Jan Meisels Allen
The American Religious Ecologies (ARE) is a project of the Roy Rozenzweig Center for History and New Media located at George Mason University and supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. They are digitizing the 1926 U.S. Census of Religious Bodies which has individual schedules for approximately 232,000 congregations. The American Religious Ecologies documents and maps denominational choices and studies why certain groups thrive in particular places and how they were divided by race and social class. Did cities, towns, and rural areas feature meaningful religious pluralism and diversity, or were they dominated by some particular religious group? The American Religious Ecologies project is creating new datasets from historical sources and new ways of visualizing them so that we can better understand the history of American religion. The website can be accessed at: https://omeka.religiousecologies.org/s/census-1926/page/home
The 1926 US Census of Religious Bodies
Prior to the Congressionally-created Census Bureau in 1902, the US government collected data about houses of worship as part of its decennial population census. After the Bureau of Census became a permanent agency, it authorized to undertake a separate decennial survey of “religious bodies”. Every ten years from 1906 to 1946, the U.S. Census Bureau surveyed congregations, synagogues, and other religious groups in the United States.
While the Census Bureau published summary reports from that data, the forms (or schedules) filled out by each congregation have not been widely used. Only the schedules from the 1926 Census survive, housed in a collection at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, DC.
They contain a wealth of information about each congregation, including its membership by age and sex, its expenditures on buildings and missions, its clergy’s name and whether he or she had gone to seminary, and its denominational affiliation, which the Census Bureau cataloged into 213 different groups. The schedules also include the location of the congregations, usually by county and city or town, and in many cases the street address as well.
The Census Bureau asked for three different kinds of location information on the schedules they collected from religious bodies, and it kept track of a fourth.
The first is the state and county of each congregation, contained in schedule fields (e) and (f). As a part of cataloging of schedules, this information has been recorded in the American Religious Ecologies database, and you can use this page to find schedules from every denomination in a particular location.
The Census Bureau also kept track of the name of the “city, town, village, or township” in field (d). This information contains the name of the populated place nearest to the congregation. The Census Bureau also asked for the mailing address of the person who filled out the form in the lower right. Sometimes, but not always, this contains the street address of the congregation’s meeting place. Finally, the Census Bureau classified a congregation as urban if it was located in a place with a population of at least 2,500, and otherwise as rural.
On the URL, https://omeka.religiousecologies.org/s/census-1926/page/home, there are databases where one can find schedules by state and count, location of schedules on their map for the top 25 by denomination and top 25 by County, find schedules by state and county and more.
The Census Bureau used the terms “bodies” and “denominations” synonymously, to signify religious organizations or groupings that included more than one local religious congregation.
In so doing, the Bureau adopted a Protestant American concept of what religious groups look like. As the historian Sidney Mead explained, a denomination is “a voluntary association of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives.” In the American context, denominations sometimes competed with one another for members and influence, but groups such as the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Baptists acknowledged one another as branches of genuine Christianity. The Census Bureau then assumed that the institutional model followed by Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists was universal. Not all religious groups fit into the American model of denominationalism. While Census Bureau officials were aware of these fundamental differences in the ways that Americans understood their religious identities and affiliations, they classified everything from the “Roman Catholic Church" to the “Salvation Army” to the “Disciples of Christ” as “denominations.”
However, in order to help researchers better navigate the schedules of the census, The ARE project has adopted the “Religious Groups” or families created by the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). The ARDA’s taxonomy of religious families includes the categories “Pentecostal” and “Holiness,” leaves fewer denominations uncategorized, and arranges denominations into fewer families.
If you are seeking the schedules of a particular denomination, select its denominational family and then select the individual denomination. If you are unsure where to locate a particular denomination, consult the ARDA Religious Groups, and check for uncategorized denominations in “Other Groups.” https://www.thearda.com/denoms/families/groups.asp
For example for Judaism go to: https://www.thearda.com/denoms/families/F_106.asp and for Jewish Congregations go to: https://www.thearda.com/denoms/D_1210.asp. One can look at the information of denominational profile, trends, member profile, related surveys and more for each of the different religions.
The list of Jewish Congregations and members for 1926 can be viewed at:
Their website https://religiousecologies.org/ depicts a 1910 photograph from the Library of Congress of Congregation Sha’arai Shomayim, Mobile, Alabama.
Jan Meisels Allen
Chairperson, IAJGS Public Records Access Monitoring Committee