More a way of believing than an organized religious movement, Pietism originated in seventeenth-century Germany. In the century after Luther had begun the Protestant Reformation, intellectual disputes splintered the church. In the German states, the Reformation brought on the Thirty Years War, which ended with the nation in ruins. A Lutheran minister, Philipp Jakob Spener, wanted to comfort the people by emphasizing the mystical side of Luther’s teachings, the need for a personal Christian experience, and a new birth. The mystical element had roots in both Roman Catholicism and the Anabaptist movement. The idea of a personal relationship with God came from the Anabaptist belief that God offers the inner light of the Holy Spirit as the guide to salvation. Anabaptists, who suffered persecution for their beliefs, disdained excessive dependence on the written word, and their inner light sometimes led them to millennialism.
Spener wanted Christians to follow their faith with their hearts rather than dispute it with their minds, but he was not a millennialist. The pietism he envisioned incorporated lay ministries, small-group Bible studies, individual lives devoted to prayer and the study of the Bible, right living, a heart-felt faith, and a new birth. Pietists were a priesthood of the true believers, with no need for a formally educated and separate priesthood. Even though they rejected a trained priesthood, they did not reject education in itself. Rather, they shifted theological education’s emphasis away from analysis, interpretation, and explication toward a more practical and personal education that enhanced the personal, internal, religious experience. Spener also called for a change from attacking nonbelievers and the heterodox to practicing a sympathetic and kind approach. In addition, he felt that preaching had to sacrifice pleasing rhetoric if that was what it took to convey to the new Christian what faith meant and how it was revealed in Christian life.
Pietism worked well with most other traditions. Spener was a Lutheran, English Puritans incorporated Pietism into their Calvinism, and John Wesley used Pietist emphases from the Moravians in his Methodism. English Independents and Quakers were of the Anabaptist Pietist tradition, as were the German Mennonites and the Amish. Latter-day Hussites, the German Brethren and Moravians, also immigrated to the Middle colonies. Pietism was perhaps as vital as Calvinism in American Protestantism. For instance, Cotton Mather had Pietist tendencies. Pietism was as important as Puritanism to Jonathan Edwards, who emphasized that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit would manifest itself in outward signs in a true Christian. Staring in 1749, the Great Awakening was to a good extent a Pietist revival movement. Its most prominent preacher, perhaps the most inspiring revivalist of all time, George Whitefield, also displayed Pietist leanings.
Pietists who had personal experiences of Jesus Christ had an urge to share that relationship with others, and that urge often became a commitment to evangelism. Count Leopold von Zinzendorf founded the Moravian Missionary Society in Germany, which sent hundreds of missionaries to America. Several colonies were actually founded on Pietist principles. The Baptist Roger Williams founded Rhode Island; Quakers George Fox and William Penn founded New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Pietists could be within or outside the church. Churchly Pietists include the Lutheran Henry Melchoir Muhlenberg, while the separatists include the Moravian Count Zinzendorf, Johann Conrad Beissel of the Ephrata Cloisters, Johann Kelpius who came from a Philadelphia religious community; and Ernst Christian Hochman von Hohenua of the Brethren. Pietists also influenced Universalists such as Dr. George de Benneville, who gathered the believers in his Olay, Pennsylvania, house church. Other Universalist leaders came from Methodist or Baptist Pietism. Pietism reached into the hills and rural areas of New England due to the revivalism of Caleb Rich, Isaac Davis, and Adams Streeter.
The Pietist inward turn was integral to the individualism that characterized America. The inward turn also influenced the transcendentalist writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It brought respectability to emotion, in contrast to the emphasis on intellect and rationality that had characterized the philosophies of such Enlightenment revolutionaries and deists as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Pietism was vital to the Baptists and Presbyterians after the Second Great Awakening. The early national period saw a revival of the Great Awakening that had slumbered through the Revolution’s dominant enlightenment thinking. The old Pietist impulse reemerged as inner commitment, bearing fruit in outward expression abolitionism, educational reform, women’s suffrage and all efforts to bring society more in line with the Christian values given to each individual through a personal experience of God.
John H. Barnhill See also: Christ and Christianity; Germans; Religion (Chronology); Religion (Essay). Bibliography Balmer, Randall Herbert. . Boston: Beacon Press 1999. Brown, Dale W. Understanding Pietism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976. Crowner, David, and Gerald Christianson, ed. and transl. The Spirituality of the German Awakening. New York: Paulist, 2003. Erb, Peter C., ed. The Pietists. New York: Paulist, 1983. Spener, Philipp Jakob. Pia Desideria. 1675. Translated by Theodore G. Tappert. New York: Fortress Press, 1964.
Pietism Gallery Photos