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Christian History Home > 1986 > Issue 10 > The Flowering of Pietism in the Garden of America

The Flowering of Pietism in the Garden of America
DONALD DURNBAUGH Donald F. Durnbaugh, Ph.D., is Professor of Church History at Bethany Theological Seminary, Oak Brook, Illinois. His writings include The Believer's Church: The History Character of Radical Pietism | posted 4/01/1986 12:00AM

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Finding expression in America in a bewildering number of forms and denominational expressions, Pietism clearly provided the foundations for much of American religious structure. Its emphasis on the Christian walk, on evident piety, and active and mutual support fit well with the American environment.

Pietism Permeates America

For many Americans, Puritanism is the classic form of American religion. Early educational influences ensure that stories of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock appear at Thanksgiving time. The poetry of Longfellow and Bryant, the essays of Emerson, the literature of Thoreau and Melville—all reinforce this orientation. This is not surprising, for it was New England which provided the basic American stories for understanding itself; the New England schoolmaster taught the nation. Such teachers were not limited to the American Northeast; the McGuffey readers, for example, though written in Ohio perfectly inculcated New England ideals. To this day the Georgian meetinghouse of colonial New England provides the stereotype image for what church architecture should be.

For all of the Puritan emphasis, the case can be made that Pietism with its various branches has played just as important a role in American religious development. On a quantitative basis, those faiths influenced and permeated by Pietism loom as large in the historical record as does Puritanism. In terms of cultural achievement, particularly in hymnody, Pietism has arguably created more advanced works. The Pietist ethic of active and practical Christianity has been more characteristic of American religious orientation than has the demanding Calvinistic theology of Puritanism.

A generation ago scholars led by Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller won a reassessment among academics of the place and integrity of Puritanism. A similar renaissance in understanding is badly needed for the slighted Pietist movement. One of the problems has been the rich variety of Pietist developments, difficult to incorporate into easily apprehended categories. They can be organized into four components: 1) sectarian Pietists; 2) churchly Pietists; 3) Wesleyan Pietists; and 4) communal Pietists.

Sectarian Pietists

By the end of the 17th century, a variety of religious bodies had members in the American colonies, particularly in the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In 1687 a governor of New York, after listing chaplains of the Anglican, Dutch Calvinist, French Calvinist, and Dutch Lutheran faiths, reported: “Here bee not many of the Church of England; few Roman Catholocks; aboundance of Quaker preachers, men and Women especially; Singing Quakers; ranting Quakers; Sabbatarians; Anti-Trinitarians; some Anabaptists; some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part of none at all.” Quite early, those groups singled out for suppression by European authorities as religious dissenters found the freedom of America attractive. Many of these religious groups were infused with Pietist thought and style, while they retained Anabaptist and Separatist distinctives. Several colonies directly recruited these dissenters, for they were known for their industrious work habits and exemplary lifestyles.

Prominent among them were the Mennonites, Dunkers, and Moravians. The Mennonites were the direct descendants of the evangelical Anabaptists of the 16th century. By the late 17th century their earlier aggressive Anabaptist spirit had been tempered by the quieter, more inward-looking tenets of Pietism. Mennonites had by this time won nearly complete toleration in the Netherlands and tenuous toe-holds in other countries, particularly in several German principalities along the Rhine river. Mass Mennonite emigration from Continental Europe began in 1683 with 13 families who left from Krefeld on the Lower Rhine to seek new lives near Philadelphia. They established near Philadelphia the village of Germantown, which came to be a center for sectarian Pietists. As many of the Krefelders had affiliated with the Quakers before leaving Europe, the first Mennonite congregation was not organized there until 1708.

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