The Pietist Impulse: Americans (and a Canadian)

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity coverOur last post in this series previewing The Pietist Impulse in Christianity took us across the Atlantic Ocean, as we accompanied Scandinavian Pietists to their new homes in the New World and watched them set up new churches and colleges. Today, in part six of the series, we stay in North America, where (as Roger Olson has written) Pietism has long been the continent’s “grassroots form of religion” (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 491).

We’ll encounter four rather different Christians moved by the “Pietist impulse.” Two you’ve most likely never heard of before. (I hadn’t, at least.) One is less famous than his very well-known son. And one has a federal holiday named after him.

First, the two names you might not already known: George Rapp and Henriette Feller.

Rapp was the leader of the “Harmony Society,” a group of Radical Pietists who left the German region of Württemberg in 1804 and resettled in western Pennsylvania, where they founded the community of Harmony. (They went on to establish two more such settlements: New Harmony, Indiana, and Economy, PA.) In the first chapter in this sampler of North American Pietism, Alice Ott notes that the use of the term “harmony” reflects the desire of Rapp and his followers to create “a religious utopian commune in which community of goods and ‘oneness of heart and mind’ (Acts 4:32) were an everyday experience.”

Rapp House - Old Economy Village, PA
The Rapp House in Old Economy Village, PA - Creative Commons (Lee Paxton)

But Ott’s focus is on another kind of harmony: that created by the Rappites as they demonstrated once again that “Pietism was a ‘song and sing movement'” (to quote Christian Bunners’ phrase). Singing hymns —and Pietists wrote 70,000 songs and poems, according to the research of Martin Geck—not only underscored the Pietist emphasis on lay activity but “verified, reinforced, and personally deepened” faith.

In Ott’s analysis of Harmonist hymnody, two types of Pietist influence are apparent. Early on, Rapp and co. most frequently sang the hymns of Radical Pietists like Gerhard Tersteegen and Gottfried Arnold, whose texts emphasized Radical themes like the imminent millennium, universal salvation, mystical union, separation from the world (and fallen Lutheran church), and even “an androgynous pre-Fall Adam.” As late as their 1827 hymnal, nearly 20% of the selections were borrowed from the Radical Ephrata Cloister (which, like the two Scandinavian hymnwriters mentioned last time, was especially taken with themes of “bride mysticism”). At the same time that Radical theological themes persisted, the Harmonists began to develop more elaborate musical forms (including cantatas, starting in Easter 1824) and drew on the churchly Pietist structures (liturgy, liturgical calendar, hymnal organization) that they had rejected in their original quest to model worship on what was known of the primitive church’s practices.

If Rapp’s ideal communities might be known to those with a more than passing interest in U.S. history, Henriette Feller is obscure to all but students of a certain time and place in the history of Canada and/or Christian mission: rural Quebec in the mid-19th century. In his chapter on Mme. Feller, Glen Scorgie hesitates to call her a Pietist, but observes the strong influence of Moravian Pietism in the Swiss francophone awakening (“Le Réveil”) that shaped her, as well as its “pietistic” thirst for heartfelt and spiritual religion. After a false start in Montreal in 1835, Feller’s mission to Canada moved thirty miles south to the rural community of Grande Ligne, where she helped establish the first French-speaking Protestant church in Canada in 1837. By the time of her death in 1868, her mission employed seven ordained ministers and had founded nine churches, six stations, and several schools.

After this introduction, Scorgie sets out to consider a basic question: What motivated a Swiss Protestant widow (and stepmother to three adolescents) to dedicate her life to missionary work an ocean away from her home? “…and did her pietistic spirituality inform this in any way?” Reading Feller’s letters and other writings, Scorgie is struck by several pietistic themes: “Bible-centeredness,” a “holistic appropriation of truth,” emphases on the affective and the relational, suspicion of ecclesial authorities, and, first and foremost, “her Christocentric mysticism, her sense of special intimacy with Christ when she is living in accord with his heartbeat for the world.” In turn, her deeply felt experience of being loved and loving back led her to “submission, faith, and zeal,” a “simple triad” that “encapsulated the essence of her own heart-felt, but outward-looking piety.” Indeed, Scorgie comes to term Feller’s a “missional piety,” since the intensity of her feeling (and of her co-workers) “was not exhausted in the private sphere, but was also applied, with zeal, to worthy causes and campaigns.”

August Rauschenbusch
August Rauschenbusch (1816-1899)

“Missional piety” might also describe the third European immigrant to North America featured in this section of our book: August Rauschenbusch, probably best known as the father of Walter but also a leading figure in the origins of what’s now known as the North American Baptist Conference. Described by Cindy Wesley at the beginning of her chapter as a “fifth-generation Pietist Lutheran pastor” from Westphalia, the elder Rauschenbusch embraced rationalism as a university student but, after a long spiritual struggle (a pattern known among German Pietists as the Busskampf, “struggle for repentance”), had a conversion experience in 1836. He entered the pastorate and soon found himself at odds with local political and church authorities over his support for conventicles and his preaching emphases on repentance and conversion. Recalled his son Walter, “Some were passionately attached to him, but others came near mobbing and stoning him.”

He became a missionary and arrived in North America in 1846, where he helped to distribute Bibles and tracts among German-speakers, then edited the monthly periodical (Der Botschafter) and other German-language materials published by the American Tract Society (including books by Arndt, Spener, and Francke). Concludes Wesley, “Through the selection, writing, and publication of these tracts, August Rauschenbusch communicated the main concepts of Pietism throughout the whole Protestant mission to German speakers in North America, without regard to denominational boundaries.” Both a Pietist and a Baptist (having come to embrace believers’ baptism and the regenerate church as biblical tenets), he became the head of the Rochester Theological Seminary’s German Department (now Sioux Falls Seminary), where he spent over thirty years as “the teacher of the [General] Conference [of German Baptists].”

His son Walter, of course, became America’s greatest proponent of the “Social Gospel.” The books of the younger Rauschenbusch were later devoured by a young African-American seminarian named Martin Luther King, Jr., whose vision of a “beloved community” becomes the unlikely point of entry for one more assessment of the Pietist impulse in North America, by Peter Goodwin Heltzel.

MLK, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) - U.S. National Archives

Quoting from the famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Heltzel contends that King’s appeal to “the inner church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world,” by invoking the Pietist ecclesiological notion of the ecclesiolae in ecclesia, “demonstrates both his own Pietist roots and the black Christian transformation of Pietism, opening a new horizon for understanding prophetic religion in the United States.” Heltzel begins his argument with an introduction to the 18th century Moravian mission to Caribbean islands like St. Thomas (where Zinzendorf himself traveled in 1739, where he arranged the release of an Afro-Caribbean Christian named Rebecca Protten—though at the cost of preaching a sermon on behalf of the island’s Danish governor that condoned slavery) and then the American South. Writes Heltzel:

Through its dynamic encounter with communities of African descent in the Caribbean and the Southern interior, evangelical Pietism helped fuel a new horizon for prophetic Christianity in the Americas that has yet to be adequately appreciated. Black Christians redirected the moral energies of evangelical Pietism toward the social struggle for beloved community.

King inherited this “redirection.” Heltzel points out that King appealed to ecclesiolae in ecclesia even during his theological studies at Boston University, when he wrote a paper quoting Luther’s distinction between a “spiritual, inner Christendom” and the “bodily, external Christendom.” A similar distinction echoed in the ecclesiology of German Pietists, whose “colleges of piety” provided “concrete examples of Christians who lived in intentional community to hold each other accountable to the high ideals of Christian life.” Notably, Heltzel stresses that the German Pietists “sought to intensify the ethical and spiritual dimensions of the Christian life” and founded “many institutions of social outreach.” (I’d add here that Heltzel, like Scorgie and Wesley above, implicitly rejects Robert Friedmann’s characterization of Pietism as a “quiet-conventicle Christianity” virtually unconcerned with the world.)

The Pietists’ “notion of communities of transformation took on a new form in the prophetic black Christian religion of the ‘New World.'” Just as Zinzendorf had taken Spener’s vision of an inner church and made it more ecumenical and mission-minded,

King and the black church tradition brought out another dimension of the transformative potential of these groups… Unlike Count Zinzendorf, who preached a pro-slavery sermon… King realized the transformative potential of evangelical Pietism by articulating a vision of reconciliation and the care for one’s neighbor that would overthrow legalized prejudice.

Having already hinted at the relationship between Pietism and Christian missions in the chapters from Scorgie, Wesley, and Heltzel, we’ll study that topic in greater depth in our next post.

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