4 1 I ’he Protestant branch of the Christian faith broke away from the Roman Catholic
X church in Europe in the sixteenth century because of important differences in religious beliefs. (The Eastern Orthodox branch of the Christian faith had separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054.) At the time of the Protestant
Reformation, the Roman Catholic church was the center of religious life in western European countries; the Catholic pope and the priests played the role of parent to the people in spiritual matters. They told people what was right and wrong, and they granted them forgiveness for sins1 against God and the Christian faith.
The Protestants, on the other hand, insisted that all individuals must stand alone before God. If people sinned, they should seek their forgiveness directly from God rather than from a priest speaking in Gods name. In place of the power and authority of priests, Protestants substituted what they called the “priesthood of all believers.” This meant that every individual was solely responsible for his or her own relationship with God.
After the Protestants broke away from the Catholic church, they found that they could not agree among themselves about many beliefs. Therefore, the Protestants began to form separate churches, called denominations.
(The largest Protestant denominations in the United States now are Baptist, Methodist,
Episcopalian, and the United Children participating in an Easter Sunday service in a Baptist church
Church of Christ.) There was much
A number of people were even killed because of their beliefs. The result of this persecution was that many Protestants were ready to leave their native countries in order to have freedom to practice their particular religious beliefs. Consequently, among the early settlers who came to America in the 1600s, there were many Protestants seeking religious freedom.
In the previous chapter we noted that this desire for religious freedom was one of the strongest reasons why many colonial settlers came to America. Generally speaking, the lack of any established national religion in America appealed strongly to European Protestants, whether or not they were being persecuted. A large number of Protestant denominations were established in America. At first, some denominations hoped to force their views and beliefs on others, but the colonies were simply too large for any one denomination to gain control over the others.
The idea of separation of church and state became accepted. When the Constitution was adopted in 1789, the government was forbidden to establish a national church; no denomination was to be favored over the others. The government and the church had to remain separate. Under these conditions, a great variety of different Protestant denominations developed and grew, with each denomination having a “live and let live” attitude toward the others. Diversity was
accepted and strengthened. Today, the various Protestant denominations have completely separate church organizations, and although there are many similarities, there are also significant differences in their religious teachings and beliefs.