Gift and Task: A Swedish Baptist Pietist Understanding

Let me respond to autobiography with autobiography: it’s the best way I can explain why so much of David Gushee’s essay sounded so familiar, even though I’m not a Baptist. You see, while I’m a convinced pedobaptist, I’ve spent all of my adult life with Baptists— the last twenty years with Baptists who are also Pietists.

Because of where I went to college and graduate school, the Evangelical Covenant churches of my upbringing weren’t an ecclesial option, so I instead attended a variety of Baptist churches — and my parents are still members at one of them. (They moved from Minnesota to the other side of Virginia while I was at William and Mary.) Then when I returned to the state of my childhood to start my teaching career, I happened to find a job at a Baptist university in St. Paul, MN.

But not just a Baptist university. Bethel, I was told, grew out of the “Swedish Baptist Pietist tradition.” It had historic affinities with the Southern Baptist churches of Gushee’s memory — I’m sure many of my students have had a conversation with a youth minister like the one Gushee recounted — and American Baptist churches like the one I attended for three years in Connecticut. (Until 1945, Bethel graduates wanting to enter the missions field generally worked for the American Baptist Foreign Mission society.) But Bethel was founded and is still sponsored by the Baptist General Conference — not the one in Texas or the one dedicated to keeping the Seventh Day Sabbath, but the one that was known as the Swedish Baptist General Conference until the end of World War II and then started doing business as “Converge Worldwide” in 2008.

Like my home denomination, the BGC/Converge had originated with the pietistic revival that swept Sweden in the mid-19th century and then came to North America in the hearts and minds of immigrants who settled in places like New Jersey, Manitoba, California, and the Upper Midwest. And while it grew and developed in ways that amplified its differences with the Evangelical Covenant, Evangelical Free, and Lutheran offshoots of the Swedish revival, its Pietist heritage also kept the BGC/Converge recognizably different from Baptist denominations in this country.

Most notably, Bethel has long defined itself by its “irenic spirit” — a peaceable ethos that at its worst sounds like a pious version of “Minnesota nice” and at its best echoes the theological humility and ecumenical yearning of Pietism. That was an enormous relief to me, after having spent ten years in Baptist churches that all went through some kind of schism. I’m not certain that Baptists are markedly more prone to fracture than other Protestants, but if my experience of Baptist congregational life is at all typical, then perhaps that reflects what Gushee describes as the problem of Baptists seeing their churches less as “covenanted communities of disciples” than as voluntary groups of “earnestly striving individuals” — who often find themselves earnestly differentiating themselves from their Baptist neighbors “by social-ethical-political symbols.”

Likewise, I’ve always been struck by how rarely I hear religious right rhetoric from the Baptists of Bethel. Not to say that most of my colleagues — let alone our students — are politically progressive, but even the conservatives don’t go in for the culture warring that’s led so many Southern Baptists into what Gushee calls “#MAGATrumpvangelical Christianity.” Instead, Bethel’s Baptists like to reiterate that they are simply “centered on Jesus” — at once eliding the political and theological debates within our community and refocusing us on that Christocentric model of discipleship that Gushee described so compellingly.

It’s a model that speaks to the concerns of Pietism, after all, since it doesn’t just stop with a realization of personal sinfulness covered by God’s forgiveness, but spills over into the entirety of one’s life… with both liberating and legalizing effects. Grace, in both the Baptist and Pietist understanding, is God’s undeserved gift, but a gift that entails more than justification. Grace turns the focus of my life away from “my wretched self-turned-in-on-itself” and towards Jesus and his mission. I would not have thought to describe that conversion’s result as “task,” but Gushee’s description of this aspect of “the conversionist paradigm” also rings true: “one never arrived, one was always on the way, there was always more to learn, more growing to do, more sin to repent, more Bible to read and (better and better) understand, more people to (better and better) love, more millions to evangelize…”

“A social, ethical, political vision is needed,” Gushee argues, “and not just a personal one.” And here I’m not sure that Pietism has done much to set BGC/Converge Baptists apart from their Southern cousins.

When I write the lead essay next month, I’ll surely mention A.H. Francke (1663-1727), whose agonizing conversion led not only to personal change, but the establishment of an array of charitable institutions animated by compassion. In Swedish Baptist history, that story inspired a Bethel-trained pastor named John Eric Klingberg to found an orphanage and school whose successor is still operating in Connecticut. And I think that aspect of the Swedish Baptist Pietist ethos still helps explain why Bethel has historically sent so many graduates into what we often call “helping professions,” like nursing, teaching, and social work.

But compassionate alleviation of suffering does not, in and of itself, address the causes of that suffering — some of which have more to do with enduring structures and complicated systems than the bad choices of sinful selves-turned-in-on-themselves. In general, I don’t think that their Pietist heritage has made Swedish Baptists any more comfortable than most other evangelical Baptists with what it means to do justice, not just love mercy.

I say “in general” because there are exceptions, none more important to me personally and to Bethel and its denomination institutionally than G.W. Carlson, who taught political science and Russian history at his alma mater for over 40 years. Remarkably, GW was at once a passionate defender of Bethel’s irenic heritage and Bethel’s greatest iconoclast, a tireless advocate for civil rights, labor unions, gender equality, and peace who was beloved by students and colleagues across the political spectrum. For him, the gift of Baptist discipleship was an “early identification with people in need or people who are unacceptable to mainstream societal norms,” and its task — also amplified by his version of Pietist piety — was “to follow in the footsteps of Christ and faithfully to live out the principles of the Sermon on the Mount.”

(I’m quoting here from GW’s talk at a 2012 symposium dedicated to one of his heroes: the Southern Baptist activist and writer Clarence Jordan, who founded a multiracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farm in 1942. I’ve written more about what GW called the “Radical Baptist” legacy of Jordan here.)

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