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English Speaking Protestantism

General Essay on English-Speaking Protestantism

In 1534 the Church of England separated itself from the Church of Rome because the Pope had refused to allow the English monarch, Henry VIII, to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon. This decision placed the English monarch, rather than the Pope, at the head of the Church of England. Almost at once certain reforms were put into effect consistent with those that were happening on the continent. The monasteries were dissolved and confiscated by the crown and the Bible was translated into the vernacular.

The Protestant reforms were taken further by Henry's son, Edward VI (r. 1547-1553), who introduced the Book of Common Prayer in 1552. Following the brief and bloody reign of Mary Tudor (r.1553-58), who sought to reconcile England with Rome, Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603) reestablished the authority of the monarch over the English church through the Act of Supremacy of 1559. The definitive statement of the Church of England was produced in the form of the Thirty-Nine Articles of 1563, which combine a Lutheran understanding of justification and a reformed understanding of election and the sacraments.

The establishment of a definitive doctrinal statement did not reconcile the various parties within the Church of England, some of whom still wished to see the Church reconciled with Rome while others supported views characteristic of the radical Protestant reformers in continental Europe. This latter group were known as Puritans because they wanted to purify the English church of any vestiges of Roman Catholic belief or practice. Out of the Puritans emerged a group known as Separatists or Brownists after one of their leaders, Robert Browne (1550?-1633), whose doctrines of the church laid the theological foundations of Congregationalism. Browne taught that the true church consisted only of believers and that Christ, rather than the monarch, was the true head of the church. He advocated a church structure in which each congregation was self-governing with power residing with the congregation of each church. For espousing such beliefs Browne was imprisoned thirty-two times during his life.

Such persecution forced Browne's followers and the heirs to his theology to flee from England to Holland or America, where important communities where established in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The Congregationalists of New England endeavoured to establish a Puritan theocratic society, a process undermined by the transplantation of other traditions into the region. The numbers of Congregationalists rapidly increased as a result of the Great Awakening of the 18th century, a period of Christian revival inspired by the preaching of the Congregational pastor Jonathon Edwards (1703-1758). This was followed towards the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century by a second period of revival, sometimes called the "Second Great Awakening". This second period of revival also contributed to the growth of other Christian traditions in America and the splintering of the Congregationalists into smaller groups. In 1959 the majority of the Congregational Churches in the United States merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ. In England in 1972 many Congregationalists merged with the Presbyterian Church to form the United Reformed Church

The second branch to emerge out of the Puritan tradition were the Baptists. The Baptist church came into being when a group under the leadership of Thomas Helwys and John Smyth, a former Anglican preacher, fled to Holland and instituted the practice of adult baptism. In 1611 Thomas Helwys and some of his followers returned to England where their movement grew steadily in spite of sustained persecution by church and political authorities. In England the Baptists split into two groups: the General and Particular Baptists. The General Baptists accepted the Arminian view of salvation; that grace was available to all people and that people had the freedom to resist grace. (This form of theology is called Arminian because it is named after its proponent Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609).) The Particular Baptists adopted the Calvinistic view that God's grace was available only to a particular group elected by God for salvation.

It was in America that the Baptist church has flourished. Prior to the beginning of the 19th century the Baptist churches in America were largely disparate organisations. The need, however, for cooperation, particularly in foreign missionary activity led to the establishment of organisations designed to oversee missions such as the Triennial Convention, so called because its meetings were held every three years.

No sooner had progress been made in the area of interchurch cooperation than divisions also began to appear. The most important of these was between the churches located in northern and southern states over the issue of slavery. In May 1945 the Southern Baptist Convention was formed by churches who continued to support the practice of slavery. It was not until 1907 that the northern churches united organisationally through the Northern Baptist Convention (later renamed the American Baptist Convention).

A third important sector of the American Baptist heritage consists of the churches formed by African Americans. Although a number of independent African American Baptist churches had been established in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was not until the end of the civil war in America and the abolition of slavery that African Americans were free to form there own organisations. In 1889 the National Baptist Convention was established in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1915 this organisation split into two groups: the larger calling itself the Natonal Baptist Convention USA, Inc. and the smaller keeping the original name.

Somewhat related in theology to the Baptist churches are those churches which are sometimes referred to as millenial or adventist on account of their belief in the imminent second coming of Jesus. Adventists trace their origin to William Miller, a Baptist farmer in Massachusetts, who in 1836 claimed that Christ would appear on earth in 1844. While the majority of Miller's followers fell away in 1844, a small section remained and these gathered around a visionary called Ellen White, who went on to form the Seventh Day Adventist Church in 1863. This group has flourished to the extent that it now has over 7 million adherents world wide.

A second major adventist sect is the Jehovah's Witnesses. The movement that came to be known as the Jehovah's Witnesses was founded by Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), a former Congregationalist who, having as a young man come to doubt the doctrine of eternal punishment, claimed that Christ would return secretly to earth in 1874 and that the world would end in 1914. Russell's beliefs were published in a book entitled The Object and Manner of Our Lord's Return. In 1878 Russell was made minister of an independent church in Pittsburgh. Following Russell's death in 1916, the movement was taken over by Joseph Rutherford under whose leadership the movement acquired the name Jehovah's Witnesses. When Rutherford died in 1942 he was succeeded by a board of directors, under whose leadership the movement grew very rapidly. Today The Jehovah's Witnesses have some five million followers in many countries of the world.

Growing out of the Adventist tradition is the Worldwide Church of God. Its founder, Herbert Armstrong (1892-1986), was originally a member of the Church of God (Seventh Day), a sect which had broken away from the Seventh Day Adventists. Having cut himself off from his church in the 1930s, Armstrong went on to found in 1947 a college in Pasadena California, which provided the basis of the new movement. In spite of schisms in the church in the 1970s and law suits brought by former members, the church has continued to grow to the point that its monthly magazine, Plain Truth, has an estimated 20 million readers.

A third major tradition to emerge out of Anglicanism is Methodism. Its founder, John Wesley (1703-1791), formed within the Anglican Church a system of societies designed to encourage people to live a Christian life. In 1784 the Methodists in America formed their own church independent of the Church of England, known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. Two other Methodist churches also arose in the United States at about this time. In 1800 some German settlers formed the Church of the United Brethren in Christ, and in 1803 the Jacob Albright (1759-1808) founded the Evangelical Association. These two churches united with each other in 1946 and with The Methodist Church in 1968 to form The United Methodist Church.

The issue played a major role in the development of the Methodist Church in America. Richard Allen (1760-1831), a freed slave grew so unhappy with the racism he encountered in the church that he left and in 1816 organised the African Methodist Episcopal Church. A second church of this type was begun in 1821: the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Then, in 1830, a further schism occurred when the Methodist Protestant Church was established as a result a dispute over the rights of the laity to elect district superintendents. In 1939 this church united with the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South to become the Methodist Church.

Fundamentally related to these disputes and divisions was the issue of slavery. Methodists in the north came increasingly to oppose slavery, while those in the south were of the view that slavery was essential to their economy and justified by biblical teaching. In 1844 a prominent bishop, James O. Andrew, was suspended from his episcopal office because he had acquired and refused to emancipate his slaves. Andrew's suporters broke away from the main body of the church, and in 1845 formed the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Following the end of the American civil war African Americans within the Methodist Episcopal Church, South seceded in order to form the Coloured Methodist Episcopal Church (now called the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church). This church, along with the other African American Methodist Churches, continues to remain separate from the larger Methodist organisations.

Out of the Methodist tradition grew two important Christian groupings: the Salvation Army and Pentecostalism. The Salvation Army was founded by William Booth (1829-1912), a minister in the Methodist Church in England. Booth took the Christian message to the poorest parts of London and set up various missions out of which the Salvation Army was formed in 1878. In 1880 the Army began to work in America, where its influence spread very quickly. Today the Salvation Army works in about 90 countries throughout the world.

Pentecostalism is a term applied to those churches which emphasise role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues or healing, in church activities. Pentecostalism emerged out of a tradition within Methodism known as Holiness Methodism. In the 1880s a number of these Holiness Methodists broke away to form independent denominations which in turn merged to form new denominations. The beginnings of Pentecostalism are generally attributed to the work of William Seymour, a Black Holiness minister who founded a mission on Asuza Street, Los Angeles in 1906. Visitors to the mission would take with them the distinctive style of worship to their own churches, thus spreading pentecostalistic practices into other churches as well as forming the basis of new churches. There are now many different churches which could be described as pentecostal, the best known of which are the Assemblies of God is the best known. Today Pentecostalism has acquired particular prominence through its use of television as a means to spread its message.

Very much in contrast to the Pentecostalist churches in terms of both theology and style of worship is the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Protestant Episcopal Church as it came to be known was originally the Anglican Church transplanted onto American soil. Following the American revolution the American church became independent of the mother church but retaining close ties. Historically the church has adopted a liberal position on the role of women in the church and other social issues. The The Episcopal Protestant Church is also very much involved with ecumenical issues as evidenced by its entering into an agreement of "interim eucharistic sharing2 with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.


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