The emergence of Pietism and its influence upon the Great Awakenings

Pietism cannot really be understood without taking into account the impact of the writings of the Puritans. In the center of both the Puritan and pietist movements is an emphasis on holiness and a personal rebirth. These ideas of personal application are not a denial of the Reformation. Calvin talking about faith said “… man’s mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it.”[1] No one can fairly accuse the Reformers of denying that personal holiness and personal faith in God were important. The Puritans were the heirs of this Reformation idea that “Christianity “is not apprehended merely by the intellect . . . but it is revealed only when it possesses the whole soul.””[2] The pietists were also influenced by the Anabaptists, who were the first real Congregationalists.[3] A good example of the Anabaptist influence on pietism were the Moravian and the communal living they did on the Zinzendorf estate. Not seeking to use rules of law to enforce Christianity in an ever increasingly secular world, instead the pietists preferred to seek community and preach to the world the personal Christ. It is precisely these two traits of the Pietist movement, the Congregationalists mentality and the idea of personal rebirth and call to holiness, that came from the Anabaptist and the Puritans, which set the stage for the great movers in the Great Awakening.

Johnathan Edwards said in his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, that the reason he was drawn to reflect on the subject of hell very well might have been “… for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation.”[4] This idea of personal conversion was something that came from the Pietists understanding of God and the community of believers. It is important to notice that the Great Awakening was brought about by preachers and not statement, especially in America. People like John Winthrop, a statesman and preacher, along with the Great Puritan experiment had come and gone. To be sure there were the “Old Calvinists”[5] who were still doing church the old-fashioned way. However, the method of Edwards and Whitfield, in what would become America, and John Wesley in England was to bypass the ruling body and go straight to the people. John Wesley was known for speaking to several thousand people at a time in public for hours at a time. Goerge Whitfield is famed to have preached more 1000 sermons in one year. Clearly, the big movers in the Great Awakening are people that believed that Christianity was something a person could choose and they should also choose where to congregate. Something that is not a highlight of their sermons was instructions on which church to attend.

Just as the big preachers of the Great Awakenings were not focused on which church to attend, Wesley even left the Anglican church in order to found the Methodists, which is a highly congregational denomination, especially when compared to Anglicans. The big movers in the Great Awakening emphasized personal conversion.[6] Personal commitment and conversion, or turning to God from sin is, Lane argues, found in both the writings of Calvin and Philipp Jakob Spener, who Lane calls the founder of Pietism.[7] Clearly, some part or idea of personal conversion was held by the reformers and that became a central theme for the Pietists. This theme of personal conversion is also seen in Johnathan Edwards sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards said that the “door of mercy” was “thrown … wide open” by Christ.[8] This was spoken of by Edwards in a personal invitation for the person to seek refuge themselves. There was no instruction by Edwards about seeking absolution, sacrifice, or sanctuary in a church, rather absolution, sacrifice, or sanctuary are found between the believer and Christ personally.

Congregationalism, personal holiness, and personal conversion are the main theological themes that flowed from the Reformation through the pietists to the preachers that sparked the great awakening. These themes found their home in the hearts of many, who lived in a world where the secular was challenging the sacred for control of the hearts of men. The institutionalism of Christendom had been left behind, but the world and each person still knew and will always know of their need for a savior. That personal savior is only Jesus Christ.

[1]. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 559.

[2]. John Woodbridge and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 282.

[3]. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995), 248.

[4]. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards,” Blue Letter Bible, , accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/edwards_jonathan/Sermons/Sinners.cfm

[5]. John Woodbridge and James A. Frank III. 2013. Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan. 264.

[6]. Ibid, 276.

[7]. A N. S. Lane, “Conversion: A Comparison of Calvin and Spener,” Themelios 13, no. 1 (1987): 20.

[8]. Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God by Jonathan Edwards,” Blue Letter Bible, , accessed March 26, 2019, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/edwards_jonathan/Sermons/Sinners.cfm

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