Chapter 5: The Protestant Faith Families: The Great Reformation Churches

What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By
by Louis Cassels

Chapter 5: The Protestant Faith Families: The Great Reformation Churches

In a pleasant American suburb, a polite young lady of twelve went to call on the new family that had just moved into the house next door. She was delighted to find that it included a girl of approximately her own age. They were soon deeply involved in the kind of mutual cross-examination that always takes place under such circumstances. Finally, they got around to religion.

"We are Presbyterians," said the Welcoming Committee. "What are you?"

The newcomer hesitated, uncertain how to answer.

"Well," she said at last, "Papa is an Episcopalian, and Mamma is a Lutheran. I’m not sure what we kids are. We were Methodists in our last neighborhood, because the Methodist Church was nearby. Maybe I’ll go to church with you."

She did that the next Sunday. Her report on the church’s architecture, the pastor’s personality, and the congregation’s friendliness was so enthusiastic that her parents decided to follow her example. Before the packing crates had been cleared away, the whole family had become Presbyterian.

This kind of thing happens all the time. In religion as in everything else, ours is a mobile society. Individuals and families shift their allegiance from one Protestant denomination to another as casually as they switch brands of toothpaste. The traffic back and forth across denominational lines is so heavy that the lines are becoming blurred and indistinct. Today, if a pastor refers to "our denominational heritage," he can be reasonably sure that one fourth of the congregation won’t know what he’s talking about — and another fourth won’t care.

As the previous chapter indicated, there are still serious theological differences among Protestants. But they are no longer primarily denominational differences. Instead, they cut across denominational lines. A fundamentalist Baptist is much closer in outlook and convictions to a fundamentalist Lutheran than he is to a liberal Baptist.

The steady erosion of once-sharp points of difference is both a result and a cause of the ecumenical movement, which has drawn main-line Protestant bodies into closer relationships in recent years. Ecumenical dialogue has cleared up many ancient misunderstandings, and brought to light many situations in which Protestants of different traditions were not really so far apart as they had thought on doctrinal matters. At the same time, the laity’s plainly manifested impatience with denominationalism has provided a great stimulus to the quest for unity.

Although denominational loyalties have grown weaker and denominational differences less important than they were in past generations, the Protestant who wants to belong to a community of faith still faces the inexorable necessity of choosing a denomination. Just as he cannot buy toothpaste without opting for one particular brand, so he cannot join a church without identifying himself with one particular denomination.1

This being the case, the more thoughtful church-joiners find themselves asking: What’s the difference? What will I encounter in an Episcopal service of Morning Prayer that I would not find at a Quaker meeting? What does a Seventh-day Adventist believe that a Lutheran doesn’t believe — and vice versa? Do Presbyterians run their churches the same way as do the Disciples of Christ?

As soon as you begin looking into such questions, you discover that while historical distinctions between Protestant denominations have become less vivid, they have by no means disappeared entirely. There are still differences — in ethos, doctrine, forms of worship, patterns of organization, and traditional attitudes. And these differences may be quite important to the person seeking a church home or trying to understand the one in which he finds himself.

The remainder of this chapter and the following two chapters will be devoted to thumbnail sketches of the principal denominational families of Protestantism, as well as to several movements that are related to Protestantism historically, although they can hardly be called Protestant in theology.

It will be easier to keep track of the relationships between Protestant bodies if we review them in roughly chronological order, beginning with the three great Reformation churches that emerged during the sixteenth century.


The oldest and still the largest Protestant denomination in the world is the one that bears Martin Luther’s name.

Luther is one of the most fascinating figures in history — and one of the handful who can be legitimately credited with having altered its course.

He was born in the German state of Saxony in 1483, the same year as the Italian painter Raphael. Although he came of poor peasant stock, he had great drive and ambition. He worked his way through school (sometimes he was reduced to begging in the streets for food) and received a law degree from the University of Erfurt in 1505.

In that same year, Luther had some personal experience that turned his attention toward religion. What it was, he never said — it was one of the very few aspects of his private life about which he was reticent. But it was sufficient to cause him to abandon his career as a lawyer and become a monk in an Augustinian monastery.

The medieval Catholic Church into which Luther plunged was not a lovely institution. There were flagrant corruption and immorality among its clergy. It was commonplace for priests to live with concubines and to father illegitimate children. One Belgian bishop, famous for his promiscuity, boasted publicly that in the twenty-two months past he had sired fourteen bastards. The moral rot extended right up to the papacy. Several of the medieval popes were notorious rum-pots and womanizers; one of them, Alexander VI, was such an insatiable lecher that he had the ceiling of his bedroom in the Vatican decorated with pornographic paintings.

Many of the clergy were ignorant of such elemental aspects of the Christian faith as the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. The "religion" they taught was a caricature of true Catholic theology, a compound of crude superstitions. But for all its shortcomings, the medieval Church possessed vast power.

"The Church invaded a man’s life at every point, and the role of the priest was decisive," says Reformation historian William Stevenson. "Without the priest’s mediation, salvation was unattainable. The unbaptized could not be saved, and only the Church could administer baptism; no sinner could be saved without confession and absolution, and only a lawfully ordained priest could hear confession and speak the word of peace. The Church kept a strangle hold upon the souls of men, with power to open or shut fast the gates of heaven."

But it was not the corruption of the Church that troubled Martin Luther during his first three years as a friar. He was totally preoccupied with a sense of his own sinfulness. He tried to ease his hair-shirt conscience by various acts of penance. But no matter how much he starved and beat his body, no matter how many hours he spent kneeling on the stone floor of his monastery cell in prayer, he never felt that he had succeeded in bridging the gap between God’s holiness and his own unworthiness.

The light dawned in Luther’s life on the day when, as he searched the Bible, he found in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans the assurance that men are saved by faith in God’s mercy, rather than by their own strivings this discovery was to liberate Luther from his agonized absorption with his own salvation, enabling him to turn his attention to helping others. In 1508 he left the monastery and joined the faculty of the University of Wittenberg, where he quickly acquired a reputation as a brilliant scholar and powerful preacher.

Indulgences for Sale

It was at this point that Luther began to be painfully aware of the abuses that were rampant in the Church. For nine long years, he brooded about them, and became increasingly convinced that the Church had drifted very far from the teachings of the Bible. In 1517 he was finally goaded into public protest. Pope Leo X was trying to raise money for the enlargement and embellishment of St. Peter’s Church in Rome. He sent official Vatican salesmen into various countries, including Germany, to peddle "indulgences." In theory, an indulgence was a papal pardon through which a penitent sinner could obtain remission of the temporal punishment which he would otherwise receive in purgatory. In theory also, the indulgences were not sold: they were bestowed in recognition of the act of contrition that the repentant sinner performed in making a donation to the Church. But in practice these fine theological distinctions were lost. Ordinary people regarded indulgences as licenses to sin that could be bought from the Church.

The indulgence salesman who worked Luther’s territory was a Dominican friar named John Tetzel. He was a spiritual ancestor of the Madison Avenue pitchman, and he did not complicate his hard sell with any theological window dressing. He simply posted a price list for various sins.

The outraged Luther wrote a blistering denunciation of the sale of indulgences. Then he went on to list some of the other things he found wrong with the Church. By the time he had finished, he had set down ninety-five protests. On All Saints’ Eve in the year 1517, he nailed his "theses" on the door of the church at Wittenberg.

A Spark in Dry Tinder

Looking back, it is possible to say that the Protestant Reformation began at that moment. But Luther certainly did not realize that he was starting a vast historical movement that would divide Christendom. He had no thought of starting a new church; he simply wanted to reform the Catholic Church.

But the spark he struck fell into dry tinder. "There was the resentful feeling all over Germany that the nation was being exploited by Rome and impoverished by burdensome exactions in order to maintain the splendor of the papal court," says Stevenson, in The Story of the Reformation. "Luther’s theses had an unprecedented circulation, being read all over Germany within a few weeks, and Germany was solidly behind the Reformer."

Even so, it took three years for Luther to reach the point of an open break with Rome. Those three years were filled with dramatic confrontations between Luther and papal representatives, who tried in vain to get the stubborn monk to recant. Luther began by insisting that there is no need for human mediation between a man’s soul and God; salvation is a free gift which men receive through the medium of faith. It cannot be doled out by the Church at will; nor can any priest or pope slam the door of heaven in the face of any man who puts his faith in Jesus Christ.

In defending this position, Luther was driven finally to deny the authority of the Pope, and to rest his whole case on the Bible as the only yardstick of Christian doctrine. He also denied that ordination conferred special powers on priests and bishops that laymen did not possess. Instead, he proclaimed the "priesthood of all believers."

His views, circulated widely through Europe in a series of pamphlets, attracted such a following that Pope Leo X resorted to his ultimate weapon — one which in years past had not failed to bring even kings and emperors to their knees. He excommunicated Luther. On December 10, 1520, Luther went to the courtyard of Wittenberg University and in the presence of a group of students publicly burned the papal bull of excommunication. It was an act of defiance comparable to Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon. The Lutheran Church came into being that night.

Under the powerful protection of German princes who were delighted to cast off Roman ecclesiastical authority, the mother church of Protestantism grew rapidly. When Luther died, in 1546, it was firmly implanted in northern Germany and had spread into Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland.

The Lutherans Today

Today there are about 75 million Lutherans in the world. They constitute almost one third of the world’s total Protestant population. There are Lutheran churches on every continent, but Germany and Scandinavia remain the stronghold of Lutheranism, accounting for about 90 per cent of its world-wide membership.

The first Lutheran congregation in North America was established in 1638 by a group of Swedes who settled along the Delaware River. For the next century, there was comparatively little immigration from Northern Europe, so the Lutheran foothold in the new world grew very slowly. It was not until 1748 that Pastor Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, patriarch of American Lutheranism, was able to find enough scattered churches to organize the first synod.

During the nineteenth century, millions of German and Scandinavian immigrants flocked to America. With them they brought not only the Lutheran faith, but also the particular expression of it that they had known in the national churches of their homelands. "Hyphenated" Lutheran churches sprang up through Pennsylvania, Ohio, the Middle West, and the Mississippi Valley, where most of the northern European immigrants settled. There were German-Lutheran churches for the Germans, Swedish-Lutheran churches for the Swedes, Danish-Lutheran churches for the Danes, and so on. Most of them conducted services in the congregation’s native European language rather than English. And each church had very little to do with Lutherans of a different nationality.

By the time the great waves of immigration ended early in the twentieth century, American Lutheran churches were deeply entrenched in a tradition that set them apart from each other and from the mainstream of American life.

But in the decades since World War II, American Lutherans have broken out of this mold. Vigorous evangelism has brought in millions of new members who have no trace of German or Scandinavian ancestry. The Lutherans now rank as the third largest Protestant group in the United States — behind the Baptists and Methodists. Meanwhile, a series of mergers have drastically reduced denominational fragmentation. Most of the 8 million Lutherans in this country now belong to three strong national bodies — the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. The first two are not far apart in doctrine and polity, and they may eventually merge. The Missouri Synod is fundamentalist in doctrine, and has remained aloof, not only from merger movements, but even from such cooperative Protestant organizations as the National Council of Churches.

Lutheran Worship

In fidelity to Luther’s teachings, Lutheran churches observe two sacraments. . . baptism and Holy Communion. They baptize infants (as well as adult converts) in the conviction that baptism is an act in which God gives Himself to one who is absolutely helpless, who has no merits of his own to offer (not even the merit of personal faith), and who can only receive the free gift of grace. They believe that Christ is "really present" in the sacrament of Holy Communion, but reject the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation which holds that the bread and wine become literally the body and blood of Christ at the moment of consecration.

Lutheran worship has retained many features of Catholic liturgy in a simplified form. Lutherans observe the seasons of the historic Church year; they use altars, crosses, candles, and vestments. Music is traditionally superb in Lutheran churches. Luther himself wrote several hymns, including the magnificent A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, and much of the world’s greatest religious music was composed by a Lutheran, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Perhaps because they feel secure in their ancient liturgy, Lutherans are not afraid to house it in ultra-modern architecture. Many of the most striking contemporary American churches are Lutheran.

Some Lutheran churches in Europe have bishops. But all Lutheran bodies in the United States have what is known in church jargon as congregational polity. This means that the local congregation is the main focus of real authority, with certain powers delegated to regional synods or national conferences or conventions.

The new look in American Lutheranism is reflected in an increasing and skillful use of modern methods of mass communication. The motion picture Martin Luther, produced under church sponsorship, proved to be one of the biggest hits in years. The Lutheran Hour on radio consistently draws one of the largest audiences of any in the field of religious broadcasting. The Lutheran, a biweekly magazine, is regarded enviously by other Protestants as one of the finest denominational news publications in existence.

Lutherans have also been active in relieving the burdens of the poor. Through Lutheran World Relief, they have shipped millions of pounds of food and clothing to destitute families in other countries, and have helped to resettle and care for thousands of refugees.

Some Lutherans — mainly in the Missouri Synod — feel strongly about educating their children in a frankly Christian environment. As a result, Lutherans operate one of the nation’s largest networks of parochial schools, second only to that of the Roman Catholic Church.


On July 10, 1509 — a few months after Luther began teaching at Wittenberg — John Calvin was born in the French town of Noyon. From early childhood, he displayed remarkable intellectual ability. At the age of fourteen, he was sent to Paris to study law. He made a brilliant record at the university, but discovered, as had Luther before him, that he was more interested in theology than in law. At the age of twenty-six, Calvin published the first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, one of the most significant books in the history of the world. It outlined a comprehensive system of Protestant doctrine that was similar to Luther’s teaching in many respects, but quite different in others.

By the time the Institutes appeared, Calvin had moved from his native France to Geneva, Switzerland. The book made him famous almost overnight. He was hailed as "the Aristotle of the Reformation," and for nearly thirty years he dominated both the civic and religious life of Geneva. People flocked to Geneva from all over Europe to sit at Calvin’s feet and absorb his wisdom. By the time he died, in 1564, his theology had been adopted by Protestant churches in Switzerland, France, Holland, Hungary, and Scotland. Calvinist teachings even invaded Luther’s Germany — much to Luther’s exasperation.

What Calvin Taught

The distinctive theme of Calvin’s theology was the absolute sovereignty of God. Calvin was never troubled by the question asked by so many of us in the face of great tragedies, "How could a loving God let this happen?" To Calvin, the answer was that God, having created the universe and all that is therein, was totally free to do with it as He pleased. God made the rules, so whatever He did must be just and right, however dimly its rightness might be perceived by a human creature of limited understanding and vision.

Complementing this emphasis on God’s sovereignty was Calvin’s assertion that man is totally guilty and depraved. He is helpless in his sins, and can do nothing to save himself. Although he does not deserve salvation, God in His mercy sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to redeem man from corruption. If men have faith in Christ, their sins are forgiven and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to them vicariously, so that they are made acceptable in God’s sight.

But not all men are to be saved. God has elected, or "predestined," some to be saved and others to be damned. This is what Calvin called the "double decree," and he admitted that he found it a horrible thought that God should have determined in advance that some poor creatures would be doomed to spend eternity in hell. But he felt that he was driven by the logic of his theological system to defend the concept of the double decree. "Predestination, by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no one, desirous of the credit of piety, dares absolutely to deny," he said. "For men are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some, and eternal damnation for others."

Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is a classic example of the difficulties a theologian can get himself into when he feels that he must follow a particular biblical teaching (in this case, the sovereignty of God) to what he considers its logical conclusion, without taking into account other teachings that are of equal importance.

To follow his idea as far as it would lead him, Calvin had to walk roughshod over the doctrine of free will, not to mention all that Christ taught about the love and mercy of our Father in heaven.

While few men had the nerve — or the intellectual prowess — to dispute with Calvin face to face, he was not long in his grave before his followers began to tone down his ideas about predestination. Jacob Arminius, a Dutch theologian, took the lead in modifying Calvinist theology to make room for free will and soft-pedal the notion that God foreordains any soul to damnation. Most Calvinist churches today are "Arminian" in their attitude toward predestination, and many have quietly swept the whole idea under the rug.

Lutheran-Calvinist Differences

One of the points on which Calvin differed from Luther — and one that proved fatal to an early attempt to unite their two branches of Protestantism — was the nature of the elements in Holy Communion. As noted earlier, Luther and his followers held that Christ is "really present" in the bread and wine, in a mystic and miraculous way, although not in the literal sense of the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Calvin felt that Luther’s view was much too close to transubstantiation, and insisted that the consecrated bread and wine must be regarded only as symbols, or "representations," of the Lord’s body and blood.

However, the greatest gulf between Lutheranism and Calvinism did not stem from any particular doctrine, but rather from entirely different attitudes toward life. Luther loved life, and believed that men should enjoy thankfully all God’s gifts, from the beauty of a sunset to the conviviality of a temperate glass of beer. Calvin, by contrast, was an apostle of austerity. He abhorred all kinds of frivolity, and called on men to turn their attention away from the snares and illusions of this life and concentrate wholly on serving God and preparing for the other world. "Either the earth must become vile in our estimation," he said, "or it will retain our immoderate love." Dour and ascetic by temperament, Calvin left the lashing imprint of his personality on a large area of Protestantism in the form of continuing attitudes toward drinking,, dancing, card-playing, Sunday amusements, and other "frivolities."

Although Calvin’s teachings have influence many branches of Protestantism, there is one big denominational family that can claim, more accurately than an other, to be descended from the Geneva reformer. It is the second largest of the great Protestant confessions, within nearly 70 million members throughout the world. Its constituents are known in Continental Europe as "Reformed churches." In Scotland and the United States they are known as Presbyterian churches.

The Origin of "Presbyterian"

Presbyterians trace their lineage to Calvin through the Scottish reformer John Knox, who was one of Calvin’s disciples in Geneva. Knox changed little of Calvin’s theology in adapting it to the British Isles, from which it was shortly to immigrate to America. What he did contribute was a well-conceived system of church government — the so-called Presbyterian polity — from which the Scottish and American branches of the Reformed church family take their name.

The term Presbyterian comes from the Greek word presbuteros, meaning elder. Each local congregation, called a session, is governed by two kinds of elders: teaching elders, who correspond to the ordained ministers of other Protestant bodies; and ruling elders, who are laymen elected by the congregation, much as Baptists elect dea

elected by the congregation, much as Baptists elect deacons, or as Episcopalians elect vestrymen.

Although a session has considerable autonomy in handling its local affairs, it is not independent. Every session in a city or other appropriate geographical area is under the jurisdiction of the presbytery for that area. The presbytery is made up of two representatives from each session — one teaching elder and one ruling elder; in other words, one minister and one layman.

The presbyteries in turn are united in synods, and the synods in a General Assembly that covers the entire nation. These are representative bodies exactly like the presbytery. Presbyterians believe that this system of church government has several advantages. It provides for firm central authority without vesting it in a single individual, such as a bishop. It gives laymen an equal voice with the clergy in all important policy decisions. On the other hand, it avoids the dangers of demagoguery and a stampeded majority that might attend the pure democracy of a church governed by congregational vote. It is government by elected representatives, and if it reminds one of the system set lip by the U. S. Constitution it is no mere coincidence. There were many Presbyterians among the Founding Fathers.

The American Presbyterians

The first Presbyterian church on American soil was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1611. During the colonial era, Presbyterian strength centered in the middle colonies — New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and

Maryland — which attracted large numbers of Scotch-Irish immigrants. It was a Scotch-Irish missionary, Francis Makemie, who in 1705 organized the first presbytery in the American colonies.

Over the next two centuries, Presbyterianism in America was rent by several schisms. The biggest one resulted from the Civil War and is still reflected in the existence of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, better known as the Southern Presbyterian Church, which is the second largest Presbyterian body in the United States, with 900,000 members.

The largest is the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., which has well over 3 million members. There are eight other Presbyterian denominations, ranging in size from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church with 90,000 members to the Associate Presbyterian Church of North America, which claims fewer than 500. Many of the smaller Presbyterian bodies are Fundamentalist in doctrine, and split away from the "U.S.A." Church during the theological controversies of the 1920s and 1930s.

The Order of Worship

Presbyterians place great store by orderliness. If they have a favorite biblical verse, it is St. Paul’s admonition: "Let everything be done decently and in order." This passion for propriety is reflected in their services of worship, which are plain, simple, and dignified. Like many other Protestant bodies, Presbyterians have been moving in recent years in the direction of a richer liturgy, with greater emphasis on the service of Holy Communion; but the principal service in Presbyterian churches continues to be the "service of the Word," built around Scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and a sermon, with the latter occupying the center of interest.

Presbyterian ministers often wear black academic robes with little white collars called "Geneva tabs." Some, however, wear cassocks in church, and there are a few who dare to wear round collars despite their "Roman" associations.

There is great doctrinal variation among the local churches of the United Presbyterian Church. In one you may encounter a pastor who is a way-out theological liberal, and in the next, one who is an unabashed Fundamentalist. If there is any theological viewpoint that can be said to represent the mainstream of this denomination, however, it is Modern Orthodoxy. Southern Presbyterian churches tend to be somewhat more conservative.

Presbyterians have taken an active part in civic affairs ever since colonial times. In any legislative body, from a city council to the U. S. Congress, you will find a disproportionate number of Presbyterians. Generally speaking, Presbyterian churches attract an upper-middle-class constituency. A Presbyterian family magazine learned from a survey of its subscribers that 84 per cent owned their own homes, 54 per cent had attended college, 29 per cent were in the learned professions, and 12 per cent were business executives. Perhaps even more than the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian churches have become the "status" churches of the suburbs.

Despite their relatively privileged backgrounds, Presbyterians have displayed a strong social conscience, particularly on racial issues. No other Protestant denomination has fought for Negro equality more courageously and uncompromisingly.


The Anglican Communion is a world-wide fellowship of some 40 million Christians, the third oldest and third largest family of Reformation churches. It is composed of the Church of England and seventeen other autonomous national cl1urches, including the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, that are historically descended from it.

If you want to irritate an Anglican friend, tell him that Henry VIII founded the Church of England because he wanted a divorce. There is just enough truth in this ancient jibe to make it really annoying. But it is a serious oversimplification of history.

The Reformation would have come to England even if Henry had been completely satisfied with his marriage to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon. Two centuries before Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the Oxford don John Wycliffe was translating the Bible into English, denying the supreme authority of the Pope, and proclaiming the priesthood of all believers. By the early sixteenth century, when the Continental reformers broke with Rome, the religious ferment in England was so strong that one church functionary complained of a shortage of wood with which to burn heretics.

The heretic-burning was done at the instigation of Henry VIII, who displayed such zeal for Catholicism that the Vatican awarded him the title "Defender of the Faith." Henry’s zeal began to flag, however, when his Spanish queen failed to give him a male heir to the throne, and Pope Clement VII refused to grant an annulment of the marriage. Henry felt, with considerable justification, that the Pope’s refusal was not based on religious scruples, of which Clement VII had shown precious few on any other matters, but rather stemmed from the circumstance of the Pope’s being a virtual prisoner of Emperor Charles V, who was a nephew of Catherine of Aragon.

Henry responded by repudiating the authority of the Pope, and proclaiming himself the head of the Church in England. This action — ratified by an act of Parliament in 1534 — was all the Reformation that Henry wanted, and all that he permitted. Until his death in 1547, English churches remained rigorously Catholic in doctrine and


The Book of Common Prayer

When Henry’s nine-year-old son, Edward VI, came to the throne, the English Reformation became something more than a political adjustment. Under the leadership of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, English reformers purged the Mass of medieval accretions and translated it into an English-language service of Holy Communion. They also simplified other services and made them available in the language of the people. The service manual which they compiled was called The Prayer-Book of King Edward VI. It was the first version of the famous Book of Common Prayer, which is universally recognized as the greatest

liturgical treasure of the English language, and which is still used in Anglican churches throughout the world.

Edward VI died at the age of fifteen, and was succeeded on the throne by his half sister, Mary Tudor, an ardent Catholic who was determined to restore English obedience to the Pope. She burned, beheaded, and hanged hundreds of church leaders, including Archbishop Cranmer, in pursuit of this pious intent. Although she fully earned her nickname "Bloody Mary," she succeeded only in alienating the sympathies of the people and she left England far more Protestant in spirit than she found it.

Mary was followed by the great Queen Elizabeth I. This astute young woman, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, restored her father’s Act of Supremacy — making the English sovereign rather than the Roman Pope head of the Church in England — which had been repealed under Mary. Elizabeth also decreed that all English churches must use the services provided in Archbishop Cranmer’s prayer book. Bishops who refused to accept Elizabeth as head of the Church in England were removed from office without fanfare or martyrdom. The whole thing was done so quietly and smoothly that it was not until 1570 — twelve years after Elizabeth came to the throne — that Pope Pius V published a bull excommunicating Elizabeth and all English bishops and priests who had accepted her as head of the English Church.

Under Elizabeth and her Archbishop of Canterbury, Matthew Parker, the Church of England was increasingly receptive to the Protestant doctrines emanating from Luther’s Germany and Calvin’s Geneva. The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion adopted in Elizabeth’s reign as a doctrinal yardstick for the Church of England are distinctly Protestant in tone. They affirm the sufficiency of the Scriptures as a source of Christian teaching, and declare that men are justified by faith alone. The number of sacraments is reduced from the seven recognized by the Roman Catholic Church to the two which the New Testament records as having been instituted by Christ — baptism and Holy Communion. They support Luther’s doctrine that Christ is actually present in the sacrament of Holy Communion, but reject the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation as "repugnant to the plain words of Scripture." The "Romish doctrine" of purgatory, with its related beliefs in the granting of indulgences and pardons by the Church and the invocation of saints, is dismissed as "a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture."

Are Anglicans Protestant or Catholic?

Despite the almost truculently Protestant tenor of the Thirty-nine Articles, which are still published in the back of every Book of Common Prayer, many Anglicans from the sixteenth century until the present have bridled at being called Protestants. They prefer to think of themselves as members of a reformed Catholic church — one which has retained the ancient Catholic creeds and the true Catholic sacraments, and which has preserved a threefold ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons who can trace their line of ordination back to the Apostles. The claim of "Apostolic succession" for Anglican clergymen is based on the fact that the Church of England did not acquire a new ministry at the time of its establishment: it continued under the same bishops and priests it had before its break with Rome. Anglicans contend that the Vatican itself tacitly recognized the validity of Anglican orders when it waited twelve years to excommunicate the clergymen who acknowledged Elizabeth as head of the Church of England.

The Anglican attempt to retain what is valid in Catholic tradition while accepting the basic insights of the Protestant reformer is a typically English solution. It is the English genius for compromise applied to religion. Some people find the result distasteful: they dismiss Anglicanism as being neither Catholic fish nor Protestant fowl. But others agree with the noted Anglican scholar Dr. Chad Walsh: "If Christendom is ever to be reunited into one great Church, that Church will of necessity be one with sufficient scope and flexibility to find room for what is best in both the Protestant and Catholic traditions. I believe the Anglican Communion is a small-scale model of what such a Church can be."

It is an indisputable fact that the Anglican Communion has succeeded for more than four hundred years in holding together in one body "Anglo-Catholics," whose worship is virtually indistinguishable from the Roman Mass; "high churchmen," who emphasize the Catholic heritage; "low churchmen," who lean more toward the Protestant tradition; "evangelicals," who are hard to tell from camp-meeting Protestants; and finally — most numerous of all — "broad churchmen," who cherish both the Catholic and the Protestant aspects of the Anglican via media, and who welcome the opportunity to serve as a bridge between the divided branches of the Christian family.

Their commitment to the cause of Christian reunion has prompted Anglicans to play a leading role in such ecumenical organizations as the World Council of Churches.

When Rome began to show signs of greater openness toward the "separated brethren," Anglicans were quick to respond. It was the Archbishop of Canterbury who first paid a courtesy call on Pope John XXIII — blazing a trail that many Protestant church leaders were to follow.

Episcopalians—the American Anglicans

In the United States, the Episcopal Church was a charter member of the Consultation on Church Union, formed in 1961 to explore the possibility of merging six major denominations into a 20-million-member church that would be "truly catholic, truly reformed, and truly evangelical."

The Episcopal Church, like the Presbyterian churches, derived its name from the way it is governed. Episkopos is the Greek word for "bishop." Episcopal bishops have no more actual power than have the administrative officers of most Protestant bodies. Their wishes in such matters as the handling of money and the management of church-related institutions are subject to the action of democratically elected bodies representative of the church membership. Also, local congregations retain a large degree of autonomy. But Episcopalians do not look upon their bishops primarily as administrative officers. They are the spiritual shepherds of the flock, true successors to the Apostles, commissioned in the name of Christ to ordain the clergy and confirm the laity, charged with preserving sound doctrine and interpreting the teachings of Christ.

This view of the episcopate is shared by all the Anglican churches. It is essentially a "catholic" view and is one of the most important things that Anglicans have in common with the Roman and Eastern Orthodox communions. Several Protestant bodies — for example, America’s Methodists and some European Lutheran churches — use the title of bishop, but their bishops are administrative officers and are not regarded as possessing special apostolic powers in the spiritual realm.

Anglicanism came to America with the earliest English settlers. The first Anglican church was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 by a chaplain who accompanied Captain John Smith’s party. Before the Revolution, Anglicanism was the established, state religion of most of the Southern colonies, supported by tax revenues. George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, and many other Founding Fathers were Anglicans.

During the Revolution, the Anglican churches lost many of their English-bred clergymen, who were appalled at the way the colonials were carrying on and took themselves home to London. They also suffered from popular resentment against a church that recognized George III as its official head. When the Revolutionary War began in 1776, the Anglican churches comprised the largest religious body in America. When it ended, they were one of the smallest.

The slow job of rebuilding began in 1783, when Anglican clergymen in Connecticut held a meeting and elected one of their number, the Reverend Samuel Seabury of Groton, to be their bishop. Seabury went to England to seek consecration from the mother church, but the English bishops subjected him to such a runaround that he finally went up to Scotland, where he duly received the laying-on of hands from three bishops of the Anglican Church of Scotland. Two other American clergymen, William White, of Philadelphia, and Samuel Provoost, of New York, later received consecration as bishops in England. In 1789 Bishop White presided at a general convocation of Anglicans, at which the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States was formally established.

The growth of the Episcopal Church was slow for many years following the Revolution. In the areas where it had once enjoyed established status, it had a hard time teaching its members to support church activities by voluntary contributions. English-oriented even after the Revolution, it continued to hug the Eastern seaboard, and neglected to evangelize the frontier, where other Protestant bodies were making tremendous strides. It acquired a reputation as a church that catered to the carriage trade and had no room for the masses — a reputation it is still trying valiantly to live down.

By the start of World War I, more than three centuries after the first Anglican service of worship was conducted at Jamestown, the Episcopal Church had only one million members, 85 per cent of whom were concentrated in the East and South.

It was not until after World War II that the Episcopal Church finally shook off the lethargy that had earned it the nickname of "God’s frozen people." The postwar boom in church membership came along just as Episcopalians were awakening to the fact that Jesus was speaking to them too when He said that the gospel must be preached "to every living creature." Episcopalians began showing evangelistic zeal just as millions of Americans began looking around for a church, and from the coinciding of these factors came a rapid spurt in growth. Between 1950 and 1960, the membership of the Episcopal Church almost doubled. Today it is one of the six largest American denominations, with more than 3.3 million members. Among them are people from every race, nationality, and economic group — living refutations of the old "class church" label.

The Episcopal Appeal

If the Episcopal Church still has a special appeal for any one group of Americans, it is for the academic-intellectual-professional community. Large numbers of scientists, doctors, lawyers, writers, college professors, and the like, are to be found in the pews of Episcopal churches.

One reason is that Episcopal clergymen are notably well educated, and their sermons rarely if ever insult the intelligence of any listener, however learned he may be.

Episcopalians probably do not drink any more than the members of some Protestant churches that are officially committed to total abstinence; but they are less furtive about it. The Episcopal Church condemns any use of alcohol that leads to drunkenness or impairs a person’s ability to discharge his responsibilities, but sees no sin in moderate drinking at an appropriate time and place.

Episcopalians also take a relaxed attitude toward card-playing, dancing, Sunday golf, and other social activities that cause the blood pressure of a strict Calvinist to rise.

This should not be taken, however, as indicating a laissez-faire attitude toward moral issues. No other non-Roman church takes such a dim view of divorce as does the Episcopal Church. And Episcopalians have been in the front ranks of the fight for racial justice.

To outsiders, the most conspicuous virtue of the Episcopal Church is the beauty of its liturgy. Although many other churches have borrowed liberally from the Book of Common Prayer, its majestic cadences still sound most at home in an Episcopal setting. If you have never heard a good choir leading an Episcopal congregation in the Venite, or a strong-voiced Episcopal priest standing before the altar to open the Communion service with the Prayer for the Whole State of Christ’s Church, you do not know how poetic and uplifting corporate worship can be.

Episcopalians know. And that’s why they tend to be almost fanatically devoted to their church.



1. There are some "nondenominational" churches that offer a bland mixture of several Protestant traditions. But in practice each such church tends to become a small denomination in its own right.