What are America’s biggest Christian groups?

What are America’s biggest Christian groups? April 7, 2015


What are the major Christian denominations in the U.S.?


Numbers. Numbers. The Pew Research Center snagged some headlines April 2 with projections on world religions as of 2050 that are worth pondering. Among other things, we’re told high birth rates will make world Islam almost as large as Christianity, India will surpass Indonesia as the nation with the biggest Muslim population, Muslims will constitute 10 percent of Europeans, and will surpass the number of religious Jews in the U.S. See  www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/religious-projections-2010-2050.

Rachael’s question brings us back to the present day, to just the United States, and to Christians only. This has long been an easy topic thanks to the National Council of Churches and its predecessor, the Federal Council, which since 1916 issued yearbooks stuffed with statistics and other information. These annuals became more vital after 1936 when the U.S. Census stopped gathering data from religious groups.  Unfortunately, the N.C.C. hasn’t managed to issue its “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches” since 2012 due to shrinking staff, budget, and program, and has no firm plans for any future editions. Any volunteers out there to produce this all-important reference work?

Some data were outdated or rough estimates, but it’s what we’ve had and, on the whole, reasonably representative. Here were  “inclusive” memberships for U.S. groups reporting at least 2 million members in that latest and perhaps last yearbook from 2012:

Catholic Church   68,303,492

Southern Baptist Convention   16,136,044

United Methodist Church   7,679,850

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints   6,157,238

Church of God in Christ   5,449,875

National Baptist Convention USA Inc.   5,197,512

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America   4,274,855

National Baptist Convention of America   3,500,000

Assemblies of God   3,030,944

Presbyterian Church (USA)   2,675,873

African Methodist Episcopal Church   2,500,000

National Missionary Baptist Convention of America   2,500,000

Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod   2,278,586

While Pew looked ahead to 2050, Rachael and others may be interested in looking back to the yearbook’s top nine denominations as of  1918, said to encompass 77.2 percent of U.S. memberships for all religions:

Catholic Church   15,742,262

Methodist Episcopal Church   3,718,396

National Baptist Convention   3,018,341

Southern Baptist Convention   2,711,591

Methodist Episcopal Church, South   2,108,061

Presbyterian Church in the USA   1,613,056

Disciples of Christ   1,231,404

Northern Baptist Convention   1,227,448

Protestant Episcopal Church   1,098,173

Adding in smaller denominations, the 1918 yearbook listed four major categories of Protestants:

Baptists (17 groups)   7,236,650

Methodists (17 groups)   7,165,986

Lutherans (21 groups)   2,463,265

Presbyterians (10 groups)   2,257,439

A few broad comparisons of 1918 and 2012 without getting too far into the weeds on changing names, mergers, and all that: Due to immigration and counting of all  baptized infants (including the Religion Guy’s own mother, a lifelong loyal Baptist!), the Catholic Church achieved the largest on-paper membership of any denomination by the mid-19th Century and has never lost first place since then, though always surpassed by Protestants collectively. (In Canada its 13 million far exceeds the United Church’s 1,248,500.)

The U.S. religious scene has seen massive changes and growing complexity since the World War One era. The past century was good for Baptists and especially Pentecostalists (e.g. Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God) who had barely begun in 1918. Also good for the thriving Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”). Things were not so hot for the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Methodists, though the latter two did overcome Civil War splits. Lutherans declined less than some and achieved major consolidation among branches. The Disciples of Christ actually report fewer members today than a century ago.

Over-all, moderate to liberal “mainline” Protestant groups that dominated American culture in 1918 began steady numerical declines in the 1960s, while in the decades since most (not all) conservative and “evangelical” groups expanded or at least held their own. Other Protestant patterns: Compared with 1918 there’s less lifetime commitment to one denomination, countless young evangelical congregations are independent of denominational affiliations, and there’s stronger left-vs.-right conflict within denominations than the old-style rivalry among the denominations.

Though Rachael didn’t ask about this, the U.S. Christian total vastly surpasses that for Judaism, which remains America’s #2 religion whatever we might see by 2050. However, statistics are complicated and disputed, as with #3  Islam on which see  “Q and A” for May 14, 2013:  www.patheos.com/blogs/religionqanda/2013/05/u-s-muslims-where-how-many



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