Many Christian churches of North America have their origins in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and my students often asked me whether these are best studied as Modern Religion or as part of Christianity.
The introductory class on religion is not the place to memorize the hundreds of different sects of Christianity or their origins. Later, when studying Christianity in depth, a student can research the details of sectarianism in European churches and the continued splintering of denominations in the Americas.
Many of the American churches which emerged from the nineteenth century have a direct connection to the much older Baptist, Congregationalist, and Methodist churches.
In this way, many contemporary churches are a historical continuation of a long standing Christian denomination.
The Christian churches and movements that have roots in the so called Great Awakening (or First Great Awakening) belong to the revivalism of 18th century American colonies.
Most newer forms of North American Christianity are from this period, or ultimately have their roots in this period, and were very much concerned with the goal of unity among the many and diverse, often conflicting, Christian churches of the time.
The large number of Christian churches with continued connection to older denominations are easiest to study as sects of Christianity.
The Modern Religions that consider themselves Christians (and often times the true christians) can be distinguished as Modern Religion by their deliberate disconnection from long standing denominations, and by their tendency to comment directly upon modern industry and modern life-style.
In this way The Church of Latter-Day Saints is best studied (or at least introduced) in Modern Religion and not in the introductory class on Christianity.
This is also true of the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and many other twentieth Century American churches. It is helpful to include all of the churches that have their roots in the Adventist movements of the 19th century in the Modern Religions category as well.
I also included the Amish in the modern religions course because of their distinctive response to modern technology and life-style. Today’s European Anabaptist churches – who were the historical root of the Amish – do not practice an alternative (pre-industrial) life-style.
Throughout the short history of religion in the United States, new Christian churches that strayed far from the well established Christian denominations were referred to (by Christians) as ‘cults’ and were treated with great distain.
For the student of religion it is essential to dismiss this archaic use of the word ‘cult’ and study all modern churches and religions as examples of modern religion. There is no such thing as a cult.