Protestant refers primarily and broadly to the separative religious movements that begin in late-Renaissance Europe in reaction against the Catholic Church, a period known as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther (Lutherans), John Calvin (Calvinists / Reformed Church), and John Knox (Presbyterians) are among that period's leading names.
Christian denominations born from the Reformation include the Lutheran church, Presbyterians, Anglicans / Episcopalians, Puritans (or Congregationalists), and many others.
History of the Protestant Reformation often stops in the 17th century, but the Protestant Reformation never stops. Even now new church movements continually break away from aging denominations, creating fresh religions for the near future, after which those new movements become old and the process repeats.
However, this modern, revolutionary, or progressive orientation is countered by a regressive, retro, or traditional motion in which the social unit of the church attempts to recreate the small, separate, self-supporting community of the original Christian Church during the Apostolic generation.
Forward, future, or modern orientation:
Just as the early Protestant churches broke away from the Catholic Church, so later Protestant denominations like Methodists, Baptists, the Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, etc., often splintered from earlier Protestant denominations (like the Puritans or Anglicans / Episcopalians).
Some of these sects or groups were originally informal and had no descriptive names; e.g., "Methodists" began as Anglicans / Episcopalians who practiced a more rigorous "method" of religious discipline.
Similarly, in recent decades, the "non-denominational" movement has arisen (and some older churches now repress their denominational ties), but eventually these groups will accept names and formal definitions against which future Protestant groups will react and separate.
A number of other forces associated with Protestantism also may be associated with modernity, future-orientation, or difference from traditional culture:
Literacy: A key feature of the Protestant Reformation (1517>) was the recent invention of the printing press (1490?) and attendant translations and publications of the Bible in modern languages, which encouraged Christians to learn to read the Bible so they could read it for themselves. This contrasted with Catholicism's use of the Latin Bible and reservation of literacy generally to the priesthood.
The early American Puritans' emphasis on literacy inevitably ties in with New England's promotion of public-supported education for all, which becomes an important component of assimilation and social progress.
Literacy accompanies modern book-keeping and accounts, encouraging the development of capitalism.
Individualism: With every person reading the Bible for him- or herself, Protestantism developed the idea that "every man is his own priest." Instead of encountering God through a community and its priest, individual Protestants had an opportunity to develop their own unique or personal relationships with Christ or God.
This tendency toward religious individualism based on learning became compatible with modern capitalism and the idea that economic activity is motivated by self-interest and profit rather than helping others or supporting a community.
Thus Protestantism resembles other forces of modernity (esp. capitalism and science or learning) and reinforces the ever-accelerating process of modernization, in which the present initiates an emerging future unlike the traditionall past.
However, Protestantism also features a counter-modern impulse that trends backward or toward the past instead of forward or toward the future.
Retro, traditional, or counter-modern orientation:
Older churches gather traditions and institutional structures.
New Protestant churches often reject this evolving future in preference for a return to origins, sometimes referred to as "primitive" (as in "Primitive Baptists," where "primitive" means "original").
Two models for these origins:
Emphasis on original biblical scripture above all later traditions or commentaries.
Modeling church community after original apostolic community during and after Christ's ministry. (e.g., Pilgrims as small community in covenant with God and each other, imitating the "primitive church" or the ancient Jews journeying to the Promised Land)
The small-community model of the "primitive church" also re-orients Protestants from the massive scale of the modern world (the infinite universe, the city of strangers, trans-national migration) and back to the small social units in which human communities originally evolved (i.e., 50-200 people you knew all your life). Even mega-churches like Lakewood emphasize "small group" organizations to reinforce this primitive sense of community (compare extended family).
The Apostolic Church's expectation of the End-Times in the present generation makes it less future-oriented: "The end is near" on account of "the fullness of time."
Protestant churches involve a double motion or orientation regarding time and change that is reflected in other social attitudes or ideologies.
Forward, future, or modern orientation: cooperation of Protestantism with capitalism ("creative destruction"), individualism, work ethic, secularization of work-week, literacy, learning, universal salvation.
Retro or counter-modern orientation: Biblical literalism, family values and gender inequality, reinforcement of local church community; isolation of spiritual belief from larger secular forces, denial of science and possibilities of human progress, belief in a limited future. (Technological and medical progress are absorbed and taken for granted, but evolution and climate change are denied.)
Oxford English Dictionary
Protestant 2a. A member or adherent of any of the Christian churches or bodies which repudiated the papal authority, and separated or were severed from the Roman communion in the Reformation of the 16th cent., and of any of the bodies of Christians descended from them; (now also more generally) a member of any Western Christian church outside the Roman communion.