What Is the Origin of the Word 'Protestant?'

Color portrait of Martin Luther.

Workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder  (1472–1553) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A Protestant is someone who follows one of the numerous branches of Protestantism, the form of Christianity that was created during the Reformation of the 16th century and spread across Europe (and later, the world). The term Protestant came into use in the 16th century and, unlike many historical terms, you can work out what it means with a little bit of guesswork: it is, quite simply, all about "protest." To be a Protestant was, essentially, to be a protestor.

Where Does the Word 'Protestant' Come From?

In 1517, the theologian Martin Luther spoke out against the established Latin Church in Europe on the subject of indulgences. There had been many critics of the Catholic Church before, and many had been crushed easily by the monolithic central structure. Some had been burned, and Luther faced their fate by starting an open war. But the anger at many aspects of a church considered corrupt and venal was growing, and when Luther nailed his theses to a church door (an established way of starting a debate), he found he could gain patrons strong enough to protect him.

As the Pope decided how best to deal with Luther, the theologian and his colleagues effectively evolved a new form of the Christian religion in a series of writings that were exciting, frenzied, and which would be revolutionary. This new form (or rather, new forms) was taken up by many princes and towns of the German empire. Debate ensued, with the Pope, Emperor, and Catholic governments on one side and members of the new church on the other. This sometimes involved genuine debate in the traditional sense of people standing, speaking their views, and letting another person follow, and sometimes involved the sharp end of weapons. The debate covered all of Europe and beyond.

In 1526, a meeting of the Reichstag (in practice, a form of German imperial parliament) issued the Recess of 27 August, stating that each individual government within the empire could decide which religion they wished to follow. It would have been a triumph of religious freedom, had it lasted. However, a new Reichstag which met in 1529 was not so amenable to the Lutherans, and the Emperor canceled the Recess. In response, the followers of the new church issued the Protest, which protested against the cancellation on April 19th.

Despite differences in their theology, Southern German cities aligned with Swiss reformer Zwingli joined other German powers following Luther to sign on to the Protest as one. They thus became known as Protestants, those who protested. There would be many different variations of reformed thought within Protestantism, but the term stuck for the overall group and concept. Luther (amazingly, when you consider what had happened to rebels in the past) was able to live and thrive rather than be killed. The Protestant church established itself so strongly, it shows no signs of vanishing. However, there were wars and much bloodshed in the process, including the Thirty Years War, which has been called as devastating for Germany as the conflicts of the 21st century.​​