Cover image for German Pietism and the Problem of Conversion By Jonathan Strom

German Pietism and the Problem of Conversion

Jonathan Strom


$96.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07934-9

$39.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07935-6

Available as an e-book

240 pages
6" × 9"
1 b&w illustration

Pietist, Moravian, and Anabaptist Studies

German Pietism and the Problem of Conversion

Jonathan Strom

Winner of the 2019 Dale W. Brown Book Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Anabaptist and Pietist Studies

“Church historians and historians of theology will appreciate Strom’s careful discussion of Bußkampf and the stages of conversion; historians of religion will revel in the complexities of Pietist belonging. . . . This brief review cannot do justice to this thought-provoking book.”


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August Hermann Francke described his conversion to Pietism in gripping terms that included intense spiritual struggle, weeping, falling to his knees, and a decisive moment in which his doubt suddenly disappeared and he was “overwhelmed as with a stream of joy.” His account came to exemplify Pietist conversion in the historical imagination around Pietism and religious awakening. Jonathan Strom’s new interpretation challenges the paradigmatic nature of Francke’s narrative and seeks to uncover the more varied, complex, and problematic character that conversion experiences posed for Pietists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Grounded in archival research, German Pietism and the Problem of Conversion traces the way that accounts of conversion developed and were disseminated among Pietists. Strom examines members’ relationship to the pious stories of the “last hours,” the growth of conversion narratives in popular Pietist periodicals, controversies over the Busskampf model of conversion, the Dargun revival movement, and the popular, if gruesome, genre of execution conversion narratives. Interrogating a wide variety of sources and examining nuance in the language used to define conversion throughout history, Strom explains how these experiences were received and why many Pietists had an uneasy relationship to conversions and the practice of narrating them.

A learned, insightful work by one of the world’s leading scholars of Pietism, this volume sheds new light on Pietist conversion and the development of piety and modern evangelical narratives of religious experience.

“Church historians and historians of theology will appreciate Strom’s careful discussion of Bußkampf and the stages of conversion; historians of religion will revel in the complexities of Pietist belonging. . . . This brief review cannot do justice to this thought-provoking book.”
“Jonathan Strom’s argument provides a level of nuance in understanding the nature of Pietist conversion and conversion narratives that has not previously been achieved. This book offers a sophisticated contribution to the field of Pietism studies, and it will appeal to scholars in the field, graduate students, and upper-level undergraduates.”
“Jonathan Strom’s manuscript is a landmark study that redirects our understanding of one of the key concepts of Pietist religion in a fundamental way.”

Jonathan Strom is Associate Dean of Faculty and Academic Affairs and Professor of Church History at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and the author of Pietism and Community in Europe and North America, 1650–1850.


List of Illustrations




I August Hermann Francke's Conversion

II Early Pietism and the Diverse Cultures of Conversion

III Conversion in Light of Death: von Schönberg and Henckel's Last Hours

IV The Busskampf and Conflicting Views of Conversion after Francke

V Pietist Periodicals and the Conversion Narrative

VI Conversion at Dargun

VII Execution Narratives and the Collapse of the Conversion Narrative

VIII Conclusion




From the Introduction

Religious conversion goes to the heart of the Pietist movement and exemplifies the value it placed on lived experience in the Christian faith. Conversion aimed to distinguish the true Christian from the lukewarm believer, the ardent follower of Christ from the nominal adherent. Yet, almost from the start, conversion experiences and their accounts were fraught with difficulty for Pietists. Questions about their authenticity, orthodoxy, and stability proliferated, as did attempts to control and even constrain the process and narration of conversion. Conversion plays such a prominent role in the historical imagination surrounding Pietism that it is tempting to see such experiences as a neat resolution that both provided confirmation and assurance to those who doubted their salvation and allowed Pietists to separate neatly the unconverted from the converted. Yet in practice, conversion and conversion narratives proved deeply problematic in eighteenth-century Germany, not only for Pietist leaders but also for everyday Christians. This book is an account of that uneasy history.Emerging in the second half of the seventeenth century, Pietism became the most important renewal movement within German Protestantism after the Reformation. Pietists sought to revitalize Christianity through renewed emphasis on the Christian life and innovative practices of devotion and community. Most Pietists chose to remain inside the existing Protestant churches and reform them from within, though some left and formed new communities of faith. Even at the height of the movement in the eighteenth century, Pietism never encompassed a majority of Protestants in any German territory or region, but the movement did leave profound marks on modern Protestantism. It shaped how people read the Bible, interpreted religious experiences, and judged authentic Christianity. And central to much Pietist discourse on the Christian life was discussion of conversion and related terms of regeneration and rebirth.We will deal predominantly with how Pietists described the experience of conversion. Accounts of conversion appeared quite late in German Protestantism, especially when compared with the English Puritan tradition. In part, this had doctrinal roots. Early German Protestantism, especially Lutheranism, understood conversion not as a discrete event in the believer’s life, but as a lifelong process tied closely to repentance, a view that tended to preclude narrative description until Pietists reframed the understanding of regeneration, repentance, and conversion at the end of the seventeenth century.The dramatic story of August Hermann Francke’s conversion in 1687 dominates descriptions of Pietist conversion and often stands as the paradigmatic case. In the turning point of his autobiographical account, Francke described how, amid many tears and atheistic doubts, he fell to his knees in intense spiritual travail and suddenly found himself transformed: “My doubt vanished as quickly as one turns one’s hand; I was assured in my heart of the grace of God in Christ Jesus and I knew God not only as God but as my Father. All sadness and unrest of my heart was taken away at once, and I was immediately overwhelmed as with a stream of joy so that with full joy I praised and gave honor to God who had shown me such great grace. I arose a completely different person from the one who had knelt down.” Yet, although no history of conversion narratives in Pietism can avoid dealing with Francke’s narrative—one of the most compelling from the early Pietist movement—it is unlikely that Francke’s experience was well known during his lifetime or indeed during much of the eighteenth century, and its current prominence in the historiography obscures other ways of describing conversion in Pietist periodicals and publications. These other narratives recounted experiences that occurred in places ranging from the gallows in Wernigerode to conventicles in Pomerania and had far greater currency in the eighteenth century than did Francke’s narrative. What do we mean by conversion in this early modern context? At its most basic, religious conversion refers to a profound turn or change in one’s life, a reorientation with regard to the world as well as to the divine. Language of conversion has deep roots in Christian scriptures and tradition. In the modern study of religion, especially after William James, it has become one of the central terms for exploring fundamental changes in a person’s affiliation and experience. Yet the semantic field of conversion is extraordinarily broad, and historians employ the term to describe a wide swath of religious changes and transformations that often have little apparent affinity.There are three overarching categories of conversion in early modern studies. First, conversion can refer to the change in religious identity from one tradition to another, as when a Jew is baptized and adopts Christianity, or when a Christian becomes Muslim. In the Middle Ages, this form of conversion could be a mass phenomenon, as rulers and missionaries induced entire communities to adopt Christianity, sometimes with the threat of force. By the early modern era, conversion in Europe had largely become synonymous with individual religious experiences, though the expansion of Western Christianity beyond Europe afforded new opportunities for group or mass conversion, at least in the Western imagination.Second, the Reformation in the sixteenth century and the ensuing division of Western Christendom created a new mode for religious conversion—the cross- confessional conversion. Here an individual could reject a previous Christian identity and affiliate with a new confessional group, as when a Lutheran became Roman Catholic or a Catholic was rebaptized and joined an Anabaptist community. Turning from one Christian confessional community to another often entailed dramatic social or political consequences for prominent figures as well as ordinary laypeople. Conversion in this sense almost never refers to changes among the major Protestant confessions, from Lutheran to Reformed, for instance, but rather signifies more fundamental changes in affiliations that contemporaries perceived as incompatible with one another.Third, conversion can represent an inward change of heart or powerful transformation in a nominal Christian, whose faith subsequently becomes qualitatively different. This type of conversion shared elements of the medieval understanding of the conversio in se, which signaled profound growth in interiority and spirituality, but such conversions could also manifest themselves in marked changes in morality and comportment in the life of a Christian that echoed a conversio vitae. Protestants obviously lacked the opportunity to enter religious orders, a decision that often signaled a conversio vitae in the Middle Ages. Puritan conversions, with their long- standing tradition of published narratives, are the best- known Protestant variety of this mode of conversion, and this is the form most often associated with Pietism. Yet German Pietists would have described all three modes as Bekehrungen (conversions).Modern scholars of religion have created typologies that can help historians categorize conversion in the early modern world. Lewis Rambo, for instance, identifies five types of religious conversion: (1) tradition transition, the move from one worldview, ritual system, or symbolic universe to another; (2) institutional transition, movement from one community to another within a tradition; (3) affiliation, in which one who has minimal or no commitment becomes involved with a community of faith or institution; (4) intensification, in which one who has a previous affiliation undergoes a revitalized commitment within this faith; and finally (5) apostasy or defection, the rejection of one religious tradition without the acceptance of another.Without great difficulty, Rambo’s typology can encompass the three aforementioned forms of conversion as tradition transition, institutional transition, and intensification. Given the compulsory nature of religious identity in the early modern period, the mode Rambo describes as affiliation would have little significance and could be incorporated as part of intensification. Historians rarely treat apostasy or defection as a form of conversion in the early modern period, but the rise of un-conversion narratives in the eighteenth century—such as the autobiography of Johann Christoph Edelmann, who described his rejection of Christianity in favor of reason as a form of conversion—suggests that Rambo’s last type may also have historical utility.Rambo recognizes the limitations of his typology for the modern context, and the difficulties for the historian are even greater. Categorization of conversion can depend largely on one’s point of view. Many Pietists would have rejected an interpretation of their personal conversion as merely a kind of intensification, instead seeing it as a fundamental move away from their former atheism and unbelief to true faith and complete rebirth, even though they remained in the same tradition and confession. Indeed, a trope in a number of Pietist conversion narratives was the rejection of a prior “atheism” in favor of true Christianity. For many Pietists, conversion from utter unbelief would have represented a transition as significant as that of a Jew baptized into Christianity. Likewise, both Protestants and Catholics viewed the conversion to or from Catholicism not as a matter of selecting a new institutional expression for their faith, but rather as a statement about the nature of true Christianity and interior conviction. For others in the early modern world, the gap between Protestant and Catholic ritual systems and their symbolic universes may have appeared as large as the gap many twenty-first- century observers perceive between distinct religions today. This does not invalidate the usefulness of a typology, but it does suggest that we should recognize their analytical limits and avoid reifying these as discrete types that have little to do with one another, at least in the eyes of historical subjects.Studies of early modern conversion often focus on one type of conversion to the exclusion of others. Even in collections on conversion broadly conceived, individual contributions tend to treat one specific form of conversion. In recent years, examinations of cross-confessional conversion in early modern Germany have been especially prominent. A major study by Duane Corpis, along with an extensive collection of essays edited by Ute Lotz- Heumann and others, have given this aspect of conversion detailed attention in the historiography on early modern Germany, though both explicitly exclude from their analysis the intensification form of conversion typical of Pietism. Jewish–Christian conversion in early modern Europe in both directions has received attention, but conversion among Pietists much less so.Dealing with a distinct variety of conversion has a methodological clarity that can yield strong conclusions, but the exclusion of the intensifi cation mode of conversion typical of Pietism is striking. In part, this reflects a linguistic division in contemporary German between Konversion and Bekehrung that does not exist in English. Th ere has been a semantic shift in the term Bekehrung since the early modern period, and today it carries connotations in German that “conversion” does not in English. Scholars frequently employ the term Konversion for the alternation between Protestant and Catholic adherence—and now increasingly between Judaism and Christianity—whereas they tend to reserve Bekehrung for the inward form of Christian transformation and intensifi cation of religious sensibility. There are, of course, confessional connotations to these terms, but Konversion appears in recent years to be gaining ground as the accepted term to cover all forms of conversion in a social-scientific context—apart from the Pietist variety. Historians of Christianity as well as Germanists continue to use Bekehrung to designate conversion within a Christian tradition, especially the tradition associated with Pietism, although some recent studies seem to use the two terms synonymously. It is telling, perhaps, of the conceptual fuzziness in Germany that some Protestant German pastoral theologians today are hesitant to apply Bekehrung to the process of inner- Christian transformation, identifying it as “tainted, trying, [and] diseased,” and preferring the ostensibly more neutral and less loaded term Konversion.[Excerpt ends here.]

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