Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Churching of America, 1776–1990: Winners and Losers In Our Religious Economy by roger finke and rodney stark
rutgers university press, 325 pages, $22.95

In mainline theological schools, divinity students are told a familiar tale about the church in modernity that goes something like this: The present age is “secular” or “post-Christian” and the church is in decline. In order to be responsible, Christians must get used to their straitened circumstances as a community in “exodus.” Theologically, they must accommodate to modernity by making Christian proclamation compatible with a scientific worldview so that faith can be acceptable to its “cultured despisers.” The primary means of accommodation is historical-critical method in biblical scholarship. Modern church history is the story of the triumph of this method. With the exception of retrograde movements of Yahoo Evangelicalism (e.g., Fundamentalism and Pentecostalism), whose existence is confined to the periphery of civilized life, the success of the critical method is assured. Inherited denominational differences among churches are of little importance to the modern church. Ecumenism is an urgent task because only the reunification of churches can effectively answer the challenge of modern pluralism. The World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches, and various interdenominational dialogues represent the future of Christianity. To be true to the Lord, the church must not only be ecumenical, it must also be a witness for peace and justice (“peace and justice” all too often translating into anti-American, anti-capitalist social policy).

Although steeped in pessimism, this Mainline Tale about the church in modernity is curiously comforting to declining denominations. It rationalizes, in an intellectually elegant fashion, what they believe to be the inevitability of their failure.

In recent years, however, the Mainline Tale has been subject to attack from many quarters. Critics are scrutinizing historical method in biblical scholarship for the religious hostility of its philosophical underpinnings. The ecumenical juggernaut appears to be foundering because of its chronic inability to appreciate the persistence of doctrinal differences and its failure to appeal beyond elite ecclesiastics. The peace-and-justice crowd continues to reel from the collapse of Communism. But perhaps the most fascinating impetus for revision of the Mainline Tale has come from the clear-eyed reassessment of Evangelicalism and its role in American church history.

Twenty-one years ago, Dean Kelley began this reassessment in Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Evangelical denominations, said Kelley, are not at the periphery, but at the center, of American religious life. They are growing while the Mainline is declining. Dogmatic in belief, strict in behavior, refusing to accommodate, they successfully carry out the indispensable function of religion: to explain the meaning of life in ultimate terms. In the early 1980s, a new generation of Evangelical scholars, George Marsden eminent among them, challenged the stereotype of Fundamentalism as intellectually vacuous and out of sync with dominant trends in American culture. By the end of the decade, Nathan O. Hatch was arguing that the democratic and populist orientation of evangelical denominations is nothing less than “the driving force behind American Christianity.”

The latest salvo has been fired by two sociologists of impeccable credentials: Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. In a vigorously polemical essay filled with useful statistics, Finke and Stark turn the Mainline Tale upside down. Their book is a delight to read for many reasons, not the least of which is their employment of a wonderful array of in-your-face metaphors taken from the world of free-market capitalism and their serious questioning of such accepted authorities as Sidney Ahlstrom, Martin Marty, and Winthrop Hudson.

The story of American Christianity, assert the authors, is the triumph of upstart sectarian groups, primarily Methodists and Baptists, over historic “established” denominations: Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. Whereas established denominations had a “market share” of religious “adherents” (a concept that adjusts membership for children) of 55 percent in 1776, this share was reduced to 19 percent by 1850. By contrast, the market share of Methodists and Baptists had risen from 19 percent to 55 percent by 1850. This dramatic reversal took place at a time when the U.S. population was growing by leaps and bounds”from approximately three million in 1776 to over twenty-three million in 1850”and the number of “churched” Christians rose by 20 percent. The phenomenon of sectarian growth remains a constant feature of the American religious landscape. Between 1960 and 1970, for example, the Assemblies of God grew by 23 percent. They now have 500,000 more members than the United Church of Christ and are within hailing distance of faltering Episcopalians and Presbyterians.

The triumph of Evangelicalism has been the most important factor in what Finke and Stark call “the churching of America.” Drawing on a wealth of data, including neglected statistics of the Census Bureau, Finke and Stark show that Americans have become adherents of Christian congregations at an increasing rate: from 17 percent of the American population on the eve of the Revolution, to 37 percent at the start of the Civil War, to 56 percent before the onset of the Depression, to 62 percent by the year of Ronald Reagan’s election. Not secularization but Christianization is the primary religious fact of American life. No other industrialized nation of the West displays such a pattern. On the contrary, the story of Christianity in Europe is a sad account of the marginalization of “monopolistic” territorial religions. Despite the sophistication of their theology and the hoary prestige of their ecclesiastical orders, the European churches have failed to market their “product.” In modernity, monopoly is as bad for church growth as it is for a commercial economy. By the same token, pluralism in religious choice encourages the emergence of healthy religious movements.

What characteristics make for success in America’s religious market? Like Hatch, Finke and Stark argue that it is the ability of religious groups to enter deeply into the democratic and populist impulses of American culture. The meta-doctrine of Evangelicalism (discovered by Ernst Troeltsch long ago) is the teaching that the normal beginning of genuine Christian life is spiritual transformation. The particular theological orientation that underlies this meta-doctrine may differ among evangelical sects. Some, like the old Puritans, draw on the orthodox Protestant distinction between “historical” and “saving” faith; others emphasize an Arminian anthropology of free choice; still others speak of regeneration through an “anointing” of the Holy Spirit. Whatever the basis, all Evangelicals preach adult conversion. They consistently challenge Americans to take responsibility for their lives in practical, moral terms. They eschew high culture, elite education, ritualized worship, hierarchical organization, and a professionalized clergy undergirded by formal authority.

Evangelicals have been able to capture the imagination of ordinary people and provide them with a concrete understanding of the transcendent in daily existence. They inculcate temperance, frugality, a passion for holiness, the sanctity of family life, and self-esteem. Above all, they deliver intact across the generations the fundamental truth of salvation through Christ alone; and they do so in spite of the alluring blandishments of worldly culture. Theirs is a theology meant to capture the Common Man. Surveying the American past with Evangelicals as their focus, Finke and Stark discover the same “law” of American church history that Kelley did two decades ago: “To the degree that denominations rejected traditional doctrines and ceased to make serious demands on their followers, they ceased to prosper.”

Among the most instructive chapters of the book are a candid account of the transformation of Methodism into an “established” church after the Civil War, which led to its decline; a convincing explanation of the ability of Southern Baptists to avoid the fate of the Methodists; and an absolutely brilliant portrayal of the ways in which Roman Catholicism, out of the rich resources of its complex heritage, adapted evangelical characteristics in the crucial period of its growth from 1850 to 1926. Catholics were able to “church” successive waves of immigrants from abroad, many of whom were alienated from their Christian roots in Europe. It is an inspiring story.

I belong to a mainline denomination, one of whose leaders loves to travel to Sweden because he believes that there he gains an ecumenical vision of what he has called “mature” Christianity. Swedish Lutheranism draws less than 3 percent of the populace into the sanctuary on any given Sunday. Yet many of us are still mesmerized by the Mainline Tale. Reading Finke and Stark is the best way I know to break the spell. Their book may not turn card-carrying members of mainline denominations into Evangelicals, but it might begin to make them “wise as serpents.” 

Walter Sundberg teaches church history at Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary.

Image by Amber Kipp via Creative Commons. Image cropped.