A Pietist Folk School: A Point of Departure

by Peter Sandstrom

From its earliest beginnings, pietism has been concerned with, and has also expressed itself through, education. The first conventicles organized by Philip Jacob Spener in the 1670s in Germany were, in significant measure, an experiment and exercise in adult education. Spener’s successor, August Hermann Francke, took pietistic education a step further by establishing the Halle Institutes, which at their height brought together ministries to the homeless and children, vocational training, and college and seminary education.

When the pietistic movement took root in Sweden, it eventuated in other educational efforts, among them, the children’s home and school at Vall in the province of Värmland, created by Maria "Mor i Vall" Nilsdotter and administered largely by her son who was the pietist lay preacher, Carl Johann Nyvall. It was C.J. Nyvall’s son, David Nyvall, who would become the first President of North Park College and who would be the person preeminently responsible for creating that school’s distinctive character.

Each of the above educational endeavors reflected some essential element of pietism’s expression of Christian faith and attempted to respond to an educational need that was not being addressed at that time or place.

Our journal, Pietisten, has been hosting a conversation in print for nearly fourteen years now. Whereas the journal itself has been, in part, a means of sharing education among friends and readers, ideas about more specifically educational efforts or structures have often been batted about among the editors in private conversation. For a year or two now, this matter has evolved into the question: Would we like to further contribute to the pietistic tradition by founding our own school?

What follows, then, is the outline of a tentative proposal for the creation of what we are terming a "pietist folk school." As with its predecessors, this school would attempt to be an expression of pietism for its time and to speak to an unaddressed need in the realm of American higher education.

Folk schools have long been popular in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. The Swedish Covenant’s folk school in Jönköping, in particular, has had a relationship with North Park for twenty-five years. Often designed as a two year, post-high school course of study, the folk school frequently combines aspects of folk culture, arts studies, and the humanities. The folk school is not a junior college, community college, or vocational school, though it is usually geared to the same age group.

We envision our pietistic folk school as a community for learning, with a double focus. The first would be developing skill in the activity central to pietism, which is the interpretation of texts. Interwoven throughout the two-year course of study would be classes on hermeneutics and literature, with a strong emphasis on Biblical and classical texts. The other central focus of the school would be the arts and vocational crafts. Students would be able to learn and develop skills ranging from weaving and textiles to cabinetry and home construction. There would be a continual joining of reflection upon text and the creation of beautiful things with one’s hands.

Such a pietist folk school would serve two primary groups of people. The first is young adults. This group would include post-high schoolers who do not wish to proceed immediately to college, or perhaps may never attend. It would also include young adults already in college who would like a hiatus from their particular academic structure or track. By immersing oneself in text and in creativity, pre-college young adults would learn skills valuable in following academic ventures. Young adults within the university system would be able to focus on classic humanities and arts studies which are increasingly less available and less supported on many college campuses. They could do this in an environment that is significantly less stressful and more conducive to supporting a community of learning. The integration of such studies with learning and practicing the arts and vocational crafts would be a rare opportunity considering the focus on majors and related course work of many colleges and universities.

The folk school, as such, could also be mindful, as other academic institutions are not, of the transition from teenager to young adult and keep this process central to its understanding of school structure and faculty support.

The second group our pietist folk school would serve is older adults, middle-aged and senior, who are in life or career transitions and would like to renew their thinking and refresh their perspectives. They would do so in a community with a course of study that provides excellence as well as an unhurried and flexible time frame. Such time, study, and practice might lead either to new careers or to new aspects of living.

Bringing together younger and older students, as well as text and artistic construction, would be the life of an ongoing worship community; it would be folk school as an extension of the conventicle.

A setting most conducive to such a pietist folk school would be a small town or semi-rural site located within commuting distance of the Twin Cities. It could be a residential school and could also take advantage of faculty who are residents of the Twin Cities area.

Such are our dreams. We are laying this proposal and these ideas before you in hopes of hearing your responses. Your interest and support might lead to our dreams becoming our intentions, and to the coming into being of the pietistic folk school. We await you and your words. You can send your comments and suggestions to me by mail at Pietisten or www.pietisten.org.