“Antipathy to authoritarian forms”: An Interpretation of Pietism from Mid-1950s Bethel

One benefit of participating in the Following Jesus conversation this year is that I’ve been prompted to dig back into a variety of sources from what we’re calling “The Pietist Tradition.”

One that recently arrived in my mailbox is From Head to Heart: A Compendium of the Theology of Philipp Jakob Spener. Edited by K. James Stein, the author of a 1986 biography of Spener, and published by the Covenant Church (like the previous biography), From Head to Heart greatly expands the amount of Spener’s writings translated into English, giving his American spiritual descendants a fuller picture of his theology. I’ll plan to review that book later this fall at The Anxious Bench.

But for my response to the Catholic essay in our e-conversation, I also dipped back into Bethel’s past to revisit an intriguing talk delivered in 1956, by one of my predecessors on our history faculty: Dalphy Fagerstrom.

Dalphy Fagerstrom (right) talking to then-Representative Eugene McCarthy in 1956 – Bethel Digital Library

A Bethel junior college grad, Fagerstrom returned from World War II to complete his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Minnesota. After finishing his doctorate in history at the University of Edinburgh, Fagerstrom joined the Bethel faculty full-time in 1951. He later became college library director, before leaving Bethel in 1968.

Five years into his tenure at Bethel, Fagerstrom gave a talk entitled “Thoughts on the Pietist Heritage and the College.” I don’t know a lot about the audience and provenance of this address, save that he mentions it coming a year after Clifford Larson (about to assume the role of college dean) spoke to the college faculty about Pietist education at the University of Halle. And I don’t think it’s an accident that 1956 was also the year that Bethel Seminary’s quarterly journal published an article on “the pietistic heritage” of Bethel’s denomination, the Baptist General Conference, by church historian Virgil Olson.

Whatever the specific circumstances, the timing makes sense. Taking the presidency in 1954, just two years after Virgil’s father Adolf published the first BGC denominational history to start with the Swedish Pietist revival of the 19th century, Carl Lundquist encouraged Bethel to see itself as a Baptist and evangelical college — but also one shaped distinctively by Pietism. Much of the intellectual work of recovering that religious heritage was done by Virgil Olson, but it’s intriguing to find other faculty reflecting on Pietism: Larson (whose address I couldn’t find in Bethel’s archives) and Fagerstrom (whose unpublished text is in the Lundquist papers, and cited by other documents in that collection), who describes it as stemming from “informal exchange” among professors.

Apparently, those conversations had convinced him that Pietism provided “a starting point for a discussion of values that are present or that I think ought to be present at Bethel.” For while Bethel could endure if its “pietist past” was forgotten, it would continue on with only “a substitute set of values in the institutional shell, [while] the Bethel of our inner history might very well come to an end in a spiritual sense.”

So what “useable elements” did he find in Bethel’s Pietist past?

Some should be instantly familiar to anyone who has read this blog’s coverage of Pietism, at least as that 17th century German movement inspired the 19th century Swedish revival that birthed Bethel’s Baptist denomination. For Fagerstrom, Pietists emphasized “the spirit rather than the forms of Christianity”: personal experience and conviction trumped sacramental life and dogmatic assent within the confines of a flawed institutional church. And their ideal of the church left room for both an active laity and theological diversity, since “doctrinal differences were secondary to the new life in Christ,” and a basic orthodoxy did not require Pietists “to draft detailed creedal statements into every corner and crevice of which everyone’s beliefs must be squeezed.”

Instead, the Pietists Fagerstrom studied had insisted that conversion led to radical change in one’s life, to personal holiness and a lived “contrast to contemporary worldliness.” At its worst, this aspect of Pietism led to “a pharasaical [sic] self-righteousness” and sectarian impulses. But it more often led Pietists to live simply and humbly. “Unostentatious in dress and conduct,” Pietists lived out their love of God in “a simple faith based on experience and a common study of the Scriptures rather than on intricate, systematized theological forms or ritual or sacraments.” (For this reason, he also urged simplicity in campus design.) Though they “did hope to change—even to transform—the churches,” they had modest expectations for “outward success.”

At the same time — and here we come to the section I quoted in my Following Jesus response — the “individualism” of Pietism also produced what, “from a secular point of view,” was their “greatest contribution… their antipathy to authoritarian forms and hence the democratization of their branch of the church.” With Methodism, concluded Fagerstrom, Pietism spurred political reform and “humanitarian” social change. (His own research focused on Scottish reactions to the American Revolution.)

Fagerstrom (2nd from right) in 1967, when he directed Bethel’s college library – Bethel Digital Library

And what did all that mean for Bethel? First, “the non-authoritarian outlook of Pietism” led him not only to oppose required chapel and excessively codified expectations for student conduct, but also to take up “the problem of freedom for the teacher and scholar.” Assuming that committed Christian scholars could “teach fairly and effectively in the liberal arts,” Fagerstrom argued for significant academic freedom — for both scholarly growth and latitude in teaching — as an example of how Pietist “anti-authoritarianism will be an integral part of the love of associated Christians.”

Second, Fagerstrom thought that Bethel’s heritage should inspire “a more subtle kind of democratic contribution which I think should always flow from Christians but which actually appears only sometimes, namely, criticism of the socio-cultural environment.” Just as past Pietists had criticized “an institutionalized Christianity which was closely tied in with the social and political structure” — contrasting it unfavorably with the new life of authentic Christianity, the people of Bethel could learn “from these early non-conformists” and live as “persistent, insistent critics” of the status quo. In his field, for example, Fagerstrom found it important to help students recognize “cultural pressures which seek to sanctify American history in the interest of American nationalism and subtly to bend churches to the service of political and cultural nationalism.”

I don’t know how much influence Fagerstrom’s talk had on Bethel faculty, administrators, students, and other constituents. But his paper was discussed by the curriculum committee that met in the late 1960s. The new general education program went into effect in 1971, and included new emphases on fostering “Christian maturity” and the exploration of social concerns. That was also the year that Fagerstrom’s former department adopted a new objective that echoed his second application of the Pietist heritage to Bethel’s mission: “encouraging an intelligent, Christ motivated non-conformity.”