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Book Jacket

Trade Paperback
250 pages
Jan 2005
Harvest House Publishing

The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations: Understanding the History, Beliefs, and Differences

by Ron Rhodes

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt



    Beginnings: The Emergence of Christianity and Denominations

  1. Adventist Churches
  2. Baptist Churches
  3. Brethren Churches
  4. Catholic Churches
  5. Christian Churches
  6. Congregational Churches
  7. Episcopal and Anglican Churches
  8. Friends (Quaker) Churches
  9. Fundamentalist and Bible Churches
  10. Holiness Churches.
  11. Lutheran Churches
  12. Mennonite Churches
  13. Methodist Churches
  14. Orthodox Churches
  15. Pentecostal Churches
  16. Presbyterian Churches
  17. Reformed Churches

    Index of Denominations
    Index of Persons
    Chart Index



William Miller was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1782. He grew up to be a good citizen, a responsible farmer, and a respected soldier in the War of 1812.

Miller was a nominal churchgoing Baptist. Some of his skeptic friends, however, managed to talk him out of his faith, and he became a deist. Deism involves belief in a God who created the world out of nothing but is now uninvolved with the world or its events, a God who governs the world only through unchangeable, eternal laws.

During the Second Great Awakening (1816), Miller experienced a powerful conversion to Christianity. He became a fervent student of the Bible with special interest in prophetic portions of the Bible such as Daniel and Revelation. His personal Bible had study notes that espoused the chronology of Bishop Ussher, who dated the creation of the world at 4004 B.C. Miller came to believe that since the precise dates of Noah’s Flood, Israel’s sojourn from Egypt, and other notable events were laid out prophetically in Scripture, the precise date of Christ’s second coming must also be prophesied in the Bible.

Miller believed he found what he was looking for in Daniel 8:14: “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” (KJV). Miller fixed the beginning date of this period at 457 B.C., which was the year of Cyrus’ command to rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1; Isaiah 44:28; 45:13; Daniel 9:25). He was convinced that a day in prophecy was equal to a year (Ezekiel 4:6) and proclaimed that the cleansing of the sanctuary would take place within a year after March 21, 1843 (457 B.C. + 2300 years = A.D. 1843). He believed the cleansing of the sanctuary was a metaphorical way of referring to the personal return of Jesus Christ, who would cleanse the world (or perhaps just the church) of its evil and then establish His kingdom in place of the kingdoms of this world.

Miller’s chronology caught on like wildfire. By 1843, nearly 100,000 people were following his lead, and the sense of expectancy was growing by the day. Miller became an itinerant preacher, going on speaking tours to Baptist, Methodist, and Congregationalist churches, all the while using elaborate charts to illustrate his prophetic scheme. He was quite sure the second coming would occur by the spring of 1844.

In anticipation of this, he wrote a book entitled Evidences from Scripture and History of the Second Coming of Christ about the Year 1843: Exhibited in a Course of Lectures. The book gave increased impetus to the movement, and other preachers joined in on the prophetic crusade.

March 21, 1844 came and passed, and nothing happened. There was great disappointment. Miller lamented to his followers, “I confess my error, and acknowledge my disappointment; yet I still believe that the day of the Lord is near, even at the door; and I exhort you, my brethren, to be watchful, and not let that day come upon you unawares.”

Some people left the movement. Some went back to their former churches. Hope for many was renewed, however, at a meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire, when some prominent individuals in the sect stood up and claimed that the coming of the Lord, according to their calculations, was to occur on the Festival of the Atonement on October 22, 1844, and not on the Jewish New Year, as Miller had argued. The excitement was reignited. People made extensive preparations and sought to let the world know of the impending event. Some gave up their jobs to engage in evangelism.

Sadly, October 22 came and passed, and nothing happened. So devastating was the prophetic failure that it became known as “the great disappointment.” The movement was left in chaos and Miller again acknowledged the prophetic error. He refused to engage in further prophetic speculation. Some gave up on Adventism; others gave up on Christianity altogether.

Despite the prophetic failure, a solid core of believers retained Miller’s basic theology (minus the precise timetables regarding the Lord’s return). These met in April of 1845 in Albany, New York, in order to take inventory of their convictions and define their basic beliefs concerning the coming advent of Christ, the resurrection, and the coming renewal of the earth. They agreed on these points:

  • The present world will be destroyed by fire and a new earth will be created.

  • There are only two advents of Jesus Christ, and both are visible and personal.

  • The second coming of Christ is imminent.

  • The condition of participating in the millennial reign of Christ is repentance, faith, and a godly, watchful life.

  • There will be two resurrections—that of believers at the second coming of Christ, and that of unbelievers after the millennium.

  • Departed believers do not enter paradise in soul and spirit until the final blessedness of the everlasting kingdom is revealed at the second coming of Christ.

Despite these agreements, many at the meeting continued to disagree over other issues:

  • Do the wicked suffer eternally in hell, or are they annihilated?

  • Are the dead conscious or unconscious?

  • Is the Sabbath on the first day or the seventh day?

Controversies over issues such as these gave rise to a variety of Adventist denominations (some of which I summarize below).

Miller died in 1849. He was promptly succeeded by the controversial “prophetess” and “visionary” Ellen G. White. Whereas Miller had sought only to interpret the Scriptures, White went far beyond this and set forth her own new revelations. As will become clear below, some Adventist denominations accept White, but others reject her.

* * *

Advent Christian Church

Founded: 1860
Members: 26,264
Congregations: 303


The Advent Christian Church is one of the denominations that emerged when Adventists regrouped in 1845 following “the great disappointment” of 1844 (see above). William Miller, though not the founder of this denomination, nevertheless provided the doctrines that serve as the theological backbone of the group. The first Advent Christian Church General Conference was held in 1860.


Bible. The writings and prophecies of Ellen G. White are rejected. The Bible alone is inspired and is considered revelation from God. Prophecies in the Bible will be literally fulfilled.

God. God is the Creator and is eternally existent in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Son of God. In the Incarnation, He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He died for sinners, was bodily raised in resurrection, and ascended into heaven.

Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the divine Comforter whose ministries include convicting the world of sin, sanctifying believers, and sealing them unto the day of redemption.

Sin and Salvation. Though man was created to experience immortality, he forfeited this blessing through sin. Because of Adam’s sin, death spread to all humanity. Only through repentance and faith in Jesus can people be restored to God and become partakers of the divine nature, thereby enabling them to live forever with God. Believers will receive immortality when they receive their resurrection bodies at Christ’s coming.

Church. The church is an institution of divine origin and includes all true Christians, of whatever name. Local churches must be independent of outside control (not in submission to a bishop or pope). Church government is congregational. The proper day of worship and rest is Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection.

Sacraments. Baptism is for believers only and is by immersion. The Lord’s Supper constitutes a memorial celebration in recognition of the significance of Christ’s death.

End Times. When people die (whether righteous or unrighteous), they remain in an unconscious state until a future day of resurrection that will take place when Christ returns. Christ will literally, visibly, and gloriously come again. Then the righteous will receive everlasting life and dwell forever on a new, restored, sinless earth, which Christ Himself will renovate. The wicked will suffer for a time and then be punished with “everlasting destruction”—that is, they will experience a complete extinction of their being. We should not set dates, but Scripture does seem to indicate that we are living in the general time of Christ’s coming.


Styles of Church Government

National Church The state or nation rules over the church.
Episcopal A church hierarchy rules the church. Bishops play a key role.
Presbyterian The congregation vests power in a ruling board of elders.
Congregational All decisions are by congregational vote.

* * *

Seventh-day Adventist Church

Founded: 1845
Members: More than 12 million
Congregations: 51,086


This denomination (some today call it a Christian cult) emerged out of the Millerite movement. As noted previously, Miller believed the second coming of Christ would occur in 1844. Though Christ obviously did not come (“the great disappointment”), many nevertheless remained Adventists because they believed the second coming is still imminent. Unlike Miller, who interpreted Daniel 8:14 to mean that the second coming would occur in 1844, Seventh-day Adventists interpreted the verse to mean that Christ cleansed the heavenly sanctuary and began a heavenly judgment (the “investigative judgment”—see below) in 1844 that will end prior to the second coming.

This denomination began in 1845 with a small group of believers in New England led by founder Ellen G. White and some of her associates. They chose the name “Seventh-day” because they believe the Old Testament Sabbath, Saturday, is the proper day of worship and rest. They believe that observing the Sabbath is the proper way to await the soon advent of the coming Lord.


Bible. The Old and New Testaments are inspired by God and constitute the written Word of God. The Bible is an infallible expression of God’s will, an authoritative revealer of biblical doctrines, and an accurate record of God’s acts in history.

God. The one God is the Creator, Sustainer, and sovereign Governor of the universe. He exists as a unity of three coeternal persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Jesus Christ. Jesus is the eternal Son who became incarnate (fully God and fully man), lived a perfect life, suffered on the cross of human sin, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven.

Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspired Scripture, empowered Christ during His ministry, convicts the world of sin, and transforms believers into God’s image. Through the Holy Spirit, God gives spiritual gifts to believers to equip them for ministry. One of these gifts is prophecy, which was manifest in Seventh-day Adventist leader Ellen G. White, who claims to have witnessed visions and received messages from heaven. Her writings are considered by church members to be authoritative, especially concerning the workings of heaven.

Sin and Salvation. Our first parents fell into sin, and the image of God in them became marred. They then became subject to death and passed a fallen nature on to all their descendants.

Salvation is found in Jesus Christ. Christ lived a perfect life, suffered on the cross, and was resurrected from the dead. Christ thereby provided the only means of atonement for human sin. Christ’s death was substitutionary (in our place) and expiatory (satisfying God’s righteous demands).

As the Holy Spirit leads, people come to recognize their need, acknowledge their sinfulness, repent of transgressions, and place faith in Jesus as Lord and Christ. Through faith in Christ, people are justified (declared righteous in God’s sight). Through the Holy Spirit, believers are born again and are sanctified. The saved receive immortality when they are resurrected on the last day.

God’s law expresses His will and purposes regarding human conduct and relationships. His commands are binding upon people of all ages. Salvation is by grace, but obedience to the commands is the fruit of salvation.

Church. The church is the community of believers who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior. It is the family of God, the body of Christ (of which Christ is the head), and the bride of Christ.

God rested on the seventh day, following six days of creation. He thereby instituted the Sabbath for people as a memorial of creation. God’s fourth of the Ten Commandments is an unchangeable law, and so even today the seventh day (Saturday) is the proper day of worship.

Church government is presbyterial. Each local church is part of a local conference, local conferences combine to form regional conferences, and all these are subsumed under a general conference. Women are not ordained.

Sacraments. Baptism is by immersion and is contingent on personal faith in Christ. It constitutes a confession of faith and testifies to the death of sin in one’s life. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated as an expression of faith in Jesus, and Jesus Himself is present in the ceremony to strengthen His people. The ritual of foot washing takes place in preparation for the Lord’s Supper.

End Times. Christ ministers on our behalf in a sanctuary in heaven. In 1844, Christ moved from the Holy to the Most Holy Place in the heavenly sanctuary and began the work of investigative judgment. This judgment reveals who among the dead are asleep in Christ and who among the living are abiding in Christ. These belong to God’s kingdom.

Christ will soon come again literally, personally, and visibly. The righteous will be resurrected and receive immortality, but the unrighteous will be destroyed in the lake of fire rather than suffer eternally in a burning hell. Until then, all people who have died—both the righteous and unrighteous—are in an unconscious state. A new earth will one day become the eternal home of the redeemed. God will dwell there with His people.


the Sabbath Debate
Worship Should Be on the Sabbath Worship Should Be on the Lord’s Day
God made the Sabbath at creation for all people (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:11). New Testament believers are not under the Old Testament Law (Romans 6:14; Galatians 3:24-25; Colossians 2:16).
Christ observed the Sabbath (Mark 1:21) and is the Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:28). Jesus was resurrected and appeared to some of His followers on a Sunday (Matthew 28:1).
The apostle Paul preached on the Sabbath (Acts 17:2). Jesus made continuing resurrection appearances on succeeding Sundays (John 20:26). John had his apocalyptic vision on a Sunday (Revelation 1:10).
Gentiles worshipped on the Sabbath (Acts 13:42-44). The descent of the Holy Spirit took place on a Sunday (Acts 2:1).
Matthew, Mark, and Luke, writing after the resurrection, spoke of the Sabbath as an existing institution (Matthew 24:20; Mark 16:1; Luke 23:56). The early church was given the pattern of Sunday worship, and this they continued to do regularly (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2).

* * *

Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement

Founded: 1925
Members: More than 24,000
Congregations: Unknown


This denomination emerged as a result of a conflict that developed with the leadership of Seventh-day Adventism regarding whether members should participate in war. Seventh-day Adventists have traditionally taught that in view of the sixth of the Ten Commandments (which prohibits the taking of life), members should never participate in war or bloodshed. However, during World War I (1914–1918), church leadership changed its position, and 98 percent of church members followed their lead and supported military service. The 2 percent who remained faithful to the original church position were disfellowshipped. After the war, these few members made an attempt at reconciliation with the larger body but without positive results. They had no choice but to separate from the main body of Seventh-day Adventists and form the Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement in 1925.


Bible. The Bible is inspired by God and is an all-sufficient revelation from God. It is the only unerring rule of faith and practice.

God. The eternal Godhead is comprised of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is the Creator and is infinite in perfections.

Jesus Christ. The Son, Jesus, is eternal deity and is one in nature with the Father. He took on a human nature in the Incarnation, died for human sin at the cross, rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven.

Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is Christ’s representative on earth and is the Regenerator in the work of redemption.

Sin and Salvation. Because of the sin of our first parents, human beings became separated from the source of life (God) and are therefore mortal by nature. At death, human beings—both the righteous and the unrighteous—enter into “sleep,” remaining unconscious until the future day of resurrection. To be saved, humans must experience the new birth. This occurs when one repents of sin, yields to the work of the Holy Spirit, trusts in Christ, and experiences a desire to live in obedience to God’s will.

The Ten Commandments are an expression of God’s will and describe humankind’s duty to God and fellow human beings. This law is binding upon humans of all ages. Obedience to the law does not save, but through Christ’s strength Christians are enabled to render obedience.

Church. The church is a visible and organized body of believers led by and edified by elected officers. People become members of the church by a profession of faith and baptism. The offices of elder and bishop are for men only.

The fourth of the Ten Commandments requires worship on the seventh day (Saturday). It is both a day of rest and a memorial of God’s work of creation.

Sacraments. Those who experience the new birth are to be baptized by immersion. This represents the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, as well as the death of the “old man” and resurrection of the “new man” in the life of a Christian. The Lord’s Supper commemorates Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. It is only for members in good standing. It is preceded by the ceremony of foot washing, an ordinance of humility.

End Times. In 1844, Jesus began the investigative judgment, an examination of the lives of professed children of God through the ages. Those found to be true and worthy become participants in God’s kingdom. All others will experience eternal death.

Christ will one day come again visibly, physically, and gloriously, at which time the saints of all ages will be resurrected and taken to heaven. Christ will establish His glorious kingdom. Following a 1000-year period during which the unrighteous remain in the dust of the desolated earth, they will be resurrected, only to be exterminated by fire. God will then restore the earth to its Edenic beauty, and it will become the eternal home of the redeemed.

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations by Ron Rhodes. Copyright © 2005 by Harvest House Publishers. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.