A Young J.H. Yoder on German Pietism

It’s often been said that the greatest compliment a teacher can receive is for a student to disagree well with him. Take, for example, this 1947 paper written for a Church History course at Goshen College.

Wait – did I mention that the student was a nineteen year old John Howard Yoder? Or that his professor was the neo-Anabaptist scholar Robert Friedmann, whose influential critique of Pietism Yoder found only “partly true”?

(If you’re not familiar with the “Friedmann Thesis,” decrying Pietist influence on Mennonitism, it should become clear from the material quoted below, but you might want to read this first.)

Yoder in Amsterdam in 1952 with the "Concern" circle
Yoder (second from right) five years after his paper on German Pietism, meeting with the “Concern” circle in Amsterdam – Mennonite Church USA Archives

I’m no expert on the life and thought of the influential, controversial Mennonite theologian, but I knew enough to be intrigued by the announcement earlier this month of a John Howard Yoder Digital Library featuring some 250 unpublished and popular works.

And if it weren’t intriguing enough for someone who studies that subject that the young Yoder wrote a term paper on German Pietism, there’s the fact that the instructor was Friedmann, whose antipathy to Pietism I wrote about very early in the life of this blog. And the digitized version of this paper includes handwritten comments by Friedmann, whose “Thesis” failed to persuade his student, as Yoder made clear on page 1:

This is not the type of paper I like best to write. There is essentially no material available in English here, except in encyclopedias. [Keep in mind that this is nearly a generation before scholars like Ernest Stoeffler and Dale Brown began to make Pietism studies accessible to English-speakers.] All of the material is agreed upon with the exception of Friedmann’s objection that the Pietists undervalued ethics. This does not seem, on the basis of what I can find on the subject, to be true of the original movement.

Robert Friedmann
Robert Friedmann – Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online

I’ll skip past the “agreed upon” history and move straight to Yoder’s evaluation of German Pietism, particularly the dimensions of that movement that Friedmann found lacking:

(At the time, Friedmann’s book on Mennonite Piety through the Centuries was still two years away, but Yoder could have read his professor’s 1940 article on “Anabaptism and Pietism,” published in two parts in the Mennonite Quarterly Review. It’s also worth noting that Yoder’s mentor was Harold Bender, whose own view of Pietism did not differ greatly from Friedmann’s.)

Yoder found only “partly true” the most critical element of the Friedmann Thesis, the claim

that Pietistic ethics were completely subordinated to emotional experience and the Pietists had no intention of changing the world. Of course it is true that the Pietists had no sense of “the cross” as the cost of living a Christian life, and they were satisfied to work within the framework of existing society, but in view of their contribution in evangelization and charities, it seems unfair to say that they had little intention of helping the world.

Like many before him and after, the young Yoder found Pietism tricky to define adequately:

The term Pietism [Friedmann] applies to all conventicular religious groups with experience as an aim, whereas it is usually more specifically used for the organized activity of Spener and his followers. [“that is too narrow,” wrote Friedmann in the margins] When he considers the “enlightenment” a part of Pietism [“no”], and goes as far a [sic] Schwenkfeld on the other extreme, hardly any statement could be true of the whole range. Granted, there were small groups of emotional quietists meeting all over Protestant Europe, but that alone does not give reason for denying that Pietism at its best felt any responsibility to change the world.

Yoder was more disturbed that “It never occurred to Spener and his followers that society in itself was wrong, or that a Christian might ever be obliged to break openly with the world around him, even to the point of incurring suffering.” But he still thought Friedmann overreached, in blaming Pietist emphasis for weakening Mennonite resolve:

It cannot be denied that some weak people always have been willing to let convenience determine religion, but it seems to me that the greatest factor operative in all this relationship was the institutional mind.

…The institutional view of life is part of what forces religion to confine itself within the realms of personal experience and preaching the Gospel that is no bigger than the individual’s crisis experience. [“good!”, scrawled Friedmann] Why should we fix society? That’s the government’s job. All we do is save people.

Such an attitude is inescapable in any traditional church system, where membership is automatic or determined by social pressure. The church is no longer the voluntary fellowship it should be, but still living religion demands such a fellowship, and ecclesiolae result. They satisfy the personal need, but everything else is taken care of by the institutions of the larger society.

I’ll leave it to someone who really knows the later Yoder well to evaluate his ensuing analysis of institutional Christianity. (“Being a young idealist,” he began one sentence — “You should say an earnest Christian,” Friedmann suggested.) But let me close by returning to Yoder’s assessment of German Pietism, which he thought had “degenerated” into “distortions of the real thing” but still, at its origin, represented no small achievement:

J.H. Yoder ca. 1962
Yoder ca. 1962 — Mennonite Church USA Archives

In spite of the failure to aim high enough, a real contribution was made in the field of ethics and extension of the Kingdom. Pietism led the world into a realization of the church’s missionary obligation, and offered substantial leadership also in popular education and philanthropy.

Obviously the most characteristic strong point was their recognition of the place of feeling in religion, and we should not let the excesses of their successors blind us to the fact that in their time it was a sorely needed corrective. This had application in deepened prayer life, in opposition to liturgy, and in returning Christianity and the relations within it to a personal basis. The ministry was improved by the insistence that spiritual leaders must know whereof they speak.

“All this within an institutionalized Christianity,” huffed an unimpressed Friedmann, “It is exactly here where the diff. to Anab. becomes apparent: feeling is not spirituality.” His closing comment to Yoder pulls no punches:

That is all very nice but study the genuine Anabaptist writings and you recognize the intrinsic difference between a concrete Christian faith (the “Anab. Vision”), and the rather effeminated sweetness of Pietistic emotionalism (plus its ethics).

Did such comments persuade Yoder? In a recent book on Yoder’s sociological theology, Jamie Pitts describes him as having an “antipathy toward pietism” (and attributes it to Friedmann’s influence).

Readers better informed than me: Does the young Yoder’s response to the Friedmann Thesis surprise you? Is his critique of the “individualism of the Pietist heritage” confined to Politics of Jesus, or a running theme?


One thought on “A Young J.H. Yoder on German Pietism

  1. This is not entirely surprising, given a number of considerations about Yoder: (a) he had a penchant for criticizing his mentors (see his correspondence with Bender and his essay [now book] on Barth), (b) he had a way of colonizing other perspectives to reinforce his own (see, e.g., his book on the just war tradition, When War Is Unjust), and (c) he was heavily involved in missions (see, e.g., his recently published lectures, Theology of Mission), and (d) his though evolved significantly over the course of his career in ways that are often under-appreciated (see, however, Paul Martens’s book, The Heterodox Yoder, for more on the evolution of his thought).

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