Terms of Art: Sect, Sectarianism

“Sect, Sectarianism: The sociology of religion developed a model of religious organization which is referred to as the ‘church-sect typology.’ As originally formulated by Max Weber (The Sociology of Religion, 1922) and Ernst Troeltsch (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches, 1912), it was argued that the church type attempted to embrace all members of a society on a universalistic basis. The church, as a result, is a large, bureaucratic organization with a ministry or priesthood. It develops a formal orthodoxy, ritualistic patterns of worship, and recruits its members through socialization rather than evangelical conversion. The church is in political terms accommodated to the state and in social terms predominantly conservative in its beliefs and social standing. By contrast, the sect is a small, evangelical group which recruits its members by conversion, and which adopts a radical stance toward state and society. The medieval Roman Catholic Church was the principal example of a universalistic church; sects include Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists.

Contemporary sociologists have modified this typology by identifying the denomination as an organization which is midway between the sect and the church, and by defining various subtypes of the sect. Bryan Wilson (‘An Analysis of Sect Review,’ American Sociological Review, 1959) defined four different subtypes in terms of the various ways in which they rejected social values or were indifferent to secular society. These subtypes are the conversionist (such as the Salvation Army), the Adventist of revolutionary sects (for example Jehovah’s Witnesses), the introversionist or pietist sects (for instance Quaker), and the gnostic sects (such as Christian Science and New Thought sects). These subtypes have different beliefs, methods of recruitment, and attitudes toward the world. The processes of social change within these sects are very different. Wilson is also the author of the best recent account of sects (The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism, 1992).”

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.


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