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The Fragmentation of a SectSchism in the Worldwide Church of God$

David V. Barrett

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199861514

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199861514.001.0001

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(p.239) Appendix 2 Theoretical Basis and Methodology

(p.239) Appendix 2 Theoretical Basis and Methodology

The Fragmentation of a Sect
Oxford University Press

Although this is a sociological study, it should not be seen as limited to just that one academic discipline. Its phenomenological approach should make  it of interest to scholars and students of religious studies in general, history of religion, theology, anthropology, psychology of religion and, because of its subject matter, the religious subset of American studies.

In some ways this is a basic ethnographic study, though based largely on literary sources, interviews and correspondence rather than traditional participant observation. It is a study of groups of people who have left their parent group to create or join other groups in order to preserve their social construction of reality, and an examination of the methods by which they produce and maintain a shared sense of social order (Garfinkel 2002: 117). But it is within the sociological phenomenology of religion that it best fits.

In seeking to answer the question “Who went where and why?” I have been aware from the beginning that there are many answers, and that they frequently contradict one another. Part of my aim in this book has been to let a variety of disparate voices be heard. In terms taken from cultural anthropology, emic and etic, coined by linguist Kenneth L. Pike in 1954 and used in a variety of different ways in different disciplines over the past half century (Headland 1990), I utilize both the conflicting self-descriptions of the churches and individuals (the emic approach) and my external critical analysis of these and other descriptions (the etic approach). Both are vital.

Both are also essential components of the phenomenology of religion, which I first studied at undergraduate level in the 1970s.1 Ninian Smart coined the term (p.240) “informed empathy” to describe the approach: a combination of epoché (suspension of judgment or belief) and “the use of empathy in entering into the experiences and intentions of religious participants” (Smart 1987: chap. 1; Smart 1996: 2). These are the qualities I sought to bring to bear on the people who form my subject matter: those ministers and members of Worldwide who left that church to found or join another, and then in many cases left that for yet another.

It is essentially a value-free approach. I have had several years of correspondence with deeply believing members of various Churches of God who took for granted many beliefs which I do not share. Sometimes they assumed that I believed in them too, or occasionally tried to persuade me of their truth, though most seemed to understand the concept of a disinterested scholarly observer. The spiritual truth of the beliefs of the Worldwide family of churches, both those they all share and those they disagree on, is of no relevance to this study. I have stressed to ministers and members that “I don’t have a position on the various doctrinal and organizational differences between United and its offshoots, or between, say, Living and Philadelphia and Restored. I am seeking to understand, not to judge” (Barrett 2008: 23).

This, to me, is the essence of phenomenological sociology.

The religious legitimation of the Worldwide Church of God was dependent on the founder, ministers, and members sharing a particular mindset, or worldview, or Weltanschauung, or, in the terminology of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, social construction of reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966). They were complicit in the creation, acceptance, and maintenance of a very specific social construct in which “meaningful order, or nomos, is imposed upon the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals” (Berger 1969: 28). It was the destruction of this carefully constructed reality in the doctrinal changes in the years after the founder's death—the threat to the plausibility structure underlying their religious world (Berger 1969: 54)—that was to cause the initial schisms, as ministers and members tried to maintain this meaningful order of their lives.

I have sought to examine and explore this worldview—in all its variations—and how it affected the personal choices of ministers and members in their reaffiliation with other groups, through a number of means.

First, as a fundamental basis for all my research, came the literature of Worldwide and its many offshoot churches, in books, booklets, magazines, and websites (see appendix 3.3). As I examine in some detail (see 2.2.1), both the historical Worldwide and its offshoots have always been open and upfront about their beliefs. These include not only theological doctrine but, essentially, how this should impact on the lives of believers, from worshiping on the seventh-day Sabbath to observing the Hebrew holy days and not celebrating “pagan” festivals like Christmas and Easter, to managing their finances, to what to eat, to how to adorn oneself. Without a thorough grounding in and understanding of the Worldwide family beliefs, there is no chance of comprehending their socially constructed reality—or why it mattered so much when it was forcibly changed.

(p.241) Other written works about Worldwide and the schisms are described in appendix 3.

Next, over the years of this research I have had personal communications with a wide assortment of Worldwide family members, ministers, church leaders, and internal observers, and also a number of critical former members. These have included letters and emails, tape-recorded interviews, and more informal conversations, both face-to-face and by telephone, all of which have provided a wealth of, in most cases, attributable quotations which appear throughout this book. Through this personal contact I have gained a far deeper understanding of the issues at the heart of this book, such as beliefs, authority, leadership, and personalities, and how they affected the choices of individual ministers and members.

What I learned from these personal communications, building on the grounding of the churches’ literature, enabled me to compose a questionnaire (see chapter 9 and appendices 3.6, 4, and 5) to elicit further information from members I had had no previous contact with, and to test a number of ideas concerning the basic questions of who went where and why.

It was not feasible for me to undertake much traditional participant observation during my research. The overwhelming majority of the many offshoot churches are based in the United States, as are most of their congregations, and for a number of practical reasons, including other responsibilities, family and health issues, and lack of funding, it was not possible for me to go there. I was, however, able to meet several church leaders and spokesmen and to attend services of the United and Living Churches of God in Britain. (p.242)


(1.) I studied at Charlotte Mason College in Ambleside, UK, which then came under the University of Lancaster, where Professor Ninian Smart had founded the first religious studies course in Britain in 1967. My Phenomenology of Religion course, taught by Gordon Aldrick, was based largely on Smart's work, especially The Religious Experience of Mankind (Smart 1969), and also on The Sociological Study of Religion (Scharf 1970) by Betty R. Scharf, who, in a further connection, taught for many years at LSE. I was privileged to meet both Smart and Scharf many years later, albeit briefly, through my doctoral supervisor at LSE.