What follows is a brief history of pietism, a subject to which this blog intends to return with practical, modern examples.

Our churches today are full of ‘holy’ behaviours and small groups meant to reinforce them for the ‘true’ believer. I use these words advisedly, as orthodox Lutherans, Calvinists and Anglicans believe that it is only by grace through faith that a person is saved and comes to share eternal life with Jesus Christ.

The Roman Catholic doctrine

We would do well to begin by reviewing what the Catholic Church teaches on sin, as this will feature throughout this series. The Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of impeccability, whereby it is believed that saints in Heaven and souls in Purgatory awaiting union with God cannot sin. The Catholic Church believes in free will, and, to this end, promotes a faith-plus-works teaching so that adherents will be able to be perfect like Christ.

Christ instructed His followers (Matthew 5:48):

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Indeed, Christian perfection has existed from the early Church through to the present day and in Protestant circles is referred to as pietism. In other words, there are two sides to this story: a) the orthodox Reformation view of sanctification through God’s grace working through us to bear the fruits of our faith and b) the manmade, legalistic Pelagian acts and works towards that end which imply or demand that we can redeem ourselves. The gulf between the two is great.

The Anglican — state church — in Post-Reformation England

A number of state-established churches in northern Europe after the Reformation forbade worship outside the official church setting.  Although the following laws are no longer in force in England, they were deemed necessary at the time:

- Religion Act 1592: Under Elizabeth I, anyone 16 and over who failed to attend the Anglican church, encouraged others to follow suit or who met in small groups — conventicles — could be imprisoned without bail. Upon serving their sentence, they were given three months to begin attending the Church of England. If they failed to do so, they had to leave England. This law was temporary and lasted for the term of that particular Parliament.

- Conventicle Act 1664: Enacted during the Restoration by Charles II, this law forbade small group gatherings outside of the Church of England. It included all Christians.  It was preceded by the Quaker Act of 1662, obliging all citizens to swear allegiance to the King as well as the Act of Uniformity of 1662 which required the use and rites of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) in all church gatherings. However, a decade later, Charles II would grant permission for a limited number of nonconformist chapels.

- Conventicles Act 1670: Parliament passed a law in 1670 forbidding any meeting of small groups or use of a meeting house for worship and assembly outside of the rites of the Church of England. This was to suppress ‘seditious’ conventicles.  Offending laypeople were fined four times less than clergy were.

If you click on the Wikipedia links, you’ll see engravings of nonconformist and ‘seditious’ gatherings taking place out of doors.  This was so the groups could avoid fines and imprisonment.  Pietism and the outdoors are closely linked — as are small groups.

The Lutheran — state church — in Germany

A number of practising Lutherans in the 17th century believed that the established church in Germany was reluctant to promote a lively Christian faith.

The official founder of the pietist movement was Philipp Jakob Spener, born in Alsace (now part of France) in 1635. Spener studied theology in Strasbourg, still the principal city of the region, then moved on to see what the Calvinists and the Waldensians were doing in Geneva. There he met a number of professors and pastors who deeply impressed him.

Spener believed that German Lutheranism had lost its moral and religious focus. He blamed Lutheran orthodoxy for this, which is probably not much different to the theological or intellectual conflicts occurring in other Christian countries today between evangelically-minded and orthodox Christians.

As a pastor in Frankfurt in 1666, Spener decided on a course of action to remedy the situation by holding conventicles, or small groups, in his house. There, he preached sermons and taught from the New Testament. He invited questions from those assembled and engaged in dialogue with them.

In 1675, Spener wrote (emphases mine):

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 …

In Pia desideria, Spener 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 (“little churches within the church”).
  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.

Despite the controversy that this volume generated, a number of Lutheran pastors in Germany followed Spener’s example.

In 1686, Spener became a royal chaplain and was transferred to Dresden. He mentored a group of young theologians in Leipzig in a society he formed there for devout application and practice of biblical principles. Later, he ended up founding the University of Halle, which was based on pietistic theology. Not all went smoothly; a number of pastors in Leipzig opposed his pietism and made a stance for orthodox Lutheran doctrine and practice.

Spener died in 1705, but one of his followers from Leipzig and Halle, August Hermann Francke, helped to spread pietism throughout the northern half of Germany, which is still predominantly Lutheran. This enabled Spener’s godson, Count von Zinzendorf, to revive the Moravian Church in 1727 and to establish Protestant missions.

Wikipedia states:

Spener’s stress on the necessity of a new birth and on a separation of Christians from the world, (see Asceticism), led to exaggeration and fanaticism among some followers. 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. Some would say that there thus arose a new form of justification by works.

Because pietism is so personal it became quite popular and began to weaken the state Church. It made its followers feel as if they were actively doing something to achieve their own salvation. In other words, it could be said that it was a form of Pelagianism. A reaction against pietism began in Dresden in the 18th century.

The state church — Lutheran — in Norway

Only a few decades after Spener’s death, the established church in Norway experienced problems with the spread of pietism.

Like England, they, too, issued a law proscribing small groups meeting outside the church. The government enacted the Conventicle Act of 1741.

Hans Nielsen Hauge (1771 – 1824) was born into a large farming family.  Like Spener, he, too, felt that pietism was necessary in order to transform the state church. Defying the Conventicle Act — and spending time in prison for doing so — he began preaching to Norwegians after Sunday church services.

Although he was a lay preacher, Hauge held revival meetings in Norway before taking his preaching into Denmark. Like many revivalists, he claimed to have had a mystical experience directing his ministry. He also wrote 33 books, which were widely read.

He said that his Haugean movement was in line with Lutheran doctrine. He also believed in Continuationism — active charismatic gifts (prophecy, glossolalia) — as do today’s American Pentecostalists.

After his final release from prison in 1811, he decided to return to farming and to also become an industrialist. He founded a number of factories and mills and donated his wealth to followers and friends. Because he was so influential as a lay minister, his secular success was almost guaranteed. Even today, Norwegians remember his help in making Norway a player in the Industrial Revolution. They also credit him with giving their country its ethical flavour of modesty, honesty and hard work.

Wikipedia states:

  • His defiance toward the religious and secular establishment gave voice to ordinary people, paving much of the way for the liberal and democratic tradition in Norway and indeed the entire Nordic region.
  • There also seems to be a clear link between the Haugean movement and the rise of Labor Union movement in Norway.
  • His theology, while bound in Lutheran doctrine, revitalized the notion of universal religion in Norway. The Norwegian state church credits him today for making religion a personal obligation.
  • His travels created nationwide networks that persist in Norway’s political system generally and among parties in particular.
  • His advocacy for common people became an important force as the industrial revolution unfolded.

Norwegian Lutherans who emigrated to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries took his influence with them on religious and socio-political levels.  A case in point is the progressive state of Minnesota.

The Protestant churches in Prussia

As Hauge was defying the law in Norway, Prussia’s king, Frederick William III, urged the Lutheran and Reformed (Calvinist) churches in that country to unite. In 1817, this united church body became known as the Prussian Union, or the Evangelical Christian Church.

Protestant history in Prussia is somewhat complex, because it was one of the nations which welcomed Calvinists fleeing the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Europe.  Although Prussia no longer exists as such, the Evangelical Christian Church lives on today in parts of Germany.

Wikipedia explains that this church union came about after Napoleon defeated the Prussian army in the battle of Jena-Auerstedt in the early 19th century. Prussia was obliged to undertake a number of state reforms, among them, the Church:

Under the influence of the centralising movement of absolutism and the Napoleonic Age, after the defeat of Napoléon I in 1815, rather than re-establishing the previous denominational leadership structures, all religious communities were placed under a single consistory in each Prussian province. This differed from the old structure in that the new leadership administered the affairs of all faiths; Catholics, Jews, Lutherans, Mennonites, Moravians, and the Calvinists (Reformed Christians) …

On 27 September 1817, Frederick William announced that on the 300th anniversary of the Reformation Potsdam‘s Reformed court and garrison congregation, led by Court Preacher Rulemann Friedrich Eylert, and the Lutheran garrison congregation, both using the Calvinist Garrison Church would unite into one Evangelical Christian congregation on Reformation Day, 31 October. Frederick William expressed his desire to see the Protestant congregations around Prussia follow this example, and become Union congregations. Whereas, since the Reformation the two denominations in Brandenburg, the Calvinist and Lutheran, had their own ecclesiastical governments under state control through the crown as Supreme Governor, under the new absolutism then in vogue, the Churches were under a civil bureaucratic state supervision through the newly created Prussian Ministry of Religious, Educational and Medical Affairs (German: Preußisches Ministerium der geistlichen, Unterrichts- und Medizinalangelegenheiten, est. in 1817). Karl vom Stein zum Altenstein was appointed as minister. However, because of the unique role of congregations in Protestantism, no congregation was forced by the King’s decree into merger. Thus, in the years that followed, many Lutheran and Reformed congregations did follow the example of Potsdam, and became single merged congregations, while others maintained their former Lutheran or Reformed denomination. When in 1847 Prussia finally received a parliament, some church leadership offices included a seat in the second chamber of non-elected, but appointed members.

As we would expect, not all Lutherans were pleased with this merger. Today’s Lutherans — and Calvinists — would appreciate the difference between the two denominations’ confessions of faith.

Wikipedia explains:

Pietism, with its looser attitude toward confessional theology, had opened the churches to the possibility of uniting. The unification of the two branches of German Protestantism sparked the Schism of the Old Lutherans. Many Lutherans, called Old Lutherans formed free churches or [e]migrated to the United States and Australia where they formed one of the bodies who formed the Lutheran Church of Australia. (Many immigrants to America that agreed with the union movement formed German Evangelical Lutheran and Reformed congregations, later to be gathered as the Evangelical Synod of North America, which is now a part of the United Church of Christ.)

And this is another reason why orthodox Protestants are opposed to pietism. They have seen the historical results of a ‘looser attitude toward confessional theology’: merger, dissatisfaction and confusion.

Pietism, the Enlightenment and atheism

Pietism peaked in the 18th century, although it is by no means extinct today.

However, because its emphasis on the individual appears to have lent it a certain popularity leading towards the examination of man in relation to himself, to others and to the world at large, it helped to enable the Enlightenment.

That said, it renewed religious fervour amongst European Protestants, which some emigrants took to America and Australia.  The laity found a new life within the Church and more of an active voice within established state churches.

Wikipedia explores this further:

Pietism also had a strong influence on contemporary artistic culture in Germany; though unread today, the Pietist Johann Georg Hamann held a strong influence in his day. Pietist belief in the power of individual meditation on the divine – a direct, individual approach to the ultimate spiritual reality of God – was probably partly responsible for the uniquely metaphysical, idealistic nature of German Romantic philosophy.

This has had a paradoxical effect on Christianity and secular politics which is present to this day. Clare Spark’s brilliant blog traces today’s Western multiculturalism back to the German Romantics:

The German Romantics and their descendants have co-opted radical Enlightenment concepts (tolerance, the rejection of innate ideas and fallen flesh as determinants of “human nature,” the cultural biases of the participant-observer) and practices (introspection, scientific materialism, the comparative history and analysis of political and economic institutions). These “enlightened” concepts and practices were then turned against “the lower orders.” For instance, the social psychology of “progressivism” transforms the common-sense perception of objective social conflicts and clashing interests into personal, anti-social symptoms of “xenophobia,” “prejudice” or “scapegoating,” i.e., distorted vision of “the Other.” Insofar as they are conservative Freudians and Jungians, the progressive psychologists attribute negative “stereotypes” to individual weakness and social irresponsibility: Entirely inner conflicts (Oedipal or pre-Oedipal in origin) are projected onto the outer world; this social world could be made harmonious through “integration”; i.e., discreet purges aka correct adjustments or through the emotionally mature recourse to administrative remedies.

Tying in with that is what I see as the nanny state dictating what we can(not) ingest — animal fats, nicotine and alcohol.  Most of today’s health experts and enabler politicians have no real religious faith, but they still have the Pelagian urge for manmade perfection, which pietism actively nurtures.

In fact, there is such a thing as Atheistic Pietism:

a term used by Asgeir Helgason to describe a pietistic (moralistic) approach to life without religion. “We have denied the existence of God but kept the pietistic rules”. Atheistic pietism has been suggested by Helgason,[4] to be one of the characteristics (traits) of the modern day Swedish national spirit. The term is first known to have been used by W.H. Mallock in 1879.

Wikipedia adds:

Economic historian Murray Rothbard sees modern Progressivism as essentially a deistic form of Pietism. [5]

Pietism has a lot to answer for in reviving Pelagianism, particularly the mantra heard continually throughout the West: ‘If only, if only, if only …’ we were healthier, younger, etc.

Whatever the shortcoming, pietism is there to point the finger at things which only God in His grace — not Man — can remedy.

Tomorrow: Pietism in Methodism