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Religion Library: Protestantism

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Ted Vial

William Miller was a Baptist layperson who, in 1833, began to share his belief that a correct reading of biblical chronologies showed that Second Coming of Jesus would occur in or before 1843. The exact date of the Second Coming kept shifting. When a group of Millerites sold all they had and gathered on a hillside to await Jesus on March 21, 1844, they became known as the "Great Disappointed." But the failure of the Second Coming to occur on Miller's calculations did not disband the movement. Adventists (those who await the imminent return of Christ) stem from William Miller, as do Jehovah's Witnesses. Seventh-day Adventists believe that a strict reading of scripture requires celebrating the Sabbath on the seventh day, or Saturday, as is the practice in Judaism. (While Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses both have their roots in William Miller's millennial movement, their belief systems have moved in radically different trajectories since then, enough so that they share very little core doctrine.)

Third, the Methodist Church developed out of the Church of England. With origins in a renewal movement within the Anglican Church, led by brothers John and Charles Wesley, it became in America (and eventually in England) a separate denomination, ordaining its own ministers. Wesley's reliance on lay preachers who did not stay in a single parish but rode a "circuit" among preaching points was well suited to the American frontier. Wesley's creation of small (usually twelve people) "classes" or groups of lay people who met together to study the Bible, share their faith journeys, and encourage each other to live holy lives, were adapted from German pietism, and proved remarkably effective at generating commitment to the movement.

Wesley shared Luther's and Calvin's beliefs in the supreme authority of the Bible and salvation through justification by faith, yet his beliefs also diverged from theirs at a number of points. He argued that, while no one can be saved without God's free gift of forgiveness, humans have enough free will to choose how to respond to this gift. He credited this ability to respond to what is sometimes called prevenient or enabling grace. Those who accept it are saved; those who do not are damned. He thus rejected their understanding of predestination. Further, he taught that along with justifying grace God gave sanctifying grace, which made it possible to work toward a life of Christian perfection. Those who failed to work at this ("backsliders") put their salvation at risk. Many American Protestants today believe to some degree in the role of an individual's free choice in his or her own salvation (though not necessarily on the same basis that Wesley believed this), and in the necessity of good works (or, living as "godly" a life as possible) to maintain or demonstrate one's salvation.

As Methodism grew, several groups spun off and became established traditions in their own right. One is the Church of the Nazarene, which was founded by Methodist ministers who wanted to emphasize Wesleyan holiness to a greater extent than they believed mainline Methodist churches did. This and other related traditions are sometimes referred to as Holiness traditions.

Another offshoot of Methodism and Holiness traditions is Pentecostalism, with roots in a series of events known as the Azusa Street revival. In 1906 a revival began at the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. Sparked by the preaching of William Seymour, people experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues (as they had at Pentecost, as described in the Book of Acts). This is the origin of the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches (including the Assemblies of God), which in recent decades have been the fastest growing churches in the world.


Study Questions:
1.     What are the three Protestant Churches that developed out of England? Describe each.
2.     Why did Unitarianism develop? What was the big theological difference?
3.     Why did Baptists flourish in North America?
4.     How did Methodism develop? How did it evolve?


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