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Protestantism in the United Kingdom

Protestantism is the most popular religion practiced in the United Kingdom today.[1] For centuries, it has played a primary role in shaping political and religious life throughout the region. Although the German Martin Luther was responsible for the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation during the early 1500s, the United Kingdom, and especially England, developed the Reformation further and produced many of its most notable figures. Protestantism influenced many of England's monarchs in the 1500s and 1600s, including Henry VIII, Edward VI, Elizabeth I, and James I. Violence was commonplace, and persecution was largely dependent on whether the monarch was Catholic or Protestant. Reformers and early church leaders were greatly persecuted in the first centuries of the Reformation, but the non-conformist movement survived. As a result of the Reformation, Protestantism is the most widely practiced religion in the modern United Kingdom, although participation in the church has weakened in recent years.

United Kingdom before the Reformation

Pre-Reformation religion

Before Protestantism reached England, the Roman Church was the established state church. Wales and Ireland were also closely tied to Roman Catholicism at this time, but Scotland had been dominated in early years by many different pagan religions that the Celts practiced.[2]

Early Reformation

In Catholic England, the only Bible available was written in Latin Vulgate, a translation of proper Latin considered holy by the Roman Church. As a result, only clergy had access to copies of the Bible. All countrymen were dependent on their local priests for the reading of scripture because they simply could not read the text for themselves. Some believe the Pope did this to hide truth from the common people.[3] Early in the Reformation, one of the fundamental disagreements between the Roman Church and Protestant leaders was over 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 translated 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]

In 1526, William Tyndale published the first complete Bible in print. Print facilitated distribution at 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 people had access to the Bible, many more joined the Protestant Church. The revolutionary growth in biblical reading was 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 large groups of people. Wycliffe, among others, opposed the Catholic belief of transubstantiation. Some Catholics believe that when they participate in the Eucharist, the bread and wine transform into the literal body and blood of Jesus Christ when the priest prays over it. All Protestant leaders rejected this belief as false.[6]

Many Protestant leaders also disapproved of Catholic monasticism because they believed this was unnecessary for salvation and harmful to those who practiced it. The practice of penance and the belief that good works could be done to balance the punishment of sin or to receive salvation was particularly common among the monks living in monasteries. Protestants rejected this doctrine and did not believe that good works alone would allow one to enter heaven. Rather, Protestants rely on the doctrines of sola scriptura and sola fide.

Protestant influence in political history


Within the 16th and 17th centuries, nearly all the monarchs and resulting governments of Scotland, Ireland, and England were defined by either Catholicism or Protestantism.

Henry VIII was the first monarch to introduce a new state religion to the English. In 1534, he disagreed with the ordained Catholic Pope over his desire to divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon. When Pope Clement VII refused to consent to his divorce, Henry VIII angrily decided to separate the entire country of England from the Roman Catholic Church. The Pope had no more authority over the people of England. This parting of ways between the Pope and the King of England opened the door for Protestantism to enter the country.[7]

Henry VIII established the Church of England after his split with the Pope. However, England stayed much 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. He did not establish the Church of England as a result of religious differences from Catholicism. The king’s motives were mainly political. Even though he was the first to establish a Protestant state religion, Henry VIII persecuted radical Protestants who threatened his church during his reign.[8] 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]

King Henry VIII's successor, Edward VI, supported the Reformation, but he differed from his father because his belief in Protestantism was not only political. He was more devout in his faith, and persecution of Protestant subjects ceased.[2]

Under the next monarch, however, Protestants were persecuted once again. Queen Mary I was raised Catholic, and she saw it as her duty to purge the evil of Protestantism from her country.[8] During her reign, reformers of the church, such as Thomas Hawkes, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, Thomas Cranmer, and George Wishart, were executed for their faith. These executions did not destroy the Protestant movement. In fact, many joined the church when they saw how committed these brave martyrs were to their religion.[10]

The next monarch, Elizabeth I, was a Protestant. Under her rule, the Protestant Church flourished. Protestants now filled many leadership positions in government. With this new power for Protestants, however, came the persecution of many Catholics.[2] Similarities between the Catholic and Protestant churches steadily decreased during this time.

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 Bible to church members throughout the country. This translation was in a language and dialect specific to the English people and to their Protestant religion. James I successfully fulfilled the efforts of Protestant reformers who had been supporting the spreading of Bibles in common language for decades.[2]

Political events

The English Civil War (1642–1651) was largely influenced by the Protestant Reformation. While England struggled between Catholicism and Protestantism, Scotland was experiencing a significant impact from the Reformation and its ideas. A strong Presbyterian following had developed, but the Church of Scotland did not agree with King Charles I's expectations of the Protestant religion. Charles I threatened to change the Church of Scotland by turning to Ireland, which was a strong Catholic state.[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.

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.[2]

Protestantism in other countries of the United Kingdom


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 Charles I threatened the country's Presbyterian Church.[2]


Wales became a part of England when the Tudor dynasty conquered the region for the country.[12] The religious and political history of Wales and England is closely tied during the reign of the Tudor monarchs, and the impact of the Reformation in both nations was 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] For the most part, faithful Catholics 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

Although Northern Ireland is considered a more Protestant country than the Republic of Ireland, it has still retained more Catholicism than other nations in the United Kingdom. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Church of Scotland have been closely tied in the past.[14]

Protestantism in the United Kingdom today

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] Britannica Online says that the Church of England has more members than other churches, but there is greater dedication among members of 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 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 long been dominated by Presbyterianism. 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]

Although the majority of citizens in Wales are members of Protestant and non-conformist churches, the culture has become increasingly secular. Roman Catholicism has recently become a growing minority.[21]

Northern Ireland is now is one of the most diverse regions in the UK. Catholicism is 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. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6
  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. 8.0 8.1 8.2 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. 
  13. 13.0 13.1
  14. 14.0 14.1 "Northern Ireland: Religion" Britannica
  15. "Longer life expectancy 'puts people off religion'". BBC News. April 12, 2011. 
  19. "Scotland: Religion" Britannica
  21. "Wales: Religion" Britannica