Friday, June 14, 2019

Is Being a World-Wide Denomination an American Aspiration?

On Monday, I published a rough typology of world-wide denominations. It is worth noting that most of the examples of more centralized and well-connected world-wide denominations are American in origin. This leads to a question: Is the desire to be a world-wide denomination a particularly American desire?

In asking this question, I'm not suggesting that only Americans as individuals want to be part of world-wide denominations. In order for there to be world-wide denominations, there needs to be individuals from many countries willing to belong to such groups.

Rather, what I'm asking is whether the desire to be a world-wide denomination is grounded in peculiarly American experiences of and assumptions about the world and the church.

To begin an answer, it may be worth reviewing the examples of world-wide denominations. As I suggested in the initial post, the Roman Catholic Church is the most world-wide denomination (if it can be called a denomination; there's debate over that). Beyond Roman Catholicism, the other examples of denominations with global decision-making regarding all matters of church life include nine denominations with an American background and three denominations with backgrounds in the global South (one Brazilian, one Ghanaian, and one Filipino). Of the four traditions with world-wide theological consultation, two are American in origin, and two are European in origin.

Thus, two-thirds of what might be considered world-wide denominations are American in origin. By contrast, only half of world-wide denominational traditions based on national or congregational autonomy are American in origin.

There are several possible explanations for why the United States as a religious context has given rise to so many world-wide denominations.

First, it is worth noting that the United States, with its traditions of separation of church and state and vibrant voluntary associations pioneered denominationalism as a form of organizing church life. Thus, the United States is the source of many denominations of all forms and all ways of thinking about national, regional, and world-wide connection. Perhaps the United States has given birth to many world-wide denominations just because it has given birth to many denominations.

Second, it is also worth noting that most of the world-wide denominations with an American background are Wesleyan, Holiness, and/or Pentecostal traditions. (The Mormon Church and Jehovah's Witnesses are the two notable exceptions.) Thus, another possible explanation for why so many world-wide churches come from the US is that the US is the context in which Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions developed most fully, and there is something about these traditions that fosters a desire for a world-wide church.

To some extent, however, this is just to rephrase the question: Why have Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions (which developed in the United States) aspired to become world-wide denominations? Here is it important to point out that other expressions of Wesleyanism and Pentecostalism that have developed outside the United States have not aspired to world-wide organizational unity in the same way that their American counterparts have.

Third, it is possible that the key explanatory factor is not American origins per se but rather globalization as a framework for world-wide expansion. Because of the time frame in which these US-originated traditions spread to the rest of the world (late 19th century to present) and because of the distinctive American experience of economic and cultural rather than political colonialism, it is possible that these denominations think of themselves as world-wide because of their (positive) experiences with globalization.

European traditions, on the other hand, have roots either in the Peace of Westphalia or the European experience of political colonization and de-colonization, both of which have emphasized national autonomy.

The inclusion of three denominations from the global South on the list of world-wide denominations, each of which has developed through global migratory diasporas and/or global media distribution, gives further credence to the notion that what is at the root of this desire is globalization more so than American origins.

It is worth noting, however, that the two - globalization and American origins - are not possible to entirely separate. The United States has had a significant role in creating and shaping waves of globalization in the past 150 years. Thus, a globalization explanation may also be a US explanation.

Fourth and finally, it is possible that there is some particular about how Americans have thought about the world that has impelled them to create world-wide denominations, bringing in others who have either adopted this way of thinking from Americans or have been willing to participate in world-wide denominations for their own reasons.

This explanation is not mutually exclusive with the prior explanation. It is quite possible that this peculiarly American way of thinking about the world is tied to American experiences of and ways of thinking about globalization. In that regard, it is possible that American experiences of economic globalization and the creation of multinational corporations and organizations like the World Bank or cultural and governance globalization and the creation of world-wide organizations like the Red Cross and UN have served as models, implicitly or explicitly, for how American denominations have thought about their relationships with their co-religionists around the world.

Another version of this explanation might instead look at American notions of American exceptionalism and the American national mission for the ideological sources of the desire for American denominations to become world-wide denominations. The notion of America as a city on a hill and a country with a mission to the world has been explored in books such as William Hutchison's Errand to the World and Ian Tyrrell's Reforming the World.

One concluding comment seems appropriate here. To the extent that the desire to be a world-wide denomination is tied to an American background, that does not necessarily make it an invalid desire. The belief that denominations should be organized at a national level also usually comes out of particular historical and cultural experiences.

But while such a socio-historical view of the desire to be a world-wide denomination doesn't invalidate that desire, it does open it up for further reflection. Are there theological arguments to be made for such a view? What are the relationships between organizational unity and other forms of unity? Does seeing this aspiration as historically-rooted make being a world-wide denomination optional? If it is option, what are the other options, and what are the arguments for and against them?


  1. In Methodist mission history the "desire" to build a global denomination simply evolved from the recognized need to accommodate the missionary expansion in the world. At the outset no missionary handbook admonishing them to build Methodist organizational structures was needed, their strong associations with connectional patterns of behavior readily prevailed. The basics of connectionalism also resonated with expatriate Americans that early missionaries counted upon in some settings to lay the foundations for future church development. Building ecclesiastical linkages resembling the formation of a global denomination began with the work in Liberia being recognized as the first "overseas" Mission Annual Conference in 1836. The 1860 General Conference declared that all foreign missions be organized into mission Annual Conferences, but it was not until 1868 that approval was given for direct representation of conferences. The 1880 General Conference was the first time indigenous delegates were in attendance, representing Liberia, three conferences in Europe, Foochow, North India and South India. In 1884 the first Central Conference structure was approved for India, with "Central" denoting a regional administrative governance structure for more than a single Annual Conference. It also became an accommodation to American presiding bishops dealing with overseas travel schedules and inconveniences. Early on the self governing authority of the mission Annual Conferences was limited by missionary dominance and oversight of personnel procedures and further restricted by bishops who maintained veto power. The residue of this formative history finds replication in the practices of succeeding generations of leadership in mission founded conferences. And the vestiges of Western superiority that energized the era of missionary expansion, though challenged by anti-colonial forces, continue to influence where this connectional history and structure remains securely in place. As Wade Crawford Barclay, noted Methodist mission historian, observed: "At the end of the half century as at the beginning the sense of obligation to reproduce the polity of American Methodism without adaptation of any kind determined missionary activity....Would it not have been wiser policy for missionary societies to have encouraged the development of indigenous churches in the several mission fields." Let us be through with denominational empire building and enable the realization of that ecumenical vision of recognizing and strengthening the whole church in each place.
    Robert Harman

    1. Thanks for this informative and insightful comment, Robert.