History of Christian Denominations

Branches of the Faith

For the first thousand years of Christianity, there were no "denominations" within the Christian church as there are today.

Various offshoot groups certainly existed, but they were considered "heresies" and not part of the Christian church. Most were small and, until the 16th century, were never very influential. From the beginnings of Christianity through the Middle Ages, there was only one the catholic ("universal") church. Basically, if you did not belong to the Church, you were not considered a Christian.

The first division within Christendom came in 1054 with the "Great Schism" between the Western Church and the Eastern Church. (More on this in the article on Orthodox Christianity.) From that point forward, there were two large branches of Christianity, which came to be known as the Catholic Church (in the West) and the Orthodox Church (in the East).

The Reformation

The next major division occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was famously sparked when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, but "Protestantism" as a movement officially began in 1529. That year marked the publication of the Protestation, directed at the imperial government. The authors, German princes who wanted the freedom to choose the faith of their territory, protested that "in matters which concern God's honor and salvation and the eternal life of our souls, everyone must stand and give account before God for himself." {1}

With its emphasis on individual interpretation of scripture and a measure of religious freedom, the Reformation marked not only a break between Protestantism and Catholicism, but the beginning of denominationalism as we know it today. This historical perspective is perhaps the best way to make sense of the initially astounding variety of Christian denominations.

Those who remained within the fold of Roman Catholicism argued that central regulation of doctrine is necessary to prevent confusion and division within the church and corruption of its beliefs. Those who broke from the church, on the other hand, insisted that it was precisely this policy of control that had already led to corruption of the true faith. They demanded that believers be allowed to read the Scriptures for themselves (it was previously available only in Latin) and act in accordance with their conscience. This issue of religious authority continues to be a fundamental difference in perspective between Catholic and Orthodox Christians on one hand, and Protestant Christians on the other.

As the Reformation developed in Germany, various groups in other parts of Europe also began to break away from the Catholic Church. Reformed Christianity developed in Switzerland based on the teachings of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. When it spread to Scotland under John Knox, the Reformed faith became Presbyterianism. Switzerland was also the birthplace of the Anabaptists, spiritual ancestors of today's Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, and Baptists. Anglicanism was established in 1534 when England's King Henry VIII broke from the authority of the Pope, and became Episcopalianism in America. Methodism, based on the teachings of John Wesley, also has its roots in Anglicanism.

The articles that follow provide an overview of each of the major Christian denominations that exist today.