Signs of the times: What spiritual and social renewal looked like to the Pietists in the early 1700s


The following is a “progress report” on the famous Pietist renewal. It was published an appendix to a 1716 book by Pietist church reformer August Hermann Francke, Pietas Hallensis. It may be interesting and instructive to ask: are these the sorts of signs of spiritual and social renewal that we would get excited about today? How are we doing in these areas?

Part I of the book itself is a brief account of the “rise, occasion, and progress” of the Halle complex. The complex, in Halle, Germany, was dedicated to renewing society through Christian services offered in a hospital, schools, a printing house, and much more–see this post for an account of Francke’s life and the Halle complex. It starts with descriptions of each part of the complex, then relates instances of financial miracles (unexpected gifts) by which these works were sustained once Francke had committed himself in faith to undertaking them.

You may have heard of the orphanage of 19th-century German minister George Muller, which inspired the “faith missions” of many 19th-century missionaries (that is, missionary works with no visible means of financial support, sustained by prayer and the free-will gifts of “friends”). Halle was Muller’s pattern and inspiration.

Part II of Pietas Hallensis includes many more accounts of individual gifts, in the years 1707 and 1708, including the texts of many touching letters enclosed. The report on the Pietist renewal reproduced below comes from an appendix to part II, titled “Signs of the times since 1688.” The book was printed in 1716, so the period reported on stretches across roughly 28 years.

Here is the report (with a few comments interjected by me); I read the book and made these notes in a 1994 seminar on the Pietists given by Richard Lovelace at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachussets:

Signs of the times since 1688

“Containing some of the most considerable heads of the work of Reformation, carried on in the Lutheran church, since the year 1688.  Gathered by some studious observers of the signs of the present time.”

1.  Catechetical exercises set up in many places

2.  The Bible, especially NT, printed in vast numbers and given away or sold cheaply

3.  Arndt’s True Christianity and ‘other tracts treating upon the more spiritual part of religion’ revived and read by many.  [The movement showing its lineage again here]

4.  Spiritual and Biblical conferences on more practical and ascetic [!!] subjects…in many universities, ‘for the improvement and reformation of scholars.’

5.  Private exercises of piety set up in many places for mutual edification, encouraged by some magistrates.

6.  New schools set up, old ones refined from ‘inveterate corruptions and profane customs.’  More kids taught.  [Close to the core here, and in the following 5 points]

7.  New teaching methods–more according to Christian principles (than ‘heathenish trash’!)

8-11.  General improvements in education.

12.  Abundance of spiritual hymns composed.

13.  Many writings of the Fathers translated into the vernacular ‘for the edification of the unlearned.’

14.  ‘the vast degeneracy of the modern churches’ increasingly compared to the ‘intrinsick beauty and brightness of the primitive church.’

15.  Church history revived in an impartial light. [In other words, see next point]

16.  History of heretics handled more impartially–and ‘some who had been blacklisted begin to look fair again, nay, even to be deemed as the brighter instances of piety in their Age.’

[This very significant.  Shows the incipient appreciation for the underdog that later blossoms in American individualism.  It also, of course, shows recognition of the truth that the establishment church has often suppressed the proper criticisms of truly pious men and women!]

17.  Many other writings published in ‘practical divinity.’

18.  ‘The Article of Justification, and its coherence with true Sanctification or Holiness of Life, hath been set in a clearer Light, and inculcated with greater Vigour than formerly.’

[THESIS:  Returning to a balance between treatments of Justification and Sanctification—from an orthodoxy in which the latter was largely ignored.]

19.  Many truths, once hidden, revived.

20.  Better translations into the vernacular of the Bible.  [A missionary spirit here, expressed locally as well as globally]

21.  Corruptions in church and state laid open to reform.

22.  False prophets, ecclesiastical preferments, exposed.

23.  Emptiness of many university professors exposed. [!]

24.  ‘The crabbed notions and airy distinctions of School-Divinity (scholasticism)…turn’d out of some colleges, and the sweetness and native beauty of Scriptural Divinity (practical, biblical theology) begun to be relished and admired again.’

25.  Heathen Philosophy (Aristotle’s ‘heathenish trash’) losing credit, replaced by ‘Christian’ philosophy.

26.  Study of the Bible and Exegetical conferences of Theology more and more preferred over the ‘Logical, Metaphysical, and Homiletical’ schools.

27.  Several of the unlearned have confounded the learned by ‘bearing witness to the Truth.’  [incipient anti-intellectualism?]

28.  ‘luxurious oratory’ in preaching increasingly shucked off, in favour of ‘a plainer method, derived from power and inward experience.’  [Amen]

29.  The practice of Christian Reproof revived (priesthood of believers)

30.  Heresy-hunting abating.

31.  Old errors and heresies left buried, newer ones refuted.

32.  Funeral sermons improved. [?]

33.  Remains of Popish superstitions purged.

34.  Liturgy reduced to its true boundaries.

35.  Poetry increasingly refined from heathenish fancies, to favour the gravity of a Christian style and temper.

36.  Students more closely disciplined and formed in a pious and virtuous life in some universities.  [Again, re-uniting faith and learning.  A common theme throughout Francke, it seems]

37.  Public sermons more ordered for general edification, including overviews, for example, of entire epistles.  [Not a bad idea…as long as the congregation can stomach it!]

38.  Catechizing children in the same manner.  [Again, OK as long as the kids have been prepared to properly process it, so it isn’t water off a duck’s back.]

39.  University degrees conferred with more care.

40.  Brotherly love among differing parties of religion hath begun to sprout forth.

41.  The uniting in one form or denomination of Christians of varying opinions ‘begins to be thought labour in vain.’  [Not sure I follow this.  Why is this a sign of renewal??]

42.  Missionary work begun

43.  The essentials recognized and preached more than the ‘accessory points of religion’  [Of course, this is very subjective.  One man’s essential is another’s frill.]

44.  Distinction between ‘the idol of heathenish morality’ and true Spiritual Christianity revived.

[When spiritually-discerned moral sensitivity devolves into casuistry, I’m not sure it hasn’t taken a step back towards the idol, however.]

45.  The Great Doctrines revived, and preached in more depth than before.

46.  Many divinity students converted!

[And probably a few ministers, if it’s anything like other times of renewal.  But perhaps that’s not politic to mention!]

47.  Preferments decreasing

48.  Several courts of Princes converted, transformed

49.  Officers and soldiers, ditto.

50.  Babes and sucklings, ditto.

51.  ‘The Powers of the Spirit have begun to appear in some in a manner more extraordinary and unusual.’  [Whoa baby, I wonder what this means!]

52.  Prayer-books and communion books abating in number, and people thinking more about their experience within, than the book without.  ‘Some have laid by the crutches, for fear of losing the use of their own limbs, by walking too constantly upon ’em.’  [Great image.]

53.  Spirit of prayer revived, particularly among young people.

54.  Many dying noble Christian deaths have ‘edified the survivors’ in so doing!

55.  Many unlawful trades dropped by their practicers out of a ‘principle of religion’ in favour of more honest jobs.

56.  Stage-plays and other ‘public nurseries of vice’ preached against.

57.  Marriages transacted in a more Christian manner

58.  Servants converted.

59.  Some speaking in a Godly way in the Courts of the land [My God, even the POLITICIANS have got religion!  Shades of Chuck Colson…]

60.  Some persecutors ‘overtaken by divine vengeance’ and made an example.

61.  More charity for the poor (with hospitals, etc. erected more often).

62.  These more often tending towards their TRUE end, ‘the conversion and salvation of souls.’

[VERY important.  I’m sure this TRUE end was obscured and finally lost with time, as it had been in education (and always will be, over time, it seems.  Witness Oberlin College, etc.)]

65.  Other evils of society preached against.

66.  Edifying books in foreign languages translated into German.

67.  Edifying books published by laymen.

68.  And gentlewomen.

69.  Apostolic methods returned to in choosing ministers.  [?—‘It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”?]

70.  Early-church descriptions of ministerial duties published.

72.  ‘Pretenders to sublime and uncommon operations of the Spirit’ detected and reduced to ‘moderation and soundness of mind.’  [See #51.  It seems some interesting stuff was going on…]

73.  Reason ‘begun to be degraded from that dictatorship she hath too much assumed in Spiritual affairs.’

[Now there’s a strong and not altogether unworthy statement.  Not necessarily anti-intellectual, simply aware of the proper proportion of reason and faith…]

74.  More public-spirited men have appeared than formerly.

75.  Zeal increasing for the church

76.  Large donations made to translate scriptures into foreign languages.

77.  Chaplains furnished to some regiments.

78.  Correspondences undertaken to promote reformation ‘in diverse nations.’

79.  ‘Several wits of the age have bow’d to the Gospel, and are become Fools for Christ’s sake.’

[A common theme in the early Billy Graham crusades, where the erstwhile ‘wits’ (entertainers, magnates, politicians, etc.) are brought up to the platform (and seeded to the media) to give a brief testimony.]

80.  Princes and persons of quality moved to great acts of charity, for example supporting the missionaries in Malabar with large and unexpected contributions.

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