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Religion Library: Protestantism

Early Developments

Written by: Ted Vial

Finally, the radicals' biblical literalism led them to believe that Christians could not participate in several key civic duties, like swearing oaths (and thus appearing in court), and joining the military.  Zurich saw them as traitors as well as heretics, and quickly moved to imprison or kill them. Because of this persecution some of their followers came to the "New World," bringing with them Anabaptist denominations. Menno Simons, founder of the Mennonite Church, is another prominent Anabaptist. (The term "radicals," derived from the Latin radix or "root," is sometimes used to describe the Anabaptist and related streams of the Reformation because of their desire to return to the early, primitive, and simple forms of Christianity.)

In England, Protestantism began when King Henry VIII (1491-1547) sought a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). Her nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor, and he pressured the pope not to grant an annulment. Henry, worried because his marriage to Catherine had not produced a male heir, declared himself to be the head of the Church in England, rather than the pope, thereby freeing himself from the need to obey the papacy with regard to divorce, among other matters. Earlier, Henry had been a strong supporter of Catholicism, earning the title "Defender of the Faith" from the pope for his writings against Lutheranism. Beyond a change in leadership, the Church of England retained a largely "Roman Catholic" character during his reign.

Henry's successor, Edward VI (1537-1553), and his advisors leaned more toward the Protestants. Under his reign the Thirty-nine Articles were written. When Queen Mary I (1516-1558) succeeded him, she attempted to return the Church of England to Catholicism. Her persecution of Protestants earned her the nickname "Bloody Mary." The Church of England took its present shape largely under the reign of Mary's half sister Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Her "Elizabethan settlement" was to maintain the moderate Calvinism of the Thirty-nine Articles, but practice a liturgy largely in line with pre-Reformation Catholicism. This is sometimes described as a via media or "middle-way" between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

The first major Protestant traditions were the Lutheran, the Reformed, and the Church of England. Anabaptism was, in part, a more radical extension of (or departure from) the first two. Baptists and Methodists were largely developments within the third. Most of the Protestant denominations in the world today originated, at least indirectly, in one of these movements.

Study Questions:
1.     How was the Lord's Supper central to the formation of Protestantism?
2.     How did Zwingli understand infant baptism?
3.     How did Protestantism develop in England?
4.     What are the Thirty-nine Articles?


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