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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Protestant in the United States

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


  • Division into Denominations

    • Appearance of New Groups
    • Move to Unite

  • Progress of American Protestantism

    • Church and State Relationship
    • Fight against Slavery
    • Lotteries Outlawed
    • Use of Alcohol Curbed
    • Conscientious Objectors
    • Religious Education
    • Rise of Evangelism
    • The Third Force

      • Mormons
      • Christian Scientists
      • Adventists
      • Pentecostals
      • Jehovah’s Witnesses

  • Liberalism and Orthodoxy

    • Congregationalists
    • Reaction Begins
    • Fundamentalists

  • Relations with Catholicism

    • Colonial Period
    • In The New Nation
    • Violent Reaction
    • Hostility Dies

In its nature and in its development, Protestantism in the United States differs widely from its counterpart in other countries. The growth of a great many separate and independent churches has produced a distinctively American variety of denominations. This, in turn, has stimulated mergers and federations that have become a pattern for the world movement toward union among the various churches.

Protestants in the United States devote themselves more too social questions than to doctrinal issues. As a result, they have influenced legislation to a degree that is remarkable in a nation where all religious groups are equal before the law.

The Protestant churches sponsor an extensive Sunday school and religious instruction program that reaches every age and social level. This educational approach is balanced by a typically American form of evangelism, or spreading the gospel, first devised to meet the needs of pioneer days and since expanded into a far-reaching missionary enterprise.

American Protestantism has created numerous religious groups and movements that are Protestant in some respects but often far removed from the true spirit of Protestantism. The American love of liberty has been extended to a liberalized attitude toward theology, sometimes showing itself in the beliefs of whole denominations; yet this liberalism is persistently challenged by a trend toward restoring Christian orthodoxy.

Division into Denominations - Statistics reveal that the United States has over 250 denominations, and these are subdivided, in turn, into several thousand independent units. Although the number of independent groups is large, 95 per cent of American Protestants are to be found in fewer than 50 denominations.

Protestant observers have analyzed the background of this sectarianism, as they call it. They concede that although Protestants have been divided from the beginning, elsewhere the division has not been so rapid or radical as in the United States. The original Protestant churches founded in Germany, England, Switzerland, and France varied to some extent in doctrine, but for the most part European Protestantism followed the general pattern set by Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, Huldreich Zwingli, and John Calvin. How can the unusual sectarianism in America be explained? See Calvin, John; Cranmer, Thomas; Luther, Martin; Zwingli, Huldreich.

The first explanation lies in the basic neutrality of the government toward religious groups. Religion began as essentially a private affair in America, and no restrictions were placed on those who wished to found a church of their own.

Unlike European Protestantism, with a tradition of stability behind it, American churches had no valid objection to make when a dissatisfied group wished to secede. In fact, secession was part of the American Protestant story. The Baptists originally had been Anglicans who, as Separatists, were opposed to English ritualism. Methodists broke with the established church for much the same reason. Evangelical Lutherans fled from Germany in opposition to the rationalists, who rejected the supernatural. Quakers were an offshoot of nonconformism. Disciples and Christians were former Baptists and Presbyterians. See Anglicanism; Episcopalians.

Appearance of New Groups - Another explanation of the growth of American denominations may be found in the pioneer psychology of the nation. Until a few generations ago the American people were living on the frontier. New regions had to be explored, new territory cultivated, new homes and institutions established and among them, churches. In addition, the size of the country and the relative sparsity of population, especially in rural districts, made denominationalism a logical consequence.

New religious groups were often founded by traveling missionaries. Methodist circuit riders played a part, as did evangelists such as Jacob Albright for the Pennsylvania Lutherans, and in more recent times, Aimee Semple McPherson of Four-Square Gospel fame. See Methodists.

The institution of slavery provoked a series of divisions; some of these have since been repaired, but others remain. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans split into rival organizations around the time of the Civil War, first over the acceptance of Negro members and later when all Negro churches came into being. See Baptists.

No one has been more critical of American denominationalism than Protestants themselves. They call it an offense “against Christ who is the head not of any of our denominations, but of the Church which is His body.” They have also acted to remedy the situation, one of the worst effects of which is the dissipation of resources that should be combined in furtherance of the gospel. These efforts, however, are directed more to raising the efficiency of the churches than to finding doctrinal agreement among them.

Move to Unite - Organic mergers have resulted from the removal of the causes of dissension, or in some instances groups within the same religious family have united. In the past 50 years about 20 major unions have occurred. The Lutherans were affected by six, where previous divisions had been the result of immigration or geographical distance. The Presbyterians united in five instances with churches in the Calvinist and Reformed traditions. See Lutheran Church; Lutherans; Presbyterians.

On the level of national federations, American Protestantism has reached a phenomenal measure of success. Every aspect of religious activity, education, radio and television, pastoral services, social welfare, home and foreign missions, public relations, research, and survey is now organized under the sponsorship of the National Council of Churches. See National Council of Churches.

Progress of American Protestantism

Before the American Revolution, 10 of the original 13 colonies had established churches, that is, religious bodies that were legally supported and promoted by the civil authorities. The Church of England was established in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia; the Congregationalists were established in Massachusetts (including Maine), New Hampshire (including Vermont), and Connecticut. There was no established church in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, or Delaware, but the Protestants enjoyed special privileges in these territories.

After the Constitutional Convention of 1787, all states except New Hampshire separated their legal structure from any particular form of religion. New Hampshire has a law, adopted in 1812, which authorizes municipalities “to make adequate provision at their own expense for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.”

Church and State Relationship - In the nearly two centuries of the nation’s existence, the Protestant heritage of a close relationship with the civil authorities has been noteworthy. The practice began during the War of Independence, when the Continental Congress in 1775 provided for the pay of chaplains and in the following year authorized the appointment of ministers of the Gospel as chaplains in the army. Writing from Valley Forge, George Washington directed that “divine service be performed every Sunday at eleven o’clock, for to the distinguished character of a Patriot it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.” Although the first chaplains were Protestants, George Washington soon made arrangements to give “every Regiment an opportunity of having a chaplain of their own religious Sentiments.”

Chaplaincies in Congress have an equally long history. Jacob Duche, an Episcopalian, was the first chaplain; he was elected by Congress in 1776 and received a stipend for opening congressional sessions every day with prayer. The custom continues, with practically all congressional chaplains having been Protestants.

Protestant opposition has directly affected American diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The fully accredited American delegation (1848-1867) was not continued except for an interim period (1939-1950) when Myron C. Taylor was the president’s personal representative. See Papal Relations.

Fight against Slavery - The largest single influence in bringing about the abolition of slavery was the concerted action or a dozen Protestant denominations during the first half of the nineteenth century. As early as 1878, the Presbyterian synods of New York and Philadelphia recommended to their congregations measures “to procure eventually the final abolition of slavery in America.” The American Anti-Slavery Society was established in 1833 by Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists, with the avowed purpose of influencing Congress to abolish slavery. In 1835 the Quakers petitioned Congress to outlaw the domestic slave trade.

About the same time a memorial was presented to Congress, bearing the names of 3,000 New England clergymen and begging, “In the name of Almighty God,” that slavery be abolished. Within a few months, 125 separate protests against slavery were sent by the ministers of New England. Nine days before the first Emancipation Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln received a delegation of clergymen from Chicago who believed that “the country is now suffering under Divine Judgment for the sin of oppression.” In the light of this background, it is not surprising that the final draft of the proclamation was couched in religious terms, invoking “the considerate judgment of mankind and the gracious favor of Almighty God.”

Lotteries Outlawed - Not infrequently, the government was influenced by distinctly Protestant aims. An early instance was the anti-lottery crusade. The campaign against public gambling on a national scale began as an organized opposition to the Louisiana lottery, which was chartered for a period of 25 years by the state legislature in 1868. Church forces succeeded in preventing renewal of the franchise in1893, but the lottery interests were so powerful that only a national law was considered adequate to curb what many thought a dangerous activity.

Led by the clergy of Boston, the anti-lottery campaign enlisted important church officials, including 38 bishops of the Episcopal Church. The bill was passed by the Senate but held up in the House until intense propaganda in the religious press finally brought about passage of the Anti-Lottery Act in 1895. Eight years later the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act.

Use of Alcohol Curbed - The classic example of Protestant impact on legislation was the Volstead Act, which was passed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Protestant opposition to alcoholic beverages goes back to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who forbade his followers to drink, sell, or even to handle that “liquid fire.” Led by the Methodists, American churchmen promoted the organization of a National Temperance Society (1865) and the National Prohibition Party.

Five years after the Volstead Act was passed (1920), the liquor dealers of the country publicly identified the Methodists as their chief antagonists. After its repeal (1933), the Methodist church (with a membership of 10 million) reasserted its conviction that intoxicating beverages “cannot be legalized without sin.” It also declared its intention to continue the fight against the liquor traffic.

Conscientious Objectors - The legal status of conscientious objectors to military service shows the extent to which the American government respects religious convictions. The Quakers, or Society of Friends, pioneered the opposition to military service. In 1865 they secured the inclusion of an exception clause in the National Mandatory Enrollment Act, apparently the first recognition by the federal government of religious scruples against war. See Quakers.

Between World Wars I and II the Adventists, Baptists, Mennonites, Methodists, and others won further modifications of this law. As it now stands, military conscription does not “require any person to be subject to combat training and service who by reason of religious training and belief, is conscientiously opposed to participation in war in any form.” See Conscientious Objector.

Religious Education - With few exceptions, the Protestant churches of America have favored public, tax-supported education. Sporadic attempts to develop a parochial school system of their own have generally failed. Exceptions to the rule may be found among the Lutherans and Adventists, who maintain elementary schools, and among the Episcopalians, who have their own high schools.

Most Protestant religious education is conducted in Sunday school classes. Enrollment on all age levels in the 1960s ranged between 40 and 50 million students, from cradle roll (under two) to adult education programs, most (40 per cent) being for children between three and eleven. The teachers (over 3 million, many from the staffs of public schools) give their services gratis.

Yet Sunday schools are admittedly insufficient; in one hour they can hardly take a proportionate place in a week’s education. Accordingly, a released-time program was instituted, allowing pupils to receive instruction in their respective faiths for one hour a week during school time. Even this proved inadequate, however, and in 1950 a national campaign was organized under Protestant auspices urging the integration of moral and spiritual values in the curriculum of tax-supported schools. In the words of a report from tile National Council of Churches, “since religious truth is a part of our heritage of truth, it should be included in the child’s education wherever relevant to the subject matter of education.”

Rise of Evangelism - Evangelism came to tile United States with the followers of John Wesley, and once here it underwent certain changes due to the circumstances of the growing nation. The vast reaches of the western United States were served by Methodist ministers who traveled great distances on horseback to preach to the isolated settlements. They began a practice of itinerant preaching which has not substantially changed. Revivalism, exchange of pupils, and mass-meeting crusades are familiar forms of this ministry.

Although others than Methodists have taken on this work, its essential qualities are still typically Wesleyan: to arouse a sense of guilt for past misdeeds, to confess humbly one’s sins before God, and to make an act of confidence in the divine mercy by accepting Christ as one’s Lord and Savior. With the growth of foreign missions under American sponsorship, the same spirit of evangelism is being transported to other countries, notably to Latin America. See Wesley, John.

The Third Force - In the unique variety of forms of American Protestantism, many groups are impossible to classify; yet they must be considered Protestant, since they were organized under Protestant leadership on principles derived from Protestant tradition.

The Mormons, Christian Scientists, Adventists, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Assemblies of God are products of Reformation theory that now number, together with similar movements, close to one-fifth of the churchgoing non-Catholic population of the United States.

Although differing in practice from the more conventional churches, these sects still depend on the basic Protestant ideals of direct illumination and divine guidance. This aspect of Protestant faith is the key to understanding what has been called the “Third Force” in American Protestantism.

Mormons - Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the founder of Mormonism, prayed for light to recognize the true church: Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. Of the vision which followed this prayer, he later wrote, “I saw two personages, who when asked which of all the sects was right, and which I should join,” answered that “I must join none of them, for they were all wrong.” Subsequent revelations included the sanction of polygamy and the contents of a new Scripture, the Mormon Bible. See Mormons; Smith, Joseph.

Christian Scientist - Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), founder of Christian Science, also depended on revelation. After suffering an accident, she was awaiting a clergyman who, as she says, was to prepare her for death. Reading the Bible, she came upon the words of Christ to the man sick with palsy. As she read “Arise, take up thy bed,” she had a revelation that death is a figment of the mind, based on the error of thinking that man is composed of body and soul, which separate after a short span of years. This was the beginning of her new religion, which teaches that material things are illusions. Logically there can be no sickness or pain if there is no real body in which they can occur and no death because there is no body from which the divine Soul (one with God and the same in all persons) can depart. See Christian Scientists; Eddy, Mary Baker.

Adventists - The existing Adventist churches in America trace their origin to the teaching of William Miller (1782-1849), a Baptist minister. His studies of the Book of Daniel convinced him that the second coming of Christ to the earth would take place between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When his predictions failed to come true, his movement (The Millerites) split into several groups based on differing beliefs. The most important offshoot of the Millerites, the present Seventh-day Adventists, owes its remarkable development to Mrs. Ellen White. The account of her revelations, which began in 1844 when she was seventeen, fill 20 volumes in a modern edition. They are designed to show that Seventh-day Adventism, with its emphasis on observance of Saturday as the Lord’s Day and promise of an early coming of Christ, is the only valid form of Christianity. See Adventists.

Pentecostals - Pentecostals carry the divine-communication theory to emotional extremes; they hold that every convert receives an outpouring of divine grace in visible form, such as the gift of prophecy or of speech in strange tongues. Their very name is a claim to a special descent of the Holy Spirit, the “Second Rain,” not unlike the first infusion on the people 10 days after the Ascension of Christ. The Assemblies of God are a modified form of Pentecostalism, holding that conversions are possible without being accompanied by physical signs of receiving the Holy Spirit. See Pentecostal Churches.

Jehovah’s Witnesses - The Jehovah’s Witnesses (originally called Russellites), consider themselves heirs of the Reformation. Martin Luther is to them the successful challenger who courageously defied the all-powerful domination of the popes. Their founder, Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), a former Congregationalist, is honored next to St. Paul as expounder of the gospels. His divine commission is said to have been foretold by the prophet Ezechiel. The society he founded is called “theocratic" because it recognizes no earthly authority but depends upon constant and immediate guidance from God. See Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Comparable to organized religious bodies operating on the direct revelation principle are movements such as Moral Rearmament (MRA). Frank Buchman, the founder of MRA, was a Lutheran minister who believed he had discovered a direct access to God. “Any man,” he said, “can pick up divine messages if he will put his receiving set in order. Definite, accurate, adequate information can come from the Mind of God to the minds of men.” See Moral Rearmament.

Liberalism and Orthodoxy

The extremes in Protestant worship and practice are also reflected in the field of doctrine and religious principles. Here, too, the American scene is unique.

The religious liberalism of the United States was inherited from England. Between 1650 and 1800, prominent writers such as Charles Blount, Thomas Woolston, Matthew Tindal, and David Hume rejected the supernatural. They taught a species of Christianity, called “deism,” in which miracles and mysteries of faith were dismissed as unworthy of rational belief.

Congregationalists - The distinctive aspect of liberalism in the United States is the presence of religious naturalism within traditional Protestant churches. This is strikingly illustrated in the history of the Congregationalists in the past 150 years. Originally Calvinist in theology, they have gone through changes that exemplify the high degree of freedom in doctrinal belief enjoyed by American Protestants.

Early in the nineteenth century, liberal-minded Congregationalists began publicly to preach doctrines frankly opposed to the Calvinist elements in their church’s statement of faith. The principle of predestination, the theory of the depravity of human nature, and the concept of God as an arbitrary Deity were all challenged, as were the divinity of Christ and the existence of hell. See Congregationalists.

The more aggressive preachers left Congregationalism and formed the Unitarian association, under the leadership of William Ellery Channing and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who were both ordained ministers. Emerson held that “the highest revelation is that God is in every man.” He maintained that the individual contains all that is needful in himself, and everything that happens to man has its origin within human nature, without grace and without dependence on supernatural powers. See Unitarian.

The Unitarian departure did not check liberalism among Congregationalists. Their rejection of any obligatory creed, ecclesiastical authority, and doctrinal conditions for membership made them, by their own admission, a haven for anyone whose Christian faith was questioned in other denominations. But their right to call themselves Protestants has been questioned.

In 1957 the Congregationalists merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. Two ordained clergymen of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, have been outspoken critics of dogmatic Christianity. Tillich defined Protestantism as the right to protest against every power, person, or institution which claims to possess divine authority to teach or impose precepts. Niebuhr rejected the divinity of Christ as a piece of “wooden orthodoxy.” He said further that “all definitions of Christ which affirm both his divinity and humanity” are “logical nonsense.” See Niebuhr, Reinhold; Tillich, Paul.

Reaction Begins - Inevitably such attitudes produced a reaction, and in recent times there has developed a strong countermovement of Christian orthodoxy. Such men as J. Gresham Machen, Edward J. Carnell, and Carl F. H. Henry challenged the liberals to take a stand for or against Christian dogmas. Liberals, they argue, assert that religion is an inexpressible experience, that the verbal expression of it can only be metaphorical, and that therefore doctrines may differ while the experience remains the same. They use words like “God,” “atonement,” “redemption,” and “Christianity” but refuse to define them so that they will mean the same thing to all people.

They further charge the liberals with reading into the Bible what they want to find there. They accuse them of distorting the gospel message by postulating a Jesus who is only a man and not the Son of God, at the same time accepting Christ as the greatest moral and religious teacher. This, the new defenders of orthodoxy say, is illogical. If Jesus, who repeatedly claimed to be divine, was not the Son of God, then He was the very opposite of a reliable teacher of ethics.

Fundamentalists - Complicating the tension between the liberal and orthodox groups is the suspicion in which conservative Protestants are held because of their rigid teaching on such questions as evolution, which they succeeded in getting enacted into state law. A Tennessee law forbade the teaching of biological evolution in universities, normal schools, and other tax-supported institutions. This led to the Scopes trial (1925), in which Clarence Darrow defended a high school teacher’s right to ignore the antievolution law.

Although Scopes was convicted, the resulting publicity injured the Fundamentalists’ cause. Among their “fundamentals,” they profess belief in the Incarnation, the Virgin Birth, and bodily resurrection from the dead, along with a literal interpretation of the Bible. The term “fundamentalist,” however, has become almost a nickname used by the opposition to discredit the entire conservative position, including doctrines which belong to the substance of Christianity. See Fundamentalism.

Relations with Catholicism

A most characteristic aspect of American Protestantism has been its relationship with the Catholic Church. Catholics were sometimes persecuted and often suspected of being agents of Rome. As the United States developed, however, and Protestants and Catholics lived and worked together, a better understanding between the two groups resulted.

Colonial Period - Although Catholics had been in America since Ponce de Leon discovered Florida in 1513, and three Domincans established the colony of San Miguel (1526) in what is now Virginia, large-scale association between Protestants and Catholics did not occur until the English settled along the Atlantic seaboard. With notable exceptions, as in Pennsylvania, the usual Protestant attitude reflected the European, and therefore Anglican and Puritan, mentality. Catholic missions among tile Indians were considered part of a papist plot. Persecution also existed, and laws were passed putting prices on priests’ heads and outlawing the Mass.

By act of the General Assembly of Maryland in 1654, it was decreed that “none who profess and exercise the popish religion commonly known by the name of the Roman Catholic Religion can be protected in this Province.” Spain and France were nearby enemies, and every Catholic was regarded as a potential fifth columnist. In the English speaking territory, therefore, there was an anti-Catholicism whose roots were deep in the history of the mother country.

The New Nation - A critical change took place when the Colonies became independent of England. Sponsored by the liberal Protestant element among congressional leaders, the First Amendment to the Constitution negatively forbade the establishment of a national church (as in England) and positively provided for the practice of any religion without hindrance from the law.

Political tolerance of the Catholic Church naturally affected American Protestant thought. Though they were still regarded with suspicion, Catholics gradually were accepted into national life and probably would have met no new opposition had it not been for the wave of European immigration which began early in the nineteenth century and continued to the end of World War I. It has been estimated that about 60 per cent of the 30 million immigrants to the United States between 1820 and 1920 were practicing Catholics. For example, in Boston between 1850 and 1855 the native-born voters (mostly Protestant) increased by 15 per cent; those of foreign birth (mostly Catholic) by almost 200 per cent.

Violent Reaction - Protestant reaction was vigorous. Ray Billington’s The Protestant Crusade lists 45 professedly anti-Catholic newspapers and periodicals that started publication between 1830 and 1854, ranging from the daily Native American to the weekly Anti-Romanist

and the monthly American Protestant.

Under the force of this propaganda, societies were organized to consolidate Protestant fear into protective action. One of these, the American Society to Promote the Principles of the Protestant Reformation, was founded, according to its charter, because “the principles of the court of Rome are totally irreconcilable with the gospel of Christ.”

The Campaign was carried forward by preachers who exhorted the people to save America from Rome. As a result, a dozen Catholic churches were burned during the 1850s; many more were pillaged. Mobs stormed convents in New Orleans, Galveston, and Charleston. In 1864 the Ursuline convent in Charleston, Mass., was burned to the ground.

Hostility Dies - During the second half of the nineteenth century Protestant hostility abated as Catholics took a greater part in public affairs. The contributions to the welfare of the nation made by such men as Bishop John England and Archbishops John Hughes, John Ireland, John Keane, and Martin Spalding, as well as James Cardinal Gibbons, proved that Catholic culture could enrich American life.

This spirit of toleration continued to grow stronger in the twentieth century. On occasion, however, the old hostility flared up, as in the presidential campaigns of 1928 and 1960, when the Catholic candidate was attacked on purely religious grounds. On the whole, cooperation and understanding continue to draw Protestant and Catholic closer together in nonreligious activities such as social welfare and a wide range of community programs.

For further information read Protestant Education; Protestantism; Protestantism, Expansion of.

Catholic Encylopedia for School and Home
Vol. 9, pp. 41-50

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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