Pietism




The word Pietism is applied to that religious awareness that developed from within Protestantism, in particular in the seventeenth century. It constituted neither a unified theological tendency nor a structured orientation. This awareness expresses a desire for a more intense and practical expression of piety, which has been articulated throughout the ages and in a number churches. It can be said that Pietism is a reaction to the mundane and intellectualist tendencies of Protestantism, a reaction which stresses the personal religious experience of each believer as well as the mediation of the Bible in everyday Christian behavior. Pietism stems not only from the development and intensification of inner life, but also from the founding of schools, orphanages, and missions. It represents a theology of the heart, which is relatively indifferent to doctrinal matters and for which the fundamental criterion is authenticity. Sociologically, Pietism is a popular and enterprising movement that crosses a range of diverse Protestant denominations. It is particularly manifest in Lutheranism, Methodism, and in the many revivalist religious movements that have punctuated the history of Protestantism.




Historically, Pietism appeared in German Protestantism in the seventeenth century. Philipp Jakob Spener’s book published in 1675, Pia Desideria (Pious Wishes), is one of the outstanding works of the period. He encouraged the formation of lay conventicles called collegia pietatis in order for male and female believers to grow spiritually and to deepen their faith by means of meetings in the official church (ecclesiola in ecclesia). For Spener and his followers, Christianity is not primarily a branch of knowledge, but a way of life that has to be expressed through specific behaviors. In the training of pastors, spirituality is more important than theological ability. The aim of the Pietists is to revive, from within the church, Christian faith and the Christian way of life of each believer. But other more radical Pietists go further in thinking that the true Christian church can be found only in small communities of bona fide believers separated from the established churches. Pietism is a kind of protest, developed from the Protestant church, against the fossilization of Christian life in dogmatic orthodoxy and routine liturgy, and for a revival of faith understood as sentiment and action.

Pietism was not only a resurgence of religious sentiments. It operated through many charities and its social and cultural influence was important. The two most important areas where Pietism was active were in Germany, in the faculty of theology at the University of Halle dominated by the work and teachings of A. H. Francke (1663-1727), and the University of Württemberg, where the theologian J. A. Bengel (1687-1752) was known for his notion of biblical sciences (Engels particularly criticized the “Württemberg Pietism”). Francke founded the University of Halle and developed an educational, social, and cultural movement through “foundations” (orphanages, a book shop, schools, a publishing house, and a Bible society). He also founded a printing house which distributed many millions of Bibles throughout the eighteenth century. He also set up the first Protestant missions in India and supported the first Protestant missions to the Jews. Bengel illustrates the relationship between Pietism and biblical sciences; he established a new Greek edition of the New Testament and its translation.

One other important figure in Pietism is Count   Nikolaus   Ludwig   von Zinzendorf (1700-60), who welcomed religious refugees to his estate in Upper Lusatia, notably the descendants of the pre Reformation Hussite movement, the Moravian Brethren. He founded religious communities characterized by a number of acts of piety. He wanted to gather Christians into an ecumenical society transcending all confessional divisions. Pietism developed particularly in Prussia under the reign and with the support of King Friedrich I (1713-40). The relationship of Aufklarung (Enlightenment) to Pietism was complex – far from being mere opposites, they shared some affinities: the Pietist promotion of a religion centered on the ”heart and actions” did not appear strongly opposed to the importance given to individuality and reason.

Pietism had considerable influence because of the charitable work it conducted in missions, the distribution of Bibles, and its educational and charitable institutions. Through such dynamism, Pietism clearly manifested traits that emphasized a practical Christian nature. Nevertheless, it generated moralism and an elitist conception of Christianity based on the good deeds carried out by its followers. Criticized for its anti intellectualism and the strong sentimental character of its view of the Christian faith, Pietism always had strong opposition; for example, in Württemberg, where it is still present in spite of the vehement and continued resistance from the faculty of theology at the University of Tübingen. The faculties of theology in Wittenberg and Leipzig were anti Pietist, too, while that of the University of Königsberg was pro Pietist. That is to say that Pietism created turmoil within religious and secular spheres: not only were theologians and the clergy divided into Pietist and antiPietist factions, but parishioners and city councils were as well.

Through its influence and through what it embodies, Pietism has widely surpassed German Protestantism and Lutheranism. It appeared also in the Reformed Church (e.g., in Bremen). Several Pietist tendencies, while condemning infant baptism and promoting adult baptism, resemble Baptist and Puritan concepts. For example, the Brethren churches are a synthesis of Pietism and Anabaptism. With different varieties according to countries and churches (Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal), many elements of Pietism can be found in the different revival movements throughout the history of Protestantism. The same opposition occurred over and over between those who advocated a revival within the established church and those who argued for the need to establish other churches. However, these sensibilities, which advocated a more pious sense of Christianity, subsequently clashed with more liberal and accommodating ones, as well as with orthodox attitudes such as those associated with Lutheranism, Calvinism, Baptism, and so on. All of these were generally alert to religious experience and sensitivity as being the criteria of authentication of the Christian faith. This is true in both doctrinal and moral domains. Today, it can be said that most characteristics of Protestant Pietism are present in Evangelicalism, which emphasizes personal conversion, piety, and a rigorous way of life. Moreover, like Pietism, Evangelicalism is transdenominational. As Martin (2005) wrote, one can trace a genealogy from Pietism to con temporary Pentecostalism.

References:

  1. Gabler, U. (Ed.) (2000) Der Pietismus im neunzehnten und zwanzigsten Jahrhundert. Geschichte des Pietis mus (Pietism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: History of Pietism), 3. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Gottingen.
  2. Lehmann, H. (Ed.) (2003) Glaubenswelt und Lebens welt des Pietismus (Beliefworld and Lifeworld of Pietism), 4. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen.
  3. Martin, D. (2005) On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory. Ashgate, Aldershot.
  4. Strom, J. (2003) Pietism. In: The Encyclopedia of Protestantism, 3. Routledge, New York, pp. 1485 92.

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