Pietism, or the Pietist movement, saw its origin in Jan Hus, the pre-Reformation preacher in the modern day Czech Republic, in the 1450s; more specifically, the movement originated in Germany in the seventeenth century within the Lutheran church with a group of Lutherans interested more in the working of the Spirit and a personal faith than the institutional type faith of the church at that time. Many such Lutherans stayed within Lutheranism; some of these “Pietists,” however, were disenchanted with the attitudes in the Lutheran church, and began their own churches, most of them involving the term “Brethren,” of which the Church of the Brethren is the oldest and one of the largest. John Wesley was influenced greatly by the Pietists, and many consider him to be a Pietist. These groups are known for a focus on individual faith with the workings of the Spirit and a very literal reading of New Testament practices, including foot washing and the holy kiss.
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The Moravian Brethren, called as such by the region of their origin, trace their history back to the 1450s with Jan Hus and his preaching. Otherwise, the Pietist movement has many members within the Lutheran churches, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century, some groups began to separate, starting with the Schwarzenau Brethren, now known as the Church of the Brethren, in 1708. The Old German Baptist Brethren separated from the Church of the Brethren in 1881 over the adaptations in dress and custom in the nineteenth century; in 1921, an even more conservative faction of the Old German Baptist Brethren split off, calling themselves the Old Order German Baptist Brethren.
On the other side of the Church of the Brethren, the “Progressive” Brethren split off in 1882 over the lack of adaptation to some of the innovations of the nineteenth century. They formed the Brethren Church (Ashland, Ohio), which would split again in 1939 with the formation of the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches. Finally, another smaller division occurred within the Church of the Brethren in 1926 with the departure of the Dunkard Brethren.
The Pietist movement also came to America. The Brethren in Christ Church formed on the basis of revivalistic preaching heavily influenced by Pietism and Anabaptism in Pennsylvania in the late eighteenth century. In 1767, some of those who were influential in establishing the Brethren in Christ Church diverged and formed the United Brethren. The United Brethren were split in the late 1860s by one George Hoffman, whose followers were known first as the “Hoffmanites” and later as the United Christian Church. In 1889, another division occurred in the United Brethren, with a portion of the more liberal members joining the Evangelical Church (another sect of German Pietists) to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church, which in 1968 joined the Methodists to form the United Methodist Church.
Meanwhile, many Swedish Lutherans who were caught up in the Pietist movement immigrated to the United States and formed the Evangelical Covenant Church and also what would become the Evangelical Free Church of America. These two groups tend to be more loosely Pietist.
Another group of note is the Mennonite Brethren Church, discussed in Anabaptism: Variants.
The Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) is sometimes considered part of the Pietism movement, having come out of the holiness emphasis of both Pietism and Wesleyanism.
One of the practices of note of the Pietist movement is foot washing, the practice of washing another’s feet as a sign of servitude. The Scriptures used to justify this are John 13:12-15 and 1 Timothy 5:9-10:
So when he had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and sat down again, he said unto them,
“Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me, Teacher, and, Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you.”
Let none be enrolled as a widow under threescore years old, having been the wife of one man, well reported of for good works; if she hath brought up children, if she hath used hospitality to strangers, if she hath washed the saints’ feet, if she hath relieved the afflicted, if she hath diligently followed every good work.
Do these mean that we must wash the feet of others? Not necessarily. We certainly do not condemn the Pietists for practicing foot washing, for there is clear Scripture showing that it can be performed. The practice itself is not mandated, however, and we can see this by understanding the words of Christ and Paul.
Christ is teaching His disciples the lesson of servitude in John 13:1-15. He takes the most extreme example, the washing of feet, which was generally considered a despicable work because it was one done by slaves. Foot washing was necessary because the ancients walked either barefoot or with hard sandals; either way, their feet were sure to be callused after any journey of distance. By washing the disciples’ feet and telling them to do the same, He teaches them that they ought to serve one another. This is brought out even more clearly by Paul in 1 Timothy 5:10, who uses foot washing as a qualification of a widow being placed on the “list.” It is interesting to note that Paul never says that she “served the saints;” he says that she has “washed the saints’ feet.” Paul clearly uses foot washing to represent her serving the saints, for it would make no sense for the widow to need to help the afflicted and show hospitality to strangers but nothing for the saints beyond mere foot washing!
Therefore, we can see that “foot washing” was a symbol for the practice of saints assisting one another. If one wishes to wash another’s feet today, he is surely able to do so. To interpret this practice so literally as to bind it as necessary for proper obedience to God, however, is not Biblically justifiable.
Pietists also practice the agape or “love feast,” a dinner before the Lord’s Supper. The evidence for this is Mark 14:22 and 1 Corinthians 11:20-21:
And as they were eating, he took bread, and when he had blessed, he brake it, and gave to them, and said,
“Take ye: this is my body.”
When therefore ye assemble yourselves together, it is not possible to eat the Lord’s supper: for in your eating each one taketh before other his own supper; and one is hungry, and another is drunken.
Do these verses justify a feast before the Lord’s Supper? The entirety of the Scriptures does not support this. It is true that Jesus most certainly partook of an evening meal (the Passover meal, in fact) before He instituted the Lord’s Supper; we see, however, that He only made commandment to observe the Lord’s Supper itself, as seen in Luke 22:19-20 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and gave to them, saying,
“This is My body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of Me.”
And the cup in like manner after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in My blood, even that which is poured out for you.”
For I received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which he was betrayed took bread; and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said,
“This is My body, which is for you: this do in remembrance of Me.”
In like manner also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in My blood: this do, as often as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink the cup, ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come.
We see, therefore, that the memorial instituted was the breaking of the bread and the dividing of the cup, not the meal that occurred beforehand. We can take this understanding to 1 Corinthians 11:20-21, which shows clearly that Paul is discussing the Lord’s Supper, for the Corinthians had not come together for the purpose of remembering the Lord as much as to eat and drink. Paul in fact says the following about eating of meals in 1 Corinthians 10:22:
What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and put them to shame that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.
The solution to the class divisions manifest in the eating of meals among the Corinthians, therefore, is not to eat such meals in the assembly, but to eat and drink at home. This demonstrates quite clearly that a meal before the Lord’s Supper is not justified.
The Holy Kiss
Pietists also observe the holy kiss, as seen in Romans 16:16:
Salute one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ salute you.
It is certainly justifiable if one wishes to greet one another in this fashion; to bind it on others, however, is Biblically unjustifiable. It was customary in ancient Roman and Greek society (and in many European and Asian societies today) to greet one another with kisses, and Paul here determines that the kiss must be “holy.” Our custom in America today is to shake hands or to give a slight hug, and by doing so we share with one another the same affection and warmth that was demonstrated in Roman times with a kiss.