How Important Were Conventicles (Small Groups) in Early Pietism?

I started reading Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn’s new book Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition. I don’t know much about Pietism but I have read Philipp Jakob Spener’s (1640-1690) book Pia Desideria while I was in seminary. My church history professor, John Woodbridge, was quite a fan of the book.

Pietism is often maligned which is due, in part, to misunderstanding the movement. Albrecht Ritschl charged Spener with no less than 50 specific heresies. (p. 11) He charged Spener with being more Catholic than Protestant since he thought he “minimized grace and elevated works by aiming at spiritual perfection through performance.” (p. 13) Karl Barth had similar concerns. Barth was so critical of Pietism that he once wrote, “I would rather be in hell with the world church than in heaven with Pietism, be it of a lower or higher order, of an older or more modern observance.” (pp. 16-17) Olson and Winn think many of the criticisms are wide of the mark. Real Pietism does emphasize an individual dimension but is not inherently individualistic. They lean more in a synergistic rather than a monergistic direction but is not inherently Pelagian or semi-Pelagian and includes “an emphasis on the vertical dimension of the Christian life while not becoming otherworldly.” (p. 17) It is the heartbeat of this book to retrieve Pietism for the positive contributions that it can offer to the church.

One of the distinguishing features of the early Pietistic movement was the use of “conventicles.” This is simply a big word for small groups. Spener initiated the use of conventicles through the suggestion of Johann Jakob Schültz (1640-1690) and others. Their purpose was for “communal Bible reading, prayer and mutual support, and admonition.” (p. 39) Spener would take the purpose of these groups a step beyond their original purpose. Olson and Winn write, “the Pia Desideria signals a change in the original conception of conventicles. No longer would they simply be voluntary societies with some loose connection to the established church; now they would be cultivated by the clergy for the purpose of renewing church and society.” (p. 44) It is important to realize that these conventicles “were illegal in many parts of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Spener got around laws prohibiting them by keeping them under his oversight so that they did not float away from or become independent of the state church.” (pp. 11-12) Try as he might this oversight proved impossible with one wing of the early Pietist movement rejecting the state churches while some other radical Pietists rejected all formal, institutional churches. (pp. 11-12)

Here’s a description of the conventicles (sound familiar?):

“The leader offers a short address followed with a prayer. Then those gathered sing and a challenging passage of Scripture is read and introduced. Then the exercise of prophecy begins, with discussion concerning the Scripture text or especially important Christian truths, done concisely and clearly, in a way that is practical and not obscure. Anyone—meaning only the men, not women as among the Quakers—can speak and raise questions, ideas, objections, always keeping edification in view. Then follows a short summary and prayer (or silent prayer) and a blessing.” (p. 36)

Some will note right away the role, or lack or a role, for women in the groups. This omission “would lead to the formation of the Saalhof conventicler, led by Juliana Baur von Eyseneck and Johanna Eleonora von Merlau (Peterson). This group would eventually separate itself from the church—and some Reformed and Roman Catholic participants would also attend.” (p. 43)

Reclaiming Pietism is from Eerdmans. It is a paperback with 190 pages and sells for $18.00.

Roger E. Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, Texas. Among his many other books are The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction and Finding God in the Shack: Seeking Truth in a Story of Evil and Redemption.

Christian Collins Winn is professor of historical and systematic theology at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota. His other books include ‘Jesus the Victor!’ The Significance of the Blumhardts for the Theology of Karl Barth.

Here is a video of an interview with the authors.




About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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