Excesses and Errors of Pietism   61 comments

Excesses and Errors of Pietism

Above:  The Last Page of My Draft of This Post


I am an Episcopalian.  I used to identify more as an Anglican, but many Donatists in North America have taken that label for themselves.  So now I identify primarily as an Episcopalian and secondarily as an Anglican.  Yet I embrace the broad, inclusive meaning of Anglicanism, with its acceptance, tolerance, and collegiality.  And I like the Anglican spirit of unity in worship, not theological orthodoxy–whichever version of it a specific church party might seek to define as normative.  So my religion is sacramental, ritualistic, and warm-hearted, given to good works.  And my religion is quite intellectual, for the human brain is a great gift from God.

Given my spiritual and theological predilections, I bristle against the excesses and errors of Pietism.  On occasion my expressions of this sentiment have caused offense to some in my family and beyond it.  Sometimes people have accused me of judging.  No, my offense (not sin) was to hold and state a contrary opinion.  For that I offer no apology.  As I sign I have says,


I do not apologize for the fact of another person’s thin skin.

Yet Pietism is not all bad.  It emerged in European Lutheranism shortly after the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648).  One Jakob Spener (1635-1705), responding to stale confessional orthodoxy, proposed six goals for Christian living:

  1. Individual Bible study;
  2. The practice of the priesthood of all believers;
  3. The priority of good works;
  4. The maintenance of charity amid theological controversy;
  5. The improved education and training of clergy; and
  6. The reform of preaching to fit the previous five goals.

Many Pietists, using slogans such as




focused on a living faith–an excellent ideal.  And they engaged in many great charitable works which improved societies–also consistent with the best aspects of Christianity.

But excesses and errors developed early and spread abroad quickly.  They live today.

  1. Sometimes the focus on holy living has devolved into persnickety rules, such as prohibitions against playing cards or dancing.  The rejection of one form of stale orthodoxy–abstract theology–has led to another form of stale orthodoxy–legalism–really a heresy.  This also constitutes a purity code.  Jesus rejected purity codes of his day.
  2. The emphasis on regeneration (a term I have seen used so many ways that I have ceased to know what it means when someone uses it) reflects a basic flaw in Protestantism–too much emphasis on the individual and not enough on the faith community.
  3. This obsession with regeneration has led to a rejection of good liturgy, such as the church year, service books, and “smells and bells.”  I, as a ritualist, object to this error.  A stunted sacramental theology has hindered much of Protestantism, denying it the fullness it might have enjoyed and shared otherwise.
  4. The undervaluing of objective truth in favor of subjective experience has been unfortunate.  I, as one who values objective reality highly, take issue with excessive subjectivity.  In fact, I, as a history buff, like to apply universal, timeless ethical standards to historical figures.  Some tell me that I ought not to do this, but they are displaying excessive subjectivity.

Despite the historical origins of Pietism in late seventeenth-century European Lutheranism, I recognize a related mentality in the Puritanism (which rejected the priesthood of the believer in favor of a high view of the pastor as interpreter of the Bible) of the early-to-late 1600s.  As Professor Edmund S. Morgan wrote in The Puritan Family, Puritans emphasized rules of civil living

in order to convince themselves that they were sanctified.

–page 5

Unfortunately, some of these rules were quite strict–down to punishing people for humming or singing to themselves in public on Sunday and making church attendance mandatory.  But, as Roger Williams observed correctly, the only sincere prayer is the one a person offers sincerely.

I recognize excesses of Pietism in wrong-headed obsessions with “worldliness” and “worldly amusements.”  Some examples follow:

  1. In the 1870s the pastor and Session of Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, Georgia, carried out a “reign of terror” (a term from page 18 of the 1979 church history), excommunicating about half of the congregation.   The excommunicated had danced or played bridge or hosted a dance at home.  Deacon Frank Block, who published an eighteen-page defense of himself, had done the latter.  The pastor left under a cloud of controversy in December 1878 and the congregation took years to heal.
  2. Over a decade ago I heard a history professor at Georgia Southern University–a good liberal Episcopalian forced into home schooling by the local school system’s problems–speak of awkward moments at gatherings of the local home schooling association.  One other parent, for example, forbade her child(ren) to play soccer because the sport was “too worldly.”  The professor shook his head in dismay.
  3. The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), founded in 1880, had liberalized by 1910.  Finally it resolved officially that any man who wore a necktie to church was not violating Biblical standards.  So, in 1910 and 1911, the Church of God (Guthrie, Oklahoma) separated.  Its leaders cited doctrinal drift and church “worldliness” as justifications for the schism.
  4. Gene Pollett (who told me the following story in the 1990s) served as the pastor of Andrew Chapel Methodist Church, Kathleen, Georgia, in the 1960s.  There was little for the youth of the community to do on Saturday nights, so parents from various churches agreed to chaperone a weekly dance held at the fellowship hall of Andrew Chapel.  One Saturday night a local Southern Baptist minister made a scene, confronting Gene and complaining about the sinful dancing taking place inside.  Unfortunately for that preacher, some portion of his congregation was present at the dance and heard his rant.  That Baptist congregation was seeking a new pastor shortly thereafter.

I know that some might beat me about the theological head and neck with Romans 14 and that others might merely suggest that I read it.  I have read it–many times, in fact.  And I have read other Pauline passages regarding one’s activities in relation to “weaker members,” as the texts refer to them.  My lifestyle is quiet and basic.  It is free of scandalous behaviors.  Yet I know that some “weaker members” might not understand even my simple lifestyle as I do.  I have decided, however, that I will try to live a good life because that is the right thing to do.  I have vowed to leave my corner of the world better than I found it because that is what I ought to do.  And I will not permit the potential confusion on the part of others to limit my choices.  If I were to do so, I would do little or nothing.  And then what good would I be in this world?








Amended on September 5, 2013

Amended on October 18, 2013



Bowker, John, ed.  The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions.  New York, NY:  Oxford University Press, 1997.  I find this volume quite useful during my ongoing quest to understand the content of religious claims objectively.

Melton, J. Gordon.  Encyclopedia of American Religions.  4h. Ed.  Detroit, MI:  Gale Research, Inc., 1993.  This is a crucial reference work in my library.

Morgan, Edmund S.  The Puritan Family:  Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England.  2d.  Ed.  New York, NY:  Harper & Row, 1966.  Morgan was an expert of Puritanism.

Precht, Fred L., ed.  Lutheran Worship:  History and Practice.  St. Louis, MO:  Concordia Publishing House, 1993.  This work includes a strong Confessional Lutheran (Missouri Synod) critique of Pietism.  I agree with parts of that critique and disagree with others, for I am not a Confessional Lutheran–or even a Lutheran, although I could be a Lutheran under certain circumstances.

Smith, John Robert.  The Church That Stayed:  The Life and Times of Central Presbyterian Church in the Heart of Atlanta, 1858-1978.  Atlanta, GA:  The Atlanta Historical Society, 1979.  O, the treasures one finds at thrift stores!



61 responses to “Excesses and Errors of Pietism

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  59. Soccer too worldly? Reminds me of a 1999 film about Buddhism and soccer, The Cup.

    You mention Babette’s Feast in a linking post, I like that one too.

    Thoughtful post here on some complex issues.

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