No historical movement is ever born in a vacuum and Pietism is no exception to this rule. Indeed, every historical movements is the product of many different forces and people all converging to create something new that is worthy of our serious attention and reflection.
Although figures like Johann Arndt and Jacob Boehme would lay the spiritual foundation upon which the renewal movement of Pietism would be built, it is very possible that Pietism would have never arisen if it had not been for the terrible Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)
The Thirty Years’ War was one of the most devastating conflicts
that Europe had ever seen. Germany was affected more so than any other nation losing roughly one-third of its’ population due to the conflict and a later plague.
No aspect of German life was left untouched by the conflict.
Germany’s economic, social, moral, political, and spiritual life were all in shambles. Only exacerbating matters, the German Lutheran Church was largely unable to ameliorate the many problems that Germany faced. Beset by many problems, the Lutheran Church was consistently unable to be a vibrant witness to the larger culture.
Spiritual health at all levels of society was at a strikingly low ebb with drunkenness, debauchery, and various other sins
common amongst even professing Christians. Some Lutherans during
this period were even convinced that occasional church attendance and
passive participation in the sacrament of communion were sufficient
grounds for salvation and a right standing with God.
The Lutheran clergy were hardly immune themselves from these
problems. While most Lutheran pastors during this time were very well
educated, their lifestyles were often little better than the laity’s.
Furthermore, the preaching of many Lutheran pastors during this era
was dry, academic, and frequently ineffective. Lutheran pastors often
spent an inordinate amount of time preaching on doctrinal matters of
minimal importance and sermons were rarely practical and helpful. In short, the Lutheran Church that emerged from Thirty Years’ War was
in desperate need of renewal.
Few Lutheran pastors grasped the church’s need of renewal more than Phillip Jacob Spener. His first pastoral position was in Frankfurt, Germany and here he experienced firsthand the widespread spiritual problems of the Lutheran Church. Desirous of correcting the errors of the church, Spener published a short book entitled Pia Desideria or “Heartfelt Desire for a God-pleasing Reform” which provided an outline for renewing the Lutheran Church.
Few texts better represent the ethos of Pietism than the Pia Desideria and its’ seminal place in the history of Pietism has led many scholars to dub Spener the “Father” of Pietism. The first half of Spener’s Pia Desideria is a critique of the morally and spiritually moribund Lutheran Church of his day. In it Spener
critiques both the laity and the clergy for their lack of sincere piety. Spener takes up a far more constructive tone in the latter half of the work and gives instructions on how the spiritual and moral life of the Lutheran Church might be improved.
At this point I don’t want to go into any more detail about Spener and his ministry although he is an incredibly significant figure in the story of Pietism. At a later date I will explore Spener’s contribution to Pietism more thoroughly. However, I believe this part of the story should wait to be told as developments that were taking place in the Dutch Protestant Churches during Spener’s day played a significant role in the rise of Pietism as well.
In The Story of Pietism: Part Five I will tell the story of the somewhat eccentric Dutch Catholic Priest turned Calvinist Pastor Jean De Labadie (1610-1674). De Labadie would eventually become an influential Pietist mystic with a fairly large following. Until next time, Julian.