Stirred by Tender Pietism

In his stirring rendition of “A Week in the Life of a Pietist,” Christopher Gehrz illumined for me the reality that a fair amount of what I’ve experienced as just part of my heritage is indebted to Pietism. I needed barely to  read more than that one of my favorite hymns, “Children of the Heavenly Father,” has Pietist roots to grasp this.

This intrigued me enough that I pursued Gehrz’s fuller comments on the song writer, Carolina Sandell, learned that she is his favorite hymn writer, that she engaged in bride (of Christ) mysticism, and that

Still more controversially, she inherited the Radical Pietist and Moravian interest in the divine feminine. The first draft of “Thy Holy Wings” asked God to spread “warm mother’s wings,” and a hymn inspired by the martyrdom of Swedish missionaries in Ethiopia implored God to “tenderly hover” over Christ’s witnesses on Earth, “Embracing their cares like a mother.”

Reading this took me to my childhood as an often-lost missionary kid trying to survive both the beauties and bafflements of life in Cuba and Mexico. By the time I was 12 the crosscurrents of the missionary experience and my escape into secular inspirations like science fiction had me flirting with atheism. Yet repeatedly a backdrop of hymns and gospel music playing most bedtimes on a Wollensak reel-to-reel tape recorder brought comfort amid pain.

Many a troubled night I’d listen to songs like George Beverly Shea singing “Tenderly He Watches.” Here the controversy of feminine images for God is dialed back. This is done perhaps intentionally and as Sandell herself sometimes seems to do (not least as in “Heavenly Father” children safely to God’s “bosom” are gathered). God remains in such renderings a male who watches over me not as but “like” a mother, a “mother watching o’er her babies.” Still the tenderness is explicitly and implicitly palpable, and it strikes me how often Pietist-flavored hymns leaven the sternness of traditionally patriarchal faith expressions.

When I aged into a culture-shocked teenager trying to make sense of college in the U.S. after leaving Mexico just months before, key to my surviving the tough days was lying many an evening on the couch watching the reels turn on what was now my more advanced stereo Dokorder tape recorder. I would put on the most tender hymns I knew. Shades of Sandell.

Which then takes my heart and memories back to the scores of hymns offering God’s tender care that healed my wounds way back then, bless me still today, and surrounded the bed of my dying mother-in-law Mildred. As she faded, her daughter and my wife Joan, along with our three daughters, sat by her bed singing such hymns. We accompanied the tracks playing on an old Ipod I had loaded with hundreds of hymns and gospel songs for Mildred to go to sleep to in her retirement community much as I had as a boy.

Many of the songs,  in fact, were precisely the same ones I had listened to in Cuba and Mexico, plenty of them with that Pietist flavor. I had resurrected them by buying lost vinyl records on Ebay and laboriously transferring them to the MP3s that eventually ended up on my and Mildred’s Ipods.

All of which is to say this: I certainly have long loved such hymns. But it was Gehrz who helped me more fully understand that through them I was experiencing aspects of a Pietism that did indeed help save my life.

I need to rethink some of my own personal history and my Anabaptist-Mennonite heritage in light of Gehrz. I’ve under-credited Pietism. I’ve long been reasonably aware that strands of piety did heavily influence the communities within which I was most primally shaped. I’ve been less aware that these pieties were not just floating in the Anabaptist-Mennonite air but were a gift from sources such as Sandell and the many others Gehrz identifies, including Philipp Jakob Spener, August Hermann Franck, and more.

Citing Roger Olson, Gehrz observes that “if there is no Pietist movement, we might nonetheless discover what Olson calls ‘the Pietist ethos’ in Lutheran, Wesleyan, Baptist, Anabaptist, Reformed, and other churches represented by other participants in this conversation.” Indeed.

Gehrz himself names what I might otherwise worry a tad about from within Anabaptist commitments to social ethics. This is the possibility that piety can so turn inward as to forsake the outward. I’ve heard Mennonite preachers worry, precisely, that the more Pietistic hymns can generate a me-and-God as opposed to us-and-God or God-and the-world Christianity.

Gehrz, however, makes the case that as with “Francke (1663-1727), personal conversion to Jesus Christ sparked social action.” And my own experience suggests that 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.

Thank you, Christopher, for this tender report, on behalf not only of your own tradition but our many traditions enriched by it, of a week in a Pietist’s life.


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