Study the Church Resources for studying the Bible and Church History

How the vast amount of land in America produced so many denominations

A common complaint among both Christians and non-Christians is this: why are there so many denominations? Many Christians ask: if we are one in Christ, why so many groups? Part of the answer lies in the intersection of the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, the limited amount of land in Europe, and the vast amount of land in America.

Consider the parts of the Reformation: Luther, Zwingli/Anabaptist, Calvin, English, and the Counter/Catholic. Now look at where they occurred: Luther, Germany; Zwingli, Switzerland; Calvin, Switzerland and then Scotland through John Knox; English, England; and Counter/Catholic, France, Spain, and Italy. (Anabaptists were always small in number.) Each controlled the area in which it started.

Now think "kings and queens." The King of France was Catholic, and so his region was Catholic. Same in England with Anglicanism, etc. So Catholics living in England become Anglican or stayed quiet, and on and on. Therefore, new movements after the Reformation began were discouraged and even dangerous to begin. Each branch of Christianity controlled its own region, so new movements were difficult to create.

Switch to the American colonies. The new colonists in America mimicked the situation they knew in Europe. If you were Puritan, you lived in Massachusetts; Catholic, Maryland; Anglican, Virginia. And on and on. It worked in Europe, why not in America?

Yet this situation failed. Why? Because of all the land. Europe was small and controlled, but America was large and uncontrollable. Consider the Puritans as an example.

The Puritans, in the 1600s, controlled Massachusetts. Yet, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, while in Massachusetts, both taught ideas contrary to Puritan theology. After getting in trouble, they both did what Europeans could not do: they simply moved 100 miles away and continued practicing their beliefs in total freedom. Williams moved to Rhode Island and Hutchinson to Rhode Island and then New York. They both moved to areas where few lived and therefore worshipped and believed as they felt led.

The Puritans were oppressed in England and so many came to America. And this is the key: the Anglicans were effective in silencing the Puritans: they left Europe. Yet, because of the vastness of American land, the Puritans could not get rid of opposing voices in America. In the 1600s the Puritans only had enough strength to control what occurred in Massachusetts; so Williams and Hutchinson simply moved beyond the control of the Puritans. The Puritans illustrate how the European containment of new Christian movements was effective because of limited space, yet there was so much space in America no one group could control it all; therefore new groups sprung up like rabbits. If you disagreed strongly enough with your own Christian group, you started your own and moved away. And no one could do anything about it, unlike in Europe.

And this is one reason why there are so many denominations/groups in America today. The vast space in America led directly to numerous groups being developed. And once the new nation of USA was formed, the idea of freedom of religion continued to impact the development of even more new Christian groups. If you disagree strongly enough with your denomination/group, you start your own and stay put. And so today we have hundreds of denominations/groups, with more developing each year.

[Based on Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis of 1893: "Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development."]

©2005 Mark Nickens All Rights Reserved