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Grouping Christian denominations into families:

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Families of Christian denominations in North America:

Today, there are many ways of classifying the over 1,500 Christian faith groups in North America:

bullet Into three to eight meta-groups (e.g. Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican ...),
bullet By "wing" (e.g. conservative, mainline, and liberal),
bullet By denomination(From the Amish to The Way)
bullet By theological belief system (Calvinism, Arminianism, etc.), and
bullet By religious family, (Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, etc.)

This section describes how most Christian denominations can be sorted into 15 families, according to their historical roots. We have largely patterned the following list of Christian families of denominations after the work of J Gordon Melton, the editor of the Encyclopedia of American Religions. 1 It is one of many possible ways of sorting individual denominations.

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One of many possible lists of families of Christian denominations

Adventist Family Adventist groups, Jehovah's Witnesses, and British Israelism
Baptist Family Southern Baptists, American Baptists, etc.
Christian Science-Metaphysical Family Christian Science, New Thought
Communal Family The Jesus People, Twin Oaks, etc.
Eastern Orthodox Family Various Orthodox churches -- Russian, Greek, Serbian, etc.
European Free-Church Family Amish, Brethren, Mennonites, Quakers, Shakers, etc.
Holiness Family Christian and Missionary Alliance, Church of the Nazarene, etc.
Independent Fundamentalist Family Plymouth Brethren, Fundamentalists, etc.
Latter-day Saints Family a.k.a. LDS Restorationists Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, The community of Christ
Lutheran Family Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Lutheran church - Missouri Synod, etc.
Messianic Judaism Jews For Jesus, and other similar groups
Pentecostal Family Assemblies of God, Church of God (Cleveland, TN)

Pietist-Methodist Family

Scandinavian Pietism, United Methodist Church, other Methodists
Reformed-Presbyterian Family Reformed, various Presbyterian churches, Congregational, United Church of Christ
Western Liturgical Family Anglican Communion; Roman Catholicism, including the Latin Church and the Eastern Rite Churches: (Armenian 5 Catholic Church, Chaldean C.C., Coptic C.C., Marionite C.C., Melkite C.C.,  Syrian C.C.); Old Catholicism; and the Ukranian Catholic Church

To which might be added a number of additional faith groups and secular systems, some of which have only a loose connection to Christianity -- if at all.

Liberal Family Unitarian Universalists, Humanists, Progressive Christianity, Evolutionary Christianity, Ethical Culture, Free Thinkers, Secularists, etc.
Spiritualist, Psychic & New Age Family Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, New Age groups, etc.

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How the Christian "families" evolved, according to religious historians:

Speaking generally, individual Christian denominations believe that they are the one denomination out of many tens of thousands of denominations that is the direct descendent from the original Christian movement founded by Jesus and Paul. However, most religious historians teach that, with the exception of the first few years after the execution of their founder Yeshua of Nazareth (a.k.a. Jesus Christ), Christianity was never a unified religion.

bullet By the end of the 1st century CE, three main movements remained:
bullet Pauline Christians: a group of mainline congregations, largely of non-Jewish Christians. Some had been created by Paul and his co-workers. They evolved to become the established church.

bullet Gnostic Christians: They claimed salvation through special, otherwise secret gnosis (knowledge). Some were members of mainline congregations; others were part of Gnostic groups. They were declared heretics and were gradually suppressed and exterminated.

bullet Jewish Christians: remnants of the group originally headed by James, the brother of Yeshua, and including Jesus' disciples. They were scattered throughout the Roman Empire after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and gradually disappeared,

bullet Circa 400 CE: The Bishop of Rome began to be recognized as the most senior of all bishops. Siricius (384-399 CE) became the first bishop to be called Pope.

bullet 1054 CE: A lengthy power struggle between eastern and western Christianity culminated in a schism between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Western Rite (later often called the Roman Catholic Church). Many Christian sects broke away from the Western Rite throughout the Middle Ages (Cathars, Knights Templars, etc.). These were generally exterminated by the central church in various genocidal wars.

bullet 1517 CE: Martin Luther attacked certain practices and beliefs of the Church, and the authority of the Pope. He was followed by other reformers which produced a mass movement -- the Protestant Reformation. They were driven largely by two fundamental principles:
bullet "Sola Scriptura" (Scripture Alone): The belief that the Holy Bible was the ultimate authority for all matters of religious belief and practice.

bullet The Priesthood of all Believers: The belief that no priest or other intermediary is needed between the Christian believer and God.
bullet 1820: Joseph Smith, at the age of 14, received his first vision. He reported that God and Jesus Christ had appeared before him as separate entities and told him that all of the Christian sects and denominations were in error and that he should not join any of them. He founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830. It attracted 1,000 members during its first 12 months and has since grown rapidly. About 13 million believers who are members of almost a hundred faith groups trace their church's history back to the church that Smith founded.

bullet Into modern times: Protestant Christianity became fractured into tens of thousands of individual denominations, sects, and faith groups as individuals and groups began to interpret the Bible in their own unique ways. They continually formed new sects that they felt were closer to Jesus' intentions for the church. In the past fifteen decades in North America schisms occurred over the legitimacy of human slavery, and whether to allow women to be ordained. A number of mainline denominations attempting to keep their organizations intact in spite of differences of belief about sexual orientation. Some have already decided to grant equal rights to gays and lesbians, to recognize same-sex relationships & marriages, and whether to ordain persons with a homosexual orientation. Others are currently debating these topics. Generally, recognition was first granted by the most liberal denominations and are now being progressively granted by more conservative denominations.

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Size of religious groups in the U.S.

Polling data from early 2001 indicate that:

  • 76.5% (159 million) of Americans identified themselves as Christian. This is a major slide from 86.2% in 1990. Identification with Christianity has suffered a loss of 9.7 percentage points during those 11 years -- about 0.9 percentage points per year.
  • 52% of Americans identified themselves as Protestant.
  • 24.5% are Roman Catholic.
  • 14.1% do not follow any organized religion. This is an unusually rapid increase from only 8% in 1990.
  • 1.3% are Jewish.
  • 0.5% are Muslim, followers of Islam.
  • The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca. It went from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001. Their numbers of adherents are doubling about every 30 months. 3

The percentage of Americans who are Protestants are expected to dip below 50% at sometime before the end of 2006.

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Size of religious groups in Canada:

The 2001 census by Statistics Canada found that:

  • 77% of the population defined themselves as Christian. This is also a major slide from 83% in 1991 -- over a half percentage point per year.
    • 44% of Canadians were Roman Catholic.
    • 29% were Protestant
    • 1.6% were Orthodox Christian
    • 2.6 were from other Christian groups
  • 17.4% had no religious affiliation
  • 2.0% were Muslim.
  • 1.1% were Jewish
  • 1.0 were Buddhist
  • 1.0% were Hindu
  • 0.9% were Sikh
  • 0.1% followed other Eastern religions
  • 0.2 follow other religions.

Although the percentage of adults who considered themselves Christian are almost the same in Canada and the U.S., the two countries differed in two significant ways:

  • A much larger percentage of Canadians are Roman Catholic.

  • A much larger percentage of Americans Protestants are conservatives.

The Unitarian-Universalist Association is a small faith group. It is a very liberal religious organization which is often considered to be part of Christendom by statisticians and pollsters, but not regarded as Christian by most of its members, who regard themselves as Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists, etc. It is growing.

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Christianity throughout the world

According to the 1992 Encyclopaedia Britannica Book of the Year, Christianity is the most widespread religion in the world. They have established "significant" communities 254 countries and territories. This leads the Baha'i faith at 205 locations and Islam at 172.

The percentage of the world's population that regards themselves as Christians appears to be remarkably constant. It has risen only from 33.7% in 1970 to 33.9% in 1996. Its current annual growth rate is about 2.3% which is approximately equal to the growth rate of the world's population. 3

Within Christianity, not all denominations had the same growth rate:

Group Annual growth rate (in total membership) Annual Growth Rate
(as a percentage of the world's population)
Pentecostals 8.1% + 5.8%
Evangelicals 5.4% + 3.1%
All Protestants 3.3% + 1.0%
Roman Catholics and Others 1.3% - 1.0%

By 2003, a smaller percentage of the world's population identified themselves as Christians, The 2003 New York Times Almanac reported that Christianity had almost  two billion adherents in 260 countries. 7 They reported the total world's population at 6.2 billion. 8 This implies a drop in the percentage of Christians among the world's population to almost 32%.

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Related essays on this web site:

bullet The history of Christianity

bullet Individual Christian faith groups

bullet Divisions within Protestantism

bullet Religious identification in the U.S.

bullet Religious identification in Canada

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References:

  1. J. Gordon Melton, Ed, "The Encyclopedia of American Religions: A Comprehensive Study of the Major Religious Groups in the United States and Canada," 3 volume set, Triumph Books, New York, NY, (1989)
  2. "American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/
  3. Greg H. Parsons, Executive Director, "U.S. Center for World Mission," Pasadena, CA; quoted in Zondervan News Service, 1997-FEB-21.
  4. Rev. George Mastrantonis, "The fundamental teachings of the Eastern Orthodox Church," at: http://www.goarch.org/
  5. The Armenian Catholic Church is unrelated to the Arminian movement which is a theological belief system opposed to Calvinism.
  6. Statistics Canada, "Population by religion, by provinces and territories (2001 census),"2005-JAN-25, at: http://www40.statcan.ca/ Adapted from the Statistics Canada's Internet Site, on 2005-AUG-22. Full URL is: http://www40.statcan.ca/l01/cst01/demo30a.htm.
  7. "2003 New York Times Almanac," Page 485.
  8. Ibid, Page 470

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Copyright © 1999 to 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2017-OCT-16
Author: B.A. Robinson

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