United Church of Christ

Being called "pious" is not necessarily a bad thing

Barbara Brown Zikmund

A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ

Calling someone 'pious' in today"s society sends a mixed message. It might mean that you think the person is devout and reverent. But it also might mean that you think the person has a conspicuous, false or even hypocritical way of being religious. For this reason most of us avoid using the word 'pious.'

Yet, Christian Pietism has a great history, and being pious is a Christian virtue. Throughout the 18th and 19th century Pietism produced many popular Protestant devotional books that put stress on the emotional and personal aspects of religion. New England Congregationalists encouraged spiritual habits that cultivated inward piety. In central Europe, Pietism shaped a grassroots religious movement that revitalized the religious life of ordinary people.

One book that inspired Pietism was 'Pia Desidera,' by Philipp Jakob Spener (published in 1675). Spener suggested six ways to reform Christianity. He thought that Christians should read and study scripture more, especially in groups; they should cultivate spiritual leadership; they should strive to express active Christian love instead of seeking religious knowledge; they should avoid controversy; they should support good theological education for clergy; and they should demand better preaching. His discussion of Bible study emphasized the need to nurture an 'inner' understanding of Christianity. 'It is not enough that we hear the Word with our outward ear, but we must let it penetrate to our heart, so that we may hear the Holy Spirit speak there, that is, with vibrant emotion and comfort feel the sealing of the Spirit and the power of the Word.'

Pietist writers like Spener shaped the practices of German Reformed laity and clergy during late 18th and early 19th century revivals on the American frontier. Pietism was especially significant in the mid-18th century among Midwestern German Evangelical immigrants, because Swiss German missionaries that came to the United States to serve German Evangelical churches had been trained at institutes in Basel and Barmen where German Pietism flourished. They emphasized the experience of salvation, rather than beliefs. They understood when people said they were impatient with church politics, doctrinal squabbles and ecclesiastical authoritarianism.

Pietism focuses upon inward religious experience and action. Pietism nurtures the idea that 'creeds are testimonies, rather than tests of faith.' Furthermore, Pietism motivated the German Evangelical Synod to found dozens of hospitals, institutions, and enterprises to meet the special needs of the sick, the disabled, the orphaned and the disadvantaged. The United Church of Christ can be proud of its roots in Christian Pietism.

The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board, teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.

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