Book Review — Protestants by Alec Ryrie

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In May 2019, I finished Alec Ryrie’s “Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World”. I told a friend I just finished it and he exclaimed, “Finally”. I have the uncheerful pleasure of saying 73% of those who started the book with me abandoned me along the way. :-D

Yet it’s not because it’s not a great book — it’s packed — but because it is a book of considerable length. The book has thoroughly schooled me on Protestantism, its origin and influences. It is a book I would encourage anyone interested in the Christian religion to read, particularly Christians.

Alec Ryrie, a British Preacher, in this book took us on a journey of how Protestantism was snatched from the jaws of the Universal Catholic Church in Germany. Then its spread to England, France, the rest of Europe, to North America, Latin America, to China and its East Asia neighbors, and then to Africa (with a disappointingly brief stop in Nigeria).

Along the way several things just jump at you. For instance, how can any modern Christian reconcile that the respected father of Protestantism, Martin Luther, was not cool with a chunk of the books in the Bible. He taught very little of the books of the Old Testament, even to the point of wanting the book of Esther removed entirely. About the book of James, he “…[felt] like throwing Jimmy into the stove…” and placed it at the end of the NT, along with three other NT books he despised. He picked what he wanted and ignored the rest. Not much as changed in this cherrypicking game.

It’s said that every historical hero held on to beliefs and committed acts that would utterly horrify today’s admirer. I saw many examples in this book. Luther claimed there is no sin in killing Jews. It was hideous to read the part John Calvin, a most beloved protestant, played in the 1553 burning alive of a heretic who denied the authority of the Bible.

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I’m amused when 21st century zealots think disagreement over doctrines originated with them. I have been in groups whose members believe they are the only one against the doctrine of tithing. How untrue! Since 1600, protestant groups have been against not just tithing, but collection of offerings. Every single doctrine in the Bible has had advocates and critics. As far back as 1556, an entire sect was decimated because they denied the trinity. There were strong disagreements about Predestination, Sunday Worship, Salvation by Faith, Eternal Security, Speaking in Tongues, etc.

Divisions seem to be a hallmark of Protestantism. Denominations broke away from their parents for all kinds of reasons — for ridiculous reasons. A sect once broke out because, along with other things, it considered neckties diabolical.

And oh, they killed in the name of these differences. Whether they were dealing with Catholics, supposed witches, radicals (a name they coined for fellow Protestants whose doctrines they don’t agree with), Protestants killed in the name of religion with a zeal that was second to none.

One of the stories that made me chuckle was how regular the change of date of the second coming of Jesus was and continue to be. The first recorded prediction was done by William Miller, who decided that it would be March 21, 1843. When it didn’t happen, he changed it to the same day in 1844. The followers sold all their belongings and went to a hill to await the sound of the Trumpet. Like you know, it didn’t happen. If you’ve ever heard of the Great Disappointment, that’s the word coined to describe this episode. Another sect, the Jehovah Witnesses put the date of the second coming of Christ to be 1914, then 1925, then 1975. Well… Since then, several other people have calculated and continue to calculate when Christ would come back again. They all failed (and will continue to fail?).

Usually when the date fail, the sect doesn’t recover from the betray of trust. But the JWs have continued to wax stronger. Viable theories have been expounded for why this is so. That aside, I put down the book totally in awe of the resilience of the JWs. Unbelievers hated them. Believers wanted nothing to do with them. Entire countries, including the British Empire either killed them in droves or violently punished them for their beliefs, but none was as vicious as the German Nazi. Because they were the only group to ever openly renounce and conduct relentless in-your-face campaigns against its Aryan doctrine, they suffered for it. Yet that did not deter them. They embraced the ordeal. One SS officer commented that Jehovah’s Witnesses were the only prisoners who could be trusted to shave their captors with cutthroat razors. No other Protestants of any kind offered defiance like this or paid this kind of price. And because they were the most widely despised sect of all, no one spoke out for them in the concentration camps. 😢

There were quite some surprising little details in the book. For example, as someone who completed the reading of the entire Bible a couple of times in my late teens to early twenties, and memorized copious parts, multiple chapters at some point, I considered the book of Revelation one of the most difficult books in the Bible. Imagine my surprise when I read of the Korean preacher, Kil Sŏnju, whose extreme Biblicism led him to memorize the entire book of Revelation and recite it aloud more than ten thousand times. Men have done stuff sha.

Say whatever you want about the instability of the religion of Protestantism (the Chinese consider Protestantism as different from Catholicism as it is from Islam), you cannot deny its influence in our history. Groups within it have advocated for Nazism as well as spearheaded ongoing efforts to exterminate it. They have supported slavery and its widespread abolition would probably not have happened had sects like the Quakers not been at the forefront. They have provided biblical basis for Apartheid as well as provided justification for why it is untenable in the sight of God. Same has happened for causes like Colonalism, Racial Segregation, and Civil Wars around the world.

What is consistent with Protestantism throughout history is its endless adaptability to every culture, norm and belief. And make no mistake, it is perhaps the only reason it has survived centuries of attacks and persecutions. But there have been people like Martin Luther King Jr. who have insisted that the Christian church must be “not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion” but “a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” This was the church that helped end the Nazi regime, end slavery, end segregation in America, end Apartheid in South Africa.

This is the church the world is more in need of. But then, in classical Protestantism, even this is subject to private interpretations by its over 3000 different sects.

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