffic in liquor. They are constrained to defend their denominational position by advocating doctrines and practices which are distinctive of their sect; yet if they are at all familiar with religious history, they know that this distinctiveness was an arbitrary innovation which originated in human caprice. To preach it as though it were divinely sanctioned is simply hypocritical. Without excusing this insincerity, “a fair judgment requires that the major responsibility for it must be placed in larger measure upon the system than upon the churchman who is more victim than free agent.” [34]

The full explanation of sectarianism in America must be looked for in the very nature of Protestantism. From its inception in the sixteenth century down to the present day it has operated on a theory of religious allegiance that is contrary to historical Christianity. While giving lip-service to “church authority” and arrogating to itself the title of a “church,” Protestantism is not ecclesiastical—except where and to the extent to which it still retains some vestige of its original Catholic heritage. It is by nature individualistic. In the words of a modern spokesman, “Protestants are committed to religious liberty, not as a matter of temporary expediency, when and where they are weak, but as a matter of principle.” Their basic “formula of liberation” is the “assertion of the right of the private Christian to have direct access to the Bible and to read and interpret it himself.” [35] Given this principle of liberation from all external authority in matters of faith, the wonder is not that Protestant denominations have become so multiplied in democratic America, but that any congruity among them still exists.

On their own admission, the source of Protestant disunity is their denial of an ultimate ecclesiastical authority in matters of faith and morals. The first in a series of principles which “Protestantism rejects as corrupt, corrupting, pagan and false” is: “That God has given infallibility to any man or group of men, or has made any man the ‘Vicar of Christ’ on earth.” [36]

They frankly admit that: [37]

We put the pope first among the objects of Protestantism’s Everlasting No because Roman Catholicism puts submission to the pope foremost among its requirements. Those who ‘submit’ to the pope and all his claims are Roman Catholics, those who do not are not. All other differences sink into insignificance in comparison with this. Rome recognizes no rapprochement until its basic dogma of papal infallibility is accepted, arid when that is accepted no further rapprochement is necessary because everything else naturally and necessarily follows.

Protestantism, therefore, admittedly has no “united voice” with which to give authoritative answers to “questions that arise concerning systems of doctrine, forms of worship, the polity of the Church, and the specific applications of Christian principles.” Only the Catholic Church, “with a high command similar to that of a totalitarian police state,” which obliges its members to accept “as final the judgments of a central authority that presumes to speak with the voice of God can achieve that kind of unanimity. Protestantism has no such dictator, and therefore it has no such voice.” The fact is that “it does not want it on those terms.” [38] It prefers to remain disunited but independent, than to lose its freedom of private judgment in matters of faith, even if unity should be thereby attained.


[1] Morrison, Charles C., The Unfinished Reformation, New York, 1953, pp. 4-5.

[2] The first clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It became part of the Constitution in 1791.

[3] Quoted by Morrison, loc. Cit.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hall, Clarence W., and Holisher, Desider, Protestant Panorama, New York, 1951, p. 91

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 93

[11] Ibid., p. 94

[12] “It is commonly accepted by historians that Thomas Jefferson, for example, was “a deist who shared the views and attitudes in matters of religion that were common to the English deists.” John Orr, English Deism, Grand Rapids, 1934, pp. 211-212. To quote Jefferson as a champion of Protestantism is a distortion of Christianity. He explicitly denied and called artificial: “…the immaculate conception of Jesus, His deification, the creation of the world by Him, His miraculous powers, His resurrection and visible ascension, His corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration.” Koch and Peden, Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, New York, 1944, p. 694

[13] Dun, Angus Prospecting for a United Church, New York, 1948, p. 12

[14] Ibid., p. 13

[15] Publisher’s advertisement

[16] Morrison, op. cit., p. 29

[17] Ibid., p. 30

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 31

[20] Ibid., p. 33

[21] Ibid., p. 34

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.
A fair example is the respect which the movie industry pays to the moral rating of films by the Legion of Decency, which is under the direction of the Catholic Hierarchy.

[25] Ibid., p. 35

[26] Ibid., p. 36

[27] Ibid., p. 37
Official figures submitted by the bishops to the Catholic Almanac survey in 1952, give the following per cent of Catholics in the total population of the following cities: New York 27.1; Chicago 40.6; Buffalo 63.4; Pittsburgh 42.1; St. Louis 30.4; Philadelphia 31.6; Cleveland 45.9; Washington 16.6; San Francisco 34.4; Cincinnati 24.2; Boston 44.9

[28] Ibid., p. 41

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid., p. 42
Although coming from a Protestant who presumably knows the mentality of his own people, this sweeping statement needs to be qualified. He admits that it “will require delicate exposition if we are to avoid a reaction of resentment.” Yet he fails to distinguish between the average lay Protestant who, even when well educated, is woefully ignorant in religious matters, and the professional church leader in the ministry. The charge of insincerity is aimed at “Protestant Christians,” in general, while the proof of insincerity is an appeal to the “enlightened churchman” who, if he “will search his own heart…will find a conflict there.” Ibid., p. 43.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Garrison, Winfred E., A Protestant Manifesto, New York, 1952, pp. 117, 132.
The author is “well qualified to speak for the many communions of the Protestant faith.” Literary editor of the Christian Century, the foremost Protestant publication in the States, he taught Church History at the University of Chicago for over 20 years and presently serves on the Theological Commission of the World Council of Churches

[36] Ibid., p.176

[37] Ibid., pp.176-177

[38] Ibid., p.190

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 55-#6, March 1955, pp. 491-499

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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