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The Geography of Protestantism

The Essentials of the Faith

Founded: Rather than any single founder, Protestantism grew out of a movement to reform the catholic, or universal church. The person most associated with the Reformation and Protestantism is Martin Luther, a German priest who first nailed his list of 95 theses against indulgences to the church door in 1517. Other figures and movements important in establishing the path for greater freedom of religious thought and worship were John Calvin, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, the Waldensians, Lollards, and countless other lesser known individuals.

Adherents: Although Protestantism started in western Europe, it has spread to nearly every nation and tongue on the earth. This is largely as a result of dedicated missionary efforts by many different Protestant denominations and sects. Originally, missionary efforts more often than not sought to culturally convert people as well as give them the Gospel. However, as a result of the efforts of missionaries such as Hudson Taylor, who worked to teach the Gospel within an indigenous context, Protestantism is now expressed in many different ways.

Distribution: The distribution listed for Protestants is given as follows from Markham, pp. 356-357:

Area Adherents Population Percentage
Latin America17,263,0003.7%
Northern America96,312,00034.4%

Major Teachings: The major teachings of Protestantism are the same as the majority of Christianity (see the Geography of Christianity webpage). Protestantism is largely a reaction to those doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church thought to be errant or corrupt. As time went on, more Protestants continued to disagree with more and more of the doctrines and practices, and worked to refine and purify the Church. This has resulted in the wide range of differences in doctrine, practice, and form.

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Scriptures and Significant Writings: Protestants usually only recognize the New Testament and the Old Testament (the Hebrew scriptures of Judaism). Fundamentalist sects usually rely upon the more traditional translations of these scriptures, such as the Authorised, or King James Version.

Symbols: The most well known symbol of Christianity is the cross, or crucifix, symbol of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. An ancient symbol of Christianity is the fish formed by two intersecting arcs. Often the Greek word for fish, IXTHYS, appears within being an acronym for "Jesus Christ God's Son". This symbol is often used by evangelical Christians because of Jesus' teaching, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men" (Matthew 4:19).

Major Divisions: One of the widest breaches in Protestantism is the between the "high liturgy" churches of the Reformation such as the Lutheran and Anglican churches, and the more evangelical churches found today as in the Baptists. Many other doctrinal axes may also be used as well, such as Charismatic Arminianism and Covenant Calvinism axis, or the Fundamentalist and Liberal spectrum.

Major Holy Days: Protestants universally recognize Easter and Christmas. Differing denominations may also recognize more minor holidays as Lent and Advent.

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The Details about Protestantism

In the early days of Christianity, issues of doctrinal contention were usually solved through the use of church councils. Dissenters either conformed to the majority opinion or were accused of heresy. As doctrine ossified and the Church relied upon tradition for authority, original thinkers in an increasingly literate Europe began to question the doctrine and authority of the Church in Rome. As a result of the invention of the printing press, the holy scriptures became widely available to the common man for the first time.

People began to compare scripture to what they saw being practiced by the Church. They began to demand reform of the Church, and when reform was not forthcoming, open dissent became the Reformation.

Protestantism rests firmly upon the belief that God deals directly with man as a person, so that salvation is gained "by faith alone". This puts the emphasis upon man's own life as it is lived in relationship to his society and his world. Since men differ from one another and since circumstances differ from generation to generation and from place to place, Protestantism is bound to exist in varied groups. The dividedness of Protestantism comes about through the very belief upon which is rests. The basic faith of Protestantism does not change, but its outward appearance and form do.

Protestantism as a type of the Christian religion stems from the Reformation and especially from the work of Martin Luther and John Calvin. Four hundred years have changed many things in Protestantism, but they have not effaced the theological emphases first created by the Reformers in the sixteenth century.

The birthplace of Protestantism is commonly dated October 31, 1517, during All Saints Eve when Martin Luther nailed his "Ninety-five Theses Upon Indulgences" to the church door at Wittenburg, Germany. Within ten years, every major difference from the Roman Church had been stated by Luther. Whatever subsequent development took place on the foundations he laid with a clarity and vigor that gained admiration from a multitude of followers.

His basic principle was an appeal to conscience, personally enlightened by the Holy Spirit, against what he called the "accretion of the Roman Church". From 1521 until his death in 1546, Luther elaborated this theory of conscience to include the whole construct of the Reformation. The conscience, he taught, is bound up with the word of God in the scriptures. Therefore, instead of popes and councils, the scriptures alone became the source of religious knowledge.

Luther rejected all but two of the seven sacraments of which millions of Christians throughout the world believe is the key to salvation. Down the centuries, celebration of the sacraments has involved holy water, bread and wine, oil, incense and salt, as well as certain symbolic words and gestures. The Roman Catholic Church defined the nature of the seven sacraments at the second Council of Lyons in 1274 CE. Most Protestant denominations limit the number to two, as did Martin Luther, to include only baptism and the Eucharist. Among Protestant denominations today, the Eucharist is also called Holy Communion, Breaking of Bread, and the Lord's Supper.

Before most Christians receive the Eucharist, they must be baptized; a custom that stems from ancient Jewish practice and to pagan rites of purification. Originally adult baptism was the custom. Immersion, pouring, or sprinkling signifies the washing away of sin and spiritual rebirth. Baptism has been referred to as the Christian initiation rite. Today, churches which are "Baptist" is convention hold that baptism should only take place on confession of personal faith. Others baptize children who are "confirmed" in their faith later, when they themselves come to have personal belief.

Another innovation that has since become a part of most Protestant churches is the singing of hymns by the congregation. Martin Luther had a passion for music. He played the lute and sang heartily at every service. "Music", said he, "drives away the Devil and makes gay; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance and the like. Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor". In 1524, Luther published a hymn book called The First Evangelical Hymnal. Based on the Vulgate version of the Forty-sixth Psalm, Luther composed the now famous hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God", which was written during a period of deep depression.

The Geography of Protestantism

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Protestantism was successfully established in the countries of northern Europe. There were Protestant movements in southern Europe, but these grew weak and disappeared. In the north, however, Protestant churches had the support of the political powers and drew into their membership large numbers of the rapidly rising middle class so that in spite of opposition they continued to exist and grow in size and strength. Scandinavia, a large portion of Germany, the northern Netherlands, England, and Scotland became Protestant lands. In some places the Protestant churches were established by the actions of governments, although there was sufficient support among the people.

Protestantism is greatly divided into denominations, sects, and national churches. There were serious divisions among Protestants on theological grounds. As the fires of rebellion spread throughout Europe, the Reformation became not one movement, but many. Migration and missionary activity by Europeans since the sixteenth century have extended Protestantism to other regions of the world and became the dominant religion in North America, Australia, and New Zealand.

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In the history of the United States, a religious impulse, largely Protestant and reform-minded, took root in Great Britain's New World settlements. Congregational Churches dominated New England, Baptist dissenters moved to Rhode Island and then spread south, Reformed Churches followed ethnic settlement patterns, and Pennsylvania became home to Quakers. Pluralism was also the rule in the southern colonies, though the number of parishes lagged the "well churched" New England. Anglicans were in the majority in the southern areas, even in Maryland, which was begun as a Roman Catholic colony.

The three largest Protestant denominations in the United States are Baptist, Methodist, and Lutheran. Baptist constitute over half of the population in much of the southeastern United States. Lutherans are concentrated in the north central states and Methodists are primarily in the states between 35°N and 40°N latitude. Other prominent churches include Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Anglican/Epicopalian Churches.


Forbush, William Byron, D.D., (Editor), Fox's Book of Martyrs. Grand Rapids, MI: Clarion Classics, 1967.

Markham, Ian S., (Editor), A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

Mead, Frank S., Handbook of Denominations in the United States. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1985. An excellent guide! Now available in a newer edition.

Links for More Information

Denominational Websites
The Assemblies of God Online
Church of the Brethren
Prebyterian Church (USA)
The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
Bible Baptist Fellowship International
Jews for Jesus
Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches
Messianic Friends Network (lots of links)
United Methodist Church Page
FAQs about the Plymouth Brethren (historically a small, but extremely influential group)
Society of Friends (Quakers)
The Christian Reformed Church in North America
Adventist Information Ministry
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Wesley Center for Applied Theology (Great stuff! Contains many texts as well as Wesleyan and Arminian material.)

Other Links
Voice of the Martyrs ( tracks the persecution of Christians thoughout the world)
Christian Research Institute
Sower's Seed Christian Reprints (reformation era documents)
Project Wittenberg (lots of reformation e-texts and links)
The Lutheran High School in Tisovec, Slovakia
Campus Crusade for Christ

Version 1.1 dated 5.17.99
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