Philipp Jakob Spener

The German theologian Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) tried to infuse a new spirit into the formal Lutheranism of the 17th century. He is consequently regarded as the father of the movement called Pietism, which resulted from his efforts.

Philipp Spener was born at Rappoltsweiler in Upper Alsace on Jan. 23, 1635. His first university experience began at Strassburg, where he studied history, philosophy, philology, and theology from 1651 to 1659. He then continued his studies at Basel, Tübingen, and Geneva. At Geneva he became familiar with Reformed teachings and, although a Lutheran, seems to have been much impressed with them. In 1663 he returned to Strassburg, where he was made an assistant preacher. Three years later he was called to Frankfurt am Main to become the senior pastor of the Lutheran church. In this position Spener attempted to raise the level of the religious life of the congregation by meaningful reforms. He strengthened Church discipline, emphasized training of the young and use of the catechism, and established the practice of confirmation.

In order to aid in the program of spiritual reformation, Spener arranged small gatherings of interested churchgoers in private houses for cultivation of Christian life by study of the Bible, prayer, and discussion of Sunday sermons. From the name of these groups, the collegia pietatis, is derived the name of this movement for the restoration of a spiritualized Christian faith—namely, Pietism. While in Frankfurt, Spener also provided the theoretical foundation for the Pietist movement in his book Pia desideria. In this work, published in 1675, he spelled out some measures which he considered important for the improvement of the life of the Church. These included use of prayer instead of arguments to settle religious differences, Bible study, improved education of theologians, more stress on a personal and practical Christianity, meaningful and practical sermons instead of learned declamations, and more control of the Church by the congregation instead of ministers and princes.

Spener's criticism of the established Lutheran Church led to much opposition from Church and state officials, who accused him of being untrue to Lutheran doctrines. As a result, in 1686, Spener accepted the invitation of the elector of Saxony to become the chief court chaplain at Dresden, then a very important position in German Lutheranism. Spener soon found himself in conflict with the clergy in Saxony, the theological faculties at Leipzig and Wittenberg, and the elector himself. Consequently, Spener gladly accepted an invitation to become provost of the Church of St. Nicholas in Berlin in 1691. Here he was soundly supported by Elector Frederick III of Brandenburg-Prussia and, as a result, exercised much influence over Church conditions. Because of his ascendancy, the new University of Halle, founded by the elector in 1694, became the cultural center of Pietism. Although his later years were marred by bitter controversies with his opponents, he continued to preach conscientiously until his death on Feb. 5, 1705.

Further Reading on Philipp Jakob Spener

A short but informative biographical sketch of Spener can be found in F. Ernest Stoeffler, The Rise of Evangelical Pietism (1965). The Pietistic movement in western Germany and Spener's relationship to it are discussed in Paulus Scharpff, History of Evangelism (trans. 1966). See also Gerald R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason, 1648-1789 (1960), and John P. Dolan, History of the Reformation (1964).

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