By the Numbers: Christian Differences; July 1999; Scientific American Magazine; by Doyle; 1 Page(s)
So many Americans attend church, according to sociologists Roger Finke of Purdue University and Rodney Stark of the University of Washington, because there is a free market in religion, and a free market promotes competition among denominations for new members. U.S. churches, unlike the established churches of Europe, compete by making themselves more attractive to potential parishioners, and thus membership grows. Finke and Stark estimate that the number of adherents rose from 17 percent of the population in 1776 to about 60 percent today. In 1776 Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians were among the leading denominations but lost position because they were ill equipped to compete for new members, particularly on the rapidly expanding frontier. Their well-paid, college-educated ministers were loath to leave comfortable parishes in the East for the rough-and-tumble of the frontier. Furthermore, their scholarly, sometimes dry sermons had little appeal to frontier settlers.
Soon the old-line denominations were eclipsed by the Methodists and the Baptists, who, with their revival meetings and circuit riders, promised life everlasting for the saved and hellfire for sinners. Moreover, their relatively uneducated ministers had a natural rapport with the people, coming as they did mostly from the same class. Methodists were the leading group in the mid-1800s, but as they became more affluent and as their ministers became seminary-trained, their fervor declined, and members who yearned for a more evangelistic faith left to found new churches.