Essay / On This Day

Protestants, not Protesters

Today (April 19) is the anniversary of the 1529 Protestation of Speyer, which is generally regarded as the first time that the word “Protestant” was used to refer to a religious position distinct from Roman Catholicism. A coalition of German princes and leaders refused to abide by the imperial ban on Luther’s teachings, and called instead for the free spread of gospel teaching in their territories.

These days, in English at least, we sometimes hear that “Protestants” are by definition people who “protest,” that is, people defined by their disagreement with something, their dissent, their rejection of something. It is, in other words, considered a term that stands for nothing positive, but draws its meaning only by negation.

Now, I don’t make much of this, but it seems to me like a bit of bogus etymology. “Protest” might be the nearest cognate of “Protestant” in modern English, but it’s silly to take that as a clue to the word’s origin –sort of like finding “dance” in the word “concordance” and deciding they’re related; or “sacrilege” means putting religion in a sac; or that “validate” is from valid + date = “at the right time;” or “excruciate” means to take off of a cross, etc. But I digress.

The word seems to come from pro + testari, to testify forth, or to hold forth a position on something. Its primary historical meaning has been to assert, to maintain, to proclaim solemnly or state formally.

You can find the positive sense of Protestant all over early English literature. Perhaps the best example is from the poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674), whose poem “To Anthea, who may command him anything” begins:

BID me to live, and I will live
Thy Protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.

and ends:

Thou art my life, my love my heart,
The very eyes of me:
And hast command of every part
To live and die for thee.

Herrick is not offering to protest (in our sense) or negate anything. Mr. “Gather Ye Rosebuds” has something positive in mind here. In another poem Herrick makes a “protestation” that he will return to Julia. I’m not sure why he’s pitching woo at Julia and Anthea both, but that’s another story anyway. Rumor is that Herrick taught his favorite pig to drink from a tankard, and once cussed out his congregation (yes, he was a preacher) for not paying attention to a sermon, which he proceeded to throw at them. But again, I digress.

So I protest against this bogus etymology, and I maintain that “Protestant” means something a lot closer to a word like “declare,” as in “having a message and sticking with it.” If you know Protestants who are mainly negative, blame them; not the word.

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