When someone asks what religion you are, what do you answer? There are a lot of different labels to describe the varieties of Christian followers, and the word "Protestant" is one. It was on this day, April 19, 1529, that the designation "Protestant" might be said to have come into existence.
Martin Luther had been declared a heretic by both the pope and the emperor, but his followers continued to multiply rapidly. Emperor Charles V could not suppress the reformers as he wished, because the Turks were threatening his empire from the east, and the pope and he were quarreling with each other. In 1521, at Worms, Germany, Charles signed a document which outlawed Luther. Five years later at another imperial council, Charles agreed to postpone any settlement of religious issues. He agreed that until an official policy could be established, every State within his territories would be governed as the ruler thought most pleasing to God. In practice, this meant that throughout Germany's many independent cities, principalities and electorates, the religion of each prince or local ruler became the religion of his subjects.
In 1529 a Diet (Congress) met at Speyer, Germany to consider action against the Turks and attempt again to come to terms with the Reformation. The Diet forbade any extension of the Reformation until a German council could meet the following year. Charles V declared he would wipe out the Lutheran "heresy." Five reforming princes and fourteen cities drafted a protest, a formal legal appeal, for themselves, their subjects and all who then or in the future should believe in the Word of God. (It was not formally published until July.)
Eight years before, Martin Luther was a lone monk standing for the Word of God and liberty of conscience at the Diet of Worms. But by 1529, the world had changed: there was an organized party of government leaders with consciences bound by the Word of God against tyrannical authority. Not every protester was a Lutheran. The whole party of the reformers needed a name. From the protest and appeal at the Diet of Speyer, these breakaways from the Roman Church began to be called Protestants.
Today Protestants are one of three major branches of Christianity. While all three hold the same fundamental creed, other differences are many. Perhaps the key difference is that while the Eastern Orthodox and Roman traditions combine the Scripture with the authority of church tradition or of a pope, Protestants claim to find the sole authority for their faith in the Bible, the Word of God. Many can also be identified because they accept the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
- Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Bezold, Friedrich von. Geschichte der Deutschen Reformation. Berlin: Derlagsbuchhandlung, 1890. Source of the image.
- "Protestantism" in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F. L Cross and E. A. Livingstone.
- Schaff, Phillip. The History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1910.
Last updated June, 2007.