Confessional Traditions in American Christianity

Confessional Traditions in American Christianity studied confessional traditions transplanted from Europe into the American religious and cultural setting.


The project had its roots in the work of Mark Noll (The Old Religion in the New World [2001]) and Roger Finke and Rodney Stark’s groundbreaking monograph The Churching of America, 1776-1990 (1992) in its attempt to assess how confessional traditions--transplanted from European settings where they generally enjoyed privileged standing in their identities built around historic confessions of faith–adjusted to a religious marketplace dominated by democratic and revivalist impulses.

Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Mennonite, and Orthodox traditions have frequently been evaluated in light of particular ethnic identities and immigrant histories. The timing of their arrival in the colonies/United States, changes of language, and differing paths to Americanization have all influenced these groups in distinctive ways and have been the focus of much scholarship. However, this project hoped to incorporate these insights under the rubric of a unified set of questions to determine how these European-rooted traditions’ shared commitments to historic confessions might illuminate broader insights into the American religious experience. For example, the confessional traditions offer a laboratory for revisiting old debates about the persistence of European influences in the American setting. They also offer an opportunity for testing assumptions about the power of geographic and cultural regions for molding all comers.

The confessional churches’ existence and–relative to Europe in particular–thriving nature also prompts us to examine these traditions against the backdrop of American evangelicalism which has often defined much of its identity and practice over and against the confessional denominations. This is an important set of questions for contemporary evangelicalism in light of an emerging interest in confessional traditions which, first noticed in such books as Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985), continues to make itself felt among certain segments of evangelicalism, particularly within its elite circles.

Project Resources

The project had two components, one aimed primarily at academics and church leaders, and another designed to promote discussion and understanding of the project’s issues and findings at the popular level amongst the laity across the various traditions.

The former segment of the project involved the commissioning of chapters for a book which reflects on how each confessional tradition adapted or resisted to the American setting and how such choices shaped the tradition’s American identity. Other aspects of the study included an emphasis on understanding how Confessional churches have impacted minorities in the United States as well as the changing contours of the anti-confessional context through the years. The book published was Holding On to the Faith: Confessional Traditions in American Christianity (University Press of America, 2008).

To present the findings of the project’s research, the ISAE hosted a conference in September 2005 at Wheaton College for scholars, church leaders, religion writers, editors, and seminarians.


Lilly Endowment, Inc.


This project was funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment >>

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