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The sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation was a watershed in the history of the Western theology and law of marriage—a moment and movement that gathered several streams of classical and Catholic legal ideas and institutions, remixed them and revised them in accordance with the new Protestant norms and forms of the day, and then redirected them in the governance and service of the Christian West.

Medieval Catholic Background

Prior to the sixteenth century, marriage was principally subject to the theology and law of the Roman Catholic Church. The medieval Church treated marriage and the family in a threefold manner—at once as a natural, contractual, and sacramental unit. First, marriage was a natural association, created by God to enable man and woman to "be fruitful and multiply" and to raise children in the service and love of God. Since the fall into sin, marriage had also become a remedy for lust, a channel to direct one's natural passion to the service of the community and the church. Second, marriage was a contractual unit, formed in its essence by the mutual consent of the parties. This contract prescribed for couples a life-long relation of love, service, and devotion to each other and proscribed unwarranted breach or relaxation of their connubial and parental duties. Third, marriage, when properly contracted and consummated between Christians, rose to the dignity of a sacrament. The temporal union of body, soul, and mind within the marital estate symbolized the eternal union between Christ and His Church, and brought sanctifying grace to the couple, their children, and the church. This sacramental perspective helped to integrate the natural and the contractual dimensions of marriage and to render marriage a central concern of the church.

Although a sacrament and a sound way of Christian living, however, marriage was not considered to be particularly spiritually edifying. Marriage was a remedy for sin, not a recipe for righteousness. Marital life was considered less commendable than celibate life, propagation less virtuous than contemplation. Clerics, monastics, and other servants of the church were thus to forgo marriage as a condition for ecclesiastical service. Those who could not do so were not worthy of the church's holy orders and offices. Celibacy was something of a litmus test of spiritual discipline and social superiority.

From the twelfth century forward, the Catholic Church built upon this conceptual foundation a comprehensive canon law of marriage that was enforced by church courts throughout much of Western Christendom. Until the sixteenth century, the canon law of marriage was the law of the West. A civil law or a common law of marriage, where it existed at all, was generally considered supplemental and subordinate. Consistent with the naturalist perspective on marriage, the church's canon law punished contraception and abortion as violations of the created marital functions of propagation and childrearing. It proscribed unnatural relations, such as incest and polygamy, and unnatural acts such as bestiality, buggery, and sodomy. Consistent with the contractual perspective, the canon law ensured voluntary unions by dissolving marriages formed through mistake, duress, fraud, or coercion, and granting husband and wife alike equal rights to enforce conjugal debts that had been voluntarily assumed. Consistent with the sacramental perspective, the church protected the sanctity and sanctifying purpose of marriage by declaring valid marital bonds to be indissoluble, and by dissolving invalid unions between Christians and non-Christians or between parties related by various legal, spiritual, blood, or familial ties. This canon law of marriage, grounded in a rich sacramental theology and ecclesiastical jurisprudence, was formalized and systematized by the Council of Trent in 1563.

Reformation Response

The Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican branches of the Reformation gave birth to three Protestant models of marriage. Like Catholics, Protestants retained the naturalist perspective of marriage as an association created for procreation and mutual protection. They also retained the contractual perspective of marriage as a voluntary association formed by the mutual consent of the couple. Unlike Catholics, however, Protestants rejected the subordination of marriage to celibacy and the celebration of marriage as a sacrament. According to common Protestant lore, the person was too tempted by sinful passion to forgo God's remedy of marriage. The celibate life had no superior virtue and was no prerequisite for ecclesiastical service. It led too easily to concubinage and homosexuality and impeded too often the access and activities of the clerical office. Moreover, marriage was not a sacrament. It was instead an independent social institution ordained by God and equal in dignity and social responsibility with the church, state, and other estates of society. Participation in marriage required no prerequisite faith or purity and conferred no sanctifying grace, as did true sacraments.

From this common critique, the Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anglican traditions constructed their own models of marriage. Each Protestant tradition provided a different theological formula for integrating the inherited contractual, natural, and religious perspectives on marriage. Lutherans emphasized the social dimensions of marriage; Calvinists, the covenantal dimensions; and Anglicans, the commonwealth dimensions. Each Protestant tradition also assigned principal legal responsibility for marriage quite differently. Lutherans consigned legal authority mostly to the state, Calvinists to both state and church, and Anglicans mostly to the church. These differences in emphasis and authority among early Protestants were based, in part, on differences among their theological models of marriage.


The Lutheran tradition, from 1517 forward, developed a social model of marriage, grounded in Martin Luther's doctrine of the heavenly and earthly kingdoms. Marriage, Luther and his colleagues taught, was a social estate of the earthly kingdom of creation, not a sacred estate of the heavenly kingdom of redemption. Though divinely ordained, marriage was directed primarily to human ends, to the fulfilling of civil and spiritual uses in the lives of the individual and of society. Marriage revealed to persons their sin and their need for God's marital gift. It restricted prostitution, promiscuity, and other public sexual sins. It taught love, restraint, and other public virtues. Any fit man and woman were free to enter such unions, clerical and lay alike. Indeed, all persons were encouraged to marry when they came of age, unless they had the rare gift of continence. This was especially imperative for Christian clergy, for a pastor's experience of marriage would enhance his pastoral ministry to the married, and his marital parsonage would serve a model for proper Christian living in the community.

As part of the earthly kingdom, Lutheran reformers argued, marriage was subject to the civil law of the state, not to the canon law of the church. To be sure, marriage was still subject to God's law, but this law was now to be administered by Christian magistrates who were God's vice-regents in the earthly kingdom. Church officials were required to counsel the magistrate about God's law and to cooperate with him in publicizing and disciplining marriage. All church members, as part of the priesthood of believers, were required to counsel those who contemplated marriage, to admonish those who sought annulment or divorce, and to aid in the rearing of all children as their collective baptismal vows prescribed. But principal legal authority over marriage and family life lay with the state, not with the church.

This new social model of marriage was reflected in the transformation of marriage law in Germany and other Lutheran polities of Western Europe. Civil marriage courts replaced church courts. New civil marriage statutes replaced traditional canon law rules. Lutheran jurists published scores of treatises on marriage law, affirming and embellishing the new Lutheran theology of marriage. The new Lutheran marriage law, like the new Lutheran marriage theology, remained indebted to the Catholic canon law tradition. Traditional marriage laws, like prohibitions against unnatural sexual relations and against infringement of marital functions, remained in effect. Impediments that protected free consent, that implemented biblical prohibitions against marriage of relatives, and that governed the couple's physical relations were largely retained. Such laws were as consistent with the Catholic sacramental model as with the Lutheran social model of marriage.

But changes in marriage theology also yielded changes in marriage law. Because the Lutheran reformers rejected the subordination of marriage to celibacy, they rejected laws that forbade clerical and monastic marriage, that denied remarriage to those who had married a cleric or monastic, and that permitted vows of chastity to annul promises of marriage. Because they rejected the sacramental nature of marriage, the reformers rejected impediments of crime and heresy and prohibitions against divorce in the modern sense. Marriage was for them the community of the couple in the present, not their sacramental union in the life to come. Where that community was broken, for one of a number of specific reasons (such as adultery or desertion), the couple could sue for divorce and the right to remarry. Because persons by their lustful nature were in need of God's remedy of marriage, the reformers removed numerous impediments to marriage not countenanced by Scripture. Because of their emphasis on the Godly responsibility of the prince, the pedagogical role of the church and the family, and the priestly calling of all believers, the reformers insisted that both marriage and divorce be public. The validity of marriage promises depended upon parental consent, witnesses, church consecration and registration, and priestly instruction. Couples who wished to divorce had to announce their intentions in the church and community and to petition a civil judge to dissolve the bond.


The Calvinist tradition, established in mid-sixteenth century Geneva, set out a covenantal model of marriage. This model confirmed many of the Lutheran theological and legal reforms, but cast them in a new ensemble. Marriage, John Calvin and his followers taught, was not a sacramental institution of the church, but a covenantal association of the entire community. A variety of parties participated in the formation of this covenant. The marital parties themselves swore their betrothals and espousals before each other and God—rendering all marriages triparty agreements, with God as third party witness, participant, and judge. The couple's parents, as God's lieutenants for children, gave their consent to the union. Two witnesses, as God's priests to their peers, served as witnesses to the marriage. The minister, holding God's spiritual power of the Word, blessed the couple and admonished them in their spiritual duties. The magistrate, holding God's temporal power of the sword, registered the couple and protected them in their person and property. Each of these parties was considered essential to the legitimacy of the marriage, for they each represented a different dimension of God's involvement in the covenant. To omit any such party was, in effect, to omit God from the marriage covenant.

The covenant of marriage was grounded in the order of creation and governed by the law of God. At creation, God ordained the structure of marriage to be a lifelong union between a fit man and a fit woman of the age of consent. God assigned to this marriage the interlocking purposes of mutual love and support of husband and wife, mutual procreation and nurture of children, and mutual protection of both parties from sexual sin. Thereafter, God set forth, in reason, conscience, and the Bible, a whole series of commandments and counsels for proper adherence to this ideal created structure and purpose of marriage.

God's moral law for the covenant of marriage set out two tracks of marital norms—civil norms, which are common to all persons, and spiritual norms, which are distinctly Christian. This moral law, in turn, gave rise to two tracks of marital morality—a simple morality of duty demanded of all persons regardless of their faith, and a higher morality of aspiration demanded of believers in order to reflect their faith. It was the church's responsibility to teach aspirational spiritual norms for marriage and family life. It was the state's responsibility to enforce mandatory civil norms. This division of responsibility was reflected in sixteenth-century Geneva in the procedural divisions between the church consistory and the city council. In marriage cases, the consistory was the court of first instance, and would call parties to their higher spiritual duties, backing their recommendations with threats of spiritual discipline. If such spiritual counsel and discipline failed, the parties were referred to the city council to compel them, using civil and criminal sanctions, to honor at least their basic civil duties for marriage.

This Calvinist covenantal model mediated both sacramental and contractual understandings of marriage. On the one hand, this covenant model confirmed the sacred and sanctifying qualities of marriage—without ascribing to it sacramental functions. Marriage was regarded as a holy and loving fellowship, a compelling image of the bond between Yahweh and His elect, Christ and His church. But marriage was no sacrament, for it confirmed no divine promise. On the other hand, this covenant model confirmed the contractual and consensual qualities of marriage—without subjecting it to the personal preferences of the parties. Marriage depended for its validity and utility on the voluntary consent of the parties. But marriage was more than a mere contract, for God was a third party to every marriage covenant, and He set its basic terms in the order and law of creation. Freedom of contract in marriage was thus effectively limited to choosing maturely which party to marry—with no real choice about the form, forum, or function of marriage once a fit spouse was chosen.


The Anglican tradition, of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, brought forth a commonwealth model of marriage. This model embraced the sacramental, social, and covenantal models inherited from the Continent but went beyond them. Marriage was at once a gracious symbol of the divine, a social unit of the earthly kingdom, and a solemn covenant with one's spouse. But the essential cause, condition, and calling of the family was that it served and symbolized the common good of the couple, the children, the church, and the state all at once. Marriage was appointed by God as "a little commonwealth" to foster the mutual love, service, and security of husband and wife, parent and child. It was likewise appointed by God as a "seedbed and seminary" of the broader commonwealth to teach church, state, and society essential Christian and political norms and habits.

At first, this commonwealth model served to rationalize the traditional hierarchies of husband over wife, parent over child, church over household, state over church. After decades of experimentation, England in the mid-sixteenth century had formally rejected most Protestant legal reforms of marriage introduced on the Continent. It returned to much of the medieval canon law of marriage administered by the church, but now under the supreme headship of the English crown. To call the marital household "a little commonwealth" was to signal its subordinate place within the new hierarchy of social institutions of which "the great commonwealth" of England was composed. It was also to call the household to an internal hierarchy of offices that matched the royal and episcopal offices of the great commonwealth. The commonwealth model was thus used to integrate a whole network of parallel domestic and political duties rooted in the Bible and English tradition. Anglican divines and moralists expounded at great length the reciprocal duties of husband and wife, parent and child, master and servant, that would produce a well-ordered little commonwealth. In keeping with the tradition of stability of the great political commonwealth of England, these same Anglican writers prohibited the dissolution of this little domestic commonwealth of the family by divorce.

As the political concept of the English commonwealth was revolutionized and democratized in the seventeenth century, however, so was the English commonwealth model of marriage. The traditional hierarchies of husband over wife, parent over child, and church over family were challenged with a revolutionary new principle of equality. The biblical duties of husband and wife and of parent and child were recast as the natural rights of each household member against the other. The traditional idea of a created natural order of marriage, society, and state met with a new idea of marriage, society, and state formed voluntarily by contracts by individuals in the state of nature. Just as the English commonwealth could be rent asunder by force of arms when it abused the people's natural rights, so the family commonwealth could be put asunder by suits at law when it abused the couple's marital rights. Just as the king could be beheaded for abuses in the commonwealth, so the paterfamilias could be removed from the head of the little commonwealth for abuses in the household. This revolutionary construction of the commonwealth model provided the rationale for the incremental liberalization of English marriage law in the course of the next two centuries. It also provided a stepping stone for the development of a more overtly contractarian model of marriage slowly developed by Enlightenment reformers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


From the later sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, these Catholic and Protestant models lay at the heart of Western marriage and family life, lore, and law. The medieval Catholic model, confirmed and elaborated by the Council of Trent in 1563, flourished in southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and France, and their many colonies in Latin and Central America, in the U.S. south and southwest, in Quebec and the Canadian Maritimes, and, eventually, in parts of East and West Africa. A Protestant social model rooted in the Lutheran two-kingdoms theory dominated portions of Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Scandinavia together with their North American and, later, African colonies. A Protestant social model rooted in Calvinist covenant theology came to strong expression in Geneva, and in portions of Huguenot France, the Pietist Netherlands, Presbyterian Scotland, Puritan New England, and South Africa. A Protestant social model that treated marriage as a little commonwealth at the core of broader ecclesiastical and political commonwealths prevailed in Anglican England and its many colonies in North America and eventually in Africa and the Indian subcontinent as well.

See also:Anabaptists (Amish, Mennonite); Catholicism; Evangelical Christianity; Family, History of; Family Law; Family Ministry; Interfaith Marriage; Religion


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PROTESTANTISM. Martin Luther never set foot in North America, but the movement he unleashed in the sixteenth century profoundly shaped society and culture in America, informing everything from social policy and architecture to literature and health care. Protestantism has been, by far, the dominant religious tradition in America, although the denominational diversity of Protestantism has rendered its influence more diffuse.

Protestantism Defined

While Christianity remained fairly unified during its first millennium, cultural differences prompted a split between the Western church, based in Rome, and Eastern Christianity (Constantinople) in 1054. The Roman Catholic Church enjoyed both religious hegemony and considerable political influence in the West throughout the Middle Ages, but by the fifteenth century various reformers began to agitate for change. Some, like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, wanted the Bible made available in the vernacular, while others called attention to ecclesiastical abuses, including simony (the buying and selling of church offices), nepotism, and general corruption among the clergy and the hierarchy.

Luther himself had been a loyal son of the church and an Augustinian friar. The combination of a visit to Rome, a spiritual crisis, and an itinerant emissary of the Vatican, however, dimmed his affection for the Roman Catholic Church. Luther returned from his sojourn to Rome in 1511 disillusioned with both the splendor of the church and the squalor of the city. A spiritual crisis over the salvation of his soul drove him to an intensive study of the New Testament, especially Paul's epistles to the Romans and to the Galatians, which convinced the restless monk that salvation was available by grace, through faith, not through the agency of priests or the church. Finally, the peregrinations of Johannes Tetzel, raising money for the completion of St. Peter's Church in Rome by selling indulgences (forgiveness of sins), convinced Luther that the Roman Catholic Church was sorely in need of reform.

On 31 October 1517 Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses to the castle church door at Wittenberg, inviting a debate with anyone who wished to engage him on the selling of indulgences. Word of Luther's defiance spread quickly throughout the Europe and led eventually to his excommunication from the Roman Church in 1521. In the meantime, while hiding from papal authorities, Luther translated the New Testament into German, drafted catechisms for teaching the rudiments of theology to the masses, and eventually set about solidifying a church free from papal control.

Luther believed, as do most Protestants today, in the priesthood of all believers; everyone is accountable for himself or herself before God, thereby obviating the necessity of priests as dispensers of grace. Whereas Rome taught the twin bases for authority—scripture and tradition (as interpreted by the church)—Luther insisted on sola scriptura, the Bible alone was the only authority on faith and practice. In worship, Luther emphasized the centrality of the sermon as a means of proclaiming the gospel and educating the laity. By implication, he rearticulated the importance of the Eucharist or Holy Communion; Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus in the saying of the mass, while Luther believed that the real presence of Christ was in the bread and wine, assuring believers of God's grace.

Luther's spirited defense of sola scriptura, the vernacular Bible, and the priesthood of believers virtually ensured that the Protestant Reformation would become diverse and unwieldy. Within Luther's own lifetime various sects arose, each claiming the infallibility of its own interpretation of the Bible, some insisting, for instance, solely on adult baptism or on nonviolence.

Protestantism in America

All of these divergent Protestant groups found their way to North America. Anglicans, members of the Church of England, which had broken with Rome in 1534, settled in Virginia. The Pilgrims, who had separated from the Church of England, founded Plymouth Colony in 1620, the Dutch Reformed organized their first congregation in New Netherland (New York) in 1628, and Puritans began migration to Massachusetts Bay around 1630, followed by the Quakers. Swedish Lutherans settled along the Delaware River. A dissident Puritan, Roger Williams, adopted the belief in adult baptism in 1638, thereby initiating the Baptist tradition in America. The arrival of Scots-Irish in the 1680s brought Presbyterianism to North America, and the immigration of various Germanic groups planted Pietism and the Anabaptist tradition in the middle colonies.

All of these groups functioned with relative autonomy until the mid-eighteenth century when a colonieswide revival, known to historians as the Great Awakening, reconfigured Protestant life in America by eroding ethnic barriers and creating a new vocabulary of faith, known as the "new birth," or evangelicalism. Although evangelical refers to the first four books of the New Testament and also to Luther's "rediscovery of the gospel" in the sixteenth century, the term took on a special valence in America, combining the remnants of New England Puritanism with Scots-Irish Presbyterianism and Continental (especially Dutch) Pietism to form a dynamic, popular movement. Itinerant preachers during the Great Awakening summoned their listeners to obey the call of God and be "born again." Converts as well as those favorably disposed to the revival became known as New Lights, whereas those who looked askance at the revival enthusiasm, included many of the settled clergy, earned the sobriquet Old Lights.

In the decades surrounding the turn of the nineteenth century another revival convulsed three theaters of the new nation: New England, the Cumberland Valley of Kentucky, and western New York, an area newly opened to settlement by the Erie Canal. The Second Great Awakening in the late 1820s and 1830s brought evangelical Protestantism to the frontiers, and in so doing it reshaped American society. In the South, camp meetings combined opportunities for socialization with fiery preaching, and many came away converted—even though some detractors noted that as many souls were conceived as converted. Methodist circuit riders organized congregations in the wake of the camp meetings, while Baptist congregations tended simply to ordain one of their own as their pastor.

The Second Awakening unleashed a flurry of reforming zeal in the new nation. Protestants believed that they could, by dint of their own efforts, bring about the kingdom of God here on Earth. Many believed that such efforts would usher in the millennium, the one thousand years of righteousness predicted in Revelation 20. This conviction animated sundry social reform initiatives during the antebellum period: the temperance movement, prison reform, women's rights, the female seminary movement, and (in the North) the crusade against slavery.

The carnage of the Civil War, however, began to dim hopes of a millennial kingdom, and the arrival of non-Protestant immigrants, most of whom did not share evangelical scruples about alcohol, convinced many Protestants to rethink their understanding of the millennium. Latching onto a mode of biblical interpretation called dispensationalism, imported from Great Britain, conservative Protestants decided that the teeming, squalid tenements no longer resembled the precincts of Zion. Jesus would not return after Protestants had constructed the millennial kingdom; he would return before the millennium, which meant that his return was imminent. This shift in theology effectively absolved conservatives from social engagement. If the world was on the verge of collapse, why bother with social and moral reform? The popularity of dispensational premillennialism signaled a turn on the part of conservative Protestants from the amelioration of society to the redemption of individuals. "I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel," the Chicago evangelist Dwight L. Moody famously declared. "God has given me a lifeboat and said, 'Moody, save all you can.'"

Liberal and Conservative

Adoption of this new formula of biblical interpretation also marked the deepening of a split in Protestantism between conservative and liberal. Whereas the liberal strain had been present since the eighteenth century and had manifested itself in such movements as Unitarianism and Transcendentalism in the mid-nineteenth century, Protestant liberals at the end of the nineteenth century distinguished themselves by their insistence that Christianity redeemed not only sinful individuals but sinful social institutions as well. Marching side by side with other reformers during the Progressive Era, liberal Protestants engaged in what became known as the social gospel, working for the abolition of child labor, the eradication of poverty and political machines, and advocating the rights of workers to organize.

Liberal Protestants had also shown greater receptivity to new intellectual currents in the latter half of the nineteenth century, including Darwin's theory of evolution and an approach to the Bible called higher criticism, which cast doubts on the authorship of several books of the Bible. Conservatives, who tended to read the Bible literally, feared that these developments would undermine confidence in the Scriptures.

Fearing a slippery slope toward liberalism, conservatives countered with a series of pamphlets called The Fundamentals, published between 1910 and 1915. Financed by Lyman and Milton Stewart of Union Oil Company, The Fundamentals contained highly conservative affirmations of such traditional doctrines as the virgin birth of Jesus, the authenticity of miracles, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the premillennial return of Christ. Those who subscribed to the doctrines articulated in the pamphlets came to be known as fundamentalists. Liberals, also known as modernists, joined the battle in the 1920s in what became known as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, a fight over control of many Protestant denominations.

Modernists, by and large, prevailed, and many conservatives, fearing contamination by association with what they regarded as heresy, separated and formed their own churches, denominations, Bible institutes, seminaries, publishing houses, and mission societies. Taken together, this vast network of institutions, largely invisible to the larger society, formed the evangelical subculture in America, and it served as the foundation for their reemergence later in the twentieth century.

Protestant liberalism became more or less synonymous with "mainline" Protestantism, the movement that dominated American religious life during the middle decades of the twentieth century. During a gathering in Cleveland in November 1949 mainline Protestants formed the National Council of Churches, an organization intended to underscore Protestant unity and avoid the duplication of efforts. Less than a decade later, on 12 October 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone for the monolithic Interchurch Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, thereby symbolizing the fusion of mainline Protestantism with white, middle-class values.

Challenges to Mainline Protestant Hegemony

While mainline Protestants celebrated their unity and their cultural ascendance, other forces conspired to diminish their influence. A young, charismatic preacher named Billy Graham, who hailed from North Carolina, caught the eye of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who instructed his papers to "puff Graham." The evangelist's anticommunist rhetoric fit the temper of the McCarthy-era 1950s. Soon he was preaching to huge audiences throughout North America and the world, inviting them simply to "make a decision for Christ," to accept Jesus into their hearts and become "born again," a term taken from John 3, when Nicodemus visits Jesus by night and asks how to enter the kingdom of heaven. Graham consciously tempered some of the incendiary rhetoric of the fundamentalists; he preferred the moniker evangelical, and he sought to cooperate with all Protestants, conservative and liberal. Graham's knack for self-promotion and his adroit use of emerging media technologies earned him a large public following as well as recognition from major political figures. His popularity, moreover, prefigured the return of evangelicals to the political arena in the 1970s.

In Montgomery, Alabama, another expression of Protestantism rose to public consciousness in December 1955 after a diminutive seamstress, Rosa Parks, refused to surrender her seat to a white man and move to the "colored" section of the bus. African American preachers in the town quickly organized a boycott to protest the entrenched practice of segregation in the South, and they chose the young pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr., as their leader and spokesman. Influenced by Mahatma Gandhi, King cloaked the teachings of nonviolence and social justice in the cadences of the King James Version of the Bible to shame a nation into living up to its own ideals. In so doing, King drew upon the long history of black Protestant activism; since the days of slavery the ministry was the only real avenue for the expression of leadership within the African American community, so the pastor served not only as the spiritual shepherd to his flock but also as guardian of their temporal interests.

The movement for civil rights stirred the nation's conscience, although the opposition of some Protestants occasionally turned violent, as when a bomb ripped through the basement of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on 15 September 1963, killing four little girls, or when three civil-rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June of 1964. Such events stiffened the resolve of King and a growing number of religious leaders. When King found himself incarcerated in Birmingham for civil disobedience in 1963, he responded to the criticism that a group of Protestant ministers had leveled against him for his leadership of the civil rights movement. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" remains a masterpiece of religious and political rhetoric, arguing that the biblical mandates for justice impelled him to work for desegregation and civil rights.

The Evangelical Resurgence

King's assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on 4 April 1968 deprived American Protestantism of one of its luminaries. By that time the United States was mired in the unpopular Vietnam War (which King had opposed shortly before his death), and the younger generation was rapidly becoming disillusioned with what Eisenhower had dubbed the "military-industrial complex" and with what the counterculture called "the establishment," including religious institutions. Attendance, membership, and giving in mainline Protestant denominations began a steady decline in the mid-1960s, a drop that would show no signs of leveling off until the end of the century.

At the same time, changes in the ways the Federal Communications Commission apportioned airtime for religious programming allowed evangelical preachers to purchase access to the airwaves. Enterprising evangelists, who became known as televangelists, used this opening to catapult them from obscurity to national prominence and, in the process, they pulled in millions of dollars in contributions. The televangelists' simple message and their uncompromising morality appealed to a nation still reeling from the counterculture, the ignominy of Vietnam, and Richard Nixon's endless prevarications.

In this context a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher, Jimmy Carter, emerged as a credible candidate for president. The former governor of Georgia declared that he was a "born again" Christian and that he would never knowingly lie to the American people. He captured the Democratic nomination and went on to win the 1976 election with the help of many newly enfranchised evangelicals. Within four years, however, many of these same evangelicals turned against him, led by the televangelists who became leaders of a loose coalition of politically conservative evangelicals known as the Religious Right. Jerry Falwell, pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, formed Moral Majority in 1979, and he, together with other televangelists, anointed Ronald Reagan as their candidate in 1980. Throughout the 1980s the Religious Right enjoyed access to the corridors of power in Washington, and the success of the Religious Right emboldened another televangelist, Pat Robertson, to mount his own (unsuccessful) campaign for the presidency in 1988.

Protestantism in a New Millennium

At the close of the twentieth century American Protestants remained profoundly divided between liberal and conservative, mainline and evangelical. Liberal Protestants, although declining in numbers, continued their pursuit of ecumenism, elevating the standard of inclusivity to the status of orthodoxy. The leadership of mainline Protestant denominations supported racial desegregation, ordained women to the ministry, and endorsed the civil rights of gays and lesbians. The prospect of ordaining homosexuals or blessing same-sex unions, however, was more fraught and divisive, although denominational leaders pushed vigorously for such reforms.

Evangelical Protestants, on the other hand, generally hewed to more conservative stances on doctrine, social issues, and domestic arrangements. While mainline Protestants were debating gay ordination and same-sex unions, for example, evangelicals rallied behind an expression of muscular Christianity called Promise Keepers, which enjoined men to be good and faithful husbands, fathers, and churchgoers. Promise Keepers, founded in the early 1990s by Bill McCartney, a successful football coach at the University of Colorado, also demanded that men take control of their households. Feminists were aghast, but the movement proved enormously popular, drawing several million men to stadium gatherings across the country and to a massive "Standing in the Gap" rally on the Mall in Washington, D.C. As with all revivals in American history, the movement faltered soon thereafter, but its popularity underscored the continuing appeal of conservative values.

Protestantism and American Life

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 illustrated the importance of Protestantism in American life. Almost immediately, convoys of relief workers arrived at the scene of both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Victims were rushed to hospitals, many of which had been founded by Protestant denominations decades earlier. Protestant congregations across the country collected money for the victims and their families, organized food and blood drives, and gathered for prayer. But the tragedy also demonstrated that Protestantism no longer enjoyed hegemonic status in American religious life. Members of other religious groups—Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, and many others, including those who professed no religious convictions whatsoever—were amply represented among both the victims and the rescuers.

Protestantism, nevertheless, has cast a long shadow over American history and culture. A poll conducted in 2001 found that 52 percent of Americans identified themselves as Protestants. Although the internal diversity of the movement has attenuated somewhat its influence, it remains the dominant religious tradition in the United States.


Balmer, Randall. Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America. 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Balmer, Randall, and Lauren F. Winner. Protestantism in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Butler, Jon. Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Hatch, Nathan O. The Democratization of American Christianity. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1989.

Marty, Martin E. Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America. New York: Dial Press, 1970.

Warner, R. Stephen. New Wine in Old Wineskins: Evangelicals and Liberals in a Small-Town Church. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Wuthnow, Robert. The Restructuring of American Religion. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988.


See alsoBaptist Churches ; Calvinism ; Lutheranism .

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332. Protestantism

See also 80. CHRISTIANITY ; 151. FAITH ; 349. RELIGION ; 392. THEOLOGY .

a tolerance of conduct or beliefs not specifically forbidden in the Scriptures. Cf. Flacianism, Philippism . adiaphorist, n. adiaphoristic, adj.
the principles and practices of certain Christian denominations that maintain that the Second Advent of Christ is imminent. Also called Second Adventist . Adventist, n., adj.
the doctrines and practices of a liberal form of Calvinism established in France in the 17th century, especially its doctrines of universal atonement and salvation for all.
the adherence to the tenets and faith of the Anglican church.
the doctrines and teaching of Jacobus Arminius, 17th-century Dutch theologian, who opposed the Calvinist doctrine of absolute predestination and maintained the possibility of universal salvation. Cf. Calvinism. Arminian, n., adj.
the views and doctrines of Robert Browne, the first formulator of the principles of Congregationalism. Brownist, n. Brownistic, adj.
1. the principles of the international movement called Moral Re-Armament or the Oxford Group.
2. the belief in or adherence to these principles. Buchmanite, n., adj.
an Utraquist. See Utraquism .
1. the doctrines of John Calvin or his followers, especially emphasis upon predestination and limited atonement, the sovereignty of God, the authority of the Scriptures and the irresistibility of grace.
2. adherence to these doctrines. Also called Genevanism. Cf. Arminianism. Calvinist, n., adj. Calvinistic, Calvinistical, adj.
the doctrines of a premillennial sect founded in the U.S. in the mid-19th-century, especially its denial of Trinitarianism and its acceptance of Unitarian and Adventist doctrines. Christadelphian, n., adj.
the history and study of Methodist circuit plans.
the list of divine threats against sinners, read in the Anglican Church on Ash Wednesday. See also 96. CONFLICT .
1. the doctrine and governmental practices of Congregational churches.
2. a form of church government in which each congregation is autonomous. Congregationalist, n., adj.
the theory or practice of associations or confederations of religious societies, usually for purposes of fellowship. consociational, adj.
the doctrines and practices of the Plymouth Brethren. Darbyite, n.
1. the policy or spirit of denominations or sects.
2. the tendency to divide into denominations or sects. denominationalist, n.
nonconformism, def. 2.
the doctrines and practices of the ecumenical movement, especially among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimed at developing worldwide Christian unity and church union. Also ecumenicalism, ecumenicism .
1. the Protestant Episcopal Church of the Anglican communion.
2. adherence to the policy and practice of the Episcopal Church. Episcopalian, n., adj. Episcopal, adj.
a theory of church polity asserting that supreme ecclesiastical authority belongs to all bishops collectively and not to an individual except by delegation.
the Lutheran doctrines and treatises of Matthias Flacius Illyricus, especially his attacks upon Melanchthon and others for distorting Luthers teachings and emphasizing adiaphorism. Cf. Philippism. Flacian, n.
the principles of the Free Church, which split off from the Presbyterian Church in 1843. Freechurchman, n.
1. a conservative movement in 20th-century American Protestantism in reaction to modernism, asserting especially the inerrancy of the Scriptures as a historical record and as a guide to faith and morals, and emphasizing, as matters of true faith, belief in the virgin birth, the sacrifice and death of Christ upon the cross, physical resurrection, and the Second Coming.
2. an adherence to the doctrines and practices of this movement. fundamentalist, n., adj.
a member of a Protestant sect from Württemberg, Germany that settled in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in 1803, and believed in common ownership of property.
the doctrines of Dr. Samuel Hopkins, similar to those of Calvin except that Hopkins rejected the concept of original sin. Hopkinsonian, n., adj.
the doctrines and practices of the Calvinistic communion in France in the 16th and 17th centuries. Huguenot, n. Huguenotic, adj.
the doctrines of a reformist and nationalistic movement initiated by John Huss in Bohemia about 1402, especially its reflection of Wycliffite emphases upon clerical purity, communion in both bread and wine for the laity, and the supreme authority of the Scriptures. Also Hussism . Hussite, n., adj.
a member of the religious group founded by Edward Irving, a Scots minister who advocated strict observance of ritualistic practices.
the doctrines and beliefs of an American communal religious society founded in 1886, especially its goal of reforming both church and state and their mutual relationship to God. Koreshan, adj.
an adherent of Jean de Labadie, a French mystic.
the policies and practices of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and opponent of Puritanism, especially his assertion that the Church of England preserves more fully than the Roman communion the orthodoxy of the early Christian church, his support of the divine right of kings and bishops, and his infiuence upon an architecture blending Gothic and Renaissance motifs. Laudian, n., adj.
a movement in modern Protestantism that emphasizes freedom from tradition and authority, the adjustment of religious beliefs to scientific conceptions, and the spiritual and ethical content of Christianity. liberalist, n., adj. liberalistic, adj.
1. the religious teachings of John Wycliffe, 14th-century English theologian, religious reformer, and Bible translator.
2. adherence to these teachings, especially in England and Scotland in the 14th and 15th centuries. Also called Lollardry, Lollardy, Wycliffism . Lollard, n., adj.
1. the religious doctrines and church polity of Martin Luther, 16th-century German theologian, author, and leader of the Protestant Reformation.
2. adherence to these doctrines or membership in the Lutheran Church. Lutheran, n., adj.
1. the religious teachings and church polity of John Wesley, 18th-century English theologian and evangelist, or those of his followers.
2. the doctrines, polity, beliefs, and rituals of the Methodist Church, founded by Wesley, especially its emphasis on personal and social morality. Also called Wesleyanism . Methodist, n., adj.
1. the doctrines and polity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded in the U.S. in 1830 by Joseph Smith, especially its adoption of the Book of Mormon as an adjunct to the Bible.
2. adherence to these doctrines or membership in the Mormon Church. Also Mormondom . Mormon, n., adj.
a modern theological movement within the Protestant church, reaffirming some of the doctrines of the Reformation in reaction against recent liberal theology and practice. neoorthodox, adj.
1. the state or practice of nonadherence to an established church or its doctrine, discipline, or polity.
2. (cap.) the condition of a Protestant in England who is not a member of the Church of England; dissenterism. nonconformist, n., adj.
1. the practice of refusing to take a required oath, as of allegiance.
2. (cap.) the action of Church of England clergymen who refused, in 1689, to swear allegiance to William and Mary. nonjuror, n.
the principles of the Orangemen, members of a secret 17th-century Irish society that defended the reigning British monarch and supported the Anglican church.
a theological doctrine proposed by the 17th-century French theologian Claude Pajon, especially its emphasis upon the indirect rather than direct influence of the Holy Spirit upon an individual.
the domination of a social group, especially a small rural community, by the parson.
the beliefs and practices of certain Christian groups, often fundamentalist, that emphasize the activity of the Holy Spirit, stress a strict morality, and seek emotional spiritual experiences in worship rituals. Pentecostal, n., adj.
Rare. the doctrines of Philip Melanchthon, 16th-century German Protestant reformer, especially his rebuttals to the allegations of the Flacians that his attitude toward certain teachings of Martin Luther was adiaphoristic. Philippist, n. Philippistic, adj.
1. a movement, begun in the 17th-century German Lutheran Church, exalting the practice of personal piety over religious orthodoxy and ritual.
2. the principles and practices of the Pietists. Also called Spenerism. Piëtist, n. Pietistic, Pietistical, adj.
1. the doctrines, polity, and practices of Presbyterian churches, especially a Calvinist theology and a representative system of church government.
2. a system of church government in which ministers and congregationally elected elders participate in a graded series of legislative bodies and administrative courts. Presbyterian, n., adj.
Primitive Methodism
the practices of the Primitive Methodist Church whose doctrines emphasize Wesleyanism and greater congregational participation in its government. Primitive Methodist, n.
1. the principles and practices of a movement within 16th-century Anglicanism, demanding reforms in doctrine, polity, and worship, and greater strictness in religious discipline, chiefly in terms of Calvinist principles.
2. a political party developed from the religious movement in the 17th century that successfully gained control of England through revolution and briefly attempted to put Puritan principles to work on all levels of English life and government.
3. U.S. History. the principles and practices of the Congregationalist members of the religious movement who, having migrated to America in 1620, attempted to set up a theocratic state in which clergy had authority over both religious and civil life. Puritan, n., adj.
Tractarianism, after Rev. E. B. Pusey, English clergyman. Puseyite, n. Puseyistic, Puseyistical adj.
the principles and beliefs of the Society of Friends, a creedless sect founded in England about 1650 by George Fox, especially its emphasis upon the Inward Light of each believer, its rejection of oaths, and its opposition to all wars. Also Quakerdom, Quakery . (Terms made from quake are never used to or between members of the Society, who prefer Friend or thee.) Quaker, n., adj.
the 16th-century religious movement in Europe that resulted in the formation of Protestantism. Reformational, adj.
the belief in a temporary future punishment and a final restoration of all sinners to the favor of God. Also called restitutionism. restorationist, n.
advocacy of the reunion of the Anglican and Catholic churches. reunionist, n. reunionistic, adj.
that form of religious activity that manifests itself in evangelistic services for the purpose of effecting a religious awakening. revivalist, n. revivalistic, adj.
the former name of the sect called Jehovahs Witnesses.
1. any religious teachings in which are emphasized doctrines concerning the saving of the soul.
2. the doctrines of the saving of the soul.
3. evangelism, especially that calling for individuals to make open and public conversions. salvationist, n. salvational, adj.
Second Adventist
the spirit or tendencies of sectarians, especially adherence or excessive devotion to a particular sect, especially in religion. sectarian, n., adj.
the principles, beliefs, and practices of a millennial sect called the United Society of Believers in Christs Second Coming, originating in England in the Shaking Quakers sect and brought to the U.S. in 1774 by Mother Ann Lee, especially an emphasis on communal and celibate living, on the dual nature of Christ as male and female, on their dances and songs as part of worship, and their honest, functional craftsmanship. Shaker, n., adj.
Pietism, after Philipp Jakob Spener, German theologian.
the doctrines and practices of a Russian Protestant denomination founded about 1860, especially their emphasis upon evangelism, piety, and communal Bible study and prayer. Stundist, n.
Swedenborgianism, Swedenborgism
the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of the Church of the New Jerusalem, founded by the followers of Emmanuel Swedenborg in the late 18th century, especially its assertion that Christ is God Himself and not the Son of God, and its reliance upon accounts of mystical appearances of Christ to Swedenborg. Swedenborgian, n., adj.
the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, parties, or denominations, as in the late 19th- and 20th-century discussions between Anglo-Catholics and Roman authorities. syncretic, syncretical, syncretistic, syncretistical, adj.
the religious opinions and principles of the Oxford movement within Anglicanism, especially in its Tractsfor the Times, a series of ninety treatises published between 1833 and 1841. Also called Puseyism. Tractarian, n., adj.
the doctrine that the body of Christ is present everywhere, held by some Lutherans and others. Ubiquitarian, Ubiquarian, Ubiquitary, Ubiquist, Ubiquitist, n., adj.
the beliefs, principles, and practices of the Unitarian denomination, especially its doctrine that God is one being, and its emphasis upon autonomous congregational government. Unitarian, n., adj.
1. the theological doctrine that all men will finally be saved or brought back to holiness and God.
2. the doctrines and practices of the Universalist denomination. Universalist, n., adj. Universalistic, adj.
the doctrines and practices of the Calixtins, a Hussite group demanding communion in both wafer and wine. Utraquist, n. Utraquistic, adj.
Wesleyanism, Wesleyism
Methodism. Wesleyan, n., adj.
the principles, teachings, practices, and techniques of George Whitefield, English Methodist revivalist, who, after a request from Wesley that he visit America, made seven visits after 1738 and gained a reputation as an eloquent and fiery preacher, becoming a model for future American revivalists.

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Protestantism is generally thought of as being one of the three major branches of the Christian faith (the other two being Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy). Protestantism is a broad category. It includes, for example, Anglicans, Baptists, Campbellites, Congregationalists, Lutherans, Methodists, Mennonites, Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Unitarians. Texts that are generally taken to embody the spirit of Protestantism include Martin Luthers translation of the Bible into the German language, John Calvins Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, John Miltons Paradise Lost, Isaac Wattss Hymns and Spiritual Songs, John Woolmans Journal, George Eliots The Mill on the Floss, Søren Kierkegaards The Sickness unto Death, the Barmen Declaration, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s Letter from Birmingham Jail.


Protestantism arose in Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It came into being as the result of the efforts of men such as John Calvin, John Knox, Martin Luther, Menno Simons, and Huldrych Zwingli to reform what they saw as the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. The drive to correct these mistakes ended up profoundly transforming the political, as well as the religious, institutions of Western Europe. Indeed, scholars have claimed that the Protestant Reformation played a crucial role in creating the religious, political, social, economic, and cultural formations that came to embody modernity.

There is no scholarly consensus on the number of Protestants in the world. If one adopts a quite broad definition and counts people who are only nominally Christian as well as those who are quite devout, then one might argue that the total is over 800 million. Although Protestantism was created in Western Europe, it has spread throughout much of the world. Protestant beliefs and practices are quite common, of course, in Australia and North America, and have a strong foothold in some Asian countriesSouth Korea and the Philippines, for instance. Protestants make up sizable minorities in Latin American nations such as Brazil, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In a number of African countries (Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland, for instance), Protestants constitute a large proportion of the citizens. Indeed, some scholars have argued that Protestantisms future may lie in Africa and Latin America rather than in Europe or North America. Certainly, it now seems to be far more vital in Africa and Latin America than in some of the nations of Western Europe.


From the sixteenth century to the present, Protestants have consistently claimed to be highly suspicious of empty ritualism. Such suspicions notwithstanding, over the centuries Protestants have developed a set of powerful religious practices that vivify the doctrines and symbols of the Christian faith. Some Protestants (Lutherans and Anglicans especially) have maintained carefully crafted formal liturgies. The roots of those liturgies stretch back toindeed reach back beyondthe sixteenth century, and have much in common with Catholic and Orthodox liturgies. Other Protestants, often referred to as Evangelicals, have created revival services intended to convert nonbelievers into devout Christians. And since the beginning of the twentieth century, a group of Protestants who are often labeled Pentecostals or Charismatics have held services that focus on the gift of tongues. This giftwhich often results in a kind of ecstatic speech that is not intelligible to hearersis thought of as a sign of the power of the Holy Spirit.

As a general rule, Protestants tend to display a strong love for singing hymns and gospel songs. Accordingly, a good portion of many Protestant worship services is devoted to choral and congregational singing. Protestant worship services also tend to devote a good deal of time to listening to homilies and sermons. These sermons, which are sometimes filled with emotion and sometimes quite erudite, are intended to help the people who hear them comprehend the truths of the Christian faith as those truths are set forth in the Christian scriptures.

Indeed, the importance of the Christian scriptures in shaping Protestant practice and belief is difficult to exaggerate. Reading the scriptures aloud is one of the high points of many Protestant worship services, and the hymns Protestants sing are often based on passages from the Bible. (Martin Luthers A Mighty Fortress is Our God is, for example, based on Psalm 46.) The scriptures also play a large role in the private devotional practices of most Protestants. And Protestants greatly value Bible study groups and Sunday School classes in which small groups meet together to ascertain the meaning of passages from the Bible.

It is no accident that many Protestant devotional practices focus on the Christian scriptures, for Protestants have tended to see the Biblerather than the traditions of the churchas the surest guide to understanding the nature of reality and of God. Protestants have often expressed a certain distrust of human reason or of observations of nature as a way to grasp the truth. If given a choice between relying on observations of nature, reason, tradition, or the Bible as a way to understand the nature of God and the universe, many Protestants would say, without hesitation, that their choice would be the Bible.

In part because they tend to put great confidence in the power of the Christian scriptures, correctly comprehended, to disclose the nature of ultimate reality, Protestants sometimes have acted in ways that have seemed to smack of hubris. In its most extreme form, this apparent hubris has resulted in some Protestant leaders coming close to asserting that the Bible is infallible and that they themselves have fully and correctly comprehended the truths that are taught therein. Critics have sometimes argued that this self-confident scripturalism is one of the hallmarks of Protestantism and that its predilection for that kind of scripturalism makes Protestantism a particularly dangerous form of religion. Such arguments are not without merit.

It should also be noted, however, that Protestants (like many other religious human beings) have sometimes been keenly aware of human finitude. This has sometimes led Protestants to fiercely critique all human attempts to speak for God and all human claims to have fully understood Gods nature and desires. Some Protestants have gone so far as to say that all human ideas and beliefs including all Protestant ideas and beliefsare very far from the mind of God. Under some conditions, the Protestant view of the world can, therefore, inculcate a good deal of humility within the people who adhere to it.


The Protestant tendency to see all human institutions as imperfect has sometimes been connected with a wide-ranging set of emancipatory impulses. Protestant beliefs and practices played an important role, for instance, in the abolitionist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Those beliefs and practices have sometimes been linked, too, with anticolonial and feminist movements. Many Protestants have, on occasion, fiercely critiqued the behavior of the nation-states in whose borders they resided. Created in part in reaction to what sixteenth-and seventeenth-century reformers saw as an overly rigid and overly powerful set of ecclesiastical institutions, Protestantism has sometimes tended to value freedom over tradition and conscience over the laws of men.

Protestantism has also, many scholars would assert, served to naturalize a wide range of inegalitarian social relationships. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for example, Protestants wrote and preached countless defenses of the institution of chattel slavery. In the twentieth century, many white Protestants living in the United States (especially those living in the former slave states) advanced theological defenses of white supremacy. Indeed, pious Protestants often played crucial roles in Southern campaigns to defeat the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s.

Patriarchal social relations have also often been naturalized by Protestant beliefs and practices. Protestants have generally thought of God as masculine and referred to God with masculine pronouns. Protestant churches have generally believed that to obtain salvation a woman must submit herself to the authority of this masculine Lord. Historically, women have been taught that it was natural for them to defer to men. Protestant churches have also tended to see persons who have sex with someone to whom they are not married as rebelling against Gods laws. Protestant churches have taught that women who have sex with other women and (especially) men who have sex with other men are violating Gods fundamental laws, and these sorts of violations have been regarded as particularly unnatural and repugnant. In general, Protestant churches have tended to be organizations in which heterosexual norms have been enforced quite strictly.

Scholars do not agree on the precise nature of the relationship between Protestantism and capitalism. Some scholarly analyses of that relationship (Max Webers, for instance) emphasize Protestantisms role in creating circumstances in which modern capitalism could arise and flourish; other scholarly analyses (R. H. Tawneys, for example) focus on ways in which the rise of capitalism decisively influenced Protestants assumptions and habits. Most scholars would, however, assert that Protestant churches have tended to naturalize the authority of capitalist institutions. Protestant churches have often seen commercial success as a sign of Godly favor and they have often acted as though it was natural for businessmen to play a large role in running church affairs. Protestant churches have eagerly adopted techniques and methods developed by businessmen. Indeed, many have been run in ways strikingly similar to those of for-profit corporations.

The peace churches (Mennonites, for example) have sometimes raised pointed questions about whether the violence employed by nation-states can be reconciled with the life and teachings of Jesus. But for the most part, however, Protestants have tended to see nation-states and nationalism as natural, even as ordained by God. They have been reluctant to challenge state authority even when it conflicts with Christian beliefs.

SEE ALSO Fundamentalism, Christian; Protestant Ethic; Weber, Max


Comaroff, Jean, and John Comaroff. 1991. Of Revelation and Revolution: Christianity, Colonialism, and Consciousness in South Africa. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Dillenberger, John, and Claude Welch. 1954. Protestant Christianity Interpreted through Its Development. New York: Scribner.

Hillerbrand, Hans Joachim, ed. 2004. The Encyclopedia of Protestantism. New York: Routledge.

McGrath, Alister E., and Darren C. Marks, eds. 2004. The Blackwell Companion to Protestantism. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Melton, J. Gordon. 2005. Encyclopedia of Protestantism. New York: Facts on File.

Stoll, David. 1990. Is Latin America Turning Protestant?: The Politics of Evangelical Growth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tawney, R. H. 1926. Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. London: John Murray.

Watt, David Harrington. 2002. Bible-Carrying Christians: Conservative Protestants and Social Power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. 1905. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Trans. and ed. Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells. New York: Penguin, 2002.

David Harrington Watt

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Protestantism, form of Christian faith and practice that originated with the principles of the Reformation. The term is derived from the Protestatio delivered by a minority of delegates against the (1529) Diet of Speyer, which passed legislation against the Lutherans. Since that time the term has been used in many different senses, but not as the official title of any church until it was assumed (1783) by the Protestant Episcopal Church (since 1967 simply the Episcopal Church) in the United States, the American branch of the Anglican Communion. Protestantism as a general term is now used in contradistinction to the other major Christian faiths, Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Branches and Sects

Two distinct branches of Protestantism grew out of the Reformation. The evangelical churches in Germany and Scandinavia were followers of Martin Luther, and the reformed churches in other countries were followers of John Calvin and Huldreich Zwingli. A third major branch, episcopacy, developed in England. Particularly since the Oxford movement of the 19th cent., many Anglicans have rejected the word Protestant because they tend to agree with Roman Catholicism on most doctrinal points, rejecting, however, the primacy of the pope (see England, Church of; Episcopal Church; Ireland, Church of). In addition, there have been several groups commonly called Protestant but historically preceding the rise of Protestantism (see Hussites; Lollardry; Waldenses). Protestantism has largely been adopted by the peoples of NW Europe and their descendants, excepting the southern Germans, Irish, French, and Belgians; there have been important Protestant minorities in France, Bohemia, Hungary, and Poland.

The doctrine that the individual conscience is the valid interpreter of Scripture led to a wide variety of Protestant sects; this fragmentation was further extended by doctrinal disputes within the sects notably over grace, predestination, and the sacraments. Certain movements have claimed new revelations (see Agapemone; Latter-Day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of; New Jerusalem, Church of the). Of a fundamentally distinct nature is Christian Science, which as an article of faith repudiates any medical treatment.

Since the 1960s a main thrust in Protestantism has been toward reunification (see ecumenical movement); this was particularly strong in North America. Most Protestant and many Eastern Orthodox churches are allied in federated councils on the local, national, and international levels (see World Council of Churches and National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America).

For some of the major tendencies in Protestantism, see Adventists; Anabaptists; Baptists; Calvinism; Congregationalism; Lutheranism; Methodism; Pentecostalism; Presbyterianism; Puritanism; spiritism; Unitarianism.

For individual churches in addition to those already mentioned, see Brethren; Christian Catholic Church; Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Christian Reformed Church; Christians; Churches of Christ; Churches of God, General Conference; Protestantism; Evangelical and Reformed Church; Evangelical United Brethren Church; Friends, Religious Society of; Huguenots; Mennonites; Moravian Church; Ranters; Reformed Church in America; Salvation Army; Scotland, Church of; Scotland, Free Church of; Seventh-Day Baptists; Shakers; United Church of Canada; Universalist Church of America.

Distinguishing Characteristics and Development

Central Beliefs

The chief characteristics of original Protestantism were the acceptance of the Bible as the only source of infallible revealed truth, the belief in the universal priesthood of all believers, and the doctrine that a Christian is justified in his relationship to God by faith alone, not by good works or dispensations of the church. There was a tendency to minimize liturgy and to stress preaching by the ministry and the reading of the Bible. Although Protestants rejected asceticism, an elevated standard of personal morality was advanced; in some sects, notably Puritanism, a high degree of austerity was reached. Their ecclesiastical polity, principally in such forms as episcopacy (government by bishops), Congregationalism, or Presbyterianism, was looked upon by Protestants as a return to the early Christianity described in the New Testament.

Theological Development

Protestantism saw many theological developments, particularly after the 18th cent. Under the influence of romanticism, which stressed the subjective element in religion rather than the revelation of the Bible, the formal systems of early Protestant theology began to dissolve; this doctrine was best expressed by Friedrich Schleiermacher, who placed religious feeling at the center of Christian life. Along with this came the assertion that the fatherhood of God and the unity of humanity were the basic themes of Christianity. Later there was a neoorthodox movement, which, under the leadership of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, sought a return to a theology of revelation; a new school of Bible interpretation as expressed in the work of Rudolf Bultmann; and a theology, derived in part from existentialism, developed by Paul Tillich.

In the United States, four broad theological positions cut across denominational lines: fundamentalism, which stems from the antitheological periods of revivalism in the 18th and 19th cent. (see Great Awakening) and adheres to a literal interpretation of the Bible and a pietistic morality; liberalism, the heir to the Social Gospel movement, which encourages freer interpretation of theological doctrines and emphasizes church responsibility for social justice; Pentecostalism, which emphasizes ecstatic religious experience especially as communicated through the gifts of the Spirit; and the neoorthodoxy of Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth.


See P. Tillich, The Protestant Era (1948, repr. 1957); R. M. Brown, Spirit of Protestantism (1961); E. G. Léonard, A History of Protestantism (2 vol., tr. 1965–67); W. Pauck, The Heritage of the Reformation (rev. ed. 1968); R. Mehl, The Sociology of Protestantism (tr. 1970); M. E. Marty, Protestantism (1972); R. T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and Historical Realities (2d ed. 1983); J. Dillenberger and C. Welch, Protestant Christianity (2d ed. 1988).

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Protestantism is the collective term applied to Christian denominations originating in groups that separated from the Roman Catholic Church in Europe's sixteenth-century Reformation. Reformers challenged the Church's manipulation of concerns about death and destiny to achieve temporal power and raise revenue. Church responses to the reformers' challenge, and the social and political alliances shaped by the debate, led to the major reform movements becoming churches independent of Rome.

At this time society was preoccupied with death. The Roman Catholic Church occupied a central role mediating between the living and the dead, who were in purgatorya place of purification for souls readying themselves to enter heaven. The period of suffering in purgatory could be reduced by masses and prayers endowed by family and friends. It was also possible to obtain a special gift of pardon, or indulgence, and by the late Middle Ages indulgences had become commodities sold by the Church.

The reformers asserted that God saved souls by a free, unmerited gift of grace, not through church practices or decrees. They rejected purgatory, prayers for the dead, and the invocation of the saints, adopting an agnostic stance concerning such matters that were not directly attested to by Scripture. Their insistence that the living could no longer work on behalf of the dead brought significant changes to beliefs and practices concerning death, dying, and disposal.

On their death beds Protestants no longer made provision for the repose of their souls through endowing masses, purchasing indulgences, or providing alms for the poor so as to be remembered by them in their prayers. Rather, they sought to testify to the faith they held and in which they now died. A good death was calm, peaceful, and assured; although later in Puritan New England, especially belief in predestination required necessary doubt of salvation, assurance being replaced by anxious repentance.

While Catholic funerals eulogized the deceased and interceded for them in their entry into eternal life, Protestants preached to the living, avoiding any suggestion of intercessions on behalf of the dead. The performative ritual of Catholicism was abandoned: Protestants simply remembered the deceased and sought to learn from their example. Both Catholicism and Protestantism continued to evangelize by heightening the fear of death, fostering contempt for the world and emphasizing suffering as a route to salvation.

The social reorganization that accompanied industrialization changed European burial practices. Garden cemeteries replaced churchyards, separating places of worship from the place of burial. Undertakers appeared to prepare and transfer bodies and, in due course, to coordinate the religious services involved. Further, as medicine became dominant later in the nineteenth century, death was regarded increasingly as a medical challenge, not a spiritual transition. This secularization of dying and disposal initially affected Protestants more than Catholics, as the latter retained their ritual requirements.

The first half of the twentieth century saw the end of any distinctive idea of a Protestant death, and an increasing silence (except in some fundamentalist circles) about the afterlife issues that had dominated earlier religious discourse. By the 1970s these remaining distinctions eroded. Purgatory effectively disappeared from Catholic discourse. Cremation, since World War II a more usual mode of disposal among Protestants, became common among Catholics as well. In the twenty-first century both Catholicism and Protestantism focus upon the living rather than the dead, and both struggle to address the renewed interest in connection with the dead which is emerging in Western societies.

See also: Catholicism; Christian Death Rites, History of


Ariès, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Delumeau, Jean. Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 13th18th Centuries. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Huizinga, Johan. The Waning of the Middle Ages. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1949.

Jupp, Peter, and Glennys Howarth, eds. The Changing Face of Death: Historical Accounts of Death and Disposal. Basingstoke, United Kingdom: Macmillan, 1996.

McDannell, Colleen, and Bernhard Lang. Heaven: A History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Stannard, David E. The Puritan Way of Death. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Walter, Tony. The Eclipse of Eternity: A Sociology of the Afterlife. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

Walter, Tony. The Revival of Death. New York: Routledge, 1994.


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Protestantism originally derived from the sixteenth-century Reformation movement begun in western Europe by Martin Luther and John Calvin.

The Reformation, the movement that gave rise to Protestantism, was particular to western Christendom. Russia, as a part of eastern Orthodox Christendom, never experienced an analogous development. Consequently Protestantism in Russia was an imported phenomenon rather than an indigenous product.

Two forms of Protestantism in Russia can be identified. The older form was introduced to Russia by European non-Russian ethnic groups. A later form emerged in the nineteenth century when ethnically Slavic people embraced teachings of European Protestants. Converts to the older form comprised people who moved at various times from Europe to Russia or who were conquered by Russian western expansion. Converts to the later form derived from missionary activity among Russians in the aftermath of the Alexandrine reforms of the mid-nineteenth century that produced groups who were variously called Shtundists, Baptists, Evangelical Christians, Adventists, and, in the twentieth century, Pentecostals.

Protestantism entered Muscovy during the reign of Ivan IV. Initially viewing Protestants favorably, the tsar permitted building two Protestant churches, one Lutheran and one Calvinist, in Moscow. But he came to view Protestantism as heretical and in 1579 ordered both churches destroyed. Protestantism was relegated to an enclave outside the city that came to be known as the "German suburb."

Russia's Protestant population grew in the eighteenth century when Russia conquered Estonia and Latvia, where many Lutherans lived, and when German colonists of Lutheran and Mennonite persuasions settled in south Russia at the invitation of Catherine II. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Protestant notions received some high-level support from Emperor Alexander I, who was fascinated with German pietism.

Only in the aftermath of the abolition of serfdom did Protestantism win substantial adherents within the Slavic population of Russia. This was the result of preaching activityin St. Petersburg by the English Lord Radstock and in the Caucasus by Baltic Baptistsand of the influence of German colonists in the Ukraine. Russian Protestantism was institutionalized in the Russian Baptist Union in 1884. The official response to this development was expressed in harsh persecution predicated on Chief Procurator Konstantin Pobedonostev's declaration, "there are not, and there cannot be, any Russian Baptists."

Protestants benefited from the tsarist declaration of religious tolerance of 1905 and even more from the Bolshevik declaration of separation of church and state of 1917. By 1929 there were up to one million Protestants in the Soviet Union, less than 1 percent of the population.

Communist antireligious policy limited legal protestant activity between 1929 and 1989 to one formally recognized structure, the All-Union Council of Evangelical Christians-Baptists (AUCECB), and scattered autonomous congregations of such denominations as Lutherans and Methodists, primarily in the Baltic republics, and German Baptists in Siberia. AUCECB claimed to comprise five thousand protestant congregations.

After 1991, Protestants expanded their activity within Russian society. At the end of 2000 the Russian Ministry of Justice reported that there were about 3,800 officially registered Protestant congregations in Russia, out of more than 20,000 religious organizations in the Russian Federation. These included 1,500 congregations of Baptists, 1,300 Pentecostals, 560 Adventists, and 200 Lutherans. Sociological surveys estimated that Protestants, at approximately one million, constituted about twothirds of one percent of the total population of the Russian Federation.

See also: catholicism; religion; russian orthodox church


Billington, James. (1966). Icon and the Axe. New York: Random House.

Heard, Albert F. (1887). Russian Church and Russian Dissent. New York: Harper Brothers.

Heier, Edmund. (1970). Religious Schism in the Russian Aristocracy, 18601900: Radstockism and Pashkovism. The Hague, Netherlands: Nijhoff.

Sawatsky, Walter. (1981). Soviet Evangelicals since World War II. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press.

Paul D. Steeves

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protestantism. The term originated with the protest of the reforming minority at the diet of Spires in 1529 against the catholic majority. As a general description of the anti-catholic position, it was adopted with some caution: several of the churches into which the new movement dissolved were strongly opposed to each other, while conservatives were not anxious to stress the role of individual conscience in religious matters. The common protestant ground was rejection of papal authority, emphasis on the Bible, devotion to preaching, clerical marriage, and a more austere ceremonial. The main divisions of protestantism were Calvinism, lutheranism, and zwinglianism, with the Church of England claiming an autonomous and independent position.

In Scotland, a protestant regime in its presbyterian form was established in 1560 and survived, amid great vicissitudes, to become the national religion in 1690. Protestantism also made much headway in northern Ireland, where Scottish influence was strong, but much less in the south which remained predominantly catholic. In England, the consolidation of the protestant Church of England owed much to the misjudgements of catholic monarchs Mary and James II, and to the upsurge of national enthusiasm produced by the long struggle against catholic Spain.

Catholic polemicists in the 16th cent. argued that the appeal to private conscience must, in the end, lead to religious anarchy. Protestantism was not long in dividing—indeed it was born divided—over the nature of the eucharist, the role of bishops, the importance of good works, and the method of baptism. The fissiparous nature of the movement continued to the 20th cent., with splits, secessions, and schisms in most denominations. Even the methodists, one of the more sober sects and themselves a split from Anglicanism, divided into Wesleyan Methodists, Calvinistic Methodists, Methodist New Connexion, Primitive Methodists, Wesleyan Methodist Reformers, Bible Christians, and Wesleyan Methodist Association, while the religious census of 1851 identified Wesleyan Christian Union, Benevolent Methodists and Temperance Wesleyans. In the late 20th cent., falling membership, financial problems, and a more ecumenical spirit prompted a number of protestant reunions—the Free Church of Scotland rejoined the Church of Scotland in 1929, the Presbyterian Church of England merged with the Congregational Church to form the United Reform Church in 1972—but though relations between protestants and catholics are much warmer than in the 19th cent., re-unification has yet to come about.

J. A. Cannon

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Protestant a member or follower of any of the Western Christian Churches that are separate from the Roman Catholic Church in accordance with the principles of the Reformation, including the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran Churches.

Protestants are so called after the declaration (protestatio) of Martin Luther and his supporters dissenting from the decision of the Diet of Spires (1529), which reaffirmed the edict of the Diet of Worms against the Reformation. All Protestants reject the authority of the papacy, both religious and political, and find authority in the text of the Bible, made available to all in vernacular translation.
Protestant Ascendancy the domination by the Anglo-Irish Protestant minority in Ireland, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. The phrase is first recorded in a letter of 1792 by Edmund Burke.
Protestant ethic the view that a person's duty and responsibility is to achieve success through hard work and thrift. The term renders German die protestantische Ethik, coined (1904) by the economist Max Weber in his thesis on the relationship between the teachings of Calvin and the rise of capitalism.

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Protestantism. Generic term for manifestations or expressions of Christianity arising from the Reformation. Although the Lat., protestari, means ‘to protest’ (sc., against the errors of Roman Catholicism), it also means ‘to avow’ or ‘to affirm’. Thus Protestants were, and are, not simply negative, but seek to return to a faith and order based on scripture, and in continuity from the early apostolic Church. They stress the sovereign majesty of God, who as Father entrusts Lordship over creation to his Son. They hold strongly to justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. They reject the claims of papal supremacy, at least as so far practised and expressed, and also the seven sacraments of Catholicism, adhering to the two which have dominical (i.e. from the Lord) warrant, baptism and the Lord's Supper. Protestantism has proved highly fissiparous, and embraces extremes of conservatism and radicalism. There are, in extremely approximate terms, about 500 million Protestants in the world.

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Protestantism Branch of Christianity formed in protest against the practices and doctrines of the old Roman Catholic Church. Protestants sought a vernacular Bible to replace the Latin Vulgate, and to express individual elements of nationalism. According to tradition, the movement started when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg. His predecessors included John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. Later supporters included Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, whose interpretation of the Bible and concept of predestination had great influence. The Protestants held the Eucharist to be a symbolic celebration, as opposed to the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, and claimed that because Christ is the sole medium between God and man, his function cannot be displaced by the priests of the Church.

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Prot·es·tant / ˈprätəstənt/ • n. a member or follower of any of the Western Christian churches that are separate from the Roman Catholic Church and follow the principles of the Reformation, including the Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches. • adj. of, relating to, or belonging to any of the Protestant churches. DERIVATIVES: Prot·es·tant·i·za·tion / ˌprätəstəntəˈzāshən/ n. Prot·es·tant·ize / -īz/ v.

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•applicant • supplicant • communicant •lubricant • desiccant • intoxicant •gallant, talent •appellant, propellant, propellent, repellent, water-repellent •resemblant •assailant, inhalant •sealant • sibilant • jubilant •flagellant • vigilant • pestilent •silent •Solent, volant •coolant • virulent • purulent •ambulant, somnambulant •coagulant • crapulent • flatulent •feculent • esculent • petulant •stimulant • flocculent • opulent •postulant • fraudulent • corpulent •undulant •succulent, truculent •turbulent • violent • redolent •indolent • somnolent • excellent •insolent • nonchalant •benevolent, malevolent, prevalent •ambivalent, equivalent •garment • clement • segment •claimant, clamant, payment, raiment •ailment •figment, pigment •fitment • aliment • element •oddment •dormant, informant •moment • adamant • stagnant •lieutenant, pennant, subtenant, tenant •pregnant, regnant •remnant • complainant •benignant, indignant, malignant •recombinant • contaminant •eminent •discriminant, imminent •dominant, prominent •illuminant, ruminant •determinant • abstinent •continent, subcontinent •appurtenant, impertinent, pertinent •revenant •component, deponent, exponent, opponent, proponent •oppugnant, repugnant •immanent •impermanent, permanent •dissonant • consonant • alternant •covenant • resonant • rampant •discrepant • flippant • participant •occupant • serpent •apparent, arrant, transparent •Arendt •aberrant, deterrent, errant, inherent, knight-errant •entrant •declarant, parent •grandparent • step-parent •godparent •flagrant, fragrant, vagrant •registrant • celebrant • emigrant •immigrant • ministrant • aspirant •antiperspirant • recalcitrant •integrant • tyrant • vibrant • hydrant •migrant, transmigrant •abhorrent, torrent, warrant •quadrant • figurant • obscurant •blackcurrant, concurrent, currant, current, occurrent, redcurrant •white currant • cross-current •undercurrent •adherent, coherent, sederunt •exuberant, protuberant •reverberant • denaturant •preponderant • deodorant •different, vociferant •belligerent, refrigerant •accelerant • tolerant • cormorant •itinerant • ignorant • cooperant •expectorant • adulterant •irreverent, reverent •nascent, passant •absent •accent, relaxant •acquiescent, adolescent, albescent, Besant, coalescent, confessant, convalescent, crescent, depressant, effervescent, erubescent, evanescent, excrescent, flavescent, fluorescent, immunosuppressant, incandescent, incessant, iridescent, juvenescent, lactescent, liquescent, luminescent, nigrescent, obsolescent, opalescent, pearlescent, phosphorescent, pubescent, putrescent, quiescent, suppressant, tumescent, turgescent, virescent, viridescent •adjacent, complacent, obeisant •decent, recent •impuissant, reminiscent •Vincent • puissant •beneficent, maleficent •magnificent, munificent •Millicent • concupiscent • reticent •docent •lucent, translucent •discussant, mustn't •innocent •conversant, versant •consentient, sentient, trenchant •impatient, patient •ancient • outpatient •coefficient, deficient, efficient, proficient, sufficient •quotient • patent •interactant, reactant •disinfectant, expectant, protectant •repentant • acceptant •contestant, decongestant •sextant •blatant, latent •intermittent •assistant, coexistent, consistent, distant, equidistant, existent, insistent, persistent, resistant, subsistent, water-resistant •instant •cohabitant, habitant •exorbitant • militant • concomitant •impenitent, penitent •palpitant • crepitant • precipitant •competent, omnicompetent •irritant • incapacitant • Protestant •hesitant • visitant • mightn't • octant •remontant • constant •important, oughtn't •accountant • potent •mutant, pollutant •adjutant • executant • disputant •reluctant •consultant, exultant, resultant •combatant • omnipotent • impotent •inadvertent •Havant, haven't, savant, savante •advent •irrelevant, relevant •pursuivant • solvent • convent •adjuvant •fervent, observant, servant •manservant • maidservant •frequent, sequent •delinquent • consequent •subsequent • unguent • eloquent •grandiloquent, magniloquent •brilliant • poignant • hasn't •bezant, omnipresent, peasant, pheasant, pleasant, present •complaisant • malfeasant • isn't •cognizant • wasn't • recusant •doesn't

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