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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Protestantism in the United States:
III.  The Protestant Ecumenical Movement in the United States

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

A brief description of the ecumenical movement in the United States would be to call it the effort to join a divided Protestantism into some semblance of religious unity. Protestant sectarianism has been given many epithets by the critics from its own ranks, but none more critical than the expressive term - sin. Without the suspicion of love for Roman Catholicism, the multiplication of churches instead of allegiance to one Church is judged to be a crime against Christ Himself. “This churchism of the denominations must be perceived as a sin against Christ - against Christ who is the head not of any of our denominations, but of the Church which is his body.” The attempt to undo this evil of sectarianism; “to awaken the conscience of the churches to the fact that their churchism is sinful - this is the radical, primary and imperative task of the ecumenical movement.” [1]

History of the Ecumenical Movement in the United States

While the beginnings of the ecumenical movement in America go back more than a century, the large-scale mergers of Protestant denominations have all taken place since 1900. From 1906 to 1950 there have been sixteen major unions in American Protestantism, thirteen of which resulted in the formation of new denominations and three were inter-denominational, in which numerous sects united to form a federated church council.

I. Mergers Forming New Denominations

Since 1900, thirty denominations have merged into thirteen, and these by remerger have been reduced to nine, as shown in the following tabulation, in which it will be noted that the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., the Congregationalists, the Evangelical Church and the Reformed Church in the U.S. have each taken part in two mergers.


Denominations Merged

Present Name


Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
Cumberland Presbyterian

Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.


Northern Baptist Convention
Free Baptist

Northern Baptist Convention


Hague Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran
Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran
United Norwegian Lutheran

Norwegian Lutheran


General Synod of Evangelical Lutheran
General Council of Evangelical Lutheran
United Synod of Evangelical Lutheran

United Lutheran Church


Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.
Welsh Calvinistic Methodist

Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.


Evangelical Association
United Evangelical

Evangelical Church


Reformed Church in the U.S.
Hungarian Reformed Church

Reformed Church in the U.S.


Evangelical Protestant



Christian Churches



Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Ohio
Lutheran Synod of Buffalo
Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Iowa

American Lutheran Church


Evangelical Synod
Reformed Church

Evangelical Reformed Church


Methodist Episcopal Church
Methodist Episcopal Church, South
Methodist Protestant Church

Methodist Church


United Brethren
Evangelical Church

Evangelical United Brethren

Many other mergers have been proposed but to date have not materialized. However at least two large-sized reunions are expected to take place in the near future. In May, 1954, three major Presbyterian denominations brought merger negotiations, begun in 1937, to the decisive stage. The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. (a national group with 2,575,000 members), the Presbyterian Church, U.S. (a Southern sect which broke away during the Civil War over the Negro question and. now has 770,000 members), and the United Presbyterian Church with 300,000 communicants, voted to send a plan of union to their presbyteries for action. Approval by these local bodies would create a near four million member Presbyterian Church of the United States in 1956. Moreover final approval is expected by 1955 for a merger plan which will bring into being a 1,800,000 member Lutheran Church three years from now. Interested parties are the Evangelical (907,000 members), American (791,000), Free (64,000), and United Evangelical (52,000), Lutheran Churches. Significantly, there were once 85 Lutheran church bodies in the United States. Today there are 19. When the prospective merger goes into effect, there will be 13.

II.Mergers Forming Federated Church Councils

Besides the above mergers in which the uniting elements fused into a new society or one element absorbed the others, there have been three other coalescences on a much wider but less intensive scale in which the end product was not a new entity but a co-operative organization: [2]


Denominations Merged

Name of Merger


Twenty-eight Reformed Churches including
the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians

Federal Council of the Churches


Fifteen Fundamentalist Churches, including the
Bible Protestant and Militant Fundamental

American Council of Christian Churches


Twenty-five Protestant denominations and
five Eastern Orthodox Churches

National Council of the Churches of Christ

It is seen immediately that the latter type of federated combination is coextensive with the former, so that a merger may occur within a merger. The present Methodist Church, itself a new creation out of three different sects, is now a fellow member of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, along with other denominations.

The Character of American Ecumenism

I.Mergers Forming New Denominations

With rare and unimportant exception, the mergers of two or more denominations was simply the healing of old dissensions. Divided religious groups solved their original differences and came together again. Or if they were never actually together before, they had common antecedents, in stemming from a common religious family. In the last fifty years, for instance, the Lutherans were involved in three reunions of smaller sects that were separated in America largely because of immigration and geographical distance. So also the Presbyterians were rejoined on three occasions, once with a sect of the same denomination and twice with the Reformed Churches, which trace their lineage to the same Calvinistic origin. The importance of this lies in the fact that the historical basis of the ecumenical movement, at least in the United States, is the consciousness of a common source. This is strikingly emphasized in The Declaration of Union by which. three Methodist bodies reunited in 1939 to form the largest Protestant denomination in America: [3]

The Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Methodist Protestant Church are and shall be one United Church.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and The Methodist Protestant Church had their common origin in the organization of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America in 1784, A.D., and have ever held, adhered to and preserved a common belief, spirit and purpose, as expressed in their common Articles of Religion.

On closer analysis it is found that the Methodist Articles of Religion are nothing else than a redaction of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles drawn up by the Methodist founder, John Wesley; which Methodist churchmen today honor by including them in their draft of things to be believed, but which they officially declare not to be binding in conscience. Nevertheless a common historical origin and at least token adherence to a common ritual and creed is what generally urges separated denominations to re-combine their forces under a common ancestral name.

The question arises of whether any change occurs in the doctrinal content of the uniting denominations. Do they gain or lose in dogmatic stability? Generally they lose. This is inevitable since the doctrinal differences which separate prospective combiners are frequently deep seated, of long standing, and usually the greatest single obstacle to unification. With authoritarianism rejected on principle, when the merger takes place it is on the basis of mutual - and therefore minimal - agreement. When, for example, the merger between the Congregational and Christian Churches was first proposed in 1895, it was unsuccessful because, among other reasons, the Christian Churches were suspected of denying the Trinity. One apologist for union wrote of them: [4]

Their rejection of all man-made formulas and creeds has sometimes led to the idea that they are Unitarians, because they will not adopt the word Trinity which they do not find in the Bible.…In the worship of our Lord they do not differ from us (Congregationalists), even although some of them still protest against being called Trinitarians.

It took thirty-six years before this merger was finally accomplished. By that time the Congregational and Christian Churches had both become liberalized to a point where creedal differences no longer stood in the way of “fellowship,” where “theology, precisely defined, had ceased to be the primary concern of the churches and their leaders.” [5]

II. Mergers Forming Federated Church Councils

The three interdenominational federations are closely related. First came the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, when twenty-eight Reformed Churches were organized along structural lines which duplicated as closely as possible the federal union of the United States. It was difficult at first for the churches of the Federal Council to believe that their autonomy would not be jeopardized. This suspicion kept many sects from joining the union. Actually they had little to fear because the federation was scrupulously careful not to encroach on the independence of the member churches.

Two incidents in the forty year existence of the Federal Council will illustrate its character. For years the Unitarians had asked to be admitted and were consistently refused. Their creedal position was said to be too liberal. They deny the Trinity and their concept of God is not far removed from a monistic deity. In a parody on the Apostles Creed, prepared by a high-ranking Unitarian minister, the first article reads: “I believe in a single, eternal, all-inclusive, all-pervading Life Principle whose source and perfect embodiment is God, who finds varying degrees of embodiment in all forms of life.” [6] Ostensibly then the motive for refusing admission to the Unitarians was based on principle. But when the president of the Federal Council was directly questioned, he conceded it was only a matter of expediency: “If we let in the Unitarians, we let out the Lutherans.” [7] In other words, if creedless liberals like the Unitarians were accepted, then conservative groups like the Lutherans would leave the organization. Since the Unitarians even now number less than one hundred thousand, whereas incorporated Lutheran bodies in the Council have had over a million members, the choice was a foregone conclusion.

Again in 1930, the Committee on Marriage and the Home of the Federal Council was pressed for a declaration on the morality of contraception. Their official statement was an implicit approval of the practice: “Whatever the final conclusion may be, the committee is strongly of the opinion that the church should not seek to impose its point of view as to the use of contraceptives upon the public by legislation or any other form of coercion.” [8]

The second stage in federated ecumenism came when the conservative Protestants, generally called Fundamentalists, formed a union of their own in protest against the liberalistic Federal Council. While the latter would have been happy to admit the Fundamentalists, “provided they came in a co-operative spirit,” their opponents claim that the leaders of the Federal Council are really promoting a new denominational effort, based not on the word of God but on the purely natural social principles of man. The American Council of Christian Churches is therefore a rival organization, comprising fifteen national constituent bodies together with independent congregations. The Council believes the Bible to be the infallible word of the Holy Spirit, the sole rule of faith and practice, and urges a return to the great essentials of the Christian faith, especially:

  1. The inerrancy and divine authorship of Holy Scripture.

  2. The Divinity of Christ.

  3. His Virgin Birth and physical Resurrection.

  4. His sub-stitutionary atonement.

  5. His imminent second coming.

As a social phenomenon, Fundamentalism arose as a “defense of the agrarian culture of the nineteenth century against the developing urban culture.” [9] Theologically, however, Fundamentalism is an effort to preserve traditional Christian dogma from the solvent of liberalism. As such it is closer to the basic doctrines of Catholicism than the bulk of American Protestantism in the larger, but less dogmatic denominations. Unfortunately the fifth “fundamental” on the imminent parousia has weakened the whole fundamentalist structure in the eyes of American Protestants. Also the fact that Fundamentalists are generally found among the poorer and less educated classes, in rural areas and small towns, has so weakened their hold on the Protestant mind that educated sectarians do not take them seriously. Their aggressive dogmatism is dismissed as antiquarian, “frozen in the crudest form of orthodoxy known in Protestant history.” [10]

Finally, in 1950, the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ enlarged its scope of activities and changed its name to the National Council of the Churches of Christ, to become the largest federated union of Protestants in American history.” [11] At the present writing, it numbers twenty-five Protestant denominations and five Eastern Orthodox bodies, representing over thirty-five million church communicants. Structurally the National Council is the same as the Federal Council, with one notable difference. Among the new agencies which the National Council established for co-operative effort were Christian Education, the Home Missions and the Foreign Missions. Friends of the ecumenical movement regard this as deeply significant: [12]

Their inclusion in the National Council marks an appreciable deepening of the feeling of Protestant unity. For these three functions come nearer being ecclesiastical functions than any which the denominations had ever committed to a federated responsibility. The Federal Council had been constituted in a manner that limited its operation to strictly non-ecclesiastical fields. So also, in theory, is the new National Council. Its constitution provides especially meticulous safeguards of denominational autonomy in the functioning of its missionary and religious education divisions. There is no suggestion here that these restrictions could ever be disregarded. What is suggested is that the denominations themselves, having taken this cautious and timid step in recognition of the ecumenical nature of foreign missions, home missions and religious education, will gradually find the way to emancipate them completely from the scandal of sectarian control and administration.

Like its predecessor, the National Council is not a union of denominations but distinctly a merger of their common, external interests. Its avowed purpose is to accelerate the growth of “unity within diversity,” to reduce the supervisory expenses and needless duplication of buildings and personnel, to increase the influence of American Protestantism through its “united front,” to become a clearing house for exchange of ideas and views aimed at the development of a “sound Protestant strategy.” In a word, it is hoped that by means of this federated co-operation Protestants in the United States will retrieve the loss in prestige and influence which they have suffered through more than three centuries of sectarian disintegration.

Evaluation of the American Ecumenical Movement

The most obvious merit of Protestant ecumenism in America has been time lessening of tension among the various denominations. “A century ago Protestant denominations spent most of their time trying to prove one another wrong. With the start of the twentieth century a definite change took place; the denominations decided to accept rather than fight one another.” [13] Instead of’ opposing one another, they are now co-operating in projects and areas where previously there was little or no collaboration. For example, one of the principal services sponsored by the National Council of the Churches of Christ is “Evangelism,” which promotes the spiritual interests of the member churches. Recognizing that promotion work in this field has to be non-sectarian, the Council has kept away from denominational polemics and concentrated on such basic items as prayer with more than ordinary success. The first full week of January has been declared a “Universal Week of Prayer;” during Lent an advertising campaign urges the people to a more faithful observance of the pre-Easter season as a period of sacrifice and prayer. In October of each year, a Church Attendance Crusade is sponsored through national advertising media. During Advent there is propaganda work in the form of bulletins and leaflets, “helping communities to put Christ into the center of Christmas, and to make the celebration of the birth of Christ more spiritual, less commercial.” [14] A recent development has been the Chaplains’ Spiritual Retreats, during which the Protestant equivalent of the Spiritual Exercises is held annually for chaplains of the Armed Forces.

However it is especially in the field of public education that the reduced tension among American Protestants shows promise of spiritual benefit to the country. It is a commonplace in the nation’s history that the public school system has become secularized because conflicting denominations could not agree on a standard method of religious instruction. As denominationalism recedes into the background, the chances are improved for introducing at least a minimum of religious training into American public education without the fear of arousing opposition from vested sectarian interests.

On the debit side, American ecumenism suffers from the congenital weakness of Protestantism which is religious liberalism. The denominations frankly recognize the inherent weakness of their divided condition, and they are doing something to correct it. But the foundation of this projected unification is superficial and therefore largely illusory. An example from each type of merger will serve to illustrate.

When the Congregational and Christian Churches united in 1931 to form a new body, they did so in spite of traditional creedal differences. The Christian Churches were long notorious for doctrinal free-lancing and, in fact, this was a main obstacle to an earlier attempted union with the Congregationalists. But the latter had need of a new spirit in their ranks. They were mostly New Englanders, while the Christian Churches were nation-wide; they were generally urban, wealthy and well educated, while the Christian Churches were quite poor and their members were mostly simple people from the farms. The democratic ideal bade the Congregationalists “come down” to the Christian Church level - which they did, not only socially but also doctrinally. The committee for merger of the two churches proposed to “strike out all reference to the ‘Kansas City Declaration’ (the Congregational statement of faith) that there might not be even the suggestion of a creedal statement to stand in the way of union.” [15] While this radical proposal was not accepted, at least verbally, it was equivalently adopted when the Congregationalists conceded that the “basis of union” required by the Christian Churches “be conditioned upon the acceptance of Christianity as primarily a way of life, and not upon uniformity of theological opinion or uniform practice of ordinances. The autonomy of the local congregation and the right of each individual member to follow Christ according to his own conscience should remain undisturbed.” [16]

Equally devoid of doctrinal content is the federated union of sects in the National Council of the Churches of Christ. While boasting that “the Council represents more people than any other religious body in America,” [17] the official documentation is honest in admitting that the principle of union is strictly pragmatic. The churches collaborate in practice, but without any consolidation of dogmatic differences: [18]

The National Council represents the wholeness of the Christian task. Co-operation no longer appears as something to be practiced in one or another phase of the Church’s activity, but as a deliberate policy and a consistent pattern in its entire work.
The National Council is the direct creation of the Churches themselves.…The Council does not enter into details of doctrine, but stands upon the common ground of historic Christian faith and conviction held by the Churches that comprise it.
The genius of the Council is to foster a united Christian fellowship which will express itself in every phase of the life and work of the Churches. It has no authority over the denominations and is in no sense a super-organization.…It conserves freedom and diversity, with no thought of dictation or enforced uniformity, while at the same time securing needed unity of action.

It is safe to say that American Protestants, at least the ecumenically-minded among them, are not dogma conscious. They look with complacency on the “bickerings over trifles” among the conservatives who believe that the first essential of Christian unity is doctrinal uniformity. “There was a time,” they admit, “when theological differences loomed large to Americans, and they are still important to a few.” But today “the average (Protestant) churchgoer just doesn’t care about technical differences separating denominations.” [19]

Given this laissez-faire attitude towards fundamentals of Christian revelation like the Divinity of Christ and the Real Presence, the Protestant ecumenical movement in America is a misnomer. It may be called a cooperative movement in so far as doctrinally separated religious groups are collaborating in external activities. But until the motive of mere efficiency yields to a sincere desire for creedal conformity, it is not ecclesiastical and therefore not ecumenical.


[1] Morrison, Charles C., The Unfinished Reformation, New York, 1953, p. 64.

[2] The present membership of the National Council of the Churches of Christ comprises twenty-nine denominations:

African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, American Baptist Convention, Augustana Evangelical Lutheran, Church of the Brethren, Colored Methodist Episcopal, Congregational Christian, Czech-Moravian Brethren, Danish Evangelical Lutheran, Evangelical and Reformed, Evangelical United Brethren, Quakers (two denominations), Disciples of Christ, Methodist, Moravian, National Baptist of America, National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Presbyterian in the U.S., Presbyterian in the U.S.A., Protestant Episcopal, Reformed in America, Romanian Orthodox of America, Russian Orthodox of America, Seventh Day Baptist, Syrian Antiochian Orthodox, Ukranian Orthodox of America, United Lutheran, and United Presbyterian.

[3] Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Church, Nashville, 1952, pp. 7-8.

[4] Atkins and Fagley, History of American Congregationalism, Boston, 1942, p. 351.

[5] Manual of the Congregational Christian Churches, Boston, 1951, p. 29.

[6] Williams, J. Paul, What Americans Believe and How They Worship, New York, 1952, p. 226.

[7] Ibid., p. 130.

[8] Fry, C. Luther, Recent Social Trends in the U.S., Vol. II, New York, 1933, p. 1017.

[9] Williams, op. cit., p. 99.

[10] Morrison, op. cit., p. 190.

[11] The most important absentees from the National Council are the Southern Baptists and the conservative Lutheran bodies.

[12] Morrison, op. cit., p. 12.

[13] Collier’s Magazine, August 20, 1954, p. 21.

[14] Handbook of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, New York, 1953, p. 20.

[15] Atkins and Fagley, op. cit., p. 358.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Handbook of the N.C.C.C., p. 2.

[18] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[19] Collier’s Magazine, p. 20. The article is entitled, “Will All Protestants Unite in One Church?” and was written to coincide with the Assembly of the World Council of Churches held at Evanston, Illinois, August 15 to 31.

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 55-#7, April 1955, pp. 584-591

Copyright © 1999 by Inter Mirifica

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