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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Pietism is a movement originating in German
Protestantism which sought to restore the genuineness
of religious commitment by issuing “a serious call to
a devout and holy life.” Its influence spread far beyond
German Protestantism, in fact far beyond organized
religion, affecting men and movements of thought
throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The founder of Pietism was Philipp Jakob Spener.
His Pia desideria of 1675 enunciated six aims that were
to become the program of Pietism: biblical study, lay
activity, ethical revival, mollification of theological
polemics, reform of theological education, renewal of
evangelical preaching. Attacking conditions in the
Lutheran Church, Spener maintained that an over-
emphasis upon purity of doctrine had intellectualized
faith and had severed the nerve of the moral impera-
tive. He was joined by August Hermann Francke,
whose skill as an administrator helped to create insti-
tutions of education and of charity where the Pietist
stress upon the practical side of Christianity could find
expression. From the depth and breadth of the response
to their work it is clear that Spener and Francke had
uncovered a grave problem in the faith and life of the
churches. There was a widespread yearning for au-
thentic Christianity, for the restoration of sincerity and
of simplicity, and for a religion based on faith, hope,
and charity. The Pietist movement was responsible for
the first successful missionary enterprise in Lutheran-
ism. It produced a vast amount of devotional literature
and regained the loyalty of many for evangelical faith.

From its German Lutheran origins Pietism reached
into the life and thought of many other Christian
groups. One of the most active Pietist groups was the
Moravians. Johannes Amos Comenius had anticipated
many of the themes of Spener's movement and had
worked for the reformation of piety in the churches.
The exiles of the Unitas Fratrum influenced Graf
Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, who was consecrated
a bishop of the Unitas and established a renewed Unity
of Brethren at Herrnhut. Zinzendorf's “religion of the
heart” was an intense devotion to the person of Christ,
combined with an emphasis upon Christian life rather
than Christian doctrine. In 1738 John Wesley visited
Herrnhut and soon thereafter experienced a conversion
to a deeper faith. Thus German Pietism helped to
launch the Methodist movement in both England and
North America. America has, indeed, become the most
fertile of fields for Pietism. Many of the immigrant
groups had been part of the Pietist element of their
mother churches, so that the various Protestant de-
nominations have been represented in the New World
by their Pietist interpreters. Even Roman Catholicism
in the United States has taken on many Pietist features,
such as a suspicion of scholarly theology and a stress
upon the conversion of the individual. Such Protestant
denominations as the Church of the Brethren and the
Nazarenes embody a Pietism separated from its con-
fessional origins, and many of the radical experiments
in communal religion (for example, the Rappites and
the Amana Community) have grown out of radical


Pietism is, therefore, a movement of great impor-
tance for the history of modern Christianity. But it is
also important for the history of ideas, both in its direct
impact upon Christian thought and in its indirect
bearing upon such areas as historiography, philosophy,
literature, and education.

Both Spener and Francke were theological scholars,
the latter having been professor of Scripture at Halle.
Most Protestant theologians of the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries were affected in one way or an-
other by Pietism, and even in their rejection of it they
continued to bear its marks. Certainly the most
impressive contribution of Pietism to theological
thought was the theology of Friedrich Daniel Ernst
Schleiermacher, who called himself “a Moravian of a
higher order.” Blending the Pietist doctrine of the
primacy of religious experience with a romantic
definition of Gefühl in contrast to both intellect and
action, Schleiermacher defined religion as a “feeling
of absolute dependence” and cast his interpretation of
the distinctiveness of Christianity in this framework.
Religion was neither a special method of knowing nor
a way of acting, but a sense of reverence—on this
thesis, despite his rejection of his Moravian upbringing
as too narrow and the corresponding rejection of him
by many Pietists, Schleiermacher and the more
orthodox Pietists were in agreement. He was, in turn,
“the church father of the nineteenth century” and the
one theologian with whom every major Christian
thinker after him had somehow to come to terms.
Characteristically, more theologians were Pietists in
their upbringing than in their mature systems, but
Pietism is a factor to be considered in the intellectual
development of all of them.

As part of its theological controversy both with
dogmatic orthodoxy and with Enlightenment rational-
ism, Pietism helped to stimulate the rise of modern
historiography. Gottfried Arnold, who was a protégé
of Spener, applied the Pietist elevation of life over
doctrine to the study of church history. In his
Unparteiische Kirchen- und Ketzerhistorie (Impartial
History of the Church and Heretics
) of 1699 he showed
that dogmatic orthodoxy had not necessarily produced
Christian character in its adherents, and that, on the
other hand, the heretics had frequently been more
sincere and genuine in their devotion than had their
persecutors. His work was in many ways an exaggera-
tion of its own central thesis, but Arnold did open up
new lines of inquiry into the development of Christian
ideas and institutions. The modern attempt to under-
stand ancient heresies in their own terms, rather than
as distortions of orthodoxy, owes much to Arnold and
thus to Pietism. He also helped to make the history
of noninstitutional religion a proper subject for study,
thus opening the way for church history to become
a history of the Christian people rather than merely
of prelates and theologians. Nor was Arnold's impor-
tance restricted to ecclesiastical history. Through his
work and that of his colleagues, Pietism helped to
liberate historical scholarship generally from the
dominance of confessional polemics and to make pos-
sible the flowering of historical study in the late eight-
eenth and nineteenth centuries.

The significance of Pietism for the history of philo-
sophical thought is less obvious, but no less important.
It must be remembered that many of the leading figures
in the history of German Idealism began their intellec-
tual development as students of theology—and this
meant a theology strongly tinged with Pietism. Thus
it has been suggested that “the whole of Kant's moral
philosophy might almost be described under the title
of one of his last books as 'religion within the bounds
of reason alone.' For him religion is primarily the
Christian religion purified” (Paton, p. 196). And this
interest in a “religion purified” is one that may well
be traced to Kant's early training in Pietism.

The study of Hegel's early theological writings, es-
pecially of his work on the life of Jesus, has made it
clear that he, too, owed much of his interest in the
relation between historical particularity and ideal
universality to the Pietist doctrine of the person of
Christ. In the words of Richard Kroner, “Hegel's phi-
losophy is in itself a speculative religion—Christianity
spelt by dialectic” (Hegel, p. 53). It is ironic that
Pietism, with its hostility to the claims of autonomous
reason and even to the system-building of traditional
theology, should have figured so prominently as a
matrix for the systems of German Idealism.

The effect of Pietism on the history of German
literature is somewhat more diffuse. Yet, to cite the
most ambiguous figure, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe,
the effect is undeniable. As Arnold Bergstraesser has
suggested, Goethe “concurred with the pietists in their
criticism of the established churches.... The vision
of an evangelical communion of 'those good and wise
to the highest degree' was to become the nucleus from
which his ideal of a good society developed... and
the pietist emphasis on the conduct of life rather than
upon doctrine was in accord with his inclination to-
ward tolerance” (Bergstraesser, p. 36). This is not to
claim that Goethe was a Pietist, nor that Pietism was
the sole source of his religious convictions. But much
of his outlook on man and society can be read as a
kind of secularized Pietism, in which the central
emphases of Pietism remain but its specifically
christocentric foundation has been replaced by a hu-
manitarian ideal. A similar “afterglow” of Pietism may
be seen in other literary figures. There is, for example,


some reason to believe that Johann Christoph Friedrich
Hölderlin, who was a student of theology at Tübingen,
owed some of his religious sensitivity not only to the
classicism that was his chief inspiration, but also to
the Pietism in relation to which he developed his
identity as a poet and a thinker; the later poems of
Hölderlin make it clear that he continued to be
fascinated by the figure of Christ, as he had learned
to know it through his early Christian upbringing and
his theological study.

In the field of education, the influence of Pietism
was not only great, but deliberate. As noted earlier,
one of the six goals set forth in Spener's Pia desideria
had been the reform of theological education, and
Francke had made his most lasting contribution in the
schools he established. Like the historians and philoso-
phers referred to in the preceding paragraphs, Johann
Heinrich Pestalozzi began as a student of theology, and
some students of his pedagogical theories have seen
in them the evidence of this early interest. By most
standards, Johann Bernhard Basedow must be counted
a son of the Enlightenment rather than of Pietism; yet
his affinities with Comenius and his concern with edu-
cation as a means of developing the integrity of the
individual suggest that Pietism, albeit in its more radi-
cal forms, may have been a factor in his thought. In
a more general way, Pietism is evident in the educa-
tional development both of Europe and of North
America, especially in the nineteenth century. Implicit
in much of that development is a stress upon personal
commitment that bears a distinct family resemblance
to the Pietist preoccupation with individual conver-
sion. And since so much of elementary education in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was in fact
controlled by churches under the dominance of
Pietism, it seems a safe generalization to suggest that
Pietistic Protestantism has had a share in nurturing the
moral presuppositions of many nations.

These diffuse influences of Pietism are a significant
part of its history, but they must not obscure the prin-
cipal task to which Spener, Francke, Zinzendorf, and
other Pietists were pledged: the restoration of serious-
ness to Christian belief. Therefore the historical
achievement of Pietism must still be seen primarily
on the basis of its part in the process by which
Christianity has been interpreted and reinterpreted
since the Enlightenment. It has been blamed, and not
without some justification, for the interpretation of
religion as purely a private matter at a time when the
social consequences of belief have become primary. To
the extent that such a movement as “temperance” may
be said to stem from Pietistic assumptions about ethics,
its preoccupation with individual morality at the ex-
pense of the common good has been properly identified
as a source of profound mischief. Nevertheless, the
chief residue of Pietism in the history of modern
thought is probably to be sought in the deep sense of
moral obligation and personal rectitude that has
motivated many of the most decisive figures of modern
history in their personal lives and in their public ca-
reers. The belief that one's life is to be evaluated on
the basis not of the abundance of the things which he
possesses, but of his service to God and to his fellow
man is, to be sure, not an exclusive possession of
Pietism; but it is largely through Pietism that this belief
has become a part of our culture. Thus, in ways that
its founders could not have envisioned and would have
repudiated, Pietism has helped to bring about a refor-
mation of human thought and action.


The most influential work on Pietism is that of Albrecht
Ritschl, Geschichte des Pietismus, 3 vols. (Bonn, 1880-86),
whose violent prejudice against Pietism, and for that matter
against any sort of mysticism, makes his account seriously
unbalanced. The intellectual development of Pietism is
provocatively traced by Emanuel Hirsch, Geschichte der
neuern evangelischen Theologie,
2nd ed. (Gütersloh, 1960),
II, 91-438. The historiography of Pietism is summarized in
Johannes Wallmann, “Pietismus und Orthodoxie,” Heinz
Liebing and Walther Eltester, eds., Geist und Geschichte
der Reformation
(Berlin, 1966), pp. 418-42. Perhaps the most
complete bibliography on Pietism is that of M. Schmidt,
“Pietismus,” Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd
ed. (Tübingen, 1957-62), V, 370-81. The Pia desideria of
Spener has been edited and translated by Theodore G.
Tappert (Philadelphia, 1964), and Kurt Aland's Spener-
(Berlin, 1943) brings together much of the needed
material. F. Ernst Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism
(Leiden, 1965) is a useful introduction. References have also
been made to H. J. Paton, The Categorical Imperative. A
Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy
(Chicago, 1948), and to
F. Hegel, Early Theological Writings, trans. T. M. Knox,
Introduction by R. Kroner (Chicago, 1948), and to Arnold
Bergstraesser, Goethe's Image of Man and Society (Chicago,
1949). For Hölderlin, see E. Tonnelat, L'oeuvre poétique et
la pensée religieuse de Hölderlin
(Paris, 1950).


[See also Church; Reformation; Romanticism in Post-
Kantian Philosophy.]