Pietism

By George Scott, Carl Olof Rosenius, and Mark Safstrom

In the initial year of Pietisten in 1842, George Scott and C. O. Rosenius shared their thoughts on Pietism in a two-part article series, as an explanation for the founding of the newspaper. Part one is translated here from the Swedish by Mark Safstrom.

For anyone who has read the history of the Church of Sweden or made themselves familiar with the trends within this church, it does not need to be pointed out that pietism, both as a concept and a term, has long been known in Sweden, as well as in other countries. The term has not always been used in its original and correct sense, but when less-enlightened people have wanted to use it as a pejorative, in their intent to indicate a fanatical, hypocritical and harmful zeal for godliness, there has been no shortage of attempts to save this pregnant term from such misuse.

Even the powers that be have made known their disapproval through public bans when such an important word has been misused unjustly. We will quote just one example, found in Baelter’s Ceremonies of the Church (p. 283), where it says: “What efforts did not king Fredrik I make to prevent all carelessness in sermons! There are still documented recollections of how some of the clergy proclaimed “pietist” and “pietistery” as though the name of a sect, in order to thereby identify some delusional person and heretical doctrine. The king found that “pietist,” or the fear of God in such a form, was changed into a pejorative, which could foster contempt and disrespect among more simple minds, or at least cold-heartedness for true godliness and its practice. Therefore, in 1726 there was a regulation that “pietist” or “pietistery,” neither in the pulpit nor at academies and schools, should be mentioned so abusively.” From this can clearly be seen that it was not the words themselves and whether their use corresponded with an accurate, respectful definition that raised the attention of the authorities, but the “abusive” use thereof, with contempt and invective against their own holy, venerable content. It would probably also be worth mentioning, when one is aware that among the modern languages there are two that are of the most importance from a religious perspective, German and English, that in the latter, these words have never been abused as a pejorative, but the word “piety” always indicates a true and living godliness. Although the English language is certainly not lacking a variety of specific, frequently-used nicknames to indicate what people in Germany mean by “pietism,” and in Sweden generally by “läseri” [literally “readery,” as pietists were most commonly called “readers”].

Both friends and enemies of a living and active fear of God are, however, somewhat united on what this thing is, which is indicated by the name pietism. This is celebrated by the former as something that is altogether essential for each and every Christian, while on the other hand, the latter either judge it as completely worthy of rejection, or even if they regard it as more innocent and even useful for certain purposes (for example, as they claim, by counteracting exaggerated ungodliness on the one side with an exaggerated godliness on the other), nevertheless they explain it as being altogether superfluous for the majority of those who profess Christ. That we are uniting ourselves with the friends of pietism need not be said, for the birth of this newspaper is witness to this. We are firmly convinced that even if everything in the world changes, yes, even as the customs of society change, all the same the Word of God never changes, but what was altogether necessary to be a Christian in the time of the apostles is just as essential now. The same basis and method for salvation; the same source of goodness in the heart, living and producing the right fruits; the same determination to deny one’s self, carry the shame of Christ and flee everything that appears evil; the same mind and aspiration to work with the Master and promote his cause; the same necessity to keep watch and pray – these things that were prescribed for Christians in the first century are also prescribed for Christians in the nineteenth. The forms change, the concepts of doctrine are bound, made clear, and fortified. The order of the world is transformed even in so-called Christian countries. But piety and fear of God do not change. It is the life, the spirit, the fertility that is in all forms, institutions of learning, social regulations, where Christians are known and recognized.

That the majority of those who confess Christ do not believe that they need to trouble themselves with anything more than a defensible observation of the exterior form of regulations and customs, is not at all proof of the dispensable nature of a new life, awoken and sustained by the Spirit of God, a life constructed both inside as well as in outward expression, which is prescribed by the Word of God. This is the case in passages of holy scripture like these: “The kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” (Rom. 14.17); “In Christ Jesus there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision, but a new creation,” (Gal. 6:15); “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh, I live in the belief in the Son of God, who has loved me and given himself for me,” (Gal. 2:20). These and several similar passages are riddles for all too many, who yet bear the Christian name. Even so the name Christian entails precisely that unification with Christ, the internal transformation and the holiness of that life, which these passages and similar ones speak on.

However, it follows that if anyone and everyone, only because he is baptized, wants to be called a Christian, even though he practically speaking is lacking everything that the name entails, the result is the falsehood that the majority of Christians (more correctly: “christened,” as a brilliant teacher expresses it) are not at all Christians, but instead subsequently demonstrate this precisely when they regard it as an exception and point out with mockery anytime someone else becomes eager to keep and carry out in work and deed that which the name Christian entails. Here opinions become divided, but ”the scripture cannot be annulled” (Joh. 10:35); “it remains written in the old Word,” and in this case it matters more to obey God than humans. These people say one thing, but the Bible says another about the nature, direction and necessity of this new, spiritual life, which distinguishes a true Christian. And we are not among them, who want to nullify the Word of God with human regulations.

This spiritual life is common to all true Christians. And from this we understand how it can be that the forms are so diverse, yet the Spirit is one, that perspectives are in abundance, yet love is in common and everything is united (See I Cor. 12 and Eph. 4). This life only exists where one knows and confesses Christ and him crucified, for that is Christ in us, the hope of glory, a life concealed with Christ in God. This life cannot exist in some form of religion, some institution of doctrine, where the doctrine of atonement and of righteousness by faith alone are not preached; but everywhere that the main teachings of the Gospel exist, as, for example, the fall of humanity, the satisfactio superabundans of Christ, the work of the Spirit in the soul and similar core teachings, there too can this spiritual life spring up. However, we should not be indifferent about the purity of doctrine and its correspondence to the Gospel of Christ. For to the extent that the concepts of spiritual things are vague, dark or diverge from the eternal truth of the Word, then the spiritual life which depends on this doctrine will also become weak, sickly, unproductive, full of anxiety, both in the inner experience and the outer evidence.

Yet everywhere, where there is any life, often under the name pietism, there is a community. For sick children are children too and need the most tender care, so that the smoldering wick will not be quenched, the bruised reed not be broken. We openly confess our inner desire to seek to pull together all those who are graced with spiritual life, wherever they are, and through those means with which it would have pleased Christ to draw them to himself. If he has received them, then they are of course good enough to be received by us, even though we will probably still harbor one thing or another to remind us of their opinions on doctrines of lesser importance. We love to understand pietism as something, which belongs to the whole world, and not just part of it, as something common and accessible for all confessions, which hold themselves to Christ the head. And this opinion makes our own confession all the more dear to us. For we should certainly fear and tremble, if devotion for this same confession involved some necessity to be prejudiced against all other confessions, or even to suspect their capability to serve as a means to draw their adherents into the one sheep fold. We unite ourselves with the one who said: “I consider the different church confessions which rest on the foundation of the Gospel as a circle of sisters, all more or less educated, beautiful, and worthy of love. I love them all, but I marry but one; to that one I will be faithful. But should I therefore decrease my affection for the rest? Certainly not. For precisely the union with the one sister makes me also related to the rest, and as a consequence I stand in a nearer and dearer relationship to all of them.”

It would not be probable to expect that all Christians, despite being enlightened by the same Spirit, should come to completely the same way of thinking on all spiritual matters here on earth, where we understand and prophesy in part. But when now, on the one hand, it is both natural and right that each and every one loves and respects that church confession, that book, and even that teacher who has been the means to carry him from the darkness to the light, from death to life, so too on the other hand no earthly person or thing should be called “master,” for our master is one, Christ (Mat. 23:8). Therefore, if instead of saying like the one Corinthian: I hold myself to Paul, the second: I hold to Cephas, the third: I to Apollos, if we all seek to come closer to Christ, we will be raised above the earthly opinions that will lead to discord and instead truly thrive in the clean air of Christ’s undivided authority. If all Christians seek to come closer to their center point, Christ, the inevitable result will be that they will also come closer to one another in mutual love, which is the true sign whereby to recognize a disciple (Joh. 13:35). The present age demands the gathering of divided forces. The enemy of our soul wants in every way to divide the righteous and keep them from one another as strangers. However, may we not be ignorant of Satan’s plot but seek to unite everything in a blessed and healthy community, which is the work of the same Spirit of God, everything which merits the name of pietism, to mutual support in the bad times and warm prayers of intercession for believers here and everywhere.

We say with Paul: “Grace be to all, who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ.” We believe that in these brief words of greeting lies a distinguishing trait, which includes and defines all true pietism. These words are not vague and irresolute, but as a product of divine wisdom stand up to the most thorough scrutiny. This greeting does not refer to any heretic, for only the rejection of the essential founding principles of the Gospel merits the name heresy, and may no one carelessly play with such a terrible name or thoughtlessly condemn someone. For a true heretic is reprehensible and under judgment. But the apostle includes in this greeting everyone, who loves Jesus as Lord (whereby those people are excluded who bear the name Christian yet deny the divinity of Christ), all who love Jesus, the Savior (excluding thereby them, who reject the doctrine of atonement or do not, through faith, extend this atonement to the salvation of their soul), and all who love Christ as an authorized prophet, priest and king sent by God (by this are excluded all who deny his teachings, who do not turn to his office as high priest, as well as with words and deeds explain that “we do not want this person to rule over us.”) This greeting excludes all hypocrites or falsely spiritual people, for the word ”love” includes a love not just with the mouth alone, but with the whole heart. Likewise are excluded all formalists or Christians only on the outside, who like Pharisees observe the outer regulations with great detail, without being driven to them by Christ’s love. Neither is there any room for the kind of people who build their hope on the fact that they were born in a Christian country, are baptized into an evangelical church and have properly confessed Christ at the communion table. All of this is well and good and should not be neglected by any Christian, but it is left out of the picture here by the apostle, and only a right-minded love for our Lord Jesus Christ is named as a distinguishing trait of the reconciled. Finally those people are also excluded, who, despite the fact that they praise Jesus and grace and faith with their mouths, yet deny him with deeds. For it is no more possible for a right-minded love for Christ to exist without a glad and willing obedience for his will, than for a fire to exist without warmth.

Consider this, now: “in Christ there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision,” neither Jew nor Greek, neither a follower of Paul nor Cephas, “but a new creation,” but to love Christ with a right mind, as the only center point and master. “And all who walk in this rule, over them be peace and mercy,” (Gal. 6:16). Yes, grace be to all, who have an undying love for our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen. (Eph. 6:24).

These articles on Pietism were translated from a collection of Rosenius's writings in 1897, published by the Evangelical Homeland Foundation (Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen - EFS). However, the Methodist missionary, George Scott (1804-74) was probably the principal author, as he was the founding editor of Pietisten. Scott became instrumental in the revival movement in Sweden, and had recruited C.O. Rosenius (1816-1868) as his assistant in publishing Pietisten, as well as serving his congregation, Bethlehem Church, in Stockholm. Rosenius would later succeed Scott as editor of Pietisten, and become a founder and central leader within the EFS, the revival wing of the Church of Sweden.

See all articles by George Scott

C.O. Rosenius (1816-1868) was a founding editor of Pietisten, and a central leader in the Evangeliska Fosterlands-Stiftelsen (Evangelical Homeland Foundation), the revival wing of the Church of Sweden.

See all articles by Carl Olof Rosenius

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and an assistant professor of Scandinavian Studies at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom