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Religion Library: Protestantism

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Ted Vial

Protestantism spread quickly among Europeans (in Europe and America) for a couple of reasons. Europe in the 16th century was to a great extent a place of religious anxiety. The theology preached by the priests, which emphasized human cooperation with God in achieving salvation, did not match a society that had come through the Black Plague, Church schism (there had been at one point three popes simultaneously), and massive social changes such as urbanization and the rise of a middle class. The Protestant message of salvation based on God's grace alone, and not depending on human efforts, resonated with many people. An unsettled population was relieved to have their salvation solely in the hands of God.

It also spread because of political tensions in Europe. Many princes found it convenient to align themselves against the pope and/or Emperor, especially since joining the Protestant reform movement made it possible to "secularize" church property (seize it for the good of the people, as administered by the state). It also released rulers from certain tax and tithe burdens owed to the Catholic Church, and allowed civic rulers in many cases to take greater influence over church leadership, rather than having church leadership selected by the pope in Rome.

As Europeans immigrated to America, they brought their religion with them. German and Dutch Protestants often formed ethnic churches, such as Lutheran Churches in Missouri, or Dutch and German Reformed Churches in Pennsylvania. (Most of these ethnic denominations have merged or otherwise reached out to become more diverse and less narrowly ethnic.) English settlers brought both Anglicanism and Puritanism with them. The first English settlers in America were Anglicans, who landed at Jamestown in Virginia in 1607. In 1620, English Puritans landed in Massachusetts.

In Europe, the primary thrust of evangelism and missions at the beginning of the Protestant movement was directed toward Roman Catholics who, the reformers felt, were deceived about their salvation and thus in need of a fresh presentation of the gospel. Only after the violent conflicts created by Roman Catholic and Protestant groups trying to subjugate one another—often called the Wars of Religion, which began soon after Luther's first acts of dissent—ceased with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 did Protestant groups begin to develop a greater interest in evangelizing other people groups.

Nicholas von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), a German Protestant, became one of the early advocates for missionary work. He worked closely with the Moravians, a Bohemian group of believers that had actually developed from Jan Hus' (1369-1415) ministry even before Luther. These Moravians had migrated north and had settled on lands belonging to Zinzendorf. Together they initiated the first major organized missionary efforts of the Protestant churches. They sent missionaries (usually lay people, not clergy) to the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Far East.


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