Almost 30 years ago I was privileged to attend the Symposium on the Lutheran Confessions in Fort Wayne, Ind., where an essay on pietism was presented by Dr. Trygve R. Skarsten. He reminded us of the legacy of this important spiritual life movement: small group Bible studies, the use of devotional literature in our homes, social welfare institutions such as hospitals and care centers for the aged, concern for the spiritual formation in our seminaries, confirmation instruction, an emphasis on pastoral visitation, and the modern world mission movement.
“We have all tasted of Pietism and found it to be good,” he declared, “even though we are reluctant to admit it at times” (Trinity Seminary Review, Fall 1981).
It is helpful to consider the background of this movement in the events of the time. The Thirty Years War ended in 1648, leaving Germany in a pitiable and pathetic condition. Some estimate that the population was reduced by one-third through disease, military casualties, and immigration; in one province of southern Germany the population dropped during a 20-year period from 330,000 to 60,000. Farms and villages were pillaged, and there was ample evidence of moral and spiritual decline.
There are differing opinions concerning the birth of pietism. Some point to the influence of a devotional classic entitled, On True Christianity, whose author, a German Lutheran pastor named Johan Arndt (1555-1621), has been called the grandfather of the movement. Yet he was one of many voices during the century raised in strong protest against the cold and lifeless conditions in church life. Dr. Carl F. Wisløff, author of Do the Work of an Evangelist, tells of one of these voices, Pastor Heinrich Mueller, who decried the four churchly idols: the pulpit, the altar, the baptismal font, and the confessional.
“People do not truly repent of their sins and confess them, yet they go to church and receive the sacrament,” said Mueller. “Such an attitude is only an outward, official churchliness. There is no real life in it at all, only an imitation of life.”
The father of pietism was Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), who introduced the devotional fellowships while he served as pastor in Frankfurt, Germany. Born in Alsace and reared by godly parents of aristocratic ancestry, he received an excellent education in noted institutions of learning, earning a doctorate in theology. This respected pastor was grieved by the deadness in so much of Protestant Christendom. Christianity is more than the memorization of catechisms, he taught; Christianity is life, and it must be lived.
The author of Innermission Church History (p. 207) dates the beginning of the awakening in Spener’s parish as July 18, 1669, after he preached on the Pharisee and the publican from Luke 18. Many were converted, and a powerful season of refreshing began.
The word “pietist” began as an uncomplimentary nickname for believers who gathered in collegia pietatis, small group fellowships founded by Spener that met for the cultivation of spiritual life through Bible study and prayer. This revolutionary practice, a rediscovery of the Reformation teaching on the priesthood of all believers, spread to other parishes, and ignited what the American Puritan pastor Cotton Mather called “the fire of God which … flames in the heart of Germany.”
Five years after beginning this experiment Spener was asked to write an introduction to a collection of sermons by Johan Arndt. This caused such a stir that it would soon become a separate book, Pia Desideria (Pious Wishes). In it Spener not only pointed to the problems but also outlined a program for church reform, including improved training of pastors in regards to their personal spiritual life, the promotion of preaching that produced holy living, more extensive use of the Scriptures than the Sunday sermon, conducting all controversies in a spirit of prayer and gentleness, encouragement for lay involvement (priesthood of all believers), and an emphasis of the practice of love and good works.
The second phase in the history of pietism is associated with the name of August Francke (1663-1727) and the University of Halle in Germany. Mentored by Spener and his successor in the leadership of the movement, Francke was convinced that hearers of the Word should also be doers, and he was responsible for putting thousands of students and others to work in the institutions that he established: schools, an orphanage, a home for widows, a bookstore and print shop, a library, a laundry, a farm, a bakery, a brewery, a hospital, and an organization that would in the coming decades distribute millions of Bibles and Scripture portions. Francke’s encouragement for evangelistic outreach resulted in Halle becoming an early center for the rise of the Protestant world missions.
Pietism has an inspiring history, but there are many who seek to disown any connection to the movement, labeling it legalistic or even heretical. No one would deny that some later developments may have been marked by unbalanced theology and practices, yet this should not cancel out our appreciation for and indebtedness to what the Spirit of God accomplished through it.
Some may recall the closing comments of Dr. Carl Wisløff when he lectured for the AFLC Seminary’s Summer Institute of Theology in 1987: “A pietist is not a very nice name to have, in the opinion of most people. … A pietist is accused of being a narrow-minded person, bearing gloom and darkness to all that is beautiful. Once after I had spoken on these things I was asked if I considered myself a pietist. I answered, ‘I am afraid that I do not have the right to such a high claim.’ But the man responded, ‘No, you are a pietist all right.’ I replied, ‘Thank you very much indeed’” (Do the Work of an Evangelist, p. 92).
Robert Lee, a member of Grace Free Lutheran, Maple Grove, Minn., is a member of the faculty of the AFLC Schools, Plymouth, Minn.