The Protestant Sects
Luther’s vision of Christianity was closely tied to the German state that had served as his protector from the papacy. But he preferred the name Evangelical to Lutheran, believing that he was not founding a new religion but restoring the original church of Christ as contained in the Gospels. Lutherans acknowledge only baptism and communion of the seven sacraments, because only these are mentioned in the Gospels.
Although Luther began by blaming the Church for alienating the Jews, when the Jews didn’t jump to convert he became a fierce anti-Semite, calling for the destruction of all Jewish homes and synagogues, the confiscation of their property, and a ban on teaching and traveling. By placing the ultimate power in the hands of the state and demanding absolute obedience to the existing order of society, Luther laid the groundwork for the abuses of Bismarck and Hitler. Hitler often quoted Luther’s anti-Semitic rantings, and the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 that began the Holocaust was scheduled by the Nazis to honor Luther’s birthday.
The movement rose in Zurich in the 1520s and spread across German-speaking Europe before splitting into opposing factions. The Anabaptists were persecuted and many thousands slain not only by Rome but also by fellow Protestants who found their radicalism threatening. They believed in voluntary adult baptism by peers, as well as a return to certain basic teachings of Jesus: love, redistribution of wealth, pacifism, and complete separation of church and state.
Calvinists, Reformed, Presbyterians
Jean Calvin’s extreme form of predestination held that individuals were destined by God, even before the Creation, to be saved or damned according to His plan. The surest way to determine if you were one of the elect was to be a member of the Calvinist communion, preferably through an individual experience of regeneration, which in modern born-again Christian terminology is equated with “taking Jesus as one’s personal savior. In France, Calvin’s church amounted to a theocracy, usingexcommunication and execution to silence his opponents. It was known in Continental Europe as Reformed churches and under John Knox in Scotland as Presbyterianism. By stressing that ordinary, everyday work, as opposed to clerical occupations, was a valid way of glorifying God, he laid the groundwork for the Protestant work ethic. Protestants who opposed Calvin and believed in universal salvation are sometimes called Arminians. Reformed churches in France were known as Huguenots; Presbyterians arrived in America in the mid-17th century as the Dutch Reformed Church. In 1972 in Great Britain, Presbyterians joined Congregationalists to form the United Reformed Church, later joined by the Churches of Christ.
Anglicans (Church of England)
As a result of Henry VIII’s dispute with Rome over his right to divorce the first of his six wives, he separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1533 and established the Church of England. Although he abrogated the power of the pope and dismantled monasticism, in his Six Articles, issued in 1539, he also reaffirmed traditional Catholic Christianity. Today, Anglicanism and its American counterpart, Episcopalianism, are the Protestant sects closest in spirit and practice to Roman Catholicism.
Residents of Great Britain who thought the English Reformation didn’t go far enough, the Puritans wanted to purge many of the ceremonies of the Church that were kept by the Anglicans, such as kneeling at the altar for communion, using the cross in baptism, and clerical vestments. During the pro-Catholic reign of “Bloody” Mary, many Puritans fled to the Continent, and in 1620, a group of 102 Separatists from the Church of England, the Pilgrim Fathers led by John Robinson, left for America to create a New England, and settled in Plymouth.
Menno Simmons (c. 1492-1559) was an itinerant Anabaptist preacher who stressed non-violence during the initial persecution of the sect. He didn’t found the Mennonites, but they adopted his less fanatical version of Anabaptism. Because of persecution, the Mennonites migrated from the Netherlands and northern Germany to Russia and the United States. They were pacifists, and protested the use of slaves in America as early as 1688. One of their best known sects is the Amish, who separated from the mainstream in Switzerland around 1690 under Jacob Ammon, who insisted on a stricter observance of rules. The strictest branch of Amish, the Old Order Amish Mennonite Church, insist on plainness of dress, furnishings, and meals.
In the early 17th century in England, several movements evolved among the Separatists, insisting on the separate autonomy of each church and the equal voice of each believer. The New Testament was their only guide, and they denounced the practice of infant baptism which had been developed by the Catholic Church. Baptists today continue to deny any human founder or creed. In the U.S., the Baptists’ emphasis on autonomy played a role in ensuring religious freedom through separation of church and state in the Constitution and the First Amendment. Today the Baptists make up the largest single Protestant denomination in America (over 35 million adults), second only to Roman Catholics overall. Their largest sub-sect is the Southern Baptists.
A movement focusing on personal experience and social consciousness was begun by John Wesley (1703-91) and his brother Charles (1707-88), both Anglican priests. The name came from their methodical observance of fasting and prayer time, although they also spent time visiting the sick, poor, and imprisoned, and doing other charitable work. Charles’s hymns — over 7,000 songs and poems — had as great an effect as John’s preaching. In America, the driving force of the United Methodist Church is the belief that every Christian must take a direct interest in the lives of the less fortunate.