The rapid growth in the membership of American religious bodies in the first half of the twentieth century has given rise to analysis, evaluation, interpretation, and even outright speculation.

The statistics of growth are impressive. Membership of the religious bodies in the United States more than tripled between 1906, the year of the United States “Census of Religious Bodies,” and 1956, with a rise from 32,936,445 to 100,162,529.

Statistics, of course, never tell an entire story. Frequently they are incomplete and have little to say about intangible factors which may be of major importance. Always they must be interpreted on the basis of information which they do not directly provide.

The study of the statistics relating to the membership of the nation’s religious bodies is complicated by the fact that the various groups employ different criteria in determining their membership figures. Some report every baptized individual, others report only baptized adults, and several count adherents who are not actual members. Since there is no way of reconciling these variations, figures must be accepted as they are given, unsatisfactory as such a procedure may be.

In spite of the limitations of statistics, they are an important record and tell an interesting story.

Statistics indicate that religious bodies are more than holding their own in view of population growth. In 1906 the population of the United States was 84,246,252; by 1956 it was estimated 168,091,000. The rate of the increase in these 50 years was 99.5 percent. In that same period membership in religious bodies rose from 32,936,445 to 100,162,529, or 204 percent. The rate of increase, therefore, in church membership was more than twice the growth in population.

These same figures afford interesting information about the percentage of the American people who have some religious affiliation. In 1906 slightly more than 39 percent belonged to a religious body; by 1956 that percentage had risen to 59.5 percent.

The statistics also say something about the relative advances of the Roman Catholic and non-Roman segments of the population in this 50-year span. The 12,079,142 Roman Catholics of 1906 represented 14 percent of the population. In 1956 the 33,574,017 Roman Catholics were 20 percent of the population, a rise of six percent in 50 years. The non-Roman bodies numbered 20,857,303 members in 1906, or 24 percent of the population, but by 1956 they accounted for 66,788,512, or 40 percent of the population, a rise of 16 percent. If the Jewish adherents are removed from the non-Roman figure, that figure falls to 61,178,512 in 1956, 36 percent of the population, an advance of 12 percent.

Article continues below

The same figures show the growth rate of the Roman Catholic church to have been 177.9 percent, and that of the non-Roman Christian groups to have been 195.4 percent between 1906 and 1956.

Division And Union

It is frequently charged that American Christianity is badly splintered and that the splintering process is accelerating. At two points the statistics seem to condition these charges.

First the statistics indicate that the increase in the number of religious bodies is comparatively slight in relation to the increase in church membership. In 1906 there were 186 organizations; in 1956, 258, making an advance of 72 bodies, or 38.7 percent. However, the 186 organizations of 1906 averaged 177,077 members, while the 258 bodies of 1956 averaged 388,227 members.

Statistical evidence is more significant at the second point. In 1956 11 Christian denominations numbered 1 million or more members and accounted for 92 percent of all the Christians in the United States. These 11 denominations contained 104 of the 258 groups listed for that year, or 40 percent. In 1906 these same denominations held 30 of the 32 million Christians, or 90 percent, and included 81 of the 186 groups, or 43.5 percent. In compiling the figures for 1906 those organizations which have merged since that time have been added together. For example, the memberships of the Congregationalists, the Evangelical Protestant Church of North America, and the Christian Church (General Convention) have been added together and listed as in 1956—Congregational-Christian.

While there were more religious bodies in 1956 than in 1906, a larger percentage of the people belonged to these 11 strong bodies listed below than was the case in 1906. The proliferation of small groups, which has received so much attention in past years, has tended to obscure the rising increase in the larger denominations. The growing, consolidating strength of these denominations is quite as worthy of attention as is the fragmentation of smaller groups.

Notable shifts with regard to size have taken place among the 11 large denominations since 1906:

Growth Of Denominations

These figures seem to indicate that merger or division have no definitive role in denominational growth. The Baptists added 10 divisions at a time when they were moving from third to second place, while the Methodists dropped from second to third place when they were adding six. Lutherans and Presbyterians held their rank but eliminated six and two divisions respectively. The Eastern Orthodox church advanced from eleventh to seventh, adding 14 divisions. The Latter-day Saints dropped one rank while adding four divisions, but the Congregationalists dropped three ranks while eliminating two divisions. The Disciples dropped from sixth to eighth place and the Churches of Christ advanced one degree while retaining the same number of divisions. Thus, neither merger nor splintering can be considered a criterion of strength or weakness. Other factors must be adduced to help explain the varying degrees of growth seen in these 11 groups.

Article continues below

A chart depicting the relative growth rate is a good starting point.

A common denominator for all these denominations is not easy to find. The phenomenon of immigration does not serve, for while that has played a large role in the growth of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it has not, as might have been expected, played an equal part in Roman Catholic growth. For some years it has had no effect upon the increase of Lutherans, and has played no appreciable part in the growth of the other denominations. Cultural and economic alignments also prove inadequate. Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Congregational-Christians are generally regarded as upper income people, yet the growth rates of these three denominations are diverse. Methodists and Lutherans are considered to be of the middle class, but the gap in their growth rates is relatively wide.

The extent or lack of denominational organization and program failed to explain growth rates. Probably no other denomination can equal the Methodist in its closely-knit organization, and few can equal the Churches of Christ or the Baptists (especially the Southern Baptist Convention) in their absence of this. Yet, while these latter two with relatively little organization and program had a markedly larger growth rate than the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, who also have comparatively little overhead organization, had a considerably lower growth rate than the Methodists.

A number of gaps are noticeable in the growth rates on the chart. The Eastern Orthodox, the Churches of Christ, and the Latter Day Saints stand out by themselves. Lutherans, Baptists, and Episcopalians are grouped fairly close with a 34 point spread. Then there follows a gap of 33 points before we reach the Roman Catholics, after which comes a gap of 67 points before we arrive at the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Disciples with 17 points spread among them. A final gap of 35 points brings us to the Congregational-Christians.

Article continues below

The break of 67 points between the Roman Catholics and the Presbyterians gives the first clue of a possible common denominator. If it could be shown that the four denominations immediately above this, namely, the Lutherans, Baptists, Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics, share some common attribute which does not mark the four denominations below the gap, the Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples, and Congregational-Christians, then we may have discerned a possible adequate common denominator. If further investigation reveals this attribute to be shared by the top three denominations, then, whether applied pro or con, the common denominator may be found.

The high growth rates of the top three denominations are in part due to the fact that each of them had a small start in 1906. This is not true of the other eight denominations, however. Immigration is a special factor with the Eastern Orthodox, and an aggressive missionary program that requires active service of every male member helps to explain the growth of the Latter-day Saints. The Churches of Christ, on the other hand, possess no similarly unique mark. Something more must be involved in the high growth rate of these bodies.

Theological Moods

The attribute which distinguishes the Lutherans, Baptists (especially Southern Baptists), Episcopalians, and Roman Catholics from the Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and Congregational-Christians is what may be called the mood of conservatism. This applies equally well to the Eastern Orthodox, the Churches of Christ, and the Latter-day Saints. Presbyterians, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and Congregationalists are usually considered liberal in mood, although each of them contains conservative elements.

It is in the area of doctrine that we see most clearly the characteristics of conservatism or liberalism, though these elements may also be observed in relation to traditions of worship or in the idea of the Church.

Some of these 11 denominations are conservative at all three points. Others are generally considered liberal on all three points. Some are conservative in one or more aspects and liberal in another. A chart of the general, relative positions of each denomination may be useful. “C” stands for conservative, “L” for liberal.

Attitudes and positions of the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics are so well known they need no elaboration. Much the same is true of the Congregational-Christians and the Disciples of Christ, although minorities in these bodies will protest a sweeping application of the attribute of liberalism.

Article continues below

The Churches of Christ declare they are conservative. Until 1906 they were within the Disciple fellowship and were known as “the Conservatives.” Theirs is a biblicist conservatism which extends into their entire church life, including the refusal to use musical instruments not mentioned in the Bible. They are right-wing conservatives in doctrine, “emphasize the ‘divine sonship of Jesus’,” and consider the church as “a divine institution.”

The Latter-day Saints have a unique body of doctrine, drawn from the Bible, to be completed by the Book of Mormon and possible subsequent revelation. Worship is according to a denominational pattern and is comparatively uniform throughout. They recognize no other religious body as part of the fully true church. Their organization pattern is unique, and has no parallel among the other denominations.

Baptists are heavily conservative in doctrine, save for the American Baptist Convention which is considered predominantly liberal with a strong conservative element. Their congregational polity permits relative liberty in the conduct of worship, but in membership the church is composed, with few exceptions, only of immersed adults who have openly professed their faith.

The Protestant Episcopal Church no longer requires acceptance of the Thirty-nine Articles “as a creed” and “allows great liberty in non-essentials” while expecting “loyalty to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the one holy Catholic Church, in all the essentials.” Therefore, a considerable measure of liberty is possible with regard to doctrine, but in liturgical practices and the concept of episcopal government the church remains central and constant.

The Presbyterian Church U.S.A. suffered from a doctrinal strife in the early years of the century and has gradually assumed a comparatively liberal attitude with regard to strict Calvinist doctrine. A number of minor schisms have occurred involving doctrinally conservative groups. The Presbyterian Church U.S. describes itself as “strictly Calvinist” and “requires strict creedal subscription from all its ministers and office bearers”. This body has not joined, largely for doctrinal reasons, in the recent Presbyterian merger. The ancient Genevan, Psalm-centered Calvinist worship has been largely replaced by considerable liberty in the ordering of worship. Among all Presbyterians the presbyterian form of church structure remains intact and is the denominational core of unity.

Article continues below

Methodists have been somewhat divided on the point of doctrinal conservatism, and as a result holiness and perfectionist schisms have occurred. The main strand of American Methodism, The Methodist Church, takes an open position on doctrine and is able to comprehend both liberal and conservative elements. Virtually complete liberty is permitted in worship practices, but most of the Methodist groups are adamant on the structuring of the church along the lines of historic American Methodist polity.

Conservative Gains

If it may now be agreed that the top seven bodies listed in the chart are considerably more conservative than the four bodies at the lower end of the chart, then the gap of 67 points between the growth rate of the Roman Catholics (177.9) and that of the Presbyterians (110.7) may indicate something about the relative appeal of conservatism and liberalism to the American religious public in the first half of the present century.

The more conservative groups have had greater success in enlisting members than have the more liberal groups. For example, The Protestant Episcopal Church, probably the most liberal of the denominations designated as conservative, and the Congregational-Christians, probably the least conservative of the denominations specified as liberal, entered the 50-year period with nearly equal memberships, 886,942 to 845,301. By 1956 the Episcopalians had added 1,873,002 members to the Congregational-Christians’ 476,744. The notably conservative Lutherans and the Presbyterians, the most conservative of the groups designated liberal, began fairly close together, 2,112,494 to 1,830,555. After 50 years the Lutherans had outgained the Presbyterians 5,175,095 to 2,028,154. The Methodists and Baptists, both mixed with regard to conservatism and liberalism, had virtually identical memberships in 1906 with 5,749,838 to 5,662,234. At the close of the period the Baptists had gained 13,503,546 to the Methodists’ 6,025,893.

The success of the conservatives in securing members may be observed also within the denominations themselves.

The American Baptist Convention is much more liberal than the Southern Baptist Convention. In 1906 the Northern Baptist Convention had a little over one million members, while the Southern Baptist Convention held slightly more than two million. By 1956 the American Baptists had added 476,000 to reach more than one and one half million, but the Southern Baptists had added almost six and one half million to reach below eight and one half million. The growth rate of the American Baptists was 45.2 percent, that of the Southern Baptists 321.7 percent.

Article continues below

The more conservative Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) outgrew the somewhat more liberal United Lutheran Church 237.6 to 191 percent, and the self-styled “conservative” Presbyterian Church U. S. outgrew the relatively liberal Presbyterian Church U. S. A. 204.4 to 124.2 percent.

A comparison of such clearly conservative denominations as the Mennonites, Brethren, and Adventists (especially the Seventh-Day Adventists) with outstandingly liberal denominations in the same statistical category, such as the Universalists, Unitarians, and Quakers tells the same story.

The one growth rate which tends to condition the application of the common denominator of conservatism versus liberalism is that of the Roman Catholic Church. This consistently conservative body is 33 points below the relatively conservative Protestant Episcopal Church and 66.5 points below the consistently conservative Lutherans.

Since the Roman Catholic Church shared with the Eastern Orthodox a large potential growth via immigration, the relatively low growth rate of the Roman Catholics becomes a question mark.

The answer lies in the fact that in the case of the Roman Catholic Church we must take into account at least one factor unique to that body and unshared by any of the other bodies under study. This unique factor is the autocracy and totalitarian authority of the Roman Catholic hierarchy which does not coordinate readily with the American democratic ideals of personal, social, and political motivation, structure, and action. Consequently this consistently conservative denomination has not appealed to new members as strongly as some of the other conservative bodies not in any way hindered by similar traditional and cultural impediments.

Admittedly such a statistical study cannot say anything precise about the relative impacts which the various denominations have made upon the nation’s religious life. Nevertheless the study has value in the degree to which it throws light on some trends which have marked the American religious community, especially the Christian segment of that community, in the first half of the twentieth century.


Article continues below
Preacher In The Red


The president of the Wesleyan Service Guild, an organization of employed and professional women of the Methodist Church, asked permission to use one of our Sunday night services for the presentation of their program. I readily agreed to the arrangement and made a note of it in my date book. When the time came, I had forgotten about the date and neglected to inform the church secretary who makes out the weekly bulletins. The ladies were present to give their program on the night agreed upon but the only announcement in the bulletin which had been distributed to the congregation was my sermon topic which unfortunately happened to be “Windbags.”—The Rev. R. T. RICHARDSON, Minister, College Park Methodist Church, Orlando, Florida.

For each report by a minister of the Gospel of an embarrassing moment in his life, CHRISTIANITY TODAY will pay $5 (upon publication). To be acceptable, anecdotes must narrate factually a personal experience, and must be previously unpublished. Contributions should not exceed 250 words, should be typed double-spaced, and bear the writer’s name and address. Upon acceptance, such contributions become the property of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Address letters to: Preacher in the Red, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, 1014 Washington Building, Washington 5, D. C.

Richard C. Wolf is Associate Professor of Church History in the Graduate School of Theology, Oberlin. His study of changes in American religious life has occupied him, on and off, for the past seven years. He holds the A.B. degree from Gettysburg College, the B.D. from Lutheran Theological Seminary (Gettysburg), and the Ph.D. degree from Yale.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.