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Philipp Jakob Spener and the Rise of Pietism in Germany (Peter Heltzel, 1998)

Philipp Jakob Spener and the Rise of Pietism in Germany

Peter Heltzel, 1998


The Origins of Pietism

Pietism is a late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century movement within (primarily German) Protestantism which sought to supplement the emphasis on institutions and dogma in orthodox Protestant circles by concentrating on the "practice of piety," rooted in inner experience and expressing itself in a life of religious commitment. Pietism was nothing new. It can be traced back with discernible continuity to the ancient fathers (Macarius, Ephraem Syrus, Gregory of Nyssa, et al.) and to the devotio moderna of the late Middle Ages (Nicholas of Cusa, Tauler, et al.). However, it took on a distinctively Protestant form and was officially labeled "Pietism" during the ministry of Philipp Jacob Spener (1635-1705) in Frankfurt, Germany, although earlier adumbrations of Pietism were manifest in earlier Protestant theologians such as Johann Arndt (1555-1621). Arndt was a German mystical theologian whose book Four Books on True Christianity (1606) was to contribute much to the Pietistic movement later in the century.

Most historians argue that Philipp Jakob Spener was the "Father" or earliest leader of German Pietism (e.g., Martin Schmidt. 1972, p. 13). He was born and reared in Alsace, in an aristocratic family of deep Lutheran convictions. He studied theology in the best Protestant universities and, after receiving his doctorate, became a pastor in Frankfurt. There he founded groups of Bible study and devotion that he called "colleges of piety." In 1675, five years after beginning this experiment, he published his Pia Desideria (1675), where he outlined a program for the development of piety. The third and final section of this book lays out six constructive proposals for renewal in the church (Spener 1964, pp. 87-122):

  1. More Extensive Use of the Scriptures
  2. Exercises of the Spiritual Priesthood
  3. Practice vs. Knowledge of Christianity
  4. Conduct of Religious Controversies
  5. Reform of Schools and Universities
  6. Preaching for Purpose of Edification

These six charges became the fundamental charter of Pietism.

Although Spener's program for piety was developed in reaction to the dry scholastic Lutheran orthodoxy of its day, it was also a theological response to a deeper philosophical dilemma in the Lutheran tradition. The distinguishing problematic of Lutheranism since 1700 derives from an inner contradiction: the attempt to hold Luther's understanding of justification by faith alone together with an anthropology inspired by philosophical and humanist concerns (such as "free choice of the will" and "the moral progress of a continuously existing subject"). Lutheran orthodoxy insisted on forensic justification (a legal, substitutionary view of the atonement), but could not effectively combine it with the more Aristotelian anthropology that had reasserted itself. So the orthodox systems were blamed for an "objectivism" that tended to lose contact with the life of the subject. Spener tried to maintain Luther's anthropology (simul iustus et peccator) while arguing with Philip Melanchthon (1492-1560) for a form of heart-motivated sanctification (a movement of spiritual progression distinct from justification) in the Christian life. It is this move that often causes Spener to be labeled a Calvinist, as well as being accused of reinstating "works righteousness," but Spener maintains the soteriology of "dear Luther": "We gladly acknowledge that we must be saved only and alone through faith and that our works or godly life contribute neither much nor little to our salvation, for as a fruit our works are connected with the gratitude which we owe to God, who has already given us who believe the gift of righteousness (Spener, 1964, p. 63)." Thus, Spener maintained forensic justification, but tried to move on to spell out more explicitly what exactly union with Christ really means in the lived out Christian life (the modern Finish interpreters of Luther have pointed out that this was implicit in Luther; see Braaten and Jenson 1998).

Even though Spener was clearly Lutheran in his soteriology, his followers, the Pietists, were criticized for their stress on good works as proof of saving faith and condemned on account of their indifference to centralized authority manifest in their collegiae pietatis and their ecclesiolae in ecclesia. With formidable enemies like Johann Benedict Carpzov, Spener was driven from Frankfurt to Dresden, and Francke from Leipzig to Halle. Yet, Pietists were generally undismayed by their marginal status; they understood themselves as leaven in church and society and were content with such a role.

The Pietists conceived of themselves as being part of a second Reformation, bringing to completion moral reform in the church, after the primarily theological reform of the sixteenth century. The chief aim of Spener's Pia Desideria was reformatio vitae. His practical proposals (as mentioned above) included a return to biblical study by the laity, to the text itself with minimum help from commentators, confessions, or systems of pure doctrine; a clearer recognition of the laity's role in Christian witness and service; and a fresh emphasis on Christian morality and on works of love and mercy. Added to these are basic reforms in ministerial education, such as less preoccupation with speculative theology and greater stress on the arts and skills of pastoral theology (preaching, visitation, pastoral care of the faithful, etc.). Spener was concerned about the active faith (the fides quae creditur) in contrast to articles of belief (the fide quae creditur). Spener desired less polemics in theology and more of an irenic temper in Christian life—what John Wesley would later call "catholic spirit." Finally, there must be a renewal of evangelical preaching, with Christ at the center and with conversion and sanctification as constant ends in view.

Spener's enthusiasm for the reform of the Lutheran Church, from which he never wanted to dissociate himself, and his insistence on the inner religious life of the individual had a deep and mainly beneficial influence on German Protestantism. Although much of Spener's writing was in response to scholastic orthodoxy, it was more of a reaction to a style of crafting theology, a style that was sterile, polemical and overly rationalistic. However, he did not disagree with the content of this "orthodox" theological tradition. In many ways he built on it, with an emphasis on the pastoral application of doctrine for the cultivation of a living and active faith in the life of his parishioners.

Francke and Zinzendorf: The Possibility of an Ecumenical Pietism

Two of Spener's followers expanded his vision to be more socially responsible (Francke) and ecumenically sensitive (Zinzendorf). August Hermann Francke continued the development of Spener's agenda. He was a central figure in the new University of Halle (Pietism's chief academic center). He founded and directed a Pietist Adelspaedagogium (a secondary school for the nobility). He was also the moving spirit in a network of orphanages, hospitals, and missions. Francke's Nicodemus or the fear of Man (1706) reflects the Pietist sense of liberty in the world; his Pietas Hallensis (1707) provides a short history of Pietism, describing it as a work of God.

Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760) was a Pietist leader in a somewhat different style. He took the transformationist vision of Spener and Francke beyond Lutheranism and sought to bring about revival and spiritual unity. Educated at Franke's "paedagogium" and at Wittenberg, he became the patron of a cluster of religious communities (Moravian, Reformed and Catholic) on his own estate in Saxony and Upper Lusatia. Zinzendorf proceeded from the assumption that his interfaith, ecumenical community was a paradigm for the future of the church. While maintaining the Pietistic emphasis on a theologia cordis, "a religion of the heart," he represented a more generous, ecumenical vision. He did not want a structural unity because he understood the social and historic embeddedness of the different traditions; however, he desired a binding together in fraternal charity, mutual respect, communication, and communion within a loose federation. He was consecrated as bishop in "The Unitas Fratrum" in 1737, and even hoped reformed Roman Catholicism would be part of this structure. Historian Richard Lovelace argues that Zinzendorf was one of the major architects of the interdenominational renewal movement, Evangelicalism (Lovelace, 1979, p.279).

Pietism's influence on American Christianity

Continental Pietism had a large influence on Anglo-American Pietism and revivalism. In one way or another Pietism appears to have influenced most if not all Protestant groups in America. Pietism, as well as Puritanism, was an important and formative heritage in the social location of Jonathan Edwards. We see in Edwards a more sophisticated understanding of piety. In his Religious Affections Edwards argued that affections are essential to religion, but they must be tested. For that purpose, he proposed a set of twelve "signs" whereby true piety can be distinguished from false. In the third part of Edward's book he describes the positive signs of the holy affections. These "fruits of the Spirit" (faith, hope, love, etc.) are marks of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the person having true Christian faith. The Great Awakening (1740 and following) was an indication of the degree to which Pietism was making inroads into the Reformed tradition.

Although Edwards is often the minister most associated with the Great Awakening, a more significant stream of revival flows from the tradition of Whitefield and the Methodist (Welch, 1972, p.26). The link from Pietists to the Methodist bodies and their successors includes John Wesley's indebtedness to the Moravians and to J.A. Bengel (Kincheloe 1980, pp.262-271). That Wesley was a Pietist is beyond question: in his fifty-volume Christian Library (1749-1455) he included extracts from more than a dozen of pietists (Arndt, for example, appears in volumes 1 and 2). He freely imitated Spener's "program" of Christian philanthropy. Although originally an Anglican minister, Wesley's influence (partially shaped by Pietism) on American Christianity through Methodism (Francis Asbury et al.) is great indeed. Furthermore, many have argued that the Great Awakening in New England was one of the causes of the Wesleyan revival in England further demonstrating the symbiotic relationship of the movements.

The interconnections between these different expressions of Pietism across the ocean are fascinating. Historian Claude Welch comments on the convergence of Pietism in German Lutheranism, English Methodism, and the American Great Awakening: "Whether we call them all manifestations of 'pietism' or speak of pietism and evangelicalism, it is evident that these were closely related phenomena, so similar and interwoven that interpreters can speak of a 'curious uniformity' or even a single evangelical revival sweeping Protestant Europe, Great Britain, and the New World in the height of the Enlightenment" (Welch 1972, p.23). This convergence is one of a common spirit, since the movements were often divided on doctrinal issues. Thus, Pietism as a movement has a large amount of interpretive power in the Christian historiography of the Eighteenth-century European-American world.

Pietism and the Rise of Modern Missions

Another significant contribution of Pietism to the story of Christianity was the birth of Protestant missions. The reformers of the sixteenth century, involved as they were in a struggle for the survival of Protestantism, paid little attention to the non-Christian world. Some even claimed that the missionary mandate only applied to the Apostles. Although they were active in meeting the needs of their fellow Christians by founding schools and institutions to serve orphans, the impoverished and needy, the Pietists were originally not interested in foreign missions.

In 1707, however, the King of Denmark, an admirer of the Pietists, decided to send missionaries to his colonies in India. He could find no one in his own possessions to undertake this task, so he contacted Francke. Francke choose two of his best students at the University of Halle to be sent out to the mission of Tranquebar in India.

As a result of these first missionaries reporting back of their success on the mission field, the German church became more interested in missions and the University of Halle became a training center for future missionaries.

Pietism's Influence on American Romanticism

Finally, Pietists made a major contribution in the transitions from the medieval to the modern world. A case could be made that with Pietism's "inward turn" much of modern American individualism was anticipated and mediated through Protestant thought. The German Pietist emphasis on a religion of the heart (through Zinzendorf and the Moravians) had a great impact on Schleiermacher's concept of "religious feeling"—a sense of total dependence on God—a theme Schleiermacher interpreted as fundamental for the magisterial Reformers (Luther and Calvin).

The American expression of this Pietist theme (the heartfelt character of true religion) is Jonathan Edward's concept of "religious affections." This "inward emphasis" of Protestant theology would have a big influence on mid-nineteenth century Transcendentalism (Emerson and Thoreau). Therefore, one can argue persuasively that Protestant thought in America was an important tributary feeding the river of American Romanticism. Moreover, the inward turn of the subject was an essential move in the evolution of modern subjectivism. The nineteenth-century Romantic interest in desire and affection, instead of the cognitive apprehension and mastery of knowledge advocated in the Enlightenment, continues to have a big influence on Post-modern pragmatism in America (e.g., Richard Rorty and Stanley Fish's interest in personal preference as the fountainhead of a contemporary social ethic).

In conclusion, the legacy of Pietism both within the historic development of the Christian Church in the West and in its interaction and formation with modern intellectual and social culture demonstrates its legitimacy as a continued subject of academic study by both historians and contemporary interpreters of culture.



Spener, Philipp Jakob. [1675] 1964. Pia Desideria. Trans. Theodore G. Tappert. New York: Fortress Press.


Beyreuther, Erich. 1957. August Hermann Francke und die Anfange der Okumenischen Bewegung. Hamburg: Herbert Reich Evang, Verlag.

Braaten Carl F. and Robert W. Jenson. 1998. Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Brown, Dale W. 1962. "The Problem of Subjectivism in Pietism: A Redefinition with Special Reference to the Theology of Philip Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke." Evanston: Garrett Theological Seminary and Northwestern University.

________. 1976. Understanding Pietism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Erb, Peter C., ed. 1983. The Pietists. New York: Paulist.

Lovelace, Richard. 1979. Dynamics of Spiritual Life. Downers Grove: IVP.

Kinceloe, J.L. 1980. "European Roots of Evangelical Revivalism: Methodist Transmission of the Pietistic Socio-Religious Tradition." Methodist History 18: 262-271.

Schmidt, Martin. 1972. Pietismus. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

Stoeffler. 1965. The Rise of Evangelical Pietism. Leiden: Brill.

________. 1973. The Rise of Evangelical Pietism and German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century. Leiden: Brill.

________, ed. 1976. Continental Piety and Early American Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

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