The Pietist Option for Baptists

This Sunday I’m starting a four-part adult series on The Pietist Option at a church with special meaning for me: Central Baptist, in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul, Minnesota. See, Central was the church home of my late friend and mentor, G.W. Carlson, who was the first and most important source of my interest in Pietism.

G.W. CarlsonG.W. liked to joke that, as a member of the Covenant Church, I was a “dry” cousin of his Swedish Baptists, so I’ve titled my series at Central, “The Pietist Option for Baptists: Some Advice from a (Mission) Friend.” (“Mission Friends” being the original name for us Evangelical Covenanters.)

When we start this Sunday, I’ll trace some of the intertwined history of my denomination and that of Central Baptist. Both emerged from a pietistic revival that began in Sweden in the mid-19th century, then grew in strength as immigrants started new churches in a New World. What became the Baptist General Conference (now Converge Worldwide) was organized in 1879, four years after my great-great-grandfather arrived on these shores and six years before our family’s denomination, the then-Mission Covenant Church, was founded. Then in the decades after World War II, Covenant scholars like Karl Olsson and Don Frisk and Conference Baptist counterparts like Carl Lundquist and Virgil Olson all looked back to their Swedish Pietist roots in order to articulate what made their movements distinct from the rest of American Protestantism.

GW returned to his alma mater in 1968 to teach history and political science, and remained for over forty years. Especially in the second half of his tenure, he became a staunch advocate for the continuing relevance of “the Swedish Baptist Pietist tradition” to both Bethel and its denomination. GW began editing The Baptist Pietist Clarion in 2002, a project that continued up until his death in 2016 (all issues are still available online), and he helped Christian Collins Winn and me organize the international conference in 2009 that put Bethel on the map as a center of Pietism studies.

So what makes a university like Bethel, a denomination like Converge, and a church like Central both Baptist and Pietist? In The Pietist Option, Mark Pattie and I suggest that Pietism works on other forms of Christianity like yeast with bread: “Pietism can work its way into a Christian movement, enhancing what’s already there while leaving few traces of itself.” So how did Pietism leaven GW’s Baptist tradition? What did it enhance of what already made Baptists distinctive?

That’s a big part of what I want to talk about with the folks at Central these next four weeks, but at least two themes already stand out to me as I reread some of GW’s writings on the topic:

“Courageous Christian Living”

There’s a reason I dedicated our 2015 book on The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education to GW, a book written by his current and former Bethel faculty colleagues. No one better exemplified the definition of Pietism I offered in that work’s introduction:

Cover of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationPietists at all times and in all places seek a more authentic Christianity: not inherited or assumed, coerced or affected, but lived out through the transformative experiences of conversion and regeneration.

Maybe more so than us “churchly Pietists” whose forebears left Lutheranism primarily because there was no state church here in America to unite us, Baptist Pietists like GW understood that living out a “more authentic Christianity” might require a conscious break with theological tradition, with ecclesial and political institutions, and with the mainstream of society. (Indeed, I concluded that 2015 book by arguing that one purpose of Christian liberal arts at a Baptist Pietist school like Bethel was to liberate us from everything — including biases, conventions, and customs — that might keep us from following Christ.)

In his later years, GW typically started his own definitions of Pietism by telling stories of “courageous Christian living”; he celebrated Baptists like F.O. Nilsson, Clarence Jordan, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and non-Baptists like John Woolman, Dorothy Day, and Francis Willard as having pursued the “intelligent, Christ-motivated nonconformity” that he meant to inculcate in History majors at Bethel. Whether they were Baptists, Pietists, or neither, GW held up such Christians as models of a Baptist Pietist commitment to integrate “intentional Christian spirituality and social action” in imitation of Jesus’ life and ministry.

“The Irenic Spirit”

GW died in February 2016, after suffering a stroke the first day of that spring’s semester. Most of the eulogy that I delivered later that month at Bethel’s Great Hall was later incorporated into our Pietist Option chapter on “The Irenic Spirit” — a phrase that I had never heard before coming to Bethel. “Here,” I recalled in that chapter, with GW clearly in mind, “were evangelical Baptists who wanted to be known not for schism, heresy hunting, or culture warring but as a peaceable, open-minded people who built a diverse learning community around shared devotion to Jesus Christ.” Proud as GW was of his Baptist heritage, he also welcomed insights from and partnerships with sisters and brothers in Christ of all theological stripes.

Once again, I could have been describing GW in my 2015 “Pietists at all times and in all places” definition, which continued,

Suspicious of ‘dead orthodoxy,’ Pietists subordinate doctrine to Scripture—with an irenic, or peaceable, spirit prevailing in matters where the Bible leaves open a range of interpretations (or where Christians encounter those of other or no religious faith).

But GW would have pointed me to Virgil Olson, who defined their Swedish Baptist heirs as “irenic pietists [who] had a respect for the spiritual integrity of others with whom they differed. And they were wise enough to understand that no one person has all the truth right.”

And neither do I. So I’m looking forward to learning more about the Baptist tradition and what our “Pietist option” might mean for its adherents in the early 21st century, starting this Sunday at 9:15am and continuing each week through August 26th. Hope to see you at Central Baptist!