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Originally a German Lutheran religious movement of the 17th and 18th centuries, pietism emphasized heartfelt religious devotion, ethical purity, charitable activity, and pastoral theology rather than sacramental or dogmatic precision. The term now refers to all religious expressions that emphasize inward devotion and moral purity. With roots in Dutch precisionism and mysticism, pietism emerged in reaction to the formality of Lutheran orthodoxy.

In his Pia Desideria (1675), Philipp Jakob Spener proposed a "heart religion" to replace the dominant "head religion." Beginning with religious meetings in Spener's home, the movement grew rapidly, especially after August Hermann Francke (1663 - 1727) made the new University of Halle a Pietist center. Nikolaus Ludwig, Graf von Zinzendorf, a student of Francke's and godson of Spener, helped spread the movement. His Moravian Church promoted evangelical awakenings throughout Europe and in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. John Wesley and Methodism were profoundly influenced by pietism.

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James D Nelson

F E Stoffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (1971).


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A recurring tendency within Christian history to emphasize more the practicalities of Christian life and less the formal structures of theology or church order. Its historians discern four general traits in this tendency: (1) Its experiential character, pietists are people of the heart for whom Christian living is the fundamental concern; (2) its biblical focus, pietists are, to paraphrase John Wesley, "people of one book" who take standards and goals from the pages of Scripture; (3) its perfectionistic bent, pietists are serious about holy living and expend every effort to follow God's law, spread the gospel, and provide aid for the needy; (4) its reforming interest, pietists usually oppose what they regard as coldness and sterility in established church forms and practices.

Spener and Francke

The German Lutheran Church at the end of the seventeenth century labored under manifold difficulties. Its work was tightly confined by the princes of Germany's many sovereign states. Many of its ministers seemed as interested in philosophical wrangling and rhetorical ostentation as in the encouragement of their congregations. And the devastating Thirty Years War (1618 - 48), fought ostensibly over religion, had created widespread wariness about church life in general. To be sure, the picture was not entirely bleak. From Holland and Puritan England came stimulation for reform. And in German - speaking lands signs of Christian vitality remained, like the writings of Johann Arndt, whose True Christianity (1610) was a strong influence on later leaders of pietism.

But in many places these signs of life were obscured by the formalism and the insincerity of church leaders. This situation was altered by the unstinting work of Philipp Jakob Spener, known often as the father of pietism, who was called in 1666 to be the senior minister in Frankfurt am Main. There he appealed for moral reform in the city. He initiated a far - flung correspondence which eventually won him the title "spiritual counselor of all Germany." Most importantly, he also promoted a major reform in the practical life of the churches. A sermon in 1669 mentioned the possibility of laymen meeting together, setting aside "glasses, cards, or dice," and encouraging each other in the Christian faith. The next year Spener himself instituted such a Collegia pietatis ("pious assembly") to meet on Wednesdays and Sundays to pray, to discuss the previous week's sermon, and to apply passages from Scripture and devotional writings to individual lives.

Spener took a major step toward reviving the church in 1675 when he was asked to prepare a new preface for sermons by Johann Arndt. The result was the famous Pia Desideria (Pious Wishes). In simple terms this brief work examined the sources of spiritual decline in Protestant Germany and offered proposals for reform. The tract was an immediate sensation. In it Spener criticized nobles and princes for exercising unauthorized control of the church, ministers for substituting cold doctrine for warm faith, and lay people for disregarding proper Christian behavior. He called positively for a revival of the concerns of Luther and the early Reformation, even as he altered Reformation teaching slightly. For example, Spener regarded salvation more as regeneration (the new birth) than as justification (being put right with God), even though the Reformers had laid greater stress upon the latter.

Spener offered six proposals for reform in Pia Desideria which became a short summary of pietism:

Although these proposals constituted an agenda for reform and renewal, they also posed two difficulties which have ever been troublesome for pietism. First, many clergymen and professional theologians opposed them, some out of a concern to preserve their traditional status, but others out of a genuine fear that they would lead to rampant subjectivity and antiintellectualism. Second, some lay people took Spener's proposals as authorization for departing from the established churches altogether, even though Spener himself rejected the separatistic conclusions drawn from his ideas.

Spener left Frankfurt for Dresden in 1686, and from there he was called to Berlin in 1691. His time in Dresden was marked by controversy, but it was not a loss, for in Dresden he met his successor, August Hermann Francke. In Berlin, Spener helped to found the University of Halle, to which Francke was called in 1692. Under Francke's guidance the University of Halle showed what pietism could mean when put into practice. In rapid succession Francke opened his own home as a school for poor children, he founded a world - famous orphanage, he established an institute for the training of teachers, and later he helped found a publishing house, a medical clinic, and other institutions.

Francke had experienced a dramatic conversion in 1687, the source of his lifelong concern for evangelism and missions. Under his leadership Halle became the center of Protestantism's most ambitious missionary endeavors to that time. The university established a center for Oriental languages and also encouraged efforts at translating the Bible into new languages. Francke's missionary influence was felt directly through missionaries who went from Halle to foreign fields and indirectly through groups like the Moravians and an active Danish mission which drew inspiration from the leaders of pietism.

The Spread of Pietism

Spener and Francke inspired other varieties of German pietism. Count Nikolas von Zinzendorf, head of the renewed Moravian Church, was Spener's godson and Francke's pupil. Zinzendorf organized refugees from Moravia into a kind of collegia pietatis within German Lutheranism, and later shepherded this group in reviving the Bohemian Unity of the Brethren. These Moravians, as they came to be known, carried the pietistic concern for personal spirituality almost literally around the world. This was of momentous significance for the history of English - speaking Christianity when John Wesley was thrown into a company of Moravians during his voyage to Georgia in 1735. What he saw of their behavior then and what he heard of their faith after returning to England led to his own evangelical awakening.

Another group under the general influence of Spener and Francke developed pietistic concern for the Bible within German Lutheranism at Wurttemberg. Its leading figure, Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687 - 1752), represented a unique combination of scholarly expertise and devotional commitment to Scripture. Bengel did pioneering study in the text of the NT, exegeted Scripture carefully and piously, and wrote several books on the millennium.

Influences radiating from Halle, Wurttemberg, and the Moravians moved rapidly into Scandinavia. When soldiers from Sweden and Finland were captured in battle with Russia (1709), pietist commitments migrated to Siberia. Pietism exerted its influence through Wesley in England. The father of American Lutheranism, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, was sent across the Atlantic by Francke's son in response to requests for spiritual leadership from German immigrants. In addition, pietism also influenced the Mennonites, Moravians, Brethren, and Dutch Reformed in early America. The continuing influence of Spener, Francke, and their circle went on into the nineteenth century. A renewal of interest in Luther and his theology, the active evangelism of the Basel Mission and the Inner Mission Society of Denmark, the revivalistic activity of Norwegian Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771 - 1824), and the establishment of the Swedish Mission Covenant Church (1878) could all trace roots back to the pietism of an earlier day.

Pietistic Influences

Historians have long studied the relationship between pietism and the Enlightenment, that rationalistic and humanistic movement which flourished during the eighteenth century and which contributed to the eventual secularization of Europe. They have noted that pietism and the Enlightenment both attacked Protestant orthodoxy, that both asserted the rights of individuals, and that both were concerned about practice more than theory. The crucial historical question is whether pietistic antitraditionalism, individualism, and practicality paved the way for a non - Christian expression of these same traits in the Enlightenment. The fact that pietism remained faithful to Scripture and that its subjectivity was controlled by Christian beliefs suggests that, whatever its relationship to the Enlightenment, it was not the primary source of the latter's skepticism or rationalism.

A further historical uncertainty surrounds the tie between pietism and the intellectual movements arising in reaction to the Enlightenment. Striking indeed is the fact that three great postenlightenment thinkers, the idealist philosopher Immanuel Kant, the literary genius Johann Wolfgang Goethe, and the romantic theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, had been exposed to pietism as youths. It is probably best to regard pietism as a movement that paralleled the Enlightenment and later European developments in its quest for personal meaning and its disdain for exhausted traditions. Yet insofar as the heart of pietism was captive to the gospel, it remained a source of distinctly Christian renewal.

Religious movements resembling pietism were active beyond Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, German pietism was but one chord in a symphony of variations on a common theme, the need to move beyond sterile formulas about God to a more intimate experience with him. The English Puritans of the late 1500s and 1600s exhibited this. The New England Puritan Cotton Mather, who corresponded with Francke, strove to encourage pietistic vitality in the New World. Shortly after Mather's death the American Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s exhibited pietistic features. In England, William Law's Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) advocated a kind of pietistic morality. And Wesley's Methodism, with its emphasis on Scripture, its commitment to evangelism and edification, its practical social benevolence, and its evangelical ecumenicity, was pietistic to the core.

Even beyond Protestantism, pietistic elements can be seen in contemporary Roman Catholicism and Judaism. The Jansenist movement in seventeenth century France stressed the concern for heart religion that Spener also championed. The work of Baal Shem Tov (1700 - 1760) in founding the Hasidic movement in Judaism also sought to move beyond orthodox ritual to a sense of communion with God.

An overall evaluation of pietism must take into consideration the circumstances of its origin in seventeenth century Europe. Whether in its narrow German usage or its more generic sense, pietism represented a complex phenomenon. It partook of the mysticism of the late Middle Ages. It shared the commitment to Scripture and the emphasis on lay Christianity of the early Reformation. It opposed the formalism and cold orthodoxy of the theological establishment. And it was a child of its own times with its concern for authentic personal experience. It was, in one sense, the Christian answer to what has been called "the discovery of the individual" by providing a Christian form to the individualism and practical - mindedness of a Europe in transition to modern times.

In more specifically Christian terms pietism represents a significant effort to reform the Protestant heritage. Some of the fears of its earliest opponents have been partially justified. At its worst the pietistic tendency can lead to inordinate subjectivism and emotionalism; it can discourage careful scholarship; it can fragment the church through enthusiastic separatism; it can establish new codes of almost legalistic morality; and it can underrate the value of Christian traditions. On the other hand, pietism was, and continues to be, a source of powerful renewal in the church. At its best it points to the indispensability of Scripture for the Christian life; it encourages lay people in the work of Christian ministry; it stimulates concern for missions; it advances religious freedom and cooperation among believers; and it urges individuals not to rest until finding intimate fellowship with God himself.

Mark A Noll
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

A Ritschl, Geschichte des Pietismus; F E Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century, and (ed.) Continental Pietism and Early American Christianity; D W Brown, Understanding Pietism; R Lovelace, The Dynamics of Spiritual Life.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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