Protestantism in the United Kingdom

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Protestantism is the most popular religion practiced in the United Kingdom today.[1] It has also played a huge role in the shaping of political and religious life in these nations. Although the Protestant Reformation actually began in Germany with Martin Luther as the founder of its movement, the United Kingdom, and England especially, developed the Reformation and also produced many of its reformers. Protestantism influenced many of England's monarchs in the 1500s and 1600s, such as Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and James I, but some of them influenced Protestantism as well. Some of these monarchs practiced Protestantism while others persecuted those who did not agree with their Catholic beliefs. Reformers and early church leaders were greatly persecuted in the first centuries of the Reformation, but they held true to their beliefs, and the non-conformist movement survived. Now, in the modern nations of the UK, Protestantism is the most widely practiced religion, although members are becoming less and less devout in their participation in church.

United Kingdom before the Reformation[edit]

Pre-Reformation religion[edit]

Before Protestantism reached England, the country was Catholic, and the Roman Church was the established state church. King Henry VIII wanted to marry another woman and to divorce from his first wife. He came up with the idea of Protestantism the name of which comes from the word protest referring to a protest against the Roman Catholic religion. All citizens were required to profess Catholic faith before King Henry VIII separated England from the Church of Rome in 1534. Wales and Ireland were also closely tied to Roman Catholicism at this time, but Scotland was dominated by many different pagan religions that the tribal Celtics practiced.[2]

Important precedent events[edit]

When England was dominated by the Catholic Church, the only Bibles available were written in Latin Vulgate, a translation of proper Latin considered holy by the Roman Church. Only clergy had access to copies of the Bible, and common Englishmen were unable to read them. For these reasons, all the countrymen were dependent on their local priests for the reading of Scripture. Some believed the Pope did this to hide Scriptural truth from the common people.[3] Early in the Reformation, one of the fundamental disagreements between the Roman Church and Protestant leaders over was the distribution of the Bible in the people's common language.

John Wycliffe was one leader who helped make the Bible available to all people, regardless of their wealth or social standing. Wycliffe provided for the translating of the whole Bible into the English language because he believed that Englishmen needed to be familiar with the Scriptures on their own terms in order to know Jesus Christ.[4] Also, in 1526, William Tyndale published the first complete Bible in print. This allowed faster distribution and a lower cost, and soon the Bible was not only readable to English citizens, but it also became affordable for most people.[5] Once the common countrymen had access to the Bible, many more Englishmen began joining the Protestant Church than had been before. The revolutionary growth in Scripture reading is a notable event of the Reformation, and England was one of the first countries where this occurred. Soon, England's foundational convictions were changing, and new Protestant doctrines were emerging that challenged the Roman Catholic Church.

Leading reformers and philosophers of the time, such as John Wycliffe, helped establish these doctrines by preaching to thousands of people in their countries. Wycliffe himself opposed the Catholic doctrinal belief of transubstantiation and practices of monasticism. Some Catholics believe that when they eat the Eucharist, a traditional participation of the Lord's Supper, the bread and wine transform into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ when the priest prays over it.[citation needed] All the Protestant leaders rejected this belief as false and argued that it endorsed cannibalism through Jesus’ teachings.[6] Many Protestant leaders also disapproved of monasticism because they believed this was unnecessary for salvation and harmful to those who practiced it. The practice of penance, works done to balance the punishment of sin or to receive salvation, was particularly common among the monks living in monastery communities. Protestants rejected this doctrine as a lie, and they did not believe that any amount of good works would allow one to enter heaven. This was something that stirred up the most turmoil between the Catholic Church and the non-conformists.

Protestant influence in political history[edit]

Protestantism probably had the most profound influence on politics in the United Kingdom. Within the 16th and 17th centuries, nearly all the monarchs of Scotland, Ireland, and especially England were defined by the religion, either Catholic or Protestant, which they advocated.

Henry VIII was the first monarch to introduce a new established state religion to the English. In 1534, he got into a major disagreement with the ordained Catholic Pope, Clement VII, over a divorce he wanted to legalize between him and his wife, Catharine of Aragon. When Pope Clement VII refused his consent to this divorce, Henry VIII decided, in his anger, to simply separate the entire country of England from the Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly, the Pope had no more authority over the people of England who were far removed from his headquarters in the Holy City to begin with. Also, England had been progressing and modernizing at a faster rate before the split. This parting of ways between the Pope and the King of England not only freed the nation to continue its modernization without restraint, but it also opened the door for a brand new religion, Protestantism, to enter the country.[7]

King Henry established the Church of England after the schism between him and the Pope, and he set himself up as the new head of the church. In many ways, England stayed the same even when a new state religion had begun. Its doctrines and practices were, at first, very similar to those of the Roman Church. It is obvious that the king did not establish the Church of England for religious purposes; his motives were purely political. This is evidenced by the fact that Henry VIII persecuted the radical Protestants who "threatened" his church during his reign.[8] However, the damage had already been done concerning the influence of Rome over England. The Church of England was Protestant by nature, considering the fact it was "protesting" the Catholic Church.[9] For this reason, the Protestant Reformation is said to have started in England with this particular act.[8]

From this point on, the Protestant Church in England was continually back and forth between good and bad positions depending on whether or not the current monarch was a devout Protestant or Catholic. King Henry VIII's successor, Edward VI, supported the Protestant Reformation, but he differed from his father in the fact that Protestantism, for him, was not only political. He was more devout in his faith than the king before him, and he removed some of the fear from the hearts of his Protestant subjects.[2]

Under the next monarch, however, Protestants probably received their most violent persecution. Queen Mary of Tudor was raised as a Catholic, and she saw it as her duty to purge the "evil" of Protestantism from her country.[8] At this time, bold reformers of the church such as Thomas Hawkes, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer, and George Wishart were murdered for their faith. But the torture and executions they faced never seemed to hinder the growth of the Protestant church. On the contrary, many more joined the church when they saw how committed these brave martyrs were to their religion.[10]

Things changed dramatically, though, for Protestants after Elizabeth I became the queen of England. She was raised a Protestant, and under her rule, the Protestant Church and way of life flourished. The fear of severe persecution practically vanished when the state turned back toward Protestantism. Reformers were soon preaching throughout the country and converting many over to the Protestant church, and Protestants filled many leadership positions in government. Soon a new way of life and worship emerged in the country. Similarities between the Catholic and Protestant churches steadily decreased. One negative result that came with this new freedom for Protestants, however, was the persecution of Catholics.[2]

The reign of King James I established a definite victory for Protestantism in England. The King James Bible introduced a new Protestant form of the Scriptures to church members throughout the country. This translation of the Bible was a language and dialect specific to the English people and to their Protestant religion. Everyone was able to read the Bible for himself and no longer relied on church leaders for studies of Scripture. James I successfully fulfilled the efforts of Protestant reformers who had been supporting the spreading of Bibles in common language for decades.[2] Years later, the English Civil War (1642–1651) was largely influenced by the Protestant Reformation and its effects on different countries. While the English were back and forth with Protestantism in their country for a time, Scotland was experiencing a more far-reaching impact from the religion. A strong Presbyterian following had developed, but the Church of Scotland did not agree with King Charles I's expectations of the Protestant religion. Threatening the Church of Scotland, Charles I said that he would turn to the Ireland, which was a strong Catholic state, to help change the practice of Protestantism in Scotland by force.[2]

Oliver Cromwell, an Englishman born in Huntingdon, emerged victorious at the end of the Civil War. Once he gained control of the government in England, Cromwell established a radical religious government in the country. He organized the Assembly of Saints, a firm and strict sect of Protestantism which was very similar to the Puritan way of life. The Assembly remained strong in England until the reign of Charles II who ended many of the strict practices of Puritanism. National festivities resumed, and, although some practices of the people became more secularized, most cold, formal religion came to an end.[2]

When Parliament passed the Act of Toleration of 1689, Dissenters received freedom of worship within England. Catholics were not included in this act of Parliament, but members of other religions, most notably Protestantism, were officially protected from persecution because of their faith. At this point, the English government gave up on imposing a single religion on the nation because political leaders realized that peoples of many religions lived within the country. Of course, for some, this freedom has resulted in more people rejecting religion altogether. This has become the case in much of the United Kingdom today where religion has declined dramatically and the nations have become largely secularized.[2]

Protestantism in other countries of the United Kingdom[edit]


Scotland experienced a much deeper movement of Protestant reformation in the church than in any other nation in the UK. John Knox is the man credited with first introducing the Reformation to Scotland. Knox sparked the Scottish Reformation in 1560 when he began preaching about Protestantism to large groups of people throughout the country.[11] Later on, Scotland became involved with the English Civil War when King Charles I threatened the country's Presbyterian Church.[2]


In 1282, the country of Wales was conquered by Edward I for England. Wales became an integral part of England when the Tudor dynasty conquered the region for the country.[12] During this period of the Tudor House, the religious and political history of Wales and England is closely tied, and the impact of the Reformation in both nations was very similar. In 1588, William Morgan published the Welsh Bible. Welsh is the only non-state language in which the entire Bible was published during the Protestant Reformation.[13] A notable difference between churches in England and Wales is that the Catholic and Protestant churches were much more balanced by each other in Wales. For the most part, faithful Catholics also made it more difficult for radical Protestantism to advance in the country. However, Protestants and non-conformists still compose the largest religious group in Wales.[13]

Northern Ireland[edit]

Although Northern Ireland has been noted as a more Protestant country than the Republic of Ireland, it has still retained more Catholicism than any other nation in the United Kingdom. Concerning its history and theology, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Church of Scotland have been closely tied in the past. Even during the Protestant Reformation, Northern Ireland became mostly balanced between Catholics and the Protestants. This balance has led to greater religious diversity in the country today.[14]

Protestantism in the United Kingdom today[edit]

Although the Protestant faith has had a profound effect on the United Kingdom in past centuries, statistics now show a steady decline in church membership and attendance in these countries. According to the BBC, church attendance in the UK has dwindled in the past fifty years. This is not just a decline in the Church of England or other Protestant churches but in all religious establishments. BBC also says that 26% of people over the age of 65 attend church as opposed to the 11% of those between the ages of 16 and 44 who attend church.[15] This may suggest that the new generation of people in England is not being drawn into churches today. It will be difficult for England to return to their religious roots in the future if new generations are not influenced now. Britannica Online points out the fact that the Church of England have more members currently than other churches, but there is greater dedication among members of these non-conformist congregations.[16] The Office for National Statistics confirmed in their 2001 census that 15% of people in England do not claim any religion.[17] Research by Vexen Crabtree in 2005 concluded that the number of citizens who belong to a religion and attend services at any church has decreased by 41% in 41 years while those who say they do not belong to any religion and are not attending services increased by 35% in the same amount of time.[18] These facts point to the increasing secularization of the country of England.

Scotland has had a long history of devout Protestantism manifesting itself in Presbyterianism. However, today the Church of Scotland is weakening as a state church and church membership in the country is declining.[19] According to research founded in the city of St. Peters, only 10% of members in the church actually attend services regularly.[20] The Church of Scotland has become a church of casual membership in the past few decades. However, just because membership in the state church has decreased, this does not mean that Presbyterianism itself has decreased as well. More independent congregational churches may be thriving in the country.[19]

Wales is another country where church membership is becoming a mere nominal association. Although the majority of citizens are members of Protestant and non-conformist churches, the culture has become increasingly secular. Roman Catholicism is also making a slight return to the country as it has recently become a growing minority.[21]

Northern Ireland, which has always been the most Catholic region in the United Kingdom, is now the most diverse in the UK. Catholics are still the largest single church in Northern Ireland, but Presbyterians total one-fifth of the population. The Church of Ireland forms about 1/6th of the population religiously.[14]


  1. ^ "Religious Populations in England". Office for National Statistics. Retrieved April 8, 2011. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h
  3. ^ Combee, Jerry (1995). History of the World in Christian Perspective Third Edition. Pensacola, Florida: A Beka Book. p. 178. 
  4. ^ (
  5. ^ Ferm, Vergilius (1957). Pictoral History of Protestantism. Philosophical Library Inc. p. 116. 
  6. ^ Combee, Jerry (1995). History of the World in Christian Perspective Third Edition. Pensacola, Florida: A Beka Book. p. 177. 
  7. ^ (
  8. ^ a b c Ferm, Vergilius (1957). Pictoral History of Protestantism. Philosophical Library Inc. p. 114. 
  9. ^ Ferm, Vergilius (1957). Pictoral History of Protestantism. Philosophical Library Inc. p. 119. 
  10. ^ Ferm, Vergilius (1957). Pictoral History of Protestantism. Philosophical Library Inc. pp. 123, 124, 125, 133. 
  11. ^ Ferm, Vergilius (1957). Pictoral History of Protestantism. Philosophical Library Inc. p. 132. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b
  14. ^ a b "Northern Ireland: Religion" Britannica
  15. ^ "Longer life expectancy 'puts people off religion'". BBC News. April 12, 2011. 
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^ a b "Scotland: Religion" Britannica
  20. ^
  21. ^ "Wales: Religion" Britannica