What Is Pietism?

Definition and Beliefs

Portrait of Philipp Jakob Spener, leader of German Pietism
Portrait of Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), German Lutheran theologian and leading figure in German Pietism.

De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images 

In general, pietism is a movement within Christianity that stresses personal devotion, holiness, and genuine spiritual experience over mere adherence to theology and church ritual. More specifically, pietism refers to a spiritual revival that developed within the 17th-century Lutheran Church in Germany.

Pietism Quote

"The study of theology should be carried on not by the strife of disputations but rather by the practice of piety." --Philipp Jakob Spener

Origins and Founders of Pietism

Pietistic movements have emerged throughout Christian history whenever faith has become void of real life and experience. When religion grows cold, formal, and lifeless, a cycle of death, spiritual hunger, and new birth can be traced.

By the 17th century, the Protestant Reformation had developed into three main denominations—Anglican, Reformed, and Lutheran—with each linked to national and political entities. Close affiliation between church and state brought widespread shallowness, biblical ignorance, and immorality into these churches. As a result, pietism arose as a quest to breathe life back into Reformation theology and practice.

The term pietism seems to have been used first to identify the movement led by Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), a Lutheran theologian and pastor in Frankfurt, Germany. He is often considered the father of German pietism. Spener’s major work, Pia Desideria, or “Heartfelt Desire for God-Pleasing Reform,” originally published in 1675, became a manual for pietism. An English version of the book published by Fortress Press is still in circulation today.

Following the death of Spener, August Hermann Francke (1663–1727) became the leader of German pietists. As a pastor and professor at the University of Halle, his writings, lectures, and church leadership provided a model for moral renewal and the changed life of biblical Christianity.

Both Spener and Francke were heavily influenced by the writings of Johann Arndt (1555–1621), an earlier Lutheran church leader often considered the true father of pietism by historians today. Arndt made his most significant impact through his devotional classic, True Christianity, published in 1606.

Reviving Dead Orthodoxy

Spener and those who followed after him sought to correct a growing problem they identified as “dead orthodoxy” within the Lutheran Church. In their eyes, the life of faith for members of the church was progressively being reduced to mere adherence to doctrine, formal theology, and church order.

Aiming for a revival of piety, devotion, and genuine godliness, Spener introduced change by founding small groups of pious believers who met regularly for prayer, Bible study, and mutual edification. These groups, called Collegium Pietatis, meaning “pious gatherings,” emphasized holy living. Members focused on freeing themselves of sin by refusing to take part in pastimes they considered worldly.

Holiness Over Formal Theology

Pietists stress the spiritual and moral renewal of the individual through a complete commitment to Jesus Christ. Devotion is evidenced by a new life patterned after biblical examples and motivated by the Spirit of Christ.

In pietism, genuine holiness is more important than following formal theology and church order. The Bible is the constant and unfailing guide to living one’s faith. Believers are encouraged to get involved in small groups and pursue personal devotions as a means of growth and a way to combat impersonal intellectualism.

Besides developing a personal experience of faith, pietists emphasize concern for helping the needy and demonstrating the love of Christ to people of the world.

Profound Influences on Modern Christianity

Although pietism never became a denomination or an organized church, it has had a profound and enduring influence, touching almost all of Protestantism and leaving its mark on much of modern-day evangelicalism. 

The hymns of John Wesley, as well as his emphasis on the Christian experience, are imprinted with marks of pietism. Pietist inspirations can be seen in churches with a missionary vision, social and community outreach programs, small group emphasis, and Bible study programs. Pietism has shaped how modern Christians worship, give offerings, and conduct their devotional lives.

As with any religious extreme, radical forms of pietism can lead to legalism or subjectivism. However, as long as its emphasis remains biblically balanced and within the framework of the truths of the gospel, pietism remains a healthy, growth-producing, life-regenerating force in the global Christian church and in the spiritual lives of individual believers.

Sources

  • “Pietism: The Inner Experience of Faith .” Christian History Magazine. Issue 10.
  • “Pietism.” Pocket Dictionary of Ethics (pp. 88–89).
  • “Pietism.” Dictionary of Theological Terms (p. 331).
  • “Pietism.” Dictionary of Christianity in America.
  • “Pietism.” Pocket Dictionary of the Reformed Tradition (p. 87).