Pietism (from the word piety) was an influential movement within Lutheranism that combined Lutheran emphasis on Biblical doctrine with the Reformed emphasis on individual piety and living a vigorous Christian life. Although it was active exclusively within Lutheranism, it had a tremendous impact on Protestantism worldwide, particularly in North America and Europe.
Pietism originated in modern Germany in the late 17th century with the work of Philipp Jakob Spener, a Lutheran theologian whose emphasis on personal transformation through spiritual rebirth and renewal, individual devotion and piety laid the foundations for the movement. Although Spener did not directly advocate the quietistic, legalistic and semi-separatist practices of Pietism, they were more or less involved in the positions he assumed or the practices which he encouraged.
Pietism spread from Germany to Switzerland and the rest of German-speaking Europe, Scandinavia and the Baltics (where it was heavily influential, leaving a permament mark on the region’s dominant Lutheranism, with figures like Hans Nielsen Hauge in Norway, Carl Olof Rosenius in Sweden, Katarina Asplund in Finland, and Baroness Barbara von Krüdener in the Baltics), and the rest of Europe. It was further taken to North America, primarily by German and Scandinavian immigrants. There, it influenced Protestants of other ethnic backgrounds, taking part in the 18th century foundation of Evangelicalism, a vibrant movement within Protestantism that today has some 300 million followers.
The movement reached its zenith in the mid-18th century, and declined through the 19th century, and had almost vanished in America by the end of the 20th century. While declining as an identifiable Lutheran group, some of its theological tenets influenced Protestantism generally, inspiring the Anglican priest John Wesley to begin the Methodist movement and Alexander Mack to begin the Brethren movement among Anabaptists.
In the United States, during some of its history Protestant denominations came to be categorized by historians as either pietistic or liturgical depending on their theology, as well as on their general support of the Republican Party or the Democratic Party. Pietistic Protestants included Quakers, Free Will Baptists, Congregationalists, Methodists, Regular Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and some Protestants from the British and African-American communities—all based in the Northern United States; some of these groups in the South would rather support the Democrats. A substantial part of the Pietistic Protestants was formed by German Sectarians, Norwegian Lutherans, Swedish Lutherans, and Haugean Norwegians.
Though Pietism shares an emphasis on personal behavior with the Puritan movement, and the two are often confused, there are important differences, particularly in the concept of the role of religion in government.
As the forerunners of the Pietists in the strict sense, certain voices had been heard bewailing the shortcomings of the Church and advocating a revival of practical and devout Christianity. Amongst them were the Christian mystic Jakob Böhme (Behmen); Johann Arndt, whose work, True Christianity, became widely known and appreciated; Heinrich Müller, who described the font, the pulpit, the confessional and the altar as “the four dumb idols of the Lutheran Church”; the theologian Johann Valentin Andrea, court chaplain of the Landgrave of Hesse; Schuppius, who sought to restore the Bible to its place in the pulpit; and Theophilus Grossgebauer (d. 1661) of Rostock, who from his pulpit and by his writings raised what he called “the alarm cry of a watchman in Sion”.
The direct originator of the movement was Philipp Jakob Spener. Born at Rappoltsweiler in Alsace, now in France, on 13 January 1635, trained by a devout godmother who used books of devotion like Arndt’s True Christianity, Spener was convinced of the necessity of a moral and religious reformation within German Lutheranism. He studied theology at Strasbourg, where the professors at the time (and especially Sebastian Schmidt) were more inclined to “practical” Christianity than to theological disputation. He afterwards spent a year in Geneva, and was powerfully influenced by the strict moral life and rigid ecclesiastical discipline prevalent there, and also by the preaching and the piety of the Waldensian professor Antoine Leger and the converted Jesuit preacher Jean de Labadie.
During a stay in Tübingen, Spener read Grossgebauer’s Alarm Cry, and in 1666 he entered upon his first pastoral charge at Frankfurt with a profound opinion that the Christian life within Evangelical Lutheranism was being sacrificed to zeal for rigid Lutheran orthodoxy. Pietism, as a distinct movement in the German Church, began with religious meetings at Spener’s house (collegia pietatis) where he repeated his sermons, expounded passages of the New Testament, and induced those present to join in conversation on religious questions. In 1675, Spener published his Pia desideria or Earnest Desire for a Reform of the True Evangelical Church, the title giving rise to the term “Pietists”. This was originally a pejorative term given to the adherents of the movement by its enemies as a form of ridicule, like that of “Methodists” somewhat later in England.
In Pia desideria, Spener made six proposals as the best means of restoring the life of the Church:
- The earnest and thorough study of the Bible in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the church”)
- The Christian priesthood being universal, the laity should share in the spiritual government of the Church
- A knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement
- Instead of merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them
- A reorganization of the theological training of the universities, giving more prominence to the devotional life
- A different style of preaching, namely, in the place of pleasing rhetoric, the implanting of Christianity in the inner or new man, the soul of which is faith, and its effects the fruits of life
This work produced a great impression throughout Germany. While large numbers of orthodox Lutheran theologians and pastors were deeply offended by Spener’s book, many other pastors immediately adopted Spener’s proposals.