protestantism 4097


April 29, 2021

Protestantism, one of the three major divisions of Christianity, the others being Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Protestantism began as a movement to reform the Western Christian church in the 16th century, resulting in the Protestant Reformation, which severed the reformed churches from the Roman Catholic Church. The declared aim of the original reformers was to restore the Christian faith as it had been at its beginning, while keeping what they thought valuable from the Roman Catholic tradition that had developed during the intervening centuries.

The four main Protestant traditions that emerged from the Reformation were the Lutheran (known in continental Europe as Evangelical), the Calvinist (Reformed), the Anabaptist, and the Anglican. Despite the considerable differences among them in doctrine and practice, they agreed in rejecting the authority of the pope and in emphasizing instead the authority of the Bible and the importance of individual faith.

The term Protestantism was given to the movement after the second Diet of Speyer (1529), an imperial assembly at which the Roman Catholic majority withdrew the tolerance granted to Lutherans at the first diet three years earlier. A protest was signed by six Lutheran princes and the leaders of 14 free cities of Germany, and Lutherans in general became known as Protestants. The term Protestant has gradually been attached to all Christian churches that are not Roman Catholic or part of the Orthodox or other Eastern Christian traditions. In the late 1990s the world had about 400 million Protestants (including some 64 million Anglicans), constituting about one-fifth of all affiliated Christians.


The Protestant movement actually preceded the 16th-century Reformation. Several dissident movements in the late medieval church anticipated the Reformation by protesting the pervasive corruption in the church and by criticizing fundamental Catholic teachings.

A Precursors

Beginning in the 12th century, the Waldensians (see Waldenses), followers of the merchant Peter Waldo of Lyons, France, practiced what they believed to be the simple, uncorrupted Christianity of the primitive church. The movement, concentrated in France and Italy, survived violent official persecution, and during the Reformation many Waldensians adopted Calvinism.

In the 1380s the Lollards arose in England, inspired by the teachings of the theologian John Wycliffe. Wycliffe denied the authority of morally corrupted church prelates, rejected transubstantiation and other traditional teachings, and advocated biblical faith. The Lollards suffered persecution but survived to play a role in the English Reformation.

Wycliffe’s teachings strongly influenced the Bohemian reformer Jan Hus (John Huss), whose followers, called Hussites, reformed the Bohemian church and achieved virtual independence after Hus’s martyrdom in 1415. Many converted to Lutheranism in the 16th century.

B The Reformation

A number of conditions in 16th-century Europe account for the success of Martin Luther and the other reformers as compared to their predecessors. Both the Holy Roman emperor (see Holy Roman Empire) and the pope were declining in power and were preoccupied with the threat posed by the Ottoman Empire. The invention of printing in the 15th century made possible the rapid dissemination of the reformers’ ideas. Finally, the growth of secular learning, the rise of nationalism, and the increasing resentment of the pope’s authority among both rulers and ordinary citizens made people, especially in northern Europe, more receptive to Protestant teachings.

C Luther

The event usually considered the beginning of the Reformation is Martin Luther’s publication, in 1517, of his Ninety-five Theses attacking the indiscriminate sale of indulgences to finance the construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg, had been unable to find assurance of salvation in traditional Catholic teachings. He came to believe that such assurance was to be found in the doctrine of justification by divine grace through faith (see Beliefs and Practices below), which he thought Catholic theology had obscured by giving equal weight to the efficacy of good works. The sale of indulgences, he believed, was an abuse that originated in the mistaken emphasis on works.

Luther at first intended only to bring about reform within the church, but he was met with firm opposition. In refusing to recant his views and demanding to be proven wrong by Scripture, he denied the authority of the church, and he was excommunicated. Protected by Frederick the Wise of Saxony, he wrote a series of books and pamphlets, and his ideas spread rapidly throughout the states of Germany and elsewhere in Europe. In Scandinavia, national Lutheran churches were quickly established.

D Zwingli

Within a few years of Luther’s rebellion an independent and more radical reform movement emerged in Zürich, Switzerland, under the leadership of the Swiss pastor Huldreich Zwingli. Zwingli’s biblical studies led him to the conclusion that only what was specifically authorized by the Scriptures should be retained in church practice and doctrine. Lutheranism had kept many elements of the medieval liturgy, but Zwingli devised a very simple service, and, in opposition to both Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism, he interpreted the Eucharist as a purely symbolic ceremony. Zwingli’s reforms, adopted peacefully through votes of the Zürich town council, soon spread to other Swiss cities.

E Calvin

The dominant reformer in the generation after Luther and Zwingli was John Calvin, a French theologian who settled in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1536. Calvin’s reforms were not as radical as those of Zwingli, but they were accompanied by a severe regime that in effect combined church and state in order to enforce moral and doctrinal conformity. Calvin wrote the first systematic exposition of Protestant theology, set up a democratic presbyterian church government, and founded influential educational institutions that trained men such as John Knox, who introduced Calvinism into Scotland, where it became the established Presbyterian Church (see Presbyterianism). Calvinism also spread to France, where its adherents were known as Huguenots, and to Holland, where it reinforced the Dutch determination to achieve independence from Catholic Spain.

F England

The Anglican Church became the established church in England when Henry VIII assumed (1534) the ecclesiastical authority over the English church that had previously been exercised by the pope. Henry’s motive was to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragón rather than to reform church doctrine, and he imposed severe laws upholding the major tenets of medieval Catholicism. Under King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth, however, the Anglican Church developed a distinctly Protestant creed that was set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles. Anglican ritual and church organization nevertheless retained many of the forms of Roman Catholicism, which were protested by Calvinist-influenced dissenters known as Puritans (see Puritanism). See also Church of England.

G Radical Sects

As the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anglicans formed established churches, a number of more radical Protestant groups emerged. All of them maintained that the established Protestants had not gone far enough in the direction of a simplified, biblical Christianity. They therefore attacked the established Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church with equal vehemence and in turn were violently persecuted by both. Some of these groups led political rebellions or invaded churches, destroying stained-glass windows, statues, and organs. Others renounced all use of force. Most of them rejected ties between church and state. The most prominent of these sects were the Anabaptists, who were concentrated in Germany and Netherlands and who played a major role in the Peasants’ War. They rejected infant baptism, advocating baptism only of adult believers. The Mennonites, an Anabaptist sect that originated in Holland and Switzerland, were pacifists who tried to form separate cooperative communities based on the principles of the New Testament. In England, a movement led by Robert Browne rejected church government by either presbyters or bishops and developed into the Separatists, or Independents. These earlier groups greatly influenced the Quakers, who began in the 1640s as followers of George Fox and who professed pacifism and the “inner light” (see Friends, Society of).

H The American Colonies

Many of these smaller, more radical sects fled persecution by immigrating to America, beginning with the Puritans. They were followed to New England by Congregationalists and Baptists. The middle colonies were settled by a diversity of sects, particularly Lutherans, Mennonites, and Anabaptists. In the southern colonies the Church of England was made the established church.

I Wars and Orthodoxy

The early history of Protestantism was marked by warfare in which political motives were entwined with religious ones. In Germany, the religious wars of the 16th century and the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century were bitter and devastating. In France, the Calvinist Huguenots fought a bloody civil war with the Roman Catholics, culminating in the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, in which many Huguenot leaders were killed. The Huguenots were granted toleration by the Edict of Nantes (1598), but most of them were forced to emigrate when it was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685. In England, the civil war between Parliament and monarchy largely corresponded to the division between the Puritans and the Anglicans. After the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years’ War, Protestantism entered into a period of consolidation. On the European continent the 17th century was a period in which Protestant orthodoxy was carefully defined and systematically expounded. This tendency has subsequently been called Protestant Scholasticism, by analogy with the systematic Catholic theology of the Middle Ages. Its emphasis was on the authority of the Bible and on rigorous logic.

J Pietism

By the 1670s in Germany a movement called Pietism developed in reaction to the intellectualism of orthodoxy. Under the leadership of German pastor Philipp Jakob Spener, people began to meet in small groups in private homes to study the Bible and pray. Pietism stressed individual conversion and a simple, active piety rather than the acceptance of correct theological propositions. It spread throughout Germany and to Scandinavia and America.

K Rationalism

The influence of scientific thought and the Enlightenment (see Enlightenment, Age of) on Protestant theology was reflected in rationalism, a tendency that appeared in the late 17th and 18th centuries. It was anticipated by several earlier movements, including Arminianism, which denied the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional predestination, and Latitudinarianism, a tolerant, antidogmatic tendency that arose within the Church of England during the 17th century. Rationalism introduced a critical spirit into theology by insisting that traditional beliefs be examined in the light of reason and science. By stressing broad agreement on the major tenets of religion rather than the fine points of theology, it tended to undermine the rigid orthodoxies that had developed earlier in the 17th century. The purest expression of the rationalist tendency was Deism, a philosophical religion that rejected revelation, miracles, and the specific dogmatic teachings of any church.

Another form of Protestant rationalism that became influential in the 18th century was Unitarianism. It had originated in the 16th century on the Continent, where it was called Socinianism, after its founder, Italian reformer Fausto Socinus. After the Toleration Act of 1689, Unitarianism was openly professed in England, and during the 18th century it began to gain adherents in New England, as well. Unitarians denied the doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ, stressing instead his ethical teachings and example.

L Methodism and Revivalism

The reaction against intellectual and formalistic tendencies in Protestantism that had produced Pietism continued in the 18th century, with the emergence of several popular movements that made a direct appeal to emotional religious experience. In England, the reaction took the form of Methodism, founded by John Wesley and Charles Wesley, who were influenced by both Pietism and Arminianism. Stressing conversion and a concern for the poor, they preached to large outdoor meetings throughout Britain and brought about a revival of religious fervor among the British working classes, who had been alienated by the prevailing formalism and rationalism of the Church of England. Because of official disapproval, the movement eventually separated from the Anglican Church and became one of the nonconformist denominations.

In the American colonies, English evangelist George Whitefield and other itinerant ministers preached at large open-air religious revivals and inspired the first Great Awakening, a general revival of religious enthusiasm.

M The 19th Century

During the 19th century Protestantism became a worldwide movement as a result of intensive missionary activity (see Missionary Movements). It also became increasingly varied, as new sects and theological tendencies appeared. The most influential Protestant theologian of the century was the German Friedrich Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher understood religion as an intuitive feeling of dependence on the Infinite, or God, which he believed to be a universal experience of humanity. This emphasis on religious experience rather than dogma was taken up by the theological school of liberalism. Liberal theologians tried to reconcile religion with science and modern society, and they made use of the new historical and critical techniques of biblical criticism in an effort to distinguish the historical Jesus and his teachings from what they regarded as mythological and dogmatic embellishments.

M1 The Oxford Movement

Conservative trends were also present, notably the Oxford movement in the Church of England, which strongly affirmed the catholic and apostolic traditions of the church. Although some of its leaders, such as John Henry Newman, eventually entered the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglo-Catholics, as the adherents of the Oxford movement came to be called, continued to exercise an important influence in the Anglican Church, where they revived fasting and confessions and founded religious sisterhoods.

M2 Revivalism

Revivalism continued to be important throughout the Protestant world, especially in the United States, under the inspiration of such preachers as Dwight L. Moody. Many new revivalistic sects appeared, such as the Adventists and the Holiness churches.

M3 Social Concerns

Protestants played important roles in many humanitarian and reform movements during the century. In England evangelical Protestants were leaders of the agitation that led to the abolition by Parliament of slavery in British dominions. In the United States evangelical Protestants also actively campaigned against slavery (leading to schisms in some churches) and against intemperance, prostitution, and other social disorders. Responding to the problems of the Industrial Revolution, other movements, such as Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel, tried to employ Christian principles to bring about fundamental social changes.

N The 20th Century

The 20th century produced two reactions against theological liberalism. One was Fundamentalism, an American movement that was rooted in revivalism and insisted on the inerrancy of the Bible. The other was crisis theology, or neoorthodoxy, which developed in response to the suffering caused by World War I and which is particularly associated with Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Barth reaffirmed the sinfulness of humanity, the absolute transcendence of God, and the essential human dependence on God, doctrines that had been central to the Reformation. Unlike the Fundamentalists, however, Barth accepted the results of modern biblical scholarship.

After World War II, Evangelicalism, a more moderate outgrowth of Fundamentalism, became a major force in Protestantism. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism were among the fastest-growing movements in Protestantism. Among the most successful evangelicals in the United States was Billy Graham, who held rallies in packed stadiums urging people to accept Jesus and addressed his followers on radio and television. By the 1980s evangelicals and fundamentalists had become active in politics, working to shape the country’s agenda on such issues as education and abortion. Fundamentalist Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, which helped elect U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1980. Evangelist Pat Robertson formed the Christian Coalition, a grassroots network of evangelical Christians, and sought the U.S. presidential nomination in 1988. Believers in the inerrancy of the Bible sought to have schools teach alternatives to the theory of evolution. Many Protestants with a moderate or liberal stance also showed concern for social and political issues as they participated in antiwar movements and the American civil rights movement led by Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr.

Another important development was the ecumenical movement, which brought about the mergers of many Protestant denominations throughout the world and led to the formation in 1948 of the World Council of Churches. Protestants entered into dialogues with one another and with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as with non-Christian faiths. In one move toward greater unity, four Protestant denominations in the United States agreed in 1997 to recognize one another’s sacrament of communion and to exchange clergy under certain circumstances. The denominations were the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA) (see Presbyterianism), and the Reformed Church in America. Talks that began in 1969 between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church also resulted in the recognition of communion between the two denominations; the agreement took effect in 2001. In another step toward reconciliation the Lutheran World Federation (see Lutheranism) and the Roman Catholic Church healed their rift over the means to salvation in 1999. The two groups agreed that individuals could achieve salvation through God’s grace alone, although God grants them faith and the ability to do good works. (Lutherans had focused on faith, while Catholics emphasized good works.)


Most Protestant churches retained the central doctrines of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, such as the Trinity, the atonement and resurrection of Christ, the authority of the Bible, and the sacramental character of baptism and the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. Certain doctrines and practices, however, distinguish the Protestant tradition from the two older Christian traditions.

A Justification by Grace Through Faith

Luther believed that salvation depends not on human effort or merit but only on the freely given grace of God, which is accepted in faith. Good works are not disdained but are regarded as the result of God’s grace working in the life of the believer. This doctrine of justification by grace through faith became a fundamental tenet of Protestant churches. Luther and other reformers believed that Catholicism had put too much emphasis on the need for believers to gain merits, to work their way into God’s favor by performing good deeds, by fasting, by making pilgrimages, and, in the popular view of Luther’s time, by buying indulgences. To Protestants this seemed to make the redemptive sacrifice of Christ unnecessary and to leave human beings, all of whom are necessarily sinners, in doubt as to their salvation. The reformers intended to stress the mercy of God, who bestows grace on undeserving sinners through the saving activity of Jesus Christ.

B Authority of the Bible

Protestants affirm the authority of the Bible, which is considered the sole source and standard for their teachings; they reject the Roman Catholic position giving ultimate authority to the pope in matters of faith and morals. Luther and other reformers therefore made translations of the Bible to enable the laity to study it and use their own judgment in matters of doctrine. Despite this general agreement on the primacy of the Bible, however, Protestants disagree on questions of biblical interpretation and scholarship. Those who accept the results of the “higher criticism,” the historical and critical study of the Bible that was developed during the 19th and 20th centuries, are willing to consider some biblical passages inauthentic and to interpret certain other passages in a symbolic or allegorical sense. Conservative Protestants, such as Fundamentalists and most Evangelicals, insist on the absolute inerrancy of the Bible, not only in questions of faith but also in relevant areas of history, geography, and science. Furthermore, some Protestants believe that individual judgment should decide all questions of biblical interpretation, while others defer to the confessions formulated by some churches to guide members in their faith.

C Priesthood of All Believers

The leaders of the Reformation reacted against the Catholic institution of the priesthood by affirming the “priesthood of all believers.” Furthermore, as Luther argued, the vocation of any Christian, by contributing to society and thus serving one’s neighbor, is as fulfilling before God as any specifically religious vocation. Nevertheless, most Protestant denominations have an ordained ministry. Whereas the Roman Catholic priest is seen as a mediator of God’s grace through his administration of the sacraments, the Protestant minister is regarded as one of the laity who has been trained to perform certain church functions (such as preaching and administering the sacraments). As a result of this belief in the essential equality of all church members, Protestant church government has been democratic in tendency, although there are wide variations. The major forms of church government are episcopal polity (in which bishops exercise authority), which is found in the Anglican, Episcopal, and Methodist churches; presbyterianism (in which presbyters, or elders, are elected to governing bodies as representatives of congregations), found in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches; and congregationalism (in which the congregation itself is the highest authority), found in Congregational, Baptist, and many other churches.

D Worship

In comparison with the Roman Catholic mass and the Orthodox liturgy, Protestant liturgies are simpler and place greater emphasis on preaching. The reformers established services in the vernacular languages and introduced the singing of hymns by the congregation. Some Protestant services (for instance, the Pentecostal) are almost completely unstructured and spontaneous, are centered on congregational participation, and emphasize spiritual gifts, such as speaking in tongues. All the Protestant traditions reduced the number of sacraments from the seven in Roman Catholicism to two, baptism and the Eucharist (see Sacrament).

E Recent Tendencies

Protestantism has continued to be dynamic in character, and change has accelerated since the 1960s. Some denominations have adopted very informal varieties of worship services in an effort to attract young members. Some congregations and denominations have divided over questions such as the ordination of women as ministers, the modernization of liturgical language, and mergers with other churches, as well as the perennial question of biblical interpretation and its relation to scientific truth. Protestants as individuals and as churches continue to be conspicuously involved in controversial political and social issues, some on the conservative side, some on liberal or radical sides. The characteristic that distinguished the first Protestants—a willingness to question received opinions, to protest abuses, and to defy established authorities—has been retained by modern Protestantism, as it continues to exercise a profound influence on contemporary culture and society.

The move toward greater unity among Protestant denominations has continued in the 21st century, as Episcopalians and Lutherans began sharing clergy and worship services in 2001 and Methodists later voted to join with them. Within denominations, however, there is still conflict between conservatives and moderates or liberals. One particularly divisive issue is homosexuality. Denominations debate whether to ordain practicing homosexuals and whether to bar clergy from performing same-sex marriage ceremonies. Some churches condemn all homosexual activity, while others refuse to do so.

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