“An Honorable Word as a Dishonorable Handle”: Karl Olsson on Pietism

Karl Olsson
Karl Olsson (1913-1996) – Covenant Archives

The late Karl A. Olsson (whose 100th birthday we celebrated yesterday) had a lithograph in his home office with the following caption: “A Pietist disturbs the joy in a tavern.”

Given the importance Olsson attached to joy, it’s not surprising that he wrestled with the legacy of Pietism: disturbed by the ways in which its historic emphases on repentance and holy living degenerated into life-sapping legalism, but eager to claim it as a life-giving movement that had profoundly shaped Protestantism in general and his denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, in particular.

Olsson addressed this tension at several points in his writing and speaking career, including a 1962 column for The Lutheran Standard, the magazine of the American Lutheran Church, and a 1965 lecture at Moravian Theological Seminary.

In the 1962 column, Olsson was responding to a reviewer who had accused him of being a “moralist” and a “pietist”: (also, “very conservative” — click here for a postscript on this charge)

To be called a “pietist” today is also to be taken down a peg. A “pietist” in terms of contemporary semantics is a sissified moralist. A Roman Catholic may be called a moralist if he inveighs against bikinis, but the epithet “pietist” is reserved for joyless Baptists and Methodists who make an issue of cut plug and reading the Sunday paper. It should be obvious after three paragraphs that I am not pietistic in this sense; I do not believe that the Christian life is a matter of small glooms: an endless diet of prunes and mineral water.

Indeed, Olsson spilled much ink decrying the joyless legalism that is what most modern Protestants have in mind when they think of “pietism.” In his 1965 lecture at Moravian Seminary, Olsson began with a mention of the lithograph described above, confessing himself

very much afraid that among theologians the word “pietism” has the character of this fanatical kill-joy. A pietist is a person who deprives himself of the adiaphoric pleasures and begrudges their availability to others. He does not dance frivolously or become bibulous in bars.

Olsson, Come to the PartyHis own upbringing had, in this sense, been quite “pietistic,” as he hinted at in two early books (these themes would be more fully developed in 1972’s Come to the Party):

Among churches stressing conversion, the admission of the persistence of the sins may have been embarrassing. It was the tendency of the evangelicals to talk about spiritual sins, a rather strange category. The argument seems to have been that a convert could be malicious without forfeiting his conversion, but he could not be lustful. Among others the reborn Christian could be neither malicious nor lustful. He was already perfected. As a boy I came in contact with some of these people. They may have been perfected, but if they were, they weren’t very happy about it. Their piety had a sourish quality, as if they were trying to suppress the disquiet within. They would have been better off if they could have admitted to themselves that they often lusted for the seven cities in the plain. Which I am sure they did. (Seven Sins and Seven Virtues, p. 11)

I have personally known and hated the ugliness of their meeting houses, the mediocrity and dullness of their preaching, the tinkle of their music, the desperate legalism of their life. I have known and hated the dourness of their holy men: their self-righteousness and their unresolved and impotent rages. I have known and hated the mousiness of their holy women, the sour smoke of their smothered feelings, their frightened goodness, the pinched quality of their sympathies. I have known and hated these things, and I understand the hatred of it which burns in James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. (Passion, p. 53)

So was this the legacy of Pietism? In his 1965 lecture, Olsson came to a typically complex conclusion: Pietists had too strong a sense of grace to be joyless, but they were “shy” and “sober.” Because Pietism places stress on “personal time,” there is the related sense

that all things are new and are in some sense pregnant with sanctity. Hence the primary feeling is shyness, pudicity, modesty. God has been discovered to be holy. The bush burns with something other than demythologized gas. The pietist understands the shyness of the Prodigal Son. He also understand the sexual shyness of the Apostle Paul and the rest of the primitive church….

A cognate experience of the pietist is sobriety. Because the universe is now singularly meaningful, because it glows with a luminousness which can barely be tolerated, he must find a way to use it, appropriate to its character….

Shyness, sobriety, gratitude—these are the effects of the pietistic experience. They have no chronology, but they are signs more or less infallible. Gratitude and all the nuances of gladness which follow from it arises from the sense of a recovered universe but also from the experience of liberation from real guilt. (“Pietism and Its Relevance to the Modern World,” Moravian Theological Seminary Bulletin, Fall 1965, pp. 40-41)

All these virtues could be perverted into vices — shyness into “Victorianism,” sobriety into “meanness and stinginess,” and gratitude into “self-preoccupation” — but Olsson concluded that, among other commitments (to evangelism, mission, and community), “the pietist is by definition committed… to life with a specific character—a curious blending of freedom and discipline, austerity and joy—a life, in short, lived in the presence of Christ” (p. 44).

While such a follower of Christ was to the “editors of The Christian Century… an anachronistic Christian who, out of God knows what motives, keeps his Christianity to himself, is indifferent to social issues, and rhymes with ‘quietist'” (p. 32), Olsson believed Pietism could exert a positive influence beyond the life of any single person — in modern times as in its origins.

Back, then, to the 1962 column in The Lutheran Standard:

A little historical accuracy might nevertheless restore “pietism” to its original meaning, in which case I would be glad to be considered pietistic. I do not expect my reviewer to know that Pietism was originally a life movement within the Lutheran Church and that it involved a meaningful personalization of grace. It is much easier to use an honorable word as a dishonorable handle. If you can make Puritans up into merely blue-noses and Pietists into old ladies in stale bombazine, you have scored a point for “freedom.” And you have avoided the embarrassing fact that both movements flowed like quickening impulses through a weary Protestantism.

Olsson, By One SpiritTo Olsson, such an impulse also quickened Swedish Protestantism in the 19th century. In By One Spirit (1962), the official history of the Covenant Church, Olsson contrasts the dour, confessional pietism of Henrik Schartau (1757-1825) with the “evangelical” variety championed by Covenant forefather C.O. Rosenius and rooted, Olsson believed, in Zinzendorf’s Herrnhut as much as Francke’s Halle. While Schartau and other “legalists” emphasized the need for the sinner to “follow a tortuous path to salvation,” Rosenians “stressed free grace, the principles of sola fides (faith alone), and exhorted sinners to ‘come as you are'” (By One Spirit, p. 60).

A “meaningful personalization of grace” for the individual and new life for old movements … Such a pietism Olsson found highly relevant in the 20th century. In a 1966 letter to Harry Evans, the president of Trinity College, Olsson appealed to it as a heritage that the Evangelical Free churches shared with their Covenant cousins:

In an age which is flip about the values of pietism, perhaps it is still possible to demonstrate that the Christian life is capable of giving us both joy and enjoyment. It is the freedom and gladness of the best in the revival tradition which I would like to share with our young people.


Even more than “moralist” and “pietist,” “very conservative” is not a label most Covenant readers would apply to Karl A. Olsson. In the Fifties and Sixties, fundamentalist Covenanters complained that Olsson was too soft on neo-orthodoxy and unfriendly to neo-evangelicalism. Of course, as he pointed out in his response to that reviewer, context determines the meaning of the term. In the Covenant, Olsson charted a middle path. On the Lutheran spectrum, on the other hand…

In a 1966 column for the Standard, Olsson railed against the “cancer of pluralism” in mainline Protestant colleges:

The scandal of the historic Jesus and his crucifixion, which is the stubborn content of the Christian revelation, and an unyielding commitment to the Gospel are in many places sinking into a swamp of formlessness…. I’m grateful and proud to be a Protestant, but if this amiable nothingness be the Protestantism of tomorrow, I’d rather be a Jesuit.

By the way, on the first appearance of a column that appeared regularly from 1961 to 1970, the Standard‘s editor warned his audience that Olsson’s writing was “spicy.” Feel free to write your own joke about Lutheran palates.

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