Pietism has roots in late 17th century German Lutheranism following the Protestant Reformation. The ongoing theological disputes that were dividing Christianity into competing factions prompted some Christians to emphasize the need for a heart-felt, less intellectually oriented (less "scholastic") faith. In this atmosphere, Pietism was born.
The emerging theological tradition of the Pietist movement was articulated in 1675 in a key treatise entitled Pia Desideria ("Pious Desires"), written by Philipp Jakob Spener. This treatise calls on Christians to live out the implications of Luther's reformation faith, advocating a living faith of deep personal feeling which Spener and his fellow Pietists felt was absent in most Protestant churches.
The Pietists emphasize:
- A truly reformed church, characterized by small group Bible studies and increased lay participation in various aspects of ministry
- Individual devotional lives revolving around Bible study and prayer
- The importance of right living, characterized by more than just thinking the right things about God by living in ways that demonstrate one's commitment to God
- The importance of a "heart-felt" faith, sometimes called the "new birth."
Pietists' concerns are similar to those of sixteenth-century Anabaptism, which also claimed the Protestant Reformation had not reformed the church as thoroughly as it needed to be reformed, but Pietism was malleable enough to be combined with other theological traditions besides Anabaptism. Jakob Spener, himself a Lutheran minister, believed his emphases meshed well with Lutheran theology. The English Puritans combined Pietist emphases with their Calvinist theology. Another Englishman, John Wesley, incorporated Pietist emphases into the eighteenth-century Methodist movement (see Wesleyanism).
The Brethren in Christ Church has its roots in the Pietist tradition. The denomination's founders were Lancaster County Mennonites who, around 1775, responded enthusiastically to itinerant preachers who were preaching a Pietist message. In that way, the beginnings of the Brethren in Christ Church can be seen as a marriage of Anabaptism and Pietism.
Almost all of the various Brethren assemblies and churches formed since the 18th century follow a Pietist theology.
Pietism discourages involvement in the public arena of civic and political action and reform, emphasizing that one's faith is to be kept solely a personal and private matter, unstained and apart from the concerns of the world, setting "your affection on things above, not on things on the earth." (Colossians 3:2) This is also the primary emphasis of the current liberal and atheistic American political view of the place of religion in the United States.