Protestantism began as an effort to reform the Catholic Church in Rome and led to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. The leaders of the Reformation wished to return the Catholic Church to its pure, uncorrupted original version. From that effort, there resulted four main Protestant groups: Lutherans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, and Anglicans.
Prior to the Reformation, there were other movements that questioned the Catholic Church. Those included the Waldenses, who in the 12th century practiced a more simple Christianity, and the Lollards, who in 14th-century England followed the teachings of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe denounced the idea of transubstantiation as well as other critical teachings of the Church. Groups like those provided early converts to both the Calvinist and Lutheran churches.
Martin Luther and John Calvin made a much greater impact than those early reformist groups due to several advantageous conditions. One of the advantages was the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. That invention made it possible for more people to read about the changes reformers like Luther and Calvin were suggesting. Hand in hand with the invention of the printing press was the greater number of lay people who were learning to read and study as a result of Renaissance humanism. A further advantage was that the pope and the Holy Roman emperor were preoccupied with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire, which was encroaching on their territories in the east. Furthermore, the power of the papacy regarding the nonreligious aspects of people's lives was coming into question, which made people more receptive to the ideas of the Protestants. That trend was especially true farther away from Rome.
The Protestant Reformation officially began with the publication of Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, which he nailed to the door of a church in 1517. At that point, Luther was not trying to start a new church; he simply wanted to discuss his ideas to see if he could bring about change from within. Some of his main objections to the doctrine of the Catholic Church were the buying and selling of indulgences and the emphasis placed on good works over the grace of God. The Church excommunicated Luther, but he continued to study and publish his opinions, and he gathered a large following that developed into the Lutheran Church.
Other changes were yet to come. After Luther, a separate reform movement emerged in Switzerland. Ulrich Zwingli was a pastor who came to the conclusion that the Bible should be the ultimate source for all church doctrine and practices. One of his key points was that the Eucharist was strictly a symbolic ceremony and that there was no transubstantiation, meaning that the ceremonial bread and wine did not actually turn into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Calvin was the next big innovator in the Protestant movement. He established many of the internal structures of the Protestant religions. He set up the democratic church government as well as educational institutes to train people to spread the word of Calvinism. Calvin, more than Luther and Zwingli, changed not only religion but also social and moral views. His reforms affected not just the way that people worshipped but also acceptable ways to live their lives. The effects of Calvinism were far-reaching and served to combine the church and state in many countries.
King Henry VIII made the main Protestant reform in England by establishing the Anglican Church. Unable to obtain a divorce from the pope, Henry appointed himself head of the Church of England so that he could annul his marriage. Later monarchs, Edward IV and Elizabeth I, made further Protestant reforms to the church. Two groups later split off from the Anglican Church and formed new Protestant movements. The Puritans, the first group, believed that the Church of England was still too Catholic-centered, and many left England to found settlements in North America. The other group, called the Oxford movement, reestablished some of the more Catholic doctrines, including confession and fasting.
There are many other, more radical sects of Protestants. Often they believe that the initial breaks with the Catholic Church have not gone far enough in terms of simplifying Christianity. Two of the larger early radical sects were the Anabaptists and the Mennonites. The Anabaptists rejected the practice of baptizing infants and felt that only adult believers should be baptized. The Mennonites were Anabaptists who believed in pacifism and in living in separate cooperative communities. A third and separate sect that came along later was the Unitarians. The Unitarians do not follow the idea of the trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ. They rather focus on the ethical teachings and good example that Jesus set during his life.
Most modern Protestant religions have their basis in the main groups that came out of the Reformation and share some basic tenets or doctrines. The first major tenet of Protestantism is Luther's doctrine of justification by grace through faith. That is the idea that salvation is a gift of the grace of God that must be accepted on faith. Good works alone are not enough; salvation cannot be earned but rather is a gift from a merciful God, given to those who accept it. This tenet differs from the Catholic view of earning God's favor through sacrifice (financial or physical) and good works.
Another main tenet of Protestantism is the authority of the Bible. Protestants refer to the Bible if there is a question of faith or of morals. They are encouraged to study independently and come to some of their own conclusions based on the Bible. There are, however, two schools of thought on the scope of the authority. Some conservative Protestants do not accept new interpretations that have come about as a result of extensive study by Biblical scholars of texts in the original languages, other texts written around the same time period, and cultural connotations that may have affected the Bible's teachings. The conservatives maintain that everything in the Bible is literal and true and not to be questioned. More liberal Protestants accept that some of the information in the Bible may be as much myth as fact and that some of the stories are actually being used as a way to teach a lesson, rather than being a historical account of the times.
In addition to salvation by faith and the authority of the Bible, a third belief that is prevalent in Protestantism is the "priesthood of all believers." This is the idea that anyone who contributes to society and the community is doing God's work as much as a priest or other member of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Thus, in Protestantism, no one church member is more important than any other in God's eyes. For practical reasons, most Protestant religions do have ordained ministers to perform church functions, like preaching and presiding over the sacraments, but they are different from the Catholic priests. Protestant ministers and lay believers alike have equal access to God through prayer.
The final significant difference that sets Protestants apart from Catholics is their manner of worship. The services are simpler and place more emphasis on preaching the word of God than on ritual or ceremony. From the earliest part of the Reformation, one of the most notable differences of Protestantism was having services in the common spoken language, rather than in Latin.
Many varieties of Protestantism exist and continue to change and branch off, depending on what questions people have and what they feel needs to be changed or reformed. When dissatisfied members cannot change what they dislike from within, it is part of the tradition of Protestantism to split off with other people who think the same way. The spirit of questioning authority is a tradition of Protestantism that is reflected in efforts for both social and political change. Beginning with Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin and continuing with Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Pat Buchanan, Protestants have used religious pulpits to promote political and social reform.
Cobb, John B., Varieties of Protestantism, 1960; Dillenbeger, John, and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity Interpreted through its Development, 1955; Spitz, Lewis W., The Protestant Reformation, 1517-1559, 1985.
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"Protestantism." World History: The Modern Era. ABC-CLIO, 2015. Web. 21 Sept. 2015.