There has been a lot of discussion recently about the decline of mainline churches and it causes. Some excellent work has been done by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark two sociologists who dabble in history.
Finke and Stark have examined denominational statistics on the US church between 1776 and 1850. They concluded that “the so-called Protestant ‘mainline’ began to collapse rapidly, not in the past several decades as is widely supposed, but in the late 18th Century. Hence by 1850 the Baptists and Methodists — vigorous, evangelical sects in that era — dominated the religious landscape. The key factor they argue was the infection of the ‘mainline’ denominations with secularism and the resulting loss of vigor in evangelism. The result was that the mainline churches watched from the safety of the larger towns and cities along the Atlantic seaboard while the Baptists and Methodists moved West with the frontier.
These two denominations grew significantly because they reached previously unchurched people. In 1776 only 17% of the poppulation was affiliated with a church. By 1850 that number had doubled to 34%. Most of the growth was as a result of the gains by the Methodists and Baptists on the frontier. Why? A key factor was the secularisation of the mainline denominations. ”The religious message had become too vague, too accommodated and too secular to have broad appeal.“
Clericalism was both a contributing factor to and the result of this creeping secularism in the mainline churches. Despite theological and organisational differences between the Baptists and Methodists their clergy were almost identical. They came predominately from among ordinary folk. In contrast to the clergy of the mainline churches who were of genteel origins and highly educated. Their frontier preachers had little education, were poorly paid, spoke the language of the people and preached from the heart. The local preacher was likely to be a neighbor, friend, or relative of many of the people he served. Higher education lifted the mainline clergy further out of the social status of their congregation and turned them into religious professionals more educated than 98% of the population. They were more ‘respectable, but less likely to gather the unchurched.
Secularised theological education and social background influenced the content and form of the message that was delivered. Despite their theological differences Baptists and Methodists emphasized the need for personal conversion and salvation from sin. The power of God was not only to be spoken about, it was experienced.
One contemporary observed, ”Their mode of preaching is entirely extemporaneous, very loud and animated. . . . They appear studiously to avoid connection in their discourses, and are fond of introducing pathetic stories, which are calculated to affect the tender passions. Their manner is very solemn, and their preaching is frequently attended with surprising effect upon their audiences.“
In contrast, the mainline clergy preferred to educate rather than convert their hearers. ”If the goal was to arouse faith, the carefully drafted, scholarly, and often dry, sermons of the learned clergy were no match for the impromptu, emotional pleas of the uneducated preacher.“
Not only were mainline clergy out of touch with the common people. They were also in short supply on the rapidly growing frontier. The expectation of a well educated, well paid clergy, resulted in a shortage of clergy on the frontier. A shortage meant their clergy chose the safety of an established congregation rather than the challenge of pioneering a new one. To be a Baptist or Methodist church leader did not require an up front investment of money and education. Both denominations developed systems which made it easy for gifted laymen to enter the ministry. Their clergy moved with the people rather than waited for them to call. ”It is hard to imagine any sum of money that would have caused an Anglican Bishop to travel nearly 300,000 miles on horseback as Francis Asbury did, disregarding weather and chronic illhealth, ‘to goad his men and to supervise their work.’“
Regardless of their differing denominational polity both the Baptists and the Methodists tended to be self-governing at the local level on the frontier. The Methodists eventually introduced a professional clergy who controlled the denomination centrally leading to their decline. But in the early days of rapid growth congregations were left to control their own destinies much like the Baptists.
Many factors fed into the amazing success of the Baptists and Methodists and the impotency of the Anglicans, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. At the heart of the problem was a professional, highly educated, secularized clergy who secularized the content and form of their message and blocked the mobilization of ordinary people for ministry. In contrast Baptist and Methodist church leaders were hardly distinguishable from the people they served and led. Their self-governing congregations multiplied rapidly in the frontier culture reaching a significant portion of the population who were previously unchurched.
Methodist growth was most dramatic. From 2.5% of the church going population in 1776 to 34.2% in 1850. But their rise was short-lived. By the end of the century the Baptists had overtaken them. Their relative slump began at the same time that their amateur clergy were replaced by seminary educated professionals who claimed episcopal authority over their congregations.