Mainline Protestant

Mainline Protestant

Mainline Protestant (also sometimes called mainstream[1]) are certain Protestant churches in the United States that comprised a majority of Americans from the colonial era until the early 20th century. The group is contrasted with evangelical and fundamentalist groups. They include Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Methodists, northern Baptists, most Lutherans, and most Presbyterians, as well as some smaller denominations.

Members of mainline denominations have played leadership roles in all aspects of American life, including politics, business, education, science and the arts. In recent years, however, the mainline groups have shrunken as a percentage of the American population, as increasing numbers of American Protestants have come to affiliate instead with fundamentalist or evangelical churches. Politically and theologically, contemporary mainline Protestants tend to be more liberal than non-mainline believers.

Mainline churches include the United Methodist Church (UMC), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PCUSA), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ (Congregationalist), the Disciples of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America. These churches share a common approach to social issues that often leads to collaboration in organizations such as the National Council of Churches.[2]

The term is derived from the Philadelphia Main Line, a group of affluent inner suburbs of Philadelphia that were settled along the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line. Most residents of these suburbs belonged to mainline denominations.[3] Today, most mainline Protestants remain rooted in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States.

As a group, the mainline churches have maintained religious doctrine that stresses social justice and personal salvation.[4] They were leaders of the Social Gospel and were active in social causes such as civil rights, and equality for women.[5] In addition, mainline churches and laity founded most of the leading educational institutes in the US.[6]

Mainline denominations peaked in membership in the 1950s and have declined steadily in the last half century. From 1960 to 1988, mainline church membership declined from 31 million to 25 million, then fell to 21 million in 2005.[7][8] Today, they are a minority among American Protestants, claiming approximately 15 percent of American adults among their adherents.[9]



The largest U.S. mainline churches are sometimes referred to as the Seven Sisters of American Protestantism.[10] The term was apparently coined by William Hutchison.[11]

The Association of Religion Data Archives also considers these denominations to be mainline:[13]

The Association of Religion Data Archives has difficulties collecting data on traditionally African American denominations. Those churches most likely to be identified as mainline include these Methodist groups:

Some denominations with similar names and historical ties to mainline groups are not considered mainline. The Southern Baptist Convention, Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, the Churches of Christ, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) are often considered too conservative for this category and thus grouped as evangelical.


The anti-slavery debates in the antebellum United States sparked a turning point in American theology from which mainline theology emerged. The issue of slavery forced antislavery theologians, including William Ellery Channing, Francis Wayland, and Horace Bushnell, to reconcile their contradictory loyalties to the Bible and to antislavery reform. Unable to use the letter of the Bible to make a scriptural case against slavery in itself, the moderates argued that although slavery had been acceptable in biblical times, it had become a sin. Antislavery Protestantism required a theory of moral progress, a deeply unorthodox idea that became fundamental to the development of late-19th-century liberal Evangelical Protestantism. The antislavery argument from moral progress, along with the moral progress represented by abolition, established a progressive conception of revelation that was further developed by late-19th-century liberal theologians, including Newman Smyth, Lyman Abbott, and Theodore Munger. Once they had adopted the idea that moral values evolve, it was not hard to come to terms with the impact of modernity, critical biblical scholarship, and Darwinism.[20]

Mainline theology tends to be open to new ideas, new understandings of morality, and societal changes without abandoning what they consider to be the historical foundations of the Christian faith. For example, they have been increasingly open to the ordination of women.

They hold a wide range of theologies—conservative, moderate and liberal. While about half of mainline Protestants label themselves as liberal, nearly one-third call themselves conservative. Most local mainline congregations have a strong, active conservative element.[21]

Mainline theology tends to be moderate and influenced by higher criticism, an approach used by scholars to separate the Bible's earliest historical elements from later additions and even intentional distortions. Mainline denominations generally teach that the Bible is God's Word in function, but that it must be interpreted both through the lens of the cultures in which it was originally written, and examined using God-given reason. Mainline Christian groups are often more accepting of other beliefs and faiths.[21] These church bodies are often comparatively more comfortable with gender inclusive language in contemporary translations of the Bible.

A 2008 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that only 22 percent of the 7,500 mainline Christians surveyed said the Bible is God's Word and is to be interpreted as literally true, word for word. Thirty-eight percent thought that the Bible is God's Word but is not to be taken literally, word for word. Twenty-eight percent said the Bible was not the Word of God but was of human origin.[22]

Theologically, mainline denominations are historically Trinitarian and proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and Son of God; they adhere to the historic creeds such as the Nicene Creed, the Apostles' Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.


The inclusion of a denomination in the mainline Protestant category does not imply that every member of that denomination, nor even every member of their clergy, accepts some of the beliefs generally held in common by other mainline churches. They allow considerable theological latitude. Moreover, mainline denominations have within them Confessing Movements or charismatic renewal movements which are more conservative in tone.


The mainline denominations emphasize the biblical concept of justice, stressing the need for Christians to work for social justice, which usually involve politically liberal approaches to social and economic problems. Early in the 20th century, they actively supported the Social Gospel.

Mainline churches were basically pacifistic before 1940, but under the influence of realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr they supported World War II and the Cold War.[23] They have been far from uniform in their reaction to homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals, though generally more accepting than the Catholic Church or the more conservative Protestant churches.[24]


Protestant churches as a whole have held steady in total membership in the last half century, but since the national population has grown they have shrunk from 63% of the population in 1970 to 54% by 2000. The Mainline denominations comprised 55% of all Protestants in 1973, and 46% in 1998.[25]

While the term "mainline" once implied a certain numerical majority or dominant presence in mainstream society, that is no longer the case. Both evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups have been growing, but mainline Christianity—both membership and worship attendance—has been shrinking.[4]

The number of mainline congregations in the U. S. declined from more than 80,000 churches in the 1950s to about 72,000 in 2008.[9] About 40% of Mainline Protestants in the 1990s were active in church affairs, compared to 46% of the conservatives.[26]

Various causes have been cited, including monotonous and ponderous liturgies, intimidating worship surroundings, and too much tradition.[27] Behaviorally, only one-third (31 percent) of mainline adults believe they have a personal responsibility to discuss their faith with people who have different beliefs. Tenure of pastors in mainline churches tends to be somewhat brief. On average, these pastors last four years before moving to another congregation. That is about half the average among Protestant pastors in non-mainline churches.[9]


Demographers have examined the statistical basis of the long-term decline in the mainstream membership versus the growth in the conservative denominations.[28]

There are four basic factors: birth rates; switching between denominations; departure from Protestantism; and conversions from non-Protestant sources. By far the main cause is birth rates—low for the mainline bodies, and high for the conservatives. The second most important factor is that fewer conservatives switch to mainline denominations than before. Secularization (moving to "no religion") is a third factor.[citation needed]

Despite speculation to the contrary, switching from a mainline to a conservative denomination is not important in accounting for the trend, because it is fairly constant over the decades. Finally, conservative denominations have had a greater inflow of converts.[28]

Evidence from the General Social Survey indicates that higher fertility and earlier childbearing among women from conservative denominations explains 76% of the observed trend: conservative denominations have grown their own. Mainline denomination members have the lowest birthrate among American Christian groups. Unless there is a surge of new members, rising death rates are predicted to diminish their ranks even further in the years ahead.[21]

Statistical analysis gives no support for the notion that theological or social conservatism or liberalism has much impact on long-term growth trends.[29]


Mainline churches have had difficulty attracting minorities, particularly Hispanics and Asians. Hispanics comprise 6 percent of the mainline population but 16 percent of the US population. The Barna Group considers the failure of mainline Protestants to add substantial numbers of Hispanics to be portent for the future, given both the rapid increase of the Hispanic population as well as the outflow of Hispanics from Catholicism to Protestant churches in the past decade, most of whom are selecting evangelical or Pentecostal Protestant churches.[9] Asians represent 4 percent of the American public, but only half that proportion among mainline congregants.[9]


Some other findings of the Barna Group:

  • From 1958 to 2008, mainline church membership dropped by more than one-quarter to roughly 20 million people—15 percent of all American adults.
  • From 1998 to 2008, there was a 22 percent drop in the percentage of adults attending mainline congregations who have children under the age of 18 living in their home.
  • In 2009, nearly 40 percent of mainline church attendees were single. This increase has been driven higher by a rise in the number of divorced and widowed adherents.
  • From 1998 to 2008, volunteerism dropped 21 percent; adult Sunday school participation decreased 17 percent.
  • The average age of a mainline pastor in 1998 was 48 and increased to 55 by 2009.
  • Pastors on average remain with a congregation for four years compared to twice that length for non-mainline church leaders.[9]

Recent statistics from the Pew Forum provide additional explanations for the decline.

  • Evangelical church members are younger than those in mainline denominations. Fourteen percent of evangelical congregations are between 18 and 29 (compared to 2 percent), 36 percent between 30 and 49, 28 percent between 50 and 64, and 23 percent 65 or older.

Not paralleling the decline in membership is the household income of members of mainline denominations. Overall, it is higher than that of evangelicals:

  • 25% Reported less than a $30,000 income per year.
  • 21% Reported $30,000-$49,999 per year.
  • 18% Reported $50,000-$74,999 per year.
  • 15% Reported $75,000-$99,999 per year.
  • 21% Reported an income of $100,000 per year or more, compared to only 13 percent of evangelicals.[22]

Protestantism's hundreds of different denominations are loosely grouped according to three fairly distinct religious traditions—evangelical Protestant churches (26.3 percent of the overall adult population), mainline Protestant churches (18.1 percent) and historically black Protestant churches (6.9 percent).[30]

The Association of Religion Data Archives ARDA counts 26,344,933 members of mainline churches versus 39,930,869 members of evangelical Protestant churches.[13]


  1. ^ Moorhead, James H. World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things, 1880–1925. (Religion in North America, number 28.) Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1999. Pp. xxii, 241
  2. ^ Robert Wuthnow and John H. Evans, eds. The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism (2002) p 4
  3. ^ Lindsay, D. Michael. "Faith in the Halls of Power" [1]
  4. ^ a b c Chang, Perry. "Recent Changes in Membership and Attendance. " Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.) Nov. 2006. Web: Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.)
  5. ^ Oliver, Thomas. "Where have all the Protestants gone?" USA Today. 1 March 2010, p.17A
  6. ^ McKinney, William. "Mainline Protestantism 2000." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 558, Americans and Religions in the Twenty-First Century (Jul., 1998), pp. 57-66.
  7. ^ Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992) p 465
  8. ^ Ellen W. Linder, ed. Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches: 2009 (2009)
  9. ^ a b c d e f Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches The Barna Group. December 7, 2009. Web: 12 Dec. 2009
  10. ^ Protestant Establishment I (Craigville Conference)
  11. ^ Hutchison, William, Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (1989), Cambridge U. Press, ISBN 0-521-40601-3
  12. ^ a b c d e NCC - 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches
  13. ^ a b Mainline protestant denominations
  14. ^ Reformed membership
  15. ^ ICCC membership
  16. ^ NACCC membership
  17. ^ UFMCC membership
  18. ^ Moravian Northern Province membership
  19. ^ Moravian Southern Province membership
  20. ^ Molly Oshatz, "The Problem of Moral Progress: The Slavery Debates and the Development of Liberal Protestantism in the United States," Modern Intellectual History, Aug 2008, Vol. 5 Issue 2, pp 225-250
  21. ^ a b c Struckmeyer, Kurt. "Mainline Christianity. " Following Jesus Web: 13 Dec 2009
  22. ^ a b U. S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices, Diverse and Politically Relevant. Washington D. C.: Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. June 2008. Web: September 27, 2009 at Pew Forum Report 2008.
  23. ^ Michael G. Thompson, "An Exception to Exceptionalism: A Reflection on Reinhold Niebuhr's Vision of "Prophetic" Christianity and the Problem of Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy, " American Quarterly, Volume 59, Number 3, September 2007, pp. 833-855
  24. ^ Gary Dorrien, The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950–2005 (2006)
  25. ^ Hout, Michael; Greeley, Andrew; Wilde, Melissa J. (2001). "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States". American Journal of Sociology 107 (2): 468–500. doi:10.1086/324189. 
  26. ^ Hout, Greeley, and Wilde, "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States," (2001) p 493
  27. ^ Tenny-Brittian, Bill. "Why the Mainline is Shrinking. " Church Solutions, 04/02/2009. Web:
  28. ^ a b Hout, Greeley, and Wilde, "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States," (2001)
  29. ^ Hout, Greeley, and Wilde, "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States," (2001) p 494-5
  30. ^ "Report 1: Religious Affiliation, " The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2009. Web: 13 Dec. 2009

Further reading

  • Ahlstrom, Sydney E. A Religious History of the American People (1976; 2004) excerpt and text search
  • Balmer, Randall. Grant Us Courage: Travels along the Mainline of American Protestantism (1996) online edition
  • Balmer, Randall, and Fitzmier, John R. The Presbyterians (1993). 274 pp. survey by two scholars
  • Billingsley, K. L. From Mainline to Sideline: The Social Witness of the National Council of Churches (1991)
  • Coalter, Milton J.; Mulder, John M.; and Weeks, Louis B., eds. The Mainstream Protestant "Decline": The Presbyterian Pattern. (1990). 263pp.
  • Dorrien, Gary. The Making of American Liberal Theology: Imagining Progressive Religion, 1805–1900 (2001); The Making of American Liberal Theology: Idealism, Realism, and Modernity, 1900–1950 (2003); The Making of American Liberal Theology: Crisis, Irony, and Postmodernity, 1950–2005 (2006).
  • Hutchison, William R. ed. Between the Times: The Travail of the Protestant Establishment in America, 1900-1960 (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Marty, Martin E. "The Establishment That Was, " Christian Century November 15, 1989, p. 1045. online
  • Marty, Martin E. Modern American Religion, Volume 3: Under God, Indivisible, 1941-1960 (1999)
  • Murchison, William. Mortal Follies: Episcopalians and the Crisis of Mainline Christianity (2009)
  • Roof, Wade Clark, and William McKinney. American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future (1990) excerpt and text search
  • Tipton, Steven M. Public Pulpits: Methodists and Mainline Churches in the Moral Argument of Public Life (2008) excerpt and text search
  • Utter, Glenn H. Mainline Christians and U.S. public policy: a reference handbook (2007)
  • Wuthnow, Robert, and John H. Evans, eds. The Quiet Hand of God: Faith-Based Activism and the Public Role of Mainline Protestantism, (2002), 430 pp.; essays by scholars

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