The rise and decline of Pietism

In the period between the end of the Thirty Year's War and the era of the French Revolution, no religious movement changed the face of continental Protestantism more than Pietism. The followers of Pietism, as this religious revival soon came to be called, developed new centres of social, cultural, and political activity for all Protestants. But more importantly, perhaps, those Protestants who were inspired by the ideas of Pietism exhibited a new kind of self-esteem. They believed, it seems, that they were completing whatever had remained unfinished in Luther's Reformation. In short, they saw themselves as a better kind of Protestant.

Philipp Jakob Spener was the undisputed leader of the first generation of Pietists. Born in 1635, Spener received theological training at Strasbourg and rose to the leading position of pastor to the Protestant Church in Frankfurt by the 1660s. Deeply concerned about the sincerity of the members of the flock who were entrusted to him in this thriving centre of international trade, he decided in 1670 to assemble some of the most devout members of his congregation in special meetings. In Spener's view, this first Frankfurt conventicle (or 'ecclesiola in ecclesia') was an attempt to form a kind of Christian elite that in turn would, he hoped, help to better the condition of his congregation and even contribute to reforming the church as a whole. A few years later, in 1675, Spener explained his ideas in some detail in a preface to the new publication of one of the works of Johann Arndt. This preface, soon to be published as a separate tract under the title Pia Desideria, that is, 'pious wishes', can be considered the founding document of Pietism. It served as the most influential guide for future generations of Pietists. Spener stressed three points in particular in the Pia Desideria. First, he argued, sincere Christians should assemble regularly and support one another spiritually. Second, he insisted that it was the obligation of all devout Christians to help reform the church.

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