Remembering Philipp Jakob Spener, the Protestant Pastor Who Founded Pietism

Philipp Jakob Spener

In 1666 the German commercial center of Frankfurt am Main welcomed a new pastor. Just 31 years old, Philipp Spener not only became the primary Lutheran preacher in a city of 15,000 but supervised the work of 11 other clergymen—four of them twice his age. It was a plum assignment for a rising star.

Yet Spener soon found “that almost everywhere there is something wanting” in an ostensibly Christian society that seemed to love God and neighbor too little. One could not look at what was left of Martin Luther’s reformation, he lamented, “without having quickly to cast [their eyes] down again in shame and distress.”


1618 The Thirty Years War begins

1635 Philipp Spener born

1648 Peace of Westphalia

1670 Small group study begins in Frankfurt

1675 Spener, Pia Desideria

1705 Philipp Spener dies

1706 Pietist missionaries go to Tranquebar, India

1727 Beginning of Moravian revival at Herrnhut

But that severe judgment came in an otherwise hopeful book that would spark one of the greatest renewal movements in church history: Pietism. Thanks to a modest but powerful program of reform that inspired energetic followers, Spener would eventually rank just behind Luther in German religious history, the founding father of a movement commonly known as “the Second Reformation.” While Spener founded no new denomination, Pietism’s influence would stretch far in space—everywhere from South Asia to North America—and time, even to evangelicalism today.

Born into conflict

Philipp Jakob Spener was born in 1635, in the middle of the most devastating conflict to that point in European history: the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which caused the death of as many as one in four Germans. Though his home province of Alsace was largely spared, Spener would spend his life pastoring people still recovering from the demographic, economic, and spiritual effects of a war that had pitted Christians against each other.

Educated at the University of Strasbourg, Spener completed his doctorate in June 1664, the same day he married Suzanna Erhardt. Though drawn to the academic life, the young theologian accepted the call to Frankfurt, where he preached Sunday mornings in the Franciscan Church.

Much as he enjoyed the work, Spener grew dismayed by the spiritual condition of his flock. In one 1669 sermon, he warned that mere intellectual assent to doctrine and rote participation in formal religious life left his listeners little better than Pharisees. He longed for his parishioners to experience the “authentic Christianity” that the Lutheran mystic Johann Arndt had described 60 years before: “the exhibition of a true, living faith, active in genuine godliness and the fruits of righteousness.”

In 1670 a lawyer named Johann Jakob Schütz encouraged Spener to begin hosting a small group study of Scripture and devotional works. Every Sunday and Wednesday evening, about 15-20 men met with Spener in his study. “They longed,” he remembered, “to have some opportunity when godly-minded people could come together and confer with each other in simplicity and love.” Spener’s so-called collegia pietatis soon grew to 50 and then 100, a cross-section of Frankfurt society that included rich and poor, women and men, and even non-Lutherans. Similar conventicles began to gather in other cities of the Holy Roman Empire.

To our ears, the story sounds unremarkable. (Doesn’t every church have a small group ministry?) But that early conventicle hints at the subtle power of what became Pietism. Spener’s reforms were pastoral, practical, and easily adapted to different contexts. However radical they may have been at the time, they soon entered the religious mainstream.

Heartfelt desire

Likewise, Spener’s most famous book, Pia Desideria (1675), may seem unimpressive at first glance. A slender volume that was first published as a preface to some of Arndt’s sermons, Pia Desideria expressed Spener’s “pious longings” that church and society would yet experience “better times.” Its most influential section—a concluding set of six brief practical reforms—began by rehashing two ideas from Martin Luther.

First, a “more extensive use of the Word of God among us. What did our sainted Luther seek more ardently than to induce the people to a diligent reading of the Scriptures?” Not only in worship and preaching, but through personal and small group study, Spener hoped to return the Bible to the attention of ordinary Christians—not for the sake of biblical knowledge alone, but because God’s Word was “the powerful means” by which individual faith was “enkindled” and the church was reformed.

So second, Spener sought to revive Luther’s model of the church as a common priesthood. Not just ordained clergy, but all believers are “made priests by their Savior, are anointed by the Holy Spirit, and are dedicated to perform spiritual-priestly acts” like prayer, study, and teaching. While women in the original collegia pietatis had sat silently in a separate room, Spener nonetheless viewed them as priests. “In Christ,” he wrote in 1677, “the difference between man and woman, in regard to what is spiritual, is abolished.”

The first two of Spener’s proposals echoed Luther; the remaining four addressed a problematic legacy of Luther’s reformation. Splintered into competing confessions, Protestant churches seemed more concerned with policing doctrinal boundaries than attending to the spiritual needs of ordinary Christians. So as Spener continued his list of proposals, he paused to emphasize “that it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.”

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Source: Christianity Today