Pietism, a movement within the ranks of Protestantism, originating in the reaction against the fruitless Protestant orthodoxy of the seventeenth century, and aiming at the revival of devotion and practical Christianity. Its appearance in the German Lutheran Church, about 1670, is connected with the name of Spener. Similar movements had preceded it in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands (Gisbert Voetius, Jodocus von Lodensteyn) and on the German Lower Rhine (Gerhard Tersteegen). Among German Lutherans the mystics Valentin Weigel and Johannes Arndt and the theologians Johann Gerhard, Johann Matthias Meyfart, and Theophilus Grossgebauer may be regarded as precursors of Spener.
Philipp Jakob Spener, born in 1635 at Rappoltsweiler in Alsace, had been from his earliest years, under the influence of the pious Countess Agathe von Rappoltstein, familiar with such ascetical works as Arndt’s “Sechs Bucher vom wahren Christenthum”. At Geneva, whither he went as student in 1660, he was profoundly impressed by Jean de Labadie, then active as a Reformed preacher, but later a separatist fanatic. Spener found his first sphere of practical work at Frankfort on the Main, where he was appointed pastor and senior in 1666. His sermons, in which he emphasized the necessity of a lively faith and the sanctification of daily life, brought him many adherents among the more serious of his hearers; but recognizing the impossibility of leading the people at large to the desired degree of perfection, he conceived the idea of an ecclesiola in ecclesia, established in 1670 the so-called “Collegia pietatis” (whence the name Pietists), i.e. private assemblies in his own house for pious reading and mutual edification, and wrote “Pia desideria oder herzliches Verlangen nach gottgefalliger Besserung der wahren evangelischen Kirche” (1675). After criticizing the prevalent abuses, he makes six suggestions for the improvement of ecclesiastical conditions: In view of the inadequacy of sermons for the purpose, private gatherings should be held to secure among the people a more thorough acquaintance with the Word of God; the idea of a universal priesthood, which had not attained its rightful significance in the previous development of the Lutheran Church, was to be more fully realized; with the knowledge of Christianity was to be closely joined the exercise of charity and the spirit of forgiveness; the attitude towards unbelievers should be determined upon not by a controversial spirit, but by the charitable desire of winning these souls; the theological course should be reformed in order to spur the students not only to diligence, but also to a devout life, in which the professors should set the example; in preaching, rhetoric should be abandoned and stress laid upon inculcating faith and a living, practical Christianity. Spener further defended his ideas of a universal priesthood in “Das geistliche Priesterthum, aus gottlichem Wort kürzlich beschrieben” (1677). His “Pia Desideria” won him many adherents, but also aroused violent opposition among Lutheran theologians.
A wider sphere of activity opened to Spener in 1686 when he was appointed court preacher at Dresden. During the same year, August Hermann Francke, Paul Anton, and Johann Kaspar Schade established at Leipzig, along the line of Spener’s ideas, the “Collegia philobiblica”, for the practical and devotional explanation of Holy Scripture, which attracted large numbers of masters and students. The Pietist movement at Leipzig, however, came to an end a few years later owing to the opposition of the theological faculty, headed by Professor Johann Benedict Carpzov. The Pietists were accused of false doctrines, contempt for public worship and the science of theology, and separatistic tendencies. The “Collegia philobiblica” was dissolved in 1690 and the leaders of the movement, forbidden to lecture on theology, left Leipzig. Spener, who had fallen into disfavor with the Elector of Saxony, removed in 1691 to Berlin, where he was appointed provost to the church of St. Nicholas and counsellor to the consistory. Pietism was also attacked in Carpzov’s Easter program of 1691 and the anonymous treatise “Imago Pietismi” (1691), probably the work of Pastor Roth of Halle. A lively exchange of controversial pamphlets ensued. Spener’s call to Berlin was of great significance for Pietism, as he here enjoyed the full confidence of Prince Frederick III (later King Frederick I of Prussia) and wielded a decisive influence in the selection of professors for the theological faculty of the recently founded University of Halle. Francke, who had been working at Erfurt since his departure from Leipzig, went to Halle as professor and pastor in January, 1692; his friend, Joachim Justus Breithaupt, had preceded him in October, 1691, as first professor of theology and director of the theological seminary. Somewhat later Paul Anton, formerly a colleague of Francke’s at Leipzig, also received a chair at Halle. Professors in other faculties, like the celebrated jurist Christian Thomasius, organizer of the new university, were at least on friendly terms with the Pietist theologians, even if they did not share their religious beliefs. Thus Halle became the center of the Pietistic movement in Lutheran Germany.
Francke ranks high also in the history of education, owing to the establishment (1695) of his orphan asylum, around which he grouped various institutions suited to the needs of teachers and pupils. He also turned his attention to foreign missions; the Pietists promoted the dissemination of the Bible through the establishment (1710), by Freiherr von Canstein, of a bible house at the Halle orphan asylum. The Pietists on the whole preserved the doctrinal content of Lutheran dogma, but treated systematic theology and philosophy as quite secondary. In preaching against the prevalent laxity of morals they relegated to the background the Lutheran dogma of justification by faith alone and insisted on a life of active devotion, and the doctrine of repentance, conversion, and regeneration. The Pietist conventicles sought to further the “penitential conflict” leading to regeneration by prayer, devout reading, and exhortations. The so-called “adiaphora”, theatres, dancing, etc., were regarded as sinful. After the foundation of the University of Halle the campaign against Pietism was pursued with increased vigour by the orthodox Lutherans, notably Samuel Schelwig at Danzig, Valentin Alberti at Leipzig, and the theological faculty of Wittenberg, with Johann Deutschmann at its head. Later came Valentin Ernst Loscher (d. 1747), against whom Pietism was defended by Joachim Lange, professor at Halle. During these struggles the founders of Pietism had passed away, Spener in 1705, Francke in 1727, Breithaupt in 1732, and then followed the period of decline.
Meanwhile, despite opposition, the influence of Pietism had spread, and its prestige, with the support of King Frederick I and Frederick William I, survived Francke’s death. Frederick William I decreed (1729) that all theologians desiring appointments in Prussia should study at Halle for two years; but the favor shown the Pietists ceased with the accession of Frederick II. Besides Halle, the Universities of Konigsberg and Giessen aided in the spread of Pietism. It had also a powerful patron in Frederick IV, King of Denmark, who encouraged the movement in his country, sent Danish students of theology to Halle, and requested Francke to recommend missionaries for the Danish East Indian possessions. At Wurtemberg Pietism took on a special character; while holding in essentials to the ideas of Spener and Francke, it was more moderate, adhered more closely to the organization and theology of the Lutheran Church, kept clear of eccentricities, had more scholarly interests, and flourished longer than the Pietism of Northern Germany. Francke, who had travelled through Wurtemberg in 1717, was held in great veneration, while there was no intercourse at all with the later representatives of Pietism in Northern Germany. The leader of the movement at Wurtemberg was Johann Albrecht Bengel (d. 1752), who, like many other Wurtemberg theologians, had studied at Halle; with him were associated Eberhard Weismann and Friedrich Christoph Oetinger. A separatistic community which grew out of Pietism was the “Herrnhiiter,” whose founder, Count von Zinzendorf, had been educated in Francke’s institutions at Halle. In Switzerland, Pietism was widespread, especially in the cantons of Bern, Zurich, Basle, and Waadt.
So far as it followed the paths traced by Spener and Francke, Pietism produced some beneficial results. In the subjective bias of the whole movement, however, there lay from the beginning the danger of many abuses. It often degenerated into fanaticism, with alleged prophecies, visions, and mystical states (e.g., bloody sweats). This decadent Pietism led to the formation of various independent communities, some fanatic (Nillenarians, etc.), others criminal, indulging in lewd orgies (e.g. the Wittgenstein scandals and the Buttlar gang). Among the theologians who, starting as Pietists, advanced to an independent position, quite at variance with organized Protestantism, the most conspicuous were Gottfried Arnold (d. 1714), representative of a fanatical mysticism, and his disciple, Johann Konrad Dippel, who attacked all forms of orthodox Christianity. Though the founders of Pietism had no idea of forsaking the basis of Lutheran dogma, the Pietistic movement, with its treatment of dogma as a secondary matter and its indifference to variations in doctrine, prepared the ground for the theological rationalism of the period of enlightenment. Johann Salomo Semler, the father of rationalism, came from the Halle school of Pietism, and his appointment as professor of theology at the University of Halle in 1752 opened the way to the ascendancy of rationalism, against which the devout Pietists were as powerless as the representatives of Protestant orthodoxy. Pietism revived in Protestant Germany and Protestant Switzerland, early in the nineteenth century, as a reaction against the rationalistic enlightenment and a response to more deeply felt religious needs. t, far-reaching activity along these lines was exerted in many parts of Germany and Switzerland by Freifrau von Krudener by means of her sermons on penance. Tract societies and associations for propagating home missions did much to promote the spirit of Pietism. On the other hand, along with good results, this movement again degenerated into mystical fanaticism and sectarianism (e.g., the “sanctimonious hypocrites” at Konigsberg, about 1835; the adherents of Schonherr, Ebel, and Diestel). There are also connecting links between the subjectivism of the Pietists and the theological liberalism of Albrecht Ritschl and his school, whose insistence on interior religious experience in the form of feeling is a basic idea of Pietism, although the Ritschlian school is opposed by devout Pietists as well as by Orthodox Lutherans.