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Protestantism is a movement within Christianity. The term encompasses many different theological and social perspectives, churches and other religious organizations, which have arisen outside of the Roman Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation. It is commonly considered one of the three major branches of Christianity, along with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.



The term Protestant originally applied to the group of princes and imperial cities who protested the decision by the 1529 Diet of Speyer to reverse course and enforce the 1521 Edict of Worms. The 1521 edict forbade Lutheran teachings within the Holy Roman Empire. The 1526 session of the Diet had agreed to toleration of Lutheran teachings (on the basis of Cuius regio, eius religio) until a General Council could be held to settle the question, but by 1529 the Catholic forces felt they had gathered enough power to end the toleration without waiting for a Council.

In a broader sense of the word, Protestant began to be used as the collective name for a sudden movement of separation from the Roman Catholic Church, the beginning of which which is ordinarily connected with the public disputes raised by Martin Luther. Later, John Calvin, French theologian of the Swiss, Zwinglian, Reformed churches, figured prominently in a movement that embraced a wider, more international diversity of churches. A third major branch of the Reformation, which encountered conflict with the Catholics, as well as with the Lutherans and the Reformed, is sometimes called the Radical Reformation. Some Western, non-Catholic, groups are labeled as Protestant (such as Quakers, for example), even if the sect acknowledges no historical connection to Luther, Calvin or the Roman Catholic Church.

In German speaking areas, the word Protestant still refers to Lutheran churches in contrast to Reformed churches, while the common designation for all churches originating from the Reformation is Evangelical.

As an intellectual movement, Protestantism grew out of the Renaissance and universities, attracting some learned intellectuals, as well as politicians, professionals, and skilled tradesmen and artisans. The new technology of the printing press allowed Protestant ideas to spread rapidly, as well as aiding in the dissemination of translations of the Bible in native tongues. Nascent Protestant social ideals of liberty of conscience and individual freedom were formed through continuous confrontation with the authority of the Bishop of Rome, and the hierarchy of the Catholic priesthood. The Protestant movement away from the constraints of tradition, toward greater emphasis on individual conscience, anticipated later developments of democratization, and the so-called Enlightenment of later centuries.

History and origins of Protestantism

For the 14th to 16th centuries see the main article Protestant Reformation

Precursors 14th Century and 15th Century

See articles on John Wyclif, Jan Hus and the Renaissance

Unrest in the Western Church and Empire culminated in the Avignon Papacy (1308 - 1378), and the papal schism (1378-1416), excited wars between princes, uprisings among the peasants, and widespread concern over corruption in the monastic system. A new nationalism also challenged the relatively internationalist medieval world.

The humanism of the Renaissance stimulated unprecedented academic ferment, and a concern for academic freedom. Ongoing, earnest theoretical debates occurred in the universities about the nature of the church, and the source and extent of the authority of the papacy, of councils, and of princes.

One of the most disruptive and radical of the new perspectives came first from John Wyclif at Oxford University, then from Jan Hus at the University of Prague. The Roman Catholic Church officially concluded this debate at the Council of Constance (1414-1418) The conclave condemned Jan Hus who was executed (he had come under a promise of safe-conduct) and posthumously burned Wyclif as a heretic.

Constance confirmed and strengthened the traditional medieval conception of church and empire, it did not address the national tensions, nor the theological tensions which had been stirred up during the previous century. The council could not prevent schism and the Hussite Wars in Bohemia.

16th century

Protestants generally trace their separation from the Roman Catholic Church to the 16th century, which is sometimes called the magisterial Reformation because the movement received support from the magistrates, the ruling authorities (as opposed to the radical Reformation, which had no state sponsorship). The protest erupted suddenly, in many places at once but particularly in Germany, during a time of threatened Islamic invasion¹ which distracted German princes in particular. To some degree, the protest can be explained by the events of the previous two centuries in Western Europe.

The protest began in earnest when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor at the University of Wittenberg, called in 1517 for reopening of debate on the sale of indulgences. (Tradition holds that he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle's Church, which served as a pinboard for university-related announcements.) Luther's dissent marked a sudden outbreak with new and irresistible force of discontent which had been pushed underground but not resolved; the quick spread of discontent occurred to a large degree because of the printing press and the resulting swift movement of both ideas and documents (such as the 95 Theses).

Parallel to events in Germany, a movement began in Switzerland under the leadership of Huldrych Zwingli. These two movements quickly agreed on most issues, as the recently introduced printing press spread ideas rapidly from place to place, but some unresolved differences kept them separate. Some followers of Zwingli believed that the Reformation was too conservative, and moved independently toward more radical positions, some of which survive among modern day Anabaptists. Other Protestant movements grew up along lines of mysticism or humanism (cf. Erasmus), sometimes breaking from Rome or from the Protestants, or forming outside of the churches.

After this first stage of the Reformation, following the excommunication of Luther and condemnation of the Reformation by the Pope, the work and writings of John Calvin were influential in establishing a loose consensus among various groups in Switzerland, Scotland, Hungary, Germany and elsewhere. The separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1536, brought England alongside the Reformation; however, change in England proceeded more conservatively than elsewhere in Europe and alternated between traditional and Protestant sympathies for centuries, progressively forging a stable compromise.

English Reformation

Main article: Protestant Reformation#England: Political Reformation


Early Puritan Movement

See articles Puritan and English Civil War

The early Puritan Movement (late 16th century-17th century) was Reformed or Calvinist and was a movement for reform in the Church of England. Its origins lay in the discontent with the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. The desire was for the Church of England to resemble more closely the Protestant churches of Europe, especially Geneva. The Puritans objected to ornaments and ritual in the churches as idolatrous (vestments, surplices, organs, genuflection), which they castigated as "popish pomp and rags." (See Vestments controversy.) They also objected to ecclesiastical courts. They refused to endorse completely all of the ritual directions and formulas of the Book of Common Prayer; the imposition of its liturgical order by legal force and inspection sharpened Puritanism into a definite opposition movement.

The later Puritan movement were often referred to as Dissenters and Nonconformists and eventually led to the formation of various reformed denominations.

Basic theological tenets

During the Reformation several Latin slogans emerged illustrating the Reformers' concern that the authorities of the Church had distorted the message of justification before God and salvation in Jesus Christ. The Reformers believed it was necessary to return to the simplicity of the Gospel in terms of the issues designated by these slogans.

The Solas

Main article: Five solas

There were five Solas, four discussed here. The fifth, Soli deo gloria (to God alone the glory), was intended to underly the other four. These slogans essentially became rallying cries to challenge the problems the Reformers believed they had identified, they are:

The Protestants characterized the dogma concerning the Pope as Christ's representative head of the Church on earth, the concept of meritorious works, and the Roman idea of a treasury of the merits of saints, as a denial that Christ is the only mediator between God and man.
Protestants believed that the Roman Catholic church obscured the teaching of the Bible, and undermined its authority, by following Tradition regardless of whether it over-ruled or added to the doctrines of Scripture.
The Protestants characterized the Roman Catholic concept of meritorious works, of penance and indulgences, masses for the dead, the treasury of the merits of saints and martyrs, a ministering priesthood who hears confessions, and purgatory, as reliance upon other means for justification, in addition to faith in Christ and his work on the cross.
The Roman Catholic view of the means of salvation was believed by the Protestants to be a mixture of reliance upon the grace of God, and confidence in the merits of one's own works performed in love. The Reformers posited that salvation is entirely comprehended in God's gifts, (i.e. God's act of free grace) dispensed by the Holy Spirit according to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ alone. Consequently, they argued that a sinner is not accepted by God on account of the change wrought in the believer by God's grace, and indeed, that the believer is accepted without any regard for the merit of his works - for no one deserves salvation.

Naturally, it proved easier to advocate separation from the Catholic Church, than to form a single, positively united alternative. On the theological front, the Protestant movement soon began to coalesce into several distinct branches. One of the central points of divergence was controversy over the Lord's Supper.

Real presence in the Lord's Supper

See articles Real Presence and Lord's Supper

Although early Protestants were in general agreement against the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, which teaches that the substance of the bread and wine used in the sacrificial rite of the Mass is transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ (see Eucharist), they disagreed with one another concerning the manner in which Christ is present in Holy Communion.

  • Lutherans hold to an understanding closest to that of Real Presence (often characterized by critics by the term, "consubstantiation"), which affirms the true presence of Christ "in, with, and under" the bread and wine. Lutherans point to Jesus' statement, "This is my body", while refusing to delve past Christ's words in order to describe just how this takes place. Lutheran teaching does, however, insist that Christ is present physically, rather than in a purely "spiritual" sense.
  • Reformed teaching concerning the Lord's Supper ranges along the continuum from Calvin to Zwingli. The Reformed closest to Calvin emphasize the real presence, or sacramental presence, of Christ, saying that the sacrament is a means of saving grace through which the believer actually partakes of Christ, "but not in a carnal manner". Zwinglians deny that Christ makes himself present to the believer through the elements of the sacrament, but affirm that Christ is united to the believer through the faith toward which the supper is an aid (a view referred to somewhat derisively as memorialism).
  • A Protestant holding a popular simplifiction of the Zwinglian view, without concern for theological intricacies as hinted at above, may see the Lord's Supper merely as a symbol of the shared faith of the participants, a commemoration of the facts of the crucifixion, and a reminder of their standing together as the Body of Christ.

In Christian theology, as the bread shares identity with Christ (which he calls, "my body"), in an analogous way the Church shares identity with him (and also is called "the Body of Christ"). Thus, controversies over the Lord's Supper only initially seem to be about the nature of bread and wine, but are ultimately about the nature of salvation, and therefore secondarily about the nature of the Church.


Template:Section-stub See the articles Lay, Ordained and Priesthood of all believers

Authority in the Church

Understanding of secular authority

The Kingdom of God

Later development


Protestants can be differentiated according to how they have been influenced by important movements since the magisterial Reformation and the Puritan Reformation in England. Some of these movements have a common lineage, sometimes directly spawning later movements in the same groups.

Pietism 17th Century - Methodist movement 18th century

The German Pietist movement together with the influence of the Puritan Reformation in England in the 17th century were importantinfluences on John Wesley and Methodism, as well as through smaller, new groups such as the Quakers.

The practice of a spiritual life, typically combined with social engagement, predominates in classical Pietism, which was a protest against the doctrine-centeredness Protestant Orthodoxy of the times, in favor of depth of religious experience. Many of the more conservative Methodists went on to form the Holiness movement, which emphasized a rigorous experience of holiness.

Evangelicalism 18th Century

Beginning at the end of 18th century, several international revivals of Pietism (such as the Great Awakening), took place across denominational lines, which are referred to generally as the Evangelical movement. The chief emphases of this movement were individual conversion, personal piety and Bible study, public morality often including Temperance and family values, and Abolitionism, de-emphasis of formalism in worship and in doctrine, a broadened role for laity (including women) in worship, evangelism and teaching, and cooperation in evangelism across denominational lines.

Pentecostalism 20th Century

Pentecostalism as a movement began in the United States early in the 20th century, starting especially within the Holiness movement. Seeking a return to the operation of New Testament gifts of the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues as evidence of the "baptism of the Holy Ghost" became the leading feature. Divine healing and miracles were also emphasized. Pentecostalism swept through much of the Holiness movement, and eventually spawned hundreds of new denominations in the United States. A later "charismatic" movement also stressed the gifts of the Spirit, but often operated within existing denominations rather than coming out of them.

Fundamentalism 20th Century

In reaction to liberal Bible critique, Fundamentalism arose in the 20th century, primarily in the United States and Canada, among those denominations most affected by Evangelicalism. Fundamentalism placed primary emphasis on the authority and sufficiency of the Bible, and typically advised separation from error, and cultural conservatism, as important aspects of the Christian life.

Neo-evangelicalism mid 20th Century

Neo-evangelicalism is a movement from the middle of the 20th century, that reacted to perceived excesses of Fundamentalism, adding to concern for biblical authority an emphasis on liberal arts, co-operation among churches, Christian Apologetics, and non-denominational evangelization.

Ecumenism 20th Century

The ecumenical movement has had an influence on mainline churches, beginning at least in 1910 with the Edinburgh Missionary Conference. Its origins lay in the recognition of the need for cooperation on the mission field in Africa, Asia and Oceania. Since 1948 the World Council of Churches has been influential. There are also ecumenical bodies at regional, national and local levels across the globe. One, but not the only expression of the ecumenical movement has been the move to form united churches, such as the Church of South India, the Church of North India, The United Church of Canada and the Uniting Church in Australia. There has been a strong engagement of Orthodox churches in the ecumenical movement.

Protestantism today

Template:Section-stub Today many Anglicans consider themselves to be Reformed Catholics rather than Protestants in the theological sense. Thus, the West was permanently divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant.

Protestant denominations

Protestants often refer to specific Protestant churches and groups as denominations to imply that they are differently named parts of the whole church. This "invisible unity" is assumed to be imperfectly displayed, visibly: some denominations, are less accepting of others, and the basic orthodoxy of some is questioned by most of the others. Indivi denominations also have formed over very subtle theological differences. Other denominations are simply regional expressions of the same beliefs found in other places under other names. The actual number of distinct denominations is hard to calculate, but has been estimated to be over thirty thousand. Various ecumenical movements have attempted cooperation or reorganization of Protestant churches, according to various models of union, but divisions continue to outpace unions. Most denominations share common beliefs in the major aspects of the Christian faith, while differing in many secondary doctrines.

Protestant families of denominations

Please note that only general families are listed here (tens of thousands of individual denominations exist):

Number of Protestants

Main article: Protestants by country

There are about 590 million Protestants worldwide. These include 170 million in North America, 160 million in Africa, 120 million in Europe, 70 million in Latin America, 60 million in Asia, and 10 million in Oceania. 27% of all Christians today are Protestants.

Well-known Protestant and Anglican religious figures

In alphabetical order by period



20th century


See also


  • Estep, William R. (1986), Renaissance & Reformaton, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. ISBN 0-8028-0050-5

Roman Catholic Perspectives

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