*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 21st of February 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Jane in Columbia, Missouri wrote a little while back- she told me that she and her husband had been laughing at the names “primitive” and “particular” Baptists- and wondered “what is an easy way to understand what kind of churches are which?”

This is very much in my wheelhouse- I’ll tell you a story. In my senior year in college, I took a class called “Comparative Church Bodies” with our beloved Dr. Rosenbladt. Dr. Rosenbladt asked if I would draw it up a question about the Presbyterian and Reformed churches. He tossed me the whiteboard marker, and I drew the family tree. Perhaps it was determined that this is what I would do for the rest of my life: church history tour guide. I’d love to be the David Attenborough of different kinds of Christians.

(Ooh, here we see the Lutheran in their habitat- notice the cheap coffee and hear the faint echoes of “this is the feast”… oh, we have a Calvinist in the wild who has come upon the Lutheran church patio… don’t bring up the Lord’s Supper).

As far as “primitive” and “particular,” those are the kinds of folks whom you might more commonly hear referred to as “Reformed Baptists”- the “primitive” means “OG” and the “particular” refers to their theory of the atonement in which it is efficacious for believers only- and thus “particular.” But let’s break down the bigger picture and put it in our American context.

70% of Americans claim to be Christians. And don’t start with the problem of self-reporting, churches keeping old membership roles, etc.… let’s take 70, however. 20% of those are Catholics. For our sake, let’s bracket those off and look at the roughly 50% of Americans who claim to be in the stream of Protestant Christianity.

Historically we have three streams- the Radical, the Reformed, and the Lutheran.

The Radical include those groups that tend to be independent-non-Sacramental tends towards a theology where the focus is on the work of Christ and the response of the autonomous individual.

The Reformed include Calvinists and Anglicans. Some Baptists belong more to the radical stream, and others follow a more Reformed track- the focus is on the work of Jesus and the Sovereignty of God in applying for that work.

The Lutherans are the “Primitive” reformers- tends to be higher church (in terms of liturgy- some say it might “look Catholic”- the churches tend to be national (German Lutherans, Swedish Lutherans). The focus is on the work of Christ and the application of that through the sacraments.

And you say, “I’m X, and that’s not us!” And I believe you. But these are the streams.

The radical stream includes holiness groups, Pentecostal churches, many non-denominational churches.

The Reformed stream included Congregationalists, Puritans, Quakers, Methodists, etc.

The Lutheran stream has given us a variety of churches influenced by pietism as well as the “free church” tradition (think “free” of state coercion and the modern “EV Free” church)

So… let’s break down where our 50% of Americans who claim to be Protestants fall.

One quick note: “mainline” and “evangelical” have been watchwords for “left” and “right”- it’s complicated- but that’s good enough for this thumbnail sketch.

The biggest Prot denomination in America is the Southern Baptist Convention. They represent something around 14 million Christians. The most prominent American Protestant denomination is around 5% of the American population. Non-SBC Non-denominational churches (think Calvary Chapel, etc.) make up about the same.

Next on the list is the United Methodist Church which represents about 3.5% of the American population.

If you’re Lutheran or Presbyterian, you can claim 2-4% of the American Protestant population, depending on how you draw the confessional lines.

A few thoughts here- the American church is probably more diverse than you think. Methodist and Baptist theology has been the name of the game in America since the 19th century. Why? The lower barrier for entry- tended to speak English, grew on the frontiers, and independently of a central hub.

What does all this mean? To get back to the original question: we have three streams. We can put most American Protestant Churches in one of these three streams and then break down “evangelical/conservative” and “mainline/progressive” camps.

And of course- my favorite caveat: people in the pews aren’t going to be catechized ambassadors for their particular brand necessarily. My schematic is the big picture- but to know what’s happening in any individual church, you’re going to have to do the hard work of hearing sermons, meeting people, and dealing with the messiness that is actual Christians and actual church buildings.

Jane- thanks for your question- always shoot me your questions at Danv@1517.org.

The Last Word for today comes from Luke 6:

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. 38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 21st of February 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.

The show is produced by a man on a mission to get Lutherans- and all people better church coffee- go to Gillespie.Coffee—Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who is a fan of the song “Crash” by the Primitives and “Standing Outside a Broken Phonebooth With Money in My Hand” by the Primitive Radio Gods. I am Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.