The seventeenth century also saw the birth of Pietism. This began as a movement for the spiritual renewal of the German Lutheran churches. Its grandfather was Lutheran pastor Johann Arndt (1553–1621), whose influential treatise True Christianity, published in four volumes between 1605 and 1610, set forth eloquently the place of sanctification in the life of authentic faith.
Its impact spilled out well beyond the frontiers of Lutheranism. For instance, it became the favorite spiritual reading of the great Russian Orthodox bishop and saint Tikhon of Zadonsk (1724–83). Tikhon, in advising a young Russian on his religious reading, said of Arndt’s True Christianity: “Always, morning and night, study the Bible and Arndt; you should only skim other books.”
Arndt was the supreme influence on the father of Pietism, Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705), a Lutheran pastor serving at various points in Frankfurt, Dresden, and Berlin. From Arndt, Spener conceived a method for revitalizing German Lutheranism, which he felt had become unduly obsessed with head knowledge at the expense of the heart. He published his method in 1675 in the treatise Pia Desideria (Holy desires). Spener made six proposals for Lutheran renewal:
(1)The committed practice of Bible study by all church members, for example, in small discussion groups
(2)The active involvement of the laity in church life—there must be no one-man ministry
(3)An emphasis on the living practice of Christian love as more import-ant than a mere head knowledge of doctrine
(4)An emphasis on what unites Christians across denominational divides as against theological quarrels, for example, between Lutherans and Calvinists
(5)The reform of pastoral training so that spiritual formation of soul and character are the main focus, not the mere transmission of scholarship
(6)An emphasis on preaching as simple and edifying, not mere rehearsals of Lutheran orthodoxy with denunciations of all who disagree (Arndt would be a model of good preaching)
Soon Lutherans all over Germany were reading Pia Desideria. An instant best seller, it went through four editions over the next three decades and was translated into Latin for the international scholarly market. Some Lutherans condemned it as having a disparaging attitude to theology, overemphasizing the religious role of emotion, and being soft on Calvinists, but others, including Lutheran scholastics, commended the book. By the close of the seventeenth century, Pia Desideria had unloosed a river of Pietist influence that flowed not only in Germany but in Lutheran Scandinavia too, and which crossed religious barriers to find a friendly reception in Reformed Switzerland and the Reformed Dutch Republic.
The other great Pietist figure was August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), a disciple of Spener. He was principal of a new university at Halle, funded by Prince Frederick III of Brandenburg-Prussia (himself an admirer of Spener). The university was established specifically as a nursery of Pietism, combining academic pursuits with spiritual formation of students. Alongside his work in the university, Francke also founded orphanages and schools for street children and a Bible institute for printing and distributing Bibles and Christian literature at cheap prices. He also helped to make Pietist Lutheranism into the first effective force for Protestant missions outside Europe.
Francke himself possessed a sense of the necessity of world missions as an integral part of the coming of Christ’s kingdom. He did everything in his power to implant this conviction in his students at Halle. There remained, however, the practical problem of how to get missionaries into non-Christian countries and support them while they worked there. Roman Catholic missionaries had the vast overseas empires of Spain and Portugal to ferry them abroad and protect them. What could Protestants do?
The answer came in the shape of a Protestant king: Frederick IV of Denmark (1699–1730). Frederick had a German Pietist chaplain, Franz Julius Liitkins (1650–1712), who imparted to Frederick the Pietist enthusiasm for mission. The Danish king resolved to imitate the zeal of Catholic monarchs in promoting overseas evangelism. There was a Danish colony in Tranquebar, on the coast of southeast India, where the Danes ruled over native Indians whose religion was Hinduism. Frederick decided to send missionaries to work among these Hindu natives. Where would he find people prepared to surrender their lives to such a calling? He consulted Francke in Halle; Francke immediately recommended two of his students, Bartholomew Ziegenbalg (1682–1719) and Henry Plütschau (1676–1747). They accepted King Frederick’s offer, sailed at the close of 1705, and set foot in Tranquebar on July 9, 1706.
Ziegenbalg and Plütschau were the first Protestant missionaries to India. The Danish Pietist mission they founded at Tranquebar would have a 130-year history (1707–1837), during which fifty-four missionaries worked in the area. Since Ziegenbalg wrote regularly to his sponsors back in Europe, we know a lot about the early mission, its trials and triumphs. Certainly, it enjoyed significant success; when Ziegenbalg died in 1719, he and Plütschau had established a 350-strong Lutheran congregation in Tranquebar. Not all its members were Hindu converts (some were slaves of colonists, some were ex-Catholics), but many were.