On the Problems of Pietism

Today the church remembers a 17th Century Reformer that, honestly, I struggle a lot with remembering as anything more than a cautionary tale: Philipp Jakob Spener, Pietist and Religious Zealot.

Spener was born in the 1635 in Alsace, Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. He studied history and philosophy at Strassbourg, and on a traveling tour of Switzerland fell head over heels for influential Jesuit-turned-Reformer Jean de Labadie, a champion of inner conversion and pietism.

After serving as a pastor in Strassbourg for a season, Spener when to Frankfort, the war-weary town torn by schisms and began “piety groups,” kind of like house churches that were devotional in nature and met first in his house, and then multiplied. He also published is Pia Desideria (Devout Desires) which was, and should be, required reading for all seminarians. Within that seminal text he proposed six reforms for the blooming Reformation movement, and revitalized a catechetical movement for adults and children within the parish.

One of the positives that Spener brought to the Reformation movement was a reminder that the laity were to be involved in all levels of the church. One of the negatives was, well, he was such a strict pietist (and frankly, kind of a jerk by most accounts) that his “my way or the highway” abrasiveness caused him to have both stalwart adherents as well as “never Spener” folks. He just couldn’t get along with people which, it seems, most zealots struggle with no matter what their cause.

This all being said his writing and preaching influenced many (and continues to), setting the foundations for learning institutes and missionary causes throughout the world. Ironically his preaching style was less polemical in nature, and he focused greatly on inner conversion. This, though, led to a great imbalance in his Christian practice, where he preached one thing, but his draconian ideas around morality and ethics produced another action contrary to what was said from the pulpit: The opera was off limits, as was anything other than very conservative dress, and don’t even think about dancing. Card playing was certainly out, drinking alcohol was out, the sacraments took second place to “giving your heart to Jesus,” and the unconverted were bound to burn.

I’m sure no one can identify with that experience…

Spener died on this day in 1705.

St. Spener is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that too much of anything can become a stumbling block…

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations and from too much schooling

-illustration/icon by Ingo Römling

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