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The Effect of Protestantism on the WorldEssay

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¶ … 16th century, the Catholic Church had become overwhelmingly wealthy and powerful, influencing political and social realities throughout Europe. In 1517, German Christian monk and scholar Martin Luther penned a treatise called simply 95 Theses, dramatically nailing the document to the door of a Catholic Church to effectively protest the corruption he had personally witnessed in Catholic practices. Luther's protest essentially became known as "protestant" Christianity, or Protestantism. The era in which Luther and like-minded reformers worked is also fittingly known as the Reformation. Luther did not necessarily seek to start a new religion, but aimed more to reform the faith he had already known and practiced throughout his life. Although Luther made specific attacks against corrupt practices like "indulgences," which allowed Church members to buy their way out of sin, the leader also recognized the burgeoning call for social, political and economic reform that would herald the Renaissance and later, the Enlightenment ("Martin Luther and the 95 Theses"). The Protestant Reformation was one of the most significant and impactful eras in European and perhaps global history. Protestant culture, characterized by what Max Weber called the "Protestant ethic," helped to stimulate economic growth as well as political and social justice.

Protestantism was a movement that protested corruption in Catholic political operations and excessive elitism its liturgical practices. Theologically, Protestantism distanced itself from the Church in several key ways. Whereas the Catholic Church established itself and its clergy as mediators between individual worshippers and God, the Protestant view shifted attention toward the Bible and encouraged Christian believers to read the Bible for themselves (Cotter). A fundamental feature of Protestant culture was a shift to populism, most potently symbolized by the push to publish Bibles in vernacular languages like English, French, and German. Thus, Protestantism was a populist movement that evolved out of deep mistrust of authority and elitism. These major features lent themselves to widespread social and political revolutions and global paradigm shifts.

Although it can be viewed as much as a political movement as a religious one, Protestantism did alter the ways Christians worshipped and professed faith. The religion also changed the nature and method of evangelism. Core Protestant beliefs that continue to distinguish it from Catholicism include the belief that faith in Jesus Christ alone is necessary and sufficient to achieve salvation; Catholics continue to value "works," or actions in the world as being important for achieving salvation (Wilhelm). Another core Protestant belief is that only the Bible can be a fundamental testimony of truth, and that individual believers can therefore understand the Word of God directly for themselves. Protestant worldviews are Christ-centric, but fused with the humanist values that permeated the Renaissance era.

Its theological counterpoints to Catholicism were not in fact Protestantism's greatest contributions to culture and history. The essential elements of Protestant belief bled into major social justice and reform movements. Foremost was the Protestant Reformation notion that the Bible should be translated into common vernaculars and distributed widely in order to promote the gospel. With the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, the Bible was in fact available to a mass audience, whereas before only clergy would have access to the text and indeed to the ability to read as well (Cotter). The Catholic Church had partnered with local monarchies to establish systems of wealth and power that perpetuated feudalism and indentured servitude throughout Europe. Protestant values empowered the individual against an oppressive system and therefore laid the groundwork for revolutions that would take place over the next several centuries. Philosopher Max Weber believed that Protestantism "contributed to the rise of industrial capitalism ... and the development of industrial capitalism in European countries in the mid- to late nineteenth century," (Delacroix and Nielsen 509). However, there is little empirical evidence to suggest "that the strength of Protestantism in a country was associated with the early development of industrial capitalism," (Delacroix and Nielsen 509). The Reformation did, however, give rise to the belief in a "Protestant work ethic," and a shift in social norms emphasizing individualism and humanism.

Although the Reformation was technically born in Germany, simultaneous protest movements in Switzerland and elsewhere revealed the ways the movement was ripe and ready to take root in European societies. Moreover, dissatisfaction with Church practices like indulgences began far before Luther was born, with the figures like John Wycliffe and John Huss, who had protested the Church in the century preceding Martin Luther ("Protestant Reformation"). The Reformation also revealed major fissions in Catholic Church leadership. For example, Huldreich Zwingli protested the practice of indulgences following Luther's 95 Theses ("Protestant Reformation"). The excommunication of Martin Luther emboldened his cause, leading to a massive reform movement. Luther's views spread rapidly throughout the continent and before long, the world. Each region and culture in which it flourished received and interpreted Protestantism differently, leading to a diversity of sects that nevertheless all fall under the umbrella of Protestantism. The de-centralized nature of Protestant power, contrary to the highly centralized power vested in the Holy See, ensured that Protestantism evolved differently in each location it took root. Protestant evangelism prompted the spread of the religion. In 1541, a Swiss critic of the Church and Protestant sympathizer named John Calvin became highly influential in spreading the Reformation throughout central, western, and northern Europe. By 1559, a synod or conference was held in Paris, linking together the leaders of disparate but related reform movements. A separate reform movement also began in Scotland, leading to the eventual factions in Britain.

Because it threatened to undermine the power of the Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism therefore led to major upheavals and wars. From the time of Luther's 95 Theses until the middle of the 17th century, Reformation-related wars erupted in France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Britain (Trim). Moreover, "many of its adherents were remarkably militant, and its organizational structure itself led to militarization," (Trim 1). The first war that was directly linked to the Reformation occurred where Protestantism itself was born: in what is now known as Germany. Called the Peasants' War, the revolt encapsulated the social justice and humanist dimensions of Protestant thought. The Peasants' War was in some ways the forerunner of democratic revolutions that would take place after the rebellion of the American colonies such as the French Revolution. One of the most momentous of all Protestant wars was the Thirty Years' War, which also swept through German city-states and significantly weakened the Catholic Church's land and power holdings in Central Europe. Wars related to religion erupted in France, the Netherlands, Spain, and the British Isles, altering political alliances and transforming the geo-political landscape of Europe forever (Trim). Monarchs battled over whether they remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church or to the reformist ideals. The Church launched its counter-reformation program in response.

Britain rapidly embraced Protestant ideals, leading to centuries of struggle and ongoing conflicts in Ireland, a Catholic stronghold. From the time King Henry VIII first disavowed Rome as the Christian authority, the Church of England upheld the basic tenets of the Reformation and was challenged by the Tudor dynasty, which sought to reinstate Catholicism (Bremer). Following the death of Mary Queen of Scots, the Protestant supporter Queen Elizabeth further entrenched the Church of England as the state religion. However, many English Protestants did not believe that the monarch-supported Church of England had divested itself of enough Catholic elements in religious worship such as priestly vestments, and sought a more thorough and radical reform (Bremer). Prominent Puritan leaders like John Winthrop sought fit to abandon the Church of England entirely and establish a fully Protestant and fully Puritan colony in the New World. Back in Britain, Protestantism became practically synonymous with national identity, a situation which led to the ongoing tension between England and Scotland on the one hand, and Catholic Ireland on the other (Clayton & McBride).

The American colonies likewise developed deep Protestant identities, particularly in New England. Rather than being threatened by an increasingly irrelevant Roman Catholic Church, Protestant churches faced a new foe: secular humanism. Secular humanism was an integral part of Enlightenment philosophy and values, which took root in England and simultaneously in its American colonies. Enlightenment philosophies did not shun religion entirely, but did downplay the importance of religion in politics and society. Reason became more important than reverting to the Bible. In rebellion against reason and secularism, Protestant fundamentalists engaged in evangelical reform movements known as "awakenings." According to McLoughlin, the First Great Awakening occurred in the 1730s and 1740s, marking the "most extensive intercolonial event," as well as a "new order" in colonial American identity (viii). Less than a century later, the Second Great Awakening helped to generate a new national identity much in the way that religion and national identity was becoming a trend in Europe (McLoughlin). The "great awakenings" in America were characterized by massive meetings centered on charismatic orators and "revivalistic excesses" still evident in American Protestantism today (McLoughlin 107). A Third Great Awakening in the late 19th… [END OF PREVIEW]

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