Pietist Roots

Pietist Roots

All the Swedish-American churches share the historical movement of Pietism because of its formative role in the popular 18th and 19th century renewal movements in Sweden. The Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) continues to be very conscious of core Pietist principles as central to its identity.

Swedish Pietism is usually traced to German pastors such as Johan Arndt (1555-1621), Philip Jakob Spener (1635-1705), and August Hermann Francke (1663-1727). Arndt’s devotional book True Christianity (1605-1609) was in many Swedish homes; Spener’s Pia Desideria (1675) offered a practical program of reform for the ills of the church; and Francke’s work at the Pietist university at Halle offered an example of engaged faith that included orphanages, a library, hospital, apothecary, missionary training institute, publishing house, and education for children as well as those preparing for various forms of ministry.

By the early 1720s, Pietism was an international movement. It spread to Sweden through pastors and lay leaders, and especially by prisoners of war returning home after the European religious wars of the early 1700s.

Pietism was a reaction to a perceived “dead orthodoxy” in the churches: mere intellectual assent to dogma and excessive attention to divisive theological controversy. It also sought to renew churches devastated by the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) by meeting people’s needs with a balance of head and heart, and through lives of faith active in love.

Spener’s reform program proposed:

  • more intense study of Scripture,
  • the spiritual priesthood of the laity,
  • the experience of conversion—the new birth,
  • charity in controversy,
  • reform of theological education, and
  • encouragement of a godly ministry through preaching that encourages the reality and growth of believing faith.

He accomplished this in his own parish in Frankfurt through conventicles (collegia pietatis), small groups meeting for fellowship and edification (the church within the church). Orthodoxy seemed to ask, “Are you sound?”; the Pietist inquired, “Are you saved?”

A form of Pietism emphasizing personal experience even more was the Moravians’. These followers of Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf led the first Protestant missionary movement in the early eighteenth century. The impact of the Moravians and other forms of “classical” Pietism led to the Swedish Edict against Conventicles (1726). This outlawed meeting in small groups outside the parish church and without the supervision of the pastor. This edict was not repealed until 1858, when religious toleration finally came to Sweden.

As the Swedish church and state strengthened supervision during the eighteenth century, Pietism grew in local communities until a great religious awakening began to unfold in the 1830s. The awakening was fed by outside streams of nineteenth-century evangelical renewal, especially from England and America.

The Covenant Church is indebted to Pietist emphases on:

  • conversion and the reality of the new life in Christ,
  • discipleship and the devotional life,
  • shared calling of laity and clergy,
  • evangelism and mission, and
  • institutional ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice.

The Moravian influence is traceable in Covenanters’

  • Christ-centered spirituality,
  • concept of God as welcoming friend and Christ as a redeeming brother and companion on the pilgrim journey, and
  • sense of that journey as characterized by great joy and gratitude.

All this is especially evident in the spiritual songs of, for example, Lina Sandell, Carl Olof Rosenius, and Nils Frykman.