Protestantism is unique among the Christian traditions in that it is far from monolithic. The Protestant emphasis on the individual's responsibility to God and the sole authority of Scripture in matters of salvation has led to the creation of hundreds of denominations. Some of the largest Protestant sects differ significantly from one another in both belief and practice.
Protestantism arose as a response to perceived errors in the Catholic Church. While Protestants share many beliefs with Catholics, such as a belief in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, they differ in many areas. There are several core Protestant doctrines shared by almost all Protestant sects. Protestants believe human beings are justified, or made guiltless in the eyes of God, through faith alone. They believe the Bible is the sole authority in matters of faith and salvation. Every believer can commune with God without the interposition of a priest or a church (the "priesthood of all believers"). It is only through God's grace that a person can be saved. Protestants observe two sacraments: baptism and communion, compared to the seven Catholic sacraments of baptism, confirmation, communion, penance, marriage, holy orders and anointing of the sick.
Baptists comprise the largest segment of Protestantism in the United States. The top three Baptist denominations have nearly 35 million adherents. Baptist beliefs center around personal salvation. Most Baptists are fiercely independent, and most Baptist denominations are loose associations with local churches reserving the final say in matters of faith. Baptist worship is often simple and centered on preaching. Baptism is a hallmark rite and an expression of the new convert's faith. Baptists do not baptize children.
There are around 12 million Methodists in the United States, with over half of those belonging to the United Methodist Church. Methodists rank second in the list of largest Protestant sects in the U.S. Methodist beliefs can vary from one denomination to another, but they share certain commonalities. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, articulated beliefs in the free will of humanity, the importance of holiness or practical divinity and social action. Modern Methodists of all stripes hold to these beliefs. Methodist worship varies from simple services centered on preaching to worship that includes creeds, scripture readings, prayers and other liturgical elements.
More than 6.5 Americans identify themselves as Lutherans, making them the third largest Protestant sect in the United States. Lutheran denominations differ from one another with some more liberal and some more conservative. All Lutherans accept the beliefs of Martin Luther and the early Lutherans as expressed in the Augsburg Confession and other parts of the Book of Concord. Lutherans emphasize the distinct Protestant doctrines of salvation by grace through faith, the Bible as the only rule of faith and the priesthood of all believers. Lutheran worship typically includes liturgical elements and frequent communion.
- Hartford Institute for Religion Research: Fast Facts
- Southern Baptist Convention: About Us - Basic Beliefs
- The United Methodist Church: Our Wesleyan Theological Heritage
- Reasons to Believe: The Distinctives of Protestant Christianity
- Patheos Library: Protestantism - Rites and Ceremonies
- Evangelical Lutheran Church in America: ELCA Confession of Faith
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