The Impact of German Pietism on Methodism

Philipp Jacob Spener
Philipp Jacob Spener

Our next pre-trip lecture is on Sunday, April 26th, at 12:30 p.m. in LC214. In that lecture, Al Hoppe will explore the roots of Methodism in German Pietism. In this blog, I’ll look briefly at what Pietism is, and then turn in future blogs to its impact on the formation of Methodism, especially in America.

The birth of Pietism in Europe in the 17th century was a reaction to the ‘sterility’ of what German Lutheranism had become with its emphasis on right doctrine. Pietism was thus born of the need for faith to be expressed in the heart as well as the head. Pietism stresses the need for conversion, or an experience of “the new birth,” not just right thinking. Practically, it emphasized personal Bible study and establishment of Christian community through small groups, often referred to as “conventicles” or “religious societies.” Its Lutheran pioneers were people like Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke. And Pietism became institutionalized in Moravianism, which had a huge impact on John Wesley through folks such as Philip Spangenberg, Peter Boehler and Count Nicolas von Zinzendorf.  Pietism’s impact became felt in many European confessions, with Pietist-like resonances even being found in Roman Catholic Jansenism, Hasidic Judaism, and late Puritanism. Eventually, it also crossed the Atlantic and arrived on the shores of America where it would impact formative American Methodism. Thus, we can view American Methodism as an expression of transatlantic Pietism.

Protestant Pietism, especially in America, shaped religion around the conversion experience, understood not simply as an alteration in one’s status with God but as a discernible inner change. Pietism resourced those reborn and those seeking rebirth in small groups that encouraged members to make the Scripture normative for everyday life, sheltered individuals and families from “the world,” and empowered them to counter its claims and demands.

The resources that Pietism offered— new identity, community voluntarily created, a competitive missionary spirit, courage to persist despite society’s disdain, outreach to the poor and marginalized, willingness to forge new alliances— proved highly functional in community formation in the new American environment. Pietism lowered the gateway into ministry and raised the expectations of laity, thereby drawing women as well as men, blacks as well as whites into public witness, lay preaching, and eventually formal ministry.

In the American colonies, Pietism was felt in the diverse religious “explosions” that rocked the land in what came to be called “the First Great Awakening.” This was characterized by religion of the heart rather than the head, interest in revived discipline, revivalistic preaching, mass conversions, and new religious alignments which successively disturbed the religious status quo in the middle, New England, and southern colonies. Among the revival leaders who achieved transcolony reputations were Jonathan Edwards (Presbyterian) and George Whitefield (Church of England/Methodist). Whitefield had been the Oxford days friend of John and Charles Wesley, who had first introduced John to field preaching in Bristol, England.

In my next couple of posts, we’ll look a little more closely at the Rev. Mr. George Whitefield, not only for his influence on John Wesley, but also his influence in America. Then we’ll return to the early stirrings of Pietist influence in what was emerging Methodism in America.

(Source: Much of this material drawn from “American Methodism: A Compact History,” by Russell E. Richey, Kenneth E. Rowe, and Jean Miller Schmidt)

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