The Broad Road of Religious Divisions
WHY so many religions? Within the United States alone there are twenty-three kinds of Baptists, twenty-one kinds of Methodists, twenty divisions among the Lutherans, thirteen brands of Mennonites, ten kinds of Presbyterians, and a whole handful of Churches of God. Thirty-nine religions admit such a lack of unity that they say doctrine is all up to the individual, apparently assuming he knows more than the scholars, or that his contradicting idea may be inspired by the spirit. One authority put it this way: “If one must speak of denominations and sects, of organizations here and there, of movements now and then, how can one speak of Christianity in the United States? Is not this religious chaos . . . all spots and jumps?”
Yes, why such division? The Bible is just one book. Average editions contain 1,000 to 1,300 pages, and that is not exceedingly large. Webster’s Dictionary contains 3,000; the Encyclopædia Britannica, 24,000; the Harvard Classics, 22,000. Yet on the basis of the Bible’s 1,000 pages rests the foundation of more than 230 of America’s more than 250 religions, or one denomination for every five pages in that book. Now, since the Bible does not contradict itself on doctrine every five pages, why are there so many different religions claiming it as their guide? Are their scholars so ignorant they cannot read these 1,000 pages to agree, or are there other reasons?
Some reasons for this division have been petty, others practically ridiculous, few of them Christian. A main cause has been man’s determination to make his religion over to suit him, instead of making himself over to suit God. These attempted “improvements” were long ago foretold: “Men will rise and speak twisted things to draw away the disciples after themselves,” and, “There will also be false teachers among you. These very ones will quietly bring in destructive sects and will disown even the owner that bought them [Christ].” (Acts 20:29, 30; 2 Pet. 2:1, NW) In evidence that this happened, The Kingdom of God in America says current religion “represents not so much the impact of the gospel upon the New World as the use and adaptation of the gospel by the new society for its own purposes”. Unity of doctrine is gone, and that loss of unity represents a loss of true Christianity.
Religious boundaries have been frequently laid out along the political and economic map. William Warren Sweet in The Story of Religions in America points out that the most important and far-reaching of the schisms in American churches occurred over Negro slavery, and says: “It was not until church members had become wealthy cotton growers, that the churches ceased to denounce the institution. At the adoption of the Constitution all the churches were unanimous in their opposition to slavery; by the opening of the Civil War the churches had become a bulwark of American slavery.” So, with religion not molding the people, but being molded by them; not influencing the world, but being influenced by it, it is little wonder that it has spread out in so many different and conflicting directions.
HISTORY OF DIVISIONS
The first settlers brought with them a great number of religions. There were Anglicans, Puritans, Pilgrims, Scotch Presbyterians, Calvinists, Lutherans, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and others. But the pioneer was a rugged individualist, independent and determined to go his own way in religion as well as in politics. He took this already confused stock of religions and severed and split them into myriads of smaller groups. “Denominations such as the Dunkers and Mennonites, which were of European origin, when transplanted to America divided and redivided as they moved westward into the undeveloped frontier,” says Sweet, who describes this frontier religion as “warped though it often was, almost beyond recognition”. The foundations for the new religions were, therefore, based not on sound doctrine but on this warped frontier viewpoint. While getting farther and farther from true worship, the number of sects grew and grew.
Further severing America’s religion was the “Great Awakening” between 1734 and 1790. This was a surge of revivalism that spread from New England down through New Jersey and into the South. The new preachers or “New Lights”, however, were not looked on with favor by the more conservative elements or “Old Lights” who frequently expelled the newer group. These, being vigorously evangelistic, just established their own congregations, some of which grew into new religions. The Unitarians split off from the Congregationalists in this manner. The Presbyterians split temporarily into “New Side” and “Old Side” bodies, and many “Separate” congregations that were formed became Baptist. Shubal Stearns, the founder of one of these, moved to North Carolina, where his evangelism produced the Separate Baptists, now a comparatively small group, whose immediate growth was called “almost unparalleled in Baptist history”.
Slavery, already mentioned, was the third great reason for schisms. It split Methodism wide open in 1844. The great Baptist split was in 1845. The Presbyterian house divided right down the Mason-Dixon line between North and South. Entirely separate religious organizations were established to conform to politics, and when politics can divide the church it has certainly fallen a long way from the separateness from politics taught by Christ and the apostles! The Baptist and Presbyterian divisions remain to this day; the Methodist breach was healed only in 1939. Frank S. Mead in his Handbook of Denominations says this split “concerned neither doctrine nor polity; it was purely political and social”. The real effort was not to follow God’s Word, but to support the political views of the members, to ‘adapt the gospel to their own purposes’.
Differently, the Episcopalians did not divide; they just went out and shot each other. Bishop Polk was a Southern general, and according to Mead’s See These Banners Go, “Bishop McIlvaine of Ohio and fighting Bishop Polk of Louisiana prayed for each other by name in their chancels, every Sabbath day.” They just “separated for the moment, as two travelers might separate to walk around a mud puddle in their road and join again when the obstacle was passed”.
THE ROAD BROADENS
Not only did this sectional conflict also divide these same religions into white and colored, developing new denominations for Negroes, but national divisions severed other groups. Though the early Christian congregation was to make no division between Jew or Greek, slave or free, and James said class distinctions were a sin, the Eastern Orthodox churches within the United States are divided into Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Roumanian, Russian, Serbian, Syrian and Ukrainian groups. The Lutherans are divided into Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and other sections. “The churches of America,” says H. Richard Niebuhr, “no less than those of Europe, have often been more subject to the influence of provincial or class environment than to the persuasions of a common gospel.”—1 Cor. 12:13; Jas. 2:1-9.
The fourth and fifth major causes of division were the phenomenal antimission movements that swept the frontier in the early nineteenth century, and the use of instrumental music. Antimissionism developed from the frontier objections to sending money back East to pay for the missionaries, and from the frontier preachers’ jealousy over the eloquent, better-trained new arrivals. The movement swept the whole of the frontier, particularly through Kentucky and Tennessee, and so struck the Baptists that at least three groups of “Hard-Shell” or “Antimission” Baptists still remain.
This, along with debate over that particularly noisy instrument, the organ, disrupted the Disciples of Christ so violently that a fourth of their members split off to form the “Churches of Christ”. The antiorgan argument said: “No element of public worship is legitimate which is not explicitly authorized in the New Testament. Instrumental music is not so authorized. Therefore it is not legitimate.” The extent to which this was carried was shown by Lard’s Quarterly (1864), which said: “Let every preacher resolve never to enter a meetinghouse of our brethren in which an organ stands. Let no one who takes a letter from one church ever unite with another using an organ. Rather let him live out of a church than go into such a den. Let all who oppose the organ withdraw from the church if one is brought in.” (Italics his) Today a million people think God is vitally concerned over whether any musical accompaniment helps the singers stay on key. Of course, they have no objections to other modern innovations not mentioned in the Scriptures: the radio, songbooks, stained-glass windows, etc.; but they justify this by saying these are not elements of worship as they think a sounded note somehow is. However, instrumental music seems approved in the so-called “New Testament”.—Rev. 5:8; 15:2.
The desire of particular men to lead their group was another major cause of religious divisions. Such jurisdictional divisions are well exemplified by the Mormons. When their founder, Joseph Smith, died, the largest group, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, followed Brigham Young to Utah where they built Salt Lake City. A second group, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was led by Joseph Smith’s sons. A third formed the Church of Christ (Temple Lot); a fourth, the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonites), followed Sidney Rigdon; a fifth, the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerites), followed Alpheus Cutler, one of the original seven elders of Mormonism; and the sixth group, the Church of Jesus Christ (Strangites), followed James J. Strang, who claimed he had written credentials from Joseph Smith.
STILL MORE DIVISIONS
Others followed quirks of their own ideas to further confuse the picture. The “two seed” theory of the Two—Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists (one of the antimission groups) is that back in Eden God put a good seed in man; Satan, the evil one. Babies, they think, are born with one seed or the other, so missionary work is useless; a man with the bad seed is helpless and one with the good will come to the church anyway. At last report (eight years ago) their numbers had dropped to a mere 200. Their doctrine is based on a misinterpretation of Genesis 3:15 about the seed of the woman.
Then, as one writer commented: “In any large city unheard-of sects can be located, frequently consisting of only one or two churches. A dissatisfied preacher finds it easy to lead off a group and start a new denomination of his own. . . . Most of the little groups have no history save a church quarrel, and few of them possess any distinctive doctrines or practices.” It has been estimated that there may be as many as 3,000 of these independent groups.
Away back in 1890 a little book, Short History of the Church in the United States, truthfully said: “The multiplication of ecclesiastical organizations has been one of the characteristics of American religious life.” Some like to call them the “many mansions” in the Father’s house, perverting John 14:2, which refers to heavenly blessings. In most minds today a shamefully hazy blending occurs to where divergence of doctrine and difference of belief are passed over, put aside with the view that they are all different roads going to the same place. But they are not. While propounding their own theories they cannot be gathering with Christ. He called the tradition-following religious leaders of his day who did not hold to right doctrine while claiming divine authority for their acts hypocrites, blind guides, fools, serpents, viperous offspring doomed to destruction. (Matt. 12:30; 23:1-39) Those seeking life and truth must get off these broad paths, dust off their Bibles and learn from that thousand pages the difference between all this hodgepodge of self-contradicting doctrines and the true inspired Word given by Jehovah God. But for a discussion of this and of its importance we must refer you to our following article, “The Narrow Way Leads to Life.”