Protestantism, form of Christian faith and practice that originated with the principles of the Reformation. The term is derived from the Protestatio delivered by a minority of delegates against the (1529) Diet of Speyer, which passed legislation against the Lutherans. Since that time the term has been used in many different senses, but not as the official title of any church until it was assumed (1783) by the Protestant Episcopal Church (since 1967 simply the Episcopal Church) in the United States, the American branch of the Anglican Communion. Protestantism as a general term is now used in contradistinction to the other major Christian faiths, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
Branches and Sects
Two distinct branches of Protestantism grew out of the Reformation. The evangelical churches in Germany and Scandinavia were followers of Martin Luther, and the reformed churches in other countries were followers of John Calvin and Huldreich Zwingli. A third major branch, episcopacy, developed in England. Particularly since the Oxford movement of the 19th cent., many Anglicans have rejected the word Protestant because they tend to agree with Roman Catholicism on most doctrinal points, rejecting, however, the primacy of the pope (see England, Church of; Episcopal Church; Ireland, Church of). In addition, there have been several groups commonly called Protestant but historically preceding the rise of Protestantism (see Hussites; Lollardry; Waldenses). Protestantism has largely been adopted by the peoples of NW Europe and their descendants, excepting the southern Germans, Irish, French, and Belgians; there have been important Protestant minorities in France, Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland.
The doctrine that the individual conscience is the valid interpreter of Scripture led to a wide variety of Protestant sects; this fragmentation was further extended by doctrinal disputes within the sects notably over grace, predestination, and the sacraments. Certain movements have claimed new revelations (see Agapemone; Latter-Day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of; New Jerusalem, Church of the). Of a fundamentally distinct nature is Christian Science, which as an article of faith repudiates any medical treatment.
Since the 1960s a main thrust in Protestantism has been toward reunification (see ecumenical movement); this was particularly strong in North America. Most Protestant and many Eastern Orthodox churches are allied in federated councils on the local, national, and international levels (see World Council of Churches and National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America).
For some of the major tendencies in Protestantism, see Adventists; Anabaptists; Baptists; Calvinism; Congregationalism; Lutheranism; Methodism; Pentecostalism; Presbyterianism; Puritanism; spiritism; Unitarianism.
For individual churches in addition to those already mentioned, see Brethren; Christian Catholic Church; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Christian Reformed Church; Christians; Churches of Christ; Churches of God, General Conference; Protestantism; Evangelical and Reformed Church; Evangelical United Brethren Church; Friends, Religious Society of; Huguenots; Mennonites; Moravian Church; Ranters; Reformed Church in America; Salvation Army; Scotland, Church of; Scotland, Free Church of; Seventh-Day Baptists; Shakers; United Church of Canada; Universalist Church of America.
Distinguishing Characteristics and Development
The chief characteristics of original Protestantism were the acceptance of the Bible as the only source of infallible revealed truth, the belief in the universal priesthood of all believers, and the doctrine that a Christian is justified in his relationship to God by faith alone, not by good works or dispensations of the church. There was a tendency to minimize liturgy and to stress preaching by the ministry and the reading of the Bible. Although Protestants rejected asceticism, an elevated standard of personal morality was advanced; in some sects, notably Puritanism, a high degree of austerity was reached. Their ecclesiastical polity, principally in such forms as episcopacy (government by bishops), Congregationalism, or Presbyterianism, was looked upon by Protestants as a return to the early Christianity described in the New Testament.
Protestantism saw many theological developments, particularly after the 18th cent. Under the influence of romanticism, which stressed the subjective element in religion rather than the revelation of the Bible, the formal systems of early Protestant theology began to dissolve; this doctrine was best expressed by Friedrich Schleiermacher, who placed religious feeling at the center of Christian life. Along with this came the assertion that the fatherhood of God and the unity of humanity were the basic themes of Christianity. Later there was a neoorthodox movement, which, under the leadership of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, sought a return to a theology of revelation; a new school of Bible interpretation as expressed in the work of Rudolf Bultmann; and a theology, derived in part from existentialism, developed by Paul Tillich.
In the United States, four broad theological positions cut across denominational lines: fundamentalism, which stems from the antitheological periods of revivalism in the 18th and 19th cent. (see Great Awakening) and adheres to a literal interpretation of the Bible and a pietistic morality; liberalism, the heir to the Social Gospel movement, which encourages freer interpretation of theological doctrines and emphasizes church responsibility for social justice; Pentecostalism, which emphasizes ecstatic religious experience especially as communicated through the gifts of the Spirit; and the neoorthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth.
See P. Tillich, The Protestant Era (1948, repr. 1957); R. M. Brown, Spirit of Protestantism (1961); E. G. Léonard, A History of Protestantism (2 vol., tr. 1965–67); W. Pauck, The Heritage of the Reformation (rev. ed. 1968); R. Mehl, The Sociology of Protestantism (tr. 1970); M. E. Marty, Protestantism (1972); R. T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (2d ed. 1983); J. Dillenberger and C. Welch, Protestant Christianity (2d ed. 1988).