In 1666 the German commercial center of Frankfurt am Main welcomed a new pastor. Just 31 years old, Philipp Spener not only became the primary Lutheran preacher in a city of 15,000 but supervised the work of 11 other clergymen—four of them twice his age. It was a plum assignment for a rising star.

Yet Spener soon found “that almost everywhere there is something wanting” in an ostensibly Christian society that seemed to love God and neighbor too little. One could not look at what was left of Martin Luther’s reformation, he lamented, “without having quickly to cast [their eyes] down again in shame and distress.”


1618 The Thirty Years War begins

1635 Philipp Spener born

1648 Peace of Westphalia

1670 Small group study begins in Frankfurt

1675 Spener, Pia Desideria

1705 Philipp Spener dies

1706 Pietist missionaries go to Tranquebar, India

1727 Beginning of Moravian revival at Herrnhut

But that severe judgment came in an otherwise hopeful book that would spark one of the greatest renewal movements in church history: Pietism. Thanks to a modest but powerful program of reform that inspired energetic followers, Spener would eventually rank just behind Luther in German religious history, the founding father of a movement commonly known as “the Second Reformation.” While Spener founded no new denomination, Pietism’s influence would stretch far in space—everywhere from South Asia to North America—and time, even to evangelicalism today.

Born into conflict

Philipp Jakob Spener was born in 1635, in the middle of the most devastating conflict to that point in European history: the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which caused the death of as many as one in four Germans. Though his home province of Alsace was largely spared, Spener would spend his life pastoring people still recovering from the demographic, economic, and spiritual effects of a war that had pitted Christians against each other.

Educated at the University of Strasbourg, Spener completed his doctorate in June 1664, the same day he married Suzanna Erhardt. Though drawn to the academic life, the young theologian accepted the call to Frankfurt, where he preached Sunday mornings in the Franciscan Church.

Much as he enjoyed the work, Spener grew dismayed by the spiritual condition of his flock. In one 1669 sermon, he warned that mere intellectual assent to doctrine and rote participation in formal religious life left his listeners little better than Pharisees. He longed for his parishioners to experience the “authentic Christianity” that the Lutheran mystic Johann Arndt had described 60 years before: “the exhibition of a true, living faith, active in genuine godliness and the fruits of righteousness.”

In 1670 a lawyer named Johann Jakob Schütz encouraged Spener to begin hosting a small group study of Scripture and devotional works. Every Sunday and Wednesday evening, about 15-20 men met with Spener in his study. “They longed,” he remembered, “to have some opportunity when godly-minded people could come together and confer with each other in simplicity and love.” Spener’s so-called collegia pietatis soon grew to 50 and then 100, a cross-section of Frankfurt society that included rich and poor, women and men, and even non-Lutherans. Similar conventicles began to gather in other cities of the Holy Roman Empire.

To our ears, the story sounds unremarkable. (Doesn’t every church have a small group ministry?) But that early conventicle hints at the subtle power of what became Pietism. Spener’s reforms were pastoral, practical, and easily adapted to different contexts. However radical they may have been at the time, they soon entered the religious mainstream.

Heartfelt desire

Likewise, Spener’s most famous book, Pia Desideria (1675), may seem unimpressive at first glance. A slender volume that was first published as a preface to some of Arndt’s sermons, Pia Desideria expressed Spener’s “pious longings” that church and society would yet experience “better times.” Its most influential section—a concluding set of six brief practical reforms—began by rehashing two ideas from Martin Luther.

First, a “more extensive use of the Word of God among us. What did our sainted Luther seek more ardently than to induce the people to a diligent reading of the Scriptures?” Not only in worship and preaching, but through personal and small group study, Spener hoped to return the Bible to the attention of ordinary Christians—not for the sake of biblical knowledge alone, but because God’s Word was “the powerful means” by which individual faith was “enkindled” and the church was reformed.

So second, Spener sought to revive Luther’s model of the church as a common priesthood. Not just ordained clergy, but all believers are “made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts” like prayer, study, and teaching. While women in the original collegia pietatis had sat silently in a separate room, Spener nonetheless viewed them as priests. “In Christ,” he wrote in 1677, “the difference between man and woman, in regard to what is spiritual, is abolished.”

The first two of Spener’s proposals echoed Luther; the remaining four addressed a problematic legacy of Luther’s reformation. Splintered into competing confessions, Protestant churches seemed more concerned with policing doctrinal boundaries than attending to the spiritual needs of ordinary Christians. So as Spener continued his list of proposals, he paused to emphasize “that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.”

It became the core conviction of Pietism. Though a convinced Lutheran who affirmed the Augsburg Confession and taught Luther’s catechism, Spener knew that doctrine could become “dead orthodoxy”—and the pulpit and lectern could become “dumb idols”—if faith was not made active in love. “If we can therefore awaken a fervent love among our Christians,” he hoped, “and put this love into practice, practically all that we desire will be accomplished.”

Under the leadership of Spener’s leading disciple, August Hermann Francke, Pietists would put “love into practice” with astonishing energy. The Franckean Institutions in Halle published millions of inexpensive Bibles, produced and distributed medicine, cared for orphans, educated boys and girls of all social classes, and trained pastors, military chaplains, biblical scholars, and the first Protestant missionaries to India.

Moreover, if Christianity was more a lived faith than a set of doctrines, then even educational institutions should aim at transforming the whole person, not training the mind. Spener proposed that schools act “as workshops of the Holy Spirit,” where students would learn “that holy life is not of less consequence than diligence and study, indeed that study without piety is worthless.”

Even theological education should be practical, preparing pastors “to preach the Word of the Lord plainly but powerfully.” Anticipating the revivals of later centuries, Spener urged simple, unshowy preaching that aimed at the conversion of “the inner man or the new man, whose soul is faith and whose expressions are the fruits of life.” Spener never reported an epiphany of his own, but followers like Francke described powerful conversion experiences in widely read spiritual autobiographies.

An ecumenical impulse

Precisely because he understood Christianity to be a heartfelt faith lived out in love of neighbor, Spener also warned the readers of Pia Desideria to “beware how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies.” At best, angry arguments and heated polemics could produce an intellectual conversion, a faith without feeling. At worst, disputation and heresy-hunting would rub salt into the wounds of religious schism and warfare.

Though a Lutheran, Spener gladly borrowed ideas from Reformed devotional writers like Lewis Bayly and Jean de Labadie, and his collegia pietatis included Calvinists and Catholics. He wondered aloud if it might not be possible to bring about “a union of most of the confessions among Christians”—a goal inherited by his Pietist godson, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, whose Moravian revival emphasized the “religion of the heart” and aspired to an ecumenical reunion of all Christians.

Alas, Spener’s later years of ministry were marked by conflict, and his followers experienced their own schisms. Lutheran scholastics accused him of discarding their traditions confessions, and he spent five frustrating years as the “court conscience” of Saxon rulers who chafed at Spener’s calls for religious rigor. He spent the last years of his life in Berlin, where the Prussian court was more receptive to the practical benefits of Christian renewal.

But other Pietists—including Schütz, the remarkable teacher and writer Johanna Eleonora Petersen, and the brilliant scholar Gottfried Arnold—were ready to break with religious and political authorities. While Spener urged renewal from within the state church, Radical Pietists began to separate into their own communities, some of which sought greater religious freedom in the New World. Others questioned not just “dead orthodoxy,” but even the core Lutheran doctrines that Spener affirmed up to his death in 1705.

But if Mark Noll is right that Pietism’s emphasis on personal experience and religious feeling helped weaken Protestant commitment to historic orthodoxy, Spener’s renewal also inspired the evangelical awakenings of the modern era. Most famously, an Anglican priest named John Wesley felt his heart “strangely warmed” after a Moravian meeting in London. His followers sang Pietist hymns, met in versions of Spener’s collegia pietatis, and shared their own stories of dramatic conversion leading to changed behavior.

In the early 1840s, a Methodist missionary to Sweden named George Scott helped spark a revival whose chief publication was called Pietisten. “The pietist,” wrote Scott and his Swedish partner, C. O. Rosenius, “is the one, who not only has the name, the semblance and the shell of godliness, but the very thing itself, the reality, the kernel, and is a living product of God’s word.”

As Scandinavian Pietists migrated to North America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they founded new denominations, including the Evangelical Free Church of America and the Evangelical Covenant Church. To this day, the latter still celebrates how Philipp Spener “challenged the church to deeper spirituality” through “his call for widespread reading and study of the Bible; greater participation by lay people in the work of the church; simple, clear, and direct preaching geared to the needs of the people; and the abandonment of theological hair-splitting in favor of practical concern for living the Christian life.”

Christopher Gehrz is professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. His most recent book is The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity (IVP Academic, 2017).

Related Christian History issue:

Issue 10 - Pietism: The Inner Experience of Faith(1986)