Spener, Wesley, Whitefield & Edwards: Early Evangelism and Pietism

When one reflects on western Church history in the 17th and 18th centuries, they are sure to notice a number of key events. Yet, there are three that events that when placed together seem to stand out, at least to me, a little more than the rest; three events that took place over a sixty-three year sweep but culminated in one great movement.

In 1675, the Pietest Movement began. Leading up to the culmination of this movement, though, were many trying years for the Church. Right alongside the Thirty Years’ War (1614-1648), which raged in central Europe and all at once dealt with serious “religious, political and economic matters,” the Reformed-Calvinist debated thundered. Just as well, in Germany, the Lutheran Churches were squabbling amongst themselves and having been placed under a tight government, an interest in theology started to wane while a desire to learn philosophy intensified. Because of this, spirituality had become a misnomer within the walls of the Church and the heart of worship seemed to disappear. Formalism, which led to elitism, had become the norm and all of this led to insincerity on behalf of the Church leaders.

It was at this time that a minister by name of Philipp Jakob Spener rose through the ranks. Spener, who would come to be known as “The Father of Pietism” saw the Church whirling into obscurity and in an effort to re-ignite its flame, shouted a call for the Church to wake from its slumber. He was ashamed at how the Church had become a social club, worship a social event and how ministers were lapsing into social sin and insensitivity. Spener, in the spirit of the reformers who had come before him, sought to reform and recover the Church once more.

With the conviction that God’s people were to be different than the rest of society, Spener formed what he called the “pious assembly.” They met to “pray, discuss the previous week’s sermon and apply passages from Scripture and devotional writings to their lives.” In the midst of this, Spener came upon an opportunity to publish a writing. He titled it Pia Desideria. This was a work that he modeled after his “pious assembly” and their meetings. In it, he laid out standards and expectations for the pious (or those who called themselves Christians). He called for ministers to return to a state of graciousness, sincerity and studiousness and he called for the priesthood of believers to exercise good judgment and to abstain from sin. In short, in a time period when Germany and England were experiencing much turmoil and were relishing in sinfulness, Spener called for Christian piety.

In a way quite similar to the birth and advancement of the Pietist Movement that occurred in Germany and England, in 1734 a revival took place in America. This revival is known as “The First Great Awakening.” It is analogous to and contemporaneous with the Germanic and English events in that, as one scholar has put it, the “Lack of organized Churches and schools, shortage of worthy pastors, the rough frontier life and constant border warfare, had a demoralizing influence on colonial society. Something had to be done to make the colonists more interested in religion.” This new movement or revival began in New Jersey among the Mennonites and Moravians and under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, began to spread like wildfire. The Awakening promoted evangelism, spirituality, missionary work and holy living—the lifestyle of a pious believer. It followed the river through the “Middle and Southern Colonies” and along the way touched the soul of one George Whitefield—a Methodist minister and one of the greatest American evangelists of all time.

It was 1738 when Whitefield arrived in America. He had “followed the Methodist John Wesley from England to Georgia.” While Wesley took a ministry that fell to pieces after a short time, Whitefield went back and forth between England and America preaching and leading revivals (the eventual split between the two men may be due, in large part, to the differences between their Calvinistic and Arminian outlooks). Though Wesley had been ministering for a long time, it was in 1738 that he and his brother Charles both had their own spiritual awakenings. Roger Olson recounts John’s experience:

On May 24, 1738, the young Anglican minister attended a religious meeting in a rented hall on Aldersgate Street in London. Scholars believe it was a meeting of Moravians. There, according to Wesley, he listened as someone read from Luther’s preface to his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans and while listening experienced the much-needed religious awakening: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death."

Thus, it was Wesley’s influence on Whitefield and his own conversion that, in this brief span of years in the mid-seventeen hundreds, the world was changed forever.

The Holiness Movement spawned by Wesley and the Pietist Movement brought to fruition by Spener were spiritual remedies in a time of moral and religious decay. Though each of the movements had their differences, they were incredibly similar and undoubtedly, the tie that binds them is the emphasis on holy and pious living. At an even deeper level, though, one sees that in these two movements, individual spirituality must be balanced with social spirituality. Put differently, both Spenner and Wesley along with Whitefield and Edwards, each issued a clarion call for Christians to practice both individual and social holiness.

In our current era, a time period when Liberation Theologians tend to focus on the social Gospel and many Pentecostals are overcome with individual spirituality (this goes for many other Protestant denominations too), these two early movements seemed to balance the scales and put things in their proper perspective. Indeed, being a pious Christian is not one or the other, it is both, it is personal and social. Feeding the physically hungry and feeding the spiritually hungry are both necessities; it is not one or the other and we see that whenever it has been, Christianity has collapsed into something it was never meant to be. Thus, the movements of Spenner and Wesley still contribute to the development of the Christian faith today as they help us to put our theologies and lives in balance and perspective and urge us to be holy people.

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