Pietism’s primary concern was to carry out the Reformation in the area of Christian living. Pietists felt that the theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries had used the insights and work of the Reformers to establish a solid doctrinal foundation. Now their task was to promote a continuing reformation in the life of the church, and the transformation of the world through the conversion and constant renewal of individuals.

The Person

Pietist writers took the Fall very seriously and assumed that the world, sin, the devil and the fallen nature of the unregenerate person were ever-present threats to the well-being of both individual and society. By his or her fallen nature the person is surely “lower than a worm,” yet because the Creator is good and Christ died to redeem humanity, the person is at the same time “nobler than the angels.”

Heinrich Mueller pointed out in his Heavenly Kiss of Love that humanity is indeed God’s “noblest creation” because not only is human nature united with God’s nature in Christ, but because it is so created that it can bear the marks of Christ. Thus, while humanity is totally depraved (that is, is totally incapable of attaining to salvation on its own), there is that within the person which can be “awakened,” although this awakening cannot occur apart from the activity of the Holy Spirit in the hearing of the Word of God.

The Pietists took seriously the significance of human emotion and the psyche. Emotionalism was, in fact, fostered to some degree by the introspective, psychologizing tendencies found in Pietism: Who am I? Am I truly a child of God? Am I living in a state of sin or grace? Am I backsliding? Why am I doing this? What are my feelings telling me? Thus while calling for godly lives, Pietist leaders in all walks of life were primarily concerned with the inner person, whose emotional/spiritual condition gave rise to, and was manifested in, those outward signs of godliness.


As the Pietist emphasis on heartfelt faith and right practice was at least in part a reaction to the perceived aridity and theological squabbling of scholasticism, so the Pietist emphasis on the personal, emotional and practical in preaching was a reaction against the practice of using the pulpit to flay one’s theological enemies and/or to display one’s erudition. The Pietists felt that knowledge of the biblical languages was absolutely essential for the pastor to prepare a meaningful sermon (Francke even encouraged laypersons to learn Greek and Hebrew in order to enhance their personal understanding of Scripture), but the point of preaching was to illumine and inspire the listener, not dazzle him or her with theological formulations and unknown languages. Some preachers went so far as to form small groups to discuss and reflect upon the sermon.

Pietist preaching was directed primarily at those within the Church. In the Church the Pietists tended to identify two basic groups: those who had been born and baptized into the Church yet had little or no true Christian commitment, and those who were born again, or converted. Thus we find two basic emphases in the Pietist pulpit: conversion, and piety or devotion.

The Pietists’ audience, then, was made up primarily of “Christianized” persons, people who for the most part were baptized, catechized, church attending folk. For the Pietists, Christian society was the new, but yet old, Israel. That is, as Israel was God’s people but did not follow God’s commands and eventually rejected the Messiah, so are those baptized into the new covenant also God’s people, but they are an errant, disobedient and unseeing people —until they are born again. Francke wrote that “There is a difference between Christians just as there was in the Jewish people,” that is, there were disciples, Pharisees and scribes, tax collectors and sinners. Yet all were “good Jews” and “true Israelites” until John the Baptizer came, called them to repentance and baptism, and made the essential, crucial differences apparent, thus spawning discord, faith, rejection, obedience, division—all manner of responses and consequences. This was exacerbated by Jesus’ preaching and is precisely what occurs in “Christian” society when “God’s Word is preached in earnest” (presumably by Pietists)— some become scoffers while others follow the light (that is, Pietist ways of thinking, believing and living). Thus one can be a Christian and a “child of the world” at the same time, or one can be a Christian and a “child of God” just, as the Jews were God’s people yet were still in a state of unrepentance, or were in obedient faithfulness—depending upon the nature of their response to John’s call to repentance or, later, to Jesus’ preaching. The sermon can be a decisive event in the lives of individuals and, through their changed lives, in Church and society.

Response was precisely the aim of Pietist preaching. The person trapped in original sin was not only blind, but was incapable of recognizing his or her blindness. The Holy Spirit, who is active in the preaching and hearing of the Word of God, awakens the image of God in the person and reveals the depths to which he or she has fallen. Since fallen humanity is incapable of drawing correct conclusions about the love of God which abounds in creation, the sermon is intended to draw the listener into self-examination. This self discovery in light of God’s holiness and love presented in the sermon should make quite clear to the listener just how crucial rebirth is. It is a rare sermon which does not call the church-goer to scrutinize his or her heart and surrender it to God. Johann Porst, one of Spener’s successors at St. Nicholas’ Church in Berlin used even the dedication of a new organ to exhort people to examine their hearts:

Well now, dear listeners, are you all taking this occasion to examine your hearts as to how they stand and have heretofore sung before God ? If you have merely sung out of habit or not in true devotion of the heart, not in spirit and in truth, and thus without the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit, you have deceived yourselves miserably.

The desired response was either one of repentance and personal commitment, or a renewed desire for holiness manifested in love for God and acts of love for one’s neighbor.

For the believer the sermon was not an isolated event. Nor was it a matter which concerned only the preacher. The Pietists stressed the significance of personal meditation on Scripture, small group discussion of Scripture and the sermon, and personal and family preparation for Sunday worship. In a booklet designed to help his parishioners Francke lists, among numerous others, the following suggestions:

Phooey on the lukewarm ways of our worship service! … Now when the sermon is going on, reasonably, all the listeners’ hearts should be there… Concerning this [the introduction of the sermon], Christian listeners should be right observant so that they may take to heart all the better what sort of subject shall be presented in this sermon. . . Two main vices chiefly occur in the hearing of the sermon, that they either sleep, or chatter with their neighbor…

The power in Pietist preaching lay in the fact that these pastors were utterly convinced of the truth of their message and pursued the personal holiness they espoused. The sermons, while basically concerned with conversion and sanctification, convened a wide range of topics from “practical” or ethical issues such as the Christian’s duty to the poor, to more “spiritual” matters such as submission to God’s guidance.

Social Concern

There was never a question as to whether the Christian is to be involved in the concerns of the world. While the Pietists did not intend to bring about rapid major changes in the political situation, they did in fact intend to change the entire world, including the political realm, through the conversion of all people, including those in the ruling classes.

Johann Arndt, the early German Pietist, had said “Fire burns for the poor as well as for the rich.” He was “upset by the crass differences between poor and rich in a Christianity which had fallen so far from the image of the first Christians.” In his book Little Garden of Paradise he prayed,

Ah, give me grace that I may help relieve and not make greater my neighbor’s affliction and misfortune, that I may comfort him in his sorrow and all who are of a grieved spirit, may have mercy on strangers, on widows and orphans, that I readily help and love, not with tongue, but in deed and truth. The sinner says the wise man ignores his neighbor, but blessed is he who has mercy on the unfortunate.

The image of God in all people makes race and nationality of secondary importance, and the unity of those in Christ makes, according to Spener, “Poverty … a stain upon our Christianity.” Spener connected the existence of poverty (in a “Chrisitan” nation) with the lack of true piety.

Despite the frequent charges against Pietism of hostility toward the world and other-worldliness, it is at Halle, where Francke was leader, that one finds such “modern” concerns as socialized medicine, health education, the creation of jobs for the unemployed, education for the poor, and the like. Two phrases found frequently in Pietist literature, often connected, are “God’s glory” and “neighbor’s good” or “neighbor’s best.” While looking after the good of one’s neighbor certainly included evangelization, edification, and correction in spiritual matters, it also had to do with his or her physical well-being. One’s neighbor was not only the person next door or the friend in one’s small group; neighbor also meant the poor and disadvantaged in one’s town.

Francke’s sermon, “The Duty to the Poor” illustrates Pietist concern for Christian involvement. In this sermon Francke takes to task members of the ruling classes and the teaching profession for prizing personal honor and financial success over their responsibility to the poor.

Those who look only to their temporal pleasures and comfort, and thus have no consideration for the poor, have already merited hell in excess and must be with the rich man [in the story of Lazarus in Luke] in torment even though they neither go whoring nor steal nor commit other wrongs.

In the same sermon Francke dismissed the usual excuses for not giving to the poor: the inability to decide who is really “rich enough” (anyone is rich enough to give to someone less fortunate), the assumption that people are poor because they have wantonly wasted their means and thus do not deserve assistance, and the fear that any money given the poor will be used for unjust ends. In other words, every Christian had sufficient possessions, money or at least good will to give something to those less fortunate. And this was not merely an observation, rather it was an imperative.

With God’s glory and neighbor’s good as Pietism’s main concern, it is not surprising that under Francke’s leadership at Halle there appeared an orphanage, two homes for widows, a school for poor children (including girls), free food for needy students, a home for beggars, a hospital, free medicine for the poor, regular visits to prisons and hospitals, and care for the handicapped.

While Pietism manifested social concern primarily in the sort of personal and immediate care mentioned above, charges that it was uninterested in the larger social issues are simply not true. Indeed, Pietists were not involved in protest marches and/or violent revolution, but virtually no one in the churches was active in that way in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were, however, lobbyists and agitators and chaplains. Francke founded the orphanage because he was sufficiently socially astute to see that the waifs whom he tutored and fed were not likely to be rehabilitated so long as they returned to abusive households or had to sleep in alleys. Halle’s orphanage was one of the few in its day in which the orphans were not housed with criminals, vagabonds and beggars, and were not used as cheap labor. Rather, they were educated according to their abilities and were treated by a physician whose primary concern was the orphanage.

Aware that the unemployed and disenfranchised were likely to turn to crime, Francke encouraged the wealthy in government positions to establish institutions and programs for the homeless and jobless. As the University of Halle’s representative to the funeral of Friedrich I, Francke preached, “You, the mighty, the ruling, and the wealthy are truly pitiable people if you do not have the Spirit of God,” and he went on to remind them of their duties to their citizens. He also proposed a new concept of justice within the court system. Law books were to be written in German, trials were to be shortened, and pious judges were to make their decisions according to goodness rather than to the letter of the law. As there was an outer and inner person, so there was an outer and inner court, the court of the letter of the law to which the harsh could appeal, and the court of the gracious God in which the accuser would have to display patience and kindness. As members of the local courts of Brandenburg-Prussia became more involved with Halle Pietism they busied themselves with social concerns. Some began new school systems, others introduced reading lessons to prisons and even knocked windows in prison walls; others erected orphanages after the Halle pattern. The Pietists intended to reform the world by converting its leaders, and one result of conversion is love for individuals and society.


Missionary activity by no means began with Pietism. Wherever European Christians settled new lands, their pastors attempted to bring the Gospel to the local peoples. It was Pietism, however, which was a prime mover in sending theologically trained people for the express purpose of evangelizing other peoples in non-Christian cultures.

Contrary to popular belief, Pietist missionaries were hardly the culture-destructive, insensitive villains so frequently portrayed in novels and movies. Sigurd Westberg identifies five basic principles of Pietist mission work:

1. Church and school go together. All Christians must be taught to read so that they may read Scripture.

2. The Bible must be available to people in their own language.

3. The preacher must know the mind of the people. To this end missionaries occasionally wrote rather extensive descriptions of local religions and customs as training tools for future missionaries.

4. The point of it all is personal conversion.

5. As soon as possible, a local, indigenous church with its own ministry, must be established.

These five points show a sensitivity and a practical realism not commonly perceived by critics and, it must be admitted, not always put into practice by missionaries. Nonetheless, Pietists took seriously the customs and rights of the cultures in which they evangelized. In Tranquebar, for example, Halle provided medical supplies, equipment, and money to support those who turned to Christianity and thus experienced rejection by family and friends. In the USA, Moravian missionaries requested the permission of local Native American tribes before moving into their territories to proclaim the gospel. Once settled in, they frequently adopted the local customs and life-styles. They also encouraged the establishment and growth of local congregations rather than the expansion of the Moravian “denomination.”


Of particular interest is ecumenical involvement in missions. Francke was already in contact with the S.P.C.K. (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) in 1698, the year of its founding in London. Pietists in the courts of England and Denmark were in contact with Halle, seeking missionaries and reports from the field. By 1709 Cotton Mather in New England was in correspondence with Francke in Germany and Pietist missionaries in the East Indies, sharing reports of missionary activity, and raising money for the mission in Tranquebar. Wherever Christians of good will were interested more in bringing souls to Christ than establishing particular denominations, the Pietists were very willing to co-operate. This did not lead to the dissolution of denominational ties, but did facilitate the spread of the gospel and helped prevent unnecessary duplication of effort. The primary goal was to win souls to Christ and to do so in a loving and sensitive way.

We may remember the Pietist view of the person: while culture and custom may be different, we are all one in our creatureliness, fallenness, and need of redemption and subsequent sanctification through devotion to God’s glory and neighbor’s good. The overwhelming goodness of God and the realities of the human condition should inform our lives as Christians in our preaching (which should invite, challenge and inspire), our social concern (which should begin in our homes and stretch to the ends of the earth), and our missionary activities (which should proclaim the Gospel in love in word and deed, free of cultural, denominational or theological imperialism). When our primary concern is that God be glorified in every aspect of our personal and corporate lives and that God’s love be manifested in ministry to whole persons taking into account their, and our, condition and needs, then we will have learned the most basic implications of Pietism for Christianity, and Christians, today.

Gary R. Sattler, Th.D., is Assistant Professor of Christian Formation and Discipleship, and Director of the Office of Christian Community at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California