Pietism Colloquium Recap: Roundtable on Pietism’s “Usable Past”

Last Friday Bethel hosted its inaugural Colloquium on Pietism Studies. I’ve earlier posted summaries of Scot McKnight’s keynote address (on Anabaptism, Pietism, and evangelicalism) and Jon Sensbach’s post-lunch talk (on Afro-Moravian Christianity in the mid-18th century). This afternoon: a few highlights from the roundtable discussion that I moderated.

Cover for The Pietist Impulse in ChristianityIn 2009, we hosted a research conference on “The Pietist Impulse in Christianity.” Going into that event we knew that we wanted to put out a book featuring the finest talks from the conference (published last year with the same title as the conference). As my colleague Christian Collins Winn mentioned in his opening remarks, however, we didn’t expect that so many participants would close their post-conference surveys with the request that we organize similar events every two to three years.

So it was an unexpected pleasure (and thanks again to Deb Harless, Barrett Fisher, and our Office of Academic Affairs for their generous support of this colloquium!) to be able to convene another gathering of scholars, pastors, and others to continue the conversation about “the Pietist impulse.”

One of the chief benefits of last Friday’s event, from my perspective, was that it gave us the chance to reprise a session that had been well-received in 2009 but proved impossible to reproduce in our 2011 book: a roundtable discussion of Pietism in the historiography of four American denominations rooted in Scandinavian-American immigration (the Augustana Lutheran synod, the Baptist General Conference/BGC, the Evangelical Covenant Church/ECC, and the Evangelical Free Church). So for our last session of the 2012 colloquium we brought together (different) representatives of the BGC and ECC, plus three more to speak for the Brethren in Christ and two Lutheran groups (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America/ELCA and the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations/AFLC) and asked them to share observations in response to two questions:

  1. What role has Pietism played in the development of your denomination?
  2. Does Pietism provide contemporary churches with a “usable past”?

(On the idea of a “usable past,” see the introduction to my series on how that theme has played out in the historiography of Christian colleges and universities founded by these and other denominations with Pietist roots.)

Let me simply summarize a few thoughts from each panelist. As one of them wrote earlier on his own blog, despite theological differences, all five

described similar challenges today: a declining emphasis on the Holy Spirit and “heart religion” at a time when many young people are raising questions about such religious phenomena; a watered-down theology of conversion as a result of popular evangelical revivalism [this resonating strongly with Scot McKnight’s keynote]; and a failure to “train up” the next generation of church leaders through the re-telling of our denominational (hi)stories.

In order of their comments:

Gracia Grindal – Professor of Rhetoric, Luther Seminary: While she teaches at the ELCA’s largest seminary, Gracia was quite critical of her denomination — at least, of its leadership — for having abandoned the Pietism that helped shape all of the American Lutheran strands that came together through the mergers of the 20th century. That influence was most strongly felt among Midwestern Lutherans like the Norwegian-American family in which she was raised, heirs to the Haugean revival of the early 19th century.

Grindal, Preaching from HomeAs an example of the shift away from Pietism (which she traced back to the 1960s), Gracia described how the current presiding bishop of the ELCA, Mark Hanson, had moved away from the Pietism of his preacher father and embraced a Christianity shaped primarily by an ethics of social justice and racial reconciliation. To Gracia, Hanson had swapped what he saw the legalistic piety of his father for a different kind of legalistic piety. Nevertheless, she discerned a thirst for “authentic, biblical, living Christianity” among younger adults.

Gracia, by the way, is the author of the recently-released Preaching from Home: The Stories of Seven Lutheran Women Hymn Writers, two of whom she discussed in her contribution to our Pietist Impulse book.

Fran Monseth – Dean, Association Free Lutheran Seminary: Similar themes could be heard from Fran, who, like Gracia, rooted himself and his church in the Haugean revival and in the old Free Lutheran Church. But while Gracia had remained within the ELCA, Fran has long served a denomination formed fifty years ago by Free Lutherans who declined to merge with the American Lutheran Church (which then merged with two other groups to become the ELCA in 1988). As much as any panelist, he found continuity between past and present emphases: “experienced conversion”; a “high view of Scripture” (leading to what he called “orthodox Pietism”); a non-legalistic “wholesome Christian Pietism” that embodied Martin Luther’s famous description (Fran quoted here from Preface to Romans) of the fruit that come from a “living, creative, active” faith; avoiding conflict where it would cause others to stumble… In summary, a pietistic Lutheranism that was “word-centered… Christ-centered… reaching out in love.”

Ryan Eikenbary-Barber – Senior Pastor, Bethlehem Covenant Church (Minneapolis, MN): After a brief recap of the history of the “Mission Friends” who originated in the Swedish Pietist revival of the 19th century and then, after thousands of them immigrated to North America, founded what’s now the Evangelical Covenant Church in 1885, Ryan contended that Pietism still shapes Covenant identity. He discussed four Covenant descriptors highlighted in the new members’ classes he teaches at Bethlethem, all of which — as denomination president Gary Walter told North Park professor Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom in her book on Pietist ethics — evoke Pietism: biblical (Ryan put Scripture above both tradition and theology), devotional (here Ryan tended to agree with Roger Olson that Pietist emphases on spiritual practices like Bible study, prayer, and even singing would resonate well with post-modern Christians), missional (encompassing everything from evangelism to ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice, Ryan made a “shared sense of mission” the organizing center of a denomination that no longer has a single ethnicity in common), and relational (fellowship transcending social strata, historically and still today).

Panelists for the roundtable discussion that concluded our Colloquium on Pietism Studies, 4/20/12
Four of our panelists (l. to r.): Devin Manzullo-Thomas, Gracia Grindal, Ryan Eikenbary-Barber, Fran Monseth

Devin Manzullo-Thomas – Assistant Editor, Brethren in Christ History and Life: I was thrilled that Devin was able to join us, since he added a different kind of Pietist story to the mix. At their origins in 18th century Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the Brethren in Christ (BIC) were (most likely) Mennonites who experienced a revival led by Radical Pietists emphasizing “new birth” and “new life” — but lived “in the context of a discipling community.” This unique blend of Pietism and Anabaptism has long been seen as a hallmark of the BIC, with the later addition of Wesleyan-Holiness ideas of sanctification and perfection (which accentuated the Pietist concern for conversion and the Anabaptist desire from separate from unregenerate society — though, unlike the Amish and some conservative Mennonites, the BIC embraced evangelism). But — and here Devin got into the themes of his master’s thesis — the 20th century influence of neo-evangelicalism tended to blunt the Pietist, Anabaptist, and Wesleyan distinctives.

Of our five panelists, Devin was most skeptical that others in his denomination would find the “usable past” in Pietism that he does. He cited a 2006 survey in which Brethren were asked to pick two words that described their religious beliefs: only 1.3% picked Pietist, while 36% picked Evangelical and 15% Anabaptist. (Others: 7.9% Fundamentalist, 3.7% Mainline Protestant, 3.6% Charismatic, 2.6% Pentecostal.) He attributed this in part to the narrative power of the “Anabaptist vision” and evangelical revival, and partly to the tendency of denominational historians to have Pietism be tempered by Anabaptism and assimilated by Evangelicalism.

G.W. Carlson – Professor of History and Political Science, Bethel University: Finally, the Baptist General Conference was represented by my colleague, G.W. Carlson — though he averred that Virgil Olson, the senior historian of the BGC, should have been there, but for failing health. In GW’s reading of the history, Pietist and Baptist distinctives (revivalism, Bible reading and other spiritual practices, holy living, religious liberty, a believer’s church) remained influential so long as BGC and Bethel leaders remained committed to telling their stories (Pietist revival in Sweden; F.O. Nilsson’s conversion and baptism; persecution by the state church; immigration; the founding of Bethel in 1871; commitment to social action like the Klingberg Children’s Home) — particularly in times of conflict, when the shared narrative helped to sustain an “irenic spirit.” While GW expressed disappointment that fewer and fewer churches in what is now known as “Converge Worldwide” even call themselves “Baptist,” let alone affirm the value of Pietism, he found the tradition still significant (referring to Glen Scorgie’s argument to that effect in the current issue of the newsletter GW edits) and did find hope in Converge’s continuing “missional focus… a little light of Pietism [that] is still there.”

But most of all, he trusted that something Virgil Olson had observed half a century ago would remain true: that revival would always come in reaction to “superficial Christianity.”

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