“What’s another word for Pietist?”

Is “Pietist” (or “pietistic”) a useful term in the 21st century? Why or why not? What synonym works best as an alternative?

Pietist at Heart
From the Covenant Companion, July 2010

All these questions came to mind late last week. A colleague rushing off to class stopped short at my office, stuck his head inside the door, and asked, “What’s another word for Pietist?”

It’s a term heard frequently where I work — Bethel University being perhaps the only institution of higher learning in this country where Pietism and “pietistic” are regularly used by its president, administrators, and faculty to describe not just the history of the school, but its current mission and identity. (It’s also heard often in my denomination — not the one that sponsors Bethel — whose president calls Covenanters “missional pietists.”) And Pietism shows up early in the textbook for the introductory, one-credit course that serves as Bethel 101 for new students.

It was in anticipation of teaching those students that my colleague was asking me to play religious thesaurus and supply synonyms for pietistic. (He also asked for an alternative to “irenic,” as in the “irenic spirit” often said — by some of us, at least — to distinguish Bethel from other, more combative Baptist and evangelical schools… “Peaceable,” I suggested, cribbing from my colleague Christian Collins Winn’s chapel address earlier in the week.) He rightly worried that 18-year olds raised mostly in non-denominational churches with little church history background would have no idea what a Pietist was, let alone why it was in any way relevant to their lives and education today.

It’s a question I wonder about in other contexts. For example, as I’ve started to put out feelers for publishing interest in a project stemming from my research, I’ve wondered if casting it as a book about a Pietist vision of Christian higher education is a no-starter simply because, even within the well-educated academic audience I’d principally target, most people either (a) don’t know what “Pietist” means, or (b) understand it as a pejorative (e.g., as being bound up with “anti-intellectualism” — a problem for an author trying to sell a book on education). Should I bail on “Pietist” and try to pick a more generic term, one that would still echo at least one theme distinctive of Pietism but appeal to a broader audience and not carry whatever baggage goes with Pietism?

Back to my colleague rushing off to a class in search of a synonym… “How about warm-hearted?” was the first suggestion that popped out of my mouth. As in Wesley’s conversion, or the “burning heart” language of the Emmaus Road story… It speaks to the Pietist desire for emotional, not merely intellectual, conversion. (Orthopathy, not just orthodoxy.)

Next, I thought of the Pietist desire to go deeper than the externals of creed and ritual, to achieve true conversion and regeneration of the individual and practical reform of the church for the good of the world — “Authentic, maybe?”

Then, I’ve got a couple of wise colleagues who would suggest “experiential Christianity,” underscoring that Pietism is more about right practice (orthopraxis or orthopraxy) than right belief (orthodoxy) and seeking common ground with Christian movements like the Anabaptists, Friends, and those of the social justice, holiness, incarnational, and monastic traditions.

At the same time, my preference is not to give up “Pietist” and “pietistic,” if only because there are others who are more than happy to appropriate those terms for strange purposes (e.g., describing Richard Nixon), uprooting them from a historical tradition that I find mostly admirable, and still distinctive and relevant today.

So I’m very curious what readers of this blog think! Please flood this particular post with responses to one or more of the following questions:

Is “Pietist” (or “pietistic”) a useful term in the 21st century? Why or why not? Would you advise those articulating something like a “Pietist vision” for the church, or church-related colleges, or other Christian institutions to find a different term? What synonym works best as an alternative?


7 thoughts on ““What’s another word for Pietist?”

  1. OK, well not very academic, but here are my thoughts. Chris, Mark’s recent sermons some to mind… (an extreme paraphrase, if you are reading this, please forgive me Mark) the idea that it is not enough to say or prescribe what God wants for us, but instead ask God to transform me within so that I might SHOW God’s love.

    As I sit here I think of piety as: being such that God’s kingdom SHOWs… the love an compassion along with the rules and the lessons… in contrast with just telling people about God’s message. But it is not about salvation thru works; it is about asking God to move us… move ME, really.

    “A spontaneous application of the Gospel in one’s life.” ??

    I searched for definitions too, and I can appreciate your problem; it seems to define 1 or 2 word description.

      1. I have often used “transformational Christianity” because I think it gets at both the internal-experiential dimension of pietism, but also the external-historical-cosmic dimension that so many Pietists were concerned with.

  2. Given the general reputation of Christians in our culture, perhaps it’s just as well to start with “not a complete [insert anatomical/scatological crudity of your choice]” and work from there?

  3. At Bethlehem Covenant Church we use “heartfelt devotion.” I’m also partial to historic nickname for Swedish Pietists: “Mission Friends.” “Authentic” sounds too trendy. Perhaps “sincere” as an alternative? I like “warm-hearted.”

  4. I hate to drag in philosophy, but pietist might describe a person of faith who seeks to reconcile the mind-body-spirit split (thank you, Enlightenment). Our materialist culture values empirical knowledge over any other kind, almost to the point of denying that there IS any other kind, and my limited understanding of the tradition of pietism is that it is a tradition of integration — faith and life, mind/soul/body, intellect and practice. I’d love to know if I’m even close, Chris.

    1. That certainly resonates with how Pietism is utilized here at Bethel, Janet. “Whole and holy persons” is the cliche you hear all the time… And I think that’s well within the Pietist tradition — though it also has poles of Pietists who are deeply anti-intellectual (fideistic even) and those who go to the University of Halle in the 18th century and come out confirmed rationalists. Shameless plug: several chapters in our Pietist Impulse book deal with the interaction between Pietism and the Enlightenment and its aftershocks.

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