Origins of Protestantism

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Protestantism, movement that began in northern Europe in the early 16th century as a reaction to medieval Roman Catholic doctrines and practices. Along with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism became one of three major forces in Christianity. After a series of European religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, and especially in the 19th century, it spread throughout the world.

Wherever Protestantism gained a foothold, it influenced the social, economic, political, and cultural life of the area. The name Protestant first appeared at the Diet of Speyer in 1529, when the Roman Catholic emperor of Germany, harles V, rescinded the provision of the Diet of Speyer in 1526 that had allowed each ruler to choose whether to administer the Edict of Worms.

On April 19, 1529, a protest against this decision was read on behalf of 14 free cities of Germany and six Lutheran princes who declared that the majority decision did not bind them because they were not a party to it and that if forced to choose between obedience to God and obedience to Caesar they must choose obedience to God. They appealed either to a general council of all Christendom or to a synod of the whole German nation. Those who made this protest became known to their opponents as Protestants, and gradually the label was applied to all who adhered to the tenets of the  Reformation, especially to those living outside Germany.

In Germany the adherents of the Reformation preferred the name evangelicals and in France Huguenots. The name was attached not only to the disciples of Martin Luther (c. 1483–1546) but also to the Swiss disciples of Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531) and later of John Calvin (1509–64). The Swiss reformers and their followers in Holland, England, and Scotland, especially after the 17th century, preferred the name Reformed. In the 16th century Protestant referred primarily to the two great schools of thought that arose in the Reformation, the Lutheran and the Reformed. In England in the early 17th century, the word was used to denote “orthodox” Protestants as opposed to those who were regarded by Anglicans as unorthodox, such as the Baptists or the Quakers. Roman Catholics, however, used it for all who claimed to be Christian but opposed Catholicism (except the Eastern churches).

They therefore included Baptists, Quakers, and Catholic-minded Anglicans under the term. Before the year 1700 this broad usage was accepted, though the word was not yet applied to Unitarians. The English Toleration Act of 1689 was titled “an Act for exempting their Majesties’ Protestant subjects dissenting from the Church of England.” But the act provided only for the toleration of the opinions known in England as “orthodox dissent” and conceded nothing to Unitarians. Throughout the 18th century the word Protestant was still defined in relation to the 16th-century Reformation.

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