The Pietist Impulse in Christianity Conference at Bethel

by Phil Johnson and Mark Safstrom

Ecumenical Again? — Phil Johnson

March 19-21, 2009. Thanks to recent scholarship, in particular the work of David Gustafson in D.L. Moody and Swedes, I have rediscovered the deep ecumenical impulse among Swedish people who referred to themselves as “Mission Friends” and to whom many refer to today as the “Swedish pietists.”

Pietisten, the name of this journal, explicitly identifies with pietism. As it turns out, in Sweden “The Pietist” was not the best choice of names (in general many people are put off by the association of “pietist” with “the holier that thou.” In By One Spirit (page 41, footnote ?), Karl Olsson observed that there was a lot that was off-putting about pietists and the idea of pietism in Sweden. It appears that the Scottish Methodist, George Scott, who founded Pietisten and enlisted Rosenius as editor in 1842 and then turned Pietisten over to Rosenius when he, Scott, was required to leave Sweden, did not have a sense for the negative implications the word pietist had for Swedes.

I don’t think many people were talking about or claiming to be pietists when we first published this journal in 1986. I may be wrong. I know it seemed a bit strange to me at the time to simply assert that we were pietists. I’d not used that term to refer to myself before. Among other things, the term immediately suggested abstinence which was not my practice. By that measure—in spite of a very good upbringing—I can not be considered a pietist. Then what is our association—Pietisten’s association—with pietism?

My first response has been that, at heart pietism really means putting the personal above everything. This means trusting and understanding personal life as the foundation of everything. That’s what I aspire to and want to support. Pietisten Premises (page, 20) reflect our intentions and spirit. If our spirit and actions match these intentions, perhaps ours is a legitimate claim to be pietists.

Some folks speaking thoughtfully at the Pietist Impulse Conference objected to “throwing” the term pietism around indiscriminately such that it loses meaning. They said we need to identify the historical reality, read the sources first hand, and read what the people who wrote the sources read. Then we’d actually know a bit about it. Touche! They want the hard work of history done. Dig into the sources. Talk particulars.

It is the case that there were actual people who generated and joined a movement called pietism starting in Germany with Philip Jacob Spener about 1675. A proper question then is do the people who consider themselves pietist connect to this historical reality? Is it the same as whether some one is a member of the Ojibwa Tribe or not in which case there’s got to be a bloodline? There is also a posture or spirit involved in the pietist motto referred to by Mark Safstrom: “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and all things charity” opens inclusion to many non-historically connected Christians and others, not Christian, who take that posture and exude that spirit.

At the conference, folks claiming, or at least exploring, and, it seemed clear, displaying that spirit and who had authentic “historical, blood” membership were the mainly Swedes including our hosts, the General Conference Baptists, the Evangelical Covenant, the Evangelical Free Church, the Augustana heritage Lutherans, the Norwegian Lutheran Brethren from the Hauge connection, Swedish Methodist, Methodists, and others who were not Swedish but had German or Moravian connections. This list is not exhaustive.

So, credit the Baptists, credit Bethel University, and credit Dr. G. W. Carlson of Bethel and the Lilly Foundation for a superb ecumenical meeting. I can report on about 25% of the conference. The scholarship was truly impressive. Not once did I get the feeling that someone had a theological axe to grind or a need to make the conclusions and data fit their beliefs.

Pietist should expect that kind of conference given the foundation laid and the spiritual tenor described by Spener in Pia Disideria (Pious Wishes) and lived out by the Moravians and the Swedish conventicles, and the Lutherans, especially those of the Evangelical Foundation like Lina Sandell Berg, Oscar Anfelt, and the like.

David Gustafson’s recent study reveals how these Swedes reflected the influence and understanding of Christian life from D. L. Moody. Moody was responsible for actual ecumenical Christian life. He said, “If I thought I had one drop of sectarian blood in my constitution, I would open a vein and let it out” (Gustafson, 46).

This genuine, grass roots ecumenical spirit and cooperation began to falter late in the 19th century as doctrines, especially prophetic doctrines, became, for some—perhaps many, decisive matters of Christian belief. My unstudied picture is that the Free made pre-millenialism mandatory as well as verbal inspiration as well as set apart behavior (no smoking drinking or make-up) and the Baptist added believer baptism as decisive. The Covenant was filled with many people of the same convictions as the Free and the Baptists. My parents shared the convictions of both and yet felt no difficulty claiming Covenant standing.

It is easy to see that ecumenicity faltered. Once I began to grow in education and understanding at North Park College, I began to move away from the Free and the Baptist influence and did not want anyone to confuse me with them. My ecumenical interests grew stronger and stronger in a different direction, toward an inclusivity that I did not believe possible in the Free or the Baptists or in the Covenant. However, in the Covenant I could claim freedom from assenting to any creed or articles of belief and had the right to freely identify in spirit with others like the World and National Council of Churches.

Well, lo and behold, things have changed. I continue to be as ecumenical as I can imagine toward the Council of Churches and beyond that to people of all faiths and I find myself becoming friendly toward Bethel and the baptist and toward the Free. I am not ashamed to be seen with them and am interested in being friends. Not that any of them has been waiting for my approval.

There are three presentations I wish to mention. Dr. Shirley Mullen, President of Houghton College, presented on Wesley and Higher Education. It was an excellent lecture for which Dr. Mullen had prepared herself by reading all of John Wesley’s sermons. Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom, spoke on hope and lifted up the Pietist guide for ethics: “faith active in love” as exemplified in Spener, August Franke, and Johanna Eleonora Petersen. My colleague, Mark Safstrom gave a paper on Waldenström as an elected member of the Swedish Parliament opening up a little known aspect of Waldenström and the pietist impulse in public life. At the heart of PPW’s civil and political concern according to Mark which pleased me was tolerance and representation for all.

A Waldenströmian Moment — Mark Safstrom

Dove-tailing with Phil’s comments, the conference on Pietism at Bethel was indeed an ecumenical moment. For a number of reasons, one could even go so far as to call it a Waldenströmian moment, not least because P.P.W. made cameo appearances in no fewer than four of the papers and sessions at the conference.

The most profound of the sessions, and one which proves my point of Waldenströmianism, was a panel discussion on Saturday morning among the four American traditions which were started by Scandinavian Pietists (or which had been inspired by or reacted against those Pietists, depending on your view). Represented at the table were two historians from each tradition: the Evangelical Covenant, the Baptist General Conference, the Augustana Lutheran Church (now nestled within the ELCA), and the Evangelical Free. Somewhere in the middle of this very cordial and engaging conversation among the panel members, I was struck by the historical significance of it all. One could liken the conversation to a reunion of siblings who had been separated at birth. Certainly there is still traffic between North Park University and Augustana College, at least for sporting events. But on the whole it is remarkable that there has been little exchange among four Christian traditions that have so much common history. When has there ever been such a meeting among these churches since the great schisms that divided the Scandinavian-American world in the 1870s? Has a four-way conversation between us ever happened on a formal level? (These are not rhetorical questions—anyone who knows should send a note to Phil for the next issue).

Certainly Paul Peter Waldenström would have been grateful to see that the small group of about 30 people who participated in the session, were engaged in a rather emotional conversation of what they had in common. The great Pietist mantra, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity” was well represented when Covenanter James Hawkinson asked Baptist historian Virgil Olson to close the meeting in prayer, referring to him affectionately as “the elder bishop.”

As a Covenanter, I found myself celebrating the fact that we have managed to retain the spirit of ecumenism that Waldenström struggled to hold on to in the midst of all of the theological battles that surrounded him. The reflections of the Baptists, the Free, and the Augustana Lutherans further impressed on me the enduring legacy of like-minded Pietists such as C.O. Rosenius, Peter Fjellstedt, Lars Esbjörn, and even would-be Pietists like Dwight Moody, who have continued to inspire ecumenical attitudes in the histories of the churches they left behind.

This search for ecumenism is perhaps most current right now for the Baptist General Conference and Bethel University, where some members have reasserted their Pietist heritage in response to recent theological struggles (for example, see any issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion, the journal edited by G.W. Carlson and Ron Saari). In the words of one woman at the session, “Pietism is in the woodwork—it comes out in times of trouble.” Those of us in these four traditions may not always be aware of the relevance of our Pietist heritage, but it certainly comes in handy when we find it necessary to justify a basis for ecumenism, scriptural authority, and compassion, mercy, and justice in the face of denominationalism, confessionalism, and individualism.

This might not have been an officially-sanctioned summit of the churches, but it was good enough for me. And it could have been a wider fellowship than the four represented; there was at least one self-identified Norwegian Haugean Pietist who took part, and demonstrated by her comments how deeply entangled our roots really are. Hopefully this conversation will continue, if only in the pages of our Pietisten. This was a good reminder for the value of Pietisten in maintaining our friendships with all the descendants of the 19th century awakening, not just Covenanters.

Had this panel been the only event of the conference, it would have been worthwhile. But this was only one session among a genuine smörgåsbord of session offerings (and not one of those things that the North Park cafeteria called a smörgåsbord which was really just leftovers, this was a first-rate feast). The best aspect of the conference was the fact that “Pietism” was so broadly defined. There was a healthy representation of Methodists, as well as Pietists of the German variety, and an appearance of at least one Catholic, the author Emilie Griffin, who spoke on ecumenism with her well-crafted talk “We of the Broken Body: Toward a Piety of Hope and Reconciliation.” It was so ecumenical, in fact, that I started to wonder who WASN’T a Pietist. Among the presenters there were even people making the claims that Nietzsche and Kant had been Pietists, all with good reasons no doubt. Perhaps Pietism can be stretched too far. But then again, this broadness gave me plenty of opportunity to reflect on how much I actually identify with another old Covenant slogan, “I am a companion of all who fear Thee.” Certainly food for thought.

Historians (and theologians) do get to make history sometimes, and this was a glowing example. The staff at Bethel who put on this conference did an outstanding job and truly made history. They set the bar very high for the hosts of the next Pietism conference—and there really ought to be another one. Bra gjort!! Well done!!

Phil Johnson is Editor Emeritus of Pietisten.

See all articles by Phil Johnson

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and teaches Swedish language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom