Protestantism in Germany

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The religion of Protestantism, a sect of Christianity, was founded within Germany in the 16th Century Reformation. It was formed as a new direction from some Roman Catholic principles, led initially by Martin Luther, later by John Wycliffe and John Calvin.[1]


The Protestant Reformation began with the publication of '95 Theses’ by Augustinian monk Martin Luther in 1517.[2] The key elements of this religious upheaval were to break from Roman Catholicism’s emphasis on tradition, favouring a focus on the Bible.[3]

Political Effects[edit]

Separation of Church and State[edit]

In the early 1500s, the Roman Empire led by Charles V treated German Protestantism as a competitor to its geo-political power, issuing a decree in 1524 banning the recitation of its Lutheran works.[4] This prompted riots across Germany and in 1529 a formal protestation was issued by a body of Protestant leaders and Princes, claiming the need for a clear separation from the Reichstag (German Parliament) and the right to self-autonomy.[4] In February 1531, prominent Protestant princes formed the ‘League of Schmalkalden’, endorsed by Martin Luther, with the intent to defend the rights of princes and the religion.[4] The league became central to the spread of Protestantism by using its political sway in Germany, helping the restoration of the Lutheran Duke of Wurttemberg in 1534, enabling the establishment of Protestantism in the region.[4] Conflicts with the Holy Roman Empire, resolved by the 1548 Council of Trent, maintained a lack of concessions to the German Protestants, and country wide riots ensured it was not accepted.[4] The official separation of Protestantism and the German Reichstag came when legislation was passed to ensure such in 1919.[5]

Nazi Germany[edit]

During the Nazi Third Reich, over sixty per cent of the population were Protestant, divided among the Confessing Church, German Christians and those unaffiliated to either.[6] In the early 20th Century, anti-Semitic writings of Martin Luther were used by some Protestant pastors and Nazi Leaders to bolster their political movement.[7] Protestant Pastors, bishops and theologians utilised Luther's writings, such as Von den Juden and ihren Lugen (On the Jews and Their Lies), to reaffirm the anti-Jewish prejudice escalating in Germany.[8] During one 1927 Protestant Church Congress in Konigsberg, Paul Althaus gave a famous keynote address deriding the Uberfremdung (foreign invasion) of the arts, fashion and finance industries,[6] reflecting the anti-Semitism of many church leaders. There were actions taken by some Church members to fight against Nazism, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who rescued multiple Jews in Operation 7.[9] The Confessing Church in particular maintained objections to merging of the Protestant Church and Nazi state, resulting in some being to concentration camps.[7] Several leading Church figures however, published substantial anti-Semitic publications, such as the Thuringian bishop Martin Sasse who distributed thirty-seven thousand copies of ‘Martin Luther uber die Juden: Weg mit Ihnen! (Martin Luther on the Jews: Away with Them!).[7] As the Nazi Party gained power, it actively destroyed the institutional structures of the Protestant church itself.[9] After the fall of Nazi power post 1945, the wider Church conducted a de-Nazification effort.[7]

Communism and the German Democratic Republic 1949 to 1990[edit]

In the initial years of Communist rule, despite pressure on pastors to endorse the new form of government, the Protestant church insisted on remaining impartial.[10] The Communist party however grew hostile to the church, moving to replace the festival of Christmas with celebrations of the birthday of Joseph Stalin, along with the jailing of more than 70 Evangelical pastors and lay workers from January 1953.[11] One popular Protestant pastor Siegfried Schmutzler was imprisoned for five years after a show trial, charged with ‘agitation to boycott the republic’.[12] Censorship against Protestantism was also employed, with several West German Church periodicals banned by the government, including the official Lutheran Church organ EvangelischLutherische Kirchenzeitung.[11] Official government orders, such as the 15th February 1956 ‘Fechner Decree’, banned religious instruction before school.[9] In terms of political involvement, Protestant Church leaders also pushed for the introduction of the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev, including glasnost and perestroika policies in the German Democratic Republic.[10] As a result of concerted state intrusions against Protestantism, the Church became a place to organise opposition against the Soviet Rule of the region.[12] This opposition increased citizens Church involvement, however, the end of the German Democratic Republic led to a demographic decline in the Protestant church as the role of political activism was lost.[11] In terms of political affiliations throughout the German Democratic Republic era, members of the Protestant Church ranged from far-left Stalinists to anti-communist conservatives.[10]

Protestants in East Germany 1949-1989 No. of members No. parishes No. of pastors
Evangelical (Werner Leich, Chairman) 6,435,000 7,347 4,161
Methodist (Rüdiger Minor, Bishop of Dresden) 28,000 400 140
Baptist Federation (Manfred Suit, President) 20,000 222 130
Reformed (HansJürgen Sievers, Chairman) 15,000 24 20
Old Lutheran (Johannes Zellmer, President) 7,150 27 22
Total 6,505,150 8,020 4,473

Economic Effects[edit]

The initial effect of the Protestant revolution in Germany was to facilitate the entry of entrepreneurship with the decline of feudalism.[13] The Lutheran literature dispersed throughout Germany after the Reformation called for the elimination of clerical tax exemptions and the economic privileges granted to religious institutions.[14] Through the 16th century however, the Protestant movement brought with it wealthy and influential Lutheran princes who formed a new social class.[4]

Social and Cultural Effects[edit]


Bronze monument to Martin Luther completed in 1868 in Worms, Germany

When the Reformation occurred, the art industry was declining in Germany, however it provided a new inspiration for graphic arts, sculptures and paintings.[15] Protestant Churches displayed medieval images, along with uniquely Lutheran artistic traditions, such as the Wittenberg workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Lucas Cranach the Younger.[16] The Protestant movement brought Germany a new variation of figural sculptures, portraits, artworks and illustrations on interior of churches.[17]


Martin Luther’s early reforms included an emphasis on the value music provides as an aid to worship.[18] New branches of Protestantism however, such as Calvinism, reduced the role of liturgical music and the expression of faith through the development of music.[19]


In the immediate post Reformation and subsequent decades, the Lutheran principle of sola scripture prompted followers of the religion to promote the Bible, and the act of reading.[20] The early Lutheran church documents promoted reading and the importance of education.[9] Early reformers emphasised the use literacy of the masses such that they were able to read the Bible, as well as strengths in mathematics and literacy.[21] Lutheran Church teachings on the standards for the education of students were published in 1529, emphasising the study of grammar, definitions and the Latin language.[20] To achieve literacy across Germany, every child was forced to memorise the churches catechism.[9] Within the ‘GDR’ in the 1980s, the Church maintained Protestant theological faculties in six of the state universities in Berlin (Halle, Leipzig, Jena, Greifswald, and Rostock) funded by the Communist budget.[8] The Protestant leadership protested the insertion of a “materialist view” on school students writing and the alteration of textbooks to include Communist ideology.[9]


In the years after the Reformation, Luther and his followers utilised the printing press to spread their ideas.[22] The printing press enabled the dispersion of Protestant literature throughout greater Germany.[4]

Wider Culture and Theology[edit]

The Protestant Church has influenced changes in wider culture in Germany, contributing to the debate around bioethics and stem cell research.[23] The Protestant leadership in Germany is divided on the issue of stem cell research, however those opposing liberalising laws have characterised it as a threat to the sanctity of human life.[24] Within the German Democratic Republic, the Federation of Evangelical Churches formed in June 1969, lasting until April 1991, was where questions of morality were determined.[9]


Protestant Cathedral erected in Berlin,1894.The altar is made of white marble, yellow onyx candleholders and gilded iron Apostles screen.
The Ulm Minster (or Cathedral of Our Lady in Ulm), the largest Protestant Church in Germany completed in 1890

The Protestant Church has influenced German architecture. Among adherents to Protestantism in Germany were engineers, craftsmen and architects, enabling Lutheran constructions.[16] The earliest Protestant constructions were in the 17th century, where the castles built along Germanys Middle Rhine were inhabited by Protestant Archbishops, joined only by Nobles and Princes.[25] In the later centuries, separate Church buildings were constructed along the Rhine region, due to controversial marriage laws that mandated Protestants and Catholics marry separately.[25] The spreading of Protestant architecture was slower in other parts of Germany however, such as the city of Cologne where its first Protestant Church was constructed in 1857.[26] Large Protestant places of worship were commissioned across Germany, such as the Garrison Church in the city of Ulm built in 1910 which could hold 2,000 Protestants.[27] In the early 1920s, architects such as Gottfried Böhm and Otto Bartning were involved in changing Protestant architecture towards modern constructions.[26] An example of this new form of architecture was the Protestant Church of Resurrection built in the city of Esson in 1929 by Bartning.[26]


The Protestant Church published five regional Papers throughout the GDR, including: Die Kirche (Berlin, circulation 42,500; also in a Greifswald edition), Der Sonntag (Dresden, circulation 40,000), Mecklenburgische Kirchenzeitung (Mecklenburg, circulation 15,000), Glaube und Heimat (Jena, circulation 35,000), and Potsdamer Kirche (Potsdam, circulation 15,000) . [12]

Influences on Christianity within Germany[edit]

The reformation itself was grounded in a rebellion against the German Catholic church, emphasizing the primacy of the Bible, the abolition of the Catholic ritualistic mass and a rejection of clerical celibacy [28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Elton, G., & Pettegree, A. (1999). Reformation Europe, 1517-1559 (pp. 30-84). Oxford: Blackwell.
  2. ^ Scribner, R. W. (1987). Popular culture and popular movements in Reformation Germany. A&C Black.
  3. ^ Dixon, C. S. (2008). The Reformation in Germany (Vol. 4). John Wiley & Sons.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Hughes, M. (1992). Early Modern Germany, 1477-1806 (1st ed., pp. 4-190). Basingstoke: Macmillan.
  5. ^ Eberle, E. (2016). Church and state in Western society (1st ed., pp. 32-100). London: Routledge.
  6. ^ a b Probst, C. (2012). Demonizing the Jews (pp. 3-98). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  7. ^ a b c d Pauley, B., & Barnett, V. (1994). For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest against Hitler. German Studies Review, 17(3), 579. doi: 10.2307/1431915
  8. ^ a b Ramet, S. (1991). Protestantism in East Germany, 1949–1989: A summing up. Religion In Communist Lands, 19(3-4), 160-196. doi: 10.1080/09637499108431513
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Ramet, S. (1998). Nihil Obstat: Religion, Politics, and Social Change in East-Central Europe (2nd ed., pp. 67-101). Durham: Duke University Press.
  10. ^ a b c Tyndale, W. (2016). Protestants in Communist East Germany: In the Storm of the World (1st ed., pp. 4-95). New York: Routledge.
  11. ^ a b c Cite error: The named reference Ramet was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  12. ^ a b c Solberg, R. (1961). God and Caesar in East Germany. The conflicts of Church and State in East Germany since 1945, etc. [With plates.] (1st ed., pp. 235-260). Michigan: Macmillan University of Michigan.
  13. ^ Ekelund, Jr., R., Hébert, R., & Tollison, R. (2002). An Economic Analysis of the Protestant Reformation. Journal Of Political Economy, 110(3), 646-671. doi: 10.1086/339721
  14. ^ Seabold, S., & Dittmar, J. (2015). Media, Markets and Institutional Change: Evidence from the Protestant Reformation. Centre For Economic Performance, 2, 6-43.
  15. ^ Christensen, C. (1973). The Reformation and the Decline of German Art. Central European History, 6(3), 207-232. Retrieved April 14, 2020, from
  16. ^ a b Heal, B. (2018). A Magnificent Faith: Art and Identity in Lutheran Germany (2nd ed., pp. 23-79). New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. ^ Smith, J. (1994). German sculpture of the later Renaissance, c. 1520-1580 : art in an age of uncertainty (1st ed., pp. 23-78). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  18. ^ Oettinger, R. (2001). Music as Propaganda in the German Reformation (1st ed., pp. 4-350). New York: Routledge.
  19. ^ Etherington, C. (1978). Protestant worship music. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.
  20. ^ a b Gawthrop, R., & Strauss, G. (1984). Protestantism And Literacy In Early Modern Germany. Past And Present, 104(1), 31-30. doi: 10.1093/past/104.1.31
  21. ^ Boppart, T., Falkinger, J., & Grossmann, V. (2014). Protestantism and Education: Reading (The Bible) and other skills. Economic Inquiry, 52(2), 874-895. doi: 10.1111/ecin.12058
  22. ^ Rubin, J. (2011). Printing and Protestants: Reforming the Economics of the Reformation. The George L. Argyros School Of Business & Economics, 2-76. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.1742523
  23. ^ Charbonnier, R. (2008). The Contribution of the Protestant Church in Germany to the Pluralist Discourse in Bioethics: The Case of Stem Cell Research. Christian Bioethics, 14(1), 95-107. doi: 10.1093/cb/cbn006
  24. ^ Tuffs, A. (2001). Germany debates embryonic stem cell research. BMJ Publishing Group, 8, 323.
  25. ^ a b Taylor, R. (1998). The Castles of the Rhine: Recreating the Middle Ages in Modern Germany (1st ed., pp. 32-100). Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
  26. ^ a b c James-Chakraborty, K. (2000). German Architecture for a Mass Audience (2nd ed., pp. 3-158). New York: Routledge.
  27. ^ Maciuika, J. (2008). Before the Bauhaus: Architecture, Politics and the German State, 1890-1920 (1st ed., pp. 12-340). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  28. ^ (Seabold, S., & Dittmar, J. (2015). Media, Markets and Institutional Change: Evidence from the Protestant Reformation. Centre For Economic Performance, 2, 6-43.).