Like all religious movements Pietism has its roots in a definite historical context. Behind it were related developments within the three major Protestant communions of the seventeenth century, namely the Anglican, the Reformed, and the Lutheran. All three branches of mainstream Protestantism had chosen to establish territorial or national churches, which were closely tied to a political structure, and to which virtually the whole population belonged, unless they were Jews. Under the circumstances the moral tone of these churches left much to be desired. To make matters worse, the close affiliation between state and church resulted in the appointment of people as members of the clergy who were often unqualified, both religiously and morally, and sometimes downright incompetent.

It is not surprising, therefore, that church life tended to be shallow, and that meaningful religious commitment on the part of church members was frequently lacking. Among both clergy and laity there was little awareness that in the biblical understanding of the Christian life, religious profession and an appropriate mode of daily living must go together. Already in 1569 Edward Dering tried to bring to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I his observation that in the church of his time the parson was set against the vicar, the vicar against the parson, the parish against both, and “all for the belly.” During the following century, one of the outstanding Reformed preachers in the Netherlands registered a widely supported claim that in the Reformed church one sees nothing that has the appearance of the true church. At about the same time religiously sensitive pastors in the Lutheran communion, in so far as they could be found, inveighed vigorously against the prevailing drunkenness, immorality, cruelty, and utter disregard for human suffering among their parishioners.

Out of this state of affairs came the early impulses within Post-Reformation Protestantism toward renewal. Renewal included, on the one hand, the spiritual and moral renewal of the individual, which would result in a new life, patterned on biblical models and motivated by the spirit of Christ. On the other hand, it envisioned the reform of the church by means of a revised theology, a readjusted set of institutions, a reborn clergy, and all of this reoriented toward a new goal. There was a widespread perception that the Reformation of the sixteenth century had indeed altered the theology and structures of western Christendom but had never succeeded in reforming the life of the church. Nor had it provided the means necessary for religious nurture, such as appropriate preaching, hymns, devotional aids, and educational enterprises. 

In England the agitation for religious renewal began with the advent of Puritanism. It arose during the sixteenth century in a time of political revolution, accompanied by whatever religious reform seemed advantageous to the political party in power. A series of violent ecclesiastical reverses resulted in the revision of the Second Edwardian Prayer Book under Elizabeth I, which made Anglican worship considerably more palatable to Roman Catholics. Not surprisingly the same Prayer Book appeared decidedly unsatisfactory to the Reformed segment of the English church, which had been influenced in large part by John Calvin. Their initial objection was to what they called “popish” remnants for which they could find no warrant in the New Testament. Because of their desire to “purify” the worship of the church they came to be referred to as “Puritans” during the early 1560’s.

In a relatively short time many Puritans, whose intellectual center became Cambridge University, moved beyond the merely negative stance of opposing such practices as having a vested clergy and kneeling at the altar when receiving the sacrament of Holy Communion. Among the first of these was William Perkins ( 1558–1602), who opened his influential Golden Chain with the words, “The body of Scripture is a doctrine sufficient to live well.” In writing this he indicated clearly the new direction in which a substantial segment of Puritanism meant to proceed. Their interest shifted from ecclesiastical and doctrinal concerns to the quality of life which they felt the Christian faith ought to produce, and which they came to refer to as “godliness.” They tended to regard the Bible as God’s revealed law according to which men and women who profess to be Christians must govern their lives. In time the piety which they read out of the Bible was fashioned into a code of formidable proportions which was expected to govern every aspect of the believer’s daily life. The various Puritan directories for daily living ended up as systematic attempts to apply God’s law to every conceivable circumstance or moral dilemma which a Christian might encounter.

Not only were parishioners admonished to be watchful about their actions, but also with regard to their thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. In the hope of coming to know more perfectly their real selves they often kept diaries, which were treated as reminders of both their progress and their failings respecting their religious pilgrimage. Like other mortals, of course, they did not always succeed in walking with complete constancy upon the straight and narrow path that was of such importance to them. Hence on September 12, 1587 Richard Rogers (1550?-1618), one of the great systematizers of Puritan godliness, wrote into his diary: “This noon I felt a strong desire to enjoy more liberty in thinking upon some vain things which I had lately weaned myself from.”

Puritan piety was infused with a seriousness which is astounding, and to the modern mind little short of distressing. Thomas Fuller says of Perkins, for instance, that in his sermons “he would pronounce the word ‘Damn’ with such an emphasis as left a doleful echo in his auditor’s ears a good while after.” The full intensity, however, with which Puritan preachers appealed to their congregations is well portrayed by a brief quotation from the famous Call to the Unconverted to Turn and Live by Richard Baxter (1615–1691 ): “Once more,” he tells his readers in the preface, “in the name of the God of heaven, I shall do the message to you which he hath commanded us, and leave it to the standing lines to convert you or condemn you: to change you or rise up against you.”

This, then, was Puritan piety. It put emphasis upon thoroughgoing repentance, a sincere religious commitment, the meticulous observance of God’s law as found in both the Old and the New Testaments, including a stringent observance of the sabbath, and the progressive cultivation of a godly character (santification). The Puritan sermon, instead of being “witty” (by which they meant that it was learnedly ostentatious), was direct, often ruthlessly honest, witheringly earnest, and calculated to bring about the above mentioned results in the lives of people. Pastoral work, which had been well nigh forgotten except for the essentials of marrying and burying people, was greatly emphasized and designed to reinforce the message of the pulpit through personal contact and explicit exhortation.

Out of Puritanism issued a veritable stream of devotional literature, which was meant to comfort, reprove, exhort, and edify the believers in their daily bouts with the allurements and temptations of the world they were living in. A part of it were such classics as Lewis Bayly’s Practice of Piety, Immanuel Sonthom’s Golden Gem, Daniel Dyke’s Mystery of Self-Deceiving, Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted, and among Baptists John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. These and similar works soon found their way into both the Reformed and Lutheran Communions on the continent, where they had significant influence.

In time these developments led to what came to be known as Precicianism. Geographically it is associated with the Netherlands and various sections of northwestern Germany. Gradually, Reformed Protestantism, having issued from Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva, had established a dominant position in this area. While each territorial church had its own separate identity all of them were part of the Reformed communion and hence tied together by a spirit of mutual appreciation and loyalty which crossed political divisions. The intellectual centers of Utrecht, Leyden, and Franeker in Holland exercised theological leadership throughout the region.

During the seventeenth century the Reformed communion, like Lutheranism, found itself ever more tightly in the grip of a lifeless Orthodoxy. Reason was employed in the establishment of theological propositions, and hence exalted, while feeling was largely ignored. The major emphasis in the churches was on right belief as set forth by the theologians. Calvin’s concern about the Christian life was paid only lip service. The situation was aggravated by the fact that the Reformed churches were “preferred” churches, i.e., folk churches, closely associated with the state, with the implications for church membership previously noted. In this setting the temptation was strong to conform church life to prevailing culture patterns. The message of the pulpit tended to project and defend accepted theological doctrines, while it adhered uncritically to generally accepted conventions and values. Any attempt on the part of a member of the clergy or laity to insist on a more strenuous ethic, purportedly based on the New Testament, was widely decried, and often mercilessly opposed, as “Precicianism,” a term initially meant to have perjorative connotations.

Precicianism, then, was a movement within the Reformed communion of seventeenth century Holland and its theological dependencies during the time between Puritanism and the classical period of Pietism, its aims and objectives having close affinities with both. Because of its evident correspondence with later Pietist aspirations it is often referred to as Reformed Pietism, though the terminology was still fluid in the 1600’s.

On the one hand, Precicianism developed out of native religious traditions, notably the spiritualism of an earlier day. After all this was the home of much of the older mystical piety. On the other hand, it was also indebted to the Puritan tradition described earlier. Within Precicianist circles the devotional literature generated by Puritanism was greatly valued and England was viewed by many as the seat of true piety. As a result many of the Puritan works were translated and thus made available to many of the people in the churches.

Dutch church historians tend to think of Willem Teellinck (1579–1629), and perhaps his brother Eewout, as giving the original impulse to Precicianism as a movement. Willem made at least two trips to England, where he found lodging in a Puritan household. He was so impressed by the Puritan way of life that he described it in some detail in his Housebook, summing up his observations with the following remark: “The fruits which were brought forth by these religious exercises were of such a kind that the genuineness and purity of this sort of religion could be clearly established. For one could see here how faith was strong and active through love in various ways: in the quiet doing of one’s professional duties, in charitable deeds for the poor, in the visiting of the sick, in the comforting of the worried, in the teaching of the ignorant, in the punishing of the wrongdoers, in the encouraging of the downhearted.”

Willem Teellinck was not only a very effective preacher, but he worked tirelessly in an effort to write a set of devotional tracts for his people. In them he appealed to his readers to practice the kind of piety which he had come to regard as normative for the Christian and of which he had seen a demonstration in England. His chief concern was that every Christian should live the new life in Christ, which includes the careful control of all natural desires, the irradication of every bad habit, the ordering of one’s life according to the ethic of the Bible, and the patient acceptance of the ways of Providence. In contradistinction to the Puritans. however, he had a great deal to say about the profound satisfaction and joy which accompanies such an approach to daily living. Looking beyond his immediate parish he did not stop short of exhorting the leadership of the nation, including the political establishment, to obey God so as to be truly able to serve the people as it ought.

The outstanding theologian of the movement was William Ames, or Amesius (1576–1676), as he was often called in the Netherlands. He was born in Norfolk, England, received his theological training at Christ’s college in Cambridge, and his favorite theological mentor was William Perkins. In time he occupied the position of professor of divinity at Franeker. His famous Medulla Theologiae was not only used as a text for his students at Franeker, but in various other places, among them both Harvard and Yale in the American colonies. Following closely in the footsteps of Perkins he taught that theology is not simply concerned with making assertions about God; it deals, rather, with the knowledge of how one ought to live for him; nor is the highest aim of Christians, to be the blessed life, but the good life. Essentially faith does not consist in intellectual assent to theological propositions, as was taught by Orthodoxy, but in “the resting of the heart in God.” The new life in Christ is entered into through “conversion,” eschews all sins of the heart, sins of the mouth, and sins of work. It finds its deepest satisfaction in union with Christ. Reason must be guided by faith, otherwise it will go wrong, for “the devil is the best metaphysician.”

Perhaps the greatest preacher among the Precicianists was Jadocus van Lodensteyn ( 1620–1677). His major concerns are given expression in the title of one of his books: Spiritual Awakener, Meant for a Christendom Which Lacks in Self Denial, Is Dead and Spiritless. It is a book of sermons in one of which the author insists that “one is only converted when one does no longer seek his own will or advantage, when one is wholly for Christ, so that one does not even wish to seek heaven.” “Not that such a person is then fully perfect,” he writes in another place, “but he desires to be perfect and realizes that he cannot excuse himself because of his imperfection.” Strong feelings of joy may be experienced by the Christian, but they are not the goal of a person’s spiritual pilgrimage, and the attempt to strive for them directly is egotism. What is really important for the Christian life is the doing of God’s will as revealed in Scripture.

The great trio of Precicianists was followed by many others who took their cue from them. One of them, Jean de Labadie ( 1610–1674), brought into the movement the enthusiasm of Port Royal, a Roman Catholic community whose mystical piety was finally condemned by the papacy. Labadie ended up as a separatist, who in imitation of the New Testament pattern, established “house churches” in order to further the cause of Precicianism. His very prominent disciple and chief defender was Anna Maria van Schürman, one of the outstanding women of the age. At Geneva, where Labadie was a popular preacher for a season, Philip Jacob Spener, thought by many to be the originator of pietism, made Labadie’s acquaintance and frequently heard him deliver his fiery sermons. Conditions in Germany prior to the rise of Pietism must be seen against the background of the Thirty Year’s War (1618–1648), a confused and confusing struggle in which foreign armies criss-crossed German territories and tyrannized the population. Multitudes fled before the onslaught of the plundering soldiery and sustained themselves by begging, robbing, and destroying anything that stood in their way. Famine and disease followed in their wake and further decimated the population, so that whole villages were simply wiped out. One of the worst features of the war and its aftermath was the decline of moral sensitivity. “Old and young,” one pastor complained, “can no longer tell what is of God or of the devil, poor widows and orphans are counted for dung, like dogs they are pushed into the street, there to perish of hunger and cold.” Nor did the churches seem to be in a position to give much help. Largely under the sway of theological Orthodoxy their energy was chiefly spent upon doctrinal disputes far removed from the needs of the people. Sermons were likely to be exercises in polemics, intended for congregations that largely absented themselves from Sunday morning worship: Clergy salaries were paid by the state and there was little incentive to go beyond the basics of pastoral responsibility. In the history of Lutheranism, the period of 1575–1675 leaves much to be desired with respect to effective preaching, pastoral care, as well as moral guidance and spiritual support of its people, outstanding exceptions among the clergy notwithstanding.

In this fairly dismal religious climate a rising tide of self-criticism within the Lutheran communion began to make itself felt. It was largely directed against prevalent conditions in the church—the intolerance of theologians and clergy, the ineffectiveness of the pulpit, and the almost complete lack of emphasis on standards of Christian conduct. How much of this criticism resulted from reading works on Puritan and Reformed piety, and how much of it is to be attributed to impulses found in the Lutheran reformation itself, is not clear at this moment. Because of the high esteem in which Luther was held one may assume that the attempt to return to the Reformer himself was of primary importance. What is certain is that in time men came to the fore such as Stephan Praetorius (1536–1603) whose Spiritual Treasure Chest contained a whole chapter on “the virtuous life,” and whose fervent, joyful faith must have been felt as a welcome relief from the dullness of scholastic polemics in the pulpits of Lutheranism. Mention must also be made of Philipp Nicolae (1556–1608), who began to talk about love for God and the need of a holy life. Of considerable importance, too, is Valentine Weigel (1533–1588), who, though terribly maligned as a theosophist, put emphasis on the new birth and the new life in Christ, and had, therefore, much to do with the rise of a new concept of piety among Lutherans.

The real champion, however, of a new religious climate among seventeenth century Lutherans, a climate which began to take seriously the ethical dimensions of the Gospel, was John Arndt (1555–1621). Inspired especially by the fervor and piety of earlier mystical works, which he regarded as compatible with historic Lutheranism, he wrote his famous devotional classic True Christianity. As he stated in the preface he produced this book to show Christians “wherein true Christianity consists, namely, in the proving of true, living, active faith through genuine godliness.” Arndt was much concerned about “true repentance,” renewal of the individual “from the inside out,” end about union with Christ which results in dying to self and living a Christlike life.

Though Arndt found himself initially opposed with great vehemence, his True Christianity gradually won the day. In time it became the most widely read devotional book within Lutheranism and hence began a trend within the Lutheran communion the effects of which are still felt today. Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705) translated Labadie’s Manual of Piety into German. He was acquainted with various devotional classics which had come out of Puritanism, but he wrote his famous Pious Desires originally as a preface to a new edition of Arndt’s sermons on the Gospels. The year was 1675 and Pietism as an historical movement was now on its way, eventually making itself felt not only among Lutherans, but also in the German Reformed churches, as well as among various separatists

F. Ernest Stoeffler. Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Religion at Temple University in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania. His publications include The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, German Pietism During the Eighteenth Century. and Continental Pietism and Early American Christianity