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The subject will be treated under the following heads, viz.:

Origin of the name

The Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, assembled at Speyer in April, 1529, resolved that, according to a decree promulgated at the Diet of Worms (1521), communities in which the new religion was so far established that it could not without great trouble be altered should be free to maintain it, but until the meeting of the council they should introduce no further innovations in religion, and should not forbid the Mass, or hinder Catholics from assisting thereat.

Against this decree, and especially against the last article, the adherents of the new Evangel — the Elector Frederick of Saxony, the Landgrave of Hesse, the Margrave Albert of Brandenburg, the Dukes of Lüneburg, the Prince of Anhalt, together with the deputies of fourteen of the free and imperial cities — entered a solemn protest as unjust and impious. The meaning of the protest was that the dissentients did not intend to tolerate Catholicism within their borders. On that account they were called Protestants.

In course of time the original connotation of "no toleration for Catholics" was lost sight of, and the term is now applied to, and accepted by, members of those Western Churches and sects which, in the sixteenth century, were set up by the Reformers in direct opposition to the Catholic Church. The same man may call himself Protestant or Reformed: the term Protestant lays more stress on antagonism to Rome; the term Reformed emphasizes adherence to any of the Reformers. Where religious indifference is prevalent, many will say they are Protestants, merely to signify that they are not Catholics. In some such vague, negative sense, the word stands in the new formula of the Declaration of Faith to be made by the King of England at his coronation; viz.: "I declare that I am a faithful Protestant". During the debates in Parliament it was observed that the proposed formula effectively debarred Catholics from the throne, whilst it committed the king to no particular creed, as no man knows what the creed of a faithful Protestant is or should be.

Characteristic Protestant principles

However vague and indefinite the creed of individual Protestants may be, it always rests on a few standard rules, or principles, bearing on the Sources of faith, the means of justification, and the constitution of the Church. An acknowledged Protestant authority, Philip Schaff (in "The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge", s.v. Reformation), sums up the principles of Protestantism in the following words:

The Protestant goes directly to the Word of God for instruction, and to the throne of grace in his devotions; whilst the pious Roman Catholic consults the teaching of his church, and prefers to offer his prayers through the medium of the Virgin Mary and the saints.

From this general principle of Evangelical freedom, and direct individual relationship of the believer to Christ, proceed the three fundamental doctrines of Protestantism — the absolute supremacy of (1) the Word, and of (2) the grace of Christ, and (3) the general priesthood of believers. . . .

Sola scriptura ("Bible alone")

The [first] objective [or formal] principle proclaims the canonical Scriptures, especially the New Testament, to be the only infallible source and rule of faith and practice, and asserts the right of private interpretation of the same, in distinction from the Roman Catholic view, which declares the Bible and tradition to be co-ordinate sources and rule of faith, and makes tradition, especially the decrees of popes and councils, the only legitimate and infallible interpreter of the Bible. In its extreme form Chillingworth expressed this principle of the Reformation in the well-known formula, "The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants." Protestantism, however, by no means despises or rejects church authority as such, but only subordinates it to, and measures its value by, the Bible, and believes in a progressive interpretation of the Bible through the expanding and deepening consciousness of Christendom. Hence, besides having its own symbols or standards of public doctrine, it retained all the articles of the ancient creeds and a large amount of disciplinary and ritual tradition, and rejected only those doctrines and ceremonies for which no clear warrant was found in the Bible and which seemed to contradict its letter or spirit. The Calvinistic branches of Protestantism went farther in their antagonism to the received traditions than the Lutheran and the Anglican; but all united in rejecting the authority of the pope [Melanchthon for a while was willing to concede this, but only jure humano, or a limited disciplinary superintendency of the Church], the meritoriousness of good works, indulgences, the worship of the Virgin, saints, and relics, the sacraments (other than baptism and the Eucharist), the dogma of transubstantiation and the Sacrifice of the Mass, purgatory, and prayers for the dead, auricular confession, celibacy of the clergy, the monastic system, and the use of the Latin tongue in public worship, for which the vernacular languages were substituted.

Sola fide ("faith alone")

The subjective principle of the Reformation is justification by faith alone, or, rather, by free grace through faith operative in good works. It has reference to the personal appropriation of the Christian salvation, and aims to give all glory to Christ, by declaring that the sinner is justified before God (i.e. is acquitted of guilt, and declared righteous) solely on the ground of the all-sufficient merits of Christ as apprehended by a living faith, in opposition to the theory — then prevalent, and substantially sanctioned by the Council of Trent — which makes faith and good works co-ordinate sources of justification, laying the chief stress upon works. Protestantism does not depreciate good works; but it denies their value as sources or conditions of justification, and insists on them as the necessary fruits of faith, and evidence of justification.

Priesthood of all believers

The universal priesthood of believers implies the right and duty of the Christian laity not only to read the Bible in the vernacular, but also to take part in the government and all the public affairs of the Church. It is opposed to the hierarchical system, which puts the essence and authority of the Church in an exclusive priesthood, and makes ordained priests the necessary mediators between God and the people". See also Schaff "The Principle of Protestantism, German and English" (1845).

Discussion of the three fundamental principles of Protestantism

Sola scriptura ("Bible alone")

The belief in the Bible as the sole source of faith is unhistorical, illogical, fatal to the virtue of faith, and destructive of unity.

It is unhistorical. No one denies the fact that Christ and the Apostles founded the Church by preaching and exacting faith in their doctrines. No book told as yet of the Divinity of Christ, the redeeming value of His Passion, or of His coming to judge the world; these and all similar revelations had to be believed on the word of the Apostles, who were, as their powers showed, messengers from God. And those who received their word did so solely on authority. As immediate, implicit submission of the mind was in the lifetime of the Apostles the only necessary token of faith, there was no room whatever for what is now called private judgment. This is quite clear from the words of Scripture: "Therefore, we also give thanks to God without ceasing: because, that when you had received of us the word of the hearing of God, you received it not as the word of men, but (as it is indeed) the word of God" (1 Thessalonians 2:13). The word of hearing is received through a human teacher and is believed on the authority of God, who is its first author (cf. Romans 10:17). But, if in the time of the Apostles, faith consisted in submitting to authorized teaching, it does so now; for the essence of things never changes and the foundation of the Church and of our salvation is immovable.

Again, it is illogical to base faith upon the private interpretation of a book. For faith consists in submitting; private interpretation consists in judging. In faith by hearing, the last word rests with the teacher; in private judgment it rests with the reader, who submits the dead text of Scripture to a kind of post-mortem examination and delivers a verdict without appeal: he believes in himself rather than in any higher authority. But such trust in one's own light is not faith. Private judgment is fatal to the theological virtue of faith. John Henry Newman says "I think I may assume that this virtue, which was exercised by the first Christians, is not known at all amongst Protestants now; or at least if there are instances of it, it is exercised toward those, I mean their teachers and divines, who expressly disclaim that they are objects of it, and exhort their people to judge for themselves" ("Discourses to Mixed Congregations", Faith and Private Judgment). And in proof he advances the instability of Protestant so-called faith: "They are as children tossed to and fro and carried along by every gale of doctrine. If they had faith they would not change. They look upon the simple faith of Catholics as if unworthy the dignity of human nature, as slavish and foolish". Yet upon that simple, unquestioning faith the Church was built up and is held together to this day.

Where absolute reliance on God's word, proclaimed by his accredited ambassadors, is wanting, i.e. where there is not the virtue of faith, there can be no unity of Church. It stands to reason, and Protestant history confirms it. The "unhappy divisions", not only between sect and sect but within the same sect, have become a byword. They are due to the pride of private intellect, and they can only be healed by humble submission to a Divine authority.

Sola fide (justification by "faith alone")

See the separate article JUSTIFICATION.

Priesthood of all believers

The "universal priesthood of believers" is a fond fancy which goes well with the other fundamental tenets of Protestantism. For, if every man is his own supreme teacher and is able to justify himself by an easy act of faith, there is no further need of ordained teachers and ministers of sacrifice and sacraments. The sacraments themselves, in fact, become superfluous. The abolition of priests, sacrifices, and sacraments is the logical consequence of false premises, i.e. the right of private judgment and justification by faith alone; it is, therefore, as illusory as these. It is moreover contrary to Scripture, to tradition, to reason. The Protestant position is that the clergy had originally been representatives of the people, deriving all their power from them, and only doing, for the sake of order and convenience, what laymen might do also. But Scripture speaks of bishops, priests, deacons as invested with spiritual powers not possessed by the community at large, and transmitted by an external sign, the imposition of hands, thus creating a separate order, a hierarchy. Scripture shows the Church starting with an ordained priesthood as its central element. History likewise shows this priesthood living on in unbroken succession to the present day in East and West, even in Churches separated from Rome. And reason requires such an institution; a society confessedly established to continue the saving work of Christ must possess and perpetuate His saving power; it must have a teaching and ministering order commissioned by Christ, as Christ was commissioned by God; "As the Father has sent me, I also send you" (John 20:21). Sects which are at best shadows of Churches wax and wane with the priestly powers they subconsciously or instinctively attribute to their pastors, elders, ministers, preachers, and other leaders.

Private judgment in practice

At first sight it seems that private judgment as a rule of faith would at once dissolve all creeds and confessions into individual opinions, thus making impossible any church life based upon a common faith. For quot capita tot sensus: no two men think exactly alike on any subject. Yet we are faced by the fact that Protestant churches have lived through several centuries and have moulded the character not only of individuals but of whole nations; that millions of souls have found and are finding in them the spiritual food which satisfies their spiritual cravings; that their missionary and charitable activity is covering wide fields at home and abroad. The apparent incongruity does not exist in reality, for private judgment is never and nowhere allowed full play in the framing of religions. The open Bible and the open mind on its interpretation are rather a lure to entice the masses, by flattering their pride and deceiving their ignorance, than a workable principle of faith.

The first limitation imposed on the application of private judgment is the incapacity of most men to judge for themselves on matters above their physical needs. How many Christians are made by the tons of Testaments distributed by missionaries to the heathen? What religion could even a well-schooled man extract from the Bible if he had nought but his brain and his book to guide him? The second limitation arises from environment and prejudices. The assumed right of private judgment is not exercised until the mind is already stocked with ideas and notions supplied by family and community, foremost among these being the current conceptions of religious dogmas and duties. People are said to be Catholics, Protestants, Mahommedans, Pagans "by birth", because the environment in which they are born invariably endows them with the local religion long before they are able to judge and choose for themselves. And the firm hold which this initial training gets on the mind is well illustrated by the fewness of changes in later life. Conversions from one belief to another are of comparatively rare occurrence. The number of converts in any denomination compared to the number of stauncher adherents is a negligible quantity. Even where private judgment has led to the conviction that some other form of religion is preferable to the one professed, conversion is not always achieved. The convert, beside and beyond his knowledge, must have sufficient strength of will to break with old associations, old friendships, old habits, and to face the uncertainties of life in new surroundings. His sense of duty, in many eases, must be of heroical temper.

A third limitation put on the exercise of private judgment is the authority of Church and State. The Reformers took full advantage of their emancipation from papal authority, but they showed no inclination to allow their followers the same freedom. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Knox were as intolerant of private judgment when it went against their own conceits as any pope in Rome was ever intolerant of heresy. Confessions of faith, symbols, and catechism were set up everywhere, and were invariably backed by the secular power. In fact, the secular power in the several parts of Germany, England, Scotland, and elsewhere has had more to do with the moulding of religious denominations than private judgment and justification by faith alone. Rulers were guided by political and material considerations in their adherence to particular forms of faith, and they usurped the right of imposing their own choice on their subjects, regardless of private opinions: cujus regio hujus religio.

The above considerations show that the first Protestant principle, free judgment, never influenced the Protestant masses at large. Its influence is limited to a few leaders of the movement, to the men who by dint of strong character were capable of creating separate sects. They indeed spurned the authority of the Old Church, but soon transferred it to their own persons and institutions, if not to secular princes. How mercilessly the new authority was exercised is matter of history. Moreover, in the course of time, private judgment has ripened into unbridled freethought, Rationalism, Modernism, now rampant in most universities, cultured society, and the Press. Planted by Luther and other reformers the seed took no root, or soon withered, among the half-educated masses who still clung to authority or were coerced by the secular arm; but it flourished and produced its full fruit chiefly in the schools and among the ranks of society which draw their intellectual life from that source. The modern Press is at infinite pains to spread free judgment and its latest results to the reading public.

It should be remarked that the first Protestants, without exception, pretended to be the true Church founded by Christ, and all retained the Apostles' Creed with the article "I believe in the Catholic Church". The fact of their Catholic origin and surroundings accounts both for their good intention and for the confessions of faith to which they bound themselves. Yet such confessions, if there be any truth in the assertion that private judgment and the open Bible are the only sources of Protestant faith, are directly antagonistic to the Protestant spirit. This is recognized, among others, by J. H. Blunt, who writes: "The mere existence of such confessions of faith as binding on all or any of the members of the Christian community is inconsistent with the great principles on which the Protestant bodies justified their separation from the Church, the right of private judgment. Has not any member as just a right to criticise and to reject them as his forefathers had a right to reject the Catholic creeds or the canons of general councils? They appear to violate another prominent doctrine of the Reformers, the sufficiency of Holy Scripture to salvation. If the Bible alone is enough, what need is there for adding articles? If it is rejoined that they are not additions to, but merely explanations of, the Word of God, the further question arises, amid the many explanations, more or less at variance with each other given by the different sects of Protestantism, who is to decide which is the true one? Their professed object being to secure uniformity, the experience of three hundred years has proved to us what may not have been foreseen by their originators, that they have had a diametrically opposite result, and have been productive not of union but of variance" (Dict. of Sects, Heresies, etc.", London, 1886, s.v. Protestant Confessions of Faith).

By pinning private judgment to the Bible the Reformers started a book religion, i.e. a religion of which, theoretically, law of faith and conduct is contained in a written document without method, without authority, without an authorized interpreter. The collection of books called "the Bible" is not a methodical code of faith and morals; if it be separated from the stream of tradition which asserts its Divine inspiration, it has no special authority, and, in the hands of private interpreters, its meaning is easily twisted to suit every private mind. Our modern laws, elaborated by modern minds for modern requirements, are daily obscured and diverted from their object by interested pleaders: judges are an absolute necessity for their right interpretation and application, and unless we say that religion is but a personal concern, that coherent religious bodies or churches are superfluous, we must admit that judges of faith and morals are as necessary to them as judges of civil law are to States. And that is another reason why private judgment, though upheld in theory, has not been carried out in practice. As a matter of fact, all Protestant denominations are under constituted authorities, be they called priest or presbyters, elders or ministers, pastors or presidents. Notwithstanding the contradiction between the freedom they proclaim and the obedience they exact, their rule has often been tyrannical to a degree, especially in Calvinistic communities. Thus in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was no more priest-ridden country in the world than Presbyterian Scotland. A book-religion has, moreover, another drawback. Its devotees can draw devotion from it only as fetish worshippers draw it from their idol, viz. by firmly believing in its hidden spirit. Remove belief in Divine inspiration from the sacred books, and what remains may be regarded as simply a human document of religious illusion or even of fraud. Now, in the course of centuries, private judgment has partly succeeded in taking the spirit out of the Bible, leaving little else than the letter, for critics, high and low, to discuss without any spiritual advantage.

"justification by faith alone" in practice

This principle bears upon conduct, unlike free judgment, which bears on faith. It is not subject to the same limitations, for its practical application requires less mental capacity; its working cannot be tested by anyone; it is strictly personal and internal, thus escaping such violent conflicts with community or state as would lead to repression. On the other hand, as it evades coercion, lends itself to practical application at every step in man's life, and favours man's inclination to evil by rendering a so-called "conversion" ludicrously easy, its baneful influence on morals is manifest. Add to justification by faith alone the doctrines of predestination to heaven or hell regardless of man's actions, and the slavery of the human will, and it seems inconceivable that any good action at all could result from such beliefs. As a matter of history, public morality did at once deteriorate to an appalling degree wherever Protestantism was introduced. Not to mention the robberies of Church goods, brutal treatment meted out to the clergy, secular and regular, who remained faithful, and the horrors of so many wars of religion, we have Luther's own testimony as to the evil results of his teaching (see Janssen, "History of the German People", Eng. tr., vol. V, London and St. Louis, 1908, 27-83, where each quotation is documented by a reference to Luther's works as published by de Wette).

Advent of a new order: Cæsaropapism

A similar picture of religious and moral degradation may easily be drawn from contemporary Protestant writers for all countries after the first introduction of Protestantism. It could not be otherwise. The immense fermentation caused by the introduction of subversive principles into the life of a people naturally brings to the surface and shows in its utmost ugliness all that is brutal in human nature. But only for a time. The ferment exhausts itself, the fermentation subsides, and order reappears, possibly under new forms. The new form of social and religious order, which is the residue of the great Protestant upheaval in Europe, is territorial or State Religion — an order based on the religious supremacy of the temporal ruler, in contradistinction to the old order in which the temporal ruler took an oath of obedience to the Church. For the right understanding of Protestantism it is necessary to describe the genesis of this far-reaching change.

Luther's first reformatory attempts were radically democratic. He sought to benefit the people at large by curtailing the powers of both Church and State. The German princes, to him, were "usually the biggest fools or the worst scoundrels on earth". In 1523 he wrote: "The people will not, cannot, shall not endure your tyranny and oppression any longer. The world is not now what it was formerly, when you could chase and drive the people like game". This manifesto, addressed to the poorer masses, was taken up by Franz von Sickingen, a Knight of the Empire, who entered the field in execution of its threats. His object was two-fold: to strengthen the political power of the knights — the inferior nobility — against the princes, and to open the road to the new Gospel by overthrowing the bishops. His enterprise had, however, the opposite result. The knights were beaten; they lost what influence they had possessed, and the princes were proportionately strengthened. The rising of the peasants likewise turned to the advantage of the princes: the fearful slaughter of Frankenhausen (1525) left the princes without an enemy and the new Gospel without its natural defenders. The victorious princes used their augmented power entirely for their own advantage in opposition to the authority of the emperor and the freedom of the nation; the new Gospel was also to be made subservient to this end, and this by the help of Luther himself.

After the failure of the revolution, Luther and Melanchthon began to proclaim the doctrine of the rulers' unlimited power over their subjects. Their dissolving principles had, within less than ten years, destroyed the existing order, but were unable to knit together its debris into a new system. So the secular powers were called on for help; the Church was placed at the service of the State, its authority, its wealth, its institutions all passed into the hands of kings, princes, and town magistrates. The one discarded Pope of Rome was replaced by scores of popes at home. These, "to strengthen themselves by alliances for the promulgation of the Gospel", banded together within the limits of the German Empire and made common cause against the emperor. From this time forward the progress of Protestantism is on political rather than on religious lines; the people are not clamouring for innovations, but the rulers find their advantage in being supreme bishops, and by force, or cunning, or both impose the yoke of the new Gospel on their subjects. Denmark, Sweden, Norway, England, and all the small principalities and imperial towns in Germany are examples in point. The supreme heads and governors were well aware that the principles which had brought down the authority of Rome would equally bring down their own; hence the penal laws everywhere enacted against dissenters from the state religion decreed by the temporal ruler. England under Henry VIII, Elizabeth, and the Puritans elaborated the most ferocious of all penal codes against Catholics and others unwilling to conform to the established religion.

To sum up: the much-vaunted Protestant principles only wrought disaster and confusion where they were allowed free play; order was only restored by reverting to something like the old system: symbols of faith imposed by an outside authority and enforced by the secular arm. No bond of union exists between the many national Churches, except their common hatred for "Rome", which is the birthmark of all, and the trade-mark of many, even unto our day.

Rapidity of Protestant progress explained

Before we pass on to the study of contemporary Protestantism, we will answer a question and solve a difficulty. How is the rapid spread of Protestantism accounted for? Is it not a proof that God was on the side of the Reformers, inspiring, fostering, and crowning their endeavours? Surely, as we consider the growth of early Christianity and its rapid conquest of the Roman Empire, as proofs of its Divine origin, so we should draw the same conclusion in favour of Protestantism from its rapid spread in Germany and the northern parts of Europe. In fact the Reformation spread much faster than the Apostolic Church. When the last of the Apostles died, no kingdoms, no vast tracts of lands, were entirely Christian; Christianity was still hiding in the catacombs and in out-of-the-way suburbs of heathen towns. Whereas, in a period of similar duration, say seventy years, Protestantism had taken hold of the better part of Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, England, and Scotland. A moment's consideration supplies the solution of this difficulty. Success is not invariably due to intrinsic goodness, nor is failure a certain proof of intrinsic badness. Both largely depend on circumstances: on the means employed, the obstacles in the way, the receptivity of the public. The success of Protestantism, therefore, must itself be tested before it can be used as a test of intrinsic goodness.

The reformatory movement of the sixteenth century found the ground well prepared for its reception. The cry for a thorough reformation of the Church in head and members had been ringing through Europe for a full century; it was justified by the worldly lives of many of the clergy, high and low, by abuses in church administration, by money extortions, by the neglect of religious duties reaching far and wide through the body of the faithful. Had Protestantism offered a reform in the sense of amendment, probably all the corrupt elements in the Church would have turned against it, as Jews and pagans turned against Christ and the Apostles. But what the Reformers aimed at was, at least in the first instance, the radical overthrow of the existing Church, and this overthrow was effected by pandering to all the worst instincts of man. A bait was tendered to the seven-headed concupiscence which dwells in every human heart; pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, sloth, and all their offspring were covered and healed by easy trust in God. No good works were required: the immense fortune of the Church was the prize of apostasy: political and religous independence allured the kings and princes: the abolition of tithes, confession, fasting, and other irksome obligations attracted the masses. Many persons were deceived into the new religion by outward appearances of Catholicism which the innovators carefully maintained, e.g. in England and the Scandinavian kingdoms. Evidently we need not look for Divine intervention to account for the rapid spread of Protestantism. It would be more plausible to see the finger of God in the stopping of its progress.

Present-day Protestantism


After nearly four centuries of existence, Protestantism in Europe is still the religion of millions, but it is no more the original Protestantism. It has been, and is, in a perpetual flux: the principle of untrammelled free judgment, or, as it is now called, Subjectivism, has been swaying its adherents to and fro from orthodoxy to Pietism, from Rationalism to Indifferentism. The movement has been most pronounced in intellectual centres, in universities and among theologians generally, yet it has spread down to the lowest classes. The modern Ritschl-Harnack school, also called Modernism, has disciples everywhere and not only among Protestants. For an accurate and exhaustive survey of its main lines of thought we refer the reader to the Encyclical "Pascendi Dominici Gregis" (8 Sept., 1907), the professed aim of which is to defend the Catholic Church against Protestant infiltrations. In one point, indeed, the Modernist condemned by Pius X differs from his intellectual brothers: he remains, and wishes to remain, inside the Catholic Church, in order to leaven it with his ideas; the other stands frankly outside, an enemy or a supercilious student of religious evolution. It should also be noted that not every item of the Modernist programme need be traced to the Protestant Reformation; for the modern spirit is the distilled residue of many philosophies and many religions: the point is that Protestantism proclaims itself its standard-bearer, and claims credit for its achievements.

Moreover, Modernistic views in philosophy, theology, history, criticism, apologetics, church reform etc., are advocated in nine-tenths of the Protestant theological literature in Germany, France, and America, England only slightly lagging behind. Now, Modernism is at the antipodes of sixteenth-century Protestantism. To use Ritschl's terminology, it gives new "values" to the old beliefs. Scripture is still spoken of as inspired, but its inspiration is only the impassioned expression of human religious experiences; Christ is the Son of God, but His Son-ship is like that of any other good man; the very ideas of God, religion, Church, sacraments, have lost their old values: they stand for nothing real outside the subject in whose religious life they form a kind of fool's paradise. The fundamental fact of Christ's Resurrection is an historical fact no longer; it is but another freak of the believing mind. Harnack puts the essence of Christianity, that is the whole teaching of Christ, into the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of man: Christ Himself is no part of the Gospel! Such was not the teaching of the Reformers. Present-day Protestantism, therefore, may be compared with Gnosticism, Manichæism, the Renaissance, eighteenth-century Philosophism, in so far as these were virulent attacks on Christianity, aiming at nothing less than its destruction. It has achieved important victories in a kind of civil war between orthodoxy and unbelief within the Protestant pale; it is no mean enemy at the gate of the Catholic Church.

Popular Protestantism

In Germany, especially in the greater towns, Protestantism, as a positive guide in faith and morals, is rapidly dying out. It has lost all hold of the working classes. Its ministers, when not themselves infidels, fold their hands in helpless despair. The old faith is but little preached and with little profit. The ministerial energies are turned towards works of charity, foreign missions, polemics against Catholics. Among the English-speaking nations things seem just a little better. Here the grip of Protestantism on the masses was much tighter than in Germany, the Wesleyan revival and the High Church party among Anglicans did much to keep some faith alive, and the deleterious teaching of English Deists and Rationalists did not penetrate into the heart of the people. Presbyterianism in Scotland and elsewhere has also shown more vitality than less well-organized sects. "England", says J.R. Green, "became the people of a book", and that book was the Bible. It was as yet the one English book which was familiar to every Englishman; it was read in the churches and read at home, and everywhere its words, as they fell on ears which custom had not deadened, kindled a startling enthusiasm. . . . So far as the nation at large was concerned, no history, no romance, hardly any poetry, save the little-known verse of Chaucer, existed in the English tongue when the Bible was ordered to be set up in churches. . . . The power of the book over the mass of Englishmen showed itself in a thousand superficial ways, and in none more conspicuously than in the influence exerted on ordinary speech. . . . But far greater than its effect on literature or social phrase was the effect of the Bible on the character of the people at large . . . (Hist. of the English People, chap. viii, 1).

Protestantism and progress


The human mind is so constituted that it colours with its own previous conceptions any new notion that presents itself for acceptance. Though truth be objective and of its nature one and unchangeable, personal conditions are largely relative, dependent on preconceptions, and changeable. The arguments, for example, which three hundred years ago convinced our fathers of the existence of witches and sent millions of them to the torture and the stake, make no impression on our more enlightened minds. The same may be said of the whole theological controversy of the sixteenth century. To the modern man it is a dark body, of whose existence he is aware, but whose contact he avoids. With the controversies have gone the coarse, unscrupulous methods of attack. The adversaries are now facing each other like parliamentarians of opposite parties, with a common desire of polite fairness, no longer like armed troopers only intent on killing, by fair means or foul. Exceptions there are still, but only at low depths in the literary strata. Whence this change of behaviour, notwithstanding the identity of positions? Because we are more reasonable, more civilized; because we have evolved from medieval darkness to modern comparative light. And whence this progress? Here Protestantism puts in its claim, that, by freeing the mind from Roman thraldom, it opened the way for religious and political liberty; for untrammelled evolution on the basis of self-reliance; for a higher standard of morality; for the advancement of science — in short for everygood thing that has come into the world since the Reformation. With the majority of non-Catholics, this notion has hardened into a prejudice which no reasoning can break up: the following discussion, therefore, shall not be a battle royal for final victory, but rather a peaceful review of facts and principles.

Progress in Church and churches

The Catholic Church of the twentieth century is vastly in advance of that of the sixteenth. She has made up her loss in political power and worldly wealth by increased spiritual influences and efficiency; her adherents are more widespread, more numerous, more fervent than at any time in her history, and they are bound to the central Government at Rome by a more filial affection and a clearer sense of duty. Religious education is abundantly provided for clergy and laity; religious practice, morality, and works of charity are flourishing; the Catholic mission-field is world-wide and rich in harvest. The hierarchy was never so united, never so devoted to the pope. The Roman unity is successfully resisting the inroads of sects, of philosophies, of politics. Can our separated brethren tell a similar tale of their many Churches, even in lands where they are ruled and backed by the secular power? We do not rejoice at their disintegration, at their falling into religious indifference, or returning into political parties. No, for any shred of Christianity is better than blank worldliness. But we do draw this conclusion: that after four centuries the Catholic principle of authority is still working out the salvation of the Church, whereas among Protestants the principle of Subjectivism is destroying what remains of their former faith and driving multitudes into religious indifference and estrangement from the supernatural.

Progress in civil society

The political and social organization of Europe has undergone greater changes than the Churches. Royal prerogatives, like that exercised, for instance, by the Tudor dynasty in England, are gone for ever. "The prerogative was absolute, both in theory and in practice. Government was identified with the will of the sovereign, his word was law for the conscience as well as the conduct of his subjects" (Brewer, "Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic etc.", II, pt. I, 1, p. ccxxiv). Nowhere now is persecution for conscience' sake inscribed on the national statute-books, or left to the caprice of the rulers. Where still carried on it is the work of anti-religious passion temporarily in power, rather than the expression of the national will; at any rate it has lost much of its former barbarity. Education is placed within reach of the poorest and lowest. The punishment of crime is no longer an occasion for the spectacular display of human cruelty to human beings. Poverty is largely prevented and largely relieved. Wars diminish in number and are waged with humanity; atrocities like those of the Thirty Years War in Germany, the Huguenot wars in France, the Spanish wars in the Netherlands, and Cromwell's invasion of Ireland are gone beyond the possibility of return. The witch-finder, the witchburner, the inquisitor, the disbanded mercenary soldier have ceased to plague the people. Science has been able to check the outbursts of pestilence, cholera, smallpox, and other epidemics; human life has been lengthened and its amenities increased a hundredfold. Steam and electricity in the service of industry, trade, and international communication, are even now drawing humanity together into one vast family, with many common interests and a tendency to uniform civilization. From the sixteenth to the twentieth century there has indeed been progress. Who have been its chief promoters? Catholics, or Protestants, or neither?

The civil wars and revolutions of the seventeenth century which put an end to the royal prerogatives in England, and set up a real government of the people by the people, were religious throughout and Protestant to the core. "Liberty of conscience" was the cry of the Puritans, which, however, meant liberty for themselves against established Episcopacy. Tyrannical abuse of their victory in oppressing the Episcopalians brought about their downfall, and they in turn were the victims of intolerance. James II, himself a Catholic, was the first to strive by all the means at his command, to secure for his subjects of all the denominations "liberty of conscience for all future time" (Declaration of Indulgence, 1688). His premature Liberalism was acquiesced in by many of the clergy and laity of the Established Church, which alone had nothing to gain by it, but excited the most violent opposition among the Protestant Nonconformists who, with the exception of the Quakers, preferred a continuance of bondage to emancipation if shared with the hated and dreaded "Papists". So strong was this feeling that it overcame all those principles of patriotism and respect for law of which the English people are wont to boast, leading them to welcome a foreign usurper and foreign troops for no other reason than to obtain their assistance against their Catholic fellow-subjects, in part to do precisely what the latter were falsely accused of doing in the time of Elizabeth.

The Stuart dynasty lost the throne, and their successors were reduced to mere figure-heads. Political freedom had been achieved, but the times were not yet ripe for the wider freedom of conscience. The penal laws against Catholics and Dissenters were aggravated instead of abolished. That the French Revolution of 1789 was largely influenced by the English events of the preceding century is beyond doubt; it is, however, equally certain that its moving spirit was not English Puritanism, for the men who set up a declaration of the Rights of Man against the Rights of God, and who enthroned the Goddess of Reason in the Cathedral Church of Paris, drew their ideals from Pagan Rome rather than from Protestant England.

Progress in religious toleration

As regards Protestant influence on the general progress of civilization since the origin of Protestantism we must mark off at least two periods: the first from the beginning in 1517 to the end of the Thirty Years War (1648), the second from 1648 to the present day; the period of youthful expansion, and the period of maturity and decay. But before apportioning its influence on civilization the previous questions should be examined: in how far does Christianity contribute to the amelioration of manintellectual, moral, material — in this world: for its salutary effects on man's soul after death cannot be tested, and consequently cannot be used as arguments in a purely scientific disquisition. There were highly-civilized nations in antiquity, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Rome: and there are now China and Japan, whose culture owes nothing to Christianity. When Christ came to enlighten the world, the light of Roman and Greek culture was shining its brightest, and for at least three centuries longer the new religion added nothing to its lustre. The spirit of Christian charity, however, gradually leavened the heathen mass, softening the hearts of rulers and improving the condition of the ruled, especially of the poor, the slave, the prisoner. The close union of Church and State, begun with Constantine and continued under his successors, the Roman emperors of East and West, led to much good, but probably to more evil. The lay episcopacy which the princes assumed well-nigh reduced the medieval Church to a state of abject vassalage, the secular clergy to ignorance and worldliness, the peasant to bondage and often to misery.

Had it not been for the monasteries the Church of the Middle Ages would not have saved, as it did, the remnant of Roman and Greek culture which so powerfully helped to civilize Western Europe after the barbarian invasions. Dotted all over the West, the monks formed model societies, well-organized, justly ruled, and prospering by the work of their hands, true ideals of a superior civilization. It was still the ancient Roman civilization, permeated with Christianity, but shackled by the jarring interests of Church and State. Was Christian Europe, from a worldly point of view, better off at the beginning of the fifteenth century than pagan Europe at the beginning of the fourth? For the beginning of our distinctly modern progress we must go back to the Renaissance, the Humanistic or classical, i.e. pagan revival, following upon the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks (1453); upon the discovery of the new Indian trade route round the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese; upon the discovery of America by the Spaniards, and upon the development of all European interests, fostered or initiated at the end of the fifteenth century, just before the birth of Protestantism. The opening of the New World was for Europe a new creation. Minds expanded with the vast spaces submitted to them for investigation; the study of astronomy, at first in the service of navigation, soon reaped its own reward by discoveries in its proper domain, the starry heavens; descriptive geography, botany, anthropology, and kindred sciences demanded study of those who would reap a share in the great harvest East and West. The new impulse and new direction given to commerce changed the political aspect of old Europe. Men and nations were brought into that close contact of common interests, which is the root of all civilization; wealth and the printing-press supplied the means for satisfying the awakened craving for art, science, literature, and more refined living. Amid this outburst of new life Protestantism appears on the scene, itself a child of the times. Did it help or hinder the forward movement?

The youth of Protestantism was, naturally enough, a period of turmoil, of disturbing confusion in all the spheres of life. No one nowadays can read without a sense of shame and sadness the history of those years of religious and political strife; of religion everywhere made the handmaid of politics; of wanton destruction of churches and shrines and treasures of sacred art; of wars between citizens of the same land conducted with incredible ferocity; of territories laid waste, towns pillaged and levelled to the ground, poor people sent adrift to die of starvation in their barren fields; of commercial prosperity cut down at a stroke; of seats of learning reduced to ranting and loose living; of charity banished from social intercourse to give place to slander and abuse, of coarseness in speech and manners, of barbarous cruelty on the part of princes, nobles, and judges in their dealings with the "subject" and the prisoner, in short of the almost sudden drop of whole countries into worse than primitive savagery. "Greed, robbery, oppression, rebellion, repression, wars, devastation, degradation" would be a fitting inscription on the tombstone of early Protestantism.

But violenta non durant. Protestantism has now grown into a sedate something, difficult to define. In some form or other it is the official religion in many lands of Teutonic race, it also counts among its adherents an enormous number of independent religious bodies. These Protestant Teutons and semi-Teutons claim to be leaders in modern civilization: to possess the greatest wealth, the best education, the purest morals; in every respect they feel themselves superior to the Latin races who still profess the Catholic religion, and they ascribe their superiority to their Protestantism.

Man knows himself but imperfectly: the exact state of his health, the truth of his knowledge, the real motives of his actions, are all veiled in semi-obscurity; of his neighbour he knows even less than of himself, and his generalizations of national character, typified by nicknames, are worthless caricatures. Antipathies rooted in ancient quarrels — political or religious — enter largely into the judgments on nations and Churches. Opprobrious, and so far as sense goes obsolete epithets applied in the heat and passion of battle still cling to the ancient foe and create prejudice against him. Conceptions formed three hundred years ago amid a state of things which has long ceased to be, still survive and distort our judgments. How slowly the terms Protestant, Papist, Romanist, Nonconformist, and others are losing their old unsavoury connotation. Again: Is there any of the greater nations that is purely Protestant? The richest provinces of the German Empire are Catholic, and contain fully one-third of its entire population. In the United States of America, according to the latest census, Catholics form the majority of the church-going population in many of the largest cities: San Francisco (81.1 per cent); New Orleans (79.7 per cent); New York (76.9 per cent); St. Louis (69 per cent); Boston (68.7 per cent); Chicago (68.2 per cent); Philadelphia (51.8 per cent).

Great Britain and its colonies have a Catholic population of over twelve millions. Holland and Switzerland have powerful Catholic provinces and cantons; only the small Scandinavian kingdoms have succeeded in keeping down the old religion. A further question suggests itself: granting that some states are more prosperous than others, is their greater prosperity due to the particular form of Christianity they profess? The idea is absurd. For all Christian denominations have the same moral code — the Decalogue — and believe in the same rewards for the good and punishments for the wicked. We hear it asserted that Protestantism produces self-reliance, whereas Catholicism extinguishes it. Against this may be set the statement that Catholicism produces disciplined order — an equally good commercial asset. The truth of the matter is that self-reliance is best fostered by free political institutions and a decentralized government. These existed in England before the Reformation and have survived it; they likewise existed in Germany, but were crushed out by Protestant Cæsaropapism, never to revive with their primitive vigour. Medieval Italy, the Italy of the Renaissance, enjoyed free municipal government in its many towns and principalities: though the country was Catholic, it brought forth a crop of undisciplined self-reliant men, great in many walks of life, good and evil. And looking at history, we see Catholic France and Spain attaining the zenith of their national grandeur, whilst Germany was undermining and disintegrating that Holy Roman Empire vested in the German nation — an empire which was its glory, its strength, the source and mainstay of its culture and prosperity.

England's grandeur during the same epoch is due to the same cause as that of Spain: the impulse given to all national forces by the discovery of the New World. Both Spain and England began by securing religious unity. In Spain the Inquisition at a small cost of human life preserved the old faith; in England the infinitely more cruel penal laws stamped out all opposition to the innovations imported from Germany. Germany itself did not recover the prominent position it held in Europe under the Emperor Charles V until the constitution of the new empire during the Franco-German War (1871) Since then its advance in every direction, except that of religion, has been such as seriously to threaten the commercial and maritime supremacy of England. The truth of the whole matter is this: religious toleration has been placed on the statute books of modern nations; the civil power has severed itself from the ecclesiastical; the governing classes have grown alarmingly indifferent to things spiritual; the educated classes are largely Rationalistic; the working classes are widely infected with anti-religious socialism; a prolific press daily and periodically preaches the gospel of Naturalism overtly or covertly to countless eager readers; in many lands Christian teaching is banished from the public schools; and revealed religion is fast losing that power of fashioning politics, culture, home life, and personal character which it used to exercise for the benefit of Christian states. Amid this almost general flight from God to the creature, Catholicism alone makes a stand: its teaching is intact, its discipline stronger than ever, its confidence in final victory is unshaken.

The test of vitality

A better standard for comparison than the glamour of worldly progress, at best an accidental result of a religious system, is the power of self-preservation and propagation, i.e. vital energy. What are the facts? "The anti-Protestant movement in the Roman Church" says a Protestant writer, "which is generally called the Counter-Reformation, is really at least as remarkable as the Reformation itself. Probably it would be no exaggeration to call it the most remarkable single episode that has ever occurred in the history of the Christian Church. Its immediate success was greater than that of the Protestant movement, and its permanent results are fully as large at the present day. It called forth a burst of missionary enthusiasm such as has not been seen since the first day of Pentecost. So far as organization is concerned, there can be no question that the mantle of the men who made the Roman Empire has fallen upon the Roman Church; and it has never given more striking proof of its vitality and power than it did at this time, immediately after a large portion of Europe had been torn from its grasp. Printing-presses poured forth literature not only to meet the controversial needs of the moment but also admirable editions of the early Fathers to whom the Reformed Churches appealed — sometimes with more confidence than knowledge. Armies of devoted missionaries were scientifically marshalled. Regions of Europe which had seemed to be lost for ever [for example, the southern portion of Germany and parts of Austria-Hungary] were recovered to the Papacy, and the claims of the Vicar of Christ were carried far and wide through countries where they had never been heard before" (R.H. Malden, classical lecturer, Selwyn College, Cambridge, in "Foreign Missions", London, 1910, 119-20).

Dr. G. Warneck, a protagonist of the Evangelical Alliance in Germany, thus describes the result of the Kulturkampf: "The Kulturkampf (i.e. struggle for superiority of Protestantism against Catholicism in Prussia), which was inspired by political, national, and liberal-religious motives, ended with a complete victory for Rome. When it began, a few men, who knew Rome and the weapons used against her, foretold with certainty that a contest with Romanism on such lines would of necessity end in defeat for the State and in an increase of power for Romanism. . . . The enemy whom we met in battle has brilliantly conquered us, though we had all the arms civil power can supply. True, the victory is partly owing to the ability of the leaders of the Centre party, but it is truer still that the weapons used on our side were blunted tools, unfit for doing serious harm. The Roman Church is indeed, like the State, a political power, worldly to the core, but after all she is a Church, and therefore disposes of religious powers which she invariably brings into action when contending with civil powers for Supremacy. The State has no equivalent power to oppose. You cannot hit a spirit, not even the Roman spirit . . ." (Der evangelische Bund und seine Gegner", 13-14). The anti-religious Government of France is actually renewing the Kulturkampf; but no more than its German models does it succeed in "hitting the Roman spirit". Endowments, churches, schools, convents have been confiscated, yet the spirit lives.

The other mark of Catholic vitality — the power of propagation — is evident in missionary work. Long before the birth of Protestantism, Catholic missionaries had converted Europe and carried the Faith as far as China. After the Reformation they reconquered for the Church the Rhinelands, Bavaria, Austria, part of Hungary, and Poland; they established flourishing Christian communities all over North and South America and in the Portuguese colonies, wherever, in short, Catholic powers allowed them free play. For nearly three hundred years Protestants were too intent on self-preservation to think of foreign missionary work. At the present day, however, they develop great activity in all heathen countries, and not without a fair success. Malden, in the work quoted above, compares Catholic with Protestant methods and results: although his sympathy is naturally with his own, his approbation is all for the other side.


Catholicism numbers some 270 millions of adherents, all professing the same Faith, using the same sacraments, living under the same discipline; Protestantism claims roundly 100 millions of Christians, products of the Gospel and the fancies of a hundred reformers, people constantly bewailing their "unhappy divisions" and vainly crying for a union which is only possible under that very central authority, protestation against which is their only common denominator.


For controversial matter see any Catholic or Protestant textbooks. The Catholic standard work is BELLARMINE, Disputations de Controversiis Christianoe fidei etc. (4 vols., Rome, 1832-8); on the Protestant side: GERHARD, Loci Theologici, etc. (9 vols., Berlin, 1863-75). For the historical, political, and social history of Protestantism the best works are: DÖLLINGER, Die Reformation (3 VOLS., Ratisbon, 1843-51); The Church and the Churches, tr. MACCABE (1862); JANSSEN, Hist. of the German People at the close of the Middle Ages, tr. CHRISTIE (London, 1896-1910); PASTOR, Hist. of the Popes from the close of the Middle Ages, tr. ANTROBUS (London, 1891-1910); BALMES, Protestantism and Catholicity in their effects on the civilization of Europe, tr. HANFORD AND KERSHAW (1849); BAUDRILLART, The Catholic Church, the Renaissance and Protestantism, tr. GIBBS (London, 1908), these are illuminating lectures given at the Institut Catholique of Paris by its rector. On the Protestant side may be recommended the voluminous writings of CREIGHTON and GARDINER, both fair-minded.

About this page

APA citation. Wilhelm, J. (1911). Protestantism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Wilhelm, Joseph. "Protestantism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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