The Major Differences Among All The Branches Of Protestantism

The history of the Protestant Reformation is often broken down into a few key moments, beginning with Martin Luther nailing 95 theses to the door of a church to protest the Catholic practice of selling indulgences. This sparked the Wars of Reformation, giving rise to a series of religious conflicts that reshaped Europe. Estimates of the casualty toll of these conflicts put the figure around 7-8 million, and the Protestant question was settled.

While broadly factually accurate, this summary leaves a lot to be desired, including a discussion of the continued development of Protestantism and the splintering of Protestant ideologies into dozens of different sects. Far from a settled matter, the Protestant movement is an ever-changing, ever-evolving group of competing branches, and the differences among Protestant denominations can be archaic and confusing. It is precisely because of the differences among Christian denominations that studying the development of the faith can be so rewarding.

Due to its emphasis on individual understandings of the Bible, and its decentralization of authority (as compared to the iron authority of the Vatican), Protestantism has been particularly prone to reinterpretation by powerful, charismatic figures. Men like John Calvin and John Wesley founded branches of Protestantism that have deep influences to this day.


  • Pentecostal Churches

    When It Arose: Pentecostalism began in 1901, but didn't gain a broad following until the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906.

    The Leading Figure: Pentecostalism developed over a long period, and countless preachers have contributed to it, but many credit Charles F. Parham and his student, William Joseph Seymour, with its beginnings. 

    Defining Beliefs: There are many expressions of Pentecostalist faith and many divergent churches within the movement. Typically, they follow most of the tenets of mainstream Christianity. One distinct feature of Protestant worship is "baptism in the spirit," which follows conventional water baptism. During this process, the Spirit of God enters the subject and possesses them, which is evidenced by speaking in tongues.

    Unique Practices: Pentecostalism was founded around the practice of speaking in tongues. Protestant worship services tend to be informal yet intense, often dedicated towards bringing about an almost frenzied experience of God's presence.

    Notable Members: Denzel Washington, Marvin Gaye, Megan Fox, Jerry Lee Lewis

  • Baptist Churches
    Photo: James R. Evans / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Baptist Churches

    When It Arose: The Baptist Church has its roots in the earliest days of the Protestant Reformation. The earliest Baptists fled religious persecution in England in 1607, though the church saw its greatest growth in the 19th century.

    The Leading Figure: The church was started by a minister named John Smyth. Smyth rejected the remaining traces of Catholicism in the Church of England and performed the radical act of baptizing himself. He was rejected by the church and fled to Holland.

    Defining Beliefs: Baptists have no hierarchy. While there are some preachers, nobody is considered "above" anyone else. They believe everyone is responsible for their individual relationship with God.

    Unique Practices: As might be expected, the Baptists' core practices revolve around the full immersion of adults in baptism. They believe children cannot fully agree to commit themselves to Jesus, and so they must be baptized as adults. In addition, they believe full immersion in the water is faithful to the original baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

    Notable Members: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Brad Pitt, Britney Spears

  • Lutheran Churches
    Photo: Lucas Cranach the Elder / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Lutheran Churches

    When It Arose: Lutherans are the oldest branch of Protestantism, dating all the way back to the original teachings of Martin Luther, who nailed 95 theses to the door of the church in 1517.

    Leading Figure: This branch follows Martin Luther, the theologian who originally rebelled against the hegemony of the Catholic Church. Luther's core idea was that individuals should be trusted to find their own salvation in the Bible, rather than trusting corrupt priests.

    Defining Beliefs: Despite his rebellion from the church, Luther was a strict and conservative theologian. He clung to a strict, literal, and inerrant view of the Bible, which led him to teach that Jesus's body and blood are literally present during communion. He also believed baptism was absolutely necessary for salvation.

    Unique Practices: Unlike most other Protestant denominations, Lutherans maintain many of the practices of Catholicism, including the altars and vestments. Their focus on the sacraments of communion and baptism also sets them apart.

    Notable Members: Johann Sebastian Bach, David Letterman, Bruce Willis, Dana Carvey

  • Methodist Churches

    When It Arose: Like the Baptists, the Methodist Church splintered off from the Anglican Church. It began properly in 1738, when the Anglican minister John Wesley had a vision that transformed his faith.

    Leading Figure: The church was started by John Wesley, an Anglican minister whose methodical study of the Bible gave the church its name.

    Defining Beliefs: The Methodists have, from their inception, believed in the importance of good works and personal responsibility. As a result, Methodists have historically been involved in charitable projects and avoided alcohol. Methodists, unlike some other sects, believe in both original sin and universal salvation.

    Unique Practices: Methodists are a powerfully evangelical branch, active in charity, politics, and the business sector. Their services are distinguished by a focus on hymns and singing, one of Wesley's favorite forms of worship.

    Notable Members: George W. Bush, Beyonce Knowles, Christopher Walken, Hillary Clinton, Rosa Parks