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Significance Of Pietism

The diversification of Pietism is also emblematic for the intellectual sources it drew on, digested, and developed. Many concepts and characteristics such as the "universal priesthood of all believers," the formation of conventicles, or mysticism stem from the teachings of Martin Luther (1483–1546), John Calvin (1509–1563), and Jakob Böhme (1575–1624). At the center of Pietism stood the idea of a spiritual rebirth. Although this involved a higher degree of individualism, the concept of communitas remains pivotal. A process of sanctification, which includes a strong emphasis on inward edification, would eventually lead to the formation of a community of the "children of the Lord." This belief, in combination with chiliastic elements under the guidance of the Book of Revelation, led to an increased emphasis on charitable and missionary work, since this would quicken the Second Coming of Christ.

Pietism's greatest contribution was certainly in the field of Protestant theology. Pietism produced a large body of edifying literature and song. Especially noteworthy is its contribution in the area of the spiritual song, which served as a compensation for Pietism's otherwise strict admonition against secular forms of entertainment such as theater or dance. Most famous in this area is probably Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen's (1670–1739) Geistreiche Gesangbuch (1704; Spiritual hymnal), whose first edition contained 683 hymns and 183 melodies. It possibly served as a source for the composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), whose cantatas and passions may have been influenced by Pietism.

A major point of scholarly debate remains the complex relationship between Pietism and the Enlightenment. Both of these "movements" were brothers in arms (at least initially) against religious orthodoxy and doctrine, and both strongly emphasized charity, compassion, and pedagogical initiatives. Pietism's contributions in education, such as Francke's Pädagogium, founded in Halle in 1696, are as significant as those of the Enlightenment, such as the Philanthropinum, founded in Dessau/Saxony in 1774 by Johann Bernhard Basedow (1723–1790). Enlightenment figures such as Samuel von Pufendorf (1632–1694) and Christian Thomasius (1655–1728) embraced Pietism's focus on the laity and works of charity.

Yet the substance of the program of both the Enlightenment and Pietism with regard to religion could not have been more different. Whereas the rationalism of the Enlightenment sought to demystify religion, Pietism emphasized the inward spirituality of a "religion of the heart" as well as the centrality of Scripture. The historical-critical method of biblical criticism undertaken by proponents of the Enlightenment undermined scriptural authority completely, whereas for Pietists the Bible practically served as the main source of guidance and knowledge. Symbolic for this antagonism is the conflict between the German Enlightenment philosopher Christian von Wolff (1679–1754) and factions of the theological faculty of the University of Halle under the leadership of Joachim Lange (1670–1744) and Johann Franz Buddeus (1667–1729). Both attacked Wolff on the grounds that his rationalism would inevitably lead to atheism and Spinozism. Surprisingly, many early Spinozists and radical thinkers such as Gottfried Arnold (1666–1714) and Johann Christian Edelmann (1698–1767) were originally Pietists, who still held on to many original ideas of the Reformation, such as the universal priesthood of all believers and freedom of conscience.

The case of Gottfried Arnold is particularly noteworthy. His Unpartheyische Kirchen-und Ketzer-Historie (2 vols., 1699–1700; Nonpartisan history of the church and heresy) was a pioneering work in ecclesiastical historiography. Far from being an apologetic work for heretics and still heavily influenced by mysticism, Arnold's work nonetheless rendered heresy a respectable subject of scholarly study. It revealed the historical role of laymen and women in the church, and by describing the interrelation of church and state in history Arnold exposed darker aspects of the Christian Church. Arnold also serves as an example of how Pietism influenced later philosophical and literary movements.

The literary movement of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) adopted Pietism's emphasis on sensibility and spirituality to counter the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) wrote in his Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–1833; Poetry and truth) that he profited from reading Arnold's work at a very young age. But figures like Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788), Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), and Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834) were also indebted to the Pietist concept of devoutness, and more recent scholarship suggests that Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) as well as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831) were more indebted to Pietism than previous studies assume. Most of these figures were educated or raised under Pietist influence and digested parts of this early encounter in their works. In fact, Schleiermacher's Moravian roots become apparent in his theology, which combined the Pietist idea of religious experience with the Romantic ideal of sensibility as opposed to the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Pietism is a highly complex and multifaceted phenomenon that goes beyond the denominational limits of Lutheranism. Extending beyond just a spiritual phenomenon and the field of theology, Pietism's impact could be felt in politics and culture as well. The movement's far-reaching impact and diversity often makes it difficult to describe precisely the avenues it took, and so it often seems more fitting to distinguish between different Pietisms rather than lumping these strands together under one single umbrella. This becomes especially important with regards to the different strands of radical and separatist movements that developed the collegia pietatis into independent social communities but which are often overlooked in general surveys of Pietism. The unprecedented, avid participation of women also suggests that these movements transgressed gender and class boundaries.



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Ulrich Groetsch

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Philosophy of Mind - Early Ideas to Planck lengthPietism - History, Significance Of Pietism, Bibliography