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Bible Dictionaries

Charles Buck Theological Dictionary

Pietists

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A religious sect that sprung up among the Protestants in Germany in the latter end of the seventeenth century. Pietism was set on foot by the pious and learned Spencer, who, by the private societies he formed at Francfort with a design to promote vital religion, roused the lukewarm from their indifference, and excited a spirit of vigour and resolution in those who had been satisfied to lament in silence the progress of impiety. The remarkable effect of these pious meetings was increased by a book he published under the title of Pious Desires, in which he exhibited a striking view of the disorders of the church, and proposed the remedies that were proper to heal them. Many persons of good and upright intentions were highly pleased both with the proceedings and writings of Spencer; and, indeed, the greatest part of those who had the cause of virtue and practical religion truly at heart, applauded the designs of this good man, though an apprehension of abuse retained numbers from encouraging them openly. These abuses actually happened. The remedies proposed by Spencer to heal the disorders of the church fell into unskilful hands, were administered without sagacity or prudence, and thus, in many cases, proved to be worse than the disease itself. Hence complaints arose against these institutions of pietism, as if, under a striking appearance of sanctity, they led the people into false notions of religion, and fomented in those who were of a turbulent and violent character, the seeds and principles of mutiny and sedition.

These complaints would have been undoubtedly hushed, and the tumults they occasioned would have subsided by degrees, had not the contests that arose at Leipsic in the year 1689, added fuel to the flame. Certain pious and learned professors of philosophy, and particularly Franckius, Schadius, and Paulus Antonius, the disciples of Spencer, who at that time was ecclesiastical superintendent of the court of Saxony, began to consider with attention the defects that prevailed in the ordinary method of instructing the candidates for the ministry; and this review persuaded them of the necessity of using their best endeavours to supply what was wanting, and correct what was amiss. For this purpose they undertook to explain in their colleges certain books of holy Scripture, in order to render these genuine sources of religious knowledge better understood, and to promote a spirit of practical piety and vital religion in the minds of their hearers. The novelty of this method drew attention, , and rendered it singulary pleasing to many; accordingly, these lectures were much frequented, and their effects were visible in the lives and conversations of several persons, whom they seemed to inspire with a deep sense of the importance of religion and virtue.

Many things, however, it is said, were done in these Biblical coleges (as they were called, ) which, though they may be looked upon by equitable and candid judges as worthy of toleration and indulgence, were nevertheless, contrary to custom, and far from being consistent with prudence. Hence rumours were spread, tumults excited, animosities kindled, and the matter at length brought to a public trial, in which the pious and learned men above-mentioned were, indeed, declared free from the errors and heresies that had been laid to their charge, but were, at the same time, prohibited from carrying on the plan of religious instruction they had undertaken with such zeal. It was during these troubles and divisions that the invidious denomination of Pietists was first invented; it may, at least, be affirmed, that it was not commonly known before this period. It was at first applied by some giddy and inconsiderate persons to those who frequented the Biblical Colleges, and lived in a manner suitable to the instructions and exhortations that were adressed to them in these seminaries of piety. It was afterwards made use of to characterize all those who were either distinguished by the excessive austerity of their manners, or who, regardless of truth and opinion, were only intent upon practice, and turned the whole vigour of their efforts towards the attainment of religious feelings and habits.

But as it is the fate of all those denominations by which peculiar sects are distinguished, to be variously and often very improperly applied, so the title of Pietists was frequently given in common conversation, to persons of eminent wisdom and sanctity, who were equally remarkable for their adherence to truth, and their love of piety; and, not seldom, to persons whose motley characters exhibited an enormous mixture of prodigacy and enthusiasm, and who deserved the title of delirious fanatics better than any other denomination. This contest was by no means confined to Leipsic, but spread with incredible celerity through all the Lutheran churches in the different states and kingdoms of Europe. for from this time, in all the cities, towns, and villages, where Lutheranism was professed, there started up, all of a sudden, persons of various ranks and professions, of both sexes, who declared that they were called by a divine impulse, to pull up iniquity by the root; to restore to its primitive lustre, and propagate through the world the declining cause of piety and virtue; to govern the church of Christ by wiser rules than those by which it was at present directed; and who, partly in their writings, and partly in their private and public discourses, pointed out the means and measures that were necessary to bring about this important revolution. Several religious societies were formed in various places, which, though they differed in some circumstances, and were not all conducted and composed with equal wisdom, piety, and prudence, were, however, designed to promote the same general purpose.

In the mean time, these unusual proceedings filled with uneasy and alarming apprehensions both those who were intrusted with the government of the church, and those who sat at the helm of the state. these apprehensions were justified by this important consideration, that the pious and well-meaning persons who composed these assemblies, had indiscreetly admitted into their community a parcel of extravagant and hot-headed fanatics, who foretold the approaching destruction of Babel (by which they meant the Lutheran church, ) terrified the populace with fictitious visions, assumed the authority of prophets honoured with a divine commission, obscured the sublime truths of religion by a gloomy kind of jargon of their own invention, and revived doctrines that had long before been condemned by the church. The most violent debates arose in all the Lutheran churches; and persons whose differences were occasioned rather by mere words and questions of little consequence, than by any doctrines or institutions of considerable importance, attacked one another with the bitterest animosity; and, in many countries, severe laws were at length enacted against the Pietists. These revivers of piety were of two kinds, who, by their different manner of proceeding, deserve to be placed in two distinct classes. One sect of these practical reformers proposed to carry on their plan without introducing any change into the doctrine, discipline, or form of government, that were established in the Lutheran church.

The other maintained, on the contrary, that it was impossible to promote the progress of real piety among the Lutherans without making considerable alterations in their doctrine, and changing the whole form of their ecclesiastical discipline and polity. The former had at their head the learned and pious Spencer, who, in the year 1691, removed from Dresden to Berlin, and whose sentiments were adopted by the professors of the new academy of Hal; and particularly by Franckius and Paulus Antoninus, who had been invited thither from Leipsic, where they began to be suspected of pietism. Though few pretended to treat either with indignation or contempt, the intentions and purposes of these good men (which indeed, none could despise without affecting to appear the enemy of practical religion and virtue, ) yet many eminent divines, and more especially the professors and pastors of Wittenberg, were of opinion, that, in the execution of this laudable purpose, several maxims were adopted, and certain measures employed, that were prejudicial to the truth, and also detrimental to the interests of the church. Hence they looked on themselves as obliged to proceed publicly against Spencer, in the year 1695, and afterwards against his disciples and adherents, as the inventors and promoters of erroneous and dangerous opinions. These debates are of a recent date; so that those who are desirous of knowing more particularly how far the principles of equity, moderation, and candour, influenced the minds and directed the conduct of the contending parties, may easily receive satisfactory information. These debates turned upon a variety of points, and therefore the matter of them cannot be comprehended under any one general head.

If we consider them, indeed, in relation to their origin, and the circumstances that gave rise to them, we shall then be able to reduce them to some fixed principles. It is well known, that those who had the advancement of piety most zealously at heart, were possessed of a notion that no order of men contributed more to retard its progress than the clergy, whose peculiar vocation it was to inculcate and promote it. Looking upon this as the root of the evil, it was but natural that their plans of reformation should begin here; and accordingly, they laid it down as an essential principle that none should be admitted into the ministry but such as had received a proper education, were distinguished by their wisdom and sanctity of manners, and had hearts filled with divine love. Hence they proposed, in the first place, a thorough reformation of the schools of divinity; and they explained clearly enough what they meant by this reformation, which consisted in the following points: That the systematic theology which reigned in the academies, and was composed of intricate and disputable doctrines, and obscure and unusual forms of expression, should be totally abolished; that polemical divinity, which comprehended the controversies subsisting between Christians of different communions, should be less eagerly studied, and less frequently treated, though not entirely neglected; that all mixture of philosophy and human learning with divine wisdom, was to be most carefully avoided; that, on the contrary, all those who were designed for the ministry, should be accustomed from their early youth to the perusal and study of the holy Scriptures; that they should be taught a plain system of theology, drawn from these unerring sources of truth; and that the whole course of their education was to be so directed as to render them useful in life, by the practical power of their doctrine, and the commanding influence of their example.

As these maxims were propagated with the greatest industry and zeal, and were explained inadvertently, by some, without those restrictions which prudence seemed to require, these professed patrons and revivers of piety were suspected of designs that could not but render them obnoxious to censure. They were supposed to despise philosophy and learning; to treat with indifference, and even to renounce, all inquiries into the nature and foundations of religious truth; to disapprove of the zeal and labours of those who defended it against such as either corrupted or opposed it; and to place the whole of their theology in certain vague and incoherent declamations concerning the duties of morality. Hence arose those famous disputes concerning the use of philosophy; and the value of human learning, considered in connexion with the interest of religion, the dignity and usefulness of systematic theology, the necessity of polemic divinity, the excellence of the mystic system, and also concerning the true method of instructing the people. The second great object that employed the zeal and attention of the persons now under consideration, was, that the candidates for the ministry should not only for the future receive such an academical education as would tend rather to solid utility than to mere speculation, but also that they should dedicate themselves to God in a peculiar manner, and exhibit the most striking examples of piety and virtue.

This maxim, which, when considered in itself, must be considered to be highly laudable, not only gave occasion to several new regulations, designed to restrain the passions of the studious youth, to inspire them with pious sentiments and to excite in them holy resolutions, but also produced another maxim, which was a lasting source of controversy and debate, viz. "That no person that was not himself a model of piety and divine love, was qualified to be a public teacher of piety, or a guide to others in the way of salvation." This opinion was considered by many as derogatory from the power and efficacy of the word of God, which cannot be deprived of its divine influence by the vices of its ministers; and as a sort of revival of the long-exploded errors of the Donatists: and what rendered in peculiarly liable to an interpretation of this nature, was the imprudence of some Pietists, who inculcated and explained it without those restrictions that were necessary to render it unexceptionable. Hence arose endless and intricate debates concerning the following questions: "Whether the religious knowledge acquired by a wicked man can be termed theology?" "Whether a vicious person can, in effect, attain a true knowledge of religion?" "How far the office and ministry of an impious ecclesiastic can be pronounced salutary and efficacious?" "Whether a licentious and ungodly man cannot be susceptible of illumination?" and other questions of a like nature. These revivers of declining piety went still farther. In order to render the ministry of their pastors as successful as possible in rousing men from their indolence, and in stemming the torrent of corruption and immorality, they judged two things indispensably necessary.

The first was, to suppress entirely, in the course of public instruction, and more especially in that delivered from the pulpit, certain maxims in phrases which the corruption of men leads them frequently to interpret in a manner favourable to the indulgence of their passions. Such, in the judgment of the Pietists, were the following propositions: No man is able to attain to that perfection which the divine law requires: Good works are not necessary to salvation: In the act of justification, on the part of man, faith alone is concerned, without good works. The second step they took in order to give efficacy to their plans of reformation, was, to form new rules of life and manners, much more rigorous and austere than those that had been formerly practised; and to place in the class of sinful and unlawful gratifications, several kinds of pleasure and amusement which had hitherto been looked upon as innocent in themselves, and which could only become god or evil in consequence of that respective characters of those who used them with prudence, or abused them with intemperance. Thus, dancing, pantomimes, public sports, theatrical diversions, the reading of humorous and comical books, with several other kinds of pleasure and entertainment, were prohibited by the Pietists as unlawful and unseemly, and therefore by no means of an indifferent nature. The third thing on which the Pietists insisted, was, that, besides the stated meetings for public worship, private assemblies should be held for prayer and other religious exercises.

The other class of Pietists already mentioned, whose reforming, views extended to far as to change the system of doctrine, and the form of ecclesiastical government that were established in the Lutheran church, comprehended persons of various characters, and different ways of thinking. Some of them were totally destitute of judgment; their errors were the reveries of a disordered brain; and they were rather considered as lunatics than as heretics. Others were less extravagant, and tempered the singular notions they had derived from reading or meditation, with a certain mixture of the important truths and doctrines of religion. So far Mosheim, whose account of the Pietists seems to have been drawn up with a degree of severity. Indeed, he represents the real character of Franck and his colleagues as regardless of truth and opinion. A more recent historian, however, (Dr. Haweis, ) observes, "that no men more rigidly contended for, or taught mere explicitly the fundamental doctrines of Christianity: from all I have read or known, I am disposed to believe they were remarkably amiable in their behavior, kind in their spirit, and compassionate to the feeble-minded."

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Pietists'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/cbd/p/pietists.html. 1802.

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