Protestantism began in Europe with the Reformation of the 16th century. Early leaders were Martin Luther and John Calvin. King Henry VIII in England led the church in his country out of communion with the Church of Rome. Although he opposed Protestant doctrines, his action in ending the Pope's role in England contributed to the advance of Protestantism under Henry's successors.
Protestant Christianity rejects the Roman Catholic belief that Christ founded the Catholic Church as his sole representative and rejects the notion that priests or saints have special access to the divine. Protestantism greatly reduced the role of Mary, Christ's mother, as an object of devotion.
Most Protestants stress their belief that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, although Quakers and Pentecostals believe in personal revelation as a factor in God's connection to believers. Protestants reject the Catholic concept that Tradition--beliefs held consistently by the people of God since the time of the Apostles--is a second means (alongside Scripture) by which God reveals his will to the Church. With few exceptions, Protestant churches observe two sacraments (Baptism and the Lord's Supper), and not the seven sacraments that the Catholic Church accepts.
Europe was polarized by the Reformation, with most of northern Europe becoming Protestant while most of the Mediterranean regions remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church. In the mid-sixteenth century, the Catholic Church struck back with a Counter-Reformation that is considered to be responsible for keeping such areas as Italy, France and Poland in the Catholic fold.
Religious wars broke out, the worst being the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that devastated much of Germany and neighboring areas. By 1648 a compromise was reached such that, in the Holy Roman Empire, the religion of the Prince determined the official religion of the people. Nevertheless religious strife continued in Germany as late as the 1870s in the Kulturkampf, and in Ireland into the late 20th century.
Each Protestant denomination launched missionary activity to spread the gospel, and they competed with each other and with Catholic missions.
The greatest successes came in the United States, where a series of revivals called the first and second Great Awakenings resulted in many converts to various Protestant churches by 1860, and in Africa and South Korea, where Protestantism grew rapidly throughout the 20th century.
Numbers and Distribution in 1900
One of the most striking facts in the history of Protestantism during the 19th century was its great expansion in North America. The United States by 1910 had the largest Protestant population of any land—from 65,000,000 to 66,000,000 (out of a total population of 79,000,000), which is based upon the census of 1900. Britain probably comes next with 38,000,000 Protestants (total population 42,500,000) and Germany third with somewhat more than 35,000,000 (total population 56,000,000).
Reformed Protestantism in 1900:
- Great Britain 20,500,000
- Germany 3,000,000
- Switzerland 2,000,000
- Netherlands 3,000,000
- Hungary 2,500,000
- France 500,000
- United States 65,000,000
- Canada 2,000,000
- Australia and New Zealand 1,500,000
- India 1,500,000
- South Africa 1,000,000
- Elsewhere 2,000,000
- Total Reformed 104,500,000
Lutheran: in 1900
- Germany 32,000,000
- Norway and Sweden 7,500,000
- Denmark 2,500,000
- Finland and the Baltic Provinces 6,000,000
- Hungary 1,250,000
- United States 6,000,000
- Elsewhere 750,000
- Total Lutheran 56,000,000
Anglican: in 1900
- England 10,750,000
- Scotland and Ireland 750,000
- British Empire 4,000,000
- United States 2,500,000
- Total Anglican 24,000,000
Protestant missions 5,500,000
Grand Total in 1900: 182,000,000
Protestants made the Bible available to all persons through publication of the Scriptures in the common language and by promoting universal education. The mandatory celibacy of the clergy (including monasticism) was rejected, resulting in married clergy becoming the norm in Protestant churches. Unordained persons were permitted more voice in church affairs and in the worship services themselves. Some historians have also contended that Protestantism played an important factor in the growth of Democracy and Capitalism.
- Martin Luther's nailing of The 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Luther became the spiritual leader of the Evangelical movement later called Lutheranism, which came to dominate much of Germany and all of Scandinavia
- King Henry VIII's asserting the independence of the English church from Papal control in 1533. Under Henry's successors, Edward VI and Elizabeth I, the English Church became Protestant, although it retained the Catholic system of governance by bishops.
- John Knox's leading of Scotland into the Presbyterian faith in 1560. He was a follower of John Calvin (and was aided by many martyrs).
Protestantism in the United States
Protestants represent the largest Christian division in the United States. There are two main groupings, the more conservative Evangelical Christians and the more liberal Mainline denominations. Many of the Evangelicals incline to Fundamentalism, but the the terms are often used casually and inconsistently.
There are over 200 major denominations in the United States. Among the larger groupings are:
- Episcopal (liberal)
- Pentecostal (Evangelical/fundamentalist)
- Holiness Movement (Evangelical/fundamentalist)
- Seventh Day Adventist (Evangelical/fundamentalist)
- United Church of Christ (liberal)
Smaller groups include:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) considers itself Christian but not Protestant.
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- Hillerbrand, Hans J. ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. (OUP 1996); the book is online at many academic libraries; excerpt and text search
- Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity (2 vol 1975) excerpt and text search vol 1, to 1500
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- New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1911), ), major sources of older scholarly articles; mainline Protestant perspective
- Vol. 1: Aachen - Basilians
- Vol. 2: Basilica - Chambers
- Vol. 3: Chamier - Draendorf
- Vol. 4: Draeseke - Goa
- Vol. 5: Goar - Innocent
- Vol. 6: Innocents - Liudger
- Vol. 7: Liutprand - Moralities
- Vol. 8: Morality - Petersen
- Vol. 9: Petri - Reuchlin
- Vol. 10: Reutsch - Son
- Vol. 11: Son of Man - Tremellius
- Vol. 12: Trench - Zwingli
- Vol. 13: Index
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- Noll, Mark A. A history of Christianity in the United States and Canada (1992), by leading Evangelical historian excerpt and text search, by a leading evangelical scholar
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- Placher, William C. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 2: From the Reformation to the Present (1988) excerpt and text search
- This section is based on F. Kattenbusch and Arthur C. A. Hall, "Protestantism" in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, (1911) Vol. IX
- According to the estimate of H. K. Carroll in W. D. Grant, ed. Christendom Anno Domini 1901, (1902), i. 530–531
- H. Zeller's figures for the Eastern Church are 106,480,000, Orthodox; 8,130,000 "other [Eastern] Christians."; H. A. Krose, gives Greek Orthodox 109,000,000l schismatic Orientals, 6,554,913; Raskolniks (Russian dissenters), 2,173,371. Roman Catholics 265,000,000; Eastern Church 117,000,000.