Religion In America: The Sociological Approach to Religion and its Limits

Essays in the History of Religions
by Joachim Wach

Religion In America: The Sociological Approach to Religion and its Limits

(NOTE: As noted in the introduction, this essay is a composite based on lecture notes. Like other composites -- the works of Aristotle are probably the most famous example -- it does not read as fluently as Wach’s published writings. The essay is very instructive, however, in showing how Wach, as a historian of religions, would approach a topic that is discussed today from a variety of different viewpoints, but not often from the viewpoint of the history of religions.)

In this paper I propose first to survey a number of approaches to the study of religious groups; then to discuss the nature of religious groups in America and elsewhere; and finally to give a few illustrations of different types of religious groups from the American scene. What I want to do is to suggest an answer to the question: How should we study religious groups and movements?


There are several ways to study religion and religions. Since we are interested in investigating the role of religion in America, it may not be out of place to discuss some of them here. First there is the historical approach. This approach attempts to trace the origin and growth of religious ideas and institutions through definite periods of historical development and to assess the role of the factors with which religion interacted during these times. Frequently such work presupposes philological and even archeological research. Without the painstaking work of linguists and archeologists, the early religious history of humankind and many of its later manifestations would have remained unknown or would be inaccessible to us. As a matter of fact, our own religious heritage constitutes first of all a historical problem. Grammatical and historical interpretation will always remain an indispensable element in the study of religion when we try to approach it through the past. But this kind of interpretation does not constitute the only avenue of approach.

It is also legitimate to study the interior aspect(s) of religious experience. Individual and group feelings as well as their dynamics have to be explored. This is the task of psychological interpretation. Though in the past decades there has been an appreciable cooling off of the fervor displayed at the beginning of the twentieth century by the advocates of the psychology of religion, still today the various schools of depth-psychology and psychoanalysis offer clues to the understanding of the unconscious and its workings. Allport, Horney, Menninger, and Fromm all have applied Freudian and Jungian theories to the study of religion.

To these methods several new ones have been added. In France and in Germany the so-called sociology of religion has evolved. Originally the application of methods of general sociology, such as A. Comte and L. von Stein had outlined, was tied closely to the evolving economic interpretation which Lasalle and Marx had conceived. This approach was corrected by the founders of the modern sociology of religion: Fustel de Coulanges and Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, Werner Sombart and Max Scheler. I shall say more about sociology presently. Finally, there emerged in this century still another school, opening up a new avenue to the investigation of religious phenomena: phenomenology. Originally conceived as a strictly philosophical discipline with the purpose of limiting and supplementing the purely psychological explanation of the processes of the mind, the phenomenological approach was applied to the study of religion by Max Scheler, Rudolf Otto, and Gerardus van der Leeuw. It aims at interpreting religious ideas, acts, and institutions "as they present themselves," giving due consideration of their "intention" and apart from any preconceived philosophical, theological, metaphysical, or psychological theory. Phenomenology thus provides a necessary supplement to a purely historical, psychological, or sociological approach.

The bridge between the empirical and phenomenological research, on the one side, and the normative, on the other, is supplied by still another approach: typology. The endless variety of phenomena that history, psychology, and sociology of religion provide must be organized. Typological studies are designed to do just that. There emerge types of religious leaders -- whose lives the historian has illumined, whose intellectual and emotional makeup the psychologist has investigated, and whose social role the sociologist has explored -- as well as types of religious groupings and religious institutions. Wilhelm Dilthey, William James, Max Weber, and Howard Becker have masterfully employed this method. Yet, typology is not sufficient in itself. Being of a systematic character, the typological quest is related to both philosophical and theological inquiries. While a typological analysis refrains from raising the question of truth, the philosopher and especially the theologian will have to deal with and answer that question. (Historical, psychological, sociological, and phenomenological investigations proceed along descriptive lines; philosophy and theology are normative. It will always be an important methodological issue to determine the relationship between descriptive and normative concerns. It goes without saying that the study of religion is vitally interested in this issue.)

Let me illustrate what I have been saying with an example. In the last decade or two we can detect that the American public is becoming increasingly interested in sectarianism. By sectarianism I do not mean denominationalism but the "Small Sects," as Elmer T. Clark has called them. Some of them have been treated by Charles Braden in a volume entitled These Also Believe. In this presentation quite a few movements such as Father Divine’s Peace Mission, Psychiana, New Thought, I Am, Mormonism, and others are "discussed," that is, their history, their teachings, and their practices are delineated and the reader is left to draw his own conclusions. The question of truth is not raised, normative considerations are strictly excluded. "It will be noted, that there is here stated no purpose to evaluate the movements to show where they are right or wrong, strong or weak" (p. 10). The writer says that "he holds no brief for any particular cult nor is he violently opposed to any" (p. 11). In other words, he would cut the task of the student of religion down to a historical, psychological, and sociological size, shorn of all systematic concern. Now it is true that these methods all are indispensable. They constitute what we call the essence of critical Western scholarship. But it is my thesis that they need to be balanced by attempts to do justice to the meaning of the phenomena under investigation and that it is, therefore, necessary to interpret them in terms of their philosophical and religious relevance.

All this would mean that in order to understand a religious movement or institution integrally, we would have to make a careful study of the sources, its origin and its development, of the movement in itself and in interaction with the culture and society, and possibly with the religious community in which it is found. We would study the emotional or effectual makeup of the community and/or its members, which would include the reactions to the outside world. To this we would add a sociological analysis, the aim of which is to explain the social background, to describe the structure, and to ascertain the sociologically relevant implications and results of the movement or institution. This inventory still does not include an examination of the internal consistency of the features that make up the theoretical, the practical, and the sociological expression of the experience of the religious community in question, nor does it include an inquiry into the rational arguments set forth in support of its tenets. The philosopher may legitimately claim competence to judge the consistency and coherence of the propositional elements contained in the doctrines held by the group. Both he and the theologian as "philosophers of religion" are concerned with the epistemological question as to the nature and sources of religious knowledge. But it is the theologian who alone can be expected to respond positively or negatively to religious claims, to raise the question of truth, and to pass judgment on the adequacy and value of religious symbols and concepts, words and deeds.

In this lecture I am concerned with the sociological study of religion, its rights and assets, its dangers and its limitations. It was the mistake of those who discovered and pioneered this method to believe that it represented the universal key to understanding religious phenomena. The ideologies of Comte, Marx, and Spencer shared this error. Many of their followers were and are inclined to substitute for the questions of meaning, value, and truth, an inquiry into the social origin, the sociological structure, and the social efficacy of a religious group or movement. American social scientists are very prone to proceed along these lines. Yet, William James has already insisted that the origin of a phenomenon does not have a decisive bearing on its value -- and what he stipulated for the psychological quest is valid also for the sociological. Even as knowledgeable a study as Richard Niebuhr’s The Social Sources of Denominationalism labors under the error that the social "milieu" out of which religious movements grow determines their character. Yet, there can be no doubt that it is characteristic of religious experience to transcend cultural conditions, as the same scholar has documented so well in his essays in Christ and Culture. It is not possible to derive the characteristic theological teachings of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints or the Shakers from the investigation of the social status of its founders. I find traces of environmentalism even in the assessment of American religion that H. W. Schneider gives in his Religion in 20th Century America.

Nevertheless, the sociological approach to the study of religion has great rewards. After a period of unqualified individualism it has reminded us of the importance of corporate religion. It has helped to correct the rationalistic prejudice that only the intellectual expression of religious experience counts. The rediscovery of the central place of worship in every religion that deserves the name was facilitated by sociological studies. While previously historians had been prone to concentrate their attention on the state as the primary or even the sole factor of importance in historical development, it was the merit of sociological inquirers to have opened up the wide field of social grouping, of covenanting and associating in which religious motivation plays so significant a part. Of course, the influence of religious ideas, practices, and institutions upon society had always intrigued the historians, but it could be assessed better from the time that the organizations of society, to use Dilthey’s terminology, were more clearly distinguished from the systems of cultural objectification (law, art, science). But it did take a while before the role of one of these organizations, namely, that of economics in society, was clearly recognized and defined. Liston Pope has written in "Religion and the Class Structure" in Annals of the American Academy, vol 91: "Religion, despite the close association of its institutions with the class structure, is neither simply a product nor a cause, a sanction or an enemy, of social stratification. It may be either or both, as it has been in various societies at various times." Here lies the importance of the work of Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch who corrected the onesidedness of the approach of Marxist theory. New ground, not really covered by either historians or theologians previously, was broken when sociologists of religion asked about the influence of societal factors upon religion. (Because his contribution in this respect is not often referred to in the literature on the subject, I mention here the important lectures of Jacob Burckhardt, translated under the title Force and Freedom, with their discussion of the interaction of religion, culture, and the state.) The study of the influence of social stratification upon religious grouping and on the structure and constitution of religious communities could now supplement the efforts of the church historians and ecclesiastical legalists. This study has been undertaken in Germany, France, and in this country and has yielded many interesting results. Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Howard Becker, and others have pioneered in this field. But equally important has been the sociological approach to the study of the religious group, systematically and typologically organized, thus supplementing historical and psychological investigations. In Christian and non-Christian religions one of the central concerns is communion, fellowship. The definition of its nature in the self-interpretation of the religious group is one of the cardinal tenets of faith. Ecclesiology and what corresponds to it in the free bodies is its expression, which the sociologists have to take seriously. Comparison has become possible only since a richer inventory was supplied by many painstaking historical monographs. Compilations such as Ph. Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, Neve’s Churches and Sects, Frank S. Mead’s Handbook of Denominations, Marcus Bach’s They Found a Faith, E. T. Clark’s "Small Sects, the Study of Organized Religion in the United States," in the Annals of the Academy of Political and Social Science, W. W. Sweet’s The American Churches, and H. W. Schneider’s Religion in 20th Century America provide lists and summary descriptions of the groups that compose the American religious scene. Instead of being limited to the work of historians of the respective religious communities themselves we are now in the position to define more clearly the nature of the ecclesiastical body, the denomination, and the sect. We begin to understand that not all is said and done when the historical, and that often means accidental, development and the incidents t hat gave rise to a particular group are taken into consideration. Typical factors of a psychological and sociological nature are of considerable consequence, for example, the typical make-up of the potential sectarian or of the sectarian leader, of the sectarian audience, of the urban parishioner, and of the ecclesiastical bureaucrat. Thus, a categorical scheme becomes visible that may prove helpful in any attempt to do justice to the concrete, individual group under study. But the scheme sociologists of religion use is, as yet, not differentiated, not fine and detailed enough.

Otherwise we would not be so embarrassed by certain phenomena that seem to resist classification and understanding. Are the groups that originated from the so-called Left Wing Reformation solely set apart by their history or do they stand, as Friedman, Littell, and others have attempted to show, for definite theological and ecclesiological doctrines? Is the Church of the Latter-Day Saints a Christian ecclesiastical body? What about Father Divine’s Peace-Mission? Is the Society of Friends a denomination or a sect? What are the Rosicrucians? In each of these cases, a careful historical study of the origin and growth of the movement is helpful, even indispensable, but no one approach by itself provides the answers. Neither does a psychological inquiry, though it will shed some light. It is an error, or worse, it is arrogance for some psychologists -- I shall name here only Erich Fromm -- to believe that they actually understand the motivation of a religious group or person without a more thorough training in religious studies than they often possess. An examination of a sociological nature will reveal the type to which the particular group belongs. That is, it will correct a one-sided emphasis on the ideology (theology) or the forms of worship, both of which in the eyes of the historian have often stood out.

A religious group may resemble other types of groups (political, artistic, economic, and intellectual associations) in many ways. That will be true especially of the communities I have called natural groups, that is, those in which natural (blood) and religious ties are identical. It is less true of specifically religious organizations that are held together primarily or exclusively by cultic bonds. Yet, it is highly important to do justice to the nature of the religious group as such. Failure to do that has marred many sociological studies since the beginning of the twentieth century.


In every group that lays claim to the title "religious," the paramount fact is the religious experience that nourishes and sustains it. We define religious experience as a confrontation by man with Ultimate Reality -- for no finite or relative phenomenon is worthy of adoration, only God is.

Religious experience traditionally has expressed itself in three ways: in thought, in action, and in fellowship. However, it would be a great mistake to look upon the expression in fellowship as one that may or may not be added to a full expression in belief and cultus. All three forms are constitutive, and only in fellowship can the two others, the intellectual and the practical, attain their true meaning. Myth or doctrine are the articulation in thought of what has been experienced in the confrontation with Ultimate Reality; and cultus is the living out of this confrontation in action. Both give direction to the community, formed by those who are united in a particular religious experience, and this community is actively shaping and developing its religious experience in thought and in action.

The religious act will always be somebody’s religious act. Modern Western man is all too prone to think of the solitary individual first and last. Yet, the study of primitive religions shows that, by and large, religion is a group affair, individual experiences notwithstanding. One of its keenest students, R. R. Marett, puts it thus: "Primarily and directly, the subject, the owner as it were, of religious experience is the religious society, not the individual" (Threshold of Religion, p. 137), and: "The religious society rather than the religious individual must be treated as primarily responsible for the feelings, thoughts and actions that make up historical religion" (ibid., p. 123). In most important ceremonies a large number of people must participate. There is no denying that on a higher level of civilization a more strongly individualized attitude develops: not only the outstanding individual (king, priest) but the average devotee will cultivate his own communion with the numen, say his own special prayers, and perform his personal worship. That is eminently the case in the great world religions. Nevertheless, all through the history of religions the thought and action of one man have been indissolubly tied to the thought and action of another. The old phrase, Unus Christianus nullus Christianus -- "one Christian is no Christian," holds true of all other religions, too. Many minds of possibly many generations help to weave a myth, and a doctrine results from the reflection and deliberation of an often long line of religious thinkers. It takes an equally long time before, through the cooperation of generations of members, a ritual has evolved that both creates and directs the actions and interactions of a group. A quorum is frequently considered indispensable to a valid religious act.

In and through the religious act the religious group is constituted. There is no religion that has not evolved a type of religious fellowship. In several other publications I have stressed the double relationship that characterizes the religious group in distinction from other types of groupings: first, the relation of its members -- collectively and individually -- to the numen, and second, the relation of the members of the group toward each other. While in personal experience the latter relationship may be met first, it is, ontologically, dependent upon the former, namely, the orientation to the numen. In another context we have said that the nature, intensity, duration, and organization of a religious group depends upon the way in which its members experience God, how they conceive of and communicate with Him, and how they experience fellowship, conceive of it, and practice it. More than other types of association, the religious group presents itself as a microcosm with its own laws, outlook on life, attitude, and atmosphere. Except for certain developments in the modern Western world, there has always been a consciousness of the numinous character inherent in the religious communion, in the ecclesia, the qahal, the ummah, or the samgha. Only where historical developments have led to a degeneration in the life of the fellowship, and hence to a weakening of this feeling, will there be a rationalistic or mystic or spiritualist protest against the actual manifestation, or against the very idea of a communion and community in religion. The numinous character of the fellowship, which might be reflected in myths or formulated in doctrine ("ecclesiology"), is not only, as some would assume, the result of its venerable age. It also results from the "power and glory" that it possesses because of its divine foundation. It is important to realize that there is this dimension to the notion of the religious community because the secularized understanding of many modern Westerners cannot conceive of it except in purely sociological terms.

The first important task for a student of religious groups will be, therefore, to do justice to the self-interpretation of a religious communion. How does it see its own nature in the light of the central religious experience that created and that sustains it? This question cannot be answered by taking into account only outward and measurable "behavior" and disregarding the meaning that concepts, attitudes, and acts are meant to convey. As over against this "intention" the actual performance in the past and in the present will have to be understood and judged. In what sense is the religious experience of a religious community genuine and fruitful? What is it that is revealed concerning the nature of Ultimate Reality? And how does it move man? How does it influence his attitude toward the world and the major spheres of activity within it? What does it mean in terms of his relation to his fellow men? Are there distinctions and qualifications? And upon what grounds are they made and justified? All this will tell us a great deal about a group, its prevailing spirit, and its fundamental attitudes. Religious communities vary not only with regard to the manner in which they apprehend the numen, that is, the content of the theoretical expression of their religious experience, but also in the degree of their religious fervor or intensity. The intensity of religious feeling and the urgency of the religious concern differ greatly from group to group.

As far as the relationship of the members of a religious group to each other is concerned, we might well expect to find a dimension of depth to which a nonreligious association will not --necessarily -- aspire. In primitive religion a strong tie binds the members of a tribal cult together, and on the level of the great religions spiritual brotherhood surpasses physical ties between brothers. A "father or a mother in God," a "brother or sister in God" may be closer to us than our physical parents and relatives. No stronger tie is possible between human beings than being related to each other in God. It may consecrate the bonds of blood, of neighborhood, of cooperation, and it may cut them. Next to blood relationship and marriage -- both with physical ties -- the religious life has given rise to the relation between master and disciple, perhaps the profoundest and most fruitful relationship between men even though there is no physical bond. It is easy to see how in this cosmos of relationships and interrelationships an order is necessary in which participation itself would insure a minimum of recognition and dignity but in which the higher endowed would take precedence over the less endowed. In accordance with the nature of the basic religious experience the conception of the nature and function of members of the community will vary. Dependent upon whether age or insight, power or skill, attitude or a set of deeds is regarded as the criterion for the possession of grace, a spiritual order will become manifest which may or may not coincide with any other competing order.

The use of the personal nouns in some languages is interesting in this regard. Where the normal way of address may be a formal use of the second person plural, religious language would favor the second person singular (intimacy). The first person singular will often be circumscribed by expressions denoting humility while the first person plural, "we," serves to indicate, often in sharp opposition to the outside, what the sociologist calls the in-group. In a genuine religious community the satisfaction of forming a part of the group -- however insignificant -- will be outweighed by the humble realization of the members’ shortcomings. The presence of unmitigated pride, ambition, and hypocrisy indicates the lack of genuineness in the character of the basic experience and of those who stand for it. Genuineness and intensity of religious experience is, as we saw, an even clearer indication of the character and value of a religious group than size or structure.

The size of a group is important not just with regard to quantitative measurement. As long as the group is small and intimate enough for each member to know the other -- a condition that rarely survives the early stages -- great intensity of feeling, great solidarity, and great activity will characterize the members. Where the size is larger but membership is not yet limited by such criteria as birth and locality, the character of the community will be different. What is left to spontaneity in the smaller unit must be organized here. Relations may be impersonal instead of intimate; individual initiative might be replaced by representative action. Here the process of crystallization may begin anew. This process gains special significance where the religious community is established on the basis of universality without any restriction or limitation. The history of all the major religions presents many examples of the formation of new vital centers or brotherhoods in which we may see renewed attempts at the realization of the ideal fellowship.

I have studied the integration of the religious group at some length in my Sociology of Religion (pp. 36ff.). We saw earlier that symbolic expressions may be regarded as a primary means by which the members of a religious communion are united. As far as the various forms of intellectual expression such as myth and doctrine are concerned, we may notice two different effects: they might well increase the feeling of solidarity of those bound by them, but they may also act divisively. Some religious groups prefer precise doctrinal statements in order to enhance the cohesion of their members, and they are only secondarily concerned with the effect of such regulation upon spontaneity. Other communities value latitude without being disturbed by the vagueness and atomism that may result from an exaggerated breadth.

With regard to the practical expression of religious experience we have noted already that common acts of devotion and of service provide an incomparable bond of union between the members of a cult group. To pray together is a token of the deepest spiritual communion. To join in a specific act of devotion may constitute a permanent association. A brotherhood develops out of the common veneration of a prophet or a saint among any number of people. The act of sacrifice may stand as an example for many other cultic acts, the performance of which has a socially integrating effect. "Festivals and pilgrimages," I have said in another context, "are outstanding occasions, for here we find a close interrelation between different cultic activities such as purifications, lustrations, prayer, vows, offerings, sacrifices, and processions all of which are of particular interest both to the historian and the sociologist of religion" (Sociology of Religion, p. 42).Thus, at all levels of social grouping -- in the family or the house, in marriage or friendship, in the kinship or the regional group, in the village or the city, in a nation or in a specifically religious community -- we observe a strengthening of cohesion. This strengthening illustrates the integrating function of a common religious experience.

But is there not another side to the picture; History tells us not only of the socially constructive but also of the destructive power of religion. Have not the closest ties of blood and friendship been destroyed in the name of religion? Especially the history of the universal religions seems to illustrate this contention. Indeed, in order to create a new and profound spiritual brotherhood, based on the principles enunciated by a new faith, old bonds have to be broken. This break of sociological ties becomes one of the marks of the willingness to begin a new life. ("To become a disciple of the Buddha means to leave parents and relatives, wife and child, home and property and all else, as flamingos leave their lakes" [The rigatha; see Chapter regarding Master and Disciple].) It is a cause for the sincerest rejoicing when those lost are found again in a new consecrated bond of union. But for those who cannot be reunited with their natural brothers and sisters and friends, the spiritual family of brethren and sisters is waiting. Even the apparently socially destructive forces of religion turn out to be creative and beneficial.

The religious group, which, as we saw earlier, is a microcosm, speaks its own language. It may use the words and phrases of the outside world to express experiences, thoughts, and feelings to which there is no analogy, or new terms and constructions may be coined to do justice to these experiences. New and unaccustomed ways of communication are sought and found. New symbols will arise. The outsider may or may not easily find access into a group thus integrated. Even where the participants do not desire to stress differences, these differences will make themselves felt in contacts with the "outside world."

It is very important to study the structure of religious groups. This structure is determined by two sets of factors, namely, those of a religious and those of an extrareligious nature. Spiritual gifts such as healing and teaching are examples of religious factors; age, social position, ethics, and background are qualifications of a nonreligious character. The pattern or structure might follow that of the natural order: where the family or the tribe or the people function as a cult group, the natural and the religious order are identical. Or the pattern might be absolutely independent, and either be kept at a minimum or developed maximally. In the latter case the structure of the religious group will at no point coincide with other orders such as the social, economic, or political. There will be considerable variations with regard to duration and to differentiation between religious groups. From the ad hoc, quickly gathered, and quickly dispersed audience to the solid and lasting institutions that have survived for millennia, we find more or less ephemeral, more or less tightly knit fellowships. And as to differentiation, the variety is equally great. Many, perhaps the majority of cult groups show little differentiation; some exhibit a high degree of it. There seem to be four major factors that make for differentiation within a religious community. The first is differentiation in function. Even within a small group comprising only a few members who are united by the bond of common religious experience, a certain degree of division of functions will exist. It will fall to the elders or the most experienced to lead in prayer or chant; some of the younger members may be charged with providing whatever is needed for sacrificial purposes. One will be a teacher, while another will serve as a deacon or deaconess. The enormously complex ritual of some of the higher religions presupposes an extreme degree of specialization on the part of those who function in these rites. In ancient Mexico and Polynesia, in West Africa, Egypt, Rome, Babylon, and Israel, in Hinduism and Confucianism, in Mahayana Buddhism and in the Catholic forms of Christianity we have examples of differentiation in cultic functions as well as social differentiation. In another context I have pointed out that the degree of differentiation of functions in the religious group does not necessarily depend upon the general cultural level. We find in Southeast American Indian cults, in Shinto, or in modern Western sectarianism elaborate specialization, just as we meet with a minimum of it in the highest forms of group religious life. Kinds of functions differ from one another in a variety of ways; among the most basic are differences between permanent and temporary, personal and hereditary, and actual and honorary functions.

Second, there is, in religious groups, a differentiation according to charisma. Even the most egalitarian communities recognize a diversity of "gifts," which accounts for the differences in authority, prestige, and position within the community. Max Weber has spoken of hierarchies, and he has introduced into wider use the distinction between personal and official charisma. The highest conceivable charisma with which a person may be credited is constant and close communion with the "numen," the deity. Extraordinary powers can accrue to one so blessed, and there is no limit to what others may expect in demonstration of such powers. The esteem in which such a man or god may be held may express itself in a position of influence, of power, or of wealth or, inversely, in the complete absence of these qualities: weakness, poverty, and persecution. Next to this first type of primary charismatic, there is a derivative type: those who by some contact, possibly long and close, with the "friend of God" have acquired charisma, which places them in a category different from that of an ordinary member of the community: the apostles, companions, and first disciples of the great charismatics can be listed here.

The "gifts" of the charismatic may be of different kinds but will indicate a high degree of spiritual power. It may be insight into the divine mysteries, the nature of Ultimate Reality, and of the laws governing the existence of the cosmos, of society, and of individual lives; or the gift of restoring into wholeness broken physical or spiritual health; or the ability to develop, by teaching and in other ways, the hidden possibilities in one’s fellow men, and to give direction and purpose to their lives. It may be physical strength or intellectual power, moral goodness, skill, or abnormal faculties. The possession of such charisma, sociologically seen, may have two effects: it may isolate its bearer to a greater or lesser degree, and it may become the focus of a process of social cystallization and thus serve to integrate.

A third factor making for differentiation within religious groups is the natural division according to age, sex, and descent. The young -- as well as the old, though for different reasons -- will be set somewhat apart and play, individually and collectively, a different role in the life of a religious community. (cf. on the religion of age groups Allport’s The Individual and His Religion, chaps. 2 and 3). The preparatory stage during which the full privileges of membership are withheld ends with an initiation into full participation. Different groups of youth may be organized according to age (infants, young, older adolescents). In a body, a "senate," the aged may function as a "presbytery," as "elders"; but as individuals the old seer, prophet, teacher, and master will play an important role in the group, whether it be a natural group or specifically religious.

Men and women are often separated in the cultus or in certain functions while they may freely mix in other activities of a religious character. Women were excluded from the service of the Ara Maxima, men from the temple of the Bona Dea in ancient Rome. There are cult associations that exclude all except men or women at a specific age level. While in some religious communities only men may be religious functionaries, in others this role is reserved for women, and in still others both sexes are eligible for such service.

Differentiation according to descent might mean that racial qualifications are practiced according to which members of certain "races" are excluded from attending or fully participating in religious rites. Of this we know many examples in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas. It may also mean that certain privileges with regard to the religious life and its activities are limited to members of one or several special racial groups. It is at this point that universal and tribal (particular) faiths are most definitely at variance. Differentiation according to descent includes also distinctions made on the basis of historical events such as conquest and war. Where a group of people, by virtue of belonging to a political, cultural, or ethnic unit, actual or fictitious, is barred from partial or full participation in worship or from carrying out honorary or other functions of a religious nature, there is differentiation according to descent.

Fourth, religious communities may be differentiated according to status. This principle may be looked upon as a combination of a number of factors that make for diversity. The "democratic" notion of the equality of all believers is a late product in the history of religions and, strictly speaking, rarely if ever carried out in practice. Where there are no differences based on the three criteria that I have already discussed, distinctions from without or of a nonreligious character will make themselves felt. There are differences in property, in function in society at large, and in rank. Differentiation within a religious community according to these factors, of course, is more frequently than not "unofficial;" it exists de facto rather than de jure. More often than not the wealthy are accorded special privileges, the chief or the political leader wields unwarranted influence, the nobleman or -woman and other highly placed persons are deferred to, even though a religious legitimation for such a distinction does not exist. Yet, there are mythological and theological explanations in some religious communities, especially in certain primitive Indo-European societies, in India, and in Japan, which justify differences of status in the religious community. The difference between legitimate and illegitimate distinctions of this kind is very important for the development and history of cult fellowship (protests, reformations).

The actual structure of the religious group with which we have been concerned so far may be reflected in its constitution. This is a legal term, and it should be reserved for designating an organization prescribed and guaranteed by religious law. This is to say that in small religious communities and in those of a "pneumatic" character, there are usually few differences and there is little that can be called law. On the other hand, the constitutions regulating the life of the Christian Church in its various forms, of Judaism and Islam, Hinduism and Parsism, of Buddhism and Confucianism, were or are highly complex. Invariably the principles of the canonical law in all of these ecclesiastical bodies are derived from basic theological formulations of religious insights, and invariably there is a considerable margin for the interpretation of these principles. I have developed elsewhere the distinction between egalitarian and hierarchical organizations and suggested "minimum" and "maximum" types. Only within a constitution can differentiations according to function, charisma, natural factors, and status become legalized and sanctioned.

It may be that what existed de facto becomes de jure. There are also, however, examples of religious groups inside and outside Christianity that have adopted a strict constitution as soon as they have come into existence or shortly thereafter. However, the constitution of the major Catholic, Protestant, and sectarian Christian Churches, of the Jewish, Islamic and Parsi bodies, of the Buddhist and Jaina Samghas, and of Confucianism, are in each case the result of complex historical developments. The constitution regulates the duties and rights of the religious functionary (clergy) and of the laity, and the order of the former. It further regulates the forms of worship and of service. It defines the holy law, mediating principles and the application of these principles, and may include casuistry.

Elsewhere I have enumerated and analyzed some types of constitutions of religious groups (Sociology of Religion, Chapter 5). Natural as well as specifically religious communities may be ordered by such a constitution, for example, kinship or local cults, secret or mystery societies, brotherhoods, ecclesiastical bodies, monastic orders, or independent and sectarian groups. There will be regulations concerning the relationships between the community and the numen and between the various members (permanent and transitory relations), regulations that specify how the community is to be governed, the norms by which it is to exist, the representation of those ruled, discipline (admission and expulsion), material contributions, etcetera. Since there may be some latitude for regional and other differences, there will be a distinction between perennial and temporary provisions. Broadly speaking, the regulation of the relation of the whole institution to its government or leadership, of its parts to the whole (the individual congregation), and of the individual to the higher sociological and ecclesiastical units may be either more democratic or more authoritarian. According to the constitution of the group the various functions and orders in the culture are defined.

Just as fundamental as the problem of the communicability of religious experiences is the problem of religious authority. With a few exceptions -- for example, skeptics, religious individualists, and anarchists -- we are all inclined to agree that there is and must be authority in religious matters. (See W. Jaeger’s statement in his Theology of the Early Greek Philosophers, p. 177: "The concept of auctoritas which is later to be of such decisive importance for the attitude of the Church in questions of faith, is entirely missing in Greek thought"). It seems preposterous to claim that everything should start de novo as if there had never been any communication between God and man. God has revealed himself to man, and the history of religion is the story of man’s understanding and appropriation of this self-disclosure. "By these contacts with the unseen, the individual may become the ‘organ’ or ‘mouthpiece’ of the divine" (Sociology of Religion, p. 335). Elsewhere I have outlined a typology of the bearers of religious authority continuing the studies of Max Weber, Max Scheler, Rudolf Otto, F. Znaniecki, and others: founder, reformer, prophet, seer, magician, diviner, saint, priest, and religiosus. This typology indicates variations in the authority that personal or official charisma confers upon the homo religiousus. But not all claims to authority can be honored. All religions have faced the task of distinguishing between true and false prophets and between genuine and spurious saints. What are the criteria by which such distinctions can be made and with whom does the competence to make them rest? It has been all too true that the authority of one speaking in the name of religion has been taken to be self-authenticating. The vicious circle established between the claim and the demonstration of its validity on such grounds has been the curse of many a religious tradition in many a religious community. In fact, none has escaped it. And yet there is in the case of every individual claim the chance of weighing it in the light of the total revelation of the divine nature and character. If we were right in stating that truth can only be one and that ultimately the knowledge of truth must be unified, too, consistence and coherence with what has been revealed in the course of human history cannot count for nothing. "Each immediate religious experience must be set in relation with our total range of experience and thought; untested experience is not trustworthy" (E. S. Brightman, A Philosophy of Realism, p. l91). It can only be the depth of religious insight and truth that can guarantee the veracity and legitimacy of any claim made by a homo religiosus, by a group of those speaking in the name of religion, or by a religious institution. The question of how we may test authorities is also discussed in E. L. Wenger’s interesting analysis of the problem of truth in religion (Studies in History and Religion, p. 177ff.): "The authority that man recognizes in religion," he says there, "is one who, in his character and manner of life, gives the impression of having insight into truths that ordinary man cannot fathom." He also stresses the necessity of seeing larger contexts: "The expert in religious truth must be one who has, implicitly or explicitly, a capacity to see the whole of life and to have a message adequate to it" (ibid., p. 178).

The question of motivation becomes of great importance if we want to assess the veracity of anyone claiming religious authority. Are the motives pure or mixed? If the latter, where does personal ambition or desire for power, wealth, or wellbeing begin and end? Since Freud, Jung, Pareto, and others have investigated the problems of the so-called subconscious mind, the study of personality has made great strides. I have become convinced that the relationship between conscious reasoning and the drives that propel it needs close scrutiny in every case where much depends on its character. It will always be difficult to analyze and to describe the spirit that prevails in a group united by common religious experience, a common faith, and common worship. An intensely religious group will always be a highly integrated group. The solidarity that characterizes the members both binds them together and sets them off over against outsiders. There is a wide gamut of "tokens" and signs by which the members of a given cult group can be identified, beginning with outward marks or emblems (such as painted or tattooed signs or patterns, lacerations, pieces of garment or vestment). These signs reveal a characteristic spirit. In some religious groups little value is placed upon the identification of members, and a greater or lesser degree of participation is not only tolerated but officially recognized. Other groups think of membership in strict terms. In this case admission -- other than by inherited right -- depends upon whether one fulfills definite obligations of various kinds. There are criteria for membership in good standing, and membership is voted or decided upon by a competent body or person. Discipline is enforced, and provisions for the exclusion of the unworthy are made. As a result, it is possible to make out who may -- or may not -- be considered to be a good Christian, Jew, Muslim, Parsi, Buddhist, Jain, or Confucian. There are, in each case, courses of action or attitudes that are considered, according to basic religious principles, or according to tradition or custom within a community of faith, as very specifically not in harmony or actually contrary to the spirit of the particular cult group. A great distance separates the infraction of a rule concerning dress, food, or participation in certain activities from violating basic moral ordinances by outspoken criminal acts. Within Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian theologies there have been discussions as to what constitutes a true believer and to what degree the actual community may be said to represent the ideal community. This ideal community may or may not be identified with a particular community of the past, for example, the mythical community of the beginning or the historical first circle or brotherhood. It may bear eschatological features (messianism in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism). In many religious communities certain mythical or historical figures are regarded as protoptypes of the true believer; frequently the founder or outstanding prophets and leaders play this paradigmatic role. The emulation of their virtues and attitudes becomes a guide to perfection. This ideal might be broken down still further, so that the exemplary man and the exemplary woman, the exemplary aged one or youth are recognized in persons of the most distant or most recent past (the "saint"). They may lend their names to the designation of a group of followers.

It remains for us to consider now the religious group in its relation to the world at large. So far I have concentrated on the cult community as a microcosm and studied it in relative isolation, but I did not intend to deny the existence and importance of such relationships. Again there is a wide range between the maximal identity of religion and other activities such as prevail in primitive societies and the tension we find existing on more advanced levels of cultural and religious development. Elsewhere, following Max Weber, we have suggested three basically different attitudes toward the world: a naively positive one, a negative one, and one critically positive. The first is illustrated by the outlook of the Veda or the Homeric epics, the second by the philosophy of Gnosticism or Buddhism, the third by the evaluation of the world in the monotheistic religions. Whatever the prevailing mood, the religious association takes precedence over all other forms of associating. Except in the modern Western world (cf. H. Schneider’s Religion in Twentieth Century America), religious loyalty outranks any other loyalty. Certainly it does so in theory. In the West, we are now coming to understand that the gradual emancipation of one sphere of life after another from religion has had some extremely serious and pernicious consequences. To say this is not to endorse the policies and attitudes of religious institutions or their spokesmen, whether past or present, but to maintain the principle that religious values are either humanity’s supreme values or they are not religious values at all. In different religious groups, different values provide religious values with the most serious competition: the values realized in economics, in sex, in art, in science, or in the state. Although some cult communities place no limitations on trade or commerce, others have severe restrictions. Some communities, far from being hostile toward sexual gratification, are fond of sexual symbolism and imagery; in other communities, the act of procreation and all that pertains to it are under heavy censure. Most religious groups expect the arts to contribute their share to the cultic expression of religious experience, but in some communities the arts are frowned upon and excluded from all forms of worship. Under the aegis of religious tradition the pursuit of knowledge is assiduously cultivated in most societies, but in some instances it has led to a sharp antagonism between religion and science. As far as political activity is concerned, a variety of typologically different attitudes toward the state as the highest form of societal organization can be traced. I have devoted a chapter to the comparative study of the relationship between religion and state (Sociology of Religion). All this means that associations for these or other purposes are differently evaluated on the basis of different religious experiences, and the relationship between cult groups and other associations will correspondingly differ. Everything is very simple in the case of the intimate religious community where practically all activities can be shared. In natural as well as specifically religious groups of this size a close integration of activities and associations exists under the inspiration of religion. Where differentiation and specialization have progressed, it is more difficult to prevent partial or total emancipation of economic, artistic, and erotic interests when a conflict of loyalties appears. In the case of a specifically religious group such conflicts are particularly frequent as their very emergence may represent a protest against certain political, economic, or moral conditions. Here sovereignty might actually clash with sovereignty, as was the case of feudal Western Christianity and feudal Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism, the religious might clash with the secular. There may also be friction or struggle between several religious groups competing within the same political realm. In developing certain basic religious institutions and principles, and applying them to typical situations and even concrete cases, mediating principles were formulated, as in the great systems of religious laws of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, and the Catholic branches of Christianity. In many cases, such principles arrested the process of application at a given stage, producing a conflict between traditional religion and the continually developing feelings and attitudes of the people.

It is interesting to study comparatively the meaning and function which the notion of the religious community actually has for its members, especially in the case of great mass cults. In Judaism, despite the rather far-reaching differences between the orthodox, conservative, and liberal wings, and the existence of national variants, including pro- and anti-Zionists, there is a definite, overall consciousness among practically all Jews everywhere of being one (a qahal, or people), and this feeling is predominantly a religious feeling. Every congregation and every individual Jew will immediately feel that it, she, or he belongs to this great unit. Similarly in Hinduism there is a consciousness shared by hundreds of millions of followers of belonging to a community held together by the careful observances of the traditional rites and institutions, again despite the significant differences in doctrine, cult, and organization that distinguish Vaisnavas (of different Sampradayas), Saivites and Saktas, not to mention minor groups. It would be difficult to think that in any case the solidarity felt among the Hindus as a religious community could be broken by any other principle of grouping, even political. Less regionally bound than Hinduism, Islam, at least in the past, has been a brotherhood whose solidarity has superseded all other principles of association, only to be challenged in recent times by the claims of national loyalty. Very great geographical, ethnic, and cultural variations and some important religious divisions (Sunnites; Shiites and their subdivisions, the four Madhabs; traditionalism; and Sufism) separate Muslims from each other; yet, they all join in the consciousness of belonging to a great brotherhood. A somewhat peculiar situation prevails with regard to Buddhism. No overall organization exists. Only in some forms is there any higher unit beyond the individual congregation. There is the important division into "vehicles" with all that it means for the threefold expression in doctrine, cult, and organization. There are the geographical, ethnic, and cultural variations. Yet, a feeling for the unity of the samgha does exist; and more than in the case of these previously discussed religions, the individual Buddhist does "represent" the ideal that integrates the samgha. As with the other world religions, historical developments and the genius of the people who profess them are reflected in the type and degree of consciousness of solidarity in Christianity. Early in its history divisions occurred on the basis of national, political, cultural, and religious differences. The key term -- ecclesia -- was used for the local congregation as well as for the total community of the followers of Christ, his "body," the church. In the early centuries various Oriental churches emerged; in the eleventh century the great split into an Eastern and Western Church occurred; and from the days of the Reformation a plurality of bodies has existed with rivaling claims to represent the true Christian communion. Besides ecclesiastical bodies, there were denominations, independent groups, sects, and other communities, typologically differing from each other in the integration of their fellowship. The feeling of solidarity did not extend clearly to the whole of the Christian brotherhood; each of the major units into which it became divided received the main part of its members’ loyalty. Only half a century ago did the so-called ecumenical movement in Protestantism begin to gain ground; for centuries attempts in this direction had been suspect and remained fruitless.

Not only the most encompassing but also the smallest manifestation of a religious community is instructive for comparing different religions. Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism, has the congregation and the parish. Very recently illuminating studies of the sociology of the Catholic parish in France and the United States have appeared. P. F. Fichter, the author of The Southern Parish, has rightly said that a systematic understanding of the role of Catholicism in modern society requires us to study not only its values and meanings but more especially the "vehicles" employed to activate them and the agents who believe in these values and employ these "vehicles." The parish is "the church in miniature." Is the population of a parish religiously homogeneous? The answer is no: there are in this case (1) non-Catholics; (2) dormant and former Catholics; (3) actual parishioners. And what are the standards by which the degree of activity can be estimated? Fichter enumerates the following: religious vocations coming from the parish, attendance at Mass, sacraments, week-day devotions, parochial activities, parish schools, number of converts, number of juvenile delinquents, mixed marriages, and size of families. In answering these questions, we begin to understand that there is great variety in the degree of activity and hence in the nature of membership in a parish.


Are the categories developed in the preceding section applicable to the American scene? I believe that they are. Without any prejudice all existing religious communities -- and their variety is great -- can be subsumed under the title of religious groups. In a recent appraisal of religion in twentieth century America, Schneider suggests a distinction between movements and bodies, the former dynamic, the latter static organizations. "A religious body," he says, "is a stable institution with a heritage which it cherishes, a government which gives organized expression to its faith, and a body of members whose duties and values are generally recognized." "Most movements," he continues, "culminate in bodies, as most faiths become creeds. A movement is endangered when it does not create a body and a body is endangered when it ceases to move" (H. W. Schneider, Religion in Twentieth Century America, p. 22).

I have tried to replace the old dichotomy of churches and sects by a trichotomy. I divide American religious groups into ecclesiastical bodies, denominations, and sects. Religious communities as different as the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints are ecclesiastical bodies. They are characterized by a claim to authority, authoritatively defined doctrines, sacraments, and orders. Ecclesiastical bodies on the American scene may be supranational or more clearly nationally oriented: the Roman Catholic Church and the Mormon Church illustrate the first, the Scandinavian and German Lutheran churches the latter group.

The second type of religious community was first described by J. M. deJong, "The Denomination as the American Church Form," Nienw Theologisch Tijdschrift 27 (1938):347-388, as denominations and declared to be the American church form. H. R. Niebuhr analyzed its social sources. Sidney Mead has developed this notion further. The denomination is distinguished from the ecclesiastical body through the principle of voluntary association and by congregational organization, and from the sect by size, prevailing mood, and "democratic" leadership. The Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, and Unitarians are denominations in this sense. Although there is an unmistakable tendency toward denominationalism in all American religious communities, and although denominations have dominated the cultural history of America, I feel it is not quite correct to call the denomination the American church form. Significant contributions have also been made by both ecclesiastical bodies and sects, as they will continue to do in the future. The denomination, due to a certain lack of definite structure, is on the defensive today on both fronts. I think one of the reasons for the weakness of denominations and the relative vitality of ecclesiastical bodies and sects is that history is often a denomination’s most important raison d’être, while theology plays a secondary role. But theology is central in both churches and sects. It is not impossible that the realignment in American Protestantism that is now taking place will disregard historical and sociological lines and follow a more theological or religious pattern. If it does so, it will reverse the trend of Pietism, Revivalism, and other similar movements, but it will follow them in their indifference toward denominationalism (cf. World Council of Churches, Commission on Faith and Order, The Nature of the Church, 1952).

The third type of community is the sect in the sense in which European scholars such as Ernst Troeltsch have used this term. The sect tends to be small in size. Admission to a sect is conditioned and hence limited: a rigid exclusiveness characterizes this type of religious grouping. It stands for protest, protest against the latitudinarianism of both ecclesiastical bodies and denominations. While it shares with the former an insistence on the necessity of well-defined and rigidly adhered-to principles, strictly conceived authority, and discipline, it shares with denominationalism an opposition to traditionalism in principle and, empirically, to definite historical developments in doctrinal, practical, or social expressions. There is usually in sectarianism a special emphasis upon charismatic leadership. The Shakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Bahai are instances of American sects, while the Quakers, Disciples, Brethren, Christian Scientists, Swedenborgians, the Nazarenes, and possibly the Mennonites represent sects in the process of becoming denominations. Though sects usually transcend national and racial lines, some are so limited by choice or by force, such as the black sectarian groups studied by St. Clair Drake, Raymond J. Jones, and Arthur H. Fauset. A peculiar phenomenon are the sects connected with Eastern (Oriental) religions, such as the Bahai, Vedanta, Theosophy, and others. A classification of sects could be suggested on psychological, sociological, and theological grounds, but as yet not much satisfactory work has been done. It is here that the limitation of a purely sociological approach becomes obvious. While two or more groups may present very similar pictures as far as the prevailing mood and the sociological structure are concerned, the theologies of these groups may be worlds apart (Adventist-Holiness-Pentecostal groups). While the character of certain movements and groups is to a large extent defined by sociological criteria, such as the earlier so-called Frontier religion or now the Buchmean (Oxford group) Movement, which Allan Eister has recently analyzed in his book Drawing Room Conversion, we find that the more definitely a religious group is a religious group -- as distinct from an economic, political, or cultural association -- the more important, both for members of the group and students of it, will become its worship and its theology. I am inclined to regard a healthy tension between religion and cultural environment as a surer sign of religious vitality than an "adjustment" to the cultural scene, such as Professor Schneider seems to advocate. One word may be added on the so-called Healing groups, denominational and sectarian. Here the theological criterion is especially important. Such a group is religiously relevant only to the extent that a spiritual good rather than physical good (health, well-being) is at the center of the aspirations of its members. In the same sense the theological criterion helps us to distinguish an economic or political association from a religious grouping.

May I close with a personal remark? It seems to me that the current general statements made by historians, literary historians, and sociologists about American civilization often do not do justice to the fact that a considerable part of the American ethos is still, though less than in earlier periods of American history, expressed in religious commitment and its sociological expression. Church, denomination, and sect -- each type of religious community and, within each, the different religious ideologies, practices, and covenants exhibit the genius of the civilization we call American.