Churches and denominations

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Overview of Christian churches and denominations

People adhering to the Christian faith are organized into various churches and denominations, most of which pay at least nominal allegiance to the ideal of the unity of the body of Christ. Some claim to be the true or authentic version of the faith from which others have deviated to a greater or lesser degree. There is no objective empirical test to determine which is true or authentic.

(NB: the Catholic term "sects" is technically accurate, since from the Catholic perspective most other groups split away from the Mother Church. However, the term also seems somewhat pejorative to Protestant ears, who are used to thinking of "sects" in terms of cults. Many Protestant organizations also claim to be restorations of the original church, not deviations from it.)

The number and subdivisions of the faith can quickly become confusing, but generally speaking, there are four broad streams in Christianity:

  • Orthodox (Eastern European, Western Asia and North Africa - Orthodox Christians in North Africa are sometimes called "Coptic Christians")
  • Catholic/Roman Catholic (Western European, Latin American, Philippines), Uniate
  • Protestant (Northern Europe, North America), Unitarians
  • Others: Christian Scientists, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Unification Church

This last broad stream is a stream only by defintion because its various elements are unrelated. Their grouping is the error term in the equation.

Organization of Denominations

Cutting across these streams are two sets of common characteristics: ecclesial and political.

Ecclesial characteristics have to do with how the form and nature of the church is understood. Denominations tend fall into one of two ways of organizing themselves, or some variation thereof: episcopal and congregational.

  • Churches with an episcopal polity are governed by bishops in a more-or-less hierarchical structure. These denominations include the Orthodox communions, the Roman Catholic church, the Anglican communion, most forms of Methodism, and most forms of Lutheranism. Such churches often demonstrate a generally greater respect for authority, particularly as it is embodied in the clergy, a concern for sacramental or liturgical worship, and a desire to maintain the connection of the body of Christ across time and other boundaries.

Because of this desire for unity, episcopal churches are often the most "standardized" of denominations, with church rules applied across jurisdictions, and a familiar pattern of liturgy found in nearly all congregations. However, the diversity of worship and practice to be found in episcopal churches should not be underestimated. Perhaps the most hierarchical of these denominations is the Roman Catholic church, with many decisions being made in a "top-down" fashion. Lutheran and Methodist churches often maintain a strong executive role for the bishops, particularly in selection and credentialing of clergy, but balance this congregational autonomy on a number of issues.

  • Churches with a congregational polity view the church as being best represented on a local level. While not denying the importance of Christian unity, congregational denominations are often content to allow individual churches to seek their own paths. This has led to great diversity among these churches, which by turns the occasional of much joy, consternation, and confusion. A United Church of Christ congregation in California may be very different from one in Pennsylvania, and a Baptist church in Georgia may look almost nothing like one in Illinois. Often, this lack of hierarchical control means that congregations feel more freedom to participate in social activism, whether on the left or the right. Again, there is a range of practice within the congregational spectrum: the UCC or Presbyterian denominations, for example, maintain a nominal hierarchy that often has more influence than real power, while Baptist or non-denominational churches may have little or no connection with a greater church. So-called "megachurches" are often good examples of this tendency.

Evangelical and fundamentalist characteristics are not organizational principles, but have to do with the theological positions of the churches in question.

Politics of Denominations

Political affiliations run across the "streams" of Christianity and organizational principles. Indeed, since the 1980's, political groupings have begun to bring together churches and even Jewish groups that previously would not have much in common. (For example, conservative evangelicals, orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics have formed coalitions in opposition to abortion.)

Use caution when assessing the politics of a denomination: while the Roman Catholic church is politically conservative on reproductive rights and matters of sexuality, for example, it has also traditionally been an advocate for the poor and working class, and opposes the dealth penalty. It is also true that the former "mainline" denominations (Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, sometimes the Unitarian Universalist Association), as well as the Roman Catholic church, often have conservative and liberal wings.

That being said, the most reliably conservative churches are non-denominational evangelical and fundamentalist groups, Pentecostals and Charismatics, the Southern Baptists, the Salvation Army and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly called the Mormons. Other groups might be called "traditionalist": the Orthodox communions, the Roman Catholic church, some elements of Methodism, Lutheranism and Presbyterianism. These last three groups also occupy a "broad middle" with the other former mainline denominations, with Episcopalians, Quakers, the United Church of Christ, and the Unitarian Universalist Association being the most reliably liberal denominations.

Standing outside of this spectrum to some extent are a number of denominations which are quite liberal on one or two issues, but otherwise have a conservative profile or none at all. For example, the Association of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC) is a very gay-friendly denomination, but little is heard about its other political views. Anabaptist groups such as the Amish, Mennonites and Brethren are steadfast pacifists, but are generally otherwise conservatives denominations.

For more information, see Conservative Christianity and Liberal Christianity.

Taxonomy of Denominations

Here's where it gets complicated.

The Catholic/Orthodox Split

In the beginning was the "New Testament Church," which was composed of individual congregations, one to a city or town, spread across the Mediterranean basin. Between about 100 AD and 325 AD, a pattern emerged: in the western Roman empire, the churches emphasized their unity, and generally looked to the church in Rome for leadership. In the East, partly because no one central power emerged, the churches formed several regional coalitions.

In this timeframe, and up to about 550 AD, the church struggled for self-definition. This struggle particularly centered on the nature of Jesus Christ. Successively, the losers in this inter-family battle dropped away from mainstream Christianity. Some of these groups survive today: Nestorians, Copts, Armenian and Ethiopian Christians.

The unity of the Eastern and Western church survived the fall of the Roman Empire, but eventually the two sides split in 1054 AD. The Eastern churches, commonly referred to as the "Orthodox" communion, maintained their regional pattern, granting functional independence or autocephaly to regions as their countries matured and the numbers of believers seemed to warrant. Today, generally speaking, the Orthodox church is divided up along national lines: the Russian church, the Bulgarian church, etc. There are as always exceptions to this rule, however.

Most modern Orthodox denominations in the U.S. are immigrant churches that trace their roots to their founder's homelands. About 80% of Orthodox Christians in the U.S. are Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox or Syrian Orthodox, although the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (which branched away from the rest of the Orthodox Church family early on) is growing. The exception is the Orthodox Church in America, which like its Lutheran and Reformed cousins, represent an attempt to form a multi-ethnic American church in the Orthodox tradition.

The Roman church provided the nursery for most of the denominations we know today in successive waves of reformation. Hopefully, the list below will make the history easier to follow. Note that this is a simplified list; a full accounting might run well over 2,000 entries!



In 1517, the Lutheran churches of Germany and Scandinavia split from the Catholic church.

  • In 1818, the first Lutheran Synod in the United States separate from European control was formed.
  • In 1847, the Missouri Synod was formed, and continues today as a separate denomination.
  • In 1918, the Wisconsin Synod was formed, and continues today as a separate denomination.
  • In 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was formed. This is the largest Lutheran denomination in the US. This denomination represents several successive waves of consolidation of what had previously been Lutheran denominations divided primarily along ethnic lines (e.g. German Lutherans, Swedish Lutherans, etc.).

Reformed Churches

In 1520, the Reformed churches of Germany, Switzerland, France, Holland and the United Kingdom began to separate from the Catholic church. Each of these branches took on its own characteristics.

  • The Dutch Reformed movement nurtured the Pilgrim (Congregationalist) community early in its life.
    • In 1628, the American branch of Dutch Reformed Church was formed.
    • In 1867, the Reformed Church in America was formed. Both branches continue today, with particular strength in upstate New York and Michigan.
  • The French church survives, albeit in very small numbers. They are referred to as Hugenots.
  • The German Reformed church was never quite as strong as the other branches.
    • In 1826, the Church of God was founded as part of the Second Great Awakening in the United States.
    • In 1869, the Reformed Church in the United States (not to be confused with the Reformed Church in America, above) was formed. In 1934, it merged with the German Evangelical church, and eventually became part of the foundation of the United Church of Christ.
  • The Swiss Reformation took two forms: Calvinist and Zwinglian. While John Calvin had a profound impact on his adopted hometown of Geneva, by and large his lasting influence was in the United Kingdom (see below). Zwingli, on the other hand, was deeply influential in the Baptist tradition. To this day, some Baptist and Church of Christ organizations allow no instrumental music in their worship services, following Zwingli's reading of the Bible.
    • In 1849, the Evangelical Synod in America was formed, partly from Swiss Zwinglians, but also incorporating American descendants of the established Prussian church. The Evangelical Synod merged with the Reformed Church in the United States (see above) and eventually became part of the UCC.
  • The Calvinist Reformation in the United Kingdom also took two forms: Scottish Presbyterianism and English Congregationalism. In Scotland, the Presbyterian church became (and remains) the established church, while the "Puritans" ruled England only during Cromwell's interregnum. An interesting historical note is that the spilt was caused in the short-term by Henry VII being denied a divorce by the Pope.
    • In 1628, the American branch of the Congregationalist church was founded. In 1931, it merged with the Christian Church, and in 1958, became part of the United Church of Christ.
      • In 1790, several Congregationalist churches splite to form the Unitarian church. In 1840(?), Ralph Waldo Emerson left the Congregational church, in which he was an ordained minister, for the Unitarians. In 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association (its members avoid the term church) was formed.
    • In 1706, the American Presbyterian church was formed. After many divisions, subdivisions, and reconciliations, two main branches of Presbyterianism emerged:
    • Other interesting facts: Presbyterianism, along with Methodism, is one of the dominant Protestant denominations in Korea. Robert Schuller was originally ordained in a Presbyterian denomination.

In addition to these European streams, the Reformation has spawned some distinctly American churches. The most notable of these is the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, with roots in Kentucky and Ohio in the early 1800's.

Canada and Australia both had histories of Reformed (and Methodist) consolidation similar to the mergers that formed the United Church of Christ in the United States, but in those nations the merger went one step further including the local equivalent of the United Methodist Church with the local equivalent of the United Church of Christ to produce in the case of Canada, "the United Church of Canada" and in the case of Australia, "the Uniting Church".

Anglicans and their descendant denominations

In 1533, Henry VIII famously seized control of the Church of England after being denied a divorce by the Catholic leadership in Rome. Due to its unique history, the Anglican church differs in many respects from the Reformation denominations, and unlike many of the churches it has spawned it is not always considered Protestant. It has retained many traditionally Catholic worship elements (incense, Bishops in Apostolic succession, genuflection, an elaborate liturgy, infant baptism, the use of the term "priest" to describe parish level ministers, etc.) and has attempted to establish a studied ambiguity in regards to its relationship to Catholicism. Indeed the Puritians derive their name from their attempt to remove Catholic trappings from the Anglican church. Along with the Presbyterian and Congregational churches, the Anglican denomination was an established church in the American colonies.

  • In 1787, the precursor of what is now known as the Episcopal Church in the USA (ECUSA) was established as a separate entity in America.
    • In 1739, John Wesley established the first Methodist chapel in Bristol, England. Though Wesley never formally broke with the Anglican church, in 1784, the Methodist Episcopal Church was established in the US. The Methodist church in turn gave rise to several black denominations and holiness churches. In 1844, the Methodist church split into northern and southern branches over the question of slavery. In 1939, the two branches reunited with the Methodist Protestant Church, and in 1968, merged with the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.
      • In 1816, the African Methodist Episcopal church split from the larger white denomination.
        • In 1821, the AME Zion church formed.
      • In 1865, a Methodist minister named William Booth founds the Salvation Army, which arrived in the US in 1880.
      • In 1886, the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) split.
      • Also in 1886, the United Holy Church of America split, leading eventually to the foundation of the Pentecostal Holiness church. This was the first in a series of Pentecostal groups to emerge from the Methodist church, many arising from tent revivals and camp meetings:
        • 1901-Pentecostal Union
        • 1913-Pentecostal Assemblies of the World (Norman L. Wagner, Arthur M. Brazier, Dr. Horace Smith)
        • 1914-Assemblies of God (Jimmy Swaggert, James and Tammy Fae Baker, Oral Roberts), Pentecostal Assemblies of Jesus Christ
        • 1917-Pentecostal Church of Christ
        • 1918-International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
        • 1919-International Church of God of America, International Pentecostal Assemblies, Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Bible Standard

Footnote: The wedding ceremony you so often see on television has its roots in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, although more Americans have received this tradition through the Methodist family of churches than directly from the Episcopal Church.

Baptists and Anabaptists

The last group of denominations to emerge more or less directly from the Roman Catholic church are the Baptists and Anabaptists. Their roots and relationship to one another are difficult to trace. An oversimplified version is to say that Baptists and Anabaptists share a belief in adult, or "believer's" baptism, and both came from multiple sources in the reformation movements of the 1500 and 1600's.

Anabaptists and Quakers

The largest of these groups in Europe were the Mennonites, followers of Menno Simons, a Roman Catholic priest who left the church in 1536.

  • In 1693, the Mennonite church split into what are now known as Mennonites and Amish. Until approximately 1850, these groups formed individual congregations in the United States, based around immigrant groups settling in a particular area. While the Amish are not bound to a particular code of rejecting modern life, they are generally more suspicious of technology as disruptive of family and community life than their Mennonite cousins.
  • The Mennonite church was up until recent years divided into the General Conference and the Mennonite Conference, two separate denominations. In 2002(?), the two churches merged into one denomination: the Mennonite Church USA. Because of their attachment to congregationalism, there are a dizzying array of smaller Mennonite, Brethren, and Amish churches.

The Amish, Mennonite and Brethren (also known as German Baptist) churches share a commitment to pacifism, and more traditional believers do not participate in government. They do pay taxes, however, and most are allowed to vote. Most Mennonite and Brethren children attend public schools while Amish children, as a rule, attend private schools up until the eighth grade.

The Quakers (i.e. Society of Friends) who have been politically important in United States history as abolitionists, prison reform activists, peace activists and proponents of separation of church and state, are closely related in belief to the Anabaptists. The British-based pietest George Fox founded the Quaker church (or Society of Friends) in 1652. The exact source of the similarity in doctrines between the groups is obscure and may date to exposure of Quaker founder George Fox in the 1600s to the Anabaptist ideas of his uncle, although there has since been "cross-pollination" between the groups in the United States.


The Baptists grew out of separatist movements in the Church of England in the early 1600's. Although Roger Williams established a forerunner of the modern Baptist church in Rhode Island as early as 1619(?), the first formal Baptist denomination in American was founded in 1672. They've been dividing ever since. Their numbers were fairly small, however, until the early 1800s in a period called the Second Great Awakening when the Southeastern United States went from being the least religious part of the United States, to the most religious part of the United States, a revolutionary change that has endured to the present.

Baptists were considered Separatists from the Church of England. The founders of Plymouth, who later became known as the Pilgrims, started as groups of Separatists who contracted with merchants who enlisted other colonists. The Plymouth colony was considered to be predominantly Separatist, while the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded primarily by Puritans. Separatists had completely separated with the Church of England, while the Puritans sought to reform it. The Baptists were persecuted in Massachusetts by the Puritans and in Virginia by the Church of England.

After the First Great Awakening, the spread of Separatist groups and population growth in the colonies led to greater religious tolerance socially, but the rights of minority groups were still not protected. The Baptists were particularly persecuted for offences including refusing to pay taxes that supported establishment religions.

Isaac Backus and Amos Adams were two Baptists who influenced the Founding Fathers’ debate on the Separation of Church and State. The Baptists were prodigious pamphleteers, who railed against the injustices in both society and government caused by their minority views. Isaac Backus and the Quakers “ambushed” John Adams and the Massachusetts delegation to the First Continental Congress by inviting them to a “business meeting” and then attacking the hypocrisy of Massachusetts to talk about freedom while they persecuted religious minorities.

The account of this meeting was recorded in John Adams’ “Diary and Autobiography” and in Alvah Hovey’s “A Memoir of the Life and Times of the Rev. Isaac Backus”. These sources were used for Bernard Bailyn’s analysis in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution.

Baptists in the US are strongly associated with evangelical Christianity of the kind that characterizes "the religious right" and defines the American South. While having some roots abroad, this evangelicalism is a uniquely American phenomena that exists outside the United States almost exclusively by virtue of American missionary efforts. It has been virtually absent from Europe and Canada until quite recently (the past few decades). This form of Christianity, if not born then, certainly came into its prime in the early 1800s in the Southern United States.

Unlike the tremendous spread of Methodist preaching which came before it, as Methodist ministers brought the church to the American frontier, culminating in a very large but moderate, mainline United Methodist Church, the explosive transformation of the Baptist approach to Christianity into the predominant religious faith of the American South has not consolidated or lost evangelical fervor. Baptists in the United States remain as strongly evangelical, for the most part, as there were in the 1800s.

Today, there are four major predominantly white branches of Baptists in the US:

  • The Southern Baptist Convention, founded in 1845 over the issue of slavery, it is the largest evangelical denomination in the United States,
  • The American Baptist Convention, formed in 1895 out of the remains of the Baptist Missionary Convention, and formerly known as the Northern Baptists, tends to be a less conservative denomination than the Southern Baptist Convention,
  • the Baptist Bible Fellowship International, which was formed in 1950 from predecessor churches formed in the 1920s and 1930s because both the Southern Baptist Convention and the predecessor to the American Baptist Convention were viewed by its founders as too liberal and modernist in their leanings, and
  • the Baptist Alliance, which traces its origins to organization among Southern Baptists in June of 2000, in response to the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by extreme right-wing elements.

There are three large, predominantly black Baptist denominations, most of which share a common history and are divided over issues more administrative than ideological:

Other facts: like the Mennonites, the Baptists have a congregational polity, which means that the local church conducts its own affairs. Jimmy Carter is famously a Baptist, though he has renounced his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, as are Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham.

American Originals

Many of the remaining denominations in the United States were formed in the 1800 and 1900's not out of church splits, but through the vision of their founders.

  • In 1844, William Miller's followers suffered "The Great Disappointment" when the world did not end on October 22 as believed. Out of this grew the Seventh-Day Adventist church.
  • In the 1830's, Joseph Smith gathered around him a band of believers. After Smith's murder in 1844 in Nauvoo, Illinois, the believers moved to Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young and formed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly referred to as "Mormons." A smaller branch that disagreed with Young's leadership remained in Independence Missouri and formed the Reformed Church of Latter-Day Saints. Though Mormons are not easily accepted by the wider Christian community, they do identify themselves as Christians.
  • In 1870, Charles Taze Russell began a bible study with a group of friends, and over the course of the next decade, drew a following devoted to his writings on the subject, including the magazine now called The Watchtower. This group eventually formed the Jehovah's Witnesses.
  • In 1879, Mary Baker Eddy founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, based on a mix of traditional Christian teaching and her own thinking on the nature of health. Christian Scientists should not be confused with Scientologists, who belong to a movement founded by L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950's.


  • The Rastafarians, principally in Jamaica, are a branch of Christianity, not closely associated with other denominations. Indeed they are especially hostile to the Roman Catholic Church. They are associated in popular consciousness with the consumption of marijuana as a sacrament and social justice activism.

Why Do Denominations Matter?

Principally for two reasons: one, denominations have a long tradition of shaping public discourse in the United States. Directly through the advocacy of their leaders and laymembers; indirectly through their teachings, and the effect of those teachings on their members. Second, because up until very recently, and to some extent still today, denominations, along with a host of other civic organizations, laid the groundwork for nearly all political activity in America. Without denominations, there would have been no abolitionist or prohibition movements, no Civil Rights movement, no anti-abortion movement.

Do Denominations Still Matter?

The short answer is yes, but not as much as they used to. Like nearly all voluntary/associative organizations, American denominations have been weakened since the 1960s.

The reasons for this decline are complex, but one thesis should definitely be ruled out: the former mainline denominations are not declining because of their liberal politics. It is true that much like American politics, which cycle between liberal and conservative phases, American religion has a pendulum that swings between evangelical and rationalist. The connections between the political and religious has never been explored in detail, however, and at this point, are speculative at best.

However, if Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis are correct in arguing that an "Emerging Democratic Majority" is building in American politics, it should be interesting to see if there is a corresponding shift in religious affiliation.

A number of changes over the past thirty to forty years have conspired to sap the mainline denominations of their strength. These include:

  • an erosion of confidence in authority or "the establishment," similar to that experienced by the government in the same timeframe;
  • increased individualism or voluntarism, which has left many loosely affiliated Christians feeling that church is only one option among many;
  • a host of social changes:
    • changes in social class, so that previously "lower-class" churches are moving into the middle class and mainstream of American society;
    • racial and ethnic shifts that favor minority groups over White Anglo-Saxons, while weakening the links between white ethnics and their traditional churches;
    • and growth in the South and West of the United States, and declines in the North and East (the traditional strongholds of mainline denominations).

The result of these shifts has been an aging population in the mainline denominations, with fewer children and fewer converts entering the church. These changes have also led to considerable polarization along political and moral lines (most notably on social issues such as abortion and gay rights). Liberal churches have been hit the hardest since the 1960s, but "moderate" churches such as Catholics or Methodists continue to be pulled in separate directions by liberal and conservative constituencies.

Recently, there has been talk of schism within the Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, led by conservatives who no longer feel that they can remain in communion with their liberal counterparts.

While conservative denominations and independent, evangelical "megachurches" have been ascendant since the 1970s, there is anecdotal evidence that their rise may have peaked. The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, reports that it is losing members, and has seen a sharp decline in baptisms. Moody magazine, an evangelical magazine, has had to cease publication due to a faltering readership.

The overall picture seems to be this: conservative denominations will remain stronger than liberal ones, because they are better at erecting "high walls" that ensure commitment to the church. Liberal denominations, by contrast, lose members to involvement in the wider world. However, it is often noted that "no affiliation" is the fastest growing segment of Christianity. More and more, Christians are drifting away from the pews and into more-or-less secular lifestyles. Whether or not this will change in the coming decades is currently a matter of hot debate within the Christian community.

Sociological Uses For Denominational Identity

Sociologists trying to look at the demographic makeup of American society often face a problem that can seriously obscure meaningful analysis: One of the categories is just too big. In the United States, a vary large proportion of the population is classified by the census bureau and a host of other data sets as "non-Hispanic white". Census respondents are also asked to identify their national origins, but because that data allows multiple responses, because it is based solely upon self-identification and because many people simply respond "American", it is difficult to make meaningful use of this data to sort the "non-Hispanic white" population into subgroups, so it is hard to identify anything but the overall homogenized averages for the entire demographic.

But, the "non-Hispanic white" population of the United States is not as monolithic as it would appear. Religious denomination is often a good proxy for ethnic identity within this large homogeneous mass. Most people, most of the time attend the churches that their ancestors attended or the modern equivalent. Membership in a church is a relatively well defined objective fact that sociologists can determine. Churches survey themselves from time to time and can be persuaded to do so by researchers, which provides an institutional way to contact and/or sample members of the subgroups relatively efficiently. Denominations tend to be culturally and ethnically homogeneous, and even when they are not, this fact in and of itself makes interesting statements about the denominations that are more or less homogeneous.

As the United States becomes increasingly politically polarized, it is useful to know how much of the polarization goes beyond politics and represents better defined ethnic divisions in American culture (sometimes known as the Red Blue Divide), and how much of it is intraethnic conflict within non-Hispanic white subgroups. (Census data is only of limited usefulness in this regard because due to church-state seperation issues, the United States Census Bureau which is the most important collector of demographic statistics in the United States does not collect religion information in the way that census bureaus in many countries do).

Of course, religious denomination as a marker is not limited to non-Hispanic whites. For example, sociological studies have shown significant differences in political inclinations and demographic characteristics between Catholic and Non-Catholic Hispanics in the United States. And, the observation that immigrant communities from places like China, South Korea, and and Arab world have much high percentages of Christians than random chance in those parts of the world would indicate can illustrate the patterns of immigration that are shaping the American melting pot.

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