Tree of Life Lessons

Level 1 Lesson 7 World Religions




The history of Christianity in America begins with the landing of the Mayflower. These dissenters from the religious oppression of England formed a “Compact”, or voluntary church covenant.


As a foothold was gained, the New World received many from Europe who were being persecuted for their religious belief s. The freedom of the new nation offered them an opportunity to grow. Yet, this freedom often fell short: for division came out of division.


Those who were denied religious freedom often were the first to deny that same freedom to their neighbors. However, Christianity grew in America and experienced many revivals and periods of fast growth.


The major Protestant religious bodies are listed below:





Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science)

Churches of God

Churches of the New Jerusalem (Swedenborgian)


Disciples of Christ

Ethical Culture Movement

Evangelistic Associations

Friends (Quakers)

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Latter-day Saints (Mormons)





Old Catholics




Salvation Army





In the following paragraphs, we will review quickly some of the major Protestant religious groupings. In any given religious body, many variations will exist. Within what is called a “main-line” denomination, you will find the majority of the church in the middle and then some liberal and radical churches on either side.


In Protestantism, a church and church body is judged by certain set criteria. These include the priesthood of all believers, Biblical authority, separation of church and state, and religious freedom for all. The minister is only the first among the equals due to his training. The degree to which any combination of the above are adhered to sets a group’s position in Protestant circles as either to the left or the right of the center.


The Protestant denominations believe in the Trinity. They believe that God’s relation to man is one by Grace through Jesus Christ and not by Law, and that man should manifest his love and gratitude through good works. They also believe in eternal life, but are not sure what it is. And they believe that the church is a community called by Christ into fellowship and service.


After many years of division from the Reformation until 1925, the major Protestant churches are starting mergers and reunions. In many countries where the Protestant churches are not the majority (which is just about every country besides the United States and England), they have found it much easier to serve if they form unions, such as in Canada, South India and Japan. By pooling their resources and physical structures, these bodies have become much more effective in their service.


There are, however, still many divisions within each of the major Protestant denominations; but there has been much fruitful dialogue with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches since Vatican II. There is a body called Conciliation of Church Union which is working full-time in an effort to bring the churches together.


All the major Protestant denominations have contact with one another through the World Council of Churches. This is the official large organization much like the United Nations in that it serves as a point of discussion, but it does not have much real power.


There have been many fears in the past years of what is called a “super church” emerging and taking away the individuality of the Protestant groups which they prize so highly.


There are a number of terms which are used much today in connection with churches. The first is “evangelical”. This word, like so many words in use today, has a wide variety of meanings. In the widest sense, it is the opposite of Roman Catholicism.


The word, itself, throws more light on the subject than any other reference as to what a group means when it calls itself “evangelical”. It comes from the Greek word “evangelist” meaning “to announce good news”.


In Acts 21:8, Philip is called an “evangelist”. It is also listed by Luke in Acts as one of the channels of service in the Early Church . During the time of the apostles, there was not much distinction between the different channels. Later, about the 3rd century CE, interpretation had put set and rigid definitions on the word.


As the faith came more and more under interpretation from various writers, the terms “evangelist” or “evan­gelical” became more restrictive. When the Reformers Zwingli, Melanchthon and Calvin were attempting to assert their separateness from both the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church (and because, in fact, they were interested in missions -- bringing reform), they began to use the word to show a more active interest in the world.


The evangelical churches (cf. United Church of Christ) are, however, distinctive from the evangelistic churches (cf. Fundamentalism).


They believe in the Trinity with Christ as the central theme of their worship. They follow and use the Old Testament extensively.


At the heart of the belief are the workings of God in all human affairs. The final word in all matters of discussion is the Word of God as found in the scriptures and through the workings of the Spirit (there is a tendency to avoid the word “revelation”).


They believe in two sacraments: communion and baptism. Communion is a commemorative feast where there is not a change in the wine and bread.


There is no “set” liturgy. In fact, in many cases, it is optional. The governments of these churches stress the independence of the local churches.


There is usually a consistory with elders, deacons, and the minister. With the advice and consent of the congregation, they set the policies of the church. The higher body, called “association” or “presbytery”, sets policies in accord with the opinion of the churches in that area. The national body is called a “synod” and meets every three years.


Another important term in use today is “ecumenical”. In Greek, the word “oikoumenikos” means “from the whole world”, or “oikoumen” meaning “from the inhabited world”.


All the early councils of the church were called Ecumenical Councils; for they were a gathering of the whole body.


Today, the word is used to denote the attempts to bring dialogue and re-union between Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox bodies. There are many agencies and groups now working on this. It received much new blood from the Second Vatican Council.

“Fundamentalism” is used many different ways. It is most often used to mean that the fundamental tenets of the Christian faith are adhered to. These groups are opposed to any “secular” liberal trend that may develop. They oppose any “higher criticism” of the scripture: that is, the scholarship which attempts to get behind the words and their meanings to the “origins”.


They hold to the virgin birth, the literal interpretation of the Bible, the verbal inspiration of the Bible, the physical resurrection, the Second Coming of Christ and the Christ “substitutionary” atonement.


Fundamentalist churches are not the same as Pentecostal churches although both share the other’s beliefs. In essence, these churches attempt to gain the Apostolic zeal by their continual emphasis on “back to the Bible”.


America , more than any other country in the world, was fertile soil for these many different ways of viewing Christ Jesus and His words to grow. There have often been charges and countercharges thrown between the different bodies, but never anything like the hundreds of years of religious wars that all but destroyed Europe .


Even in the most conservative group, there is some toleration. If any word is a key word for the growth of Christianity in America , it is toleration.

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