Pietism: The Gallery - Thumbnail Sketches of Important Leaders in the Pietist Movement
Johann Arndt (1555–1621)
Considered by modern historians to be the true father of Pietism, Johann Arndt surely was responsible for transferring Luther’s doctrine of the Word into an ethical concern. The son of a Lutheran minister, young Arndt chose to study medicine but a serious illness brought him to read theology and study the Scriptures. In 1583 he became a pastor and continued in that role until 1609 when he was made a Lutheran general superintendent. His chief influence came through his highly effective preaching and his devotional classic, True Christianity (1606).
Arndt was influenced by Thomas a Kempis and several German theological writers. He urged his followers in the ministry “to take heed to themselves” by which he meant that pastors must be models of the Christian life. Daily devotions and study of the Scriptures was important; further, sermons should be simply biblical and straightforward. Arndt gave great attention to his own pastoral role: “he was indefatigable in reconciling those at enmity, rousing the lukewarm, instructing the ignorant and rebuking the perverse.”
The central theme in Arndt’s writing was that of the new life in Christ. Christians, Arndt asserted, are to grow in faith and virtuous life until they reach the stature of ‘a perfect man in Christ.’ There should be a point in each Christian’s life when worldliness has been put aside for a will and affection that are wholly committed to God. And, above all else, the love of God and the love of one’s neighbor must go together to form a full Christian experience.
Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705)
Of all the Pietists, Philip J. Spener personifies the spirit and the vitality of the movement. His controversial “collegia pietatis,” or Christian renewal groups, at once transformed congregational life in both the Reformed and Lutheran churches and his major work, Pia Desidena became a manual for Pietistic reforms. Spener was indebted to Johann Arndt and Jean Labadie, the latter of whom he met at Geneva. In fact, Spener translated Labadie’s Manual of Piety into German.
Spener was concerned about the lack of vitality in Lutheran congregations. Through his preaching, writing and influence upon other pastors, Spener gradually turned the spiritual tide in German Lutheranism and beyond. In a series of key pastorares at Frankfurt on Main, Dresden, and Berlin, he easily became the most prominent German clergyman of his day. Among the privileges he enjoyed were close associations with political rulers in the House of Saxony and free postal rates as a reward for his work as an effective pastor.
In all of his work, Spener believed his ideas were the logical fulfillment of the Lutheran Reformation. He was increasingly concerned with the worldly nature of the church and the overemphasis of the sacraments and the doctrine of justification by faith. Practical suggestions were necessary and he advised local churches to establish pastoral care groups and a functional eldership. Further Spener urged the establishment of devotional and Bible study groups which would raise the level of personal piety. The goal of all these efforts for Spener was to have the contemporary church reflect the early Christian community.
Spener was not necessarily original; it was the impetus he gave to Pietism by his own personal influence and reputation that established his leadership in the movement.
Henrietta Catherine von Gersdorf (1656–1726)
The baroness was Pietism’s outstanding hostess and benefactress. She used her Bohemian mountain estate at Gros Hennersdorf as a retreat center for religious leaders of many persuasions to gather and debate their concerns. Men like Philip Spener and Auguste Francke frequently visited her home and knew her to be an evangelical student of the Bible, able to read the Scriptures in Greek and Hebrew. At the death of her husband in 1702 she devoted much of her income to benevolent projects such as the care of widows, orphans and the underpriviledged. When her son-in-law died in 1700, Baroness Gersdorf assumed the care of her grandson, Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, and she readily exposed him to her Pietist friends. When the young lad grew to manhood, he proudly acknowledged his debt to his grandmother and may well have patterned his community at Herrnhut after his childhood impressions at Gros Hennersdorf. Surely the feeling was mutual: on June 8, 1722 the Baroness Gersdorf personally received the first Moravian emigrants which her grandson Count Zinzendorf had invited to the estate and she took delight in providing them with food, shelter and land for their needs.
Auguste Hermann Francke (1663–1727)
From 1690 to 1725 Auguste Hermann Francke was the intellectual and political leader of Pietism in central and northern Germany. His writings, lectures, church leadership and vision for foreign missions mark him as one of the great leaders of the Post-Reformation period in Europe.
Francke was born in Lübeck near Hamburg in 1663 into a prominent family with a strong interest in universilty education and civic leadership. His older sister, Anna, was an important influence on his childhood, as she encouraged him to study Pietist literature, notably, Johann Arndt’s True Christianity.
As a young man Francke attended several universities and struggled to find his own identity. In 1686 he joined a Bible club at the University of Leipsiz and was soon converted. At Lüneburg Francke came to appreciate Philip J. Spener and considered himself Spener’s “dutiful son in the faith.”
In 1692 upon the advice of Spener, Francke became a pastor at Glancha and professor of Oriental Studies at the newly established University of Halle. In the next two decades he created a model educational community which supplied pastors and teachers for other communities, with the same zeal for religious and moral renewal found at Halle. Because the theologian was primarily concerned with a changed life in the Christian experience, he laid great stress on practical theology. The core of his curriculum was intensive Bible study in conjunction with membership in a Bible club.
As a pastor he led a strenuous church program. He preached five times a week, held daily catechetical classes for the youth, and published a religious magazine for his parishioners. He was also keenly interested in foreign missions and he produced a new spirit of ecumenism throughout Europe. His contemporaries recalled him as an uncommonly kind and gentle man who was genuinely concerned about everyone’s problems.
His Autobiography lays the groundwork for a ministry which he described as “a life changed, a church revived, a nation reformed, and a world evangelized.”
Gottfried Arnold (1666–1714)
Among Pietists, Arnold was considered a radical because he demanded such a vivid change in life for Christians. Born in Annaberg, Arnold was educated at Wittenberg, the citadel of Lutheran Orthodoxy. Later, he came under Spener’s influence at Dresden.
Early in his career he bitterly attacked the established churches and produced a spate of remarkable literary achievements, including a History of Heresy and twenty others. In this period his overriding concern became a life of simple piety, consisting of love for God and man. With the blessing of Philip Spener, Arnold married Anna Sprögel in 1701, hoping to have a spiritual marriage, to his consternation the couple had a child which ruined Arnold’s plans to devote his energies entirely to religious matters. Eventually, Arnold accepted a church and became a Lutheran Superintendent.
With Johann Arndt and Jacob Boehm as his models, Arnold divided all theology into two categories, Aristotelian and mystical, or experiential. For Arnold the latter was supremely important because it allowed the awakened Christian to be a theologian. True Christianity involved a radical experience of rebirth and a “thorough cleansing of the heart.” To his discredit in the eyes of mainstream theologians, Arnold also felt that a Christian’s devotion to Christ must be all-embracing and consuming and he described this relationship in erotic terminology. Later in life, this radical Pietist tempered his criticism of the Lutheran tradition and he urged the reform of Lutheranism from within.
Johann Albrecht Bengel (1687–1752)
Bengel brought to the Pietist family a strong interest in biblical exegesis and he became the leading biblical critic and scholar of his era. As a young person he read the writings of Arndt and Spener and absorbed their religious warmth. In his work as a local pastor and teacher at a cloister school in Denkendorf, Bengel carefully applied the historical method to biblical studies in an attempt to recover a completely reliable text: he was convinced of the absolute religious authority of the Scriptures. He also taught that the Bible is only rightly understood after personal regeneration and careful research. In his own research he hoped to extricate the historical context of the Scriptures from centuries of theological controversy in the church. His rule “the more difficult textual reading is to be preferred over the easy one” was a model for later biblical scholars.
Bengel emphasized the study of Bible prophecy. He considered the book of Revelation to be a blueprint for the future and biblical prophecy to be prefigured history. He calculated the date of Creation to be 3939 B.C., but stopped short of predicting the date of the final judgment, though he appeared to believe that it was imminent in an era of broken values and post-war instability. Since Bengel taught that all history is God’s history, he helped his countrymen to rise above many of the frustrations of human existence.
In his autobiography Bengel wrote, “My ambition was exclusively directed toward doing faithfully whatever was at hand … according to the ability which God has given to me. ” Little wonder that John Wesley referred to Bengel as “that great light of the Christian world.”
Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen (1692–1747)
Frelinghuysen was a font for the “Great Awakening” in America. Born in Westphalia, Germany, Theodore was the son of a German Reformed pastor who ministered in the Lower Rhine Valley and under the influence of Pietists at Utrecht and Herborn. At an early age, Theodore expressed interest in the ministry and his father and another pastor assisted him in entering the Dutch University at Lingen. After graduation, Frelinghuysen served a church in East Friesland and he then emigrated to New Jersey in America. From his pulpit (actually a multiple church charge) in the Raritan Valley, he stressed the need for individual rebirth, in a theological approach which he called “experimental divinity.” Additionally, he demanded evidence of conversion as a requirement for communion and he encouraged private individual devotions. Because he met with stiff opposition from the well-to-do farmers and lawyers, Frelinghuysen easily concluded that “the largest portion of the faithful have been poor and of little account in the world.”
Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760)
Born into Austrian nobility, Zinzendorf was influenced by pietistic preaching and literature as a child. Although he desired a theological education, his family prevailed upon him to enter law and become a political leader in the Court of Saxony. In 1722 he acquired an estate in Lusatia which became a haven for refugee Hussites from Bohemia and Moravia. At the Count’s insistence, the group formed an ecclesiola within the Lutheran ecclesia and called themselves the “Unites Fratrum” or Moravians. Zinzendorf himself became preacher and later bishop in a flourishing community called Herrnhut (The Lord’s Protection). Their peculiar style involved a twenty four hour a day communal prayer watch, evangelical preaching, songfests, lovefeasts, and private devotions. Their emphasis upon fellowship instead of creeds allowed them to be more ecumenical than most other contemporary Christians. The Count traveled widely in pursuit of his dream for a “Congregation of God in the Spirit.” In 1741–43 he tried unsuccessfully to convince the German Reformed and Lutheran communities in America to join his efforts and he conducted three missionary journeys among the Delaware and Iroquois Indians. Zinzendorf stressed the importance of “experiencing God.”
Henry Melchior Muhlenburg (1711–1787)
When he arrived in Philadelphia in 1742, Muhlenberg found Lutheran parishes in disarray, little concern about spiritual matters and generally incompetent ministers. His important work would become the strengthening of Lutheranism in the colonies and a general spiritual renewal. At first he met with the same ridicule which other Pietist Lutherans had; later as he began to take a stand against drunkenness and immorality, he won widespread acclaim for his positions.
One of Muhlenberg’s chief concerns was Count Zinzendorf’s plan to unite many of the American German groups under an evangelical Moravianism. His superiors at Halle urged him to do the work of a missionary and plant churches which were faithful to the Augsburg Confession. This he did between the Hudson and Potomac Rivers by itinerating ceaselessly, preparing a uniform liturgy and hymnal and organizing the Pennsylvania Ministerium, the first permanent Lutheran Synod in America. His Pietistic sentiments are illustrated in an observation he made in 1764: “The worthiest, strongest, and most necessary characteristic for the training and emulation of the children of God is the love of Christ… this love must be truly cultivated and imitated by the children of God. In this they must become peripatetics. The more profound the union and love between Christ and the believer, the more vividly will His image express itself in imitation.”
Martin Boehm (1725–1812)
Martin Boehm was the son of German immigrants to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The family was active in the leadership of the Mennonite community and in 1756 Martin was chosen by lot to be one of the preachers. He found his task difficult in part because the Mennonite pattern was quite formal and because he lacked assurance of his own salvation. About 1758 as he was plowing a field, he cried out to God for help and “a stream of joy poured over him. ” His preaching improved and a year later he was designated a bishop. Martin read the writings of German Pietists and he became attracted to the preaching of George Whitefield. At one of Boehm’s preaching services in 1767, Philip W. Otterbein, a visiting Dutch Reformed pastor, rushed to the preacher at the close of the sermon and exclaimed, “Wir sind bruder” (we are brethren) which is considered the origin of the United Brethren in Christ. Boehm severed his connection with the Mennonites in 1777 because of a censure for his pietistic doctrines and preaching style and his association with other denominations. After Francis Asbury arrived in America in 1770, Boehm was closely affiliated with the Methodists, though with a German language persuasion.
Hans Nielsen Hague (1771–1824)
Hans N. Hague, the father of Scandinavian Pietism, was born April 3, 1771 on a farm in southeast Norway. He was raised in a Christian home which was characterized by deep piety. In his childhood the Scriptures, great Church hymns, and the writings of Luther and Arndt were a part of his heritage. Hague was deeply interested in spiritual matters in his youth, and because of some close brushes with death, had a serious outlook on life.
On April 5, 1796, Hague had a profound spiritual experience. He was working under the open sky and singing from memory the second verse of “Jesus, I Long for Thy Blessed Communion.” Suddenly his mind was exalted, his soul was filled with the Spirit of God. He regretted that he had not served the living God as he should, and he became aware that nothing in this world was worthy of any regard save serving God. He sensed a burning love for God and his neighbor, and had a special desire to read the Scriptures and to bring the message of salvation to others.
Hague began immediately, and with dramatic results, to share his experience first with his own family, then in his parish, and then for eight years he traveled at least 10,000 miles throughout Norway, by foot, ski, and horseback, holding meetings, speaking to individuals, families, and groups large and small. He emphasized the need for genuine repentance, and for true conversion which results in a genuine transformation of a person’s life.
He was an amazingly practical man, skilled as a cabinetmaker, carpenter, beekeeper, and blacksmith, and later he started salt works, paper mills, and a trading company with its own fleet of ships. He often used his skills to gain the spiritual attention of his audiences and he helped to raise the status of the common people both economically and politically. But his primary concern was to reach the hearts of people with the love of Christ.
Hague often ran afoul of the authorities. Local pastors largely opposed him. They saw him as a threat, although Hague always urged loyalty to the established church. An old ordinance was used against him which placed severe restrictions on religious meetings not authorized by the official clergy. Hague was arrested ten times during his eight years of ministry for brief periods. In 1813 he was found guilty, and was sentenced to two years of hard labor and the cost of the trial. Hague appealed, and the sentence was finally lessened. Despite poor health, Hague continued to speak and write. The attitude toward him by many of the bishops and clergy began to change dramatically, and some even came to him to seek his counsel.
In his latter years he enjoyed increasingly popular appeal. His last words, said to his wife, were “Follow Jesus” and “O Thou Eternal God.”
Copyright © 1986 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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