1902 Encyclopedia > Pietism


PIETISM. Pietism is the name of an exceedingly influential, instructive, and interesting movement in the Lutheran Church which arose towards the end of the 17th and continued during the first half of the following century. The name of Pietists was given to the ad-herents of the movement by its enemies, as a term of ridicule, like that of "Methodists" somewhat later in England. The origin and nature of the movement itself may be both traced to defects in the Lutheran Church of the time and to isolated efforts to correct them. That church had in the 17th century become a creed-bound theological and sacramentarian institution, which orthodox theologians ruled with almost the absolutism of the papacy. Correctness of creed had taken the place of deep religious feeling and purity of life. 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 they only 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, so powerfully proclaimed by Luther, the Lutheran pastors had made themselves a despotic hierarchy, while they neglected the practical pastoral work of caring for the moral and spiritual welfare of their flocks. One of the consequences, as the Pietists believed, of all this was that immorality, irreli-gion, and heathenish ignorance of Christianity abounded in the land, and cried to heaven against an unfaithful church. 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 Jacob Boehme (Bemen), the theosophic mystic; Johann Arndt, whose principal devotional work on True Christianity is universally known and appreciated; Heinrich Miiller, 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 of Eostock, who from his pulpit and by his writings raised " the alarm cry of a watchman in Sion." The direct originator of the move-ment was Philip Jacob Spener. Born in Alsace January 13, 1635, as a child trained in piety under the influence of a devout godmother and books of devotion recommended by her, particularly Arndt's True Christianity, accustomed to hear the sermons of a pastor who preached the Bible more than the Lutheran creeds, he 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 Strasburg, where the professors at the time 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 Tubingen he read Grossgebauer's Alarm Cry, and in 1666 he entered upon his first pastoral charge at Frankfort-on-the-Main, 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 origin-ated 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. These meetings were largely attended, produced a great sensation, and were soon imitated elsewhere. 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, the public literary exposition and defence of his position and aims. In this publication Spener made six proposals as the best means of restoring the life of the church :—(1) the earnest cultivation of a more general and thorough familiarity with the Holy Scriptures by means of private meetings, ecclesiolse in ecclesia; (2) a practical carrying out of the principle of the universality of the Christian priesthood by a participation of the laity in the spiritual government of the church and by the holding of family worship; (3) a serious laying to heart of the fact that a knowledge of Christianity must be attended by the practice of it as its indispensable sign and supplement; (4) the conversion of the habit of making merely didactic, and often bitter, attacks on the heterodox and unbelievers into a treatment of them instigated by genuine affection and animated by the simple desire of doing them good; (5) a reorganization of the theological training of the universities, in such a way that young divines should be urged not only to diligence in their studies but above all to lead devout lives; and (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. Although large num-bers of the orthodox Lutheran theologians and pastors were deeply offended by it, its complaint and its demands were both too well justified to admit of their being point-blank denied. A large number of pastors at once practi-cally adopted Spener's proposals. In 1686 Spener accepted an appointment to the court-chaplaincy at Dresden, which opened to him a wider though more difficult sphere of labour. He succeeded in reviving the catechetical instruc-tion of the young in religious truth in Saxony. In Leipsic, where Scriptural exegesis had almost wholly disappeared, 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 one of the noblest works of Pietism—the orphanage at Halle—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 Leipsic, and their promoters, charged with having slighted the established worship of the land as well as true learning, were ordered to discon-tinue them. Francke and his friends left the city, and with the aid of Christian Thomasius and Spener founded the new university of Halle, which became the chief home of the Pietists, and the object of the jealousy and unspar-ing attacks of the older universities of Wittenberg and Leipsic. 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 was not one affecting doctrine directly, inasmuch as Spener adhered in every point to the Lutheran faith. The difference arose from his 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. At the same time, the greater importance which he attached to the religious life and to practical godliness than to correctness of belief, and his restoration of the Bible to its place of superiority over the creeds, involved numerous possible departures from and advances beyond the Luther-anism of the 17th century. Again, the earnestness with which he had insisted on the necessity of a new birth, and on a separation of Christians from the world, led to exaggera-tion 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 theo-logian could teach theology, while the whole school shunned all common worldly amusements, such asdancing, the theatre, and public games, and affected a severe austerity with re-gard to dress, meals, and conversation. Through these extravagances a reactionary movement arose at the begin-ning of the 18th century, one of the most distinguished leaders of which was Loescher, superintendent at Dresden. But it was only as the opponents of Pietism gradually ceased their attacks that the movement lost its strength and by degrees handed over its vital truths and truest work to various representatives of a new and better age of the church. As a distinct movement it had run its course before the middle of the 18th century. The spirit of the school of Spener long made itself felt amongst the Pro-testants of north and south Germany, and particularly at Halle. Pietism could claim to have contributed largely to the revival of Biblical studies in Germany, and to have given a Biblical basis once more to theology. It also made religion once more an affair of the heart and the life, and not merely of the intellect, to which theologians had reduced it. 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 thus revived eternal elements of Christianity that had been long neglected, and was a distinct agent in preparing the way for modern advance in religion and theology. But it sprang from a temporary necessity, and, like similar phases of Christian life, lacked the philosophical and scholarly depth, the human and secular breadth, and the progressive impetus of a per-manent and world-subduing religious movement.

The two most recent German writers on the history of Pietism— Heppe and Ritschl—have given a much wider meaning to the term, including under it nearly all religious tendencies amongst Protestants of the last three centuries in the direction of a more serious cultiva-tion of personal piety than that prevalent in the various established churches, and manifesting itself particularly in the ascetic shunning of " worldly " practices. The term then embraces the Anabaptist, Moravian, Methodistic, and other kindred tendencies of the religious life, which are generally regarded rather as simply related than gen-etically connected phenomena. Ritschl, too, treats Pietism as a retrograde movement of Christian life towards Catholicism. It is also customary with some German writers to 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 Wtirtemberg, and at Halle and Berlin, and which at tin commencement worked to some extent on the lines of the earlier movement. The party was chiefly distinguished by its opposition to an independent scientific study of theology, its principal theological leader being Hengsten-berg, and its chief literary organ the Evangelische Kirchenzeitung. The party originated at the close of the wars with Napoleon I.

Amongst older works on Pietism are Walch's Historische und theologische Einleitung in die Religionstreitigkeiten der Evangelisch-Lutherischen Kirche, 1730 ; Thohtck's Geschichte des Pietismus und des ersten Stadiums der Aufklärung, 1865; H. Schiuid, Die Geschichte des Pietismus, 1863; Goebel's Geschichte des christlichen Lebens in der Rheinisch- Westfälischen Kirche. 3 vols., 1849-60; and the subject is dealt with at length in Dorner's and Gass's Histories of Protestant theology. The two chief recent works which use the term in the wider sense just referred to are Heppe's Geschichte des Pietismus und der Mystik in der reformirten Kirche, (1879) which is sympathetic, and Ritsclil'8 Geschichte des Pietismus (vol. i. only yet published, 18S0), which is hostile. See also Nippold's article in Theol. Stud, und Kritiken, 1882, pp. 347-392- and Klggenbach's article. "Pietismus," in Herzog's Encyklopädie, 2d ed. (J. F. S.)

The above article was written by: Rev. J. F. Smith.

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