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Pietists as Pentecostal Forerunners

It is clear from the 1712 decree that Confessional Lutheranism was being protected whereas Pietism was labeled “foreign” and to be exterminated. The decree makes the charge that Pietists only “externally confess our Augsburg Confession,” which is serious because Pietists would have no legal protection without being recognized as Lutheran. The decree says the Pietists were “everywhere coming and going,” and that the authorities were serving notice that they would no longer allow this “to be propagated.”22 The major allegations against the Pietists in this decree were that they taught direct inspiration (unmittelbare Eingebung), that one could become so perfect one did not need to go to Communion (Stillestand), that they had secret gatherings (heimliche Winkelversammlungen), and that there was going to be a new kingdom of Christ on earth (Chiliasmus). …

Prayer meetings were seen by Lutheran Orthodoxy and Pietist alike as having potential for change; Orthodoxy saw risk, Pietists saw the coming of Christ. It is hard for us today to imagine how controversial prayer meetings were, but they were the cause for the phrase “this pietistic evil” coined by Löscher, a phrase still used to disparage pietism.

The Silesian controversy illustrates the nature of religious conflict. It continues to this day in Lutheranism, i.e., Pietists have a bad name and all sorts of things are blamed on them, but it is emblematic of what happens in innumerable denominations. Something new happens, it begins to catch on, something about it is threatening to the status quo, charges are made, proponents of the new respond, it becomes personal, each round gets a little sharper, responses deal with characterizations and a generation later proponents of one side or another retail the characterizations made in the heat of a rhetorical battle as factual. The revivalists are hardly ever innocent, and often they work very hard to earn their enmity. No Christian appreciates being called, cold, dead, indifferent, or a Christian in name only, yet this is what happened over and over and it still happens today. It seems to be fuel to the fire. Beyond that, we would not want to give the impression that there is something unusual or untoward about defending Orthodoxy. No, it is most necessary. It is the way in which it is done, and of course, even how history understands the defense that is at issue.

Pentecostalism, both in its birth just over 100 years ago as well as in its current forms, shares things with both the Petersens and the revival that caught their attention. Obviously, they both placed a great emphasis on prayer. Both broke with the tradition in which they began though some or their innovations may simply have been a return to earlier traditions. The Petersens were forerunners of Pentecostalism in their emphasis on a desire for direct, unmediated contact with God. Pietists and Pentecostals share a negative view of the established Church and paid a price for their alienation, and at the same time benefited from associating with those who were drawn by the desire for new wine. It should be clear by now that this is a sword that cuts both ways. It would be better if  we could have both freedom of religious conscience and a nuanced understanding towards those who hold to different beliefs, and at the same time seek faithful discernment about the core of religious orthodoxy and its necessity, if we are to teach Christian doctrine free from error.


1 Carter Lindberg, The Third Reformation? Charismatic Movements and the Lutheran Tradition. The Third Reformation? Charismatic Movements and the Lutheran Tradition (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1983).
5 Hans Schneider, German Radical Pietism (Landham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2007), 21.
6 Ibid, 22.
7 Ibid, 6.
9 The following is from 1691: “I respect what the Holy Ghost has said through Paul and with reference to a woman’s dutiful submission I do not claim to teach in God’s community. But this I know very well: that there is no difference between man and woman (Gal. 3:28), God’s grace cannot be dampened nor be suppressed … Therefore the Holy Ghost has given witness (through Joel 2:28 and Acts 2:17-18) that not only the sons but also the daughters of Israel may prophesy and that the Lord will pour out his Spirit not only over the male but also over his female servants. And Paul himself who has forbidden women to teach in the community attributes the gift of prophecy to both men and women in that very Epistle (1 Cor. 2:4-5). Since the Lord in his grace has given me the gift of such illumination from his spirit, I do know my humble place in that community, but I do also know that I have received the Lord’s gift not in order to hide it but in order to make the most of it, to apply it for his honor and to the benefit of my neighbor. And I know that no one who with God’s blessing holds a just opinion will accuse me of teaching. This I leave to the judgment of God’s community for examination.”(27). According to her own writings, Johanna was a spiritually awakened person who had visions and dreams. In her autobiography she tells of a dream with 24 paintings. The last one was of a man, woman and child, which she interpreted as the Trinity, using Hebrew to show that the Spirit as feminine: “I came before a door leading into a chamber with a great secret. But when I stood in front of this door, I had forgotten what to do so that the door would open, and I could see the secret in the room (in which there were a father, a mother and a son). Since I could not remember at all what I had seen in the picture, I became very sad and thought all troubles had been in vain. When I prayed with sighs to God, I remembered that I had seen a nightingale in the picture and that I learned from the picture to raise my voice like a nightingale. When I raised my voice louder and louder, the door opened and I felt very well … I have understood to a certain extent what the pictures meant and interpreted them: in the very same year the secret of the kingdom was revealed to my dear husband and to me, about which we had to suffer much and to descend deep into humility. With our confidence we had to ascend high to the Lord, who has stood by us in all our distress” (98). Johanna Eleonora Petersen eventually wrote fifteen to twenty volumes (15 according to her biographer and 20 according to her husband).
10 J.W. Petersen’s autobiography reported in 1719 that he had written 67 printed works and another 101 manuscripts.
15 See W. Reginald Ward, Protestant Evangelical Awakening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 182.
16 For example, compare this report from a remote mountain community in the parish of Bern to reports of the Silesian revival thirty years earlier: “Children there banded together to live a devout and loving life and seek Jesus. To this end they meet every morning and evening for prayer and singing. Some have an astonishing gift of prayer which cannot be observed without tears. They keep excellent order…the wildest children are becoming quiet refined lambs. No one has tried to persuade them into doing it, and they have such an impulse that they can scarcely wait for evening.” Sammlung auserlesener Materien zum Bau des Reiches Gottes 5 (1736) 1044-5, as quoted in Ward, Protestant Evangelical Awakening, 182.
17 Pia Schmid, “Die Kindererweckung in Herrnhut im Jahre 1727 ist eines der Ereignisse in der Geschichte der Brüdergemeinde, das jedes Jahr mit einem eigenen Fest begangen wurde und wird: das Chorfest der Kinder, besonders der Mädchen am 17. August.” and “Die Kindererweckung in Herrnhut am 17. August 1727,” in Neue Aspekte der Zinzendorf-Forschung. Arbeiten zur Geschichte des Pietismus, Bd. 47, ed. Martin Brecht and Paul Peucker (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2006), 115-133.
18 Anonymous. „Gründliche Nachrichten Von derer Evangelischen Schlesier Kinder Andacht/ Oder Denen/von denen Kindern in Schlesien/unter freyem Himmel/auf offenem Felde gehaltenen Bet=Stunden.“ (AFSt 121 A17). 2-4.
19 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, (2000, c1959) vol. 53, 52.
22 Gerhard Meyer, Gnadenfrei, (Hamburg: Ludwig Appel Verlag, 1943), 21–3.

Eric Jonas Swensson’s paper, “The Petersens and the Silesian Kinderbeten Revival,” was originally presented at the 2011 Society for Pentecostal Studies convention held in Memphis, Tennessee.


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Category: Church History, Pneuma Review, Summer 2012

About the Author: Eric Jonas Swensson is an author, blogger, historian, and social media director. He was a pastor for 17 years before resigning to go overseas on the trip that became the basis for his book, A Year in Tyr (2011). His dissertation has been published as Kinderbeten: The Origin, Unfolding, and Interpretations of the Silesian Children's Prayer Revival (Wipf & Stock, 2010). Google+

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