German Pietism

In this episode, we go back to the continent to cover the rise of German pietism as well as a brief history of the Moravian church and what the word Moravian even means.

Episode 20

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: German Pietism

Germany seems as old a country as England or France or Italy, but that is not the case. One of the joys of history consists in those little discoveries that shake our assumptions about the modern world. A common assumption is that the world we were taught in 8th grade geography class is the world that has always been and that will always be. Many who lived through the fall of the USSR saw maps of the world change, but the reality is that the world and the nations of the world are always changing in small ways, and sometimes in large ways. Italy and Germany are both very modern concepts. Texas has been a state in the US longer than there has ever been a Germany or an Italy.

Sicily and Calabria (the toe of the boot that is the Italian peninsula) were under Greek occupation for most of recorded history. They did not have a concept of Italy. As Richard Stites writes, “When in 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi’s Red Shirts in Sicily cried “Viva l’Italia,” some of the locals thought that “Italia” was the wife of the Piedmontese king Vittorio Emanuele.”1

A conception of Germany sits in a similar place for most of human history. What is now modern Germany consisted of hundreds of cities and areas ruled by minor nobility or ecclesiastical rulers, which meant that the local bishop functioned as sovereign. There is a language called German in the Indo-European Language family which has a winding road with dialects all over the place, but there was no nation of Germany until January 18, 1871, when Germanic princes declared King Wilhelm I of Prussia Emperor of Germany.

Luther’s rise in the early 16th century, shifted the balance of powers in German speaking lands. This collection of states and cities came to an uneasy peace after the Augsburg Settlement in 1555 which allowed princes to choose between Lutheranism and Roman Catholicism due to a principle called cuius regio, eius religio, whose realm, his religion. So Lutheran areas cities or regions were totally Lutheran, Catholic regions totally Catholic. According to Augsburg, states could not be Calvinist or any other denomination. They had to choose between the two options. It was after Augsburg that the conflict in the Low Countries of what is now Belgium and the Netherlands erupted, as we spoke about in Episode 7.

The same year that Augsburg was signed, Johann Arndt, was born in Anhalt, the same region where almost two hundred years later J.S. Bach would compose his Sonatas and Partitas for Soli Violin. Arndt was the son of a Lutheran minister and he followed his father in that career. He studied in many places, including Wittenberg, Strasbourg, and Basel, originally intending to be a doctor before shifting to theology. His studies were broad, and “he esteemed Plato and the Stoics, Epictetis and above all Seneca.”2 The study of Seneca connects Arndt to John Calvin, whose first book was a commentary of Seneca’s De Clémentia , published in 1531, which Arndt may have encountered in school.

After his studies, Arndt went back to Anhalt, the city of his birth, and was eventually ordained, but he was forced to leave town when the Calvinist leaning prince (though not officially so) ordered that exorcisms not be done during baptism, a medieval tradition which Martin Luther had retained. Arndt refused and so he had to look for a new town and a new church to serve. He published a collection of mystical texts in 1597, including The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, before moving to Braunschweig, a wealthy church in Lower Saxony, where Arndt wrote his most important work and perhaps the most popular book of Protestant theology in the 17th century: True Christianity.

He begins the book by saying that “the holy Gospel is subjected, in our time, to a great and shameful abuse is fully proved by the impenitent life of the ungodly who praise Christ and his word with their mouths and yet lead an unchristian life that is like that of persons who dwell in heathendom, not in the Christian world.”3

Wesley read Arndt in 1736 and included extracts from True Christianity in the first volume of A Christian Library.

If peace had reigned across Europe in the 17th Century, we might remember Johann Arndt in a different light. His influence on later spiritual currents is vast. As Heiko Oberman writes, Arndt’s spirituality is “the hidden and powerful source of a tradition that moved for some time in subterranean channels, surfacing toward the later part of the seventeenth century as German Pietism.”4

And yet, in 1618, a dispute over who would be the new King of Bohemia, in what is now the modern Czech Republic, brought Europe into a dreadful era of war that lasted, off and on, for 30 years. Instead of neatly dividing between Protestants and Catholics, the 30 Years War consisted of a number of different alliances among the greater and lesser powers of Europe. Many of the heroes of the English Civil War, learned modern battle techniques in the armies of Tilly and Wallenstein and Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, the greatest military tactician of the era.

For our purposes, though, the Thirty Years War brought death and destruction not seen since the plague years. The constant campaigning kept men from caring from the land and the battles and sieges destroyed much of the arable land across Europe. Where was God in the devastation?

In the height of the 30 Years War, in 1635, Philipp Spener was born in a village in Alsace named, in German, Rappolstweiler, but which currently sits in modern France and is named Ribeauvillé. It was under the Rappolstein family until 1670 when the family died out and the town came under the rule of the Bishop of Basel. Spener’s father was a steward and friend of the court. He credited his mother, though, with his religious impulses. Spener studied at a nearby grammar school in Colmar and then to the University in Strasbourg. He tutored in the house of Charles-Louis, the recently restored Elector Palatine, who was the son of Elizabeth Stuart, sister of King Charles I.

As his ministry continued, Spener’s fame grew with the creation of his collegia pietatis or pious groups, in 1669. He was pastoring in Frankfurt am Main and, as Ted Campbell writes, he “suggested that believers should meet together for edification, rather than trivial conversation.”5 Spener did not want to create new churches but to give née opportunities for faithfulness. The following is an excerpt from a sermon where Spener lays out his ideas for the collegia pietatis.

“How much good it would do if good friends would come together on a Sunday and instead of getting out glasses, cards, or dice would take up a book and read from it for the edification of all or would review something from the sermons that were heard…If this should happen, how much evil would be held in abeyance…It is certain, in any case, that we preachers cannot instruct the people from our pulpits as much as is needful unless other persons in the congregation, who by God’s grace have a superior knowledge of Christianity, take the pains, by virtue of their universal Christian priesthood, to work with and under us to correct and reform as much in their neighbors as they are able according to the measure of their gifts and their simplicity.6

The groups spread and Spener’s influence grew, which led to the publication of his best known work, which is still in print today: Pia Desieria.

The popular title comes from the Latin translation Spener made of his originally German text, but it is the name that has stuck. The subtitle is a “Heartfelt desire for a God-pleasing Reform of the true Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Christian Proposals Looking Toward this End.”

Spener begins the work with prayers and consolations and then a description how, in former times, church councils were called in order to address the issues of the day. There are also quotes about Arndt’s work but then there is a powerful set of exhortations:

“Let us, all of us together, now do diligently what we have been appointed to do, namely, to feed the flock which God has bought with his own blood and therefore at a very great price. Let us remember, dear Fathers and Brethren, what we promised to God when we were set apart for our ministries and what must consequently be our concern.”7

The first section describes the challenges of the church and how the reality is so bleak that “we cannot turn our eyes upon it without having quickly to cast them down again in shame and distress.”8

He then articulates more clearly defects in the clergy, saying “Although by God’s grace we still have pure doctrine derived from the Word of God, we cannot deny that much that is alien, useless, and reminiscent of the world’s wisdom has here and there been introduced gradually into theology.”9

The problem with much of the teaching that Spener criticizes is not that it is in error but that it keeps the minds of the faithful away from the simplicity and truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even to the point that Spener says that the Apostle Paul would not be able to understand what “our slippery geniuses sometimes say in holy places.”10

In response to this issues, Spener offers proposals to correct the conditions. As K. James Stein explains it, “Spener offered six concrete reform proposals: a more extensive use of Scripture by clergy and laity; the establishment and exercise of a lay spiritual priesthood; a stress upon righteous Christian living; better participant conduct in religious controversies; a pious reform of theological education; and the preaching of sermons that would produce faith and its fruit.”11

Spener also recommends Johann Arndt’s work as well as the German medieval mystics John Tauler and Thomas à Kempis in his positive proposals. Kempis, especially, was highly influential on the early John Wesley.

Near the end of his life, Spener ended up in Berlin and became influential with the court of Brandenberg and in the formation of the University of Halle, an important seat of Pietism in the future. One of the deeper connections in the history of Methodism is that in 1700, Spener baptized the young heir of a noble family, the future Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

Wesley will come in contact with Zinzendorf because of his relations with the Moravians. We will go into more detail on Zinzendorf in a later episode, but at this time, it is important for us to have an understanding of the Moravian Church up until the end of the 17th century.

The term Moravian comes from a region in Europe in the Eastern part of what is now the Czech Republic. The Margravite of Moravia overlaps some modern borders a bit, but that gets back to the point I made in the beginning of this episode about the shifting natures of borders ans nations. The roots of the Moravian church, though, are found in the neighboring Kingdom of Bohemia, which is also in the modern Czech Republish. When Jan Hus began his attempt at Church reform in the early 15th century (one hundred years before Luther), Hus and his teaching became influential even with the kIng of Bohemia, but he was called to the Council of Constance in 1415 and labeled a heretic. A number of Husite wars took place over the next thirty years. In 1457, the Unitas Fratrum, or Unity of the Brethren, was founded by Hus’s followers. With the rise of Luther, the Brethren expanding widely, becoming the majority faith of Bohemia and Moravia. After the start of the Thirty Years’ War, the Brethren were officially suppressed and went underground in pockets all over Europe, but especially in Moravia. In 1722, Zinzendorf offered shelter to the oppressed Church of the Brethren in Herrnhut. In 1727, a revival will take place in Herrnhutt that will directly lead to John Wesley meeting a group of Moravians in October of 1735 on the way to Georgia and being astounded by their faith and hope.

On his way to Georgia, Wesley read two works by the spiritual heir of Spener, August Hermann Francke.

Born in 1663 in Lübeck, Francke studied languages and theology in many places like Erfurt, Hamburg, focusing on Hebrew and Greek. In 1690, he took a position as a pastor in Erfurt, but there was a controversy over pietism that led to his dismissal. Like all religious movements, there were many people excited by pietism, as well as many who liked things the way they were and thought these upstarts were challenging orthodox Luthernaism itself. After leaving Erfurt, Francke became a pastor in a suburb of Halla called, Glaucha, and a professor of biblical languages at the University of Halle that Spener had helped create. Francke published extensively and his work helped turn Halle into a missionary hub send evangelists around the world.

Francke also had a conversion experience similar to Wesley’s at Aldersgate. While Francke was in school, his uncle sent him to the prominent scholar Kaspar Hermann Sanhagen in Lüneburg. Francke’s studies had led him to doubts about the validity of the Bible, but his spiritual experience stopped that doubt.

I fell once more upon my knees on this Sunday evening, and I appealed to God, whom I still did not know nor trust, for salvation from such a miserable state. Then the Lord, the living God, heard me from his throne while I was still on my knees. So great was his fatherly love that he chose, rather than to settle my doubts and the unrest of my heart gradually…instead to hear my prayer suddenly…Then all my doubt vanished as quickly as one turns one’s hand; I was convinced in my heart of the grace of God in Christ Jesus; and I could call on God not only as God but as my Father. All the sadness and unrest of my heart was taken away at once, and I was immediately overwhelmed as with a stream of joy so that from a full heart I praised and gave honor to God who had shown me such great grace.12

Wesley studied Francke in Georgia and upon his return and even abridged Francke for use in Small Group settings and published an edition in 1739.13

The influence of German piety was not just in innovative small groups or church reform. Wesley was greatly influenced by the desire to return to the sources of the faith wherever he could find them. Wesley’s missionary colleague in Georgia, Benjamin Ingham, wrote about Moravian piety in his journal, saying, “They are more like the Primitive Christians than any other church now in the world; for they retain both the faith, practice, and discipline of the apostles.”14

Discourse around Primitive Christianity had been growing in the late 17th century in the English Church, but also in the Moravian Church. Many sought clarity from religious conflict by seeking the practices of the primitive or early church. What did they find there and how did scholarship on the primitive church influence Wesley and the early Methodists, next time on the History of Methodism.


Richard Stites, The Four Horsemen: Riding to Liberty in Post-Napoleonic Europe (New York: Oxford UP, 2014).

Ted Campbell, Religion of the Heart (Columbis, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).

Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans. by Theodore G. Tappert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1964).

Carter Lindberg (ed.), The Pietist Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007).

  1. Richard Stites, The Four Horsemen: Riding to Liberty in Post-Napoleonic Europe (New York: Oxford UP, 2014), 292. ↩︎
  2. The Pietist Theologians, 23. ↩︎
  3. Arndt, 21. ↩︎
  4. Oberman, preface to Erb, Johann Arndt, xiii, cited in Campbell, 79. ↩︎
  5. Campbell, 84. ↩︎
  6. Spener, Erbauliche Evangelisch- und Epistolische Sonntags-Andachten Frankfurt, 1716), 638, quoted in Spener, 13. ↩︎
  7. Spener, 36. ↩︎
  8. Spener, 40. ↩︎
  9. Spener, 51. ↩︎
  10. Spener, 57. ↩︎
  11. The Pietist Theologians, 84-85. ↩︎
  12. Markus Matthias (ed.), Lebensläufe August Hermann Franckes (Leipzig: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1999, 29, in Pietist Theologians, 102-103. ↩︎
  13. Hammond, 34 n14. ↩︎
  14. Ingham Journal, in Luke Tyerman, The Oxford Methodists (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1873), Oxtober 17, 1735, 68, cited in Hammond, 38. ↩︎