The following paper is by the late Bryan Wilson, who was one of the pioneers in the field of the sociology of religions. In this overview of various sects, the Two by Twos are mentioned in the context of other, similar groups. It was originally published in the Indian Missiological Review (which is now published under the title: Mission Today) and has been reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor of that journal.
THE PERSISTENCE OF SECTS
Bryan R. Wilson
All Souls College, Oxford
In recent decades, western society has experienced widespread secularization. The evidence is apparent in diminishing numbers of people who practice, diminishing numbers of vocations, decline in church finances, and the loss of political influence. The process has affected the major Protestant and Catholic churches throughout most of Europe. Yet, despite this general religious decline, sects survive, even in some cases they flourish and grow. The persistence of sects in a context of secularization is a subject worthy of attention. Traditionally, sociologists have tended to see sects as an alternative mode of religious organization to the church indeed, Troeltsch set up an ideal-typical juxtaposition of Sect and Church, which placed these two phenomena in an artificial dichotomous relationship. Yet, it is clear from the contemporary empirical evidence that the sect is not a mere alternative to the church. It may not even be competing for the same public. It has an autonomous existence and it responds to social circumstances in its own way. And some sects show a capacity for growth and endurance, even when major religious organizations are suffering decline if not decay.
There were other dubious assumptions built into the general stereotype of the sect that was derived from Troeltsch. One of these was the rather static model of the sect as necessarily a small collectivity a local community of love. Another was the idea that sects arose only among the lower classes. To these doubtful generalizations, H Richard Niebuhr added another the contention that a sect remained valid for only generation, and that thereafter it was destined to become transmogrified as a denomination the denomination being the distinctive American contribution to the patterns of Christian religious organization. Whilst Troeltsch had projected a rather static contradistinction of church and sect, Niebuhr, observing the normality of change in the dynamic American context, mistakenly supposed that what happened to some sects in America was a paradigm for the development of all sects everywhere. But at least he saw that sects did not necessarily arise in opposition to the Church, and that in the American context, with no established or privileged Church, all so-called churches were reduced in status, becoming merely denominations, while sects had at least the possibility of gravitating towards greater social acceptability by evolving into denominations. And this development was accelerated as sectarians experienced social mobility and rose in the social scale.
However, all such considerations notwithstanding, the empirical evidence is that by no means all sects become denominations. Some intensify their ethic even consciously to maintain their sectarian orientation. Elsewhere and long ago, I sought to refute the Niebuhr thesis, showing that he had too hastily generalized from the particular circumstances of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America to universal social processes. What I then sought to suggest was that the experience of a sect in its evolution depends on its ideology and on the circumstances of its origin an origin which is not, as is sometimes supposed, invariably the result of schism. Nor is the process of denominationalization an inevitable result of the sect's acquisition of a formal organizational structure. Certainly, where the sect takes on a more elaborate and formal system of organization, it relinquishes in the process the character of being, in the Troeltschean sense, a small, subjective, fellowship of love. But the acquisition of organization is not per se the determinant of denominationalization. It is to this proposition which, with illustrations, I wish to devote my attention.
I shall review briefly the character and history of five Christian sects which in considerable measure have maintained the common characteristics of the model sect, as exemplified in four particulars: first, that each of them exists in a state of tension with the wider society; second, that each imposes tests of merit on would-be members; third, that each exercises stern discipline, regulating the declared beliefs and the life habits of members and prescribing and operating sanctions for those who deviate, including the possibility of expulsion; and fourth, that each demands sustained and total commitment from its members, and the subordination, and perhaps even the exclusion of all other interests. All five of these movements are international bodies, but they differ considerably in doctrine and even more, and more to my present point, in organizational structure. My purpose is to show that, despite espousing widely divergent organizational forms, sects may survive as such, without succumbing to a process of denominational evolution. All five movements are, in respect of orientation, either adventist or introversionist sects. None of them began as a schism from the Church. All of them had founders of strong personality, but only one of these leaders might be said to have been charismatic, and even then only to a limited degree and in the muted sense of charismatic utterance being subject to biblical confirmation. Three of these movements espouse a minimalist position with respect to organization, whilst two, and it is to these that I turn first, have evolved strong structures of international control. What can be remarked is that it is these movements which have grown most conspicuously, to an extent far exceeding in size any of the three movements espousing a minimalist organizational position.
These two large-scale highly organized sects are the Seventh-day Adventist Church and Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, whose adherents have, since the 1930s, been known as Jehovah's Witnesses. I review them each in turn.
The Adventists were organized in 1863, but the roots of the sect go back to the excitement that was generated by the preaching of William Miller who had prophesied the second advent of Christ as an event to occur in 1843 or 1844. The Seventh-day Adventists never so closely approximated the ideal type of an adventist sect as their name implies first because they organized only after the failure of prophecy, and were hence concerned as much to explain why the advent had not yet occurred as with the future anticipation of it. Second, because they accepted new prophetic interpretation which re-located the adventual event in space as well as, of necessity, in time, they introduced new doctrines of ideological defence, regarding prophesy as pertaining to events in heaven. Christ, they maintained, had entered the heavenly sanctuary, and the present time was a period in which he was conducting an "investigative judgement". Meanwhile, Christians were to prepare for the second coming by fulfilling the Old Testament law relative to the 4th Commandment. Third, they departed from the typical adventist sect by invoking new revelation to augment scripture and to direct moral behaviour.
The Seventh-day Adventists acquired a distinctive lifestyle. Their emphasis on food reform, and for a time also on dress reform; their development of sanitoria, nursing homes, and also of schools and colleges, entailed a good deal of forward planning somewhat at odds with the apocalyptic expectations of an adventist sect. The revelations claimed by Mrs. Ellen Harmon White, the unofficial leader of the movement and certainly its inspiring genius, guided its development, although she was an unordained woman in a sect which had a male ecclesiastical hierarchy. That fact alone was perhaps enough to retard the denominationalizing tendencies that were evident in the history of some other American sects. The movement had, however, inherited from other denominations ministers who had been supporters of Millerism, and with them a measure of ritual concern greater than that of most Protestant sects, with rites not only of baptism, but seventh-day abstinences; foot-washing; and obedience to the dietetic laws of the Old Testament. These dispositions might have been enough to induce a denominationalizing tendency, in particular the impact of an ordained ministry which promotes the division of spiritual labour, stimulates education, and induces these leaders to take the ministry of other, less sectarian, bodies as a reference group.
The Adventists also evolved a variety of unusual concerns in particular in the field of social welfare. Today they have the seventh largest medicare agency in the United States: in the world they own 150 hospitals and sanitoria in addition to nursing homes. In the United States, they maintain two universities, and nearly one hundred accredited liberal arts colleges. Their private school system in America is second only to that of the Roman Church. They run food factories promoting their advocacy of wholesome foods, especially cereals, since most Adventists are vegetarians. The structure of their provision is almost that of a mini-state, duplicating the major institutions of society, and reminiscent in some degree to the phenomenon of pillarization familiar in Belgium.
Given the factors pushing the Seventh-day Adventist Church towards denominational status, it is not surprising that something of the sort occurred. A formal hierarchic structure evolved. The second and subsequent generations have grown more liberal and less fervently committed to early expectation of the advent. The evolution of institutional structures has led to the employment of non-Adventists in their hospitals, affecting the ethos and causing technical and professional criteria to prevail over adventist religious values. The secular culture has also had an influence: the movement nowadays invests in the stock market; the incidence of divorce has increased among members; and a vociferous homosexual sub-culture has developed within the movement.
Is the Seventh-day Adventist Church then no longer a sect? Is it a denomination? Not really. This judgement can be made, because strong and distinctive ideological constraints impede that development. The lifestyle of the movement is still distinctive, and the devices for social insulation the seventh-day Sabbath and the dietary taboos (tobacco, alcohol, tea, and coffee) mark off believers from other people. These are conspicuous devices of boundary-maintenance, but there are also theological differences which make Adventists unacceptable to other denominations. The concept of Christ entering a heavenly sanctuary an idea derived from Old Testament priesthood and more especially of his conducting an investigative judgement, and acting to blot out the sins of true Christians, are concepts which radically depart from the beliefs of the Protestant fundamentalists who would otherwise be the natural associates of the Adventists. The sanctuary doctrine departs from the Protestant principle of justification by faith since sanctification and perfectionism are now added to justification as requirements for salvation. Thus, Adventists appear not to regard Christ's death on the cross as sufficient for salvation. They rely on the imparted righteousness of Christ through his spirit rather than on righteousness imputed through his sacrifice. The implication, with its adjunctive demands for obedience to Old Testament law, is that only true and faithful Adventist really have a prospect of salvation. All of this amounts to an ideological preservative organizational characteristics notwithstanding of Adventist sectarianism. So six million Adventists constitute a sect that would be, yet cannot be, a denomination.
There is no such ambivalence about the position of Jehovah's Witnesses, whose whole history exemplifies a process of enhanced distinctiveness and apartness in which one theme preparation for acceptance into God's kingdom, and the need to spread that message widely and urgently has ensured that the Witnesses remain a sect. Emerging in the 1870s, the Witnesses began with commitment to dates for the second coming, crystallizing around the expectation of the end in 1914. Today that date is still significant as the alleged time of the establishment of the Kingdom, which, however, was to become manifest at a later time. Witnesses began as a loose network of seekers who subscribed to the writings of a layman, Chas. T. Russell, but under his successors that loose association was gradually transformed into a mass following, which acquired an increasingly distinctive and separate identity. Under Judge Rutherford, in the 1920s and 30s, the Society became more than a mere publishing house, presenting its transformed self as a so-called "theocratic organization". Order was imposed from the top downwards. Locally elected elders were replaced by centrally chosen nominees, later called service-directors. Rutherford was the mouthpiece of the theocratic organization, virtually, the voice of Jehovah God.
The whole concern became to canvass the good news members were designated "publishers" now, sanctification (part of Russell's programme) was out and evangelism was in. By 1931, when the name Jehovah's Witnesses was taken, the movement had become a tightly organized sect vigorously opposed to all other churches, with a motto, "Religion is a racket". In the 1950s, the 'Watchtower' became a service book, with articles devised for question and answer catechizing at one of the several weekly meetings that all members were expected to attend. As membership grew, so two classes of adherent were recognized 144,000 of the Book of Revelation a servant class ("the good and faithful servant" of scripture) who were destined, in the millennium, to rule with Christ in heaven, and the "great crowd" or "other sheep" to whom the servant class ministered, and whose destiny was to live on a re-made paradisial earth, where they would still be subject to tests of obedience, and the temptations of Satan. They have entertained strong expectations of the Kingdom's appearing at different times, the most recent being 1975, and failure of prophecy, whilst it may have caused some to defect, has not prevented the movement from showing an overall rate of growth, which in some countries is very impressive.
The Witnesses have not been induced by failure to retreat into introversionism. Rather they have seen the need to re-double their efforts in vigorous canvassing as the test of faithfulness to Jehovah. Thus, they have extensive contact with the wider public, [in Britain in 1989, 108,000 publishers undertook 23 million hours of house-calls]. Yet, they remain little affected by that exposure they confine their contacts to their single-minded purpose and avoid all other occasions for association. They undertake virtually no social work, and unlike the Adventists have no provision for health care, education, or welfare. When they need to do so, they readily make use of the state's social services, and their approach is entirely pragmatic towards state provision, which they see as an interim facility till the Kingdom is manifest.
They have intensified their sectarian stance from time to time. Thus, citing the biblical prohibition against eating blood, they have persisted in their refusal to accept blood transfusions. They have also led the way in claiming the right of conscience respecting compulsory military service, and in campaigns for more liberal laws respecting civil rights generally, particularly in the United States and Canada. The Witnesses tend to restrict the education of their young people to the minimum (albeit not uniformly), and they not infrequently abandon successful careers to take up part time work so that they can devote more time to undertaking their publishing work of the "good news of the kingdom". And on this issue, too, they have encountered public disapproval. But all of these instances, which could be multiplied, indicate the enhanced sectarian posture which the movement has adopted.
Although in theory disavowing all human organization, in practice the Witnesses are centrally and hierarchically organized in circuits and districts under the direction of a special class of so-called 'pioneers' who work full-time for very small stipends, and who maintain oversight of the local congregations. Whereas Adventists are led by a professional ministry and are dependent on trained specialists in various fields, conspicuously in medicine and higher education, Witnesses are regulated by their amateur pioneers. Whereas Adventists require their members to pay tithes (one tenth of their incomes) to the movement, Witnesses pride themselves on making no explicit demands for financial support from their members, not even taking up a collection in their meetings. The tribute their movement demands is in the man-hours which members spend in canvassing from door to door. In fact both of these sects have elaborate organization, with patterns acquired from the secular society, with corporate legal structure, property ownership, financial investments, and rational bureaucratic control of personnel. Both are remote from the Troeltschean assumptions of the small fellowship of love, and neither has trodden the Niebuhrian path of denominationalism. Each of the two movements remains a sect, and each utilizes organizational faculties to maintain its sectarian status.
In contrast, there are sects that have preserved their minimalist organization despite the need to function within an increasingly organized wider society. Three sects which approximate the ideal "fellowship of love" and each of which sees itself not as a corporate body, but as a gathering of votaries are the Exclusive Brethren, the Christadelphians, and the Testimony. Even if some concessions have to be made to the modern state property has to be rented or purchased; governments have to be obeyed; and there is need from time to time to have recourse to law none the less, these sects seek to avoid every species of formal organization. One consequence is that each of these sects denies that it has any sort of human leadership. But in actuality, although formal designations are eschewed, in practice, informal leaders do emerge in defiance of minimalist theory. Where such informal patterns of authority arise that is an increased propensity for schism to occur. Schism has been a commonplace in the history of two of these groups (the Christadelphians and the Brethren) and dispute and splintering has occurred in the Testimony. Each of these sects takes the extended family as its model, and all relationships with those who are not in the kinship system are avoided. Although not communitarian, nor, indeed, socially and vicinally segregated, each of these movements, and especially the Christadelphians and even more particularly, the Brethren, seeks to lead life apart from the wider society in every respect that is possible.
The Exclusive Brethren arose in Dublin as a group of seekers , concerned to admit to fellowship only true believers and although some of the founders were ordained clergymen in the Church of England under the conviction that there was no scriptural warrant for ordination, and that the clergy must relinquish the claims to sacramental power that had been claimed for them. The cardinal principle which developed strongly as the movement experienced recurrent schism was the obligation to separate from evil, leading the originally adventist, and at one time evangelistic, movement into an increasingly introversionist position. The movement came to see itself as having recovered the truth from which the Christian churches had apostacized. All males participate in exhortation, but in practice there are strong informal leaders at both local and national level, and it is they who expound doctrine which, they maintain, is progressively opened up by the Holy Spirit, whose presence is claimed for every assembly of the movement. Competent expositors of the Word acquire prestige first in their own assemblies and then more widely, through invitations and exchange visits between assemblies. Yet the informal status of these leaders is always precarious, and there is recurrent anxiety as they seek recurrent re-endorsement.
The Brethren see their own assemblies as places set aside from the world: they regard them as heavenly locations. Although they do not openly avow that salvation can be attained only there, this is in fact their informal assumption. The Spirit will lead all true Christians to associate with them, and to separate themselves from the world. There is today, little evangelism and certainly no demand that others "come and join us". The emphasis has shifted from public preaching of the word to preserving the sanctity of the community. They maintain strong boundaries proscribing involvement in trades unions, universities, politics, and jury service, refusing to eat with outsiders, to share a building, to operate computers, to watch television or listen to radio, among other prohibitions. Over time, they have intensified their sectarian ethos. They persist as a small but flourishing fellowship, despite the schisms that have periodically afflicted them.
No less a persisting sect than the Brethren, and almost as long enduring, are the Christadelphians, founded by an English emigrant to the United States in the 1830s. The movement is avowedly adventist, strongly concerned to read the signs of the times and to interpret world history in the light of Biblical prophecy. But today, despite the persistence of these adventual themes, the Christadelphians have, in the light of disappointment concerning the advent, become increasingly introversionist, a common shift of stance for long-enduring adventist sects. The founder, John Thomas, translated the politics of his day into the allegorical figures of the books of Daniel and Revelation: Russia, Britain, the Papacy, the Ottoman empire were all pre-figured in the Bible's prophetic discourse. One central theme was God's covenant with the Jews, and the expected return of the Jews to Palestine in fulfilment of prophecy. The Christadelphians regarded themselves as adoptive Jews joint-heirs in God's covenant, since only they, the Jews, and some early Christians had real hope of resurrection. The Kingdom rather than the Cross was the central theme of their message, since this was Jesus's own message: his sacrifice on the cross was a subsequent and less important Christian item.
Like the Brethren, the Christadelphians have always disavowed any sort of professional ministry. They prided themselves in having no committees, no chairmen, no elders or designated preachers. Like the Quakers, they have had a conception of an unorganized band of true believers. In the event, minimalism must compromise if any sort of regular group life is to continue, and there emerged among them "presiding brethren", "arranging brethren", and "lecturing brethren" to replace the more secular nomenclature of status and power. As with the Brethren, informal roles have left the way open for dissention and schism, and today the Christadelphians are divided into a number of loosely connected fellowships. When faced, for example, with the exigencies of war and in the light of their need to claim exemption from compulsory military service, ad hoc informal leadership evolved, but such external action (as treating with the authorities) had internal consequences informal ad hoc leaders do not always relinquish power when the circumstances which brought them into action have passed. And so it was with the Christadelphians after the First World War. In practice, over the longer period, authority has accumulated in the hands of the editor of the movement's periodical magazine, who came to determine which ecclesias were orthodox, and whose "news" should or should not be carried in that official organ.
The Christadelphians were committed from the outset in an almost Troeltschean way to the sovereignty of the local ecclesia, but in the modern world the needs of a persisting movement often transcend what a local community can achieve. The development of study groups, summer schools, fraternal gatherings, and other movement-wide concerns, as well as publishing and the now much reduced missionary and evangelistic work, have demanded something more than minimal organization. But the ideal persists that the whole community is a spontaneously gathered remnant, operating in accordance with the New Testament pattern, more a community than an organization. Indeed, the Christadelphians function almost as an endogamous tribe with complex linkage of kinship networks throughout Britain and in some other English-speaking countries.
Whilst both the Exclusive Brethren and the Christadelphians embrace the old Quaker minimalist position with regard to religious organization, an even stronger commitment is made, at least overtly, by the Testimony (also known as Christian Conventions, or more colloquially as Cooneyites, Go Preachers, Two-by-Twos, or, in Germany, as the Namenlosen). This movement began in 1897 in Ireland, when an itinerant missioner of the evangelical Faith Mission became distressed to see that those whom he had converted to Christianity often returned to the orthodox denominations in which, he believed, they would not receive the real Christian gospel. He formed a band of unpaid preachers who took as their charter text Matthew 10, to "provide neither gold nor silver nor brass for your purses, nor scrip for your journey, neither two coats, shoes, nor yet staves, for the workman is worthy of his meat".
Those who accepted this call became literally Tramp Preachers another name by which the movement became known. They took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, but they were not monks. They were, indeed, vehemently anti-clerical. The preachers surrendered their homes and property and families to the cause, to become idealistic preachers of the Word to anyone who would listen. They had, and still have, no printed literature, other than a hymn book. They have no archives, no buildings, and, notionally at least, no officials. They are indeed a contradiction in terms a secret evangelistic sect.
At first, all converts were expected to take up preaching, but the founder, Irvine, gradually accepted that there must be a separate body of lay people who received and sustained the preachers, so a type of "third order" of lay adherents evolved. They began to be gathered in open-air conventions in the summer, usually on land owned by a member or close sympathizer. Ordinary meetings among lay believers are held in houses, but periodically the itinerants visit each district, and there they borrow a hall (often the Church hall of an unsuspecting minister) for a preaching meeting for the public at large.
The sect preached that the Bible was sufficient for instruction, but they gradually came to believe that the preachers were "Living Witnesses", and that those who failed to respond to them were destined for Hell. Irvine did not regard the sacrifice of Jesus as man's sole source of redemption those who held this view he abused as "Calvary Ranters". Rather it was those who were converted by his preachers and who modelled themselves on Christ by sharing in his sacrifice, who would be saved. Thus it was works rather than faith which mattered, and, like the Seventh-day Adventists, The Testimony maintained that they had an imparted rather than an imputed righteousness.
The preachers accepted the hospitality of the laity, the so-called "saints" wherever they went, living up to the dictum that the movement embraced "the minister without a home and the church in the home" The preachers were those who held the door open to God. Thus the movement had the appearance of an evangelical body, but the emphasis was on salvation only through the living witnesses. Their text was Romans 5:10 "We shall be saved by his life" which implies salvation through Jesus as a man on earth prior to his death and resurrection. Jesus was a model for the living, and like the Seventh-day Adventists, the movement has been committed to a kind of perfectionism. The Testimony provides a good exemplification of Troeltsch's opinion that while the Church was derived from Paul, the sect derived from Jesus.
The preachers led and in considerable measure still lead austere lives, if somewhat less so than in the early days when some of them undertook long journeys by bicycle in the searing heat of the Australian summer through the "outback", or endured similar privations in other parts of the world. Today the movement relies heavily on its annual conventions great tented gatherings in the countryside which hundreds or even thousands may attend. There are, each year, seven such conventions in England, another seven in Ireland, and three in Scotland, and many more in the United States and Australia. The sites for these gatherings are unmarked, and despite the size of these occasions they remain relatively unobserved by the public or the media. In Britain, today, there are sixty active preachers ministering to an unspecified number of adherents, perhaps of several thousands.
Yet, despite its commitment to minimalism, the Testimony could not persist without some measure of organization. Overseers have emerged over the years to assign to preachers particular territories. Money has had to be managed, and some of the more naive among the preachers have been disturbed to discover that the movement had any dealings with banks. Cooney, who was not the founder but rather one of the early prominent members from whom the body acquired its nickname, became a radical dissentient objecting to bank accounts, the use of halls for meetings, and even the use of a name (in particular in the United States, of the name Christian Conventions, which a regional overseer had adopted when seeking exemption for the preachers from compulsory military service). But even minimalist sects evolve, and Cooney, the radical minimalist, was expelled from the body in 1928.
Minimalist sects have been prone to schism a consequence of their distrust of organization, their unwillingness to subordinate the total believer to the role-performer and distrust of the de-personalizing effects of rationalization and routinization which occurs in perhaps all religious bodies. Minimalism protects a sect from too close an involvement with the wider society, accommodating the community orientation of the introversionist sect. Yet minimalism is not wholly adequate in the modern world. Covert structures develop, and informal authority systems evolve, even though the anti-organizational commitment remains strong and impressive. The surprising item is not the compromises that have to be made for a religious body to persist, but the relative success of these sects in resisting the desiccating process of routinization. These sectarians have surrendered little of their first principles despite what, to a Niebuhr, and in conformity with some general law of social entropy might appear as an inevitable process of denominationalization.
The minimalist groups maintain in structure, ethos, and ideology much that conforms to the ideal-typical model of the sect. Yet issues arise about property; about military service and other civic obligations from which they seek exemption; or about health or educational obligations when they needs must accept that the state will demand that there be authorized spokesmen who must have some power to negotiate for the group. Despite such periodic imperative need in the modern world to treat with the state, these sects have retained a great deal of their pristine spirit. It might be maintained that sects which have adopted elaborate and modern forms of organization have failed to do so. Yet, the two sects that we have examined which have espoused the one overtly, and the other more covertly elaborate, hierarchic and international organizational structures, have none the less also managed to retain a sectarian ethos. They remain ideologically distinctive, exclusivistic, separated, strongly disciplined, and in considerable degree counter-cultural. The adoption of organized structures has not been sufficient to turn these movements into denominations. The Seventh-day Adventists have constructed a well-organized alternative system of institutions to service their members and to insulate them from the wider society. By organizational devices they have protected and preserved their distinctive ethic. The Witnesses have organized for a very different purpose, but they have come to use highly rational techniques to canvass a revolutionist sectarian ethic. Although now sizeable corporations, they remain largely uninfected, and remain, no less than the minimalist bodies, authentic expressions of the sectarian spirit.
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- Social Compass XXIV, 1, "Les Tamoins de Jahovah" 1977