A voluntary religious community and ecclesial creation of modernity, the denomination emerged alongside of and along with the political party, the free press, and free enterprise. By 1702 it acquired its modern religious meaning with the establishment of the “body of the Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations in and about the City of London.” The 17th-century experiences with religious conflict, revolution, and regicide had led England in its Glorious Revolution to reestablish the Church of England but pass the Act of Toleration. Thus began a century of identifying denominations, of experimentation in Britain and the colonies with (Protestant) religious pluralism, of defining prerogatives and limitations (for the Dissenters or Nonconformists—Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers), of political jockeying between Whigs and Tories, and of exchanges of ideas through magazines, newspapers, and coffeehouses. So denominationalism emerged and defined itself in the Age of Enlightenment, John Locke voicing ideals and proposing policies that would be tested in the American colonies and gradually become normative in the new nation. Where existent beyond the United States and Britain, governments and social customs have provided some measure of religious freedom, permitted denominational pluralism, and controlled for conflict and repression.
The denomination, then, is a voluntary religious community. As voluntary, it needs legally established or de facto toleration and religious freedom. In such an environment and as a voluntary or elective religious community, the denomination creates and sustains its membership. Adherents join, belong, bring in family (children), move to another of the same, or perhaps quit. Thus, the denomination needs “space” to exist (alongside or outside of any religious establishment if such persists). As voluntary, a denomination should and often does recognize the authenticity of other religions/churches even as it claims its own. It often does not concede that authenticity indiscriminately or fully.
As religious, the voluntary community construes itself and claims to be a legitimate and self-sufficient, proper Christian church, Jewish denomination, or other world faith. The denomination functions with a sense of itself as located within time; knows its own boundaries, origins, history, and drama; and acknowledges awareness of its relation to its own longer religious tradition. Claiming its rightful place within the religious realm of the society, the denomination differs from movement, sect, and other “cause” impulses. As a community, the denomination is an organized religious movement. With its own, often distinctive polity, it intends its self-perpetuation, expects supportive efforts from leaders and people, labors to attract and retain members, funds its operations, aligns itself politically and socially with kindred movements, and determines how best to face various American publics. As such, the denomination provides its members self-designation, identity, agenda, calendar, place in American politics, societal locale, historical narrative, internal ordering, and religious affiliation. To some observers, the denomination is taboo or curse.
Their public outreach and self-understandings have led denominations to function in different ways in the American environment (as have political parties, the press, and commerce). Successively, denominations have served as affinity groups, missionary societies, confessional bodies, corporate organizations, campaign causes, and electronic communities. In these several forms and with the above characterization, the denomination differentiates itself from reform impulses that may take similar structural form but construe themselves as belonging within a religion; from an established church, which does not regard itself as voluntary or as sharing societal space with other legitimate religious bodies; and from the sect, which, though also voluntary, does not locate itself easily in time or recognize boundaries or tolerate other bodies or concede their authenticity.