The simple way to describe the church history is that the Apostles founded churches all over. (Early Church Mission by Eckhard Schnabel is worth having. It tells about their early journeys.) Until 1054, there was institutional unity. That year the Eastern and Western church divided to form what we know now as the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Why? It’s complicated, but the Pope and use of icons were central. Then the protestors against Rome began. Called Protestants, the movement had a long shadow with John Wycliffe and Prague priest Jan Hus predating the chief reformer Martin Luther who nailed his 95 grievances of the Church in 1517. Unlike Hus and Wycliffe (whose bones were burned later), Luther survived and became the father of the Lutheran movement and the focal point that would be the Protestant Reformation. With this as a simple backdrop of the church history, here are several historical snapshots of the denominations which splintered from the historical foothold of 1517. (The importance and need for reweaving denominations is for another article).
The Church History Behind the Top Church Denominations
The numbers represent US figures, unless noted.
Start: Essentially in 1517, in Wittenberg, Germany with the nailing of Luther’s 95 theses against Rome.
Major points of theology: Justification by faith alone, Scripture is the sole authority for Christian living, worship in the common vernacular of the people.
Historical figures: Martin Luther, Johann Georg Hamann, Philipp Melanchthon
Contemporary figures: Rick Steves, John Bolton, Martin Marty
Church Polity: Divided into districts and function similar to the Anglican model with bishops in charge over churches within particular diocese or districts.
Divisions: There are many divisions within Lutheranism in the US. Several larger groups include the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.
Numbers: Approximately 80 million Lutherans worldwide; ELCA: 10,000 churches, 4 million; LCMS: 6,100 churches, 2.1 million
Headquarters: ELCA: Chicago, IL; LCMS: St. Louis, MO
Anglicans (Church of England)
Start: 1530s in England when Henry VIII wanted an annulment from Catherine of Aragon by Pope Clement VII.
Major points of theology: There are 39 guiding articles that include the sufficiency of Scripture. They reduce the seven sacraments to two, at least in common practice: baptism and communion. Another point worth mentioning is the introduction of Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer.
Historical figures: Henry VIII, John Wesley, Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, Thomas Cranmer, John Donne, George Herbert, and William Laud
Contemporary figures: J.I. Paker, Justin Welby, John Stott, C.S. Lewis
Church Polity: Dividing the world into 39 provinces, the Anglican communion of bishops meet every seven years but there is no strict oversight. Rather, churches within each province are part of a diocese, where more of the decisions are made. However, the local church has a great deal of autonomy.
Divisions: At present, the Episcopal church, the historic American arm of the Anglican communion, has been sanctioned due to their acceptance of ordination of homosexual priests. As a result, a conservative Anglican denomination is thriving in America and seeking final approval from the Canterbury and Communion, who represent a conservative theology and cultural stance. (Let’s remember too, that the Puritans in America were a conservative Anglican community.)
Numbers: Approximately 85 million in more than 160 countries
Headquarters: Canterbury, England
Start: 1541 in Geneva, Switzerland
Major points of theology: The belief that God is all sovereign is the historic marker. The PCA and EPC denominations both broke in reaffirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture, particularly on the points of the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus both being questioned by the PCUSA.
Historical figures: John Calvin, John Knox, Thomas Cartwright
Contemporary figures: Timothy Keller, Francis Schaeffer, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael Card
Church Polity: Churches are divided into presbyteries, groups of churches where the pastor of each reports to a group of elders who help disciple and direct.
Divisions: The Presbyterian USA denomination began to break up in the 1970s with the Presbyterian Church in America leaving first, then the Evangelical Presbyterian Church followed in 1981.
Numbers: PCA: 1700 churches, 330,000 members; EPC: 575 churches, 150,000 members; PCUSA: 10,000 churches, 1.7 million members
Headquarters: PCUSA: Louisville, KY; PCA: Lawrenceville, GA; EPC, Livonia, MI
Start: Of all the denominations, Baptists have the most challenging when it comes to a straight story. A good starting date is 1608 when English refugees established a church in Amsterdam, Holland. They were part of the Separatist, Puritan movement (you can also trace the group back to the 1500s through the Anabaptist movement, at least in part).
Major points of theology: General atonement of Christ, Conversion baptism by immersion, independence from the state, and, later, the autonomy of the local church.
Historical figures: John Smyth, Thomas Helwys, Richard Furman, Andrew Bryan
Contemporary figures: Billy Graham, Charles Stanley, John Piper, Albert Mohler, Beth Moore, Toby Mac
Church Polity: Congregational, meaning the local church is free to act independently and the pastor is a member of the local church with no outside presbytery or diocesan oversight.
Divisions: Baptist roots in America are broad and varying. The American Baptist denomination split in two with the post-Civil War denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. There’s also the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship that just started in the 199os. But that’s only a fraction of the story. The Amish, Mennonite, Primitive Baptist, and Freewill Baptist denominations are also part of this heritage and many others worldwide.
Numbers: Approximately 33 million in the United States of America
Headquarters: American: Valley Forge, PA; SBC: Nashville, TN
United Methodists (Anglicans)
Start: John and Charles Wesley began Bible studies and traveling to many churches throughout England (and later America) preaching the methods of the Christian faith in hopes for renewal. In 1784, John Wesley ordained priests for the American colonies with full sacramental authority. This was the lynch pin that separated the Methodist church from the Anglican fellowship.
Major points of theology: Christian methods applied to Christian life should lead someone into a life of holy perfection, assurance of salvation, priesthood of all believers.
Historical figures: Richard Allen, Francis Asbury, Fanny J. Crosby
Contemporary figures: George W. Bush, Ralph Reed, Donald Wildmon, George Beverly Shea
Church Polity: Similar to the Anglican denomination, each church is part of a diocese overseen by a bishop who the pastor reports to for accountability and discipleship.
Divisions: The United Methodist Church remains united since the merger of the Methodist Church (USA) and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. However, a significant split occurred in 1815 when the African Methodist Episcopal Church was formed by Richard Allen in Philadelphia, PA, after a reluctance to have him serve more fully in the UMC due to his color.
Numbers: UMC: 35,000, 12.1 million; AME: 7,000 churches, 2.5 million
Headquarters: UMC: Unknown; AME: Nashville, TN
Assemblies of God (Holiness)
Start: 1914 is the formal date but the Azusa Street revivals of 1906-9 served as a fertile ground of what would become the denomination.
Major points of theology: Pentecost was not just an episode in Acts. The Holy Spirit moves in the speaking of tongues and other gifts that need to be part of church community.
Historical figures: William Seymour, Charles Parham
Contemporary figures: Bill Gaither, Gloria Gaither, John Ashcroft, Phil Keaggy
Church Polity: A modified presbyterian model that combines the independence of the local church with oversight by district and national councils.
Divisions: The Assemblies of God has not gone through any significant division. It’s worth noting that the Assemblies of God is different from the Church of God (Cleveland, TN), though the casual observer might lump them together given that both stress the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Numbers: Worldwide, there are 66 million in 212 countries and territories
Headquarters: Springfield, MO
There are many other denominations that evolved throughout church history. In America, the 19th and early 20th centuries are packed full of new start-up groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, the Foursquare Church, the Church of God in Christ, for example. All of these would be considered as part of the Christian umbrella. But also in the 19th century, we have a variety of groups well outside the Christian umbrella including Jehovah Witnesses, Mormons, and Christian Scientists. Later in the 20th century, new groups have developed like the Vineyard Movement, part of the charismatic renewal of the 1970s, and the Willow Creek Association, an attempt to organize outside denominational structures.
All churches have roots, even congregational ones who have no formal affiliation. Jesus prays in John 17:20-22, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”