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Pietism was a movement, in the Lutheran Church, lasting from the late-17th century to the mid-18th Century.

The name of Pietists was given to the adherents of the movement by its enemies as a term of ridicule, like that of "Methodists" somewhat later in England. The Lutheran Church had, in continuing Melanchthon's attempt to construct the evangelical faith as a doctrinal system, by the 17th century become a creed-bound theological and sacramentarian institution, which orthodox theologians like Johann Gerhard of Jena (d. 1637) ruled with almost the absolutism of the papacy. Christian faith had been dismissed from its seat in the heart, where Luther had placed it, to the cold regions of the intellect. The dogmatic formularies of the Lutheran Church had usurped the position which Luther himself had assigned to the Bible alone, and as a consequence only they were studied and preached, while the Bible was neglected in the family, the study, the pulpit and the university. Instead of advocating the priesthood of all believers, the Lutheran pastors had made themselves a despotic hierarchy, while they neglected their practical pastoral work. In the Reformed Church, on the other hand, the influence of Calvin had made less for doctrine than the practical formation of Christian life. The presbyterian constitution gave the people a share in church life which the Lutherans lacked, but it involved a dogmatic legalism which imperilled Christian freedom and fostered self-righteousness.

As forerunners of the Pietists in the strict sense, not a few earnest and powerful voices had been heard bewailing the shortcomings of the Church and advocating a revival of practical and devout Christianity. Amongst them were Jakob Boehme (Behmen), the theosophic mystic; Johann Arndt, whose work on 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, the court chaplain of the landgrave of Hesse; Schuppius , who sought to restore to the Bible its place in the pulpit; and Theophilus Grossgebauer (d. 1661) of Rostock, who from his pulpit and by his writings raised "the alarm cry of a watchman in Sion."

The direct originator of the movement was Philipp Jakob Spener, who combined the Lutheran emphasis on Biblical doctrine with the Reformed tendency to vigorous Christian life. Born at Rappoltsweiler, in Alsace on January 13 1635, trained by a devout godmother, who used books of devotion like Arndt's True Christianity, accustomed to hear the sermons of a pastor who preached the Bible more than the Lutheran creeds, Spener was early convinced of the necessity of a moral and religious reformation of the German Church. He studied theology, with a view to the Christian ministry, at Strassburg, 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 he read Grossgebauer's Alarm Cry, and in 1666 he entered upon his first pastoral charge at Frankfurt, profoundly impressed with a sense of the danger of the Christian life being sacrificed to zeal for rigid orthodoxy. Pietism, as a distinct movement in the German Church, was then originated by Spener by religious meetings at his house (collegia pietatis) at which he repeated his sermons, expounded passages of the New Testament, and induced those present to join in conversation on religious questions that arose. They gave rise to the name "Pietists." In 1675 Spener published his Pia desideria or Earnest Desires for a Reform of the True Evangelical Church in this publication he made six proposals as the best means of restoring the life of the Church:

  1. the earnest and thorough study of the Bible in private meetings, ecclesiolae in ecclesia
  2. the Christian priesthood being universal, the laity should share in the spiritual government of the Church
  3. a knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement
  4. instead of merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers, a sympathetic and kindly treatment of them
  5. a reorganization of the theological training of the universities, giving more prominence to the devotional life
  6. 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, and although large numbers of the orthodox Lutheran theologians and pastors were deeply offended by Spener's book, its complaints and its demands were both too well justified to admit of their being point-blank denied. A large number of pastors at once practically adopted Spener's proposals.

In Paul Gerhardt the movement found a singer whose hymns are genuine folk poetry. In 1686 Spener accepted an appointment to the court-chaplaincy at Dresden, which opened to him a wider though more difficult sphere of labour. In Leipzig a society of young theologians was formed under his influence for the learned study and devout application of the Bible. Three magistri belonging to that society, one of whom was August Hermann Francke, subsequently the founder of the famous orphanage at Halle (1695), commenced courses of expository lectures on the Scriptures of a practical and devotional character, and in the German language, which were zealously frequented by both students and townsmen. The lectures aroused, however, the ill-will of the other theologians and pastors of Leipzig, and Francke and his friends left the city, and with the aid of Christian Thomasius and Spener founded the new University of Halle. The theological chairs in the new university were filled in complete conformity with Spener's proposals. The main difference between the new Pietistic school and the orthodox Lutherans arose from the conception of Christianity as chiefly consisting in a change of heart and consequent holiness of life, while the orthodox Lutherans of the time made it to consist mainly in correctness of doctrine.

Spener died in 1705; but, the movement, guided by Francke, fertilized from Halle the whole of Middle and North Germany. Among its greatest achievements, apart from the philanthropic institutions founded at Halle, were the organization of the Moravian Church in 1727 by Count von Zinzendorf, Spener's godson and a pupil in the Halle Orphanage, and the establishment of the great Protestant missions, Ziegenbalg and others being the pioneers of an enterprise which until this time Protestantism had strangely neglected.

Pietism, of course, had its weaknesses. The very earnestness with which Spener had insisted on the necessity of a new birth, and on a separation of Christians from the world, led to exaggeration and fanaticism among followers less distinguished than himself for wisdom and moderation. Many Pietists soon maintained that the new birth must always be preceded by agonies of repentance, and that only a regenerated theologian could teach theology, while the whole school shunned all common worldly amusements, such as dancing, the theatre, and public games. There thus arose a new form of justification by works. Its ecclesiolae in ecclesia also weakened the power and meaning of church organization. Through these extravagances a reactionary movement arose at the beginning of the 18th century one of the most distinguished leaders of which was Loeschel superintendent at Dresden.

As a distinct movement Pietism had run its course before the middle of the 18th century; by its very individualism it had helped to prepare the way for another great movement, the illumination (Aufklärung), which was now to lead the won into new paths. Yet Pietism could claim to have contributed largely to the revival of Biblical studies in Germany and to have made religion once more an affair of the heart and of life and not merely of the intellect. It likewise vindicated afresh the rights of the Christian laity in regard to their own beliefs and the work of the Church, against the assumptions and despotism of an arrogant clergy. "It was," says Rudolf Sohm, "the last great surge of the waves of the ecclesiastical movement begun by the Reformation; it was the completion and the final form of the Protestantism created by the Reformation. Then came a time when another intellectual power took possession of the minds of men." Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the German Confessing Church framed the same characterization in less positive terms when he called pietism the last attempt to save christianity as a religion. Given that for him religion was a negative term, more or less an opposite to revelation, this constitutes a rather scathing judgement. Also Bonhoeffer, exactly because of his biblical and reformation-based background, denounced the basic aim of pietism, to produce a "desired piety" in man, as unbiblical.

Some writers on the history of Pietism--e.g. Heppe and Ritschl--have included under it nearly all religious tendencies amongst Protestants of the last three centuries in the direction of a more serious cultivation of personal piety than that prevalent in the various established churches. Ritschl, too, treats Pietism as a retrograde movement of Christian life towards Catholicism. Some historians also speak of a later or modern Pietism, characterizing thereby a party in the German Church which was probably at first influenced by some remains of Spener's Pietism in Westphalia, on the Rhine, in Württemberg, and at Halle and Berlin.

The party was chiefly distinguished by its opposition to an independent scientific study of theology, its principal theological leader being Hengstenberg, and its chief literary organ the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung.

Amongst older works on Pietism are JG Walch, Historische und theologische Einleitung in die Religionsstreitigkeiten der evangelisch-lutherischen Kirche (1730); A Tholuck, Geschichte des Pietismus und des ersten Stadiums der Aufklärung (1865); H Schmid, Die Geschichte des Pietismus (1863); M Goebel, Geschichte des christlichen Lebens in der Rheinisch-Westfälischen Kirche (3 vols., 1849-1860); and the subject is dealt with at length in JA Dorner's and W Gass's Histories of Protestant theology. More recent are Heppe's Geschichte das Pietismus und der Mystik in der reformirten Kirche (1879), which is sympathetic; A Ritschl's Geschichte des Pietismus (5 vols., 1880-1886), which is hostile; and C Sachsse, Ursprung und Wesen des Pietismus (1884). See also Fr. Nippold's article in Theol. Stud. und Kritiken (1882), PP. 347?392; H. von Schubert, Outlines of Church History, ch. xv. (Eng. trans., 1907); and Carl Mirbt's article, "Pietismus," in Herzog-Hauck's Realencyklopädie für prot. Theologie u. Kirche, end of vol. xv.

Last updated: 10-19-2005 15:52:34
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