Pietism refers to a Protestant reform movement that originated in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; the term itself actually was coined by opponents of the movement. Viewing the Protestant churches as legalistic, dead, and unconcerned with personal piety, individuals such as Philip Jakob Spener (1635–1705) and August Hermann Francke (1663–1727) laid out what became the foundational ideas of Pietism. Spener's Pia Desideria, published in 1675, advocated the formation of groups or conventicles that stressed personal and group Bible study, the priesthood of the believer by which individuals offered themselves to God as personal sacrifices, an increased effort at harmony among Christians, and the expression of faith through social actions. Spener, who often is referred to as the father of Pietism, elevated personal religious experience over dogma.
As a movement, Pietism influenced individuals who chose to remain within their denominational settings (usually referred to as Church Pietists), as well as those who decided to break with their established churches and form other groups. The latter were known as Radical Pietists, and Francke was particularly influential among many of them. Radical Pietists distinguished between true and false Christianity (usually represented by established churches), which led to their separation from these entities.
In the United States, Pietism affected many religious expressions. The Moravians came under pietistic influence through the leadership of Spener's godson, Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf. By 1722 Zinzendorf had given refuge to the Moravians (also known as the Bohemian Brethren or the Renewed Unity of Brethren) from persecution in Europe. Under his leadership, the Moravians became an aggressive international missionary force and eventually the most significant Pietist group. By the 1730s the Brethren were colonizing places in Europe and North America, and by the next decade they had established colonies in Pennsylvania and Georgia. In the early 1750s a group of Moravians under the leadership of Bishop August Gottlieb Spangenberg began new settlements in North Carolina on a tract of land called Wachovia. In their new society, which sought freedom from persecution, the Brethren also held slaves. In Salem, Wachovia's main settlement, all slaves were considered church property, while in outlying areas individuals could own slaves. Yet the emphasis on universal salvation that included their African and African American slaves, while not leading immediately to their embracing of abolition, did mark a small move toward white recognition of the humanity of blacks.
The Moravians of Wachovia, however, struggled with the implications for freedom raised by the American Revolution. Following Zinzendorf's views that freedom meant, among other things, submitting to church authority, the church owned all property and administered a strict discipline. African Americans participated fully as members in the life of the church, but remained unequal in social relations with whites. In the early nineteenth century, Pennsylvania Moravians ceased holding slaves, while North Carolina Moravians increased their slaveholdings. By 1822 blacks and whites in Wachovia worshiped separately amid rising racial tensions. Pietism, therefore, in Moravian communities took on varying expressions as it developed in different chronological, social, and geographical environments.
The pietistic influence also manifested itself in other religious traditions. Conrad Beissel (1691–1768), the founder of America's first major communitarian group, the Ephrata Cloister, was particularly affected by Radical Pietism's emphasis on personal experience and separation from false Christianity. The emphasis on an individual spiritual rebirth and piety touched Methodism through the Moravians. While traveling to and working in Georgia in the 1730s, John Wesley (1703–1791) was exposed to Moravian religious understandings. He subsequently adopted and modified many of their ideas related to personal devotion, which then shaped Methodism during the early national period.
Other German pietistic groups such as the Mennonites, Dunkers (Church of the Brethren; Dunkards), and Schwenkfelders had come to America in search of religious freedom. The Mennonites first settled as a group in Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth century and established the settlement of Germantown. Dunkers and Schwenkfelders followed within the next few decades. Acting in part from beliefs that stemmed from pietistic thinking, these groups embraced pacifism and denounced the signing of oaths. During the American Revolution the Mennonites refused to take an oath of allegiance to the state of Pennsylvania and to pay war taxes. They, however, consented to sell grain and other supplies to the American government and to pay fees in place of military service. Dunkers and Schwenkfelders also took similar actions. Not long after the Revolution groups of Dunkers began moving west and established several settlements in Ohio and Indiana.
Moravians in Pennsylvania transmitted pietistic ideas to Native Americans while America was emerging and developing as a nation. Pietism's emphasis on personal experience over doctrinal understanding allowed Native American Christians to develop a distinctive religion. Furthermore, the pietistic stress on ecumenism facilitated relationships between Jews and German Pietists in colonial and national America, although Pietism itself was unable to obliterate prejudice against Jews. These examples illustrate that Pietism transcended denominational boundaries and shaped how many Americans conceived of God, their relationship to God, and their attendant social responsibilities. At the same time, Pietism was shaped by the many contexts in which it arose, and therefore its adherents might develop contradictory expressions of it. Its emphasis on personal experience and ecumenism, along with its experience of persecution and resistance to established religious authority, produced dynamic interactions with the various environments existing in Revolutionary and early national America.
Erb, Peter C., ed. Pietists: Selected Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
"Forum: Jews and Pietists in Early America." William and Mary Quarterly 58, no. 4 (October 2001): 849–912.
Merritt, Jane T. "Dreaming of the Savior's Blood: Moravians and the Indian Great Awakening in Pennsylvania." William and Mary Quarterly 54, no. 4 (October 1997): 723–746.
Records of the Moravians in North Carolina. 12 vols. Raleigh, N.C.: Edwards and Broughton, 1922–2000.
Sensbach, Jon F. A Separate Canaan: The Making of an Afro-Moravian World in North Carolina, 1763–1840. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Scott M. Langston
"Pietists." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pietists
"Pietists." Encyclopedia of the New American Nation. . Retrieved July 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pietists
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