Broadly speaking, Protestants are Christians who trace their heritage to the 16th-century Reformation, during which individual and national churches rejected the Pope's claim to jurisdiction over the entire Christian world. Protestants generally trace their roots to Martin Luther. Luther is traditionally held to have started the Reformation by posting Martin Luther's 95 Theses on the cathedral door at Wittenberg. However, the break between "Lutherans" and Roman Catholics came only in 1520, when Luther was officially condemned as a heretic.

The two unifying beliefs of Protestantism are sola scriptura, the belief that the Bible is the only definitive authority for Christians, and sola fide,, the belief that Christians are saved solely by faith in Christ.

By 1530, there were three recognizable branches of Protestantism:

  • Lutherans, named after Luther. Most Protestants in Germany, and the official churches of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland, are Lutheran. Luther believed that Christians could do anything that wasn't directly contradicted by the Bible, so he allowed for the continuation of fasting, saint's days, decoration in churches, and other traditional practices. Luther sought to gain the official support of princes and kings, and most Lutheran churches were established by monarchs.

  • Reformed Protestants. The Reformed tradition originated with the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli, but its theology was worked out more fully by John Calvin. Reformed Protestants generally believed that Christians should avoid practices that weren't explicitly commanded in the Bible and called for far more radical reforms than Luther. Reformed churches were established in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Scotland, countries where monarchs were non-existent or weak. Because the Reformed tradition put less emphasis on central authority than other Protestant groups, the churches of the Reformed tradition have developed in very diverse ways. Most Reformed Protestants reject Calvinism. Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, Congregationalist, Quakers, Disciples of Christ, Unitarian Universalist, and Pentecostal churches are all part of the Reformed tradition even though they have very little in common.

  • Anabaptists. Unlike Lutheran and Reformed Protestants, the Anabaptists believed that the church had to be formed of people who committed to a strict code of Christian life and morality, and wanted Christians to be clearly separate from the rest of society. They insisted that new Christians should be baptized as adults, but they also believed that true Christians should be strict pacifists--which meant, among other things, that no real Christian could participate in government. This was a direct challenge to both Catholics and other Protestants, and Anabaptists were severely persecuted. Today, the Anabaptist tradition is represented by Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Amish.
In England, Elizabeth I tried to find a common ground that would satisfy most people. The 39 Articles mostly reflect Reformed teaching, but have a Lutheran understanding of the Bible that allows for the continuation of older traditions. Furthermore, the Church of England continued to have bishops who had to be approved by the Queen. In the 1800s, Anglo-Catholics led by E. B. Pusey and J. H. Newman emphasized the apostolic succession of Anglican bishops and other connections between the Church of England and the medieval Catholic church. Since then, many Anglicans will tell you that they're not really Protestant.

The 18th century saw the rise of a movement within German Lutheranism called Pietism that focused on the importance of subjective experience. Some Pietists broke from the official Lutheran church and formed independent churches. In England, John Wesley brought Pietism into the Church of England. After his death, his followers started the Methodist church.