Spener, Philipp Jakob

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SPENER, PHILIPP JAKOB (16351705), is the most widely recognized representative of early Pietism. Spener was born in Rappoltsweiler, Alsace, on January 13, 1635. He grew up in a Lutheran home in which the prevailing religious atmosphere was heavily influenced by Johann Arndt's True Christianity, the widely beloved devotional guide of seventeenth-century Lutheranism. Thus Spener was naturally predisposed toward Arndtian piety. Being an omnivorous reader, even at a tender age, he acquainted himself early with Puritan works that had been translated into German, as well as with those coming out of the reform party within Lutheranism, the avowed aim of which was the furtherance of religious devotion and ethical sensitivity within the Lutheran churches.

After he had completed the necessary preliminary studies, Spener matriculated at the University of Strasbourg in 1651. His student life manifested what was considered, by the prevailing standards of the day, an unusually ascetic tendency, insofar as he abstained from excessive drinking, revelry, and generally rude behavior. The dominant intellectual influence upon him during his university days was exerted by his theology professor, Johann Konrad Dannhauer (16031666), who, among other things, deepened Spener's lifelong interest in the teachings of Martin Luther. Upon completion of his studies, Spener spent some years in travel. That he did so largely in Reformed territories seems to say something about his appreciation of the piety found in various Reformed circles. During his itinerary he visited Basel, where he studied Hebrew under Johann Buxtorf (15991664). At Geneva the fiery French representative of Reformed Pietism, Jean de Labadie (16101674), impressed Spener so much that in 1667 he published a translation of one of Labadie's edificatory tracts. During an extended visit to Tübingen he set in motion various impulses toward the development of Swabian Pietism. Upon his return to Strasbourg (1663) he worked for his doctoral degree, taught and preached, and married Susanne Ehrhardt. They had eleven children.

Spener was called to a succession of pastorates, beginning with his appointment in 1666 to the position of senior pastor at Frankfurt am Main, where his emphasis on the catechization of children and on confirmation began to evoke critical reactions. So did his introduction of private meetings among the laity for the purpose of promoting a life of personal piety. Here, too, began his correspondence with highly placed people, which gradually helped to make him the most influential pastor in Germany during his time. Then, weary of the controversies that his activities and writings had provoked, Spener accepted a call to Dresden, in Saxony, where in 1686 he became chaplain of Elector Johann Georg III. However, the elector's lack of sympathy for Spener's concerns prompted him to move to Berlin in 1691. As rector of the Church of Saint Nicholas, as a member of the Lutheran consistory, and as inspector of churches he was now at the zenith of his effectiveness. Enjoying the confidence of the ruling house of Prussia and of a large segment of the German nobility, he was instrumental in opening up many pastorates throughout Germany to the appointment of pastors with Pietist leanings. Spener died on February 5, 1705, having expressed the wish that he be buried in a white coffin, a symbol of his hope that the church on earth might expect better times.

A prolific writer, Spener published many hundreds of letters; sermons; edificatory and catechetical tracts; works on genealogy, history, and heraldry; and writings of a polemical nature. The most famous of his literary productions was his Pia desideria, which appeared as a preface to Arndt's Postil in 1675 and later was published separately at various times. In it he proposed his program for the moral and spiritual reform of individuals, church, and society, which he followed throughout his life.

The major emphases of Spener's works are typical of Pietism, namely, natural humanity's lost estate, the necessity of its religious renewal, the possibility of its conscious experience of God's regenerating and sustaining presence, the desirability of continued spiritual nourishment through worship and appropriate literature, the holy life expressed in love for God and humans, the need for religious fellowship of like-minded people, and the hope of being able to reform the church for the purpose of reshaping a sinful world. Spener was opposed chiefly because of his often expressed vision of a better future for the church, which implied that the church was in need of renewal; for his insistence on religious instruction and on a way of life calculated to be a protest against the moral laxity of the day, which in the eyes of his opponents marked him as a zealot; and for instituting private meetings (collegia pietatis ), which were seen as having the potential to fragment the church.


Toward the end of his life Spener published some of his writings in his Theologische Bedencken, 4 vols. in 2 (Halle, 17001702), to which Karl Hildebrand von Canstein posthumously added Letzte theologische Bedencken, 3 vols. (Halle, 1711). Since then many of Spener's works have been published singly, and a long series of unsuccessful attempts have been made to bring out a complete edition of his writings. Toward the end of the nineteenth century Paul Grünberg, the noted Spener scholar, edited a modernized version of Spener's Hauptschriften (Gotha, 1889). The Historical Commission for the Study of Pietism (Kommission zur Erforschung des Pietismus) has begun publication of a multivolume edition of Philipp Jakob Spener Schriften, edited by Erich Beyreuther (Hildesheim, 1979). Spener's best-known work, his Pia desideria, has been translated into very readable English and supplied with an introduction by Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, 1964).

The classic biography of Spener is still Paul Grünberg's Philipp Jakob Spener, 3 vols. (Göttingen, 18931906); volume 3 contains an exhaustive bibliography. The major contemporary work on Spener is Johannes Wallmann's Philipp Jakob Spener und die Anfänge des Pietismus (Tübingen, 1970). Martin Kruse's Speners Kritik am landesherrlichen Kirchenregiment und ihre Vorgeschichte (Witten, 1971), and Jan Olaf Rüttgardt's Heiliges Leben in der Welt: Grundzüge christlicher Sittlichkeit nach Philipp Jakob Spener (Bielefeld, 1978), are important studies of Spener's attitude toward the church government of his day and of his ethics, respectively.

F. Ernest Stoeffler (1987)

Philipp Jakob Spener

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Philipp Jakob Spener

The German theologian Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) tried to infuse a new spirit into the formal Lutheranism of the 17th century. He is consequently regarded as the father of the movement called Pietism, which resulted from his efforts.

Philipp Spener was born at Rappoltsweiler in Upper Alsace on Jan. 23, 1635. His first university experience began at Strassburg, where he studied history, philosophy, philology, and theology from 1651 to 1659. He then continued his studies at Basel, Tübingen, and Geneva. At Geneva he became familiar with Reformed teachings and, although a Lutheran, seems to have been much impressed with them. In 1663 he returned to Strassburg, where he was made an assistant preacher. Three years later he was called to Frankfurt am Main to become the senior pastor of the Lutheran church. In this position Spener attempted to raise the level of the religious life of the congregation by meaningful reforms. He strengthened Church discipline, emphasized training of the young and use of the catechism, and established the practice of confirmation.

In order to aid in the program of spiritual reformation, Spener arranged small gatherings of interested churchgoers in private houses for cultivation of Christian life by study of the Bible, prayer, and discussion of Sunday sermons. From the name of these groups, the collegia pietatis, is derived the name of this movement for the restoration of a spiritualized Christian faith—namely, Pietism. While in Frankfurt, Spener also provided the theoretical foundation for the Pietist movement in his book Pia desideria. In this work, published in 1675, he spelled out some measures which he considered important for the improvement of the life of the Church. These included use of prayer instead of arguments to settle religious differences, Bible study, improved education of theologians, more stress on a personal and practical Christianity, meaningful and practical sermons instead of learned declamations, and more control of the Church by the congregation instead of ministers and princes.

Spener's criticism of the established Lutheran Church led to much opposition from Church and state officials, who accused him of being untrue to Lutheran doctrines. As a result, in 1686, Spener accepted the invitation of the elector of Saxony to become the chief court chaplain at Dresden, then a very important position in German Lutheranism. Spener soon found himself in conflict with the clergy in Saxony, the theological faculties at Leipzig and Wittenberg, and the elector himself. Consequently, Spener gladly accepted an invitation to become provost of the Church of St. Nicholas in Berlin in 1691. Here he was soundly supported by Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg-Prussia and, as a result, exercised much influence over Church conditions. Because of his ascendancy, the new University of Halle, founded by the elector in 1694, became the cultural center of Pietism. Although his later years were marred by bitter controversies with his opponents, he continued to preach conscientiously until his death on Feb. 5, 1705.

Further Reading

A short but informative biographical sketch of Spener can be found in F. Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (1965). The Pietistic movement in western Germany and Spener's relationship to it are discussed in Paulus Scharpff, History of Evangelism (trans. 1966). See also Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789 (1960), and John P. Dolan, History of the Reformation (1964). □

Spener, Philipp Jakob

views updated May 29 2018


Founder of pietism; b. Rappoltsweiler, Upper Alsace, Jan. 23, 1635; d. Berlin, Feb. 5, 1705. He studied at Strasbourg and became pastor of the Lutheran church at Frankfort on the Main. Here Spener began to gather a group of his parishioners about him on Sundays for further prayer, pious songs, spiritual reading, and discussion. The term Pietist finds its root in these Collegia pietatis or Guilds of Piety as the meetings came to be called. In 1675, Spener published his Pia desideria or Heartfelt Desires for a God-pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Churches. Herein he proposed his program for Christian reform: private gatherings, like the Guilds of Piety, should be formed to improve the believer's understanding of the teachings of Scripture. He emphasized universal priesthood, the necessity of virtuous living, and the perfect union of Christians in prayer, good example, and calm discussion. He also advocated the reform of seminary training to provide greater emphasis on spiritual reading and scriptural study. The Pia desideria was greeted by some with enthusiasm; others feared its deemphasis of dogma.

In 1686, Spener became preacher to the court at Dresden. At the same time a short-lived seminary on the Spener plan was established at Leipzig. Trouble at Dresden led him to welcome the pastorate of St. Nicholas in Berlin in 1691. His writings indicate that he was not at peace there either. However, he was able to organize the faculty of theology at Halle, from whence the gospel of Pietism was to spread throughout Europe.

Bibliography: l. cristiani, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables Générales 1951) 12.2:208489. p. grÜnberg, Philipp Jacob Spener, 3 v. (Göttingen 18931906).

[h. j. muller]

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