by Dr. Lucinda Martin
Saloma has asked me to write a guest blog to explain what Pietism is. By way of introduction, I should say that I have studied and written extensively on various aspects of Pietism. I am currently a Research Fellow at the Universitaet Halle in Germany where I am working on a book on women in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Pietism.
Explaining Pietism is no easy task, since historians and religious studies scholars disagree about a definition. Pietism included many different groups and sub-groups with varying beliefs, making it difficult to find one definition that fits all. Should only German groups be included? Was it mainly Lutheran? Were its leaders church pastors or should lay leaders also be included? Which theological beliefs were central and which were extraneous? Historians thus hold a variety of conflicting views about the basic parameters of Pietism: what it was, when it took place, and even what its geographic boundaries were. Then again, eighteenth-century Pietists also did not agree on what it was, or at the time, what it should be. Despite all this haggling among historians, it is important to note that Pietists with greatly differing views understood themselves as part of the same movement to reform church and society, even if they had very different plans for doing so.
Starting in the mid seventeenth-century, Pietism swept through the German-speaking lands of Europe. The religious and social reform movement stressed a personal experience of God over doctrine or tradition and had deep connections to other religious movements throughout Europe and the American colonies such as Quakerism, Quietism and Jansenism. Pietism was a broad movement, encompassing many competing theological and social models. Some Pietists simply wanted the old churches to adopt more discipline and to involve the laity more, while more radical Pietists, believed that the old churches were corrupt and beyond repair. The most radical formed new groups, or else eschewed institutional churches altogether, believing in an “invisible spiritual church” that included the “born again” in all confessions, as well as those with no church affiliation. Some of these most radical Pietists eventually settled in North America to practice their religion freely. Groups such as the Inspirierten (today: Church of True Inspiration) and the Neutäufer (today: Church of the Brethren) contributed to social and cultural developments in the North American colonies.
Religion is often assumed to be a conservative force in society, but in its early days, Pietism was a medium for progressive social change. Historians agree that Pietism ranks second in importance only to the Reformation in the history of Protestantism. With its emphasis on individuality, Pietism helped prepare the way for the Enlightenment and modernity. Motivated by their religious beliefs, Pietists experimented with everything from family structures to education and politics. Relying on the doctrine that everyone is “equal in God,” Pietists disputed social hierarchies, fraternizing and even marrying outside their social rank — a scandal in eighteenth-century Europe, at a time when people were very much expected to associate exclusively with those of the same social class.
Some Pietists also asserted that women had the same access to God as men and, therefore, should have the same access to public speaking and publishing on religious topics. This was a radical view at the time, because women were expected to stay out of the public eye. Pietist reformers also tried to improve their world through charity schools and programs to address poverty. These were groundbreaking ideas at a time when there was not yet a social security or a public school system. Pietist experiments even extended to economic practices, with some groups trying out communal forms of living.
Lay men and women played leading roles in the development of Pietism, its spread, and indeed, in its survival. A useful way to understand Pietism is to see it as part of an international network of religious seekers, male and female. The German part of this transatlantic movement came to be called Pietism, but at the time those who participated simply saw themselves as fellow “children of God,” or “born again.” This web of religious activism was held together by common beliefs and experiences. These were sometimes overtly religious in nature, such as a greater emphasis on Scriptures, the experience of being “born again,” or a belief that the “Last Judgment” was near. Yet Pietists often felt most connected by shared practices, such as a rejection of fancy clothing, the use of Pietist language, or the experience of meeting in conventicles — small cells of the “born again” who met for Bible study and fellowship. Pietists read the same books, they exchanged letters, and they visited one another across confessional and national boundaries, regardless of gender or social rank. All of these practices set Pietists apart from the “worldly” and helped them build up a special group identity. Often, groups and individuals with very different theological beliefs saw themselves as fellow “children of God” because of such shared practices.
Pietists were Biblical fundamentalists who interpreted the plagues, wars and catastrophes of their period as signs of the “last times” referred to in the apocalyptic passages of the Book of Revelations. These religionists believed that God was calling the “born again” together to build his “New Jerusalem.” Of course, the mortal world did not end in 1800, 1830 or any of the other dates predicted by Pietists. In later generations, Pietism changed, becoming something much more domestic and more conservative (although still influential). Nonetheless, early Pietists’ preparations for the Second Coming made long-lasting contributions to our world. Pietists were not only the leading religious reformers of their day, but also the leading social reformers. Through the medium of dissenting religion, Pietists challenged the oppressive hierarchies of their day, contesting injustices based on “worldly” differences such as gender or social rank. By making the individual’s character the only valid measure of humanity, Pietists helped pave the way for a modern understanding of human rights.
For more information about Pietism, please visit my website.