Church Cooperation in the United States: The Nation-Wide Backgrounds and Ecumenical Significance of State and Local Councils of Churches in Their Historical Perspective

By Ross W. Sanderson | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER I
The American Scene

Ecumenical Opportunity

Cooperative churchmanship as we now know it did not begin until the present century was well under way. The characteristic pattern of our nineteenth century religious cooperation tended to be undenominational and unofficial. At the outset America did not face, as it now does, "the ecumenical necessity."1 The very word "ecumenical" is a twentieth-century addition to our church vocabulary. Rather, we were gradually confronted with an ecumenical opportunity.

The historic phrase "cuius regio, eius religio" reflects a characteristic aspect of the life of many European nations. While the prince might choose his religion, his subjects were expected to submit to that choice, unless they preferred to emigrate. The multiple origin of the American people automatically produced a novel amount of religious heterogeneity, which the American scene proceeded to accentuate. As the residual legatee of Europe's demographic diversity, and of its language and nationality differences, America inevitably experienced unprecedented religious diversification. Wide differences of polity and doctrine were reflected in different types of Protestant life in the several colonies, but this phase of sectionalism was later sharply modified.

The rapidily moving frontier compounded this original diversity. "The early years of the nineteenth century (saw) the beginnings of an astonishing growth of the denominations that are now numerically the largest in the country."2 By 1808 Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians had all begun work as far west as Indiana.3 While the home mission journals "of the early nineteenth century called continually for greater consolidation of effort,"4 the period from the Revolution to the Civil War was one of eccelesiastical division, in which "churches became competitive with one another and broke the ties which bound them to the community." This competition continued for decades, later to be softened somewhat by the beginnings of "comity," but remains a fact still to be reckoned with in church extension, especially in the areas most rewarding institutionally. Individually influential neighborhood churches often "made no united impact upon the new communities." "The competitive churching of the West . . . eventually placed several ministers in communities that could hardly support one . . . Ultimately

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