The Pietist Impulse: Scandinavians

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity coverWe’ve rounded the bend and are more than halfway home in our preview of The Pietist Impulse in Christianity. Today: part five examines four manifestations of the Pietist impulse among Swedish and Norwegian Christians (both in the Old World and New).

For many, this would seem an obscure chapter in the history of Pietism. But it was a major theme in our original research conference, reflecting the fact that Bethel University (and many of its faculty, myself included) descends from Swedish Pietism, and we drew a number of presenters and attendees from denominations with similar roots. Indeed, one of my regrets about this book is that it couldn’t reproduce the Saturday morning roundtable discussion of Pietism in the historiography of four such churches: the former Augustana Lutheran Church (represented by Maria Erling and Mark Granquist), the Baptist General Conference (Truett Lawson and Virgil Olson), the Evangelical Free Church (David Gustafson and Greg Strand), and my own Evangelical Covenant Church (Phil Anderson and Kurt Peterson of North Park University, who were nice enough to convene that session). Another small denomination with Scandinavian Pietist roots, the Association of Free Lutheran Churches, sent several delegates as well.

Licensed by Creative Commons (Adam_d)

So I’m glad that we are able to include four papers on Scandinavian Pietism from that conference, if only to introduce its rich history to those who have never been to one of these staples of the winter social calendar in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other bastions of Midwestern-Scandihoovian, er, culture.

German Pietists from both Halle and Herrnhut came north to Denmark and thence to Sweden, Norway, and Finland throughout the early 18th century, though they ran into state churches not especially eager to see laypeople gathering in semi-independent small groups. (Such “conventicles” were banned in Sweden in 1726 and Norway-Denmark in 1741.) But Pietist revivals continued, such as the one led in Norway by Hans Nielsen Hauge from 1796 into the early 19th century and another in Sweden starting in the 1840s, first under the leadership of an English Wesleyan pastor named George Scott and then, after Scott’s banishment from the kingdom, under Carl Olof Rosenius, editor of the evangelical periodical known as Pietisten.

One of the more notable features of the Haugean revival in Norway was the role of women, who made up perhaps a third of the leaders and preachers selected by Hauge to continue the movement. (He was imprisoned for much of the period 1804-1814 for violating the country’s ban on lay leadership of religious gatherings.) One leading woman in the Haugean revival was Berte Kanutte Aarflot, a farmer’s wife known for her devotional writings and, especially, hymns. In one chapter in this section Lutheran writer Gracia Grindal introduces us to the theme of “bride mysticism” in the hymns of Aarflot and the much more famous Lina Sandell, the Rosenian Pietist who wrote “Day by Day,” “Children of the Heavenly Father,” and several hymns no longer sung in American churches that meditate on the image of Jesus as bridegroom and the church (or the individual believer herself… or himself?) as bride. For example, consider this rarely sung Sandell lyric from “My bridegroom so dear” (translated by Grindal):

O clothe your dear bride
In royalty’s clothes
Then you with your blood
Will feed her, my Savior so good.

Much of the imagery in these hymns comes from the ecstatic, even erotic language of Song of Songs. (On which I’ve yet to hear a Covenant pastor preach a sermon, by the way! If I’m reading my Revised Common Lectionary right, their next chance will be September 2, 2012.) While probably not the first book of Scripture that one associates with musty old German Pietists, that famous work of Hebrew literature was beloved by the proto-Pietist mystical writer Johann Arndt, the Halle Pietist hymnwriter Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen, and contributors to a popular Moravian hymnal, New Songs of Zion (1778).

P.P. Waldenström
P.P. Waldenström (1838-1917), as painted by Carl Larsson

If hymns about wedding dresses and yearning for (spiritual) consummation don’t tend to make your mind turn to Pietism, even less does politics in industrial Sweden, but Mark Safstrom (editor of a newsletter named after Pietisten) examines the influence of Pietism in the political thought of Paul Peter Waldenström. Far better known as the successor to Rosenius and the father of the Swedish Mission Covenant (and so, by extension, of the Covenant Church and Free Church in America), P. P. Waldenström was also a member of the Swedish parliament (Riksdag) for twenty years and active in state church politics for even longer. Never tied to any single party, Waldenström initially affiliated most often with the Liberals (like most Mission Covenanters of the time) before drifting into the Conservative camp as he grew more alarmed by the radicalism of Sweden’s growing socialist movement. (As his jumping off point, Safstrom discusses Waldenström’s reaction to the 1908 bombing — by anarchists, not socialists — that killed one strikebreaking worker and injured 23 others living on a ship in Malmö harbor.)

Safstrom finds the roots of Waldenström’s political agenda (which stressed pluralism, pragmatism, and incremental reform) in Swedish Pietist theology, particularly its tendencies to emphasize “unity in diversity” and to find theological tensions (e.g., “mysteries of grace, particularly the tension between religious legalism and lawlessness”) as fruitful, allowing “for spiritual growth and maturity.” In Safstrom’s reading, Sweden’s nascent socialist movement was chastened by criticism from moderates like Waldenström and ultimately rejected revolutionary tactics in favor of entering the democratic mainstream and ultimately becoming the dominant force in Swedish politics.

The remaining two chapters in this section follow Swedish Pietists as they crossed the Atlantic to the United States and Canada (1.25 million Swedes made this journey between 1850 and 1930, including all of my mother’s ancestors). First, E-Free pastor David Gustafson documents the interactions between Rosenian Pietists and the Anglo-American revival movement led by Dwight L. Moody.

D.L. Moody
Dwight L. Moody (1837-1899)

Headquartered in Chicago, which had the largest concentration of Scandinavian immigrants in the US, Moody’s ministry soon drew leading Rosenian immigrants (then known as “Mission Friends”), including J.G. Princell and Fredrik Franson. These Swedish Pietists started to become known as “Free” Mission Friends, owing to their distrust of denominations and confessions and preference for independent congregations. While Gustafson recognizes several points of convergence between Rosenian/Waldenströmian Pietism and Moodyite revivalism (e.g., emphases on the authority of Scripture, the need for conversion, lay evangelism, living faith over dead orthodoxy, non-sectarianism), he also notes that the Free leaders’ embrace of Moody’s premillennial eschatology (as much as their distrust of denominations) helped foster a split from the Mission Friends who founded the Covenant Church in 1885. (The Swedish Free Church merged with its Norwegian-Danish cousin in 1950 to form the present-day E-Free Church.) Concludes Gustafson, “Certainly, without Moody there would not have been the Free, but without Moody there would still have been a Mission Covenant in America, especially in the Rosenian Pietist tradition.”

Finally, historian Kurt Peterson and philosopher R.J. Snell present one “Pietist option in Christian higher education,” as laid out by the second generation Swedish-American Karl A. Olsson, one of the Covenant Church’s leading historians and the president of North Park College and Seminary from 1959-1970. (I’ve already written a bit about “K.O.” on this blog — feel free to pause and click the “About the Image” and “About the Title” links at the top of this page for some background.) Noting the virtual absence of Pietism from the wide-ranging scholarly conversation about Christian higher education (stop back here tomorrow for the start of a series on this theme), Peterson and Snell point to the influence of Pietism on Olsson’s educational philosophy. In particular, they stress his application of the perennial Pietist concern for personal conversion (over and above adherence to doctrine) to the project of higher education. Drawing on Snell’s studies of the Canadian Jesuit scholar Bernard Lonergan to help us understand the meaning of whole-person conversion, he and Peterson conclude:

The structure of conversion and the self-understanding of Pietism thus demands a model of Christian education concerned for the whole person in their active and communal aspects—no disengaged minds or souls here! As such, education is not to make minds, but persons….

They acknowledge that Pietism’s “personalization of the university” is both a strength of that “option” and a cause of confusion, “for its source of objectivity is authentic persons, and persons must be supple to engage in the great variety of tasks required of God’s people. Wise discernment, not checklists or theories.” Pushing back against any kind of one-size-fits-all approach to Christian higher education (“faith-learning integration,” anyone?) Peterson and Snell endorse Olsson’s expansive view of human freedom (a common theme in Covenant history going back at least to Waldenström), quoting him that “the center of learning is the student in the ultimate freedom and integrity of his own person, and in the final mystery of self-consciousness.”

Our next preview will keep us in North America, but its featured authors will look beyond Scandinavians to German and Swiss immigrants and finally to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African-American church to expand our understanding of the Pietist impulse in Christianity.

<<Read the previous entry in this series          Read the next entry in this series>>

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.