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Pietist Movement among German Protestants

     The following essay was written at my request by my father's cousin, Rev. Dr. Carl Armin Viehe who for many years was a pastor of the Congregational Christian Church in the Buffalo and Hamburg , New York area. I had decided that it would be useful for those who plowed through my "History of the Wulfmann Family" to understand the role Pietism had played in the lives of so many of our ancestors. I was greatly pleased when he accepted. When in 1996 Pastor Timothy P. Mueller published his excellent "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past" as part of the celebration of the founding of St. John's Lutheran Congregation, New Minden, I was able to understand some of the many comments I had heard over the years in family conversations and in those of various ministers and officials of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. My grandfather, Rev. Jacob Wulfmann had been an active participant in the moves to merge the German Reformed Church and the German Evangelical Church to form the Evangelical and Reformed Church and later the merger of the E & R Church with the Congregational Christian Church to form the United Church of Christ. This later merger was much discussed in the presence of his grandsons and " little pitchers do have big ears". Pastor Mueller's excellent work includes many comments regarding the stress between the German churches in Germany and their early years in North America. Those stresses lead to the creation of several churches in Washington County as well as in Southern Illinois and Missouri. Occasionally things turned violent and shots and even arson resulted. Whether these strains were limited to the two denominations or whether other denominations were involved, was and is hard to determine. Pietist sentiments in the Evangelical and Reformed Church lasted well into the middle of the 20th Century. In 1914 they were sufficiently strong that the Rev. Dr. Jakob Pister, the president of the Evangelical Synod of North America went to Berlin to attempt to convince his fellow Pietist, Kaiser Wilhelm II not to go to war. Pietism has shaped the history of Washington County.

David S. Wulfman,
Mill Village,
Nova Scotia.


Pietism in The Evangelical Synod in North America
by, Dr. Carl Armin Viehe

     Pietism was originally a reform movement in Lutheranism in Germany. Some felt that the formal dignified services of the established churches needed to be more personally and emotionally satisfying. Religion should be expressed in ethical conduct. This led to a wave of pietistic reform movements.

     Pietism stressed personal interior religious experience rather than outward conformity to church dogma and practice. The true pietist felt a sense of regeneration to a new life in Christ, often after a specific experience of conversion. He no longer depended on sacraments. He espoused a religion of the heart rather than of the mind. It was total commitment to Christ expressed through acts of love.

     For the pietist the Bible formed the basis of faith and he interpreted it for himself. Spener, a German Lutheran pastor preached repentance. August Hermann Franke after service as a school teacher and priest in Lübeck, Leipzig, Hamburg and Erfurt was given a position at the University of Halle in 1691. He quickly devoted himself to the vernacular school for the poor. His ministerial work was in the spirit of pietism and not systematic educational philosophizing. His educational program was both religious and practical. He described it as "true godliness and Christian wisdom". Although dismissed by the established church he received favor from King Frederick Wilhelm I of Prussia and was not dismissed from the University of Halle. Halle became a center of pietism. Johann Julius Hecker came to Halle shortly before Francke's death in 1727 and carried forth much of his work there. He was summoned by Frederick I of Prussia in 1739 to establish a six year "Realschule" in Berlin. The school was designed to prepare youth for the Calvinist and Pietistic ideal of hard work and primarily for the technical and industrial age which was then dawning. Godliness was to be combined with a realistic and practical way of life,

      Nikolaus Ludwig Count von Zinzendorf organized the Moravian Church (Unitas Fratrum). This had an influence on John Wesley. Pietism inspired the Great Awakening in American Protestantism. The concern for social action led to the formation of foreign missionary societies
(The Innere Mission).

     The great influence of Pietistic German immigrants to the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries tended to increase pietistic influence on American Lutheranism. Religiously the German immigrant reflected a background that was quite parochial. Though there were two main types of Protestantism in Germany, Lutheran and Reformed, the German brought with him that particular type of worship and religious instruction which he knew in his own small province. What was called "Lutheranism: in Württemberg mighty be quite different from that which was given the same name in Saxony or Hannover. These hundreds of political units also defined as many church administrations. there was no "German" church or even Lutheran or Reformed church. Each province, often as small as an American colony, had it's own church administration and it's own theology.

     The religious movement known as Pietism had long been giving new life to a more conciliatory spirit to German Christianity. Great personalities like Nicholas Zinzendorf and others had convinced many Germans that faith is more than the possession of pure doctrine. Pietism was ridiculed by the orthodox and the rationalists. In time, many missionary and tract societies arose in many parts of Germany with the purpose of stemming the tide of rationalism. About 50 such societies had arisen in Württemberg by 1800. The Basel and Barmen missionary societies were among these and were destined in later years to send many missionaries to America.

     The Basel Bible Society organized in 1804, became the center for the German Pietistic missionary movement. Another well-known organization was the Rhine Missionary Society, called the Barmen Society and was formed in 1822 (Barmen is a district within present day Wuppertal). A mighty flood of German immigration swept into the West during the years between 1830 and 1866. Many of these came along the Ohio River and settled in new towns like Cincinnati, Louisville and Evansville. Others took a northern route via the Erie Canal to Buffalo and then westward along the Great Lakes. Still others landed at New Orleans and came up the Mississippi to St. Louis and towns and farmland in the valleys of the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. America was a land of hope for those who wanted to escape the regimentation and official conservatism of the state churches. Both pietists and secular rebels longed for freedom. It was here that the voluntary missionary societies could and did help, with their pietistic leanings. The Basel Missionary Society sent Friedrich Schmidt from the Stuttgart area as its first missionary. He was to settle in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1822. During the next century the Basel Mission sent 288 men to serve in America. Of this number 158 served churches of the Evangelical Synod, while 18 served in the Reformed Church of the United States.

     These pietistic missionaries did not have any reason to defend the established churches of Europe. They believed that men are the creatures of God, dependent upon him, and standing in need of redemption and of a guidance that is higher than human wisdom. Under the leadership of Wendelin Wall, a pronounced pietist, a German church was established in St. Louis in 1810. five hundred people attended the first communion service.

     In 1840 the Kirchenverein des Westens (Church Society of the West) was founded which was a forerunner of the Evangelical Synod. It was begun by a gathering of pastors at Gravois Settlement in Missouri. When the society was ten years old it included twenty-five pastors. They were all from Germany and were the products of German pietism. Churches formed by the society were frequently attacked, sometimes physically, for their beliefs. At Marthasville, Missouri, under cover of darkness, vandals attacked the church building.

     In 1850 a seminary was opened in Marthasville. After the head of the seminary returned to Germany, the Basle Mission sent Andreas Irion as a professor. He was a man who possessed all the virtues of German pietism. Irion was later to become the head of the seminary. We can guess that his pietism influenced many seminary graduates who then went on to become pastors of Evangelical Synod churches. Sickness and accidents often took a terrible toll of the hardworking immigrants. Parishes sometimes tried to give aid to widows and orphans by setting up societies, but it was found that a local group could hardly muster the strength to give adequate help in time of tragedy.

     As early as 1853 the feasibility of establishing a deaconess hospital in St. Louis, with it's four churches had been discussed. The Saxon Lutherans had established a hospital for their fellow believers. The broad policy of the Evangelical hospital gained wide support from various organizations in the community. The hospital opened it's doors in March 1861 under the name Good Samaritan Hospital. The Civil War gave it much to do.

     In the spirit of Christian pietism, help was also provided to children orphaned through cholera epidemics and other perils of frontier life. Orphan societies were organized among the parochial school children. A house was rented for orphans, but after a fire, they were housed in the hospital. In time many other such homes and hospitals were to be established in various parts of our land.

     In the earlier years of the Kirchenverein most of it's leaders were spiritual sons of the continental missionary societies. The pietistic traditions of these societies were not appreciated by those who held to cultural values espoused by the traditionalists. But, fortune played into the hands of the pietists when a number of university graduates arrived who could stand as representatives of the best pietistic tradition and also as men of academic integrity. Through the years these two types represented two distinct cultural and religious points of view. In 1866 the General Conference changed the name of the Kirchenverien to "Synod" but this made no difference to either the pietists or the rationalists.

     Here it should be noted that Jacob Pister who was Synod President from 1901-1914. Whether he was of the pietistic or rationalist faction is not stated in the History of the Evangelical and Reformed Church. However it would appear most likely that he was of the pietist school. Home missions (later to be called national missions in the Evangelical Synod) was something the pietists could endorse. The story of home missions properly began when the Synod, out of its own means, systematically sent preachers out among unchurched settlements of German Evangelical people in rural areas or in cities, and supported them until the congregations were able to support themselves.

     In 1854 traveling preachers were sent out to find German settlements in Iowa and Illinois. One of these traveling preachers, J. Christop Feil, a Basel man who had completed his studies at Marthasville, wrote in 1866 that" there were very few who showed any interest in the church. He noted that often there were only three or four men at a service of worship. "Everyone there had nothing but hate for anything that had a tinge or religion."

     A remarkable home missionary whose labors in the field extended over nearly fifty years, from 1864 to 1910, was Rev. Louis von Rague. He was an alumnus of the pietistic Barmen Mission. He had volunteered for foreign missions but accepted as God's will an assignment for service in the United States. His first charge was in Town Rhine, Sheybogan County, Wisconsin where Caspar H. Viehe later was the minister. In the hope of stimulating more interest in home missions and in order to use increased means more effectively, the General Conference of 1870 voted to create A Board für Innere Mission. The fact that the English word "board" was chosen instead of its German equivalent probably means that the members of the Synod were familiar with the operation of boards among the English language churches and meant to have one like them. But the next General Conference in 1872 abolished the Board of Home Missions and returned to the districts the responsibility for home missions. The larger cities received the greater share of the mission work.

     The General Conference of 1898 voted to create a board of home missions similar to the Board of Foreign Missions. Work was begun in California, Colorado and Montana. The following year they sent missionaries to Texas including Jacob Wulfmann. He spent two years circuit riding near present day Waco. He then returned to Princeton Ohio and subsequently in 1902 to Cincinnati to serve as assistant to Jakob Pister who was president of the church. Jacob was clearly a pietist and from his comments regarding his father-in-law (Jakob), Jakob held similar views. In 1909 mission work was started among the German-Russians in Winnipeg. A most challenging opportunity arose among the German-Russians in Colorado where many of them worked in the sugar beet industry.

     When we turn to the field of foreign missions we find that no other German church body in the United States, save the Moravian Church, had done so much as the Evangelical Church. This, of course, reflected the early pietistic influence of the Basel and Barmen missionary institutes.

      In 1865 the German Evangelical Mission Society was organized. It had no official connection with the Evangelical Synod. It had been organized by an interdenominational group of German churches including German, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Moravian, Presbyterian and Evangelical. In 1883 the society offered to turn over its work to the Evangelical Synod. The offer was accepted. The formal transfer occurred in 1884 and missionaries were sent to India.

     In the history of the Evangelical Church the years were marked by such events as the establishing of Elmhurst College, the move of the seminary from Marthasville to Webster Groves, Missouri and called Eden Theological Seminary, and the general switch from German to English, although these events had little to do with pietism. I might add that a hymnal was adopted in 1917.

     In 1902 the Synod became involved in youth work with the organizing of the Jugenbund . In 1913 the name was changed to the Evangelical League. As previously mentioned pietists were always interested in home mission work. A new impulse was reached in 1919 when the Rev. W. L. Bretz became Executive Secretary for Home Missions. The big problem still was the lack of men for the mission field and lack of money to build new churches. A special home missions project was the Immigrant and Seamen's Mission which ministered to the crews of German freighters in Baltimore.

     Another project was the establishment of the Caroline Mission in an underprivileged section of St. Louis. (Dr, Richard Viehe, MD, was connected with the Caroline Mission). A wide variety of services was rendered to people of different races. It is said that "here the principles of social application of Christianity have been expressed and implemented in continuing day and night service." The Ozarks were almost completely neglected by other denominations, so the Evangelical Synod stepped in. The Shannondale Ozark Center was established near Gladden Missouri (about 45 miles south of Rolla). In Biloxi, Mississippi mission work was done in trying to educate people to a healthier standard of living and to train them in the way of Christian character. Work was also started in Madeline Island, Wisconsin among the four hundred permanent residents of the island who had no church of their own.

      In India foreign mission work was spread among the poor Indian women and among lepers. In 1898 Jacob Gass founded a theological school at Raipur.

     Benevolent institutions and works were an important form of Christian service which the denomination had wisely left to local district' initiative. In 1901 the Conference appointed a committee to draw up plans to coordinate the social service activities. It was decided that a Board for Benevolent Institutions should be created to gather information about deaconess hospitals, children's homes, homes for the aged and similar institutions. In 1921 the Board for Christian Service replaced the older board. Four years later it had set up the Federation of Evangelical Charities.

     Practical Christianity in which the pietists earnestly believed, which had hitherto expressed itself mainly through individual or institutional concern for the poor, the sick, the orphans and the aged, found a new outlet in the early nineteen hundreds. In 1917 the Commission for National Welfare was created. Later the name was changed to the Commission on Christianity and Social Problems. The follow-up on this was the Evangelical Synod becoming one of the charter members of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. And with that we leave our study of pietism in the Evangelical Synod and its churches.


Contact Dr. David S. Wulfman


© 2000-2007 Wayne Hinton

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