Though few groups today would identify themselves as Pietist, there are actually a large number of modern churches which have been significantly impacted by Pietist teaching. Pietism is a movement within Christianity that attempts to focus on individual holiness and a consistent Christian life. It is typically led by laymen or local pastors who are frustrated with the perceived hypocrisy or inconsistency within the larger church. There have been a number of Pietist movements, each one leading to the development of new denominations or fellowships.
Jan Hus, a preacher in the 1400s in what is now the Czech Republic, was one of the earliest leaders of the Pietist movement. He was influenced by the teachings of John Wycliffe, and sought to reform the Bohemian church. Hus was burned at the stake in 1415 on a charge of heresy. Though his personal ministry was short-lived, Hus’s reform efforts had long-term effects, as Martin Luther himself was influenced by Hus’s teachings. The modern Moravian or Bohemian Brethren Church (825,000 members) is traced directly back to the followers of Jan Hus.
The Pietist movement had a hand in the formation of the Lutheran Church, and then in the 1670s it led to a reform movement within that church. Philipp Jakob Spener, who had been influenced by Pietist and Waldensian teachers, was convinced of the need for a moral and religious reformation within German Lutheranism. He saw a rigid orthodoxy sapping the zeal from the Christian life of the church. To counter that, he began meetings in his home where he encouraged personal and small-group Bible study, involvement in church leadership by laymen, and a preaching style which would implant Christianity in the inner man and result in visible fruits of good works. Many of these Lutherans stayed within the church and attempted to enact these reforms. Others left and formed a variety of new churches, most of them with names including the term “Brethren.” Swedish Lutherans who were influenced by Spener’s teachings came to America and formed the Evangelical Covenant Church and the Evangelical Free Church of America. In England, the Pietist movement impacted John Wesley, who began the Methodist movement.
The philosophy of ministry that led to the Pietist movement has been held by true believers from the very beginning. When Peter and John were forbidden by the Jewish religious leaders to speak in the name of Jesus, they responded, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). These brethren believed that every believer and every church must submit to the authority of God’s Word, and any practice or teaching that is in contradiction to God’s clear command must be surrendered. To that, let every believer today say a hearty “Amen.”