Quite simply, the word “Protestant” originally referred to a few people in 1520s Germany who protested the ruling by the Diet of Speyer which voted to end the religious toleration of Lutheranism (McGrath 287). But today, the word means much more. It is estimated there are around 760 million Protestants around the world, equaling 12% of the population, scattered mostly throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. Protestantism stresses three major beliefs: The importance of scripture, faith, and grace for individual Christians apart from church authority.
Martin Luther, a theologian at the University of Wittenberg, first attracted attention for the Reformation by his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 where he had many issues, including the selling of indulgences, to discuss against the Church (McGrath 281). Others who tried to reform the Catholic Church were Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin. The Protestants placed a strong emphasis on the authority of the Bible and a rejection of papal authority and tradition. “A cluster of characteristic Catholic beliefs are rejected, or treated as strictly optional private beliefs for individuals rather than the official teaching of the denomination.” (McGrath 406). One of the reforms made was having services in the vernacular to be more available to the people, rather than in Latin like Catholic mass.
Mainline Protestant denominations grew out of this early Protestant revolution including Episcopal (Anglican), Presbyterian, Methodist, Calvinist, and Lutheran churches. They are overall more willing to accept new ideas than other groupings, and were mostly brought to America by ethnic groups, and grew during the Great Awakening of the 1700s.
Evangelical Protestants include Baptists, the Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God, Pentecostals, Calvary Chapels, as well as many more charismatic or other churches. The term evangelical was originally used by Catholic theologians who wanted to get into more biblical beliefs, and the Reformation adopted it by going back to the scriptures for authority (McGrath 331). Today it connotes conservative Protestants as opposed to more liberal Christians. It stresses redemption through Jesus Christ, a new birth by conversion into the religion, and a sharing of the Christian faith to others. Evangelicalism is a transdenominational and ecumenical movement, bringing together different Protestant denominations because of a shared belief (McGrath 332). Evangelicals take a strict, literal interpretation of the Bible.
By the second half of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the theory of evolution were becoming more prominent, leaving some evangelicals to defend their religion. Fundamentalism grew out of this period, with the early 1900s publishing of The Fundamentals, defining a literal interpretation of the Bible. Fundamentalism started with mainline and evangelical Protestant groups, and had the most support from Baptists (Marsden 3). William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist and politician, famously took on the Scopes Trial of 1925 to defend creationism, “the best-known fundamentalist political effort” (Marsden 100). There were other forms related to fundamentalism that grew out of this period as well. Dispensationalism stated that all of history was different eras differentiated by how God interacted with the people, as taken by very literal verses and prophecy in the Bible (Marsden 39). The Holiness Movement stressed the power of the Spirit in freeing believers from sin; Pentacostalism growing from this in the early 1900s by placing all the emphasis on the Spirit’s power working through signs and tongues as evidence of belief (Marsden 41-43).
Different denominations of Protestantism have different beliefs, which vary considerably among churches. This is because after the first reformers of the 16th century broke away from the Catholic Church, others through the years have found it easier to just break away and create a new church or denomination that stresses different things, be it a very liberal or conservative interpretation of Christianity. Liberal Protestantism either abandoned traditional beliefs or reinterpreted them in light of a modernist society (McGrath 327). Baptists emphasize adult baptism rather than the traditional baptism of infants, and Anabaptists did not practice it at all. The question of church polity is answered differently in separate denominations, ranging from set positions and powers by the bishops ruling to congregational where all have authority and freedom to pursue the religion (Marty 577). Even church services reflect these differences of opinions, with some newer denominations being very modernist and accepting for an informal atmosphere to strict clothing regulations and formalized rituals and old-fashioned music.
From its early years, Protestantism represented something very liberal and very conservative; a complete doing-away with the traditional catholic Christianity in the West and a reverting back to the ancient scriptures. And today, the branch of Christianity is very diverse, and growing larger very quickly as different churches have the freedom to distinguish themselves as something different from another, something utterly unheard of in the Eastern tradition. Protestantism was started by reformers in Europe trying to clean up the Catholic Church by making it more relevant and available to the individual people. It is a religion stressing the personal relationship with Jesus and the authority of the Bible.
Marsden, George M. Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Marty, Martin E. “Protestantism.” Academic American Encyclopedia. 1980 ed.
McGrath, Alister E. An Introduction to Christianity. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1997.