Let us remember that in the last judgment we shall not be asked how learned we were and whether we displayed our learning before the world; to what extent we enjoyed the favor of men and knew how to keep it; with what honors we were exalted how great a reputation in the world we left behind us; or how many treasures of earthly goods we amassed for our children and thereby drew a curse upon ourselves. Instead, we shall be asked how faithfully and with how childlike a heart we sought to further the kingdom of God; with how pure and godly a teaching and how worthy an example we tried to edify our hearers amid the scorn of the world, denial of self, taking up of the cross, and imitation of our Savior; with what zeal we opposed not only error but also wickedness of life; or with what constancy and cheerfulness we endured the persecution of adversity thrust upon us by the manifestly godless world or by false brethren, and amid such suffering praised our God.[1]     – Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria

Forming in the seventeenth century, and developing into the turn of the eighteenth, Pietism was a movement in the church away from the elitist scholasticism that had dominated the leadership of the church and toward a common devotion to obedience

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, prayer, and study of the Word for both leadership and laity. It took hold in the Lutheran church in Germany—one that was reeling in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War—and revitalized the church, eventually spreading across denominations and political boundaries to such a degree as to influence Zinzendorf and the Moravians, John Wesley and the Methodists, and revivals in both England and the Americas.[2] In today’s America—due to the evolving postmodern culture, the common complacency in many churches, and the sectarian theologies that divide the denominations—it is my contention that the modern Southern Baptist Church is poised to undergo a devotional movement similar to the Pietism of Philip Jacob Spener that bloomed and spread from Germany in the seventeenth century and beyond. To establish this likelihood, I will examine the prominent factors in the environment that fueled Spenerian Pietism and compare them to the historical and cultural environment of the denomination today.

Pietism in History

Historical and Church Background for Pietism

A historian of Pietism, F. Ernest Stoeffler, shares that the most significant historical precursor to the rise of German Pietism is the conclusion of the Thirty Years War. At its end, Germany was in economic and societal shambles. Homes, farms, crops, and food supplies had been destroyed, and the populations had often been displaced. In many areas, there was little or no civil authority and society degraded to the basest levels of survival. There was a significant decline in societal moral expectations, such that widows and orphans were abandoned, cruelty was found at all levels, and the classes were even more greatly segregated and prejudiced. The common life from noble to peasant in Germanic society was lawless, hopeless, base in its pleasures, and lax in moral standards.[3]

Not surprisingly, the struggles in and for Lutheran theology were also catalysts for the Pietist movement. While Martin Luther had emphasized the core doctrines of reliance on the Word, salvation by faith alone, and the priesthood of all believers, Lutheran theology developed and hardened over two centuries of conflict with both Roman Catholicism, other Protestant groups such as Reformed theologians and the Anabaptists, or even sects within Lutheranism such as the followers of Melanchthon. Lutheran theology was gradually constrained by confessions and scholasticism to form a narrow perspective of “orthodoxy,” in many ways narrowing the Christian faith to a nominal assent to a series of theological confessions. [4]

While this theological system was built and aligned against every dissenting doctrinal position, it was accompanied by a lapse in ethical standards due to several factors. One was a doctrinal stance that emphasized justification over regeneration and maintained a bias against any doctrine promoting good works. Secondly, the church was itself governed not by an ecclesial structure or presbytery, but instead by territorial rulers who were seldom devout, and who often limited the ability and scope of church discipline. Also, because of its territorial nature, the church congregation consisted of those who were born and baptized into the church, and lowered its expectations of membership to doctrinal assent and a common civic obedience and low common standard of morality. The clergy, themselves the product of a morally lapsed university system and an over-emphasis on scholasticism, maintained the situation with sermons that focused on doctrine and paid little attention to the devotional life of their parishioners.[5]

Spener and the Response of Pietism

Philip Jacob Spener was a contrast to the general setting of the German Lutheran church, having been raised in a devout setting and studying diverse Protestant traditions abroad. His teaching is prominently influenced by his early studies, notably the works of earlier devout German pastor and writer Johann Arndt, as well as the influence of the Puritans of the Reformed tradition. He rose to a position of prominence as a leading pastor in Germany, and soon began structuring and teaching Pietism as a response to the state of the church.[6] Spener states his best hopes for the reform of the church in his text, Pia Desideria, translated simply as Pious Desires, which in its earlier form was the introduction to a published series of sermons by Spener’s influence in piety, Johann Arndt.[7] Pia Desideria is the primary text for the early Pietist movement in Germany, and is systematically organized into three sections which first survey the corrupt conditions of the church, then examine Scriptures to draw an ideal for the church, and finally propose practices to bring the church closer to that ideal.

Spener’s Analysis of the State of the Church. In his analysis of the church of his day, Spener begins with deficiencies in the civil authorities. He notes not merely the failure of the nobility to “use their power to advance the kingdom of God,” but as well their common inseparability from the low morals, sinful lifestyle, and naked ambition of the secular nobility. Even of those who take an interest in the church, Spener charges, most are concerned only with doctrinal strife and political interest, and have no devotion to God in their hearts or activities. He states that many churches are “better off where they are under a ruler of a different religious persuasion” than those that are obstructed by the governance of a politically-minded authority.[8]

Spener is much more exhaustive in his criticism of the clergy, noting that where the laity fails in devotion, the clergy have failed first. He observes that the clergy, himself included, is badly in need of reformation. Not only the pastors in open scandal, but also the clergy that outwardly maintain a visible moral life, have failed in truly denying self and rejecting worldliness.[9] Spener calls out the clergy for their self-interest, even while the laity has mistaken their behavior for true Christianity, and holds out as evidence the lack of the fruits of faith. He warns that their scholarly knowledge of the Scriptures obscures their absence of faith, and that while they are able to outwardly perform their offices, it is without the power of the Spirit or the fruits thereof. Spener continues to lament the separation of Spiritual knowledge from a faith that produces works, exposing a common pastoral perception of doctrinal emphasis without corresponding godliness—as well as a bias against those who promote piety as unorthodox.[10] It is at this point that Spener launches into an exhaustive attack on the scholasticism that has dominated Lutheran thought and theology, proposing that while it has provided answers to every conceivable attack on Lutheran theology by the Catholics, the Reformed, the Anabaptists, and more, it has also gone beyond and corrupted pure doctrine based on the Word of God and has “puffed up” the church leaders, distracting them from godliness and devotion.[11]

Finally, Spener addresses the laity, which he concludes follows the civil and pastoral leadership in missing the mark. His conclusion is that the Lutheran church fails in following Luther’s true teachings, but instead adheres to the common morality including tolerance and participation in drunkenness (a prominent vice of German society at the time), frivolous and vindictive lawsuits, unscrupulous business practices, selfish materialism in the face of poverty, and more.[12] While affirming salvation by faith alone, the sufficiency of the Word, and the efficacy of the sacraments, Spener is chagrined that the common Lutheran adherent lives a lifestyle in abject indifference to devotion to God but still expects salvation due to “a fleshly illusion of faith (for godly faith does not exist without the Holy Spirit, nor can such faith continue when deliberate sins prevail) in place of the faith that saves.”[13]

Spener’s Recommendations for the Correction of the Church. While Spener maintained that the church would never be able to attain the ideal of perfection on this earth, he did advocate the pursuit of perfection and piety and the possibility of vast improvement for the church.[14] To facilitate this transformation, Spener outlined six recommendations for the Lutheran Church to put into place. The first was that “thought should be given to a more extensive use of the Word of God among us.”[15] Spener held that the Biblical text was powerful to transform disciples, but that the church was exposed to far too little of it. In addition to the small amount contained in the weekly sermons or read at home, he advised more extensive reading both at home and in services, and additional meetings of laity and clergy in a format of reading and discussion of the passages (these groups were called collegia pietatis, and were in large part influenced by similar groups in Reformed areas in which Spener had studied and travelled[16]). These, he proposed, would allow more intimate conversation between the laity and the clergy, and more effective understanding and transformation by the Word.[17]

Secondly, Spener advocated a more extensive integration of the priesthood of the believers in the life of the church. The laity would participate in the study and teaching of the Word, as well as ministry and accountability for other believers, in their private lives as well as what is experienced in the body of the church publicly.[18] As a third practice, Spener recommends an emphasis to the people that “it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.” Just as Jesus taught that his followers would be known by their love and commanded them to do so, Spener advocates love, ministry, and service toward brothers in Christ and to everyone.[19]

In like manner, Spener’s fourth recommendation addresses the proper attitude in handling theological controversy. He does not suggest that Lutherans abandon their commitment to doctrinal purity, but instead that they contend for the faith through prayer, through love and humility, through gracious reproof with the Word of God, through love for the person despite their error, and through balancing theological disputation with faithful piety. He expounds that not all disputation is good, and that disputation often leads to overreliance on worldly wisdom and distraction from holy living. The focus becomes on converting a person to rational assent to theological doctrine, and often descends to unchristian insults and adversity. Spener presents that holy life and devout practice is the only viable path to right doctrine.[20]

For a fifth practice, Spener turns to the education of the clergy. He calls for the reform of the moral life of the universities, the practice and example of godliness by the professors, and most of all the prioritizing of piety before study. [21] He promotes personal attention and guidance for individual students by mentoring professors, the discouragement of excessive controversy, and the promotion of time-tested theological texts. His final recommendation for the university is for the formation of groups of students and professors who are able to study, discuss, and train each other much as Spener encourages the Pastors and laity to do previously.[22]

Finally, Spener advises the Pastor of the church to prepare sermons which edify and encourage the laity to faith and its fruits, rather than focusing on high language or polished oratory and style. He advises that sermons should focus on the transformation of the inner man, the renewal of the heart, rather than proscriptions against the outer man and the constraining of vice.[23]

The Legacy of Spenerian Pietism. Shortly after publication of Pia Desideria, Spener was quickly hailed by many peers as a reformer after Luther, soon criticized by many in the established orthodoxy, and became the figurehead and organizer of the previously latent reform movement in Lutheranism. [24] His influence spanned across many leaders and variations, eventually spreading to his godson, Count Ludwig von Zinzendorf, a nobleman who studied at the Pietistic University of Halle and drew together the Moravian church at Herrnhut. Through the Moravians and their missions, Pietism can be said to have influenced across continents, generations, revival movements, and denominations. [25]

Today’s Environment for a Resurgence of Pietism

While the Southern Baptist Church certainly differs greatly from Spener’s Lutheran church, many of his criticisms of the Lutheran church still have the ring of conviction today. Also, in other ways, the postmodern culture is itself conducive to many of Spener’s arguments.

The Southern Baptist Church Environment for Spenerian Pietism

Just as Spener lamented the worldly morals of Pastors and laity alike in the Lutheran church, the Southern Baptist church—while talking a stand against the cultural moral decay in its proclamations—has gradually slid into the same behaviors and lifestyle of the culture around it. Dr. Russell D. Moore of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary asks:

But what if, in some significant ways, Southern Baptists are not quite the culture warriors we pretend ourselves to be? What if Southern Baptists are slow-train sexual revolutionaries, accommodating to the ambient culture’s concepts of the family, just a little behind the rest of the populace? Could it be that our press releases and confessions of faith say one thing, while our church directories and membership rolls say something striking different?[26]

Moore notes troubling statistics, such as a higher likelihood of teenage sex among evangelical Protestants than Mormon, Jewish, and mainline Protestant peers, a likelihood that is approximate to the cultural norm. He maintains that even preaching on abstinence has taken the form of worldly wisdom rather than Godly morality.[27] Likewise, Dr. Moore points to a higher divorce rate for conservative Protestants, and an accompanying softening on preaching against divorce.[28] He argues that Southern Baptists have been co-opted by the American consumer culture, and have subsumed Christian ethics as secondary to class standing. [29]

Also, the modern Southern Baptist message does not suffer as much from scholasticism as Spener’s Lutherans, but instead has emphasized church growth and a shallow understanding of evangelism to the point that the church still fails to connect to believer’s hearts with the Word. Paul R. House, also of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, concludes:

Clearly, many persons have not been taught that Christians are committed to Christ and his teachings. They may have mentally assented to certain gospel facts. They may have hoped being baptized would help solve life’s problems. They may have been told that repeating a prayer amounted to a saving experience. They may have walked forward at an evangelistic meeting, but by any biblical measurement they were never converted. There was no conviction of sin, no repentance, no commitment to Christ’s lordship, no intent to love Christ by keeping his commandments.[30]

Just as head knowledge without true faith limited the fruits of faith in Spener’s day, so also this shallow decision and mental assent to the gospel has led to a low commitment to the church, a common morality with the world, and a fruitless ministry without the works that accompany faith and the love for brother and neighbor that accompany a disciple of Christ.

The response of Dr. Moore to the Southern Baptist crisis of conscience is similar in nature to Spener’s ideal, though without all the specific steps Spener outlines.

…Too often, however, we preach as though the gospel were for unbelievers only, as though Christ crucified is the initiatory truth of the Christian life, followed by a series of ethical principles and life-coaching. This is not the preaching of the prophets and apostles, and such preaching does little to disturb the powers-that-be… Southern Baptist churches must present the Bible not as a series of disconnected proof-texts but as a coherent and holistic vision centered on the unveiled mystery of Jesus Christ… should see modeled constantly from the pulpit how to find their identity in Christ, how to be freed from condemnation through the triumph of Christ, and how to walk with Him in His Spirit. [31]

Like Spener he advocates heart renewal through Christ and the Spirit, as opposed to head knowledge and the mere teaching of morality, and true transforming discipleship over doctrine.[32]

Postmodern Catalysts for Spenerian Pietism

While the church is clearly ready for a reform of devotion to Christ, the cultural changes of postmodernism are also friendly to Spener’s response. Elmer Towns and Ed Stetzer in their text Perimeters of Light address Christianity in a postmodern world, delineating a postmodern shift to “relationship over task, journey over destination, authenticity over excellence, experience over proposition, mystery over solution, and diversity over uniformity.”[33]

Each part of Spener’s recommendations is complementary to these aspects of postmodernism, especially in comparison to the environment of modernism they are contrasted to. Spener values relationship over task in his collegia pietatis, where he encourages the more direct relationships between pastor and laity and the teaching of the Word to each other. He proposes the value of the journey over destination in his encouragement of the regeneration of the believer and the church while acknowledging that perfection will not be attained short of heaven.

Likewise, Spener values authenticity over excellence in several points of his recommendations, such as when he prioritizes piety and devotion over excellence in study for the theological student, or piety and devotion over head knowledge and confessional assent for the believer, or sermons which edify the inward heart of the believer over fine oratory that exalts the learning of the pastor. There can be no doubt that pietism places a higher value on experience over proposition, which in fact is and has been the primary point of contention for the movement.

The pursuit of mystery over solution is a significant advantage of pietism in the postmodern culture. While modernism valued complex theological systems and apologetic arguments to defend the faith and answer scientific objections, postmodernism is more likely to value devotion and piety, and a church that focuses on the inward heart more than the head knowledge of doctrine.[34] Finally, pietism is more open to diversity in doctrine and interpretation, a position that, while attractive to postmodernism, can also be dangerous for the church. Still, Spener was able to advocate Pietism, hold to a basic Lutheran theology, and resist engaging in higher theological disputes. [35]


Spener’s Pia Desiderata galvanized the Pietist movement in Germany and created the impetus for Lutheran reform as well as a broader movement that was intergenerational, intercontinental, and interdenominational. It called a church that was rich in devotion to doctrine but devoid of devotion to Christ to return to their first love. Southern Baptists are at a turning point today. Having fought theological and doctrinal battles against liberal theology, they find themselves doctrinally sound but devotionally weak, selling a thin gospel like a product and reaping an indifferent membership. The church is in need of a renewed devotion to Christ, and the culture is ready for a church with an authentic faith. While the historical Pietist had many dangers that the student of history should be aware of, Spener lays out a plan in Pia Desiderata that could well be as effective in regenerating the Southern Baptist church today as it was over three centuries ago.

[1]Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 36-37.

[2]Tim Dowley, John H. Y. Briggs, Robert Dean Linder and David F. Wright, eds., Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 444-446.

[3]Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, 181.

[4]Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, 182-184.

[5]Ibid., 184-186.

[6]Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, 228-231.

[7]Spener, Pia Desideria, 31.

[8]Ibid., 43-44.

[9]Spener, Pia Desideria, 44-45.

[10]Ibid., 46-47.

[11]Ibid., 49-57.

[12]Spener, Pia Desideria, 57-62.

[13]Ibid., 63-64.

[14]Ibid., 80-81.

[15]Ibid., 87.

[16]Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, 237.

[17]Spener, Pia Desideria, 87-90.

[18]Ibid., 92-94.

[19]Ibid., 95-97.

[20]Spener, Pia Desideria, 97-102.

[21]Ibid., 103-106.

[22]Ibid., 108-114.

[23]Ibid., 115-117.

[24]Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, 234-235.

[25]Frank C. Senn, Protestant Spiritual Traditions (Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1986), 209-210.

[26]Russell D. Moore, “Southern Baptist Sexual Revolutionaries: Cultural Accomodation, Spiritual Conflict, and the Baptist Vision of the Family,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 49, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 3.

[27]Ibid., 6-7.

[28]Ibid., 8-9.

[29]Ibid., 23-24.

[30]Paul R. House, “Baptism, Assurance, and the Decline of Conservative Churches,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 2.

[31]Moore, “Southern Baptist Sexual Revolutionaries”, 25.

[32]Ibid., 27-28.

[33]Elmer L. Towns and Ed Stetzer, Perimeters of Light : Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004), 156.

[34]Towns and Stetzer, Perimeters of Light, 157-159.

[35]Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism, 244-245.


Dowley, Tim, John H. Y. Briggs, Robert Dean Linder and David F. Wright, eds. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

House, Paul R. “Baptism, Assurance, and the Decline of Conservative Churches.” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 2-5.

Moore, Russell D. “Southern Baptist Sexual Revolutionaries: Cultural Accomodation, Spiritual Conflict, and the Baptist Vision of the Family.” Southwestern Journal of Theology 49, no. 1 (Fall 2006): 3-29.

Senn, Frank C. Protestant Spiritual Traditions. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1986.

Spener, Philip Jacob. Pia Desideria. Translated by Theodore G. Tappert. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964.

Stoeffler, F. Ernest. The Rise of Evangelical Pietism. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1965.

Towns, Elmer L. and Ed Stetzer. Perimeters of Light : Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004.