In my last column I introduced Philipp Jacob Spener, one of the continental pillars of Pietism, a world-wide Protestant renewal movement during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Pietism sought to rouse sleeping congregations from ecclesiastical slumber by turning head religion into a lived experience and by nurturing spiritual life in intimate, living faith communities.
Spener’s program, as expressed in his book Pia Desideria, also offered revived value and dignity to lay people in the church.
August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) of Halle in Saxony (Germany) provided institutional stability and continuity for the Pietist movement through educational, missionary and benevolent institutions.
The theology professor and administrator established schools, created a model orphanage and started global Protestant missions by sending evangelists to India.
The links of Halle Pietism eventually reached so far and wide that in 1769 a Newfoundland merchant from Carbonear wrote to Halle to secure a minister in the wake of the Conception Bay revival.
Francke built his institutions after a personal quest for religious certainty. His struggle for faith resulted in his conversion to a vibrant, joyful Christian life.
Francke’s powerful conversion experience later became a model for conversions elsewhere, and its language of a “flow of joy” is also found in the pious evangelical founder of Newfoundland Methodism, the Reverend Laurence Coughlan.
Francke’s conversion story, as told in his autobiography, presents a modern individual in search of religious certainty.
After finishing his MA, the young theologian confronted great doubts that touched the core of his faith. Asked to preach a sermon, Francke found that he lacked the necessary conviction, precipitating a personal crisis.
He began to question “whether Scripture is God’s word.”
As a person living in the age of Enlightenment, he also faced the challenge of religious relativism and the validity of other religions and their holy books.
Francke’s doubts became so intense that he called into question everything he had studied in the preceding eight years.
The existence of God became for him a real, personal problem. “For I no longer believed even in a God in heaven” and “that I could rely on neither God’s nor any human word.”
In the depths of that struggle, Francke experienced the liberating grace of God through a sudden conversion and found unshakeable religious certainty.
At the height of his religious anguish, Francke fell on his knees and prayed “to the God, whom I did not yet know, nor believed in salvation from such a miserable state, if there were indeed truly a God.”
He received an immediate answer that overcame all of his doubts. “Just as one turns a hand,” Francke later recalled, “so all of my doubts vanished. I was assured in my heart of God’s grace in Christ Jesus.”
God was for the theologian no longer a thought or intellectual belief but a person who cared and with whom he could have a close, familial relationship. “I was able,” wrote Francke, “not only to call God ‘God,’ but also my father.”
As in Wesley’s Aldersgate experience or with the unnamed woman who in 1804 began a revival among the Inuit of Hopedale, so also here, faith, for the changed individual, was no longer a convention or belief but a core existential fact and experience.
Although this account of Francke’s sudden conversion became a model for many evangelicals thereafter, Francke did not believe that a vital faith could only be acquired through such sudden change.
“So great was his fatherly love, that he did not want to take away gradually such doubt and unrest of the heart,” wrote Francke, “but that I would be the more convinced and my lost reason would be bridled, so that I would not object to his power and faithfulness, thus he answered my prayers suddenly.”
While Francke felt that a radical change and a decisive, conscious faith commitment were required of all true Christians, his biographer Erich Beyreuther thought that Francke’s situation and the intensity of his doubt demanded such a dramatic and instantaneous intervention but should not be required of all believers, who could also experience a more gradual transformation.
Francke’s religious change brought personal and social consequences. Francke experienced a profound “flow of joy” that banished his sadness and unrest in an instant.
“In great anguish and doubt I had bent my knees,” Francke testified, “but I got up again with inexpressible joy and great certainty.”
In the next column I hope to recount some of the wider consequences that the Pietist renewal movement had globally and in particular for the Methodists, Congregationalists, and Moravians of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Hans Rollmann is professor of religious studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org