J. S. Bach and Pietism

by Don O Franklin

New research by theologians and music historians has given rise to a new set of questions about J. S. Bach’s relationship to Pietism, a reform movement that was flourishing in Germany when he wrote his cantatas and passions. What links, if any, did Bach have to the movement? How well did he know the writings of the Pietistic fathers? And, what influence did their writings have on his sacred works?

I wish to explore these issues with the readers of Pietisten not only for what light they might shed on Bach’s music, but also for what they can tell us about the history of Pietism. Dale Brown, writing in 1978 (Understanding Pietism) called this movement “one of the least understood in Judeo-Christian history.” In the present essay, I will focus on Bach’s theological library. In a series of later articles, I will discuss his career as a church musician and, finally, his music.

Bach’s Theological Library

When J. S. Bach was appointed Director of Music in Leipzig and Cantor of the Thomaskirche in 1723, a position he was to keep until his death in 1750, he was required to sign a contract with the church council and the city government, affirming his allegiance to the orthodox, or nonpietistic, form of the Lutheran Church. Thus it is not surprising that until recently Bach scholars have viewed his church music — considered by many to be the greatest ever written — primarily in Lutheran terms, that is, as derived from the theology of Martin Luther. Only in the past decade have theologians and music historians begun to take a new look at the theological basis of Bach’s music. In 1986, for example, Jarislav Pelikan, the noted Yale historian, published a study (Bach among the Theologians) in which he examined Bach’s music from a theological perspective. In describing Bach’s cantatas and passions, he points out that while they give a prominent place to the chorales of Luther, they also “are permeated with the spirit of Pietism.”

The current interest in the theological content of Bach’s music is due in large part to the discovery in 1969 of a Bible that had once been part of the composer’s theological library — the “Calov Bible.” It was so called because, in addition to the scriptural text, it included a commentary by the seventeenth-century theologian Abraham Calov. This Bible, reappearing over two centuries later in the Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, drew attention to Bach’s library and its significance for his activities as a composer. Not only did Bach’s collection of theological and religious writings serve as a source for the texts of his cantatas, motets, and other sacred works, but, as the discussion that follows points out, these writings also represented a broad range of theological viewpoints.

First and foremost, however, the discovery of the Calov Bible reaffirmed Bach’s importance as an expositor of scripture, a role that had been cast increasingly in doubt by post-World War II German scholars. Was Bach, they asked, indeed the “Fifth Evangelist,” as Archbishop Nathan Solderbloom of Sweden had described him in the early years of this century; that is, did he write his cantatas and passions as “musical sermons” that were intended to move and instruct the hearts of his listeners? Or did Bach, as these Marxist scholars argued, apply his musical craft to a sacred idiom simply because his position required it of him? The answer came in the handwritten comments that Bach himself wrote in the margins of the Bible.

For example, beside the opening verses of I Chronicles 25, a passage that describes the musicians who served King David, Bach noted the following: “This chapter is the true foundation of all church music pleasing to God.” A few pages later, next to I Chronicles 28:21, he added in the margin, “Magnificent proof that, besides other functions of the divine service, music especially has also been ordered into existence by God’s spirit through David.” And next to II Chronicles 5: 13-14, he observed that “in devotional music, God with his grace is always present.” In other cases, he noted what combination of instruments and voices he would use in setting a particular text to music. One such passage was Exodus 15: 20-21, where Miriam takes a timbrel in her hands and urges the women around her to “sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously.” Bach’s remark that the “First Prelude [is] to be performed with 2 choirs to God’s Glory” may well refer to the opening movement of his motet, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (“Sing to the Lord a new Song”), which he scored for two four-part choruses. Taken as a whole, Bach’s comments underline the central role he believed music should play in the worship of the church, while, at the same time, they affirm his vocation as a church musician.

The high value the composer attached to his copy of the Calov Bible, and to his library as a whole, can be seen in other ways as well. Not only did Bach sign his name on the Bible’s title page (for each of its three volumes ), but also he entered the date “1733,” suggesting that it was in the early months of that year — a time of official mourning for the death of the King of Saxony — that he began in earnest to compile and catalogue his collection of religious writings. After Bach’s death seventeen years later, the inventory of his estate (reprinted in The Bach Reader) lists his collection of string and keyboard instruments (by far his most valuable possessions), as well as items of silver, clothing, and furniture — and, in addition, his collection of “Sacred Books.” Along with the title of each volume, the inventory gives its estimated value and describes how the library was to be distributed among the family members. So far, however, the only volume that has come to light is the Calov Bible, which was given to Bach’s wife Anna Magdalena.

It is now possible to survey Bach’s collection of “sacred books” in greater detail, thanks to a descriptive catalogue (Bach’s Theologische Bibliothek) published in 1986 by Robin Leaver, a theologian and musicologist. As Leaver points out, the inventory lists 52 separate titles, but the library includes at least 81 individual volumes, as several of the works (such as the Calov Bible cited above) were published in more than one volume. Given Bach’s traditional German background and upbringing — to be discussed at greater length in the next article in this series — it comes as no surprise to learn that the writings of Martin Luther constitute a substantial part of the collection. Comprising approximately 20 of the 81 volumes, the six titles by Luther include two complete editions of his writings (each with several volumes) along with parts of a third, as well as a set of Luther’s meditations and his popular “Table-talks” or “Postils.” The fact that Bach owned portions of the three primary editions of Luther’s works available at the time suggests that he had a collector’s, as well as a theological, interest in the writings of the reformer.

Until now, it has been assumed that the remaining 46 titles, with the exception of those by Spener and Francke and the mystic Johannes Tauler, were the work of authors whose theological views represent Lutheran orthodoxy. If we now examine the same titles, however, in light of the latest research on Pietism, we find that approximately one-third of them can be described as Pietistic. And if we in addition take a new look at the titles that remain, we see that they, in turn, can be divided into two (more or less) equal groups: The first includes the writings of Luther’s followers, who, in seeking to establish a dogmatic foundation for the reformer’s theological doctrines, ushered in the post-Luther stage in the history of the church, which became known as Lutheran orthodoxy. The second group of works stems from the orthodox theologians who were active at the end of the seventeenth century and whose writings became increasingly more scholastic. The form of orthodoxy they represent is the Lutheranism that the Pietists, in turn, sought to reform. We will briefly survey each of these two groups before focusing on the Pietistic works.

In the first group, the earliest titles, such as Martin Chemnitz’s Examinis Concilii Tridentini (1578), date from the period between Luther’s death (1546) and the Formula of Concord (1580), a confession that resolved the doctrinal differences that arose among his followers. A second set of titles reflects the writings of the early orthodox writers, such as Johann Gerhard, whose five-volume work, School of Piety, was published in 1622-23. Interestingly, it is in this work that Gerhard, otherwise fairly orthodox in his writings, argues that Arndt’s True Christianity — now regarded as a classic of Pietistic thought — should be viewed as an orthodox work. (Gerhard’s view is in opposition to that of most of his fellow scholastics who found Arndt’s writing heretical.) Another set of titles includes the biblical studies of Johann Froben, whose study of Psalm 34 was published in 1594, and the commentaries of Heinrich Bünting published in 1582. This exegetical tradition is continued in several of the late-seventeenth century titles found in Bach’s library, such as the Biblical Interpretations of Johann Olearius (1678) and the commentaries of Abraham Calov, including those found in the Calov Bible (1681).

The second group of orthodox theologians, in contrast, are generally more concerned with dogma than with the interpretation of a biblical text. As the Pietistic movement gained momentum in the closing decades of the seventeenth century, their writings became increasingly polemical in tone and substance, as vividly illustrated by the following two titles: Johann Nikolas Hunnius’ Attack on the Dangers of Catholicism, published in 1676, and Franz Kling’s Warning against the Desertion of the Lutheran Religion that appeared in 1693. Also found in the library are the works of August Pfeiffer, an outspoken defender of orthodoxy and ardent foe of all reform movements, whether Papist, Calvinist, or Pietist. The volumes owned by Bach and published between 1684 and 1718 include Anti-Melancholy (1684), the Evangelical School of Christianity (1688), the Apostolic School of Christians (1695), and Anti-Calvinism (1699). It must be noted that until 1688 Pfeiffer was a strong supporter of Spener, whom he cites as a “highly esteemed theologian” in the preface to the above volume published that year. Later, as the confrontation with Pietism became more intense, Pfeiffer became one of Spener’s harshest critics, arguing that reformed theology of any kind destroys the foundation of Christian faith and therefore is corrupt and deserving of condemnation.

Turning to the Pietistic authors whose works are found in Bach’s library, we look first at Philip Jacob Spener and August Hermann Francke. Like Luther before them, they called for spiritual renewal. And, like Luther, they sought to reform a church that placed more emphasis on doctrine and dogma than on piety, devotion, and study of the scriptures. In the words of Dale Brown, writing in The Covenant Quarterly in 1976, Spener and Francke taught “that the reformation of doctrine effected in the sixteenth century [by Luther] must be broadened to include reformation of life.” Unlike Luther, however, they sought to purge the church not of “Popish practices,” but of the scholastic elements of orthodoxy that had been introduced into Lutheranism over the course of the 17th century, including the legalistic insistence on closely-worded doctrinal statements of faith.

Bach’s library includes a single volume by each reformer. The work by Francke, Haus-Postille (“Table-talks” or “Postils”) takes the same title as the Luther work cited above. A collection of meditations or short sermons, it was a devotional work intended for use in pietistic study groups. The work by Spener, Zeal Against Popery, his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, is a more polemical one. It is not, as we might expect, the highly influential Pia Desideria (“Pious Desires”) that Spener wrote in 1675 as a preface to a new edition of Johann Arndt’s True Christianity. In his preface, Spener set forth the doctrine of the spiritual priesthood of all believers, which, in turn, gave an impetus to the conventicles and study groups that became the hallmarks of Pietism. [For a discussion of Pia Disideria, see “Philip Jakob Spener’s Proposals, Parts I, II, and III” by Peter Sandstrom in Pietisten, Fall and Winter 1988 and Spring 1989. Ed.]

Arndt’s work, however, was part of Bach’s library — and Spener’s preface may have been as well, as it was almost universally included in any publication of True Christianity after 1675. (Bach owned the 1701 edition.) Long regarded as one of the “Bibles” of Pietism, it focuses on the practice of Christian life. Arndt, as a spokesperson for the opponents of Lutheran orthodoxy, was primarily interested in personal renewal and religious experience. From an historical perspective, he is regarded as the first Luther scholar to recognize that the reformer’s doctrine of justification by faith does not preclude but embodies good works. And, in writing a work of spirituality rather than a dogmatic treatise, Arndt made extensive use of the writings of the medieval mystics, such as Tauler, whose sermons will be discussed below.

The status of Arndt as a “patriarch” of Pietism is due in large part to the influence of Spener. Referring to Arndt’s contribution to the pietistic movement, Spener describes him as a second Luther, a Lutherus redivivus, and a third Elias: “At the time of Hus, in the year 1415, the tree of life took root; at the time of Luther, in the year 1517 [the Reformation] this tree started to flower; in the year of 1618 [the date Arndt’s work was first published] the harvesters went out to gather in its fruits.” Francke, who read True Christianity early in life, also placed great emphasis on the writings of Arndt. While teaching in Erfurt, for example, he handed out copies of Arndt’s work, along with the New Testament — and for this, among other reasons, he became labeled as a rabble-rouser by the church authorities. In short, there is no doubt that Arndt’s work was strongly connected with the beginnings of the Pietist movement in Germany, and its distribution by Francke and others gave a strong impetus to the spread of Pietism throughout northern Europe.

In the following century, True Christianity was cited by Pietists and non-Pietists alike as a seminal work in their spiritual development. This was true of Carl Rosenius as well as Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer wrote in 1955 at the age of eighty-three, “In my youth, I gained from my mother a love for Arndt: he was a prophet of interior Protestantism.” But it appears that Schweitzer was not the only theologian to learn of Arndt first from his mother, nor Germany the only country in which Arndt’s work was daily household reading in pious homes. In The Swedish Covenanters in 1929, David Nyvall cites “two German writers whose Scripture exposition, ‘Postils’ as they were called, were read almost as eagerly and widely in Sweden as Luther’s own.” The first work is that of Arndt, and the second is Christian Scriver’s Soul Treasury. “I can well remember these works,” he writes, “on the knees of my mother.”

Another writer with a profound influence on Pietism is Johann Tauler, the medieval mystic, whose sermons are found in Bach’s library. Although Tauler’s writings were held in high regard by Luther, by the early seventeenth century they were considered suspect by most orthodox Lutherans because of their mention of a “personal contact” between humans and God. (Tauler was a disciple of Meister Ekhart, who taught that each person had a divine spark within.) In sharp contrast to the orthodox Lutherans, the Pietists placed Tauler at the core of their movement. Arndt, for example, quotes the medieval mystic at numerous points throughout True Christianity, especially in describing the ways in which the human soul seeks union with God. And Arndt wrote a preface to a new edition of Tauler’s sermons published in 1621. Later, Spener and Francke also drew heavily on Tauler’s writings.

Also found in Bach’s library are collections of sermons from the late seventeenth century. Five of the collections were written by Heinrich Müller in the 1670s and 1680s, the same period in which the polemical writings described above were increasing in number. The titles of the volumes reflect the Pietistic tone and language of the sermons that Müller first delivered from the pulpit and then distributed in published (and edited) form: “Flames of Love,” “Hours of Refreshment,” “Evangelical Reasoning,” “Apostolic Reasoning,” and the “Evangelical Defense Against the Injuries of Joseph.” We see these same qualities in the following line of his prose: “When the heart is full of spirit, it overflows in singing. It is not I who am singing, but the Holy Ghost who sings through my mouth.” A theologian as well as a pastor, Müller was known for his attacks on the hardened doctrinal and institutional attitudes current in the Lutheran church. In addition, he had close ties with Scriver and Spener, and at one point, lamenting the state of the church, he wrote to Spener: “We will heal Babylon. Oh, that it wanted to be healed.”

Müller is of particular interest to us because of the recent discovery by a German scholar, Elke Axmacher, that Müller’s sermons greatly influenced Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, one of the composer’s best known works. Axmacher’s research is published in Aus Liebe will mein Heyland Sterben (“In Love my Saviour died.”) The sermons in question served as meditations on the passion during the Lenten season, reflecting a Lutheran tradition that dates back to the early seventeenth century. In the above study, Axmacher gives numerous examples of how Bach and his librettist used the themes of Müller’s sermons as the basis for the texts of the arias and choruses that were inserted into the narration of Matthew’s Gospel. (Other meditative works in Bach’s library that deal with Pietistic themes include “Reflections on the Counsel of God” and “Reflections on the Tears and Suffering of Jesus Christ” by early-eighteenth-century writer Johann Rambach, and the 1697 songbook of Paul Wagner, published in eight volumes.)

The fact that Bach chose Müller’s texts as the basis for his St. Matthew passion — a masterwork we will discuss in a later article — is especially significant in light of Gary R. Sattler’s newest study, Nobler than the Angels, Lower Than a Worm: The Pietistic View of the Individual in the Writings of Heinrich Müller and August Hermann Francke, published in 1989. (Sattler may be better known to the readers of Pietisten as the author of God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: A Brief Introduction to the Life and Writings of August Hermann Francke, published by Covenant Press in 1982.)

Sattler, after linking Müller closely with Spener and Francke, describes Müller as one of the seminal figures of the Pietistic movement in Germany. In particular, he compares Müller’s spiritual journey with that of Francke. Both came from the same part of northern Germany; both pursued and were granted university degrees; and in both cases, their call for reform came from their pulpits and publications, which included primarily sermons and meditations, not theological discourses. By considering Müller as a Pietist and, at the same time, identifying him as one of the earliest Lutheran reformers, Sattler broadens the scope of Pietism both theologically and historically. He uses the term Pietism to encompass the reform movement that began in the second half of the seventeenth century within the Lutheran church. In so doing, he places the origins of the reform movement earlier in the seventeenth century and, by implication, a step closer to Luther.

In a second work that appeared in 1989 (Pietists, Protestants, and Mysticism), Peter Erb, another well-known authority on Pietism, also places the reform movement in a broad historical context when he writes:

Pietism is best understood as a spiritual continuum, extending from established religious frameworks to those of separatist radical communities. At several points in history members of the movement who had travelled farthest along that continuum did separate from established churches and develop into sectarian units. Again, members of sectarian traditions were often drawn into Pietist conventicles and served as radicalising agents within them, although not always as forces of separation.

Furthermore, Erb urges that “we not distinguish between the two poles in Pietism [radical and reformed] too strongly or the movement at large will be misrepresented.”

If we now view the primary figures discussed here as part of this historical and spiritual continuum, we see them in a new light. Arndt, Müller, Spener, and Francke all have their roots in Luther — as does Bach. In addition, all were prominent figures in the Lutheran church, retaining throughout their lives positions of leadership and authority. Arndt was the superintendent at Celle, and Müller at Rostock, where he was also a professor of Greek and theology. Spener was a senior pastor who held supervisory positions in Frankfurt and Berlin, and Francke was in charge of theological faculty at the University of Halle. Bach, who remained Cantor of the Thomaskirche until his death, held the position of Director of Church Music in Leipzig, one of the three or four most prestigious positions available to a church musician in Germany at the time.

Looking first at the four theologians, the role of each was that of a reformer. For Arndt, Müller, and Spener, their theology and religious practices remained rooted in Lutheranism. Only after their deaths — though for Spener at the end of his life — were they considered Pietists. In contrast, Francke, as a contemporary of Bach, living in nearby Halle until his death in 1727, was more strongly identified as a Pietist during his life-time because of Halle’s importance as the center of a reformed Lutheran church. If Francke had more influence on later Pietistic movements, it was in part because he was more polemical in his writings, and in part because of his far-reaching role as an educator and administrator. Missionaries from Halle, including Henry Muehlenberg, were sent out all over the world. Muehlenberg came to Pennsylvania from Halle in 1742 and is now regarded as one of the founders of the Lutheran Church in America.

Viewing the Pietistic movement in nineteenth-century Sweden from this perspective shows that it, too, began as a reform movement within the established church. As Karl Olsson reminds us in his 1970 article, “What is Pietism?” it was common for the early members of the Mission Friends to belong to both groups, the missionsvänner and the state church. It was understandable, therefore, that when members of the Mission Friends came to America as immigrants in the mid-1880s, many attended the Augustana Synod Lutheran churches, where they found the teachings, and even more the pious practices, compatible with their own. For this group of Swedish Mission Friends it was only in the 1880s, after several decades of being affiliated with the Augustana Synod, that they severed their ties with Lutheranism and combined with other pietistic groups to form the Evangelical Swedish Covenant Church. (No wonder, then, that such a close relationship existed between their respective colleges, North Park and Augustana, well into the 1960s.)

Returning finally to Bach, we cannot yet, as with the Pietist reformers, fully define his theological position. However, we can answer one of the questions asked at the beginning of this essay: How well did Bach know the writings of the Pietistic fathers? Our study of his theological library revealed not only that he was well-acquainted with their works, but also that those works represent a substantial part of his library — much more than previously thought. The titles we described as Pietistic reflect the tradition of reformed Lutheranism that dates back to Arndt’s True Christianity in the early 1600s, and even earlier to the writings of Tauler. The continuum of which Erb speaks is, in short, fully represented in the titles of the “sacred books” Bach collected. But before we can draw any further conclusions about the Leipzig cantor’s links to Pietism, we need to retrace his theological journey. This we will do in the second part of this series: Bach’s Career as a Church Musician.


Brown, Dale, Understanding Pietism, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

Brown, Dale, “The Bogey of Pietism,” The Covenant Quarterly, 1976.

Erb, Peter, Pietists, Protestants, and Mysticism: The Use of Late Medieval Spiritual Texts in the Work of Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), The Scarecrow Press, 1989.

David, Hans T. and Arthur Mendel, editors, The Bach Reader. The Life of Johann Sebastian Bach in Letters and Documents, Rev. ed., W.W. Norton, 1966.

Leaver, Robin, Bach’s Theologische Bibliothek, Hänssler Verlag, 1986.

Nyvall, David, The Swedish Covenanters, Part One of The Evangelical Covenant Church, Covenant Press, 1954.

Olsson, Karl, “What is Pietism?” The Covenant Quarterly, 1970.

Pelikan, Jarislav, Bach among the Theologians, Fortress Press, 1986.

Sattler, Gary R., Nobler than the Angels, Lower Than a Worm: The Pietistic View of the Individual in the Writings of Heinrich Müller and August Hermann Francke, University Press of America, 1989.

Sattler, Gary R., God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: A Brief Introduction to the Life and Writings of August Hermann Francke, Covenant Press, 1982.