Is Pietism Really a Tradition? Is It Evangelicalism? And What of Justice?

Above all else, count me relieved that my unusual approach to the lead essay format seems to have connected with so many of my conversation partners. Knowing that the typical response to the word “Pietism” in the 21st century is either non-recognition (“What’s that?”) or mis-recognition (“Oh, you mean legalism” — or “anti-intellectualism” or “quietism”), I hoped for nothing more than trying to help people see Pietism from the inside-out.

If no one else here would come to the end of my essay and call themselves a Pietist — though I’m happy to find a Pentecostal cousin! — I do think it’s telling just how many people in this conversation heard something of their own experience of following Jesus in my imagined narrative of one Pietist’s week. Perhaps it offers some small confirmation of Roger Olson’s thesis about the pervasiveness of the Pietist ethos. Given how rarely music has come up over the past months, I’m especially delighted that everyone from Mennonites to Methodists to Mormons resonated with my paragraph about singing the hymns of Lina Sandell.

But by the same token, I can understand why Wes Granberg-Michaelson came to the end of my essay and still found it hard “to understand Pietism (with a capital ‘P’) as a distinct Christian tradition.” Christina Wassell was spot on in describing Pietism as “a strain of religious expression that hasn’t demanded a denomination, per se, and the trappings that come with it. Rather, this tradition seems content to be an influence that flows through many of the Protestant strains represented in our conversation.”

Perhaps Pietists never really had the option to demand denominational trappings. As Randall Balmer perceptively observed, Pietism “provided a means to circumvent calcified and unresponsive institutions. All well and good. But a kind of sociological inevitability kicks in at some point, and as the faith becomes routinized and institutionalized a new wave of scholasticism takes root—and thereby sets the stage for a new Pietistic revival of some sort.” In that sense, an institutionalized Pietism is impossible.

(Here I thought of Mark Ellingsen, who understandably circled back to many of our earlier points of agreement and disagreement in pondering a reunion of the Pietist child with its Lutheran mother. In my response to his essay, I had quoted his fellow Haugean Pietist Lutheran Gracia Grindal — a translator of Lina Sandell, among her many other accomplishments. Lamenting the decline of Pietism within this country’s largest Lutheran denomination, Grindal acknowledged that “a personal and individual experience simply cannot be passed on to the next generation through doctrine or structure. It tends to go cold.” And yet she hoped that what she took to be the spiritual coldness of contemporary Lutheranism might spark a new Pietist renewal. And so the cycle goes…)

When he invited me to participate, I wasn’t sure why Harold Heie would give one of twelve precious spaces in this conversation to something that is more a common ethos than a body of Christians sharing a sense of identity. So why include Pietists in the mix?

I suspect that Wassell may have put her finger on it, in concluding that my hypothetical Pietist sounded like “a thoughtful, if a bit overly self-conscious Evangelical.” Who in this conversation, after all, speaks for the wing of Protestantism that still claims an enormous segment of the American Christian population? Ultimately, I think that role will fall to Terry Todd more than anyone, since Pentecostalism accounts for a growing share of Evangelicals worldwide. But there’s enough affinity between Pietism and evangelicalism that I can also understand why Granberg-Michaelson was left wondering “what characterizes pietism from American evangelicalism.”

For much of their shared history, the answer would be: not much. It’s undeniable that Pietism helped to inspire the evangelical awakenings of the 18th century (see W.R. Ward, who starts his “global intellectual history” of evangelicalism with Philipp Spener) and the 19th century; Roger Olson even subdivides evangelicalism into “Pietist-Pentecostal” and “Puritan-Reformed” paradigms. It’s only in the twentieth century that we see space widen between the two, enough that my home denomination would refuse to join the National Association of Evangelicals. As historian Kurt Peterson has argued, leaders and scholars in the Evangelical Covenant Church identified themselves with what we’re calling the Pietist Tradition because they wanted to chart a “third way” between the liberal theology of mainline Protestantism and what they suspected to be the lingering fundamentalism of Billy Graham’s neo-evangelical movement.

So what distinguishes Pietists from Evangelicals? There’s still significant overlap — in myself, among others — but I think David Gushee’s response to my essay can help us start to recognize the differences.

He didn’t call them Evangelicals, but I suspect that many of those Protestants number among the “coldhearted, coldblooded, doctrinaire, politicized, and sometimes amoral Christian folks” whom Gushee finds so “befuddling.” For Pietists, what’s still most important is what Gushee called the “vital, living relationship with Jesus Christ” and “[demonstrating] this vital, loving, heartbeat of faith in our daily interactions with others,” not the traits that tend increasingly to define contemporary evangelicalism: “affirming orthodoxy, voting for the right party, and owning the libs.”

First, “affirming orthodoxy.” This far removed from the Modernist-Fundamentalist split of the early 20th century, Evangelicals don’t like to be identified with the latter term, but they still love to define themselves as guarding “historic orthodoxy” against the former threat. And they don’t necessarily mean the centuries-old doctrines that David Ford and Mark Ellingsen emphasized in their responses to my essay (though I appreciate Ford’s encouragement to consider more carefully the relationship between propositions and piety), but beliefs about issues that may strike other Christians as being of secondary or tertiary importance, such as the nature of human origins or gender roles, or a particular way of understanding the inspiration, authority, and truthfulness of Scripture.

Such theological gatekeeping aggravates the divisions within Christianity that Pietists have always abhorred and sought to transcend. Moreover, it makes possible Gushee’s combination of the adjectives “doctrinaire” and “coldhearted.” (Tellingly, the Covenant Church has said in recent years that it is “evangelical, but not exclusive” and “biblical, but not doctrinaire.”) The fear of “dead orthodoxy” that keeps inspiring irruptions of Pietism is no longer about the Nicene Creed or the Augsburg Confession; Pietists instead see it among some Evangelical defenders of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy or the Danvers Statement about “biblical manhood and womanhood.” Not only because they seem to us to be “majoring in the minors,” but because Pietists ask what difference this kind of faith makes in one’s life: whether it inspires love of others, or something more toxic. What else but “dead orthodoxy” do we call it when some Evangelicals insist that the Bible inerrantly defines rigidly distinct gender roles yet manifest that belief in misogyny and abuse?

Second, “voting for the right party, and owning the libs.” At this point in U.S. history, the term “Evangelical” is so closely bound up with partisan politics that many Evangelicals themselves are ready to drop the term. But if I’m right that a Pietist “longs for a Christianity more ‘authentic’ than a religion of custom and culture,” then no Pietist has much at stake in a “culture war” fought on behalf of ostensibly “traditional” values.

Which is why I acknowledged in my lead essay that some Pietists have embraced quietism. (Understandably: like Todd, I find myself yearning for more “quietude, soundlessness, even the apophatic[.]”) But for those of us who want to be “heavenly-minded” and yet seek “earthly good,” the most common Pietist strategy has not been political activism. Instead, most of us imitate what the Brethren scholar Dale Brown called “Christ the servant of culture.” By contrast to the five models of Christ sketched by Richard Niebuhr* — in particular, the one that leads Christians to seek to control their culture — Brown suggested that Pietists “​​neither to try to get on the top in order to make things come out the way we think they should or refuse to become involved at all.” Instead, we seek at once to “[love] the world for which Christ died,” by making faith active in loving service, even as our commitment to conversional piety helps us not conform to the world’s more destructive patterns.

(As someone who straddled the Anabaptist and Pietist traditions, Dale Brown would surely appreciate Michael King’s comment: “the tenderness that watches o’er the troubled ones of us safely in God’s bosom gathering can be a key source of returning to the world healed enough to care for it.”)

I think that explains as well as anything why Pietists would be as likely to support evangelical ministries of compassion and mercy like those of Samaritan’s Purse as they are to reject the staunchly right-wing politics of that organization’s leader, Franklin Graham. But it leaves open the question raised by several responses and posed most clearly by Farris Blount:

…how does the Pietist suggest we deal with and pursue collective action to create systemic change? I can clearly see that Pietists support collective action to solve social ills – how else would [August Hermann] Francke have been able to create schools, an orphanage, and a publishing house to aid his community if not for the help of others? But each of these efforts appears to try and address the symptom of the ill and not the cause. An orphanage can take care of children who are poor, but it does not necessarily alter the societal conditions that create poor children and the need for orphanages in the first place. A publishing house can provide affordable resources, but it does not appear to decrease the ever-increasing cost of goods that widen the gulf between the wealthy and everyone else.

It’s a clear weakness of my own tradition, one I named last month in my own response to Gushee. And it’s why — whether or not Pietism deserves to be a part of this project — I’m happy to participate in this conversation. No tradition here follows Jesus perfectly, and I’m glad now to recede from prominence and go back to what I enjoy most about Following Jesus: the chance it gives me to listen to and learn from others.

* By the way, Richard and Reinhard Niebuhr grew up within yet another of the small American denominations influenced by Pietism: the Evangelical Synod of North America. I knew it would be foolish to try to name all such bodies in my own short essay, so thanks to Mark Ellingsen for mentioning another in his response: the Church of the Lutheran Brethren. I could also add the handful of historically Norwegian “free Lutherans” who resisted absorption into what became the ELCA, plus the historically Finnish congregations of the Apostolic Lutheran movement, which descend from another member of the 19th century Pietist revival movement in Scandinavia: Lars Levi Laestadius. I’ll leave it for Sarah Lancaster to decide whether to discuss the United Brethren (now part of the United Methodist Church but originally the foremost result of the pietistic revival led by Martin Boehm and Philip William Otterbein) or the Brethren in Christ (who describe themselves as having Wesleyan as well as Pietist and Anabaptist origins).

3 replies
  1. Bonnie Fenton
    Bonnie Fenton says:

    Having been raised in a pietistic home-parents & grandparents- my experience has been the importance of a personal
    relationship with Jesus-& sharing that
    living reality with others in my daily living.
    So when I read a quote by Oswald Chambers (a valued influence) that seemed to write Pietism off as.” a people who are only interested in their own whiteness”, I took a greater interest in
    my own wall with Jesus.

  2. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    I wanted to pick up on your thoughtful reflections about Pietism’s struggles with quietism as another area for possible mutual enrichment of our traditions. You may recall that I introduced the Luther Two-Kingdom Ethic into our conversation, the belief that it is dangerous to try to derive social policy from the Bible but better to turn to our commonly held reason and natural law for norms. Yes, our following Jesus leads us to create the helping agencies society needs. But you are on target in noting that we still need to seek to address the causes of injustice (the social structures). Lutherans like Pietists don’t want to control culture. But if we renounce possessing special wisdom (from the Bible) regarding what is best for our social structures, but rather engage in rational dialogue with the whole polis about what justice should look like and how it can best be implemented , then our faith in Jesus can influence social change (it prods us to seek change) without trying to control it. (Wasn’t that Reinhold Niebuhr’s strategy, at least sometimes?) How about it, Chris? Can our mother and child reunion be implemented in a common approach to social justice as well?

    • Chris Gehrz
      Chris Gehrz says:

      Mark: I’ve often found Luther’s writings on vocation helpful (I’ll be teaching them later this month) and what you say about faith inspiring social change resonates strongly with the Pietist understanding of cultural engagement that I found in Bethel’s longest-serving president, Carl H. Lundquist.

      I’m sorry not to spend time answering every comment — this conversation has been a big enough time commitment as it is that I’ve had to put up some boundaries around additional engagement — but I appreciate your questions and gentle critiques.

      By the way, if you’re interested in seeing an example of someone who straddled the worlds of Pietism and Lutheranism, read some of the many columns in the journal Pietisten written by Tom Tredway, the Covenant-raised, North Park-educated historian who served for many years as president of Augustana College (IL). He was on my mind because he died yesterday…


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