From New World Encyclopedia

Pietism was a movement within Lutheranism, lasting from the late seventeenth century to the mid-eighteenth century. The Pietist movement combined the Lutheran emphasis on Biblical doctrine with the Reformed, and especially Puritan, emphasis on individual piety and a vigorous Christian life. It proved to be very influential throughout Protestantism and Anabaptism, inspiring not only Anglican priest John Wesley to begin the Methodist movement, but also Alexander Mack to begin the Brethren movement.


As forerunners of the Pietists in the strict sense, certain voices had been heard bewailing the shortcomings of the Church and advocating a revival of practical and devout Christianity. Amongst them were Christian mystic Boehme (Behmen); Johann Arndt, whose work, True Christianity (1605–09), 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;" theologian Johann Valentin Andrea, 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 what he called "the alarm cry of a watchman in Sion."

The name Pietism

The name of Pietist was a pejorative term given to the adherents of the movement by its enemies as a form of ridicule, like that of "Methodists" somewhat later in England. The Lutheran Church continued Philipp Melanchthon's attempt to construct an intellectual backbone for the Evangelical Lutheran faith. By the seventeenth century, the denomination remained a confessional theological and sacramental institution, influenced by orthodox Lutheran theologians such as Johann Gerhard of Jena (d. 1637), and keeping with the liturgical traditions of the Roman Catholicism of which it saw itself as a reformed variation. In the Reformed Church, on the other hand, the influence of John Calvin had not only influenced doctrine, but also empowered Christian participation. The presbyterian constitution gave the people a share in church life that the Lutherans lacked, but it involved a dogmatic legalism which, the Lutherans believed, imperiled Christian freedom and fostered self-righteousness.



The direct originator of the movement was Philipp Jakob Spener. Born at Rappoltsweiler in Alsace, on January 13, 1635, trained by a devout godmother who used books of devotion like Arndt's True Christianity, Spener was convinced of the necessity of a moral and religious reformation within German Lutheranism. He studied theology at Strasbourg, 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, Spener read Grossgebauer's Alarm Cry, and in 1666, he entered upon his first pastoral charge at Frankfurt with a the opinion that the Christian life within Evangelical Lutheranism was being sacrificed to zeal for rigid Lutheran orthodoxy. Pietism, as a distinct movement in the German Church, was then originated by Spener through 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. In 1675, Spener published his Pia desideria or Earnest Desires for a Reform of the True Evangelical Church, the title giving rise to the term "Pietists." 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 ("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.[1]

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 immediately adopted Spener's proposals.

Early leaders

In 1686, Spener accepted an appointment to the court-chaplaincy at Dresden, which opened to him a wider, though more difficult, sphere of labor. In Leipzig, a society of young theologians was formed under his influence for the learned study and devout application of the Bible. Three magistrates 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 Lutheran school and the orthodox Lutherans arose from the Pietists' conception of Christianity as chiefly consisting in a change of heart and consequent holiness of life. Orthodox Lutherans rejected this viewpoint as a gross simplification, stressing the need for the church and for sound theological underpinnings.

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 revival in the Moravian Church in 1727, by Count von Zinzendorf, Spener's godson and a pupil in the Halle School for Young Noblemen, and the establishment of Protestant missions.

However, Spener's stress on the necessity of a new birth and on a separation of Christians from the world led to exaggeration and fanaticism among some followers. Many Pietists soon maintained that the new birth must always be preceded by 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. 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 eighteenth century; one leader was Valentin Ernst Löscher, superintendent at Dresden.

Later history

As a distinct movement, Pietism had its greatest strength by the middle of the eighteenth century. Its very individualism in fact helped to prepare the way for the Enlightenment (Aufklärung), which would take the church in an altogether different direction. Yet, some would claim that Pietism contributed largely to the revival of Biblical studies in Germany and to making religion once more an affair of the heart and of life and not merely of the intellect. It likewise gave a new emphasis on the role of the laity in the church. Rudolf Sohm claimed that, "It was 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."[2] 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. Bonhoeffer denounced the basic aim of Pietism, to produce a "desired piety" in a person, as unbiblical.[3]

Pietism is considered the major influence that lead to the creation of the "Evangelical Church of the Union" in Prussia in 1817. The King of Prussia ordered the Lutheran and Reformed churches in Prussia to unite; they took the name "Evangelical," meaning simply "Protestant" in German, as a name both groups had previously identified with. This union movement spread through many German lands in the 1800s. Pietism, with its looser attitude toward confessional theology, had opened the churches to the possibility of uniting. Lutherans who claimed to be more confessionally-strict dissented from the union movement; many immigrated to the American Midwest and formed the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and to Australia, where they formed the Lutheran Church of Australia. (Many immigrants to America agreed with the union movement and formed German Evangelical congregations, later to be gathered as the Evangelical Synod of North America, which is now a part of the United Church of Christ.)

Pietism did not die out in the eighteenth century, but was alive and active in the Evangelische Kirchenverein des Westen (later German Evangelical Church and still later the Evangelical and Reformed Church). The church president from 1901 to 1914, was Dr. Jakob Pister.

Pietism was a major influence on John Wesley and others who began the Methodist movement in eighteenth century Great Britain, and modern American Methodists and members of the Holiness movement continue to be influenced by Spener and also the Moravian legacy.

In the nineteenth century, there was a revival of confessional Lutheran doctrine, known as the neo-Lutheran movement. This movement focused on a reassertion of the identity of Lutherans as a distinct group within the broader community of Christians, with a renewed focus on the Lutheran Confessions as a key source of Lutheran doctrine. Associated with these changes was a renewed focus on traditional doctrine and liturgy, which paralleled the growth of Anglo-Catholicism in England.[4]

Some writers on the history of Pietism—for example, Heppe and Albrecht 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.

Atheistic pietism

A term used in Sweden 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 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.


  1. Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002).
  2. Rudolf Shom, Outlines of Church History (Beacon Press, 1958).
  3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HarperOne; Rev Sub edition, 1995).
  4. James A. Scherer, "The Triumph of Confessionalism in Nineteenth-Century German Lutheran Missions," Missio Apostolica 2 (1993): 71-78.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. A Testament to Freedom: Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. HarperOne, 1995. ISBN 978-0060642143
  • Dorner, I.A. History of Protestant Theology. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004. ISBN 978-1592446100
  • Dunn, David and L.H. Zuck, A History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Pilgrim Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0829808551
  • Lindberg, Carter, ed. The Pietist Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Blackwell Publishing Limited, 2004. ISBN 978-0631235200
  • Shom, Rudolf. Outlines of Church History. Beacon Press, 1958.
  • Spener, Philip Jacob. Pia Desideria. Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2002. ISBN 978-1579108861
  • von Schubert, H. Outlines of Church History, ch. xv (Eng. trans., 1907).


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