Alister E McGrath

In memory of Stephen Charles Neill (1900-1984)


Introduction 1

part i Origination 15

1 The Gathering Storm 17

2 The Accidental Revolutionary 37 Martin Luther

3 Alternatives to Luther 61

The Diversification of the Reformation

4 The Shift in Power 83

Calvin and Geneva

5 England 105

The Emergence of Anglicanism

6 War, Peace, and Disinterest 127

European Protestantism in Crisis, 1560—1800

7 Protestantism in America 151

8 The Nineteenth Century 173 The Global Expansion of Protestantism part ii Manifestation 197

9 The Bible and Protestantism 199

10 Believing and Belonging 243

Some Distinctive Protestant Beliefs

11 The Structures of Faith 277

Organization, Worship, and Preaching

12 Protestantism and the Shaping of 311 Western Culture

13 Protestantism, the Arts, 351 and the Natural Sciences part iii Transformation 387

14 The Changing Shape of 391 American Protestantism

15 Tongues of Fire 415

The Pentecostal Revolution in Protestantism

16 The New Frontiers of Protestantism 439 The Global South

17 Protestantism 461

The Next Generation

Notes 479

Index 529

About the Author




About the Publisher


In July 1998, the bishops of the Anglican Communion met in the historic English cathedral city of Canterbury for their traditional Lambeth Conference, held every ten years. The intention was to address the many challenges and opportunities that Anglicanism faced worldwide—such as the burgeoning growth of the church in Africa and Asia, its slow decline in the West, and the new debates on sexuality. The bishops gathered every day for prayer and Bible study, a powerful affirmation of the role of the Bible in sustaining Christian unity, guiding the church in turbulent times, and nourishing personal spirituality.

But how was the Bible to be interpreted—for example, on the contentious issue of homosexuality, a major cause of friction within Anglicanism at that moment? Despite the best efforts of the conference organizers, a tempestuous debate erupted over precisely this thorny question in the public sessions of the Conference, reflecting multiple tensions between religious liberals and conservatives, modern and postmodern worldviews, and the very different cultural contexts of the West and the emerging world. To paraphrase Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester (executed in 1555), everyone meant well—but they certainly did not mean the same thing.1

In the view of many observers, the Anglican Communion came dangerously close to breaking apart at that point over the interpretation of the text that was meant to bind them together. How, many Anglicans wondered, could the Bible be the basis for their identity and unity when there was such obvious disunity on how it was to be understood? How could a text-based movement have a coherent inner identity when there was such clear and fundamental disagreement on how that text was to be interpreted and applied on an issue of critical importance?

The idea that lay at the heart of the sixteenth-century Reformation, which brought Anglicanism and the other Protestant churches into being, was that the Bible is capable of being understood by all Christian believers—and that they all have the right to interpret it and to insist upon their perspectives being taken seriously. Yet this powerful affirmation of spiritual democracy ended up unleashing forces that threatened to destabilize the church, eventually leading to fissure and the formation of breakaway groups. Anglicanism may yet follow the pattern of other Protestant groups and become a "family" of denominations, each with its own way of reading and applying the Bible.

The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves.2 However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisaged or predicted. The great convulsions of the early sixteenth century that historians now call "the Reformation" introduced into the history of Christianity a dangerous new idea that gave rise to an unparalleled degree of creativity and growth, on the one hand, while on the other causing new tensions and debates that, by their very nature, probably lie beyond resolution. The development of Protestantism as a major religious force in the world has been shaped decisively by the creative tensions emerging from this principle.


To its supporters, the Protestant Reformation represented a necessary correction and long-overdue renewal of the Christian faith, liberating it from its imprisonment to the transient medieval intellectual and social order and preparing it for new challenges as western Europe emerged from the feudalism of the Middle Ages. Christianity was being born all over again, with a new potency and capacity to engage with an emerging new world order.

Yet from its outset, the movement was seen by its opponents as a menacing development, opening the way to religious mayhem, social disintegration, and political chaos. It was not simply that Protestantism seemed to revise, corrupt, or abandon some of the traditional beliefs and practices of the Christian faith. Something far more significant— and ultimately much more dangerous—lay beneath the surface of the Protestant criticisms of the medieval church. At its heart, the emergence and growth of Protestantism concerned one of the most fundamental questions that can confront any religion: Who has the authority to define its faith? Institutions or individuals? Who has the right to interpret its foundational document, the Bible?3

Protestantism took its stand on the right of individuals to interpret the Bible for themselves rather than be forced to submit to "official" interpretations handed down by popes or other centralized religious authorities. For Martin Luther, perhaps the most significant of the first generation of Protestant leaders, the traditional authority of clerical institutions had led to the degradation and distortion of the Christian faith. Renewal and reformation were urgently needed. And if the medieval church would not put its own house in order, reform would have to come from its grass roots—from the laity. Luther's radical doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" empowered individual believers. It was a radical, dangerous idea that bypassed the idea that a centralized authority had the right to interpret the Bible. There was no centralized authority, no clerical monopoly on biblical interpretation. A radical reshaping of Christianity was inevitable, precisely because the restraints on change had suddenly—seemingly irreversibly—been removed.

The outbreak of the Peasants' War in 1525 brought home to Luther that this new approach was dangerous and ultimately uncontrollable. If every individual was able to interpret the Bible as he pleased, the outcome could only be anarchy and radical religious individualism. Too late, Luther tried to rein in the movement by emphasizing the importance of authorized religious leaders, such as himself, and institutions in the interpretation of the Bible. But who, his critics asked, had "authorized" these so-called authorities? Was not the essence of Luther's dangerous new idea that there was no such centralized authority? That all Christians had the right to interpret the Bible as they saw fit?

In the end, not even the personal authority of Luther could redirect this religious revolution, which anxious governments sought to tame and domesticate. By its very nature, Protestantism had created space for entrepreneurial individuals to redirect and redefine Christianity. It was a dangerous idea, yet it was an understanding of the essence of the Christian faith that possessed an unprecedented capacity to adapt to local circumstances. From the outset, Protestantism was a religion designed for global adaptation and transplantation.

This book sets out to tell the story of the origins and development of this radical form of Christianity, not to record the past but to understand the present and anticipate the future. It is a subject of immense historical, intellectual, and social importance. The English Civil War of the seventeenth century was ultimately a battle for the soul of Protestantism, as rival visions of what it meant to be Protestant collided, with disastrous results. Yet not only has Protestantism survived the first five hundred years of its existence, but it seems poised for further growth and adaptation in the twenty-first century. As religion once again comes to play a significant role in world affairs, an understanding of the complexities of this great religious power becomes progressively more important.

Although this book makes use of the best historical scholarship, it is not yet another chronicle of the development of Protestantism. Rather, it is an interpretative history of the movement that sets out to clarify the identity and inner dynamics of Protestantism through its historical manifestations. Whereas many older studies thought of Protestantism as being analogous to a seed, capable of development and growth along predetermined lines, the evidence presented in this analysis suggests that this model is inadequate and misleading. To use an alternative biological imagery, Protestantism turns out to be more like a micro-organism: capable of rapid mutation and adaptation in response to changing environments, while still maintaining continuity with its earlier forms. This insight gives a new importance to critical historical analysis: what does the historical development and transformation of the movement tell us about its genetic makeup—and hence its possible future forms?

This study is written at a highly significant time in the history of Protestantism. Throughout its existence, the United States of America has been a predominantly Protestant nation. Many of the developments that have shaped the modern religious world can be traced back to American influence. Yet a series of recent studies have suggested that the era of the Protestant majority in the United States is coming to an end, possibly within the next few years.4 With such a seismic development now imminent, the time is clearly right to explore the past, present, and future of this movement and to ask where its epicenters will lie in the twenty-first century and what forms it will take.


This book sets out to tell the story of the emergence of Protestantism against the turbulent backdrop of the waning of the Middle Ages and the birth pangs of early modern Europe. Although popular accounts of the origins of Protestantism often identify Martin Luther's posting of the Ninety-five Theses against indulgences on October 31, 1517, as marking the origins of the Reformation, the truth is much more complex and interesting.5 Although undoubtedly influenced and catalyzed by significant individuals—such as Martin Luther and John Calvin— the origins of Protestantism lie in the greater intellectual and social upheavals of that era, which both created a crisis for existing forms of Christianity and offered means by which it might be resolved.

The use of the term "Protestantism" to refer—somewhat vaguely, it must be said—to this new form of Christianity appears to have been a happenstance of history. Its origins can be traced back to the Diet of Worms (1521), which issued an edict declaring Martin Luther to be a dangerous heretic and a threat to the safety of the Holy Roman Empire. Any who supported him were threatened with severe punishment. It was an unpopular move with many German princes, a growing number of whom were sympathetic to Luther's demands for reform. One of them, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, arranged for Luther to be abducted and given safety in Wartburg Castle, where he began his great German translation of the Bible. This hostility on the part of many German rulers toward his policies led Emperor Charles V to dilute the Edict of Worms. In 1526 the Diet of Speyer decreed that it was up to individual princes to enforce its draconian anti-Lutheran measures. The outcome—though clearly not the intention—of this measure was to allow Luther's reforming vision and program to gain strength in many regions of Germany.

Emperor Charles V was seriously preoccupied with other matters at this time and therefore was distracted from dealing with the rise of this unpredictable new form of religious faith within Germany. His empire was under immediate and serious threat. One worrying challenge came from a perhaps unexpected source: Rome itself had challenged his authority. Exasperated, in 1527 Charles V sent a task force of twenty thousand mercenaries to sack Rome and place Pope Clement VII under house arrest. The episode undoubtedly dampened any slight enthusiasm Charles might have had for dealing with the pope's enemies in Germany.

Yet a far greater danger lay to the east, where decidedly ominous storm clouds were gathering. Following their capture of the great Byzantine city of Constantinople in 1453, Islamic armies were pressing westward, making deep inroads into hitherto Christian areas of eastern Europe as they pursued their jihad. These armies had occupied much of the Balkans, where Islamic spheres of influence were well established (a development that has resounded throughout the subsequent history of the area, especially in the Bosnian civil war of 1992-95). Following their defeat of the Hungarians in 1526, Turkish armies headed north. By 1529 they had laid siege to Vienna. The Islamic conquest of western Europe suddenly became a real possibility. Urgent action was required to deal with this clear and present danger to western Christendom.

The second Diet of Speyer was hurriedly convened in March 1529. Its primary objective was to secure, as quickly as possible, a united front against the new threat from the east. Hard-liners, however, saw this as a convenient opportunity to deal with another, lesser threat in their own backyards. It was easy to argue that the reforming movements that were gaining influence throughout the region threatened to bring about de-stabilization and religious anarchy. The presence of a larger number of Catholic representatives than in 1526 presented conservatives with an opportunity they simply could not ignore. They forced through a resolution that demanded the rigorous enforcement of the Edict of Worms throughout the empire. It was a shrewd tactical move, with immense strategic ramifications. Both enemies of the Catholic church—Islam and the Reformation—would be stopped dead in their tracks.

Outraged, yet ultimately powerless to change anything, six German princes and fourteen representatives of imperial cities entered a formal protest against this unexpected radical curtailment of religious liberty. The Latin term protestantes ("protesters") was immediately applied to them and the movement they represented. Although its origins lay in the religious situation in Germany, the movement rapidly came to be applied to related reforming movements, such as those then associated with Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland, the more radical reforming movements often referred to at the time as "Anabaptism" (though now more generally known as "the Radical Reformation"), and the later movement linked with John Calvin in the city of Geneva. Older reforming movements—such as the Waldensians in northern Italy and the Bohemian reforming movements tracing their origins back to Jan Hus—gradually became assimilated within this new larger entity.

Although a word had been invented, its connotations remained vague, subject to the whims and agendas of propagandists on both sides of the Reformation controversies. Faced with a significant political and theological threat, the Catholic church used the term to lump together a series of threats arising from a group of loosely interconnected but ultimately distinct movements. The tense and dangerous situation demanded unity within the Catholic church; presenting the various evangelical groupings as a coordinated anti-Catholic movement proved instrumental in catalyzing unity within that church and galvanizing its members into action.

Protestants, for their part, saw a revitalized Catholic church as posing a serious threat to their continuing existence. Anglican and Lutheran, Reformed and Anabaptist—the four main evangelical strands present by the 1560s—saw their antagonisms, divisions, and mutual distaste eclipsed as the need for collaboration against a coordinated and dangerous opponent became clear. Whatever their differences, they reasoned, they were all "Protestants"—even though there was a conspicuous lack of clarity over what that actually meant.


So why is there a need for another study of the origins and shaping of Protestantism? While there are a number of commendable older studies of the origins and nature of Protestantism, the rapid pace of change in the field makes a new investigation of its origins, distinctive characteristics, and future potential necessary.6 Those changes relate both to significant revisions of the scholarly understanding of the origins of Protestantism and to highly important recent developments within the movement that have yet to find their way into more general works of this nature. Five points are of particular importance in this respect.

First, recent scholarship has moved decisively away from the older tendency—evident in such a distinguished work as Geoffrey Elton's Reformation Europe (1963)—to underplay the social and economic aspects of the emergence of Protestantism in order to emphasize its religious and political elements.7 A new interest in social history has cast new light on the origins of the Reformation—especially in relation to its impact on how the broad mass of the population lived and thought—and has rightly cast doubt on any attempt to define the movement solely or chiefly in terms of the theological agendas of its leading figures. At times, this new approach has led to ridiculous overstatements, such as some frankly embarrassing attempts to eliminate Martin Luther altogether from accounts of the Reformation or to relegate him to the sidelines as a bit player. While such nonsense can now be safely disregarded, it is now beyond dispute that any attempt to make sense of the origins, the popular appeal, and the transmission of Protestantism demands careful study of the structures and institutions of contemporary society.8

In the second place, the tidal wave of studies of local archives and private correspondence has confirmed the suspicions of an early generation of scholars—that it is unacceptable to determine the state of the pre-Reformation European church through the eyes of its leading critics, such as Luther and Calvin. It is increasingly clear that attempts to depict the late medieval church as morally and theologically corrupt, unpopular, and in near-terminal decline cannot be sustained on the basis of the evidence available. As in every period, the church possessed strengths and weaknesses and sought to consolidate the former and address the latter. It is now clear that Catholic reforming movements were not a response to the criticisms of the Protestant reformers but were deeply enmeshed within the pre-Reformation church—where, paradoxically, they created an appetite for reform that laid the ground for Protestantism in some respects.9

A third concern is perhaps of theological rather than historical importance. Although an earlier generation of Protestant writers tended to assume that "the Reformation" and "Protestantism" were essentially synonymous terms, there is a growing appreciation that the relationship between them is more complex than has hitherto been realized.10 Protestantism emerged from the Reformation through a complex and as yet not fully understood process that involved reception and interpretation, which led to a series of local reforming movements that developed a broader, yet far from total, sense of shared identity. The historical origins and intellectual foundations of Protestantism are such that diversity and tension have been essential aspects of its identity from the beginning. Protestantism is best thought of as a "movement of movements" that share common aspirations while differing on how these are, in the first place, to be articulated and, in the second, to be attained.

A fourth factor pointing to the need for a new study is the realization that many existing analyses have been unduly influenced by popular stereotypes of Protestant leaders and ideas, which have distorted perceptions of the nature and development of the movement. The most glaring example of such a misrepresentation is John Calvin, who is regularly presented as an "icon of intolerance" in school history textbooks, in contrast to Luther, who is regularly portrayed as a pioneer of individual freedom.11 Such parodies of Calvin and Geneva still linger, along with other unexorcised ghosts, within earlier treatments of Protestantism—even including Elton's Reformation Europe. Where modern scholarship tends to see Calvinism as an "effective proto-modern insurgency movement," studies of the 1960s, perhaps viewing its emergence through the prism of the cold war of that era, found it natural to see "Geneva as 'Moscow on the Leman,' spreading its tentacles through Catholic France."12

Finally, a new study is essential precisely because Protestantism itself has changed, decisively and possibly irreversibly, in the last fifty years, in ways that would have astonished an earlier generation of scholars and historians. Much scholarship has yet to catch up with the astonishingly rapid growth of Pentecostalism and offer a critical analysis of its significance for the future of Protestantism in particular and of Christianity in general.13 According to the standard account of its origins, Pentecostalism came into being in the first decade of the twentieth century. Although estimates of its present numerical strength are difficult to verify, the movement today is the largest constituency within Protestantism and is widely believed to have more than 500 million adherents, mostly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Its potential to transform Protestantism is undeniable, as is the need for an evaluation of its impact and its future.


This book tells a story, in the belief that the past not only shapes and illuminates the present but anticipates the future. The book avoids an essentialist reading of history, as if any single controlling narrative were adequate to account for the messy and complex realities of history. History can illuminate the multivalent and often extraordinarily fluid ideas and forms taken by Protestantism in response to a series of historical contingencies—but it cannot tell us what Protestantism actually is, still less what it should be.14 Historical meta-analysis allows us to discern trends and developments and to identify which proved to be important and productive in the shaping of modern Protestantism.

I first began to study the origins and development of Protestantism under the direction of Professor Gordon Rupp at Cambridge University back in the late 1970s. My initial work focused on the origins of the reforming ideas of Martin Luther,15 then rapidly expanded into a study of the historical development of the notion of "justification of faith" (so central to the Reformation debates),16 followed by a detailed study of the intellectual currents that shaped the emergence of the ideas of the movement.17 In undertaking these analytical works, which often focused on fine points of detail, I became increasingly aware of the need for a work of synthesis that would weave the burgeoning scholarly literature on the origins and development of Protestantism together into a single, organized narrative. This work, though based on the best detailed scholarly studies, tries to discern the bigger picture underlying them and to assess its significance for understanding the past and present and illuminating future trends. Above all, it tries to identify the big idea that lies at the heart of Protestantism and to trace its impact on the unfolding of the movement in the past and its development in years to come.

Like Julius Caesar's Gaul, the work is divided into three parts, dealing with the origination, consolidation, and transformation of Protestantism. It opens by considering how Protestantism came into existence, exploring its historical development during its first great period of expansion. To provide a thorough survey of this vast subject is not only unrealistic but also not the intention of the approach adopted. A principle of selective attention is used: those aspects of the narrative of emergence are accentuated that its subsequent development show to have been of the greatest significance. What is offered is an interpretative history, a highly focused reading, a broad-brush approach that aims to identify and interpret what turns out to have been significant rather than to chronicle everything that happened. An understanding of the origins of Protestantism is essential to any attempt to make sense of its subsequent development. From the outset, the movement was indelibly stamped with hallmarks that would shape its evolution.

The second part of the book deals with the basic ideas of Protestantism and its impact on culture. This section brings together historical, cultural, and conceptual analysis, offering a description of basic Protestant attitudes and the manner in which they have shaped values and actions during the last five hundred years. The strongly entrepreneurial mind-set characteristic of many (but by no means all) Protestants had a great impact on the shaping of Western culture, particularly in the economic sphere, but a surprisingly small impact in other areas. Once more, those who long for simplicities can only be frustrated by the way in which the diversity of Protestantism has led to a significant variety of cultural outcomes.

The final part of the work considers the history of Protestantism during the twentieth century, which has seen the movement undergo radical change and development, especially through its expansion in Latin America, Asia, and Africa and the emergence of Pentecostalism as a new form of Protestantism that is unusually well adapted to meeting the needs and aspirations of the urban poor in the global South. Protestantism now has a strong presence in regions of the world in which it was a total stranger at the beginning of the twentieth century and manifests itself in forms that were unknown at that time. It is no exaggeration to say that the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the transformation of global Protestantism in ways that raise new questions about its future shape and impact. Many of these are addressed in the final chapter of the work, which considers how Protestantism is likely to mutate in the future, as well as how these patterns of mutation illuminate recent developments in Islam.

In writing this book over many years, I have accumulated debts far too great and numerous to list in detail. Scholarship is always a corporate undertaking in which the individual depends on the work of others at every point. I acknowledge with the greatest appreciation the assistance so generously given by many, primarily at universities, libraries, and seminaries in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines. I also acknowledge helpful conversations with scholars and leading church figures from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa. While I take full responsibility for the ideas developed in this work, I could not have reached them without extensive discussion and debate with others over the last twenty years. I also owe many thanks to Roger Freet, my editor at HarperOne, for a highly productive and stimulating dialogue that led to the emergence of this book in its present form.

Finally, I need to say that this book has not been written for scholars, although it tries to bring together the best scholarship presently available in a coherent synthesis, weaving a grand narrative out of many complex and significant smaller strands and stories. As many will recognize, I have at times had to make adjudications over complex debates in the vast research literature dealing with the subjects covered by this book. While I believe those judgments to be defensible, they are most certainly open to challenge and criticism. I have tried to indicate which scholarly studies have led me to draw certain conclusions, without cluttering the work with the conventions of academic annotation. The conclusions of this book are rather like scholarship itself—fallible and provisional. Understanding the past and predicting the future are both precarious undertakings, the latter more so than the former, even though both are attempted on the basis of the best authorities available.

But whether readers agree with my conclusions or not, it is my hope that they will enjoy the ride as we explore the contours of one of the world's most fascinating and important religious movements. It has had its moments in the past. It will unquestionably have them in the future as well.

Alister E. McGrath November 2006



Uffïzi, Florence, Italy; Photo: Erich Les sing/Art Resource, NY

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