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Pietism in 17th Century Germany

Written by Ronald J. Gordon ~ Published April, 1998 ~ Last Updated: September, 2020 ©
This document may be reproduced for non-profit or educational purposes only, with the
provisions that the entire document remain intact and full acknowledgement be given to the author.
It has been extracted from European Origin of the Church of the Brethren.

The Short Answer: A movement emanating from Lutheranism that emphasized the need for a “religion of the heart” instead of the head, yet combined with a strong commitment to express this inner experience in daily life. It was characterized by ethical purity, inward devotion, charity, separation from worldly interests, and even mysticism. Followers were known for individual piety and rigorous adherence to the teachings of Christ. Leadership was more empathetic to adherents instead of being strident loyalists to Sacramentalism. A later and more radical version of Pietism known as Separatism questioned the necessity of religious denominations.

Political and Religious Climate

rom 1616 to 1748, the Rhine Valley was a continuous scene of bloodshed and enormous property damage from a series of wars including; the Thirty Years War, the French Wars, and the Wars of Frederick the Great. Each conflict progressively weakened the fabric of social enterprise. The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) ended the Thirty Years War, but allowed the big three state churches, Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed to become a new monolithic force of domination and persecution. These prolonged conflicts left Germany in a quilted patchwork of local districts, knitted together by varying political relationships between the numerous governing princes. The new Big Three ecclesiastical bodies (Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed) forthrightly denied all other religious groups the right to exist within the Empire, and the citizens of each local district were forced to join whichever church was recognized by the local nobility, an administrative carry-over from the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. It is not over-simplification to frame the position of the Big Three State-Churches to all other groups as: “Convert, leave, or die.”

Although this tri-laterial body was united against other groups, each were still ardent enemies of one another; thus proving the adage: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Since wars changed political control in some districts frequently, it was entirely possible to be Lutheran one year, Reformed the next year, and perhaps even Catholic the next. People had become weary of political wars and church-state persecution. Repeated invasions had left the commoner with no real sense of identity or stability. Because armies subsisted on what they could take from local citizenry, it mattered very little to the populace whether the soldier was friend or foe. At the end of the century, while the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I was defending Vienna from the Ottoman Turks in the east, French king Louis XIV grasped this opportunity to invade the Palatinate district in the west. Known as the War of the Grand Alliance (1688-97), this war and the later War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14) again devastated central Germany, especially the Palatinate. Economic burdens on local nobility were immense. Farm lands were not replanted due to constant invasion, and people were often forced into thievery and immorality in order to survive. The future appeared to offer no hope or relief, only despair and gloom. But then something new happened which took the Big Three by surprise. On the soil of bloodshed and inter-faith disunity, another religious movement sprung forth. Pietism would also became the next receptor of state imprisonment and execution. It was a logical outgrowth of a religious populace that was exhausted of both war and the insensitivity of church leadership; a clergy that physically enforced attendance at worship and obeisance before dignitaries. Because worship had become dull and insensitive (more of a political tool) people naturally turned inwardly for spiritual renewal. Originally content to remain as a sub-group within the Big Three state churches, Pietists endeavored to substitute devotional formalism with a more genuine intellectual and emotional experience. Adherents stressed that faith, regeneration, and sanctification were qualities to be experienced rather than being explained by a church official. Local governments, overwhelmed with administrative disruptions and economic recovery from war, took little notice of Pietism in its earliest form. However, when the Separatists evolved, that would all change, for this new sub-group desired to clearly take the movement outside of the Big Three, and possibly exist as free independent groups without denominational structure.

Elements of Pietism can be traced with continuity to early Christian teachings of Gregory of Nyssa, Macarius, and Ephraem of Syria. But the largest movement of Pietism was birthed in Germany through spiritual pioneers who wanted a deeper emotional experience rather than a preset adherence to form (no matter how genuine). They stressed a personal experience of salvation and a continuous openness to new spiritual illumination. They also taught that personal holiness (piety), spiritual maturity, Bible study and prayer were essential towards “feeling the effects” of grace. Many early Pietists were content to remain in established churches, but in the late 1600's awakened souls risked the danger of separating from all state churches, and these Separatists were branded as radicals and fanatics, if not outright heretics. Many were severely persecuted, imprisoned or executed for simply going too far. Separatists went beyond the Anabaptist focus on mere conduct reflecting saving grace, because they stressed the need to “feel” the effects of grace. These Separatists, Awakened Souls, or New Reformers became intent on awaking everyone else from the complacency of mechanical religiosity with it's grandiose pageantry. It would not be a stretch of the imagination to compare their fervency and dedication with the Jesus Movement of the 1970's because their noticeable differences from mainstream Christianity resulted in a mix of theological confusion, intellectual aloofness, cultural misunderstanding, and prolonged suspicion. Most clergy viewed the rise of the laity as a threat to their presumed authority, especially at the university level where professors were unwilling to share their academic turf with the commoners view of theology. These latter reactions are quite natural if not even predictable.

New Reformers

he most famous Pietists emerged from the Lutheran Church with Philip Jacob Spener being the father of Lutheran Pietism. His publication of Pia Desideria (Pious Desires) in 1675 called for church reform by identifying both the laxity of the clergy and the shortcomings of the established church system. His six point prescription for reform would be rather tame, if not ho-hum, by today's standards, but in the Seventeenth Century it was radical. Perhaps influenced by early Pietist works from Johann Arndt (Six Books of True Christianity), Spener called for a re-introduction of primitive Christianity that would challenge the institutional stability of Lutheranism. As the logical implications of Pia Desideria became more clear, predictably church leadership felt threatened as the laity would have a greater role of participation in church life, and perhaps even the opportunity for new interpretations of church symbolism. Naturally the leadership would resent the intrusion of outsiders into their comfortable academic domain, knowing that once this door is opened, it shall not easily be closed.

Extremists in this new movement believed that in order to truly achieve piety or inward perfection, no less than a total separation from the wickedness of an immoral society would be necessary. And because some of this evil was perceived to exist in the church, this would mean a separation from the main three denominations, an interpretation which precipitated fervent disagreements. Pietism was now evolving into different forms along lines of theology and logical interpretation. August Hermann Francke was a theological associate of Spener who gained enough acclaim in biblical studies at the University of Leipzig, to be expelled by jealous senior faculty members. He was then assisted by Spener in acquiring a professorship of theology at the University of Halle; an institution which soon became a focus of Pietist activity. Touched with compassion over the ubiquitous human misery resulting from the Thirty Years War, Francke decided to teach the way of Christ outside the classroom, as well as from the university lectern. Orphans were everywhere, living in the streets and indulging in crime to survive. Francke established orphanages to care for young children, hospitals to care for the sick, and schools to educate pupils for the ministry and the sciences. Many of these institutions still exist in modern Germany under the direction of the Francke Foundation. At his death in 1726, nearly three thousand people were involved at the Foundation with his students becoming pastors, government officials, nurses, and professors. Francke and Spener were both content to reform the abuses of the church from within, a quality not true of the awakened souls who later became Separatists.

One of the most influential Pietists of the Separatist wing was Gottfried Arnold who earned his way through the University of Wittenberg by tutoring private families. It was here, as a law student, that he experienced his own spiritual “awakening” while also a disciple of Spener. Through exceptional learning skills, Arnold gained himself a master's degree by the age of twenty. Possessing a laudable understanding of early church writings, he began his own career of writing about early church life, and later published “Wahre Abbildung” - Real Images or True Pictures (of early Christians) in 1696. This major work gained him a professorship the very next year at the University of Giessen, and it was here that he befriended Ernst Christoph Hochmann who became one of the most virulent spokespersons for the Separatist wing of the Pietist movement. As their friendship intensified, so also did their respective spiritual gift begin to compliment each other with Arnold possessing the Separatist intellect and Hochmann being it's publicist. Arnold resigned shortly after he began teaching at Giessen, arguing that university life is too pagan for devout Christians. The hallmark of his literary accomplishment is his defense of early historically repressed Christian groups whom he called “true” Christians. Arnold believed they should be models for Christian living, along with a proper study of the teachings of Jesus. His books even influenced sectarians such as the famous scholar Goethe, because he praised early Christians by reason of their not possessing hierarchical encumbrances or contentious theological engagements. These early Saints were the pure work of discipleship and the fruit of the soul.

Hochmann in the Palatinate

efriended by Arnold in 1697, Ernest Christopher Hochmann von Hochenau also experienced his “awakening” at the University of Halle through August Hermann Francke. In the previous year, he had been arrested and expelled for openly preaching Christ and forcefully excoriating the three state churches. These incidents prompted him to abandon a promising career in law for that of an itinerant preacher. He was a persuasive speaker who roamed the countryside preaching to both nobleman and commoner with the power of the gospel. Also following the path of his mentor (Arnold), he proclaimed that the only true church was a spiritual one that was “separated” from denominationalism and especially from governmental interference. He later settled in the district of Wittgenstein (map) under the protection of Count Henrich Albrecht's (var. Henry Albert) promise of refuge to all persons experiencing harm for religious beliefs or activities. Responsible only to a weak imperial government distressed with bureaucratic ineptitude, Albrecht extended freedom to anyone suffering religious oppression, much to the consternation and unending protests of neighboring districts. Like a few other nobles, he saw the wisdom in granting protection to refugee craftsmen and farmers who would assist the rebuilding of his district, since war had left it sparsely populated and heavily destroyed. Religiously devout people also tend to be hard working and their skills much needed, thus the forbearance of Count Henrich Albrecht may not have been entirely spiritual in nature. Much earlier, his father Count Gustav had married a French Huguenot daughter, and some Huguenots fled to Wittgenstein at the invitation of Gustav when the Edit of Nantes, a guarantee of tolerance to French protestants was repealed by Louis XIV in 1685. Wittgenstein (history) was of the Reformed faith since 1555, but Albrecht was inclined toward Pietism. He praised the work of Hochmann who built a small hut near Schwarzenau called the Castle of Peace, and each of Albrecht's four younger sisters would later marry Pietists. In 1708 Alexander Mack, friend of Hochmann and founder of the Schwarzenau Brethren or Neue Täufer (new baptists, to distinguish them from old-anabaptist groups) would publically and illegally baptize his small community under the Count's unassuming watch. Henrich Albrecht effectively preserved the safety of his refugees until his death in 1723.

The Palatinate - (map) was an area of the Rhine River valley to the southwest of Frankfurt am Main. Separatists had come to this part of Germany just after the turn of the century, but they proved to be more of a nuisance to the local government than an imposing threat. However, that would change with the arrival of Ernest Hochmann about 1706. His eloquent preaching mixed with spiritual fervency intoxicated a multitude of listeners. People experienced inner heartfelt promptings for spiritual renewal and more edifying worship that was grossly lacking in the established churches. So effective was the ministry of Hochmann in converting people and establishing fellow missionaries that the Elector (ruler) of the Palatinate ordered their imprisonment without trial. As the Pietist leaders continuously fled from town to town, often narrowly escaping the authorities, their message effectively spread to a greater mass of people. The ruthlessness of the government in suppressing Pietism eventually resulted in the departure of a large number of the Electors own subjects.

In 1702, Hochmann was incarcerated in the prison of Detmold castle for his Pietistic activities, with a condition of his release being to articulate his religious beliefs in a formal written statement to his jailor. The Detmold Confession expresses not only Hochmann's own theology, but also gives us a window of opportunity to more clearly understand the Brethren during their early formation, because this document was used by Alexander Mack to undergird the practices and ordinances of his Schwarzenau congregation. It nearly became a creed for a body that denounced the use of creeds. It represented for colonial Brethren what the Augsburg Confession had meant for Lutheranism. Even the press at Ephrata Cloister reproduced a version of it.

Counting the Cost

lexander Mack, the son of a German miller, was born in the town of Schriesheim in 1679, in the very heart of the Palatinate. His father was an elder in the Reformed Church and briefly served as mayor of Schriesheim in 1690 and 1696. When he died in 1706, the mill was bequeathed to Alexander and his brother John Philip. Greatly influenced by Pietism, Alexander extended an invitation to Hochmann to come and minister in Schriesheim, who then used Mack's property for Pietist meetings. Although inconclusive, there is convincing evidence from some historians that Alexander even accompanied Hochmann on several preaching tours. When Pietist activity in Schriesheim became intolerable for local authorities, Hochmann was sentenced to hard labor, Alexander & Anna Mack sought refuge at Schwarzenau in the district of Wittgenstein, and many other Palatinates with Pietist leanings were expelled. Feeling secure under the protection of County Henrich Albrecht, Mack sold the remainder of his property in the spring of the following year (1707), and ministered to the needs of other refugees, as well as pay the legal fines of close friends.

In the summer of 1708, he contemplated organizing a small community of believers, who would attempt to implement Pietist experiential faith by communal practice, involving believer's baptism, sharing all goods as common, confession of sins, and diligently spending vast amounts of time in prayer in order to advance personal holiness. One mentionable difference existed between Mack and Hochmann. The latter being one of the more extreme Separatists in Pietism, for he did not believe that an organized church was necessary. Hochmann considered the pure Church to be spiritual, without formal clergy, ritual, the need of sacraments or buildings, whereas Mack held to the former. Living in the company of seven other similarly minded believers, Mack directed them to evaluate their mutual circumstance, particularly their unbaptized state (having repudiated infant baptism). If spiritual progress was to be made, it would be necessary to resolve these two hindrances through organizing and baptizing themselves. As Mack continued to dream of his own Pietist-communal experiment, he penned a letter seeking advice, guidance, and prayer from Hochmann, who was then imprisoned at Nurnberg. In Hochmann's reply dated July 24, 1708, he instructed the young visionary to ponder carefully the words of Jesus in Luke 14:28 - “count the cost!”

Additional Resources

Pietism in General

Philip Jacob Spener

Church of the Brethren

“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice,
holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world:
but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good,
and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Romans 12:1-2

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