5 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Pietists

Click-baity? Sure, but only half as click-baity as what Russell Moore did this week for the Southern Baptists… Here are five things I wish everyone knew about Pietists:

We still exist

If most people know anything about Pietism, they most likely think of a religious movement in the late 17th and early 18th century. But unlike other Christian traditions, Pietism didn’t tend to spin off separate churches or denominations, with the result that, centuries later, there simply aren’t many institutional expressions of Pietism to which people can adhere. (My own denomination perhaps excepted…)

Here’s where I find helpful Roger Olson’s distinction (borrowed from historian Mary Fulbrook) between Pietism as movement vs. Pietism as ethos: “The movement… is gone. To be sure, its influence is alive if not well. All movements have their time and die out; their lasting influence is through their ethos. The Pietist movement was energized by a spiritual ethos that outlived it  and can be seen in many sectors of contemporary Christianity” (Olson and Collins Winn, Reclaiming Pietism, p. 8).

Of course, if it’s hard to define a Pietist movement, it’s even trickier to define an ethos that takes on different shapes in different contexts. But I’ll postpone that challenge for a later post…

We’re not all guys

I’ll admit it: my mental image of a “Pietist” is a German dude with an awesome 17th century ruff.

Pietist leader Philipp Jakob Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705)

But women have played leading roles in most revivals of the Pietist ethos. For example: Johanna Eleonora Petersen, the early Pietist teacher (and occasional preacher) who models the virtue of love for ethicist Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom (see ch. 3 in Angels, Worms, and Bogeys). Or Rebecca Protten, the Afro-Moravian convert-turned-missionary made famous in Jon Sensbach’s recent book. Or Sara Oust, one of the many women entrusted with preaching and leadership roles in Hans Nielsen Hauge’s pietistic revival in early 19th century Norway. Or a few decades later and one country over, Lina Sandell, the greatest hymnwriter of the Swedish revival.

Or any of the women who contributed to our book on Pietism and higher education: Janel Curry, Kathy Nevins, Jenell Paris, Phyllis Alsdurf, Sara Shady, Marion Larson, and Nancy Olen.

We’re not all Europeans (or European-Americans)

Undoubtedly, the center of the original Pietist movement was the complicated tangle of German-speaking lands smack dab in the center of early modern Europe. There are still Pietist pockets in Germany today, and the Pietist ethos moved easily into settings like Scandinavia, Great Britain, and the English-speaking colonies of North America.

But right from the start, Pietism has taken root in non-Western settings. Pietist missionaries were well-received among Tamils in India, Inuits in Greenland and Labrador, and African slaves in the Caribbean. (See ch. 9 of Douglas Shantz’s Introduction to German Pietism for a survey of global Pietism in the 18th century.) In our 2011 book, The Pietist Impulse in Christianity, theologian Victor Ezigbo argued that Pietist missionaries from the Basel Mission found success in what’s now Ghana because they encountered a similar religious ethos among the indigenous peoples of West Africa.

Efrem Smith
Admittedly, I’m not aware of many self-identified African-American Pietists, but here’s one: Efrem Smith of World Impact

Valerie Cooper and Peter Heltzel have located a Pietist ethos in African-American religion in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. And reading Jennifer Harvey’s recent blog post on race and Christianity, I was struck that, in her description (by way of Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson), black churches sound so pietistic:

Shelton and Emerson’s findings reveal, for example, higher rates of prayer and more affective worship among African Americans. They document among Black Christians a greater willingness to include beliefs that might traditionally be considered outside the bounds of “orthodox” Christian doctrine. Such beliefs are included because Black Christianity tends to revolve strongly around an “experiential center.”

In contrast, among white Christians they find an inclination to value philosophical considerations about God over lived, relational experiences of God — an approach their interviewees describe as “abstract.” They describe a white Christianity that revolves around an “academic center,” concerned with belief and doctrine more than action and experience; more worried about right teachings than right practices.

We’re not (necessarily) anti-intellectual

While I think Pietism also “tends to revolve strongly around an ‘experiential center'” rather than an “academic” one, the history of the Pietist movement and ensuing expressions of its ethos makes abundantly clear that “heart religion” and a “life of the mind” can go together. I could stretch this list to eight or nine by dealing with all the Pietist stereotypes that I find aggravating, but here let me address the one that most rankles a self-proclaimed Pietist “schoolman.”

“From its earliest days,” points out church historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, “Pietism was intimately bound up with education” (Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, p. 739). Movement and ethos Pietists have founded colleges, universities, and seminaries. They helped pioneer critical studies of the Bible. They both contributed to the origins of the Enlightenment and wrestled with its aftermath. Most recently, theologians as influential as Jürgen Moltmann, Stanley Grenz, and Donald Bloesch have drawn heavily from Pietism. At least, so argue Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn

We do theology

Olson and Collins Winn, Reclaiming Pietism…who conclude Reclaiming Pietism with the bold claim that “Pietism points toward a way of doing Christian theology that is more authentically evangelical than alternatives.”

To be sure, Pietists have always been suspicious of “dead orthodoxy,” of preachers who are more erudite than pastoral, and of scholars who think (like one early critic of German Pietism) that “Our mission as professors is to make students more learned and not more pious.” But even as they tend to minimize the importance of intellectual assent to doctrine, “Pietism does not wish to empty the cognitive dimension of Christian faith of its importance; it wants only to put it in its proper place — as servant of God’s main purpose, which is to transform us into Christ-like persons” (Reclaiming Pietism, p. 183).

So Roger and Christian argue for a distinctly Pietist approach to theology: irenic, ecumenical, “informed and guided (never governed) by prayer and devotion”; regarding doctrine as having a “ministerial rather than magisterial” role to play; and starting with the Bible, which is “loved… not because it contains propositional truths about God to feed the mind, but because it is the principal medium for the Christian’s relationship with God, helping to guide and develop a deep intimacy between the Christian and God” (p. 99).

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