Sunday, March 12, 2017

Three Nonconformist Sects

While Christianity began to move beyond the Reformation—and its mirror Catholic Revival—a splintering process gave rise to ever more numerous and smaller Christian denominations whose characteristics required a name all their own, the sect.

The difference between a sect and a church type of denomination was explored in the late 19th century by sociologist Max Weber and theologian Ernst Troeltsch. Weber focused on the common way membership recruitment took place, by birth or family affiliation (church) or by personal decision (sect). In his work The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, which is still in print, Troeltsch focused on the entire religious experience and the denomination’s behavior in or toward society in general.

To Troeltsch, the church type is primarily institutional, with an organized clergy and hierarchy who mediate grace by virtue of their office rather than their sanctity as individuals. A church compromises with the world (just war, slavery, oppression of women, etc.) because it sees itself as a holy institution whose members can all be saintly thanks to its influence. Churches see the New Testament and the early Church as a starting point from which doctrine developed and compromised.

In contrast, sects are smaller and aim to encourage inward perfection and fellowship within them, without clergy and focusing on the moral demands of Jesus’ teaching. They draw more enthusiastic, less theologically minded members who convert through a personal experience of inner change. Generally, they treat society at large with either indifference, tolerance or hostility (they might dissent from civil law) because they see the kingdom of God as opposed to all secular interests and institutions.

The three examples that follow are notable 16th and 17th century examples still influential today.


Baptists today make up a collection of Evangelical Christians—“evangelical” not in the sense of observing the evangelical counsel of poverty or perfect charity (Matthew 19:21–19:21), but rather in the sense of biblical literalism. Baptist denominations all trace to the 1609 church known by that name in Amsterdam, led by English separatist pastor John Smyth (1570-1612).

The unwitting founder underwent a conversion after departing from his post as a Fellow at Christ’s College, Cambridge, and leaving the Church of England. In Amsterdam he baptized himself and then about 60 others. He then began to doubt the validity of his self-baptism and applied to become a Mennonite, dying before being admitted. Some of his followers became Mennonites but others simply continued being Baptist. In 1638, Roger Williams established the first Baptist congregation in what is today Rhode Island, and Baptist churches thrived in the United States, where it is now the largest single Protestant denomination, 33 million, the second largest Christian group after the 80 million Catholics.

Baptist doctrine holds that baptism is limited to professing adult believers (they borrow from Anabaptists’ opposition to infant baptism) and must be by complete immersion. In addition to the two original solas (faith alone and Scripture alone), the Baptists hold to “soul competency”: what they describe as utter individual liberty to interpret the Bible. To this should be added their congregational model of local church autonomy, with two ministerial offices: elders and deacons.

Because of the individual’s liberty and local autonomy of each local church, it is difficult to speak with precision of a Baptist confession of faith until as late as the 20th century—even then there are decided limits. The Baptists split over slavery in 1845 and later on race, with branches distinct ever since.


The historically Christian movement known as the Religious Society of Friends was founded in the middle of the English Civil War by George Fox (1624-1691), who was dissatisfied with the Church of England, but also with nonconformists.

Fox had a revelation that “there is one, even, Christ Jesus, who can speak to thy condition.” He came to believe that it was possible to have a direct experience of Christ without the aid of ordained clergy. He recounted that in a vision on Pendle Hill in Lancashire, England, “the Lord let me see in what places he had a great people to be gathered.” Following the vision’s mandate, he traveled in England, the Netherlands and Barbados preaching his new faith. The central theme of his message was that Christ came to teach his people directly; his followers view their movement as the restoration of the true Christian church, after centuries of apostasy (a view that would guide many splinter groups thereafter).

The epithet that attached to the Friends came around 1650, when Fox was brought before magistrates on a charge of religious blasphemy and one of the judges called him a “Quaker,” according to his autobiography, “because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord.” Fox may have been referring to Isaiah 66:2 or Ezra 9:4. In the classic pattern of epithets against believers, a term that was first a form of ridicule became widely accepted and even used by some Quakers, but the official name remained Friends.

In North America, as we have seen, Quakers were persecuted by Puritans in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, although the colonies of West Jersey and Rhode Island tolerated them. Affluent Quaker William Penn in the 1670s and 80s established Pennsylvania (Penn’s forest) as a commonwealth run under Quaker principles. Penn signed a peace treaty with Tammany, leader of the Delaware tribe, which held until the Penn’s Creek massacre, an Indian raid in 1755 encouraged by the French army.

Quakers’ beliefs, expressed in the policymaking Yearly and Five Year Meetings, vary considerably, with tolerance of dissent also varying among the five branches of Quakerism today, which range from theologically conservative and evangelical to liberal and almost agnostic.

In general, Friends believe in continuing direct revelation to individuals from God and reject the idea of priests, believing in the priesthood of all believers. Some Friends express their idea of God as “the inner light,” or “inward light of Christ.” In a typical service, called a “meeting,” Friends will stand up, prompted by “the Spirit” (which may or may not refer to the third Person of the Trinity), to share visions or insights. This “leading of the Holy Spirit” means that statements of faith and practice are not codified and that the group lacks written doctrine.

The Quakers are better known for their deeds than their theology. Quaker dynasties were prominent in business, including the families of Sampson Lloyd, founder of the Lloyds Banking Group, and those who made their fortunes satisfying the British working class’ sweet tooth with chocolates (the Cadbury family), confectionery (Rowntree) and cookies (Huntley & Palmers). Others founded schools, colleges and universities. More controversially, seemingly more aligned with the gospels, Quakers in North America and Great Britain became well known for their support for the abolition of slavery and opposition to war.


The Amish are a group of traditionalist Christian church fellowships of Swiss Anabaptist origin, related to but distinct from the Mennonites. Their name comes from Jakob Ammann (1644-1730) and, as with the Quakers, it was first used as a schandename (German, name of disgrace) in 1710 by his opponents.

Ammann was a tailor from Bern, Switzerland, a man of little education who probably could neither read nor write. He converted to Anabaptism and died in Alsace, expelled from Calvinist and Zwinglian Switzerland. From dictated letters, it seems he was a firm disciplinarian, uncompromising in belief, who expected others to “conform to the teachings of Christ and His apostles.” In practical matters, he opposed long hair on men, shaved beards and clothing that showed “pride.” Liars were excommunicated. Unlike most Amish married men of today, however, he had a mustache, which is largely forbidden today in the faith.

He denied he was trying to start a “new faith” but believed that baptism brought about a new birth experience that would radically change a person. He declared: “If a [sinner] does not turn from his fornication, and a drunkard from his drunkenness, or other immoralities, they are thereby separated from the kingdom of God, and if he does not improve himself through a pious, penitent life, such a person is no Christian and will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”

In the early 18th century, many Amish and Mennonites emigrated to Pennsylvania for a variety of reasons. Today, the most traditional descendants of the Amish continue to speak Pennsylvania German, also known as “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress and reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology; they value rural life, manual labor and humility. Church membership begins with baptism between the ages of 16 and 25, which is a requirement for marriage. Once a person is baptized, he or she may marry only within the faith.

Church “districts,” led by a bishop, ministers and deacons, average between 20 and 40 families and worship every other Sunday in a member’s home. The church is governed by the Ordnung (German, rules), which covers almost every aspect of daily life, including barring the use of power-line electricity, telephones and automobiles; regulations on clothing and prohibitions against commercial insurance and participating in Social Security. As present-day Anabaptists, the Amish will not perform any type of military service nor swear allegiance to the flag, which they view as idolatry.

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