Russell E. Richey
A voluntary religious community and ecclesial creation of modernity, the denomination emerged alongside of and along with the political party, the free press, and free enterprise. By 1702 it acquired its modern religious meaning with the establishment of the “body of the Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations in and about the City of London.” The 17th-century experiences with religious conflict, revolution, and regicide had led England in its Glorious Revolution to reestablish the Church of England but pass the Act of Toleration. Thus began a century of identifying denominations, of experimentation in Britain and the colonies with (Protestant) religious pluralism, of defining prerogatives and limitations (for the Dissenters or Nonconformists—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers), of political jockeying between Whigs and Tories, and of exchanges of ideas through magazines, newspapers, and coffeehouses. So denominationalism emerged and defined itself in the Age of Enlightenment, John Locke voicing ideals and proposing policies that would be tested in the American colonies and gradually become normative in the new nation. Where existent beyond the United States and Britain, governments and social customs have provided some measure of religious freedom, permitted denominational pluralism, and controlled for conflict and repression.
The denomination, then, is a voluntary religious community. As voluntary, it needs legally established or de facto toleration and religious freedom. In such an environment and as a voluntary or elective religious community, the denomination creates and sustains its membership. Adherents join, belong, bring in family (children), move to another of the same, or perhaps quit. Thus, the denomination needs “space” to exist (alongside or outside of any religious establishment if such persists). As voluntary, a denomination should and often does recognize the authenticity of other religions/churches even as it claims its own. It often does not concede that authenticity indiscriminately or fully.
As religious, the voluntary community construes itself and claims to be a legitimate and self-sufficient, proper Christian church, Jewish denomination, or other world faith. The denomination functions with a sense of itself as located within time; knows its own boundaries, origins, history, and drama; and acknowledges awareness of its relation to its own longer religious tradition. Claiming its rightful place within the religious realm of the society, the denomination differs from movement, sect, and other “cause” impulses. As a community, the denomination is an organized religious movement. With its own, often distinctive polity, it intends its self-perpetuation, expects supportive efforts from leaders and people, labors to attract and retain members, funds its operations, aligns itself politically and socially with kindred movements, and determines how best to face various American publics. As such, the denomination provides its members self-designation, identity, agenda, calendar, place in American politics, societal locale, historical narrative, internal ordering, and religious affiliation. To some observers, the denomination is taboo or curse.
Their public outreach and self-understandings have led denominations to function in different ways in the American environment (as have political parties, the press, and commerce). Successively, denominations have served as affinity groups, missionary societies, confessional bodies, corporate organizations, campaign causes, and electronic communities. In these several forms and with the above characterization, the denomination differentiates itself from reform impulses that may take similar structural form but construe themselves as belonging within a religion; from an established church, which does not regard itself as voluntary or as sharing societal space with other legitimate religious bodies; and from the sect, which, though also voluntary, does not locate itself easily in time or recognize boundaries or tolerate other bodies or concede their authenticity.
K. Healan Gaston
The terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” are collective religious descriptors that identify points of theological, historical, and ethical commonality between the world’s largest monotheistic religious traditions. “Judeo-Christian” refers to the ground shared by Judaism and Christianity; “Abrahamic” designates elements common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These terms have most often appeared in three contexts. First, scholars of religion have used them for technical, descriptive purposes, to denote the aforementioned religious traditions and the commitments they share. Second, interfaith advocates have employed the terms to identify the particular ecumenical tasks of cultivating harmonious relations between these traditions. Finally, in wider public discourses, they have served as descriptors of the religious character of American culture, democracy, and/or national identity. Over time, the terms “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” have each become important ways of talking about the contributions of the world’s largest monotheistic religions to politics and culture in the United States.
However, in American public discourse, “Judeo-Christian” formulations have thus far demonstrated greater reach than “Abrahamic” ones. Between roughly World War II and the mid-1970s, when the United States rose to superpower status and assumed the helm of the Western civilizational project, the idea of America as, in various senses, a Judeo-Christian nation became commonplace. But unlike “Judeo-Christian,” which maps onto a discrete geographical region and a long-standing cultural project, “Abrahamic” tends to be used more narrowly to indicate a set of historically meaningful but geographically diffuse relationships that have become the subject of scholarly and ecumenical concern. Moreover, “Judeo-Christian” emerged in the wake of a massive influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants between 1880 and 1920 that reshaped the American religious landscape. “Abrahamic” has likewise become more widespread since the immigration reforms of the mid-1960s, which began to bring greater numbers of Muslim immigrants to America’s shores. But the growing embrace of multiculturalism has largely militated against the widespread use of “Abrahamic” as a descriptor of American identity. Proponents and opponents of these terms have vigorously debated their strengths and weaknesses, their uses and abuses. Yet, despite the controversies over their meaning and relevance, “Judeo-Christian” and “Abrahamic” remain important ways of describing aspects of the American landscape in a multireligious age.
Historians most often use the term primitivism to refer to the attempt to reconstruct a religious tradition’s original theology, structure, or beliefs. Primitivists believe that the earliest expressions of the faith are the most efficacious, powerful, and valid, and hence they attempt to recapture them in as complete a form as it is possible for them to imagine. Thus, they frequently dissent from established religious traditions, believing that those constructed under the primitive impulse achieve superior purity. Of course, these attempts are normally incomplete or inaccurate, reflecting the desires or needs of the group doing the restoring more than the original version of whatever faith is involved.
Primitivism has taken on a number of forms throughout American history. This essay follows a chronological approach, but uses Richard Hughes’s designations of “ethical,” “ecclesiastical,” and “experiential” primitivism to distinguish among various movements and provide some order to the narrative. These are common impulses in American religion, particularly in the years immediately following the American Revolution commonly called the Second Great Awakening. The language of primitivism has provided Americans with the weight of historical authority, often invoked to overturn established hierarchies and replace them with forms of religious practice deemed, alternately, more democratic, more biblical, more conducive to religious experience, or more ethically demanding. Whatever the case, primitivism has spoken to the American impulse toward reform, resistance to institution, and individual capacity.