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Organizational Consolidation in American Protestant Denominations, 1890–1990

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The religious sector in the United States is distinctive for the degree to which institutional change occurs not through the birth and death of organizations, but through mergers and schisms occurring among preexisting denominations. In this article we analyze mergers among mainstream Protestant denominations, as a means both to deepen our understanding of the dynamics of denominationalism and to broaden the field of discussion about organizational merger. We argue that patterns of merger in any sector are institutionally embedded: in the religious sector, the interaction of ingrained tradition and historical contingency influences the range of possible merger partners, the perceived advantages to merger, and the power of actors that may encourage or discourage merger. We pursue this argument using event-history data from denominations in four Protestant families between 1890 and 1990 to test hypotheses about the determinants of merger. The analysis shows that merger is influenced by denominational identity (family, racial makeup), organizational characteristics (size, centralization, and membership concentration), and the diffuse influence of the ecumenical movement; many of these effects are time dependent, a result of long-term shifts in the roles of denominational elites.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: University of Arizona, Tucson, USA 2: University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Publication date: March 1, 2004


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