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Historical Background of the Christian Denominations

The prevailing diversity makes no sense without an understanding of its historical background. How did these diverse churches arise in the first place? The chart below shows a rough evolutionary tree to explain the origins of this diversity.
The Evolution of the Christian Denominations
The evolutionary tree of modern Christian denominations.

The Beginnings

Christianity has always shown itself to be incapable of achieving unity among its followers. There was never a single moment in history when Christians were completely unified. Heresies were the prominent feature in the development of Christian theology. From its very beginnings, the Christians were opposed by the Nazarenes. Then, around the end of the first century, a special sect called the Gnostics arose. The Gnostics claimed that Jesus was truly God but not man. A little later came the Arian sect, arguing the exact opposite point, that Jesus was a man but not a God. The question of the nature of God and Jesus was trashed out during this period and many times not without bloodshed. In fact the stem from which modern Christianity survives may not have been the original stem at all. I call this "stem" the Pauline/Athanasian line after St. Paul(who won-or more accurately his followers- the theological battle in the first and second centuries over the Nazarenes) and the Bishop Athansius (who won the battle to make Jesus God in the fourth century over Arianism).

Most people are aware only of the Protestant reformation. However there are a couple more schisms in addition to this. These important break-ups are given below.

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451: Monophysitism

The origins of the monophysite churches, the Coptic, Abyssinian, Armenian and Syrian Churches, stems from a Council of Christian Bishops held in Chalcedon in 451 AD. Here the council decided that Jesus has both the human and divine nature in him. The majority of Christian Churches accepted this doctrine. However a sizeable minority refused to accept it. They asserted that Jesus had only a single, divine, nature. This doctrine was called monophysitism. Attempts at reconciliation between the two parties were not successful the break becoming final around the sixth century. The Monophysites eventually consolidated themselves into the churches we know today.[1]

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1054: The Great Schism

In 1054 a more serious break in the main branch of the Christian Church took place. The Western Church which was Latin speaking and the Eastern Church which was mainly Greek speaking never had an easy relationship. The Bishop of Rome used to claim honorary primacy over the rest of the bishops and patriarches by virtue of his residence in the capital city of the Roman Empire. But when the capital city was moved to Constantinople in the year 330, the Patriarch of Constantinople naturally assumed his office to hold primacy. This was not accepted by the Western Church. The quest for supremacy between Rome and Constantinople was to continue for many centuries.

Apart from this mainly political reason, there was also a theological one. It involves the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The Western Church inserted an additional point, known as the Filioque Clause, to one of its earlier creeds. The Eastern Church did not accept this addition. To resolve this escalating problem, the Pope sent Cardinal Humbert (d1061) to Constantinople to discuss the issue with the Eastern Patriarch Michael Cerularies (d1058). The discussions did not go well and both Humbert and Michael Cerularies ended up excommunicating[a] one another in 1054. The excommunications initiated the break between the Latin and Greek Churches which became known as The Great Schism. It was a large break, for unlike the earlier monophysite splinter, the Eastern Church formed a substantial part of Christendom.[2]

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1517: The Protestant Reformation

The next break in the Christian fold came in Western Christendom during the sixteenth century. This break eventually became known as the Reformation.

The church was not exactly quiet during the interval between the Great Schism and the Reformation. Heresies and opposition to the Roman Church and the papacy were everywhere. There were the Albigenses, a heretical Christian sect which flourished during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Southern France. The Albigenses rejected the sacraments of the church and taught that the teachings of Jesus was the only thing of import in the Galilean's life. Intellectual opposition to the Church was also brewing. The English theologian and philosopher, John Wycliffe (c1330-1384) anticipating the protestant doctrines, argued that the Bible was the sole ecclesiastical authority. He condemned the papacy and monasticism as unscriptural. Wycliffe's teachings had a following in a group of fourteenth and fifteenth century English reformers known as the Lollards. The Lollards denounced the celibate priesthood, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the selling of indulgences and pilgrimages. Wycliffe's teaching also influenced the Bohemian reformer, John Huss (c1372-1415). Huss rightly condemned the loose morals of the clergy, for which he was forbidden to preach. His condemnation of the Church finally led to his burning as a heretic in 1415.[3]

So when Augustinian monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his famous Ninety Five Theses to the door of the Church at Wittenberg in 1517, condemning the local abuse of simony[b], he was not exactly breaking new ground. But perhaps because Martin Luther successfully opposed the Roman Catholic Church, 1517 has been the date normally used to signify the onset of the Reformation. At that time however Luther considered himself a faithful subject of the church. The Roman Church handled the controversy poorly. Instead of trying to win back the errant monk, the pope condemned Luther as a heretic in 1518 and had him excommunicated two years later. Luther, with his back pushed to the wall, was forced to burn his bridges; by the time he was excommunicated, Luther had already repudiated almost all Catholic teachings. He had rejected the primacy of the papacy, preached the Bible as the sole religious authority, and proclaimed the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Luther was saved from being burned a heretic, a fate that befell most of the previous dissidents of the church, because he managed to sought refuge among some German princes who were sympathetic to his cause. In 1529 when the Diet of Speyer passed a legislation to end all toleration of Lutherans, six princes and fourteen cities issued a formal protestio (Latin for protest) against it. Henceforth the Reformers were known as "Protestants". Luther's theology found its expression in the treatise known as the Augsburg Confession which was drawn up by Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) for the German Emperor during the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. From this and various writings by Luther himself the theological base of the Lutheran Church was built.[4]

Motivated by beliefs analogous to Luther's, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) started the reformation in Switzerland in 1519. Like Luther, Zwingli rejected the authority of the pope, clerical celibacy and the Catholic from of worship. However as would be typical of all future protestant churches, Zwingli could not agree with Luther on many theological points. This demolished any possibility of a united German-Swiss Protestant Church. After the death of Zwingli, the Swiss reform movement was headed by the Frenchman, John Calvin (1509-1564). After breaking away from Catholicism in 1533, he fled to Switzerland in 1535 to escape any possible persecution. With his sytematic thinking and capability to put into practice the new Protestant doctrines, Calvin speedily took over the leadership of the Zurich reform church. Calvin provided a coherent Protestant theology in his work The Institutes of The Christian Religion (1536). Calvin’s theology, which emphasizes at the same time the perfect righteousness of God and the depraved and corrupt nature of man, eventually formed the theological basis for most non-Lutheran Protestant churches. The Presbyterian churches trace their origins to Calvin and his teachings.[5]

The next major character in the Reformation was the King of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547). Unlike the reformation in continental Europe, the cause of English church's break from Rome was largely political. Henry wanted a divorce from his wife which the Pope refused to grant. Henry through a series of political maneuvers established himself, instead of the Pope as the leader of the Church of England. Apart from enabling him to divorce his wife this break from the Roman Church allowed him to confiscate the properties of the monasteries in England. Thus was founded the Church of England, the forerunner of all Anglican and Episcopal churches.[6]

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The Baptists, the Methodists, the Pentecostals and all that

By eschewing any visible authority on the interpretation of the Bible, the Protestant Reformation opened the floodgates to the proliferation of many different churches. Anyone can interpret the Bible differently from the existing churches and form his own theology and if he is convincing enough, gain a following.

Thus the Baptists had their origins in the actions of John Smyth (1554-1612), a separatist from the Church of England. In 1609, Smyth an exile in Amsterdam formed a church with the baptism of conscious believers as its basis of fellowship.[7]

The Methodists had their origins in the Wesleyan brothers, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788). Although banned from the Anglican pulpits, the Wesleyans evangelical fervor attracted large crowds wherever they preached. Both brothers remained in the Church of England throughout their lives. It was only after the death of John Wesley that his followers broke from the Church of England and formed the Methodist Church.[8] Ironically it was the loss of the evangelical fervor of mainstream Protestant churches such as the Methodist Church that led to the formation of the Pentecostal Churches in 1906 in Los Angeles.

The origins of the "fringe" churches cannot easily be placed on the family tree of the Christian churches. This is because their theologies are radically different from the Christian churches. Some of the founders of these churches are individuals who, in streaks of megalomania, saw themselves as the special instrument of God's salvation. For it is their vision that will bring about the correct meaning of the Bible.

Thus it was with Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916), who combining his interests in numerology, pyramidology with his intensely religious personality founded the Jehovah's Witnesses in 1879. Russell, thinking that God has grant him alone the vision of the truth in the Scriptures tortuously studied the Bible (especially the apocalyptic Books of Daniel and Revelation) and publicly proclaimed that the world, as we know it would end on October 1,1914. Russell also proclaimed that measurements of "the Great Pyramid" confirms the above date as the end of the world. When the world did not end as he had specifically predicted, Russell took the most amazing way out. He insisted that the world had ended. That is, it has started to end. How long this ending period will take, nobody knows! Russell had pulled the proverbial rabbit out of his theological hat. The world did end for Russell, for he died two years later in 1916.[9]

In some of the founders their megalomania made them construct the flimsiest of stories to back up their claims. That was the case with Joseph Smith (1805-1884) who in 1830 founded the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Smith claimed to have discovered, with the help of the angel Moroni, a hitherto unknown part of the holy scriptures, called The Book of Mormon, written on golden plates. According to Smith, the script and language used was "reformed Egyptian”, a script unknown to any Egyptologist. He also claimed that the angel, and a pair of magic spectacles known as Urim and Thumim, helped him translate the book into English![10] The other two fringe churches we discussed above, the Unitarians and the Quakers had more sober origins. Modern Unitarians trace their roots to the Reformation. One of the most well known Reformation Unitarians was the physician Michael Servetus (1511-1553). Unitarianism as an organized sect was first developed by Faustus Socinus (1539-1604) in Poland.[11] The Society of Friends, or Quakers, was derived from the teaching of George Fox (1624-1691).[12]

This, in a nutshell, is how Christianity came to be in the bewildering diversity that it is in today.

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a Excommunication is a form of religious banishment. An excommunicated person is not allowed to receive or (if he is a cleric) to administer the sacraments. An excommunicated person is normally shunned in his society.
b Simony is the selling of forgiveness of sins in return for cash.


1 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p343
2 ibid: p193,221,250,336,373
3 ibid: p13,252,307-308,561
4 ibid: p40,312-313,419,431,484
5 ibid: p84,431-432,566; Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind: p450-451
6 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p502
7 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p48
8 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p386; Rosenbaum, The Desk Concord Encyclopedia: p800
9 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p48; Harrison, Visions Of Glory: p41-71
10 Summerscale, The Penguin Encyclopedia: p124; Kurian, Dictionary of Biography: p485
11 Livingstone,Dictionary of the Christian Church: p527
12 ibid: p202

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