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Protestant sectarians: 16th - 17th century

The Protestant Reformation, with its encouragement of a personal relationship with God, provides a fertile breeding ground for sects. The early decades see the split between Lutheran and reformed churches on the nature of the Eucharist. Anabaptists almost immediately join the fray with their revised concept of baptism.

By the 1560s the ancient controversy over the Trinity is revived. Francis Dávid, appointed bishop in Transylvania in 1564, begins preaching that only God the Father is divine. His followers soon become known as Unitarians (initially used by their opponents as a term of abuse).

Although at first much persecuted by those who are certain of the truth, the Unitarians themselves resolutely avoid doctrinal rigidity. Jesus Christ is venerated, even if not allowed full godhead. So also, in modern Unitarianism, are the deities of other religions.

The same determination to remain open to divine truth of any kind characterizes the Quakers, followers of George Fox who begins preaching in the 1650s in England. Again 'quakers' is originally a derisive term for the sect, which in Fox's time is prone to fits of ecstasy (the Society of Friends is the group's own name for itself). Quaker devotion to religious tolerance finds early expression in the foundation in 1681 of Pennsylvania.

England in the 17th century is the greatest seedbed of Protestant sects. The most prominent among them, in opposition to the Anglican church, are the Presbyterians - whose doctrine derives from Calvin and his 'school of Geneva'.

In their determination to take charge of everyone else's religious wellbeing, the Presbyterians alienate many who agree with them on doctrinal matters. The result is another sect, of great influence during the Commonwealth in England, which is variously known as the Separatists, Independents or Congregationalists.

The Separatists believe that each local congregation of Christians should be entirely in charge of its own affairs. One such congregation (including many of the Pilgrim Fathers) leaves England in 1608 to enjoy the religious liberty of Holland.

From among their number there derive the Baptists. Some of the English Separatists in Amsterdam adopt the Anabaptist rite of adult baptism. A group returning to London establishes a Baptist church there in about 1612. Developments in England later in the century, and in the English colonies in America, lead eventually to the great number of Baptist churches all round the world today.

The legacy: to the 20th century

The bitter hostilities arising from the Reformation persist in European history throughout the intervening centuries to our own time. Until the late 17th century the issue is still fought out on battlefields. Rivalry between Catholics and Protestants is one of the main features of the Thirty Years' War from 1618 to 1648. At a more local level it lies behind the battle of the Boyne in 1689.

In the 18th century the legacy of the Reformation is seen in the civil restrictions imposed by each side on the other. No Protestant may practise his religion within the Habsburg empire. No Catholic, and even no Protestant other than an Anglican, may hold public office in Britain.

During the 19th century these very uncivil restrictions are gradually eased, usually against ferocious opposition from whichever sect has the local advantage (the struggle for Catholic Emancipation in Britain is a case in point). In the second half of the 20th century an ecumenical movement at last begins to restore some measure of brotherly love among ancient adversaries. Important stepping stones in this process are the forming of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and the Second Vatican Council in 1962-5.

But a quarter-century of sectarian violence in northern Ireland, from 1970, shows all too vividly that the dark side of the Reformation is not entirely a thing of the past.

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