Most historical treatments of Pietism start with Spener, then pastor and senior of the ministerium in Frankfurt, who is generally regarded as a founding figure of the movement. Spener believed that the state's Lutheran churches had failed to complete the Reformation and had instead descended into theological irrelevance and quarrels. In his work Pia Desideria (1675; Pious desires) Spener proposed six measures that could lead to a revival of the German churches. They included the organization of small conventicles (ecclesiola) for meditation and the joint study of the Bible, an emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, a stress on practical rather than theological and intellectual Christianity, the abandonment of religious argument with other churches, a reorganization of the training of future ministers at the universities, and an increased emphasis on preaching. Spener's most notable follower was August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), who in 1691 was appointed professor of Greek and Oriental Languages at the newly established University of Halle. Under Francke's direction, Halle quickly became a leading center of Pietist studies. Although Pietism initially encountered significant resistance, especially from adherents of Lutheran orthodoxy, some rulers, such as the elector Frederick I of Prussia, embraced it. In Prussia, where the nobility was closely tied to the Lutheran Church, the monarchy's support of Pietism helped it secure a new ally against the provincial estates. In other cases, however, Pietists were less fortunate and were forced to move to areas where they would find a benefactor.
In Saxony, Count Nicolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–1760), strongly influenced by Pietism, granted refuge to a group of Moravians on his estate in 1722, where they were able to found the community Herrenhut (the Lord watches over). Under Zinzendorf's leadership the community spread quickly throughout Europe and to North America, where it inspired John Wesley (1703–1791), the founder of Methodism.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a variety of different movements emerged, which are all indebted to Pietism in varying degrees and even crossed the denominational line into Catholicism. Among these are Evangelicalism in England, the Réveil in France and Switzerland, and the Awakenings in Germany and the United States. Paradoxically this "neo-Pietism" was an offspring of the Enlightenment. In contrast to their seventeenth-and eighteenth-century predecessors, this new form of Pietism exhibited an unprecedented degree of optimism and an eagerness to establish societies and organizations such as youth groups.