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Christians belonging to denominations that reformed themselves in the sixteenth century, seceded from already established Protestant denominations, or founded new denominations on the basis of reformation principles.

Denominational Distribution

It is surprising how few reformed denominations have Protestant in their official titles. Designations such as Evangelisch, Lutheran, Reformed, Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and so on are preferred, or the names of states that reformed themselves, or both (e.g., De Nederlandse Hervormde Kerk; the Church of Scotland). The word Protestant was coined in 1529 to denote those German princes and reformed cities that lodged a protestatio (protestation) at the Diet of Speyer (1529) after the repudiation of toleration in Catholic areas of the Holy Roman Empire. It is anachronistic to refer to earlier social movements that strove to reform the Catholic Church (the followers of Wycliffe, 1329?-1384, in England and Huss, 1369?-1415, in Prague) as "Protestants." Although Protestant is often construed in a negative sense (i.e., "anti-Catholic"), the original meaning of protestatio (a legal term) was much closer to a declaration "on behalf of" or "in favor of" something (pro) .

According to Barrett (1990), there were 324.2 million Protestants in 1990, and 53.8 million Anglicans (a separate category despite the fact that the Church of England was also reformed in the sixteenth century). Other major "ecclesiastical blocs" are Roman Catholics (962.6 million), Eastern Orthodox (179.5), and "Nonwhite indigenous Christians" (143.8). Although protestants are found in almost every country, they are still concentrated in the traditional heartlands of the Reformation: northern Germany; the northern and western cantons of Switzerland; the northern provinces of the Netherlands; Scandinavia; Bohemia and Moravia; England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland; Alsace and the Massif Central in France; and other parts of the world that were colonized and/or settled by the British, Dutch, French, and Germans (including the United States, where they are the majority religion). In most of France, Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, the southern German Lńnde , the southern parts of the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Poland, Protestantism was decimated or eradicated by Catholic princes during the Counterreformation that followed the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Calvinism survived in Hungary because it fell under the hegemony of the Turks. In the Orthodox heartlands of Eastern Europe, Protestants are not found in large numbers. Protestantism was introduced there by migrants (mostly Germans) during the Drang nach Osten in the nineteenth century. Pentecostalists established congregations in Russia before 1917. The fastest growing Protestant congregations (Pentecostalist and Reformed) are in South Korea. Evangelical and Pentecostalist missions are now making increasingly large numbers of converts in Latin America (Martin 1990).

The faith of Protestants is traditionally defined in terms of (1) sola gratia (by grace alone), (2) sola fide (justification by faith alone), and (3) sola scriptura (by scripture alone). This has been termed by Paul Tillich the "Protestant Principle." Radical Protestants rejected the classical creeds (the Apostles' Creed and the Creed of Nicea-Constantinople) and refused to define their faith in authoritative documents. Many classical Protestant denominations did produce confessional statements, such as the Confession of Augsburg (Lutheran), the Heidelberg Confession, the Confessio Belgica, the Westminster Confession (Calvinistic), the Savoy Declaration (Congregationalist), the "Articles" of the Church of England, and the "standards" of the Methodists (all collected by Philip Schaff [1877] in three volumes)—hence the distinctions between "confessional families" of Protestants.

Variations and Cleavages

Protestants not only differ on doctrines, they also differ on church order or "ecclesiastical polity," one of the most difficult problems in the Ecumenical Movement. Having rejected the hierarchical system of Rome, some (e.g., the Church of England, the Lutheran state churches in Scandinavia, Hungarian Calvinists) adopted an episcopal church order (without the Primacy of the Bishop of Rome). Presbyterians opted for church councils (consisting of teaching and ruling "elders") whose representatives meet "in presbytery" (or "classis") and "in synod." Congregationalists rejected both the "bishop" and the "classis." In New England, they insisted at least upon the right to rebuke another congregation for heresy or backsliding (see documents in Walker 1960 [1893]). Methodists organized local "classes" and "bands," which were then organized into "circuits" (a territory originally supervised by one itinerant minister on horseback). After the death of John Wesley (1791) and the separation of Methodists from the Church of England, the Methodist Conference began to assume a central role.

Another cleavage is the difference between pacifist denominations whose members usually refuse military service (e.g., Mennonites, Quakers, most of the other Anabaptists [Littell 1958], and Jehovah's Witnesses) and the nonpacifist majority. Quakers, Mennonites, and most Anabaptists also refused to take the oath and declined election to the office of civil magistrate, but Anglicans and Calvinists are usually well represented among the magistrates. (Dutch preachers still wear the same black gown—toga —and "bands"—bef —worn by magistrates and judges.) Lutherans, Calvinists, and Zwinglians fought against Catholics during the wars of religion, before the Peace of Westphalia (1648) terminated the Thirty Year's War (Germany) and the Eighty Year's War (The Netherlands), and established that the prince is entitled to determine the religion of his territory in accordance with the principle cuius regio, eius religio .

Zwingli died on the battlefield in 1531, while 10% of adult males in England perished between 1642 and 1660 in battles between monarchistic Episcopalians ("Cavaliers") and republican Presbyterians ("Round-heads") after Oliver Cromwell raised the New Model Army in opposition to the reign of King Charles I. In Bohemia, Holland, and Germany, Protestants such as John Ziska, John of Leyden, and Thomas MŘnzer led revolutionary movements, while Cromwell's Revolution was overtaken by radical religious movements such as the Fifth Monarchy Men, Levellers, and Diggers (Lewy 1974). These have been interpreted as "millenarian movements" (e.g., Cohn 1957), the precursors of Marxist revolution, or as the "radical" Reformation (Williams 1962). Williams's distinction between the "radicals" and the rest is not always helpful, because it relegates both revolutionaries and pacifists (especially Anabaptists) to the same category.

There is also a distinction between "established" denominations (official state churches) and nonestablished or no-longer established denominations (Littell 1962), and denominations established in one country but not in another. There are also "ethnic" versions of several Protestant traditions: such as German and Swedish versions of Lutheranism, and Dutch, English, Scottish, and Afrikaaner versions of Calvinism. Such differences can persist (e.g., in America or Australia) even when language is no longer problematic.

Given the wide range of distinctions among them (Marty 1976) and the almost infinite permutations of creed, church order, nationality, and political status, it is not surprising that the number of Protestant denominations is now determined to be 8,196 (1985 projections in Barrett 1982:792 f). The differences within Protestantism were also sharpened by the English and German Enlightenment (e.g., Locke, the English Deists, Lessing, Kant, and Schleiermacher), biblical and historical criticism (e.g., F. C. Bauer, D. F. Strauss, and A. Ritschl and their disciples), and Darwin's theory of evolution (which divided Liberals and Modernists from the Orthodox, Evangelicals, and Fundamentalists). Protestant (and other Christian) denominations have been systematically catalogued by the practitioners of Symbolik (Symbolics), Konfessionskunde , and Kirchenkunde . Such typically German disciplines obviously influenced American works such as those of Schaff and Piepkorn (see examples in the references at the end of the entry).

The Sociology of Protestantism

How do historical sociologists treat the Protestants? Durkheim (whose background was Jewish) did not deal with Protestantism as a discrete phenomenon. Pickering (in Pickering and Martin 1994:435-439) doubts "whether he really understood it," but Weber did devote considerable attention to Protestantism, especially in his highly controversial "Protestant ethic thesis." Both Weber (1922) and Troeltsch (1912) developed the church-sect typology .

Troeltsch defined sect as "a voluntary society" whose members have experienced "the new birth" who live "apart from the world" in "small groups." The term church (defined by Troeltsch as "an institution which . . . is able to receive the masses, and to adjust itself to the world, because, to a certain extent it can afford to ignore the need for subjective holiness for the sake of the objective treasures of grace and of redemption") is applicable to the Church of England, but Methodists reintroduced "subjective holiness" and the experience of "spiritual regeneration" into the Church of England, while the Catholic Revival (1833) of Keble, Newman, and Pusey reemphasized the "objective treasures of grace and of redemption" (although the Methodist and Catholic Revivals did not always influence the same segments of the Church of England).

Troeltsch added "mysticism" as a third element. It transformed formal worship and rigid doctrines "into a purely personal and inward experience" in such a way that it "leads to the formation of groups on a purely personal basis, with no permanent form, which also tend to weaken the significance of forms of worship, doctrine, and the historical element." (Such a definition is at least applicable to the Quakers.) Although the typology of Troeltsch and Weber is not a perfect instrument (hence attempts to refine it by Niebuhr 1929, Brewer 1952, Wilson 1959), it enabled Troeltsch to organize his description of the Protestants when he wrote The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches .

Troeltsch also challenged the claim that the advent of Protestantism marks the transition to the Modern World (1911)—hence his distinction between early Protestantism (Lutheranism and Calvinism) and modern/later Protestantism (1911 [1958]: 44 f), which he dates from the end of the seventeenth century. The basis of his distinction is that the Early Reformation "claims [the right] to regulate State and society, science and education, law, commerce and industry" and treats Natural Law "as being identical with the Law of God." This debate raises many fundamental questions such as the following: What do we mean by "modernity"? When did it first arise? (Troeltsch dated it from the Enlightenment.) Is protestantism the "cause" of modernity, or is modernity the "cause" of Protestantism?

Although Troeltsch's arguments are not always clear (and on occasion little more than sweeping statements), it might be possible to establish this distinction (and the caesura at the end of the seventeenth century) on the basis of more convincing arguments. It can be argued that at least some Protestants continued to theologize until well into the seventeenth century in the same terms and categories as the medieval Scholastics, but their arguments led to Protestant (rather than Catholic) conclusions. Reist (1966:95-97) recognizes the importance of Troeltsch's claim that the Lutheran Reformation was "from within," because "Luther's reform of Catholicism is . . . only a reconstruction of the Catholic formulation of the question, to which there comes a new answer." The ethic of early Protestantism presupposes the same foundations "on which medieval Catholicism had built." To the extent that this is the case, the presence or the absence of explicitly Thomistic or Aristotelian features ultimately differentiates between Troeltsch's "Two Protestantisms" (see McGrath 1993).

Troeltsch influenced both Richard Niebuhr (1929) and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose dissertation (1930) is an attempt to rewrite "ecclesiology" in the light of the sociological insights of Troeltsch, Simmel, and Weber, and Tonnies's distinction between Gesellschaft and Gemeinschaft . Troeltsch and Weber stressed that Protestants are characterized by individual autonomy (if human beings have a will that is actually free, which is denied by some of the Calvinists), the "voluntary principle" (noted by Baird as early as 1856), and "this-worldliness" (innerweltlichkeit) or "this-worldly asceticism" (innerweltliche Askese) . They are pivotal concepts in the Protestant ethic thesis together with "vocation" (Beruf) .

The HalÚvy Thesis

The touchstone of Troeltsch's distinction between early and late Protestantism is seventeenth-century Methodism, which also brings us to the HalÚvy thesis. By no stretch of the imagination could it be claimed that John Wesley thought in explicitly Aristotelian or Scholastic categories. The English Reformation was strongly influenced by the Platonism of Colet, Fisher, More, and Hooker, and there was a revival of Platonism in Cambridge in the seventeenth century (Cragg 1968). Wesley "openly claimed his heritage of Christian Platonism" (Wesley 1984:54) but accepted the Thomist dictum that "there is nothing in the mind not previously in the senses." Because he was an empiricist in an age of empiricism, we are not entitled to assume that Wesley swallowed Scholasticism hook, line, and sinker! (He could have quoted Locke to make the same point.) On this score, he cannot be treated as an example of early Protestantism.

Semmel (1973:19) goes further: "Wesley extended the 'modern' values introduced by Calvinism in a decidedly liberal direction" (which suggests that Calvinism is more "modern" than Troeltsch assumed). Semmel took four of the five items from the formal scheme used by Parsons and Shils to explain the transition from "traditional" to "modern" (1962:77-91) and applied it to Calvinists and Methodists (omitting the "division of labor") and concludes that Methodism is "modern" on all four counts: (1) affectivity to affective neutrality, (2) collectivity orientation to self-orientation, (3) particularism versus universalism, and (4) achievement rather than ascription. Calvinism is "modern" on (1) and (2) but not on (3) and (4), because Calvinists assumed that grace is "bestowed"—rather than "earned"—and reserved salvation for the "elect" in accordance with the doctrine of predestination (Semmel 1973:18). This is yet another fundamental cleavage in Protestantism, because Methodists believed in conditional universal election; that is, Christ died for all (provided one accepts the Gospel) rather than for the "elect." Many American Calvinists adopted this doctrine from the Methodists: hence the distinction between the "generals" and the "particulars" that became common currency in the eighteenth century.

Michael Hill notes that Weber's work generated considerable sociological and historical research, but "the important insight of HalÚvy has been almost totally ignored" (1973:183). By this he means the attempt of HalÚvy (a French historian) to explain the "extraordinary stability" that England experienced when confronted by revolutions in America and in France. Having systematically eliminated all of the other possible variables ("We have sought in vain to find the explanation by an analysis of her political institutions and economic organization"), HalÚvy concluded that it must have been the revival of the Methodists and the Evangelicals that prevented violent revolution during this particularly turbulent period (1924:339, 371).

But how did they do it? Socialist and Marxist historians (e.g., the Hammonds, Hobsbawm, Thompson) treated Methodism as a reactionary religion that crushed the spirit of the new proletariat, but Semmel came to the conclusion that it was ultimately a revolutionary movement "aimed at countering the destructive spiritual consequences of certain of the illiberal, traditional doctrines preached by the Reformation." In short, Methodist enthusiasm

transformed men, summoning them to assert rational control over their own lives, while providing in its system of mutual discipline the psychological security necessary for autonomous conscience and liberal ideals to become internalized, an integrated part of the 'new men' . . . regenerated by Wesleyan preaching. (1973:3, 198)

The Methodist Revolution thesis (the HalÚvy thesis) is both controversial and disputed, as is Weber's Protestant ethic thesis. It could be treated as an application of Weber's thesis to the Methodists were it not for the fact that HalÚvy published contemporaneously, but independently of association, with Weber, and HalÚvy's work was based on the work of predecessors such as Taine, Guizot, and Lecky—a different intellectual tradition from Weber's. John Wesley himself had already noted that many Methodists became successful entrepreneurs (Wesley 1987, Vol. 7:95 f). Having become rich, many Methodists left the society, and some switched to the Church of England. (Because Methodism rejected gambling and alcohol, the eradication of "secondary poverty" at least enabled Methodists on good wages to accumulate capital.)

Michael Hill (1973:185) claims that the Methodist Revolution "filled both a social and an ideological vacuum" in English society, thus "opening up the channels of social and ideological mobility [the "escalator thesis"] . . . which worked against the polarization of English society into rigid social classes." It "worked" by influencing first "the dissenting sects [the transition from 'particulars' to 'generals'], then the establishment, finally secular opinion" (HalÚvy 1924:339). This explains how a relatively small number of Methodists (little more than 90,000 in 1800) exerted this kind of effect on English society; to which one could add that, during the first half of the nineteenth century, "Methodists" were not always the same people (if the "escalator thesis" is valid and many did indeed switch to the Church of England). Methodism cannot be treated as a totally reactionary phenomenon because the Kilhamites (expelled in 1796) did advocate violent revolution. Paradoxically, Methodism seems to have been a viable alternative to radical politics and violent revolution, but (on occasion) it was quite capable of going in the opposite direction.

English Methodism was an antirevolutionary movement that succeeded (to the extent that it did) because it was a revolution of a radically different kind (Semmel 1973). It also was capable of generating considerable social change (M. Hill 1973). Methodism, however, is no more paradoxical than Puritan Piety and German Pietismus . Christopher Hill (1940, 1958, 1966) and Michael Waltzer (1974) each treat English Puritanism as a "revolutionary ideology," but Fulbrook (1983) argues that Pietists adopted an aggressively antiabsolutist stance in England, a passive antiabsolutist stance in WŘrttemberg, and an absolutist stance in Prussia.

Protestantism and State Formation

Fulbrook, Skocpol (1979), and Tilly and his disciples (Tilly 1975, 1978) exploited all the resources of historical sociology to explain (among other things) the important part played by Protestants in the processes of "state formation." Van Beek et al. treated Purity as a "greedy ideology" in a cross-cultural perspective that includes Geneva, Holland, and New England and the "Quest for Purity" in non-Christian religions; Staples (van Beek 1988:75) stressed the transition from "external coercion" to "internal discipline" (e.g., the abolition of auricular confession and the practice of self-scrutiny in the form of spiritual diaries). External coercion (exercised by godly elders and magistrates) was reimposed if internal discipline failed. Gorski (1993) goes even further: "Calvinism was unique in employing surveillance as a technique of mass political organization" and "provided the channel through which the discipline of the monastery entered the political world," thus enabling highly disciplined movements to obtain political power. This means that both the presence and the absence of "disciplinary revolution" and the "level of economic development" are important variables in the processes of state formation.

The main difference between the disciplinary revolutions in Prussia and Holland is that the former was a state-led revolution "from above" (rather than a revolution "from below") in which a "quasi-monastic discipline" was codified "in written rules and regulations." But one should not lose sight of the theological variables (McGrath 1993). The Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms (the separation of the ecclesiastical competence of the Church and the political competence of the State, legitimated by Rom. 13) could help to explain why Pietism was passive in WŘrttemberg and absolutist in Prussia, but neither in Holland nor in England—because neither Dutch nor English Protestants accepted the separation of powers advocated by Luther. Martin (1978) has also argued that different permutations of Catholicism and various kinds of Protestantism can explain differential rates of "secularization" in Europe.

In short, Protestantism is a highly pluriform phenomenon that is capable of generating substantial social changes of many different kinds from the local to the political and economic level. But the pluriformity of Protestantism does not always manifest itself in the form of homogeneous denominations. Some Protestant denominations are characterized by substantial levels of internal pluriformity. Having been influenced by Puritan, Methodist, Evangelical, and Catholic revivals, the Church of England consists of two vertical "pillars" (one Catholic and the other Evangelical) with the "Broad Church" in between. All three pillars are now horizontally divided into "progressive" and "conservative" layers: a new cleavage that now runs through the whole of the Protestant constituency (Staples 1981, compare with Glock et al. 1967). The pluriformity of the Netherlands Reformed Church (Conservatives [Gereformeerde Bonders] , Confessionals [influenced by the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth], Ethicals [Ethischen] , and Liberals) is described by Haitjema (1953). High church movements are not unknown in Scandinavian and German Lutheranism (e.g., the disciples of S÷derblom and Heiler) and in the Netherlands Reformed Church (especially among the Ethicals; see Staples 1981, 1985). So sociologists should also consider the possibility that discrete segments in Protestant denominations might ultimately be "sects" within "churches" or "churches" within "churches" (as defined by Troeltsch and Weber).

Peter Staples


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D. B. Barrett (ed.), World Christian Encyclopedia (Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1982)

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W. van Beek (ed.), The Quest for Purity (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1988)

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Denominations in America (New York: Greenwood, 1985–).

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