What’s a Pietist Schoolman?

I don’t know anyone who writes who enjoys coming up with a title. Even the bountifully gifted writing staff of the underappreciated sitcom NewsRadio simply gave up and started copping titles from Led Zeppelin albums twenty episodes into the show’s run.

Part of me suspects that we shouldn’t seek to improve on the example of the Hebrew Scriptures. Sly wordplay? Nope, just repeat the first phrase in the text. (Indeed, that would result in a better title to this post. Maybe the whole blog.) Elaborate subtitles? Uh-uh, call a book “Proverbs” or “Job” and the reader knows exactly what she’s getting. A book must possess enormous wisdom if its title is as banal as “Numbers,” right? (I know, I know — that’s a later Greek change, but “In the desert” isn’t exactly titillating.)

Paul Kennedy
Paul "The Rise and Fall of" Kennedy - Yale University

That was my doctoral advisor’s approach as well. One look at the titles of his famous monographs was all it took to communicate that cleverness and (usually) subtitling would be frowned upon.

So when the moment came to name this blog, I toyed with “Chris Gehrz’ Blog” before initially settling on something with a bit more cheek but the same level of wit: “The (re)Education of Chris Gehrz,” in homage to two studies of education by historians — one justly famous, the other justly obscure.

That lasted about a day. In the end, I’m glad I found inspiration in an essay by Zenos Hawkinson, a longtime history professor at North Park College and brother of my good friend, Rev. Jim Hawkinson, who died last month at age 80.

Karl Olsson
Karl Olsson - Covenant Archives

Zenos’ “The Pietist Schoolman” appeared in Amicus Dei, a Festschrift honoring Covenant historian and former North Park president Karl A. Olsson, who figures prominently in my research on Pietist models of Christian higher education. (You can see his forest-clearing tome on Covenant history, By One Spirit, underneath my left ear in my About Me picture.) Hawkinson put Olsson and his mentor, NP founder David Nyvall, in a line of Pietist educators stretching back to August Hermann Francke, the German Pietist leader who played such a pivotal role in the early development of the University of Halle.

David Nyvall
David Nyvall continuing this post's visual theme of smart guys propping up their big heads on their right hands - Covenant Archives

Here’s what Hawkinson found characteristic of Francke and his successors:

…the Pietist schoolman as a type necessarily reflected the character of Pietism as a Christian movement. The Pietist schoolman was usually a university graduate profoundly discontent with the state of the church and determined to see it reformed. He was mainline in theological conviction but hungry and thirsty for living faith experienced in the company of others. He tended to place less emphasis on creed than on Bible, less on erudition than on pastoral care, less on the authority than on the responsibility of the pastoral office. The Pietist schoolman was urgent about his responsibility to the children of common people. Francke loved to say that his duty was twofold: God’s glory and neighbor’s good.

If anyone tells you Pietists are incapable of radicalism, show them this quotation and point out that a history professor is describing other professors in terms not the slightest bit academic! Ecclesial renewal, physical-spiritual desire, religious experience, Christian fellowship, biblical authority, pastoral (!) care (over erudition) and responsibility, anti-elitism, God’s glory, neighbor’s good…

This certainly isn’t how most members of the secular, post-Enlightenment academy understand their calling. And while many non-pietistic Christian “schoolmen” hope to instigate reform, help students from all backgrounds, and seek God’s glory and neighbor’s good, they might reasonably hesitate to rank experience over doctrine, or the cultivation of the intellect under the “cure of souls.”

But working out what the desires and emphases of this “Pietist schoolman” have meant and might yet mean within the realm of Christian higher education frames my research and leads to questions that deserve discussion — within colleges and universities like Bethel, North Park, and others in the Pietist tradition, but also more broadly, across the Christian academy:

  • How might the Christian college serve to renew the Church?
  • What if a Christian learning community cohered less around a bounded set of doctrines and more around the shared experience of conversion to Christ (what Olsson called “convertive piety”)?
  • What are the pastoral responsibilities of a professor at a Christian college?
  • How can teaching European history (or inorganic chemistry or media communication or cultural anthropology or…) glorify God and do my neighbor good?

I’m only a few years into the project (and the profession) and not entirely sure how to answer any of those questions, but Francke, Nyvall, Olsson, the Hawkinsons, and many other Pietist schoolmen and women convince me that my particular Christian tradition has some unique answers to offer.

5 thoughts on “What’s a Pietist Schoolman?

  1. Interesting discussion on all counts (the nature of titling, the importance of pietism in academic study, etc.) As a recent graduate of Bethel University, I’d be fascinated to know what responsibilities as graduate of a pietist institution has with regards the community around him, much in the same way that you are interested in finding out (or illustrating) the responsibilities of a professor at a Christian college, like Bethel. I look forward to much more information, humor and insight from this blog.

    1. Great question, Eric! I’ll be curious to see how you, as you move from student to alumnus, distinguish your undergraduate experience/preparation as a Bethel graduate from those of your co-workers, fellow church members, neighbors, etc. who went to different schools (or none at all). And to see if you feel that the influence of Pietism helps make sense of those differences.

  2. You’ll be happy to know that I stumbled upon a massive tome here at the Archiv in Stuttgart on theological educational reform that traces the efforts from Luther, through Spener-Francke-and into Bengel and the Wurttemberg tradition. All of these figures placed the emphasis on the kinds of themes you are highlighting. I’ll get the reference for you later this week.

    Also, just today I came across a collection of essays by Hartmut Lehmann in which he notes that in the early part of the 20th century German scholarship began to take more seriously the educational reform work of Pietists, showing that they could no longer be thought of as simply reactionary or lacking in progressive educational contribution, which is how Ritschl and others had framed them. I think, of course, there is a double edged sword here.

    As Strom notes in his piece in our forthcoming volume, however, Pietist conceptions of ministry tended to ironically(?) elevate the pastoral office not necessarily because of the education of the minister (which was still essential), but because of the piety of the one who occupied it. Problematic I think, but certainly highlights the way in which reform of mind and heart was significant in Pietist conceptions of authority and therefore education. I wonder if conceptions of education and authority/assimilation/acculturation will not need to be explored, because another element that Lehmann highlights is how one of the key elements that linked pietists was a refusal to accept the pretensions of absolutist rule–as we all know, universities invariably serve the “powers.” Perhaps Bethel ought to be striving to make people “no earthly good”? “World changers” has a certain kind of colonial ring to it if not given the appropriate interpretation. Just my thoughts after a long day “at the office.”

    Keep writing!

    1. One reason I’m increasingly intrigued by the relationship between Anabaptists and Pietists, Christian. (And by your Radicals.) Thanks for taking the time to write the comment, and to take note of the books you mentioned. Tschuß!

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