Pietism was the source for much of the early religious vitality and diversity in Philadelphia. Between 1683 and 1800 thousands of Pietists crossed the Atlantic Ocean looking for a place where they could follow their conscience in religious matters. Pennsylvania became an attractive destination thanks to the goodwill fostered by William Penn’s missionary journey to Germany in 1677. Although Penn’s goal was to further the cause of the Quaker faith in German territories, the friendships he developed among Pietists yielded dividends for his new colony. Pietist beliefs were commonly found among German settlers who embraced the freedom to practice their religion according to their scruples. Pietism also spread throughout the region circulating among laypeople and clergy. Many American Protestant churches, especially evangelical churches, were influenced by the Pietist commitment to a heartfelt conversion experience that emphasized a dynamic and activist personal faith. Into the twenty-first century elements of Pietism remained in many of the beliefs and practices of churches throughout the Philadelphia region.

Depiction of August Hermann Francke, the creator of Pietism's major institutions.
This early eighteenth-century painting depicts August Hermann Francke (1663–1727), a professor at the University of Halle. Francke established the chief institutions of Pietism with his massive orphan houses, schools, and charitable works in Halle, Germany, known as the Halle Foundations. (Wikimedia Commons)

Originating from German-speaking Europe, Pietism was an international network of early modern laypeople and clergy who hoped to revitalize Christian devotion in the lives of ordinary people. Although the sources for Pietism were many and often disputed, the roots of the movement are found in the work of Johann Arndt, Martin Luther, English Puritans and other Calvinists, and even the mystical elements of the medieval Roman Catholic Church. Pietism emanated from the thought and work of two Germans, Philip Jacob Spener (1635-1705) and August Hermann Francke (1663-1727), who hoped to reform Protestant churches in late seventeenth-century Prussia. Spener, a preacher and theologian, wrote the principal text of Pietism, Pia Desideria (1675), while Francke, a professor at the University of Halle, established the chief institutions of Pietism with his massive orphan houses, schools, and charitable works in Halle, known as the Halle Foundations. Francke’s labors influenced Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-60), leader of the Moravians. Francke and the Moravians subsequently shaped the thought and practice of two Church of England clergymen, George Whitefield (1714-70) and John Wesley (1703-91), the founder of the Methodists, each of whom played an important role in the Great Awakening. The breadth of Pietist influence was not limited to these few individuals but included diverse practitioners of radical Pietism who brought an entrepreneurial ethos to the movement that empowered women and men through a dynamic and activist Christian faith.

Arising in the wake of the devastating social and cultural effects of the Thirty Years’ War in German lands, Pietism was a response to the Lutheran Church’s emphasis on doctrine and church governance that did little to connect theological ideas with everyday Christian living. The early Pietists responded to this moral and religious morass in the second half of the seventeenth century by encouraging an experiential religion that focused on an individual coming to faith in Christ through a heart-felt change, emphasizing the importance of the Bible for Christian belief, living out their faith through pious practices, and seeking to socially and morally reform the world. Pietists also believed that the Second Coming of Christ would be preceded by revivals that would restore the true church and lead to the conversion of peoples around the world. This focus on the end times, or eschatology, was rooted in fears about religious wars but also pointed to the hope for the eventual victory of Christ and the church over a fallen world. More radical Pietists engaged in a wide-range of practices from prophetic utterances to ascetic and communal living experiments. Radicals were also often advocates for equality among the sexes and races, which further alienated Pietists from the mainstream society. In the context of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Pietists’ religious and political opponents sharply rebuked them as social, religious, and political subversives and shunned their experience-based and emotional form of Christianity. Despite being embattled, Pietists continued to attract followers. Their emphasis on a reorientation of one’s personal life after salvation encouraged personal transformation through small group Bible study, ethical living, social activism, and supporting Christian missions and evangelism.

Pietists come to Pennsylvania

Pietism flourished in several German cities, including Frankfort am Main, Halle, Württemberg, Heidelberg, and Herrnhut, and immigrants from those areas directly influenced religion in and around Philadelphia. The persecution of Pietists by German state authorities encouraged their migration to North America. By 1682, Pietists in Frankfurt organized the Frankfurt Land Company to sell land purchased from William Penn (1644-1718) to German Pietists. Francis Daniel Pastorius (1651-c.1720), a Pietist business agent for the Frankfurt Land Company who later became a Quaker, helped establish Germantown in 1683. Promotional tracts written for Germans Pietists highlighted Pennsylvania as a land free from the immorality and decadence that religious separatists believed troubled Europe. After the invasion of German territories by the forces of the French king Louis XIV, many Pietists and religious dissenters escaped to Pennsylvania seeking peace and the freedom to follow their conscience in matters of faith.

Manuscript hymnal produced by Conrad Beissel.
The founder of the Ephrata Cloister, Conrad Beissel, became well known for his hymn writing and music composition. This image depicts a manuscript hymnal composed in 1746. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the radical Pietists who came to Pennsylvania held beliefs that reflected the transition from the magically-infused early modern world to the scientific rationality of the modern world. One such example was Johannes Kelpius (1673-1708), who arrived in Philadelphia around 1694 and was a member of a radical Pietist sect known as the “Chapter of Perfection” established by Johann Jakob Zimmermann (1642-93). Using numerology, prophecy, and a close reading of world events, Zimmermann believed that Jesus Christ would soon return. In anticipation of Christ’s arrival, he planned to travel with a group of mystically-minded monks to Pennsylvania to prepare for the momentous event. Zimmermann, however, died before he could see his vision fulfilled, and Kelpius took the helm of leadership and secured passage for the men to Philadelphia. Kelpius’s hermit community, often referred to as the Society of the Woman in the Wilderness based on Revelation 12:6, settled in the wilderness along Wissahickon Creek where they built a small tabernacle and waited for the Second Coming of Christ. Another radical Pietist who followed in Kelpius’s footsteps was Conrad Beissel (1691-1768). In 1732, he founded the community at Ephrata, also known as the “Camp of Solitaries.” By 1755, the community had reached the apex of membership with some three hundred to four hundred  residents in separate houses for men, women, and families. Ephrata was noted for its distinctive piety, art, music, dress, emphasis on celibacy, and communal living. Eventually, the community dwindled in size and reorganized as the German Seventh-Day Baptist Church in the early nineteenth century.

Another group of radical German Pietists in colonial Pennsylvania who were influential among early German immigrants were the Unitas Fratrum, more commonly known as the Moravians. They, along with other religious refugees, sought protection from Emperor Charles VI on the lands of Count Zinzendorf in Germany. Zinzendorf, a former student of Francke in Halle, gave the Moravians a Pietist vision for global missionary work and sent groups of Moravians to North America. The first Moravians migrated to Germantown, but later groups made their mark on Philadelphia and the surrounding region. They established settlements at Lititz, Nazareth, Emmaus, and Bethlehem, where they made a significant contribution to female education in the colony. They also brought their love of music with them to Pennsylvania and wrote sacred music, sang hymns and chants, and played in orchestras that brought them acclaim. Moravians were noted also for their evangelism, particularly among Native Americans and African slaves.

Pietists influence the development of American Lutheranism

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s Gravestone at the Augustus Lutheran Church.
Henry Melchior Muhlenberg lays buried in the Augustus Lutheran Church cemetery in Trappe, Pennsylvania, as depicted in this 2019 photograph. (Photograph by Darin D. Lenz)

By 1740, Pennsylvania had twenty-seven Lutheran churches, but due to a severe shortage of clergymen, only a few pastors could be found to lead them. To partially fill this void, German Pietist leader Gotthilf August Francke (1696-1769), son of August Hermann Francke, encouraged Henry Melchior Mühlenberg (1711-87) to travel to Philadelphia to provide leadership to Lutheran congregations. Arriving in 1742, Mühlenberg recognized the gravity of the situation and gave his complete devotion to his pastoral and ecclesiastical duties in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. He recorded his experiences in Hallesche Nachrichten, one of the most detailed accounts of everyday life in Pennsylvania from the colonial period. Mühlenberg organized the first Lutheran church body in the colonies, the Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of Pennsylvania, that oversaw the steady growth of Lutheran churches in the region. Pietism also influenced his belief in the power of education to reform society. He strove to found schools as an avenue for encouraging individual piety and civic mindedness. Due to his industrious educational and ecclesiastical efforts he is considered the “Father of American Lutheranism.”

Pietism was a late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century movement that was vitally important for the development of Protestant Christianity in Philadelphia and the surrounding region. Even though Pietism did not remain an essential aspect of American Lutheranism beyond the early nineteenth century, the influence of Pietist churches and the American revivalist tradition perpetuated traces of Pietism among adherents of Methodist and Holiness churches throughout the nineteenth century. During the twentieth century, Pentecostals and Charismatics, heirs of the Holiness movement, embodied a new incarnation of Pietist radicalism that harked back to the religious impulses found in early colonial Philadelphia.

Darin D. Lenz, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of History at Fresno Pacific University.

Copyright 2020, Rutgers University


August Hermann Francke

Wikimedia Commons

August Hermann Francke (1663–1727) was a religious leader who helped reform Protestant churches in late seventeenth-century Prussia. A professor of Oriental languages and theology at the University of Halle, he established the chief institutions of Pietism with his massive orphan houses, schools, and charitable works in Halle, Germany. These became known collectively as the Halle Foundations.

Though criticized by the Lutherans, Francke’s work ultimately influenced Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700–60), leader of the Moravian Church. The combined efforts of Francke and the Moravians shaped the thoughts and practices of two Church of England clergymen, George Whitefield (1714–70) and John Wesley (1703–91), both of whom played key roles in the Great Awakening. Around 1713, King Frederick William I of Prussia (1688–1740) bestowed favor on Francke, creating educational institutes like those founded in Halle.

Cave of Kelpius

Wikimedia Commons

Johannes Kelpius (1667–1708) brought his band of Pietist followers to the United States in 1694, with funding from London’s Quaker community. They settled in the woods between Germantown and Philadelphia, along the Wissahickon Creek, and practiced lives of celibacy and prayer. Known in Germantown as the Society of the Women in the Wilderness, they lived largely in isolation despite lending their legal and medical expertise to any locals who sought them out.

Under Kelpius’s leadership, they constructed a tabernacle and telescope to search the heavens for signs of Christ’s return. Their founder, Johann Jacob Zimmerman (1642–93), predicted the Second Coming would occur in 1694. After that year passed, the Cloister slowly broke apart as members left. A young Conrad Beissel (1691–1768), future founder of the Ephrata Cloister, visited the Society in 1720, before it collapsed completely in 1748 with the death of the then-leader Conrad Matthai (1678–1748). The Cave of Kelpius, depicted in this 2012 photograph, served as a residence for the Society. It still exists in the side of a hill in Wissahickon Valley Park, a section of Fairmont Park.

Ephrata Cloister Hymnal Page—Conrad Beissel

Wikimedia Commons

Conrad Beissel (1691–1768) founded the Ephrata Cloister in 1732 under the belief that one’s life should focus on preparing for the Second Coming of Christ and spiritual union with God. The Cloister expanded during the 1740s and 1750s, reaching about eighty celibate Brothers and Sisters. Most of their family members, known as Householders, lived on nearby farms. Celibate members followed a disciplined lifestyle in preparation for their spiritual union, only sleeping for a few hours every night and avoiding large meals. They clothed themselves in white robes and practiced a variety of crafts, ranging from farming to carpentry. Their most widely-known products included German calligraphic art, printed books, and hymns. This image depicts a manuscript hymnal composed in 1746, one of nearly 755 hymns produced during Beissel’s time at the Ephrata Cloister. The Cloister began declining around Beissel’s death in 1768, with the last celibate member passing away in 1813. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission took control of the property in 1941, conducting research and restoration projects alongside the non-profit Ephrata Cloister Associates.

Augustus Lutheran Church

Photograph by Dr. Darin D. Lenz

By 1717, a German settlement populated primarily by Lutherans developed along the Perkiomen Creek trail in what is now called Trappe, Pennsylvania. They worshipped under various preachers until Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–87) arrived in 1742. Over the following year, they constructed the Augustus Lutheran Church, popularly known as the Old Trappe Church. The first services were held in September 1743, with the official dedication taking place in October 1746. Construction on a second building, known as the Brick Church, began in May 1852 to accommodate the growing congregation. As the oldest unaltered Lutheran church building in the United States, the Old Trappe Church continues to service the local community. Church services occur throughout the summer, with frequent weddings and funerals.

Henry Melchior Muhlenberg’s Gravestone

Photograph by Dr. Darin D. Lenz

The oldest burials in the cemetery adjacent to the Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe, Pennsylvania, occurred in 1729, with the first legible tombstone dated to 1736. The Lutheran Church consecrated the ground in 1738. Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–87) and his wife Anna Marie Muhlenberg (1727–1802) lay buried outside the north wall of the Old Trappe Church. Their son, Major General Peter Muhlenberg (1746–1807) rests beside their marble tombstone. He served in the Continental Army, and latera followed in the clerical footsteps of his father. Other notable individuals buried there include former Governor of Pennsylvania Francis R. Shunk (1788–1848) and President of both the United Lutheran Church in America and the World Council of Churches Reverend Franklin Clark Fry (1900–68). The cemetery remains active, with burial plots available for purchase.

Zion Lutheran Church, Philadelphia

Library Company of Philadelphia

Many of the German immigrants entering the United States by the 1690s settled in the region surrounding Philadelphia, with German Lutheran congregations appearing soon after. For the first several decades of their existence, these congregations relied on itinerant pastors from the former colony of New Sweden. In 1742, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg (1711–87) arrived in the region and began preaching to German Lutherans in Philadelphia permanently. The congregation flourished under his leadership, requiring the construction of a new church building to house them. Built in 1766 and consecrated in 1769, the Zion Lutheran Church stood at the corner of Cherry and Fourth Streets. At the time, it was the largest church in the city and hosted George Washington’s memorial services in 1799. This lithograph depicts the building in 1829. In 1869, as the congregation continued to expand and the building became worn, they tore down the structure and constructed a new building at Franklin Square. The popular name for the Zion Lutheran Church, Old Zion, became the official name for the congregation.

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Time Periods



Related Reading

Bach, Jeff. Voices of the Turtledoves: The Sacred World of Ephrata. University Park:  Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.

Brown, Dale W. Understanding Pietism. rev. ed. Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Publishing House, 1996.

Bumsted, J.M., ed. The Great Awakening: The Beginnings of Evangelical Pietism in America. Waltham, Mass.: Blaisdell, 1970.

Erben, Patrick M. A Harmony of the Spirits: Translation and the Language of Community in Early Pennsylvania. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Fogleman, Aaron Spencer. Jesus is Female: Moravians and Radical Religion in Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Lehmann, Hartmut, Hermann Wellenreuther, and Renate Wilson, eds. In Search of Peace and Prosperity: New German Settlements in Eighteenth-Century Europe and America. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000.

Shantz, Douglas H. A Companion to German Pietism, 1600-1800. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2015.

Shantz, Douglas H. An Introduction to German Pietism: Protestant Renewal at the Dawn of Modern Europe. Baltimore, Md.:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

F. Ernest Stoeffler, ed., Continental Pietism and Early American Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1976.

Strom, Jonathan, Hartmut Lehmann, and James Van Horn Melton, eds. Pietism in Germany and North America 1680-1820. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009.

Ward, W. R. The Protestant Evangelical Awakening. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Related Collections

“Muhlenberg Family Papers, 1769-1866,” American Philosophical Society, 105 S. Fifth Street, Philadelphia

Research Collection, Ephrata Cloister, 632 West Main Street, Ephrata, Pa.

Hymnal of the Pietists of the Wissahickon and Letter Book of Conrad Beissel, Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine Street, Philadelphia.

Stephen Grellet Papers, 1701-1887; Johannes Kelpius Collection of German Hymns; and Abraham H. Cassel Collection, 1680-1893, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1300 Locust Street, Philadelphia.

St. George’s United Methodist Church Records, 1763-2014, St. George’s UMC, Archives and Museum, 235 N. Fourth Street, Philadelphia.

Collection of Church Registers from Various Moravian Churches in the Northern Province;  Collection of Travel Journals, 1740-1845; Papers of David Nitschmann (Bishop), 1728-1756;  Papers of Georg Neisser, 1735-1784; and Records of the Moravian Missions to the American Indians, The Moravian Archives, 41 W. Locust Street, Bethlehem, Pa.

Emmert and Esther Bittinger Research Collection and “Donald F. Durnbaugh Research Collection, Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College, One Alpha Drive, Elizabethtown, Pa.

Related Places

Arch Street Meeting House, 320 Arch Street, Philadelphia.

Augustus Lutheran Church, 717 West Main Street, Trappe, Pa.

Francis Daniel Pastorius Home, 25 High Street, Philadelphia.

Germantown Meeting House, Church of the Brethren, 6611 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia.

The “Cave of Kelpius,” 777 Hermit Lane, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.

George Whitefield Memorial Statue, 3650 Spruce Street, Ware College House, The Quadrangle, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Ephrata Cloister, 632 West Main Street, Ephrata, Pa.



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