The Flowering of Pietism in the Garden of America
Finding expression in America in a bewildering number of forms and denominational expressions, Pietism clearly provided the foundations for much of American religious structure. Its emphasis on the Christian walk, on evident piety, and active and mutual support fit well with the American environment.
Pietism Permeates America
For many Americans, Puritanism is the classic form of American religion. Early educational influences ensure that stories of the Pilgrims and Plymouth Rock appear at Thanksgiving time. The poetry of Longfellow and Bryant, the essays of Emerson, the literature of Thoreau and Melville—all reinforce this orientation. This is not surprising, for it was New England which provided the basic American stories for understanding itself; the New England schoolmaster taught the nation. Such teachers were not limited to the American Northeast; the McGuffey readers, for example, though written in Ohio perfectly inculcated New England ideals. To this day the Georgian meetinghouse of colonial New England provides the stereotype image for what church architecture should be.
For all of the Puritan emphasis, the case can be made that Pietism with its various branches has played just as important a role in American religious development. On a quantitative basis, those faiths influenced and permeated by Pietism loom as large in the historical record as does Puritanism. In terms of cultural achievement, particularly in hymnody, Pietism has arguably created more advanced works. The Pietist ethic of active and practical Christianity has been more characteristic of American religious orientation than has the demanding Calvinistic theology of Puritanism.
A generation ago scholars led by Samuel Eliot Morison and Perry Miller won a reassessment among academics of the place and integrity of Puritanism. A similar renaissance in understanding is badly needed for the slighted Pietist movement. One of the problems has been the rich variety of Pietist developments, difficult to incorporate into easily apprehended categories. They can be organized into four components: 1) sectarian Pietists; 2) churchly Pietists; 3) Wesleyan Pietists; and 4) communal Pietists.
By the end of the 17th century, a variety of religious bodies had members in the American colonies, particularly in the Middle Colonies of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In 1687 a governor of New York, after listing chaplains of the Anglican, Dutch Calvinist, French Calvinist, and Dutch Lutheran faiths, reported: “Here bee not many of the Church of England; few Roman Catholocks; aboundance of Quaker preachers, men and Women especially; Singing Quakers; ranting Quakers; Sabbatarians; Anti-Trinitarians; some Anabaptists; some Jews; in short, of all sorts of opinions there are some, and the most part of none at all.” Quite early, those groups singled out for suppression by European authorities as religious dissenters found the freedom of America attractive. Many of these religious groups were infused with Pietist thought and style, while they retained Anabaptist and Separatist distinctives. Several colonies directly recruited these dissenters, for they were known for their industrious work habits and exemplary lifestyles.
Prominent among them were the Mennonites, Dunkers, and Moravians. The Mennonites were the direct descendants of the evangelical Anabaptists of the 16th century. By the late 17th century their earlier aggressive Anabaptist spirit had been tempered by the quieter, more inward-looking tenets of Pietism. Mennonites had by this time won nearly complete toleration in the Netherlands and tenuous toe-holds in other countries, particularly in several German principalities along the Rhine river. Mass Mennonite emigration from Continental Europe began in 1683 with 13 families who left from Krefeld on the Lower Rhine to seek new lives near Philadelphia. They established near Philadelphia the village of Germantown, which came to be a center for sectarian Pietists. As many of the Krefelders had affiliated with the Quakers before leaving Europe, the first Mennonite congregation was not organized there until 1708.
Yet earlier was an abortive attempt by Mennonite/Collegiants from Holland led by P.C. Plockhoy (1620?–1720?). The Dutchman’s colony along the Delaware, settled in 1663, was plundered the next year in the wake of the successful English usurpation of Dutch colonial possessions on the Atlantic seaboard. Though the colony was “destroyed . . . to a naile” by the English raiders, Plockhoy and his wife survived. In 1694 they made their way to Germantown, where they lived out the years remaining to them.
Mennonites continued to arrive in the 18th century; this, combined with the natural growth of their prolific families, resulted in expansion. They pushed into the interior of Pennsylvania, into Maryland, the valley of Virginia, and to the Carolinas. Settling slowly across the United States in rural enclaves, Mennonites were known primarily as good farmers, good neighbors, and conscientious objectors to war. They experienced a marked revival and renewal in the 20th century, centered in the “recovery of the Anabaptist vision.” A world-wide extension of relief aid and service through the agency called the Mennonite Central Committee was linked with an active program of missions. By the 1980s the Mennonites, though splintered into several different denominations, were a multi-cultural, multi-lingual body of more than 500,000 adult members.
To the Mennonites in colonial America were added the Amish, followers of Jakob Amman (fl.1700) of Switzerland. The Amish had split from the mainstream of Anabaptism in 1693 because Amman, when an elder, demanded greater separation from “worldly” practices and stricter church discipline. Some Amish may have arrived in America before 1720 but the larger immigrations into Pennsylvania came after the mid-1730s. Although rent in turn by several divisions, the Old Order Amish flourish to this day in Lancaster County and other parts of Pennsylvania and have even larger settlements in Holmes County, Ohio.
An associated body was the River Brethren, which took the official name Brethren in Christ during the Civil War. Of Mennonite background, they borrowed Dunker patterns and created a revival spirit as they developed as a separate body between 1775 and 1788.
The Dunkers or Brethren became a distinct religious movement in 1708 in Schwarzenau, Germany. They formed themselves into a covenanted community much like the Mennonites, although members were originally Pietists from several parts of Germany, Switzerland, and France. The nickname Dunkers arose from their practice of baptism of adult converts by a triple forward immersion. The first contingent of Brethren arrived in Pennsylvania in 1719; church organization followed in 1723. Several other large migrations ensued, so that by mid-century the movement was completely transplanted to North America.
In contrast to the Mennonites, the Dunkers were quite zealous and were active in revival, renewal activities in the 1730s. A critical contemporary wrote of them that the better-known Great Awakening was preceded by a “tempestuous movement” among the “old Brethren.” They “have always been diligent proselyters” who travelled and “preached as far as Virginia,” speaking of repentance, conversion, and the inward life; they “considered themselves to be the centerpiece of the kingdom of God.”
Morgan Edwards (1722–1795), a well-informed Baptist historian and preacher, reckoned the size of the Brethren in 1770 to have reached about 1500 adult members, with five times that many associated in some way. Like the Mennonites, Brethren joined the general tide of westward settlement, reaching the Pacific coast by 1850. Despite a three-way split in 1881–1883, the major body, now known as the Church of the Brethren, flourished in size and activity in the later 19th-century, developing higher education, publications, and foreign missions. It became best-known for an active and extensive program of relief and rehabilitation through its Brethren Service Commission. Brethren leaders were instrumental in starting a host of service programs later adopted as well by other churches, including the Heifer Project, Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP), and a high-school student exchange.
The Renewed Moravian Church, though never large numerically, has made an outstanding contribution to American life. With roots in the radical reformation of 15th century Moravia, it gathered renewed energy under the charasmatic leadership of Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) after 1727. Several Moravian communities were established in Georgia (1735), North Carolina (1753), and, especially, in Pennsylvania (1741–42). Although Zinzendorf’s ecumenical ventures of the 1740s (Pennsylvania Synods) were not successful in unifying the diverse German-speaking bodies, they did solidify the emerging Moravian church and, paradoxically, stimulated the denominational identity of other groups. Two areas of Moravian achievement deserve specific mention: the sacrificial missionary program among the American Indians—David Zeisberger (1721–1808) and others—and the rich musical and hymnic program.
Although Pietists of sectarian background tended to come first, in the course of the 18th century most immigrants arrived in the American colonies with established church backgrounds. These were the Lutherans and the Reformed (Calvinists). Ordinarily, the motivations for their exodus from the homeland were economic, whereas the earlier dissenters had suffered from various degrees of official pressure and therefore sought religious freedom. Those from state church backgrounds had more difficult adjustments in the New World than did the dissenters, because the former had to adopt a new pattern of support and personal initiative if they were to have religious support. There was no political authority in the Middle Colonies to insure pastoral appointment and regular worship services.
Given this lack, Lutherans and Reformed looked to the home countries for assistance. The home base for Lutherans was the citadel of German Pietism, Halle in Prussian Germany. Most of the pastors who ministered to Lutherans in colonial America were commissioned and sent out from Halle. Their reports represent the most complete record of early Lutheran church life in America. The outstanding figure, though not the first on the scene, was Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–1787), often called the patriarch of American Lutheranism. His theology was clearly shaped by Hallensian Pietism, as was the case of most of his colleagues.
There was another link between early Lutheranism and German Pietism. A Pietist circle created in Frankfurt on Main by the “father of German Pietism,” Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705), purchased land in “Penn’s Woods.” This Frankfurt Land Company recruited young and learned Dr. Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-1720) in 1683 to go to Philadelphia as their agent to prepare the way for proposed later colonization on 15,000 acres. Pastorius was one of the first settlers in Germantown and is often called its founder. Although this is exaggerated he was made its first mayor and played a key role in its development. As a Pietist, he felt at home in the Quaker/Mennonite religious meetings; as such he was one of the signers of the famed 1688 declaration against slaveholding, the first such protest in American history. Pastorius was a leading intellectural in colonial Pennsylvania and commented extensively in an encyclopedic commonplace book (still unpublished), which he called the “Beehive,” on happenings in this New World. His account of travel to America and conditions there (Sichere Nachricht aus America) was published in Europe in 1684 and served to induce other Germans to risk emigration to the colony. As it happened the expected mass migration of the Frankfurt Pietists never took place but there was extensive exchange of correspondence between Frankfurt and Germantown.
Not all Lutherans were sympathetic to Pietism. Indeed, early Swedish Lutherans and some other Lutheran clergy were harshly critical of Pietism and stayed loyal to the orthodox or scholastic school of Lutheran dogma. But it was clearly the Pietist phalanx of Lutheran clergy who created colonial American Lutheranism. Some later immigrations in the 19th century were a different story, as many came as orthodox faithful, determined to escape the rationalist and unionist trend in the homeland.
Yet, there were 19th century Lutheran immigrants who came as Pietists. Two important examples were the (Swedish) Evangelical Covenant Church and the Evangelical Free Church. The Covenant movement began with the established Lutheran Church of Sweden in the early 1800s. Carl Olof Rosenius (1816-1868) edited Pietisten, a periodical initiated by an English revivalist, and introduced conventicles where students of the Bible met to edify each other. A veritable revival swept through Sweden. In the mid-19th century, many of these Pietist “readers” migrated to the United States as part of the large number of Scandinavians seeking economic survival. They found each other in North America and eventually developed a separate denominational identity in 1884–85 under the leadership of Carl A. Bjork and Eric Skogsbergh. Bjork was originally a layman, a cobbler by trade, who led worship by reading sermons from the Pietisten. Once a member of the congregation, who wished to hear him preach, removed the periodical from the pulpit which forced Bjork to extemporize a sermon. This he did with such freedom and power that several in the congregation were brought under conviction of sin and sought conversion. Skogsbergh became renowned as an evangelist, adopting many of the techniques of American revivalists.
In similar fashion, the Evangelical Free Church was formed in 1950 by the merger of two independent Pietist churches from Scandinavia, the Swedish Evangelical Free Church (formed in 1884) and the Norwegian-Danish Evangelical Free Church (1909). The roots of both were earlier revival movements in the homelands. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, is a noted and large seminary sponsored by the church, also known for its missionary activity.
It is necessary to return to the colonial period of American church life, to pick up the story of the second of the “mainline” Protestant bodies of the Reformation Era, the Calvinist or Reformed Churches of German and Dutch descent. The Reformed faithful looked to Europe, as had the early Lutherans, but in this case the sending and supporting base was the Classis (district governing body) of Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. Although the German Reformed did not have one dominant personality (unlike the Lutherans with H.M. Muhlenberg), two Pietists, the German Johann Philip Boehm 1683–1749) and the Swiss Michael Schlatter (1716–1790), can serve as typical figures. First Boehm, and then Schlatter labored to create a synod to stabilize the church life of the scattered Reformed laity by training and accrediting worthy ministers.
Some of the early Reformed clergy had roots in a separatist form of Pietism, such as Samuel Guldin (1660–1745), who was driven from his native Switzerland because of his outspoken Pietist critique of the church establishment. The most gifted academically of the Reformed clergy in colonial America was Johann Peter Mueller (1709–1796). He, however, was attracted to the Ephrata Community, where he became its leader as successor to its founder, Conrad Beissel.
A more important development for the Reformed persuasion came within the Dutch ethnic element. Here the leading figure was Theodorus J. Frelinghuysen (1692–1748), who figured prominently in the beginnings of the Great Awakening. Frelinghuysen was a German by birth but served a Dutch-speaking congregation in Raritan (Somerville), New Jersey. Although the German and Dutch Reformed elements in American church life were later incorporated into and overshadowed by their English and Scotch Presbyterian counterparts, their contribution to the American religious mosaic is significant.
Pietism with a Wesleyan flavor can be described in three categories. The first stems directly from the societies in England founded by John Wesley himself. Another important development flowed from the German ethnics, led by Philip William Otterbein, Martin Boehm, and Jacob Albright. Their efforts resulted in the United Brethren and the Evangelical Association. The third comes from the variegated movements that separated from the main Methodist body.
The connection of John Wesley (1703–1791) and Pietism is both personal and doctrinal. Wesley was profoundly influenced by the Moravians, on the way to his brief mission effort in Georgia, while in Georgia, and upon his return in disgrace to England. Their influence was evident in the course of his conversion/breakthrough at the Aldersgate society (1738), where his heart was strangely warmed. Wesley traveled to the Moravian headquarters in Germany, and his later organizational ideas bear direct impress of that visit, although he came to differ with them on some points of teaching. “It was his contact with the Moravians . . . which gradually turned Wesley the seeker into Wesley the possessor of that experiential ‘knowledge’ of God which Pietists universally considered basic to the religious life” (Stoeffler).
As far as doctrine goes, there are strong links between Wesley’s emphasis upon sanctification, assurance, and perfection and the Pietist emphases on the Christian walk. Also, his tolerance for diversity on minor points of doctrines as long as the heart is right is a basic Pietist attitude. Although scholars have pointed out Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic, and mystical influences on John Wesley, there is real justification for counting his societies—and the broader Methodist churches—among the Pietist fold. Further evidence for the influence of Pietism upon the Wesleyan movement is readily found in Methodist hymnody. Many hymns were taken directly from the rich Moravian storehouse of hymns. Moreover, the large number of hymns written by Charles Wesley (1707–1788) exhibit characteristic Pietist language and intention. CH
By Donald F. Durnbaugh
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #10 in 1986]Donald F. Durnbaugh, Ph.D., is Professor of Church History at Bethany Theological Seminary, Oak Brook, Illinois. His writings include The Believer’s Church: The History Character of Radical Pietism.
The Wissahickon Hermits
These musical Pietists migrated to America where they did works of mercy, teaching, attending the sick, and evangelizing.Robert Borneman
From the Archives: True Christianity
Johann Arndt’s work is recognized as the first great literary expression of Pietism. In his True Christianity he lays the foundation for biblical faith and how the believer must experience the power of faith in a vivid Christian lifestyle.Johann Arndt
From the Archives: The Pia Desideria (Pious Desires)
The Manifesto of Pietism.Philip Jacob Spener
From the Archives: On Christian Perfection
To offset the decline in moral and spiritual values, Pietists sought to establish new standards of conduct and Christian discipline. Often these standards appeared to be perfectionistic and Pietists were criticized for this tendency. However, as this selection from A.H. Francke shows, Pietists also recognized human imperfections and thus strove for their ideals, fully aware that frailty and ignorance are a part of man’s struggle.August Hermann Francke