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Fall 1986 · Vol. 15 No. 2 · pp. 81–82 

Book Review

From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and Their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History

Richard Kyle. Hillsboro, KS: Center for M.B. Studies, 1985.

Reviewed by Paul Toews

The use of sociological categories to clarify Anabaptist-Mennonite history dates back at least to Ernest Troeltsch’s church/sect dichotomy of 1911. More recent scholarship has added “denomination” and “ethnicity” as analytical categories for understanding smaller religious traditions. The particular contribution of Kyle’s From Sect to Denomination is to apply those ideal types to an interpretation of the MB experience.

The thesis is clear. The first 300 years of the Anabaptist-Mennonite story should be understood as a transition from a sectarian type of Christianity to a churchly orientation in mid-nineteenth century Russia. The Mennonite Brethren origins in 1860 represent the reemergence of the sectarian motifs which were transmuted over time into the present day denomination. The Anabaptist-Mennonite Brethren story is thus best understood by this double cycle of sectarian birth and subsequent transformation. {82}

The descriptions that Kyle uses to differentiate the church, sect, denomination and ethnic group are from the best available sociological literature. There is a general concurrence in the scholarly literature on the distinctions between church and sect: formal, comprehensive, geographical, hierarchical versus informal, voluntary, separatist, decentralized. For the denominational category Kyle utilizes the work of David Martin who understands denominations as a compromise between the church and sect that borrows and reflects the particularities of both. Using E.K. Francis, he suggests that ethnic groups as identifiable cultural subgroups frequently intersect with either denominations or sects. Much of the book is the interweaving of these categories of analysis with the secondary literature of Mennonite Brethren history. The cumulative impact is in some ways akin to an extended historiographical essay linked to the explanatory insights of these sociological typologies.

The explanatory power of these categories for understanding Mennonite Brethren history is uncertain. They do provide ways of linking what are seemingly discrete and unrelated events/trends into larger patterns. They permit Kyle to track changes in church membership, evangelism, relationships with other religious bodies, the process of institutionalization, forms of ministry and many other topics in systematic and developmental terms. But they are also a priori categories that, while sharpening the uniformities of religious experience and tradition, also obscure their individuality. But that has always been both the strength and weakness of this mode of analysis.

Paul Toews
Fresno Pacific College, Fresno, California

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