Mr. Baltzell’s Neighborhood: The Rise of Word “Mainline” and the Decline of Mainline Denominations

By John Schmalzbauer, Missouri State University

Since last September, Sojourners has explored the meaning of “evangelical.” Such conversations have supplemented more academic analyses by political scientists and sociologists.

After spending so much time on evangelicalism, it’s only fair to ask about American Protestantism’s other major tradition, the Protestant mainline.

In the judgment of Martin Marty, the term “mainline was and is used mainly by enemies of the mainline.” Unlike evangelical, it is a relatively recent word. Often used to designate moderate-to-liberal Protestants, its history is shrouded in mystery.

Just where did the expression “mainline Protestant” originate? In a fascinating paper delivered at the 2008 American Society of Church History meetings, Elesha Coffman traced the genealogy of the mainline moniker. Her investigations led her to the main-line suburbs of Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania Railroad connected wealthy elites to Philly’s urban core. This is the neighborhood explored by patrician sociologist E. Digby Baltzell in The Protestant Establishment and Philadelphia Gentlemen.

When Coffman delivered her paper, Google Culturomics was just a glimmer in the eyes of its Mountain View, California creators. Four years later, it is now possible to trace the use of term over the past couple centuries.  As this graph shows, [Read more...]

Religious affiliation in the United States since 1910: The long, steady decline of Mainline Protestantism

On Thursday, I referenced the dramatic decline in Mainline Protestantism over the past century.  Here’s some data from the General Social Survey that illustrate this change.  I took the question asking respondents in which religious tradition they were raised, calculated in which decade they were 16 years old, and estimated American affiliation rates at that time.  Note, this presents the religious affiliation of young people, not adults, and they are not the same since family size varies by religious tradition.