The Pietist Impulse: Missions

The Pietist Impulse in Christianity coverSix previews of The Pietist Impulse in Christianity down, two to go… Today we have Dick Pierard, Christoffer Grundmann, and Victor Ezigbo examining the “Pietist impulse” in the history of Christian missions — together providing yet another response to the commonly-held stereotype that Pietists are “too heavenly-minded to be earthly good.” As their narratives overlap with each other (and connect back to earlier chapters in the book), I’ll break from my usual pattern of going author by author and instead emphasize connections…

We touched on the relationship between Pietism and missions in the previous installment, which mentioned Pietist missionaries to French-speaking Quebec (Henriette Feller), the German-speaking immigrant population in America (August Rauschenbusch), and the Afro-Caribbean world (Moravians). Here renowned historian Dick Pierard kicks us off with an overview of three distinct strands of Pietist missionary work, in his attempt to correct the popular (if no longer scholarly) misperception that Protestant missions work began with William Carey and later British efforts in Asia and Africa.

Ziegenbalg Monument
Ziegenbalg Monument in Tranquebar - Wikimedia

First, Pierard points out that Pietists played leading roles in the first Protestant mission of the 18th century, the “Danish-Halle” mission in southeastern India. Bartholomäus Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau had both studied at Francke’s University of Halle and were recommended by Halle theologian Joachim Lange (previously profiled by Tim Salo in this volume) in response to a request for missionaries from the Danish king Frederik IV. Though opposed by the Orthodox leaders of Denmark’s state church (“believing that the Great Commission had been carried out during the Apostolic age”), Ziegenbalg and Plütschau were ordained at the king’s insistence and arrived in Tranquebar, India in 1706. All told, fifty-six missionaries went to India from Halle during the 18th century, following a clear pattern set by the first two: emphasis on education so as to promote Bible reading (in native tongues – e.g., Ziegenbalg and Plütschau learned Tamil); attentiveness to indigenous culture and religion; training of native clergy to lead local congregations; and “Being Pietists, the early missionaries insisted on personal conversions rather than reaching large groups through the elites.” Aiding this effort was Francke’s ambassador in England, Anton Wilhelm Böhme (also introduced, by Peter James Yoder, in the “Germans” post earlier in this series), who cultivated a connection between the Danish-Halle mission and the Anglican Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and translated and published Ziegenbalg’s letters.

For our second author, Christoffer Grundmann, one of the most noteworthy features of the Halle Pietist mission in India was its emphasis on providing medicine to the people of Tranquebar. Against the stereotype of Pietists as overly spiritual, Grundmann emphasizes the “corporeality” of their understanding of salvation, with the medical missions in India building on the foundation of the pharmacy set up in 1698 at Francke’s orphanage in Halle. He adds that this concern for medicine dovetailed with the growing influence of the Scientific Revolution on Halle: “Thus, classical Pietism was not as outer-worldly as oftentimes assumed; rather, it had a serious interest in studying God’s creation….” Grundmann continues his analysis of the relationship between the history of medical missions and the Pietist impulse by profiling two 19th century physicians who came under the influence of pietistic revivals and dedicated themselves to missionary work: American Peter Parker (in China) and the Polish-born George Dowkonnt, sent to the United States by the Liverpool Medical Mission.

Back to Pierard’s overview and the second strand of Pietist missions… We’ve already encountered the missionary work of Nicolaus von Zinzendorf and the Moravian Pietists of Herrnhut, best known for taking the Gospel to the New World, though they also sent missionaries to India (encountered by Carey) and Africa. Pierard describes some basic differences between Halle and Herrnhut missions. The former featured trained clergy (increasingly with an “affinity for Enlightenment rationalism”) with a deep concern for education and preaching; they tended to live apart from the indigenous population; and they understood conversion as a long process involving systematic religious instruction. The latter group of missionaries tended to be laypeople (often artisans) who lived and worked side-by-side with the native population and sought conviction, repentance, and conversion via an emotional encounter with Christ. One key similarity: “intense interest in the languages and cultures of the people groups among which they labored.”

Finally, Pierard touches on the Pietist movement that began under Johann Albrecht Bengel in 18th century Württemberg, a key example of the German “Awakening” that paralleled the evangelical revival in the English-speaking world. The “neo-pietists” of Württemberg eventually set up mission societies as well, most famously, in 1815, the Basel Mission in Switzerland. Among other places, Basel Pietists were sent to present-day Ghana, then known as the “Gold Coast” (later British-controlled but then still home to Danish and Dutch colonies that had been key stations in the slave trade).

Christiansborg Castle
Christiansborg Castle, the center of the Danish slave trade and colonial rule on the Gold Coast - Wikimedia

Here our colleague Victor Ezigbo picks up the story and takes it in a fascinating direction. Noting that the most famous of these Basel missionaries in Ghana, Andreas Riis, moved inland and sought to become an “African for the Africans in order to win them to Christ,” Ezigbo asks why this particular Protestant mission was so successful among this particular people-group. He proposes that Riis encountered a population of “anonymous pietists,” Africans who possessed social and religious characteristics similar to those of the Pietists from Württemberg. Ezigbo summarizes several features of the shared “pietistic consciousness” that bridged two seemingly disparate groups:

…a lifestyle that is centered around a community-oriented mindset, an openness to non-Christian religions, a quest for divine knowledge, a quest for piety that revolves around devotion and the prohibition of social activities and religious taboos, and a quest for the transmission of knowledge for the purpose of maintaining spiritual fervor and improving the quality of life of the members of the community.

As one example, the Württemberg Pietists were less likely than other Protestant missionaries of the time to “dismiss and condemn all of the religious ethos and customs of the indigenous people of Ghana on the grounds of incivility and superstition,” in part because “German Pietism was more suspicious than, say, English Puritanism, of the emerging scientific revolution.” Riis’ willingness to go to local healers to treat tropical diseases is an example for Ezigbo of how “the Pietists’ attitude towards science allowed them to accept the traditions of Africa that ordinarily did not pass Westerners’ tests of civility and superstition.”

This assessment, of course, seems to be at odds with the other two authors in this part of the book, since Pierard stressed the growing rationalism of (Halle) Pietism and Grundmann noted great (Halle) Pietist interest in science. On the one hand, this simply points out that, even when confined to its mother country of Germany, Pietism was no monolith: Herrnhut and Württemberg broke with Halle on several questions. But it also leaves us, as we near the end of this preview, still wrestling with our original question: just what is the Pietist impulse if those who respond to it can disagree over something as fundamental (in the modern age) as the authority of science, or if it can even have commonality with non- or pre-Christian religiosity??

I fear that our last preview will only muddy the waters further, as it features a Roman Catholic perspective on Pietist spirituality. But Emilie Griffin’s “benediction” will also point to the possibility that the Pietist impulse can encourage coherence, as the basis for Christian unity.

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