The Protestants are a minority in Austria. According to estimations and numbers of members of religious communities the Roman Catholics are the majority (about 5.2 millions) followed by the Muslims with about 700.000, the Orthodox Christians (500.000) and the Protestants with little less than 300.000 members.
There are 203 communities with 245 pastors. 283.202 Protestants belong to the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Austria, 12.876 to the Reformed Church in Austria (Evangelical Church of the Helvetic Confession) and 1.500 are Methodists.
Interestingly, there are some political communities and minor cities in the countryside in Austria where the majority of the inhabitants are Protestants. This is due to the fact, that there was a time in Austrian history, when Protestants were not only in the majority – there were times when up to 90 % of the Austrian population was Protestant.
The Protestants and Protestant churches experienced an eventful history and the relation between the Protestant denomination and the state was not always that easy. Austria – today a Catholic state – is one of the most thoroughly recatholicized countries of Europe.
Right from the beginning, the Protestant ideas made their way to the Habsburg lands. They travelled fast in the cities and among the nobles/nobility. Nobels, at that time the rulers of smaller territories within the monarchy with certain rights and powers, were mostly highly educated and they became the patrons of Protestantism. For a long period of time, the Habsburg emperors were not able to stop the Protestant ideas. In addition to that, they faced the latent danger of the ottoman/Turkish attack (Vienna withstood two sieges). As they needed the money of the nobles to be prepared for war the Habsburg emperors had no other option but to tolerate the Protestants. Therefore, the Protestant ideas and institutions could advance and extend empirically and legally for almost 60 years.
That development lasted until Ferdinand II became Archduke of Inner Austria. The highly Catholic emperor Ferdinand II (he was raised and educated by the Jesuits) wanted to stop the expansion of the Protestants in his land. He began the so called Counterreformation by setting on his recatholicisation in the cities. There were all different kind of repressions, among them prohibition and deportation. To survive, Protestantism had to go underground. This worked best in the countryside, away from the big cities and the surveillance of the Habsburgs. This historical phenomenon is known as “Geheimprotestantismus”, secret or crypto-Protestantism. To the outside world, they presented themselves as Catholics, but remained Protestant by living their faith with their family in domestic worships, reading the bible, gathering in the woods for services and so on. Protestantism survived covertly for almost two centuries.
This situation did not change until Joseph II enacted the so called Patent of Toleration in 1781, granting limited freedom of worship. Despite the Patent of Toleration the last deportation on religious grounds in Europe took place in Austria in 1837.
The relation between Protestants and the state improved further with the Protestant patent of 1861, granting individuals freedom of religion, public practice of religion and political equality.
At the turn of the 19th century Protestants in the cities became very overconfident, they considered themselves as being progressive, enlightened and liberal and therefore felt superior to the conservative and backward Catholics. Feeling like the modern elite of Austria, they were German-national minded. This group of Protestants endorsed the annexation of Austria by Germany, the so called “Anschluss” in 1938. But they discovered that the desired return to the motherland of Reformation did not meet their expectations. Instead of supporting the Protestant church the Nazi leadership cut all state support to achieve its disappearence.
After the II. World War the Protestants had to find a new identity. Due to the experiences during the II. World War and the ongoing secularization, the Protestants decided to retreat from society and to keep to themselves. This decision provoked a counter movement in the years of the 68 generation. This movement – the so-called “Salzburger Gruppe” being the most famous and best organized group − advocated political participation of the church.
Today the relation between Protestant church and the state is based on independency (the slogan here is “free church in a free state”) and cooperation. Since 1961, the Protestant church is a legally recognized church with the same rights and privileges like all other recognized churches in Austria. According to the state, the Protestant church is a public corporation, and as such the church also performs functions of public interest which are supported by the state. Therefore besides their religious tasks, this also includes social and cultural functions that serve the public at large.