If we are the leaven, where is the lump?

by Mark Safstrom

Some of the early Pietists, as well as several other religious reform groups, drew on baking terminology to explain their perceived role within established churches. They came up with an oft-quoted analogy, in which they equated their zeal and piety with a “leaven” (a piece of fermenting dough) that would prompt Christians throughout the greater church, or the “lump” (the dough that has no catalyst), to rise. Bakers know that dough will not rise without leaven; otherwise one ends up with unleavened bread. Unleavened bread may be desirable in some instances, such as when one is fleeing Pharaoh and there is no time to wait for the leavening process. But otherwise, these bread eaters in Northern Europe liked their bread fluffy and soft and easy to eat, and leavened bread became the ideal.

As Pietists evaluated the state of their national churches in the German and Scandinavian countries in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, they frequently saw these institutions as so much unleavened bread. Who would serve as the leaven and prompt renewal and reform? They saw the role as their duty.

But leaven can only cause the lump to rise if it remains in the lump. Outside of the lump, it can have no effect. As often as not, Pietism had prompted people to leave the established churches to start “believers’ churches,” which, at least at first, were made up exclusively of leaven. For Carl Olof Rosenius, as with generations of so-called “churchly Pietists” before him, this was seen as a negative trend; Pietists were urged to remain within the Church of Sweden and not become involved in sectarian movements. According to the Rosenian circle, ecumenical relationships were essential. The world did not need more denominations; it needed existing denominations to remain faithful to their mission and function at their full potential. Dialogue between different denominations could also have the effect of leavening, and so it was valued highly. Such was the case for the Wesley brothers and Count Zinzendorf, whose ecumenical conversation produced mutual admiration and inspired exchange between English Methodists and Moravian Pietists respectively.

Pietisten’s readership represents a diverse group of church institutions, as listed on the back cover. This is the result of some intentional work on the

part of the leadership of the journal over the past 25 years, as well as the result of a Providential accident; all have some historic connection to Swedish Lutheranism as it manifested itself in North America a century ago. Regardless of the reasons for the origins of this ecumenical community, we find ourselves presented with an extraordinary opportunity to realize the potential of our situation as it exists today.

Each reader might find opportunity now to ask himself or herself, “What lump of dough do I find myself in at this moment?” This could be a church congregation or denomination, a circle of friends, or any institution, sacred or secular. What will prompt our individual experiences of piety to be translated into productive relationships at a community level? What bridges can be built, or rebuilt? The answers to this question are as numerous as there are readers.

This type of speculation was evident at Gathering VII of the Augustana Heritage Association, held at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill., June 10-13. Several speakers at the four-day event touched on the value of ecumenism, among them were author Norman Hjelm, Mark Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and Anders Wejryd, archbishop of the Church of Sweden. The children of the former Augustana Church (which began merging with other Lutherans in 1962) now find themselves largely part of the ELCA. At present, this church like several others is faced with the prospect of an aging and declining membership, and is also grappling with the controversy surrounding recent changes regarding the church’s stance toward sexual norms. Schism has already occurred within the ELCA and it remains unclear how much further this division will extend.

What I found encouraging was that both Pietism and ecumenism were discussed at this event quite often. While the dots were left unconnected on a formal level, the connection between Pietism and ecumenism was expressed clearly enough in the accounts of Augustana’s history, particularly its relationship to the Evangelical Covenant Church. These two churches have witnessed a long tradition of ecumenically-minded leaders, often with a pietistic bent: Lars Paul Esbjörn, P.P. Waldenström, David Nyvall, Karl A. Olsson, Conrad Bergendoff. Space does not allow me to name everyone, but I should not neglect to also express my gratitude to the members of the Augustana Heritage Association, who welcomed Pietisten with open arms: Helene Leaf, Michel Clark, Ronald Englund, and Maria Erling. Your ecumenical warmth was evident.

This conversation continued on Nov. 5-6 as North Park University hosted a symposium on the occasion of the anniversaries of the Augustana Synod (150th) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (125th). Representatives from both traditions presented papers on various aspects of this joint heritage in a full and engaging program in North Park’s stately Isaacson Chapel. At the end of the program, Augustana College President Emeritus Tom Tredway, demonstrating his own two-fold heritage, first congratulated the Augustana Church on its successful mergers and disappearance (on behalf of the Covenant), and then congratulated the Covenant on its continued survival and growth (on behalf of Augustana). Martin Marty, Professor Emeritus of the University of Chicago School of Divinity, gave the after dinner remarks on Saturday in Hamming Hall. With Abraham Lincoln’s words as a red thread, Marty reminded the hundred-some attendees of the essential nature of historical inquiry, “If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.” The event concluded with a public Hymn Sing in Anderson Chapel, arranged by Gracia Grindal of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Pietisten’s own Glen Wiberg, and Covenant musician Royce Eckardt on the organ. The music began with a haunting medieval setting of “Den Signade Dag” and concluded with Luther’s majestic “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” (Pietisten plans to make Sandy Nelson’s beautiful programs, complete with sheet music, photos and commentary, available to our readers). This exchange between Lutherans and Covenanters was a warm celebration of common roots and enduring values. Many heartfelt thanks to the co-organizers, Phil Anderson (North Park), Mark Granquist (Luther Seminary) and Dag Blanck (Augustana & Uppsala).

Pietism has at various moments in the past served as a leaven in the lump. Will it continue to function in that capacity in the future? Perhaps Pietisten’s readers have some baking to do.

Guds frid – God’s peace.

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