John Wesley and The Moravians (1735-1741): A Literature Review

For those of you who are regular readers of my blog you will already know that I am currently pursuing a ThD at Evangelical Seminary and the focus of my study is the spiritual/theological renewal movement known as Pietism. John Wesley was strongly influenced by “Pietistic” ideas via the Moravians. This Literature Review is what you might call the “first fruits” of my research. Hopefully some of you (particularly the history buffs) will find the paper helpful. Blessings, Julian Pace.

Introduction

John Wesley’s interactions with Moravian communities in the 1730s and 40s in both Savannah, Georgia, Herrnhut, Germany, and in his native England have been reasonably well documented. When the literature is carefully consulted three phases of John Wesley’s relationship with the Moravians can be discerned. 1) On his way to, and during his ministry in Savannah, Georgia, Wesley was impressed with the piety and theology of the Moravians. 2) Upon returning to England, Wesley continued to be nurtured in Moravian piety and Moravians were likely present at his now famous “Aldersgate” experience. 3) By the early 1740s Wesley’s relationship with the Moravians had largely soured due, at least in part, to a clash of personalities with Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, patriarch of the Moravians, as well as growing theological differences.

John Wesley’s Earliest Contacts with the Moravians

Perhaps the earliest example of sustained contact between Wesley and the Moravians was during his sea voyage aboard the Simmonds to Savannah in October of 1735. During this voyage Wesley became acquainted with Moravian Bishop David Nitschman as well as twenty-six other Moravians planning to settle in Savannah, Georgia. Wesley was struck by the deep piety these people displayed and was impressed by their composure during a frightful storm on the way to Savannah. Wesley, now well into a prolonged crisis of faith, longed to possess the same, sure faith these Moravians seemed to enjoy so deeply.[1]

Scholars James Nelson and Geordan Hammond agree that John Wesley and the Moravians spent a great deal of time together while on their voyage to America. Indeed, Wesley even learned enough German to join the Moravians in congregational worship while on board and there is some evidence that Wesley even preached at some of these services.[2] Hammond has described Wesley’s relationship with the Moravians during their shared voyage to America as “fairly cordial.”[3] On the other hand, Nelson is far more bullish about Wesley’s growing fondness for the Moravians noting that while at sea Wesley and the Moravians began to share in the Lord’s Supper together almost daily.[4] No matter the case, both Nelson and Hammond agree that while on their voyage Wesley and the Moravians found several points of contact, both in theology and practice.

Notably, both Wesley and the Moravians shared the idealistic hope that in Georgia they would be able to reestablish a purer and more “primitive” Christianity.[5] Wesley was also attracted to the almost ascetical practices of the Moravians and appreciated their unique “band” system whereby small groups of believers met together secretly and attempted to keep one another accountable.[6] Wesley would later implement this aspect of the Moravian program into his own Methodist program with great effect. Wesley, at this time a convinced and rather rigid “High Church” Anglican, also thought that the Moravians, like the Anglican Communion, had a plausible claim to apostolic succession. Thus, he was convinced that their ministers were qualified to give the sacrament of communion in an efficacious manner.[7] Although the Moravians were convinced that their ministers enjoyed succession by the laying on of hands from the Apostles, they did disagree with Wesley on the point that it was necessary for a valid ministry.[8] Rather, the Moravians thought the pathway back to a “purer” more “primitive” Christianity was through cultivating a religion and piety of the “heart.”

Upon disembarking in Savannah in February of 1736, Wesley was almost immediately greeted by the influential Moravian Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg. Spangenberg wasted no time on pleasantries with Wesley asking him rather pointedly about the state of his faith. Spangenberg was concerned with whether Wesley had experienced the “inner witness of the Holy Spirit” and was sure that Christ had saved “him” personally.[9] Wesley could only answer these questions, a little sheepishly, with rote doctrinal affirmations. However, Spangenberg remained impressed with Wesley and admired his spiritual earnestness. Likewise, Wesley thought Spangenberg an especially wise Christian. This encounter only deepened Wesley’s sense of the inadequacy of his spiritual condition.[10] Though Nelson and Hammond also agree that it only deepened Wesley’s desire to have an authentic and warm relationship with God.[11]

Scholars Nelson, Hammond, and David T. Morgan agree that while in Savannah, Wesley frequently attended Moravian services, took communion with them, and engaged in long and often intimate conversations with Spangenberg, Nitschman, John Toltschig and other Moravian leaders.[12] Wesley’s conversations with the Moravians were often on theological and missional topics. Both Wesley and the Moravians were interested in Patristics, Apostolic doctrine and discipline, as well as establishing a joint mission amongst the Indians.[13] Spangenberg and Wesley often spoke at length about their respective views on the Lord’s Supper.[14]Sometimes, these conversations veered into rather personal territory for Wesley as he conferred with his trusted Moravian colleagues as to whether he should marry the eligible bachelorette Sophia Hopkey.[15]

The literature is united in asserting that Wesley’s relationship with the Moravians in Savannah was close, sometimes even warm with Spangenberg and Nitschman, though he sometimes feuded with Moravian leader John Toltschig.[16] Indeed, Wesley’s generally cordial relations with the Moravians of Savannah was a source of frustration for the rather “Pietistic” Lutherans just six miles upriver in New Ebenezer, Georgia. These Lutherans were good “Halle Pietists” and thus saw the Moravians of Savannah as “Johnny come latelys” in the Pietist movement as well as potential rivals for leadership of the Pietist cause. Wesley sometimes snubbed these Lutherans in favor of the Moravians due to his perception that they lacked Apostolic credentials.[17]

John Wesley’s Contacts with the Moravians of England and Germany

By early 1738, Wesley was forced to return to his native England due to scandals stemming from his failed courtship with Sophia Hopkey, as well as a general distaste for his ministry on the part of most of his parishioners in Savannah. Despite Wesley’s mostly edifying contact with the Moravians of Savannah, Wesley returned to England a rather defeated man spiritually speaking. He had not yet experienced for himself the Moravian “religion of the heart” that he so admired. Upon returning to England, Wesley attached himself to the Moravians again by joining the Fetter Lane Society (while not an exclusively a Moravian religious society, it contained many Moravian members nonetheless) just recently formed under the leadership of Moravian Peter Bohler.

On May 24, 1738 Wesley would finally experience for himself a taste of the Moravian piety that he had so desired. At a meeting of the Fetter Lane Society in Aldersgate, a borough of London, Wesley had an encounter with God that would change his life forever. It was here that Wesley felt his heart was “strangely warmed” and he came to a personal recognition of Christ as his Savior.[18]

Wesley’s dramatic conversion ushered in what could be called his “honeymoon” period with the Moravians. Between 1738 and 1739 Wesley would continue to associate with the Moravians openly and freely. Furthermore, between August and October of 1738 Wesley would visit Herrnhut, Germany and be mostly rather impressed by the Moravian’s piety and organization.[19] Apparently while in Herrnhut, Wesley conferred with and spoke at length with Moravian spiritual luminaries such as Christian David and Johann Martin Dober, thus further being shaped by Moravian piety and spiritual practices. Despite a generally very high opinion of the Moravians, it seems that Wesley never developed a particularly favorable opinion of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, the patriarch of the Moravians.[20]

Remarkably, while in Herrnhut, Wesley was rather profoundly impressed with a Moravian funeral being given for a small boy. Wesley described in detail the “Gottesacker” (the graveyard or “God’s Acre”) as well as the liturgy performed for the funeral. He was extremely moved by the composure of the little boy’s Father. Wesley was even a little taken aback when he asked the Father of the little boy after the funeral “How do you find yourself?” and the Father responded in this manner

Praised be the Lord, never better. He has taken the soul of my child to himself. I have seen, according to my desire, his body committed to holy ground. And I know that when it is raised again, both he and I shall be ever with the Lord.[21]

The literature reflects the fact that Wesley was continually impressed with the Moravians deep faith in God. A faith so deep in fact, that they faced their own mortality (note that Wesley was impressed with the Moravians faith several years before while on board the Simmonds during a storm), even the mortality of their precious children, with composure and even joy, constantly sustained by the hope of the Resurrection.

John Wesley’s Relationship with the Moravians begins to Sour

John Wesley’s cordial, occasionally even warm, relationship with the Moravians was not to continue. By the early 1740s, a rift had developed between Wesley and the Moravians due in part to theological differences as well as a clash of personalities between he and Zinzendorf. It should be noted that theological differences between Wesley and the Moravians did not appear suddenly. Interestingly, Wesley expressed his reservations about the Moravian teaching of “stillness” to the Lutherans of New Ebenezer years before.[22]

Anna Marie Johnson defines well the rather “quietistic” doctrine of “stillness” that many Moravians embraced wholeheartedly. She notes that the Moravian belief was formulated as a response to Christians wrestling with deep crises of faith. She explains

Those who are unsure about their faith…should not struggle to regain it by excessively reading the Bible or praying, but instead should “be still,” including refraining from communion.[23]

The Moravians suggested that when the believer is unsure about their faith they should be “still” and wait for God to reveal himself via mystical experience. Apparently, in the early 1740s this doctrine was experiencing a revival in the Fetter Lane Society and Wesley was concerned. In many ways still a “High Church” Anglican, Wesley could not fathom how any mature Christian could counsel a wavering Christian to excuse themselves from the “means of grace” due to a temporary lack of faith.

Due to his concerns, Wesley met with his old friend Spangenberg to discuss the issue. Frankly, their discussion probably only made the problem worse. According to Wesley, Spangenberg explained that “those who have faith are not bound to use the means of grace, for they are free from any law.”[24] Wesley found such a doctrine deeply unsatisfactory thinking it contradicted both scripture and apostolic tradition rather glaringly. Wesley responded by leaving the Fetter Lane Society and taking about twenty people with him.[25]

Despite the rift, Wesley did not entirely abandon contact with the Moravians. Furthermore, the literature states that throughout the first six months or so of 1741 Spangenberg and Bohler actively tried to heal the divide. Their overtures to Wesley were unsuccessful and Zinzendorf decided to intervene himself. Again, this probably only made the situation worse. Zinzendorf scholar Anna Marie Johnson makes it clear that Zinzendorf had certain personality flaws that often made him difficult to get along with. According to Johnson, Zinzendorf could rarely see his own fault in any situation. Furthermore, he was also prone to being a generally irritable person.[26] Finally, even though Zinzendorf would renounce his title as “Count” he continued to carry himself with the distinct air of a noble. Such an attitude probably gelled poorly with Wesley the commoner who could also be a deeply stubborn and irritable individual himself.[27]

To make matters only worse, by the time Zinzendorf met with Wesley in London to try and heal the divide, Zinzendorf had already developed his own reservations about Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Rather than opening the meeting by focusing on their respective points of agreement, Zinzendorf opened the meeting with a critique of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection sharply emphasizing “that a Christian is holy only in Christ and is as holy when first justified as years later.”[28] Furthermore, Zinzendorf rather baldly suggested that Wesley was not really all that interested in peace with the Moravians in the first place. These testy exchanges probably doomed Zinzendorf and Wesley’s meeting from the start. By September of 1741, the Moravian Synodal Conference, meeting in London, agreed that the Moravians and Wesley would continue to respect one another, but the era of close fellowship once existent among them had come to an end.[29]

Conclusion

The literature makes it clear that between 1735 and 1739 Wesley and the Moravians enjoyed close, occasionally even warm, relations with one another. No doubt, during this period the Moravians strongly influenced Wesley theologically and spiritually. Unfortunately, long brewing theological differences as well as a clash of personalities between Zinzendorf and Wesley ultimately doomed Wesley’s once close relationship with the Moravians. However, the impact of the Moravians on Wesley’s theology and practice would never entirely disappear as he applied much of what he learned from them to his own Methodist program as well as his own spiritual life.[30]

Notes

[1] David T. Morgan, “John Wesley’s Sojourn in Georgia Revisited,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 64, no. 3 (Fall, 1980): 253.

[2] James Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 23, no. 3/4 (1984): 22-23.

[3] Geordan Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” Journal of Moravian History, no. 6 (2009): 34.

[4] Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” 21.

[5] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” 35.

[6] Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” 22.

[7] Ibid., 26.

[8] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” 48.

[9] Ibid., 26.

[10] Morgan, “John Wesley’s Sojourn in Georgia Revisited,” 254.

[11] Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” 26.

[12] Ibid., 29.

[13] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” 42.

[14] Ibid., 50-53.

[15] Morgan, “John Wesley’s Sojourn in Georgia Revisited,” 257.

[16] Nelson, “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” 36-39.

[17] Geordan Hammond, “John Wesley’s Relations with the Lutheran Pietist Clergy in Georgia,” in The Pietist Impulse In Christianity, ed. Christian T. Collins Winn, Christopher Gehrz, G. William Carlson, and Eric Holst (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011), 139-143.

[18] Anna Marie Johnson, “Ecumenist and Controversialist: The Dual Legacy of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf,” Journal of Religious History 38, no. 2 (June, 2014): 253.

[19] Ibid., 253.

[20] Ibid., 253.

[21] Kai Dose, “A Note on John Wesley’s visit to Herrnhut in 1738,” Wesley and Methodist Studies 7, no. 1 (2015): 118.

[22] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” 57.

[23] Anna Marie Johnson, “Ecumenist and Controversialist: The Dual Legacy of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf,” 254.

[24] Ibid., 254.

[25] Ibid., 254.

[26] Ibid., 241.

[27] Ibid., 255.

[28] Ibid., 255.

[29] Ibid., 255.

[30] Hammond, “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” 57.

Bibliography

Dose, Kai. “A Note on John Wesley’s visit to Herrnhut in 1738,” Wesley and Methodist Studies 7, no. 1 (2015): 117-120. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/weslmethstud.7.1.0117

Hammond, Geordan. “Versions of Primitive Christianity: John Wesley’s Relations with the Moravians in Georgia, 1735-1737,” Journal of Moravian History, no. 6 (2009): 31-60. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41179847

——— “John Wesley’s Relations with the Lutheran Pietist Clergy in Georgia.” in The Pietist Impulse In Christianity, edited by Christian T. Collins Winn, Christopher Gehrz, G. William Carlson, and Eric Holst, 135-145. Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2011.

Johnson, Anna Marie. “Ecumenist and Controversialist: The Dual Legacy of Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf,” Journal of Religious History 38, no. 2 (June, 2014): 241-262.

Morgan, Daniel T. “John Wesley’s Sojourn in Georgia Revisited,” The Georgia Historical Quarterly 64, no. 3 (Fall, 1980): 253-262. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40580644

Nelson, James. “John Wesley and the Georgia Moravians,” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 23, no. 3/4 (1984): 17-46. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41179412

 

 

 

 

 

 

Always be prepared to give an answer

1 Peter 3:15  has for the past several years been one of my favorite verses in the Bible. This verse states “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (NIV)” This verse commands us to be bold (and yet polite) witnesses to Jesus’ saving power at work in our lives. It commands us to be prepared to share our faith in a reasonable and winsome way whenever the opportunity arises. 

I am also convinced that this verse endorses the project of “Christian Apologetics.” Christian Apologetics is often a confusing term to many Christians. Often it is thought to connote “apologizing” for being a Christian. This could not be further from the truth. The word “Apologetics” comes from the Greek word “Apologia” which simply means to make a defense. Thus, the term Christian Apologetics could be reasonably defined as “Defending the core doctrines of the Christian faith.”

Christian Apologetics as practiced by people such as William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, Gary Habermas, Ravi Zacharias, Nabeel Qureshi, and others, typically focuses on how belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God is more reasonable than the belief that God does not exist. Furthermore, these Apologists will try to show that the Resurrection of Jesus is supported by the historical evidence we have available. Fundamentally, the task of the Christian Apologist is to demonstrate that Christianity better corresponds to reality than any other worldview.

The work of Christian Apologists (especially the work of William Lane Craig and Nabeel Qureshi) was very helpful to me a couple of years ago when I questioned the truth of the Christian faith. Their work helped show me that the Christian faith is reasonable and can withstand the most challenging questions of the skeptics.

Unfortunately, many Christian people have a very negative view of Christian Apologetics. Sadly, I think this is sometimes due to a misunderstanding of the word “faith.” Many are convinced that having true and authentic “faith” means believing something wholeheartedly without evidence. Demanding that what we believe be reasonable is for some Christians a sign that the person asking for evidence has a weak and inauthentic faith. However, God has not asked for us to believe in him without evidence. Rather, Romans 1 demonstrates that God has revealed himself to us in nature and John 1 tells us that he has revealed himself to us in his son Jesus of Nazareth. The work of the Apologist is to show that these truths are reasonable and can be supported by the evidence. Faith is not believing “what you know ain’t so,” nor is it believing something without evidence. Finally, it is not belief based on emotion or sentimentality. Faith is placing our trust in God’s revelation of himself because it is reasonable and best corresponds to reality.

I am convinced that more Christians in the western world will need to embrace the project of Christian Apologetics in the coming years if we want to be effective in sharing our faith. Answers soaked in emotion and sentimentality will do little to sway the hearts and minds of people in the information age. Yes, we need to share our personal testimonies of how Christ saved us, we need to share how comforting Christianity is to the human heart and soul, but we must also demonstrate that Christian faith is reasonable. I see no other way to win people to Christ in the 21st century. Indeed, I am glad that when I had questions and doubts, someone was there to show me that my worldview was reasonable, without it, I doubt I would be a Christian today. Thus, whenever you are tempted to dismiss the task of Christian Apologetics remember that there are many people like me who continue to walk with Jesus largely due to the work of those that defend the Christian faith.

 

The Gospel

Here is a short video my ministry put together about the main thing. Please be sure to share and I hope all are blessed by this video, Julian.

 

Why Pietism?

Recently I published an article on my blog about the renewal movement called “Pietism” that grew out of German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s. Lately I have been immersing myself in the writings of the great leaders of the Pietist movement such as Philipp Jakob Spener and August Herman Franke. Furthermore, I have been reading the work of modern scholars of the Pietist movement such as Roger Olson, Dale Brown, F. Ernest Stoeffler, and Christian Collins-Winn. With so much of my time being spent on this enterprise, and with it being the probable subject of my doctoral dissertation (God willing, I will begin doctoral studies this fall), my wife understandably asked me “why are you so interested in studying Pietism?”

Pietism in not a well-known term amongst Evangelical Christians even though it might be the most influential renewal movement of the Protestant tradition. Pietism as a movement emphasized the necessity of conversion, the importance of individual as well as small group Bible Study, and that authentic Christianity was more than mere mental assent to core Christian doctrines. The Pietists firmly believed that Christianity was a “heart” and not just a “head” faith. The Pietists were also people of great social concern. Something of a rallying cry of theirs was that they existed for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good.”

Pietism as an ethos has influenced Lutheranism as well as the Anabaptist movement in Christianity. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren in the United States has been especially influenced by Pietism. The Evangelical Covenant Church (one of the fastest growing Protestant denominations in the United States) is a distinctly Pietistic denomination. John and Charles Wesley were profoundly influenced by the Moravians who were a Pietistic people. It is hard to find a Protestant tradition that has been entirely untouched by the Pietist tradition. It is remarkable that it is so little known when it’s influence has been so wide.

“Why am I studying Pietism?” I study Pietism in part because it brought revival to German Lutheranism when it was desperately needed. Mainstream German Lutheranism in the 1600s and 1700s had become a stale and arid thing. The Pietists did much to revive German Lutheranism. The Pietists cared for thousands of orphans, printed millions of Bibles, and sent out many effective missionaries all over the world. The idea that they lived for “God’s glory and their neighbor’s good” was more than just a slogan, it was a way of life.

I also study Pietism for greater self-understanding. Pietist ideas have deeply influenced Evangelicalism and I want to know more about this trans-denominational movement that has deeply shaped what I believe and how I live my life. Finally, I believe Pietism may contain valuable insights for renewal in Evangelicalism today. The Evangelical Church in the United States needs renewal. We need to mobilize for the 21st century and reach the one-third of the world that still has not heard the Gospel. Who better to draw inspiration from than the Pietists? Pietistic Lutherans were some of the first to send missionaries to the native peoples of Greenland and Canada. Pietists missionaries were the first people to translate the Bible into Tamil. A language spoken by many people in India.

In short, I believe that the Pietists can show Evangelicals what it truly means to live a life for “God’s glory and our neighbor’s good.” Is there a more authentically Christian way of life than this? Is any other kind of life even worth living?

“Love so amazing, so divine”

Playing music has often been one of my favorite ways to wind down after a long day and today was no exception. This particular evening I found myself at my piano playing odds and ends of various Gospel songs and hymns. After a few minutes of this I began to play through, and sing, the old hymn “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross.” This has always been one of my favorite hymns both melodically and lyrically and perhaps not incidentally, one of the first songs I ever learned to play on the piano. I have probably played this song hundreds, if not thousands, of times over my life. This time however, the final lyrics touched me more deeply than usual. If you are unfamiliar with the lyrics this is how they go. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Simple, but powerful lyrics they are.

As I began to reflect on the truth of these lyrics I was reminded of the power of the Gospel. The Gospel is fundamentally a story about God’s sacrifice. Indeed, the Gospel is the greatest picture of sacrificial love that people have ever been privy to. Despite our rebellion God did not abandon us, God loved us, God became human for us, God shed his blood on the cross for us and God even tasted death for us. “Love so amazing, so divine” indeed.

Love of this nature simply demands a response as the old song goes. If one thinks deeply on what Jesus, the God-man, gave up for us so that we might be redeemed, we will necessarily be moved. If Jesus really gave his life for us so that we might be reconnected with a holy God, then neutrality is no longer a viable response to such a display of sacrificial love. It most certainly “demands my soul, my life, my all.”

This kind of sacrificial love demands that I give “my soul” to him and trust him as Savior and Lord. If there is anyone I can trust my destiny with, it is Jesus. He gave his life for me, and he has conquered death through his resurrection. Thus, I can be confident that I too will experience resurrection.

This kind of sacrificial love demands “my life.” Easy-believism or a fire-insurance mentality about my relationship with Jesus simply will not do. Jesus’s example of self-sacrifice demands that I serve him and serve others. There is enough selfishness in this world, there are too many people who live as if the world exists only to bring them pleasure. Many are fine with attaining pleasure at other people’s expense. I don’t want to continue this trend.

This kind of sacrificial love demands “my all.” Jesus was willing to give his all on the cross. He not only shed his blood and gave his life, but he was willing to suffer separation from his heavenly Father by becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sins. This kind of love demands that I give every part of who I am to the cause of Christ without reservation. I must be willing to sacrifice comfort, reputation, wealth, and even my own will for the cause of Christ. This is a great and difficult calling, but a necessary one considering what Jesus has done for us.

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” As I close with the writing of this reflection, these lyrics remain deeply imprinted into my mind. I am reminded that the Christian call is a call to death, death to oneself that is. It is a call to sacrifice, but as Jesus’s example shows, sacrifice can bring about beautiful results. This week I will consciously try to live by these lyrics and give “my life” and “my all” to Jesus. It is the very least I can do.

On Pietists and Preaching

Lately I have been doing a lot of research on the historical movement within Christianity known as Pietism. Pietism was a movement that grew out of German Lutheranism during the 1600s and 1700s. Pietism was essentially a revival movement that taught that renewal would only be achieved in the church when both the clergy and the laity more deeply engrossed themselves in the Holy Scriptures and moved beyond a mere “head knowledge” of the Christian faith and embraced the teachings of Christianity in their “hearts.”

Pietism as an ethos deeply influenced the Anabaptist movement as well as John and Charles Wesley and the broader Methodist movement they founded. Indeed, even today, Pietism’s influence can be felt in modern Evangelicalism even if it is rarely acknowledged or recognized.

Perhaps the greatest manifesto of early Pietism was a book entitled Pia Desideria or “Pious Desires” by Philipp Jakob Spener. Spener was a Lutheran clergyman who, though devoted to the Lutheran Church, nevertheless found that his native church was severely lacking in many areas. Interestingly, a problem that Spener found especially troubling within his native church was the poor state of the clergy.

It was not that the clergy were not well educated enough. Indeed, the average Lutheran clergyman had received rigorous training in Biblical languages, systematic theology, and logical reasoning, yet for all this training and knowledge, the preaching of many a Lutheran clergyman during Spener’s day was dull and ineffective.

Sermons had become highly academic affairs where pastors would wax eloquent over the most minor of theological matters. They would often lapse into long soliloquys in foreign languages the common people had no hope of understanding. Sermons were often seen as opportunities for the pastor to show off their rhetorical prowess with little thought given to whether the sermon would be of any practical value to the laity. Sermons were primarily informational and rarely transformational.

Whenever I read church history, I read with an eye to discover wisdom for the modern church. There is “nothing new under the sun” and a careful reading of the church’s past can give us insight for how to deal with the problems of today. As a preacher myself, Spener’s critique of the preaching of his time got me to thinking. How does the preaching of the modern Evangelical church compare to that of the Lutheran church of Spener’s time? Do I repeat many of the errors of Spener’s time when I get behind the pulpit?

I must confess that I too have been guilty of simply wanting to show off what I know when I preach. I study hard and work diligently at being a competent speaker. I am proud of my work ethic and I am passionate about teaching theology. Sometimes pride creeps in. I’m convinced that when this happens, I am not as effective as I could be. It becomes about me rather than pointing people to Jesus Christ and that is never good.

Furthermore, I have personally experienced preaching that was seemingly just about dispensing information to the congregation. It was like listening to a seminary lecture only far less interesting. Worse still, I have experienced preachers that were warped with pride by their intelligence, education, and rhetorical prowess. I remember one in particular who would not cease reminding everyone that he had four degrees including one from a prestigious research university. Fellow preachers, if we are guilty of this sin of pride in our education and abilities then we need to repent. We have an important job to do. Jesus Christ must be proclaimed! We can’t get in the way!

Now, I do not want anyone to think that I am teaching against seminary education or intellectually engaging preaching. I believe very strongly in both of these things and frequently in Evangelicalism we have the very opposite problem. Preaching in many Evangelical churches is often an emotionally charged spectacle, but a doctrinal mess with little to no good content. Indeed, an anti-intellectual strain runs deeply within Evangelicalism and it’s preaching, and it negatively affects our witness. This is not the kind of preaching I am advocating for.

Spener and the Pietists thought that preaching was vitally important. If revival and renewal were to take place in their time, better preaching was required. As preachers we must daily seek to preach more effectively by presenting sermons that while thoughtful and theologically sound, are also deeply practical. We need to preach sermons that provide for our people practical instruction in righteousness. We need sermons that point people to Jesus rather than our prowess and abilities. We need to be conscious of where our people are spiritually and intellectually so that we can gradually and carefully grow them into mature and theologically informed Christians.

I understand that this balancing act of the informational and the practical will not always be easy, but it is something we must strive for. I want my preaching to be effective and powerful, I want it to be transformational. When my eulogy is spoken, I want it to be said that my preaching pointed people to Jesus Christ rather than my meager abilities.