by Carlo Uchello
Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World
by Alec Ryrie
Published by Penguin Random House
Other religious groups might take exception to the subtitle of Alec Ryrie’s magisterial history of the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath, but they would be hard pressed to prove that any other faith group has had the worldwide impact as have the various threads that make up the Protestant world. And one hesitates to refer to the phenomenon known as Protestantism by anything more precise than a cord of various threads because, as the author points out, Protestantism is neither a doctrine nor a theology. In fact, if you needed to define the single most important element that all Protestant denominations share, it would be an abiding belief in the power and necessity of an unmediated relationship with God.
In a book both ambitious in its scope and comprehensive in its depth of analysis, Ryrie convincingly lays out the three key ingredients that are shared by all the denominations and strains of Protestant thought. Those three ingredients are first, the promotion of free inquiry – that is, an unwillingness to accept any constraints that those in authority may try to place on the actions of the Holy Spirit; second, a bias toward democracy – the necessity of believers to challenge authority when it acts in defiance of God’s will; and third, its preference for apoliticism – in this case, meaning above all else, the desire to be simply left alone, because God’s kingdom matters so much more than anything man has created. While Protestant denominations may certainly manifest these three ingredients in different amount and at different times, what they seem to share in common is what Ryrie calls a “certain generic restlessness,” meaning a belief that any institution created by man tends to calcify and must be challenged through new ideas and arguments.
It may be the first of those three ingredients that best characterize Protestantism – both why it has survived and why it continues to morph and spin off new denominations and movements. Any good Protestant would be familiar with the fifth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, in which even after being arrested and thrown in prison for preaching Jesus resurrected, when Peter is brought before the high priest and ordered to stop his preaching, he replies “We must obey God rather than any human authority.” If you truly believe that you must obey what the Holy Spirit is revealing to you, then staying silent is not an option.
“Protestants” focuses on three major components in Protestantism’s 500 year history. In the first section, “The Reformation Age,” Ryrie provides the context and the formative events of the origin of the Protestant Reformation and describes the original disputes between Luther and Calvin. He discusses how early Calvinism tried (and failed) to bring the competing Continental movements together (though one must admit that even if Calvinism had succeeded, it is almost certain that it would not have stopped the creation of other denominations). He describes how the Continental reforms made their way across the English Channel and were absorbed into the emerging Church of England, which was not quite willing to sever all its ties to Roman Catholic traditions and practices. And of course, for every sect that became an abiding denomination, there were others that either simply failed to sustain themselves (the luckier ones) or else they were violently driven out of existence.
Ryrie’s book, which was 20 years in the making, is so exhaustive in its detail that it could be used as a textbook for a history course. But it shines is in its ability to bring people such as Luther to life.
The second section of the book, “The Modern Age,” takes us from the 1660s to near-contemporary times. Ryrie examines the rise of natural philosophy as an opposing force that gained steam in its opposition to Christian orthodoxies, exemplified by new scientific discoveries and spokesman such as Sir Isaac Newton, who abandoned belief in the Trinity and accepted Deism. As Alec Ryrie points out, “Deism is less a passionate love affair with God than a dignified arranged marriage,” but it may be all that a growing number of people were capable of mustering.
As a counterweight against the new natural philosophy, the pietist movement emerged in the late 17th century also as an alternative to both Lutheranism and Calvinism, preaching a return to practical divinity and the creation of “collegia pietatis” or “schools of piety.”
None of the offshoots of pietism had as much success as did the one created by High Church Anglicans at Oxford University, whose practices became known as Methodism. One of their members, John Wesley, traveled to the English colony of Georgia and established a new religious society, even though he remained a lifelong Anglican until his death. And by the mid-1740s, evangelism began to take over the mainstream in Protestant thinking, at least in America, through the preaching of Jonathan Edwards, as part of the Great Awakening.
Ryrie does not neglect Protestantism’s close link with the spread of slavery to the New World, even if it could later claim some moral high ground by leading the fight to end it. The earliest opponents of slavery included John Wesley but also the Quakers; but even Wilbur Wilberforce was not a proponent of immediate emancipation as he thought that is was inappropriate to free slaves until they were ready to deal with their new reality. And no major church in America, either in the North or the South, called for the immediate end to slavery before the U.S. Civil War erupted in 1861.
In the wake of the First World War, the progressive Protestantism of Britain and the United States led both countries to embark on a movement toward social transformation that viewed Christianity’s role as something far greater: helping all the nations of world more toward a higher moral plane and a brotherhood of man. Some of the social evils became targets for this evolutionary step in Protestantism’s development, such as the preventing the exploitation of workers and a prohibition against alcohol. But the seeds of Christianity’s later decline were already beginning to show as the moral strength and sense of self-assurance continued to be eroded by the growth of secularism, perhaps best exemplified by an increasing acceptance of the Bible as merely a collection of myths and legends and not the literal word of God.
The rise of the Nazi party in pre-World War II Germany was aided by the Protestant church’s abhorrence of the communist and socialist threats, and this fear drove many into the hands of the ultra-conservative fascists. Many admired the Nazi’s promotion of traditional German values, and enough of Luther’s anti-Semitism resonated with the majority of Germans who were still shattered from the crushing defeat of the Great War. For the Nazis, German Christianity meant discarding the Old Testament and the Jewish influence of the Apostle Paul. The one major Protestant group to oppose Hitler was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, of which there were roughly 22,000 at the start of the war. They were the most widely despised of all the Christian churches, and over 5,000 of them died in concentration camps.
After the Second World War ended, Christianity continued to decline in the West, though more steadily in Europe than in the United States. In the United States, the Cold War briefly led to a resurgence of people practicing Christianity. Conservative Protestantism found outlets in a resurgence of fundamentalism and in Billy Graham’s evangelical movement, while more Liberal Protestantism took on the mantle of the Civil Right movement, following the unapologetically Christian Southern Christian Leadership Conference and under the guidance of Martin Luther King, Jr. – someone who Billy Graham embraced and praised. In the 1970s and the decades that followed, Christianity in the United States – both Protestantism and Catholicism – returned to a free-fall in diminishing attendance and influence. (In a recent poll that received a surprising amount of media attention, the percentage of Americans who claim they had no religion surged from less than 10% as recently as the mid-1990s to 23.1% in 2019, edging out Catholics at 23% and evangelicals at 22.5%. Mainline Protestantism had declined to just a hair over 10% of the American population.)
The third and final section of the book, “The Global Age,” presents a much more positive though somewhat discordant note for the future of Protestantism. It explores the divergent ways in which Protestantism has grown and flourished in three separate countries that we may not universally view as heavily Protestant – South Africa, South Korea, and the People’s Republic of China. But in each case, we see the same spirit at work as we did with the apostles when they were brought before the high priest. While many worked, and still work today underground or in the shadows, how could they do anything else when they knew that “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
Protestantism was originally an international religion because of overseas colonies, but now it is in the trenches around the world, competing the marketplace for adherents in not-always-traditional ways. Interestingly (but not really surprisingly), Protestantism in South Africa only began to flourish after the missionaries left and the churches were taken over by local leaders who only answered to themselves. A census in South Africa in 1980 found that 77% of people of all races described themselves as Christians, which is truly a remarkable statistic, with seven-eighths of those Christians being black or colored (mixed race).
The story is different in South Korea where Christianity is still a minority religion, but by 1980 over 20 million South Koreans self-identified as Protestants. In fact, by the year 2000, over 20,000 South Korean missionaries were working in more than 170 countries around the world, making South Korea only second to the United States in the number of overseas-based Protestant missionaries. Also, surprisingly, is that the world’s largest congregation is in South Koreas. The Yoido Full Gospel church claims more than 600,000 congregants who meet in seven consecutive Sunday services in an auditorium as well in branch chapels across the country where the services are telecast.
In the People’s Republic of China, the story of Protestantism is more tenuous, as the government only tolerates Christianity or any religion if it encourages their followers to act out their beliefs as good citizens of the state government. The communist government, of course, is committed to atheism and views all religions as deluded. But as former Premier Zhou Enlai stated, “We think your beliefs untrue and false, therefore if we are right, the people will reject them, and your church will decay. If you are right, then the people will believe you, but as we are sure that you are wrong, we are prepared for that risk.” It remains to be seen whether this relaxed attitude toward openly professing the Christian faith will continue, or if at some point the communist government will crack down once again.
As a global church, Protestantism has inevitably morphed into different sects with different beliefs and practices as it spreads and encounters different cultures and institutions, and as new prophets receive the gift of the spirit that impels them to refocus their attention on a particular aspect of the faith. But as we have seen, that has been the history of Protestantism since its inception. Even in the West, Protestantism continues to change, with the Pentecostal movement only one of the more recent innovations to take root and spread in ways previously unimagined. One of the more dramatic shifts in the second half of the 20th Century has been the explosive growth of Pentecostal Protestantism in Latin America. Polls taken in 2014 found that 19% of people in Latin America are Protestant, with about two-thirds of those being Pentecostals. In some Central American countries, over 40% of the people are Protestants.
“Protestants” ends on an encouraging note, but one is left with the feeling that the Protestantism of the latter 21st Century may look very different from what it is even today. But that should not be a cause for alarm. Protestantism has thrived the most when there was discord and a fight in the public square for the hearts and minds of believers. Christianity changes the lives of its believers, and Protestantism always finds new ways to engage those whose hearts have been enflamed. It always has, and it always will.