The Lessons of Pietism -- Dr. Lowell Zuck

Pietism is usually understood as a reform movement within German Lutheranism initiated by Philip Jakob Spener

By Dr. Lowell Zuck|January 3, 2002

Pietism is usually understood as a reform movement within German Lutheranism initiated by Philip Jakob Spener. Spener emphasized individual conversion, "living faith," and the fruits of faith. The name "Pietism" is derived from the "collegia pietatis," informal devotional meetings first organized around 1670 when Spener was pastor in Frankfurt. Pietism developed in different countries and churches during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries -- among Puritans and Methodists in England, the Reformed faithful in the Netherlands, Jansenists in Catholic France and Belgium, and the Spiritualists and Pietists in Protestant Germany. When one moves beyond Europe to the wider world, especially North America, and into the twenty-first century, the effects of Pietism are not hard to find. The experiential, heart-centered Christianity of twentieth- and twenty-first century revivalism and Pentecostalism owes a great deal to European Pietists like Spener and his associate August Hermann Francke, and now finds itself in an oddly similar position.

In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Trond Enger provides a very favorable view of Pietism, describing it as "the most intense and profound attempt in the history of the church to realize the power of early Christianity." He adds that Pietism has, "therefore never ceased to inspire." Frederick Herzog, writing from a critical Pietistic perspective in 1968, concluded his work by saying that "the recent resurgence of pietistic movements in America might do well to remember their German forbears whose noble spiritual aspirations lost their momentum by an uncritical alliance with the secular realm of government."

A more doctrinal analysis reveals that Pietism provided a measure of resolution to the conflict between the doctrine of salvation through grace, and God's requirement of individual holiness, thus echoing ascetic, mystical and monastic desires for holiness that appeared in Islam -- with Persian Sufis of the tenth century -- Judaism -- with eighteenth-century Hasidism -- and Orthodox and Catholic Christianity in the early and medieval periods. Herzog's introduction wisely summarizes fairly traditional varieties of mostly German Pietism, explaining first its context and original recovery of a "theology of the heart." August Hermann Francke whom Spener recruited, was a brilliant organizer and teacher who made the newly founded University of Halle the intellectual center of Pietism. The university and other institutions organized by Francke at Halle sent out lay and clerical leaders to influence the ruling class of Protestant Germany, especially Prussia, and the younger generation of pastors. In contrast to Spener's eschatology of hope and expectation for better times, Francke sought to reform the world. His method of conversion and education came to dominate Pietism, as his approaches to Bible study, mission work, and church-related social institutions brought him worldwide fame and influence. Herzog's critique of Francke is that he compromised a powerful theology in service of Prussian state -- especially military -- interests.

Thirty-three years after Herzog wrote his, my own summary suggests that in light of the terrorist attacks upon the United States, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, stand to gain much by attending to their pietistic histories. Insofar as Jewish, Christian, and Islamic pietism supplements revelational understandings with mystical, experiential encounters with a loving God, it is possible that a more peaceful religiosity might draw believers away from fundamentalism in its dangerous forms. Pietist perceptions of divinely initiated experiential religion lead to actions of renewal, the questioning of excesses in rationalism and emotionalism, and favor recovery of scriptural perspectives as well as openness to science and technology. In America, we can be thankful that common sense and sound pietistic religion seem to have calmed a religious fanaticism that threatened to fuel wider anti-Muslim violence.

Two years ago University of Chicago economics professor and Nobel prize winner, Robert W. Fogel, articulated a questionable spiritual agenda for the day in The 4th Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. Overlooking the massive Wesleyan / holiness / Pentecostal strain in American evangelical religion, Fogel advocated a renewed, non-frugal, secular Calvinism, while welcoming enthusiastic religion as a bulwark for "family values." Behind his argument is the belief that the Industrial Revolution impoverished the poor until the bounties of accomplished industrialization helped the whole population. He now waits for the cycle of electronic revolution to benefit all instead of the few, in the meantime thinking that improved access to spiritual assets will turn most of us into disciplined secular Calvinists.

Fogel's approach takes religion with little ultimate seriousness, a common problem for many of us. Yet his joy over "60 million Americans engulfed in enthusiasm" does seem to indicate that present-day Pietism has something powerful going for it. A careful examination of the historical precedents for pietistic faith and wordliness which Herzog has so seriously undertaken and judged here might alert, warn, and possibly invigorate a frightened but complacent populace that could benefit from considering the origins of many of their faiths.

-- Dr. Lowell H. Zuck is a Senior Research Consultant at the Archives of the Evangelical Synod and Eden Archives, in St. Louis, Missouri.