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Religious Innovation and Church-Sect Theory

The Spiritual Drive


The movement is able to provide significant religious benefits without requiring substantial secular costs, organizational control or social status.

Sects are able to "live off the land" by procuring and utilizing resources that are unusable or unappreciated by churches. Incumbent providers (churches) are unable to recognize the value of these resources because they are free – free from organizational control, either by pay, by bureaucracy or social norms and expectations. Hence, the religious benefits they provide are also not recognized (and often disparaged, as will be discussed in the next section). Finke and Stark elaborate on these characteristics in their section entitled "Why the Upstarts Won":

  • Little organizational control. In this era the actual pastoral functions were performed in most Methodist churches by unpaid, local 'amateurs' just like those serving the Baptist congregations up the road. A professional clergy had not yet centralized control of the Methodist organization (73).
  • Disregard for social status. Unlike the Congregational, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian ministers who typically were of genteel origin and were highly trained and well educated, the Baptist and Methodist clergy were of the people. They had little education, received little if any pay, spoke in the vernacular, and preached from the heart (76).
  • Low secular costs. The Baptist typically paid their preachers nothing at all; most earned their living with a plow just like other members of the congregation. Local Methodist church leaders also received little, if any, pay. Even the circuit riders, who faced constant danger from the elements and spent most of their days in the saddle, received only the most meager wages (82).

But Finke and Stark extend their analysis in a section entitled "Why the Upstarts Win, Again." They argue that it is high levels of religious commitment that produce the resources that are necessary for sects to flourish. They find these high levels of commitment in conservative denominations that impose high membership costs and who maintain exclusive membership criteria. Finke and Stark maintain that these characteristics discourage "free riders" who would draw down confidence in the beliefs and practices of the sect and therefore serve to raise the group's "collective goods." They write, "Our own work and the work of Laurence Iannoccone has provoked heated reactions when we suggest that the high demands and distinctive boundaries of sect groups serve to generate the resources needed for growth." (249-250).

It may be accurate that high levels of religious commitment actually do produce sufficient resources that are necessary for sects to flourish. But in Acts of Faith, Stark and Finke state that religious commitment is not just a function of high membership costs and exclusive membership criteria. Religious commitment, which they define as "the degree to which humans promptly meet their terms of exchange with a god or gods as specified by the explanations of a given religious organization" (103) is also affected by seven factors that affect religious confidence (107-113) and by social and religious attachments (118-121).

None of these additional factors are tied to conservative denominations by Stark and Finke in Acts of Faith and they are not explicitly mentioned in The Churching of America. The seven additional factors sited in Acts of Faith are the extent to which others in the group express their own confidence, the extent to which one participates in religious rituals, the experience one has in prayer, the degree that miracles are attributed to the religious practice taught by the group, the degree that people have mystical experiences, the extent that ministers themselves display levels of commitment and the stability of the group (107-113). The social and religious attachments that affect religious commitment are based on studies which show that, as people continue to associate with a religious group, they make social investments in the form of personal attachments and religious investments in the form of learning the group's religious culture. These investments, once made, wind up committing the individual to the process of learning how to interact with God in accordance with the group's teachings and practices (121).

Historical Evidence

Notwithstanding the logical appeal of the importance of eliminating free riders in producing religious commitment, what about these other factors? Do conservative religious groups have exclusive claim to ritual, prayer, miracles, mystical experiences, committed clergy and stable social groups? Are strong social attachments only found in conservative denominations? Is it true that religious zeal and intimate fellowship are dependent on a costly faith? What other factors may contribute to high levels of commitment that produce resources? Here are examples from the several religious sects we have been discussing:

  1. The appeal of the New Light Separatist Baptists in Virginia that was

    an impulse toward a tighter, more effective system of values to be established and maintained within the ranks of the common folk ... as a popular response to a mounting sense of social disorder (Isaac 168).
  2. The Christian Movement, which produced several powerful women preachers:
    Several women became powerful preachers within the Christian Connection. Nancy Gove Cram, who died in 1815 after less than four years of active preaching, created a remarkable stir in frontier New York. ... An equally bold itinerant was Nancy Towle, a young New Hampshire schoolteacher. ... Like Elias Smith and Lorenzo Dow, Towle was a relentless preacher on the move. She estimated she had traveled fifteen thousand miles in a decade of preaching. Her three hundred-page memoir, published in 1833, chronicled her encounters with a score of women preachers among Christians, Freewill Baptists, Universalists, and Methodists and called for more female laborers in the “Gospel harvestfield.” ... In the first edition of his autobiography, published in 1812, [Joseph] Thomas recounted the 'uncontrollable power' of popular religion in the West. In Monroe County, Kentucky, he was amazed by the preaching exploits of a woman: “I was no little astonished at her flow of speech and consistency of ideas.” The woman was probably Nancy Mulkey, the daughter of Christian preacher John Mulkey. Another account described her as 'a shouter': “She would arise with zeal on her countenance and fire in her eyes, and with a pathos that showed the depth of her soul, and would pour forth an exhortation lasting from five to fifteen minutes, which neither father nor brother could equal, and which brought tears from every feeling eye. She was remarkable in this respect.” (Hatch 78-80)
  3. The leadership of Phoebe Palmer in The Holiness Movement in America, who
    toured the country, establishing centers of the sanctified wherever [she] preached. It was not long until ministers rallied to the cause ... A new generation of preachers came along ready to make their mark as ministers of the Holiness gospel... The movement grew and developed, and, like the Finney revival, there was little or no fear of schism (Gordon 80).
  4. The feminist teaching of Emma Curtis Hopkins, regarded by many as the founder of New Thought, who believed that "the divine Mother was conjoined to both the Spirit and ministry of God in a mystical statement that was also a declaration about service and about Hopkins' conviction that any adequate idea of God required the feminine" (Albanese 319).
  5. The Reverend Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter (1935-2009), known to the world as Reverend Ike, who
    gave the African American prosperity gospel its first national platform. A southerner who migrated to the black urban North and who blended pentecostal and spiritualist traditions, Reverend Ike's ministry echoed many of the metaphysical prosperity theologies of the first half of the twentieth century (Bowler 85).


Stark and Finke are certainly correct that, in terms of organization growth, "the upstarts won" in the American religious economy between 1776 and 1850. But their analysis of why they won may be challenged from a feminist perspective on a number of points:

  1. We must distinguish between sect formation and the ultimate ability of a sect to emerge as an established church denomination. The several examples given above may lead to question whether any movement led by women or non-whites could ever succeed in a social-cultural environment dominated by white males.
  2. A feminist perspective might conclude that disempowered people, such as women and non-whites, form sects precisely because they have no secular resources, no organizational control and no significant social status.
  3. In light of the current growth of the "spiritual but not religious" segment, a feminist scholar might question whether "significant religious benefits" are not being provided by the sacred feminine of New Age, the soft pitch, wide-net and comforting evangelism of Joel Osteen or the "everyday epiphanies of being Oprah and being in Oprah's world" (Lofton, back cover).

These points confirm that commitment is indeed a major factor in the success of sects over time. But they also raise the question of who is committed and why. They indicate that religious, non-secular commitment is driven by lack of secular opportunity and oppression, not by conservative religious teaching.