Protestant Culture

Although the Reformation was a religious movement, Protestant culture also had a strong impact on all other aspects of life: marriage and family, education, the humanities and sciences, the political and social order, the economy, and the arts.

Protestant culture is diverse, being more divided theologically and ecclesiastically than either the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, or Oriental Orthodoxy.

The role of families, women, and sexual minorities

All Protestant churches allow their clergy to marry, in contrast to the Catholic Church. This meant that the families of many members of the Protestant clergy were able to contribute to the development of intellectual elites in their countries from about 1525, when the theologian Martin Luther was married.

Historically, the role of women in church life, the Protestant clergy, and as theologians remained limited. The role of women expanded over time and was closely associated with the movements for universal education and women’s suffrage. Political and social movements for suffrage (voting rights) and sobriety (see temperance movement and Prohibition) in the English-speaking world of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were closely associated with Protestant Christian women’s organizations.

While particular Protestant churches such as the Methodists involved women as clergy or assistants since the late 1700s, the ordination of women as clergy dates from the 1970s in the Anglican Communion. Since about 1990, many more women have assumed senior leadership roles (e.g. as bishops) in several Protestant churches, including the Anglican Communion and the Church of England.

Since the 1990s Protestant churches have encountered controversy regarding the Church’s response to persons of minority sexual orientations. The sometimes divisive nature of these discussions was exemplified by the formation of dissenting groups within the Anglican Communion that rejected reforms that were intended to make the Church more inclusive (see related article Homosexuality and the Anglican Communion).


Since Reformers wanted all members of the church to be able to read and study the Bible and catechisms, support for education at all levels increased over time in Europe, the Americas, and in other parts of the world that were influenced by contact with European educators and missionaries. Compulsory education for both boys and girls was introduced. For example, the Puritans who established Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628 founded Harvard College only eight years later. About a dozen other American colleges followed in the 18th century, including Yale University (1701). Pennsylvania also became a centre of learning. By initiating translations of the Bible into various national languages, Protestantism supported the development of national literatures.

Some of the first colleges and universities in America, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Williams, Bowdoin, Middlebury, and Amherst, all were founded by mainline Protestant denominations.

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899

Signing the Mayflower Compact 1620, a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris 1899

Thought and work ethic

The Protestant concept of God and man allows believers to use all their God-given faculties, including the power of reason. That means that Protestant believers are encouraged to explore God’s creation and, according to Genesis 2:15, make use of it in a responsible and sustainable way. Thus a cultural climate was created that greatly enhanced the development of the humanities and the sciences. Another consequence of the Protestant understanding of man is that the believers, in gratitude for their election and redemption in Christ, are to follow God’s commandments. Industry, frugality, calling, discipline, and a strong sense of responsibility are at the heart of their moral code. In particular, John Calvin rejected luxury. Therefore, craftsmen, industrialists, and other businessmen were able to reinvest the greater part of their profits in the most efficient machinery and the most modern production methods that were based on progress in the sciences and technology. As a result, productivity grew, which led to increased profits and enabled employers to pay higher wages. In this way, the economy, the sciences, and technology reinforced each other. The chance to participate in the economic success of technological inventions was a strong incentive to both inventors and investors. The Protestant work ethic was an important force behind the unplanned and uncoordinated mass action that influenced the development of capitalism and the industrial revolution. This idea is also known as the “Protestant ethic thesis.”

Some mainline Protestant denominations such as Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Congregationalists tend to be considerably wealthier and better educated than most other religious groups in America, having a higher proportion of graduate and post-graduate degrees per capita. Protestants are disproportionately represented in the upper reaches of American business, law and politics, especially the Republican Party. Large numbers of the most wealthy and affluent American families such as the Vanderbilts and Astors, Rockefeller, Du Pont, Roosevelt, Forbes, Whitneys, Morgans and Harrimans are Mainline Protestant families.

According to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center, Episcopalians ranked as the third most financially successful religious group in the United States, with 35% of Episcopalians living in households with incomes of at least $100,000, while and Presbyterians ranked as the fourth most financially successful religious group in the United States, with 32% of Presbyterians living in households with incomes of at least $100,000. According to the same study there is correlation between education and income, about 59% of American Anglican have a graduate and post-graduate degree, followed by Episcopalians (56%) and Presbyterians (47%).


Protestantism had an important influence on science. According to the Merton Thesis, there was a positive correlation between the rise of Puritanism and Protestant Pietism on the one hand and early experimental science on the other. The Merton Thesis has two separate parts: Firstly, it presents a theory that science changes due to an accumulation of observations and improvement in experimental techniques and methodology; secondly, it puts forward the argument that the popularity of science in 17th-century England and the religious demography of the Royal Society (English scientists of that time were predominantly Puritans or other Protestants) can be explained by a correlation between Protestantism and the scientific values. In his theory, Robert K. Merton focused on English Puritanism and German Pietism as having been responsible for the development of the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries. Merton explained that the connection between religious affiliation and interest in science was the result of a significant synergy between the ascetic Protestant values and those of modern science. Protestant values encouraged scientific research by allowing science to study God’s influence on the world and thus providing a religious justification for scientific research.

According to Harriet Zuckerman’s review of American Nobel prize laureates from 1901 to 1972, 72% were of Protestant background. According to Zuckerman, Protestants featured among the American laureates in a slightly greater proportion (72%) than their prevalence within the general population (about 2/3). Overall, Protestants have won a total of 84.2% of all the American Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, 60% in Medicine and 58.6% in Physics between 1901 and 1972.

According to 100 Years of Nobel Prize (2005), a review of Nobel prizes awarded between 1901 and 2000, 65.4% of Nobel Prize Laureates, have identified Christianity in its various forms as their religious preference (423 prizes). While 32% have identified Protestant in its various forms (208 prize). although Protestant comprise 11.6% to 13% of the world’s population.


In the Middle Ages, the Church and the worldly authorities were closely related. Martin Luther separated the religious and the worldly realms in principle (doctrine of the two kingdoms). The believers were obliged to use reason to govern the worldly sphere in an orderly and peaceful way. Luther’s doctrine of the priesthood of all believers upgraded the role of laymen in the church considerably. The members of a congregation had the right to elect a minister and, if necessary, to vote for his dismissal (Treatise On the right and authority of a Christian assembly or congregation to judge all doctrines and to call, install and dismiss teachers, as testified in Scripture; 1523). Calvin strengthened this basically democratic approach by including elected laymen (church elders, presbyters) in his representative church government. The Huguenots added regional synods and a national synod, whose members were elected by the congregations, to Calvin’s system of church self-government. This system was taken over by the other Reformed churches.

Politically, John Calvin favoured a mixture of aristocracy and democracy. He appreciated the advantages of democracy: “It is an invaluable gift, if God allows a people to freely elect its own authorities and overlords.” Calvin also thought that earthly rulers lose their divine right and must be put down when they rise up against God. To further protect the rights of ordinary people, Calvin suggested separating political powers in a system of checks and balances (separation of powers). Thus he and his followers resisted political absolutism and paved the way for the rise of modern democracy. 16th century Calvinists and Lutherans developed a theory of resistance called the doctrine of the lesser magistrate which was later employed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Besides England, the Netherlands were, under Calvinist leadership, the freest country in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It granted asylum to philosophers like René Descartes, Baruch Spinoza and Pierre Bayle. Hugo Grotius was able to teach his natural-law theory and a relatively liberal interpretation of the Bible.

Consistent with Calvin’s political ideas, Protestants created both the English and the American democracies. In 17th-century England, the most important persons and events in this process were the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, John Milton, John Locke, the Glorious Revolution, the English Bill of Rights, and the Act of Settlement. Later, the British took their democratic ideals also to their colonies, e.g. Australia, New Zealand, and India. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the British variety of modern-time democracy, constitutional monarchy, was taken over by Protestant-formed Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands as well as the Catholic countries Belgium and Spain. In North America, Plymouth Colony (Pilgrim Fathers; 1620) and Massachusetts Bay Colony (1628) practised democratic self-rule and separation of powers. These Congregationalists were convinced that the democratic form of government was the will of God. The Mayflower Compact was a social contract.

Protestants have always played the decisive role in British and American politics. The Act of Settlement stipulated that all British monarchs and their spouses must be Protestants. Except for John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, all Presidents of the United States have been members of Protestant churches or have had a Protestant background.

Rights and liberty

A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity (1612) by Thomas Helwys. For Helwys, religious liberty was a right for everyone, even for those he disagreed with.

A Short Declaration of the Mistery of Iniquity (1612) by Thomas Helwys. For Helwys, religious liberty was a right for everyone, even for those he disagreed with.

Protestants also took the initiative in creating religious freedom, the starting-point of human rights. Freedom of conscience had had high priority on the theological, philosophical, and political agendas since Luther refused to recant his beliefs before the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire at Worms (1521). In his view, faith was a free work of the Holy Spirit and could therefore not be forced on a person. The persecuted Anabaptists and Huguenots demanded freedom of conscience, and they practised separation of church and state. In the early seventeenth century, Baptists like John Smyth and Thomas Helwys published tracts in defence of religious freedom. Their thinking influenced John Milton’s and John Locke’s stance on tolerance. Under the leadership of Baptist Roger Williams, Congregationalist Thomas Hooker, and Quaker William Penn, respectively, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania combined democratic constitutions with freedom of religion. These colonies became safe havens for persecuted religious minorities, including Jews. The United States Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the (American) Bill of Rights with its fundamental human rights made this tradition permanent by giving it a legal and political framework. The great majority of American Protestants, both clergy and laity, strongly supported the independence movement. All major Protestant churches were represented in the First and Second Continental Congresses. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the American democracy became a model for numerous other countries throughout the world, e.g. Latin America, Japan, and Germany. The strongest link between the American and the French Revolution was Marquis de Lafayette, an ardent supporter of the American constitutional principles. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was mainly based on Lafayette’s draft of this document. The Declaration by United Nations and Universal Declaration of Human Rights also echo the American constitutional tradition.

Democracy, social-contract theory, separation of powers, religious freedom, separation of church and state – these achievements of the Reformation and early Protestantism were elaborated on and popularized by Enlightenment thinkers. The philosophers of the English, Scottish, German, and Swiss Enlightenment – Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Toland, David Hume, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Christian Wolff, Immanuel Kant, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau – had a Protestant background. For example, John Locke, whose political thought was based on “a set of Protestant Christian assumptions”, derived the equality of all humans, including the equality of the genders (“Adam and Eve”), from Genesis 1, 26–28. As all persons were created equally free, all governments needed the consent of the governed. These Lockean ideas were fundamental to the United States Declaration of Independence, which also deduced human rights from the biblical belief in creation: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights were theonomous ideas (theonomy). They were not derived from a concept of autonomous man. In colonial America, there was “the broadly accepted notion of equality by creation.”

Also other human rights were initiated by Protestants. For example, torture was abolished in Prussia in 1740, slavery in Britain in 1834 and in the United States in 1865 (William Wilberforce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln). Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf were among the first thinkers who made significant contributions to international law. The Geneva Convention, an important part of humanitarian international law, was largely the work of Henry Dunant, a reformed pietist. He also founded the Red Cross.

Social teaching

Protestants have always felt obliged to help people. They have founded hospitals, homes for disabled or elderly people, educational institutions, organisations that give aid to developing countries, and other social welfare agencies. In the nineteenth century, throughout the Anglo-American world numerous dedicated members of all Protestant denominations were active in social reform movements such as the abolition of slavery, prison reforms, and woman suffrage. As an answer to the “social question” of the nineteenth century, Germany under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced insurance programs that led the way to the welfare state (health insurance, accident insurance, disability insurance, old-age pensions). To Bismarck this was “practical Christianity”. These programs, too, were copied by many other nations, particularly in the Western world.


Further information: Hymnody of continental EuropeAnglican church musicChurch architecture § The Reformation and its influence on church architecture, and Lutheran art

The arts have been strongly inspired by Protestant beliefs. Martin Luther, Paul Gerhardt, George Wither, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, William Cowper, and many other authors and composers created well-known church hymns. Musicians like Heinrich Schütz, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel, Henry Purcell, Johannes Brahms, and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy composed great works of music. Prominent painters with Protestant background were, for example, Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger, Lucas Cranach, Rembrandt, and Vincent van Gogh. World literature was enriched by the works of Edmund Spenser, John Milton, John Bunyan, John Donne, John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, William Wordsworth, Jonathan Swift, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allan Poe, Matthew Arnold, Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, Theodor Fontane, Washington Irving, Robert Browning, Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Galsworthy, Thomas Mann, William Faulkner, John Updike, and many others.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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