I have discovered that many church people today, especially those commonly called "evangelicals" don't undersantd much, if anything about denominations formed and about church history. So for those who do, you can skip this. For those who don't, the following is from the website of "The Christian Reformed Church" and is a good summary, though (as expected) leaning a bit toward their direction and point of view. Some of us would say we existed prior to the Reformation (Anabaptists and some of those stemming from that tradition) and others came after (Methodists, Pentecostals, and many others). But this is a reasonably good summary. No offense intended to Roman Catholics reading here. I think the last paragraph is particularly well-put and significant.
Why the Church Needed Reforming
Two thousand years ago, on Pentecost, God poured out the Holy Spirit. By the power of the Spirit, Jesus’ followers began to spread the good news about him worldwide. Where their preaching was heard, churches sprang up. These churches lived the gospel and, in turn, spread it to others as well. As these churches matured, they joined together into an organizational structure that helped them support each other, held them accountable, and kept them on the right track in their teaching. For a thousand years churches were more or less organized under one overarching structure.During that time the organizational structure of the church hardened and its leaders became corrupt. By the dawn of the second millennium power struggles and doctrinal differences between church leaders split the church into two parts: the Eastern Orthodox Church, headed by the patriarch of the Church of Constantinople, and the Latin Western Church, led by the pope, the bishop of Rome. This church came to be known as the Roman Catholic Church.By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, many Reformers had tried to correct the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, calling it back to obedience to God’s Word. But the powerful church leadership had managed to suppress these attempts, often by torturing and killing the Reformers.So what needed reforming? Here’s just a partial list:
Corruption was widespread among the clergy, especially at the top. The church tortured people suspected of holding non-orthodox beliefs until they confessed or died.
The church encouraged believers to pray to Mary and the saints. (This of course, is still true and remains one of the differences between Catholics and non Catholics.)
Salesmen for the church went around selling “indulgences”—letters written by the pope supposedly forgiving people their sins. One of these, Tetzel, was heard to proclaim loudly, “The minute your money drops in the box, the soul of your relative jumps out of purgatory into heaven.”
During the sixteenth century, though, reform could no longer be stemmed. Many people began to follow and support the Reformers. The Roman Catholic Church could no longer silence or turf out these “Protestants.” A number of events came together to place the Bible into the hands of the people in the pew. By having personal access to the Bible, they were able to judge for themselves whether what the church leaders were teaching them was actually true. As a result, many believers followed the Reformers out of the Roman Catholic Church in order to return to the teachings of Scripture.
A number of strands of Protestant churches began as a result of the Reformation: Lutheran and Anabaptist churches in Germany, Anglican (Episcopalian) churches in England, Reformed churches in Switzerland and France, and Presbyterian churches in Scotland—among others.
The good thing about all these churches springing up is that they could all re-form themselves into fellowships that could live out their beliefs free from the oppression and coercion of the Church of Rome. In fact, that was also good for the Roman Church, because in response to the Reformation it did a great deal to clean up its own act.
What’s sad, though, is the way in which this fragmentation—necessary as it may have been at the time—split up the visible body of Christ on earth. All these churches have continued to divide again and again, often over fairly minor differences. This has resulted in a vast array of churches, making well-meaning seekers and new Christians scratch their heads in bewilderment. Which is the real church? Which one should I join? Which one really teaches and lives what the Bible says? In fact, most of them do. But each church brings its own unique emphasis.