The percentage of the American population that belongs to churches and synagogues has declined for the first time in almost a century, according to statistics in the 1963 Yearbook of American Churches published by the National Council of Churches.
The decline, only two-tenths of one per cent, came as no surprise, however, inasmuch as the post-war church membership boom has been leveling off in recent years.
Total church and synagogue membership for 1961 was reported as 116,109,929, or 63.4 per cent of the total population, as compared to the 1960 percentage of 63.6.
Two of the top ten U. S. Protestant denominations showed net losses for 1961. United Presbyterians reported 3,242,479 members compared with 3,259,011 the previous year, and the Protestant Episcopal Church was down from 3,444,265 to 3,269,325.
Records of church membership since 1850 show that a percentage decrease occurred only once before, in 1870, when the drop (in a 10-year period) was from 23 to 18 per cent.
Another factor which indicates a leveling off is that for the first time since World War II percentage gains in membership have fallen below the estimated population increase. The 1961 membership increase of 1,660,712 amounted to a 1.4 per cent rise as compared to an estimated population gain of 1.6 per cent.
Although both Protestants and Roman Catholics reported an increase in membership, their percentages of the total population showed a decline. Both were reduced by two-tenths of one per cent.
Of the 258 religious bodies supplying membership figures, 228 were Protestant with a total membership of 64,434,966. This was a gain of 766,131 or 1.2 per cent over 1960.
Protestant churches also reported a loss of 3.1 per cent of the total Sunday school enrollment.
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