Pietism: Private Faith and Public Witness

by Sally A. Johnson

“Pietism is not privatism,” writes Peter Sandstrom in Pietisten (spring 1989), in “Spener’s Proposals, Part III.” Citing “the establishment of benevolent work” by early pietists and “the widespread development of active mission societies,” he says, “it is this emphasis upon practice that helps make pietism a ‘life movement.’”

Looking at the early days of the movement, there is ample evidence that personal piety often led to social practice. According to historian Roland Bainton, “From its inception, the [German] Pietist movement issued in humanitarian endeavors.” Such leaders as Francke and Zinzendorf ministered to orphans, refugees, and others in need; and the pietists contributed significantly to the development of popular education.1

Karl Olsson, writing in By One Spirit, traces the roots of social concern in the receiving of God’s compassion: “The experience of grace softened the heart toward the other .... Hence there flows from the revival a mighty tide of benevolence, at first spontaneous and unstructured, later ordered and institutionalized.”2

In the Swedish temperance movement of the 1830s, pietist religious beliefs and a concern for the public good came together. After describing the serious problems related to the abuse of the powerful brännvin, Olsson tells how George Scott and others led in the founding of a national temperance society in 1837. The fact that the campaign did not attack the use of ale and wine, seems to indicate that the movement was not limited to strict religious scruples against alcoholic drinks, but addressed a particular pattern of substance abuse that was adversely affecting the society.3

Exploring another dimension, sociologist Peter G. Stromberg identifies a significant role for adherents of the early Swedish Covenant (Svenska Missionsförbundet, or SMF) in the development of some aspects of the Swedish social system. In his book Symbols of Community: The Cultural System of a Swedish Church, Stromberg says, “Values of temperance or solidarity or the hope for improvement did not spring spontaneously from the lumber camps, the crowded factories, and the slums. Decades before socialism became a vital force in the lives of the Swedish workers, the free churches were vigorously propounding their message.”4

The democratic organization and leadership of the conventicles provided important experience that members carried with them into other social groups. As an example, Stromberg cites the first labor strike in Sweden, in the town of Sundsvall in May 1879, where “free-church members, organization, and ideas were a central factor in the strike.”5 He talks also of the town of Gavle, in which “early congregations of SMF were of central importance in the major political transformations that occurred” during the 1880s.6

Overall, says Stromberg, given the established religious system in which the free church movement took root, “dissent from the state church was little different from political revolt,” and “the free-church movements . . . were the first stages in the transformation of political ideology and organization in Sweden, a process whose end result was the welfare state.”7

In a broader frame of reference, Donald W. Dayton, in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, maintains that “earlier generations of Evangelicals understood that repentance involved turning from apathy into the heart of struggles for social reform.”8 As examples he sketches the reformist views and efforts of such leaders as Jonathan Blanchard, the founder of Wheaton College; evangelist Charles G. Finney; abolitionist Theodore Weld; and Catherine Mumford Booth, cofounder of the Salvation Army. Not only are social concerns embedded in the heritage of Northern European pietism, but in the wider history of evangelicalism, as well.

However, when Peter Sandstrom turns to more recent times, he sounds a different tone. “It is rare,” he says, “that one finds instances in which a personal sense of faith has promoted the regular gathering of Christians around the texts of Scripture and has encouraged the daily practice of spiritual priesthood, in extending love to individuals, to the parish, and to the neighborhoods of the world.”

In emphasizing these three elements as a unity, Sandstrom holds up a broader vision of pietism than is common. We present-day pietists have more frequently defined the tradition in terms of the first two components, personal faith and reliance on Scripture. Less often do we claim the third, the extension of love “to individuals, to the parish, and to the neighborhoods of the world,” as part of the heritage - particularly in its social implications. We have tended rather to interpret it in an evangelism that seeks to win souls and build the church but does not address other kinds of human needs (except on the foreign mission field). We have seen ourselves (and others have seen us) through a stereotype—that pietists and other evangelicals are inwardly devoted to God and outwardly separated from the world and its needs.

Is the stereotype correct? Is it “rare” that these three elements, are united? Or does the pietistic heritage in fact offer to us in the twentieth century the hope of a holistic faith—born of deep personal commitment, nurtured by the Word of God, and expressed in ministry to the needs of individuals and communities?

With contemporary North American Covenanters as our focus for exploring the legacy of pietistic faith, there are various sources we might use. Stories of individual people and churches have a quality of human richness that cannot be matched. However, there are also more systematic forms of information that can add breadth to the discussion as we attempt to describe one stripe in the fabric of contemporary American pietism.

At the Center for Church and Community Ministries in Chicago, we help congregations work toward renewal through community ministry. We also learn from them, through conversations and consultations, workshops, written materials, and surveys. We have collected information on a number of fairly typical Protestant and Catholic congregations, including several Covenant churches. All have expressed some interest in community ministry, so it is a self-selected sample with some openness to community involvement. Within that sample, however, we can compare Covenanters with a wider group and ask whether they are different from Christians of other traditions. In particular, are they more withdrawn in private faith and less likely to engage in social mission? Or do they unite all three elements of their heritage - personal faith, reliance on Scripture, and ministry to those in need?

We have several kinds of information at the Center that are helpful here: (a) narrative materials written by a small group from each church; (b) notes from conversations with individuals; (c) responses to telephone interviews of about thirty members of each church; and (d) responses to a written questionnaire called the Church and Community Planning Inventory (CCPI), taken by a larger number of members. Using these materials, we can learn about the Covenant churches in the study and compare them with mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and other evangelical groups.9

To begin with the first of Sandstrom’s three elements: Is personal faith important to the members of these Covenant churches? Though faith is a difficult quality to measure, there are ways to respond to this question. By comparing and combining answers to several items on the questionnaire, we can begin to characterize the role of faith in people’s lives. In particular, the staff of the Center combined questions on how religious a person feels, the positive or negative effects of religion in their experience, and the importance of their faith in making daily decisions. On this “scale” the Covenant church members showed a stronger sense of the importance of faith in their lives than did the larger group.10

We then developed a second scale, based on how often people say they engage in private religious activities— read the Bible, read other devotional materials and pray privately. Again the Covenant members’ responses were higher, showing more time spent in these expressions of personal faith.

We also designed a way to compare churches on a theological continuum, using questions from the survey. Congregations that placed the greatest emphasis on a conversion experience and biblical literalism were characterized as “Evangelical.” Those that focused on gradual growth in the faith and had the fewest literalists were classified as “Liberal.” Those with more mixed views on both questions were called “Moderate.” Five of the six Covenant congregations that took the survey were in the Evangelical category, one was Moderate, and none were Liberal. Including those five, twelve of the larger total of sixty-two churches were Evangelical. In other words, Covenant churches made up about a tenth of the whole group, but nearly half of the Evangelicals.

We can say several things about this sample of contemporary pietists, then, as we begin sketching our portrait of them: Their faith is a more significant force in their lives than is true for the comparison group; they spend more time in private practices of the faith; and they hold to an evangelical theology emphasizing personal conversion and the authority of Scripture. The first of our three elements—a personal faith 
—appears to be alive and strong.

Turning to the second aspect of the heritage, do these present- day pietists continue to search and rely on the Scriptures? And if so, does their reading of the Bible influence their relationships to their communities? On this question, the narrative materials we have collected at the Center can be especially helpful.11

Virtually all the churches with which we have worked included references to the Bible when they wrote about their theologies. But some of the Covenanters went further, talking about how important the biblical foundation is to them. “It is from our Bible that social ministry has its roots,” a group wrote. One person asked, “How can anyone not help with the poor, given the biblical mandate to serve them?” Another spoke of the importance of “the whole gospel,” echoed by the group that wrote, “the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be shared in word and in deed.” One church concluded emphatically, “We stand firm on our Bible. The messages cannot be refuted. Our hearts are to be warm and our hands open as we minister to the needy on our 20th century streets.”

Searching the Scriptures for guidance in relating to the world around them, some begin with the creation, and talk of responsibility as stewards; they talk of God’s power and purpose guiding us in history as recorded in the biblical story. Some cite provisions for the care of the needy back to early Israel, quoting Deuteronomy 15: 11, “You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and poor in the land.” One group linked their name “Covenant” with “God’s promise to Abraham that was extended to us and we want to extend it and share it with our community...”

They read often about God’s interest in the poor. “The message there (in the Bible) is simple and direct: God is always for the poor.” They cite the passage in Luke 4 where Jesus reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” “God is calling us to lift the hopes of the poor and to let them know that God is for them,” they say. “This is done by reaching out through feeding, caring and teaching them to do for themselves.”

In their reading they find the model of the earliest Christians: “We hear from the early church still further evidence of God’s design for believers and of the way internal attitudes and hearts are to be informed by God’s love.” They cite II Corinthians 8 and Philippians 4: 10-17 to show the sharing of resources in the church, saying, “Open hearts giving freely is the will of our Lord.” “The church ought to model as well as extend the love of neighbor,” they say, “offering to God a community of faith that exhibits the ministry of God’s love and hope.”

Above all, they read the words and work of Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God . . . and your neighbor as yourself.” “Feed my sheep.” “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” “As you have done it to one of the least of these... “ “The Lord...has anointed me to preach good news to the poor...”

Furthermore, for these Covenanters Jesus apparently is not just a source of instruction, but a person to follow. Here again the surveys can help to fill out our picture. When asked their reasons for volunteering to help people, following Jesus’ example was an important motivation for more Covenant members than for the other groups. By comparison, there was no difference in the degree of response to Jesus’ teachings. Biblical study, then, brings us back around to a personal faith commitment. The first two elements appear confirmed in this group of Covenanters.

What of the third element, the expression of faith in social mission? Are these contemporary pietists reluctant to become engaged in the human and social struggles around them? Do they fulfill the stereotype, or the heritage?

In order to characterize a congregation’s relationship to its community, we developed another set of categories based on the CCPI. Churches that (a) were little involved with their communities, (b) were primarily oriented to serving their members, and (c) left social action to the consciences of individuals were called “Sanctuary” churches. Those that were (a) the most involved with their communities, (b) were primarily oriented to serving the world beyond the church, and (c) said they take corporate stands on social issues were classified as “Activist.” Churches in the middle, with mixed responses, were called “Civic.”

By this measure, the profile of Covenant churches was virtually identical to the larger group: there was one Covenant Sanctuary church, three Civic churches, and two Activist. The Covenant congregations showed no greater tendency to withdraw, and fully as great a readiness to become socially active, compared with the wider ecumenical group.

The members of these Covenant churches appear to be as engaged in social issues as members of other faiths. Responding to the surveys, Covenant members placed fully as much importance as others did on social justice work as an expression of the Christian faith. And slightly more Covenanters said that “churches should get people involved with social and political issues of the day.”

Furthermore, they do not appear to be more “conservative” in their views on public issues. The Covenanters surveyed actually had a greater tendency than the larger group to support a nuclear freeze, welfare spending, affirmative action, and moral obligations of large corporations.

Not only do these Covenant church members believe they should be involved with social needs, they are in fact doing it. According to the surveys, Covenant members are just as active in efforts to help people as are members of the larger group of churches. In fact, slightly more of these Covenanters are involved in trying to change community policies or in advocating the rights of disadvantaged groups. The members of every Covenant church surveyed are more active in their churches’ community ministries than the average of the other groups. And a disproportionately high number of Covenant members are giving at least ten hours a month to these ministries.

The third component of historical pietism appears strong in the hearts and lives of this group of contemporary Covenanters. They are living the heritage as they understand it. “Pietism... stressed improvement of the heart,” wrote one group. “Heart religion was manifested in believers becoming ethical characters, witnesses of the truth—willing both to stand against evil and show compassion for those caught in its web.”

Much more could be said. We could tell about the many kinds of ministries these churches are actually doing— feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, reaching out to the abused and those in prison, teaching English to immigrants, and more. We could listen as they tell stories of the “saints” of their own church and of their wider heritage— saints of the past, whose tireless work with poor immigrants, sailors, and orphans gave birth to our benevolent institutions; and saints of the present, who by their lives call us to ministries of service and justice.

We could look further at unanswered questions. Has our sister church, the Covenant of Sweden, kept alive this holistic heritage of pietism? How does their interpretation and living of it compare with ours? How have other groups with roots in Northern European pietism interpreted and embodied the legacy (e.g., Moravians, Baptists, and others)?

And most important, how well are we ourselves honoring our roots? We have seen that contemporary pietism can indeed offer a holistic faith, uniting personal commitment and scriptural study with social mission. We have traced it in our heritage, and we have found it in the words and lives of some congregations in the Evangelical Covenant Church. Can we claim it ever more widely, and nurture it ever more strongly, until we know in our bones and proclaim with our lives that this is most richly what it means to be a pietist and a Covenanter?

1. Roland H. Bainton, Christendom, Vol. II (New York: Harper Torch books, 1964), p. 119.

2. Karl A. Olsson, By One Spirit, (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1962), p. 379.

3. Olsson, pp. 40-42.

4. Peter G. Stromberg, Symbols of Community: The Cultural System of a Swedish Church (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986), p. 101. Stromberg’s book is an intriguing ethnographic study of Immanuel Church in Stockholm, focusing particularly on how the theme of grace operates in the lives and consciousness of the members.

5. Stromberg, p. 100.

6. Stromberg, p. 100.

7. Stromberg, p. 101. Stromberg also argues that historic pietism was not the same as individualism, as we think of it. Rather, the development of community and an “awareness of society” were deeply valued, “derived from the relationship between individual and God” (emphasis his). See pages 18-20.

8. Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), p. 8.

9. The eleven denominations represented in the data are A.M.E. Zion, American Baptist Church, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church of the Brethren, Evangelical Covenant Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Convention, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist Church.

10. I have not given the comparative percentages for the CCPI and telephone survey items cited here, in order to avoid encumbering the text with numbers. If anyone is interested in more specific data, please contact me at the Center for Church and Community Ministries, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave., 4th floor, Chicago, IL 60637, 312-241-7877.

11. The narrative materials quoted here were written by members of several different Covenant churches. Some statements may not be original to them, as all of them used other sources in researching and writing their materials. Whatever the origins, this is how they have chosen to talk about their beliefs.