The mainline denominations refer to the major Protestant Christian traditions in the United States that emerged from the Reformation era. These denominations were historically the most prominent and influential group of Protestant churches in America, but have experienced declining membership over the past several decades. The mainline denominations include:
- United Methodist Church
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
- Presbyterian Church (USA)
- Episcopal Church
- American Baptist Churches USA
- United Church of Christ
- Disciples of Christ
Some of the key characteristics and beliefs of mainline denominations include:
- Affirmation of the authority of scripture, but openness to scholarly criticism and new interpretations
- Belief in salvation through faith in Jesus Christ
- Practice of infant baptism
- Ordination of women as clergy
- Involvement in ecumenical and interfaith dialogue
- Liberal views on social issues like homosexuality and abortion
The origins of mainline denominations trace back to the Magisterial Reformation in 16th century Europe, led by reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin who sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church. This gave rise to Protestant traditions like Lutheranism and Calvinism. English and Scottish settlers brought elements of Protestantism with them to North America in the colonial era.
But the mainline denominations as they exist today took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They emerged from various theological disputes and mergings of smaller denominations. For example, the United Methodist Church was formed in 1968 by a merger of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and the Methodist Church. The United Church of Christ came together in 1957 from a union of Congregationalist and Evangelical and Reformed churches.
During the 19th century, major Protestant denominations worked together to organize the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, renamed the National Council of Churches in 1950. This ecumenical effort fostered cooperation across mainline denominations and helped shape their identity as the mainline. They collaborated on issues like social reforms, evangelism, and overseas missions work.
After World War II, mainline denominations were the dominant force in American Protestant Christianity, with growing churches and extensive social influence. But in the 1970s and onward, they began to face declining membership as evangelical and non-denominational churches grew rapidly. Currently, mainline denominations comprise about 15% of all US Protestants.
Some of the prominent beliefs and practices of the major mainline denominations are:
United Methodist Church
The United Methodist Church has about 6.5 million members in the US. Methodists affirm the authority of scripture but also value tradition, reason, and personal experience in theological reflection. Key beliefs include:
- Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ
- Sanctification via the work of the Holy Spirit to make people perfect in love
- Infant and adult baptism
- Communion offered as a sacrament
- Compatibilist view of free will and divine sovereignty
The Methodist movement originated in 18th century England under John Wesley and George Whitefield, as a revival within the Church of England. Theology and practices were shaped by Arminianism and the Holiness movement.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The ELCA is the largest Lutheran denomination in the US with over 3.3 million members. It came into existence in 1988 by merging three smaller Lutheran bodies. Lutherans emphasize salvation by grace through faith alone, based on the theology of Martin Luther. Distinct Lutheran beliefs include:
- Authority of the Bible, but subject to scholarly study and interpretation
- Infant baptism signifies God’s prevenient grace
- Real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (sacramental union)
- Ordination of women as pastors since 1970
Martin Luther and other reformers broke from the Roman Catholic Church during the 16th century Reformation over doctrinal issues like justification by faith alone. Luther affirmed the primacy of scripture but rejected parts of Catholic tradition.
Presbyterian Church (USA)
The PC(USA) has approximately 1.3 million members and traces its origins to the British Isles. Presbyterian theology is rooted in the teachings of Reformation leaders like John Calvin and John Knox. Distinct emphases include:
- Salvation by grace alone through faith alone
- Authority residing in elected bodies of elders or presbyters
- Infant baptism as a sign of God’s covenant
- Importance of education grounded in Reformed theology
- Ordination of women as deacons, elders, and ministers
British Presbyterian groups organized under various names in the American colonies in the 17th-18th centuries. In 1983, the northern and southern Presbyterian branches reunited as the PC(USA).
The Episcopal Church has about 1.5 million members in the US. It has historically served as the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Episcopal beliefs and practices originate with the Church of England and include:
- Salvation through faith in Christ, with good works as fruits of faith
- Scripture, tradition, and reason guide theological reflection
- Infant and adult baptism
- Formal liturgy in worship services
- Governance by bishops in apostolic succession
- Ordination of women as priests and bishops since 1976
Anglicanism arose in 16th century England when King Henry VIII broke from the authority of the Pope. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer established distinctive liturgies and doctrines. The first American parishes formed in the early colonial period.
American Baptist Churches USA
American Baptist Churches USA includes about 1.1 million members across approximately 5,000 congregations. American Baptists uphold beliefs like:
- Authority of the Bible as God’s word
- Salvation by grace through faith alone
- Believer’s baptism by full immersion
- Soul liberty – freedom of individual conscience
- Separation of church and state
- Social justice ministries
Baptists trace their origins to 17th century England and dissenters who advocated adult baptism. American Baptists formed through mission work, mostly among African Americans, and mergers of several smaller groups.
United Church of Christ
The UCC has around 800,000 members in 5,000 churches. Formed in 1957 by a merger, the theology combines Evangelical, Reformed, and Congregationalist traditions. Key positions are:
- Authority of the Bible, interpreted through conscience
- Salvation through faith in Christ
- Spiritual but not strict view of sacraments
- Believer’s baptism and open communion
- Autonomy of local churches
- Inclusion of marginalized groups
The UCC’s Congregational heritage dates to the Puritans and Pilgrims. Later Swiss and German Reformed elements were incorporated. The UCC affirms progressive social views.
Disciples of Christ
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has about 380,000 members and emphasizes unity among Christians based on restorationism. Positions include:
- Bible as sole authority, interpreted rationally
- No formal creeds – simply faith in Jesus
- Believer’s baptism by immersion
- Weekly communion
- Congregational governance
The Disciples trace their origins to early 19th century Kentucky and the leadership of Thomas and Alexander Campbell, influenced by Puritan, Presbyterian, and Baptist elements.
While mainline denominations share some theological symmetry, differences can be seen in their ecclesiology, sacramental views, ordination practices, and social outlooks. Their historical origins also represent diverse strains of Protestant thought.
Mainline denominations once dominated American religion, but began declining in the late 20th century for reasons like:
- Shifts in population from northeast to south and west
- Perceptions of liberal theology and activism
- Scandals around clergy and sexuality
- Lower birth rates among white Americans
- General decline in church attendance
Critics argue mainline liberalism led to accommodation of culture over historic beliefs. Leaders respond that they are adapting Christianity to modern realities while upholding scriptural authority.
Mainline denominations face ongoing questions about identity and mission in a changing society. Some possibilities include renewing evangelism efforts, engaging popular culture, fighting poverty and injustice, interfaith relations, and restoring liturgical practices. Their legacy and future prospects will continue unfolding in American religious life.