Prophets, Patrons, Preachers:
Pietist Women at the Dawn of the Enlightenment

Lucinda Martin

My project focuses on Pietist women as the innovators behind the Pietist movement, not only as a German phenomenon, but rather as part of a larger European discourse about the role that religion should take in human affairs. The Pietist movement began in the wake of the Thirty Years War and continued throughout the eighteenth century and the German Enlightenment. Although the movement is widely recognized as the most important movement in Christianity since the Protestant Reformation, as well as one of the most important discourses of the eighteenth century, older scholarship concentrated on Pietism as a strictly German, mainly Lutheran, exclusively male movement. This narrow scope of inquiry has resulted in a neglect of the social issues with which my study is concerned – that is, the intersection of gender, power, and religion in Europe in the Age of the Enlightenment.

To add a new dimension to the evolving discussion on the Enlightenment, I trace a group of women religious activists, who supported one another, often across national and confessional boundaries. They enacted the short step from the Pietists' privileging of personal religious experience (over Scripture or church doctrine) to the Enlightenment's emphasis on the authority of the individual in other realms. The women activists' notions of 'spiritual equality' ultimately contributed to (and sometimes conflicted with) male Enlighteners' understandings of 'political equality'. The Pietist stress on 'ecumenicity', for example, represents one form of Enlightenment freedom, what Goethe would later refer to as 'Wahlverwandschaften', elective, rather than forced affinities. What has been overlooked is the fact, familiar at the time, that women religious figures, many of whom were wealthy, both supported the Pietist movement financially and contributed to its doctrine. Indeed, contemporaneous critics like Louise Gottsched in her 'Pietisterey im Fischbeinrocke, oder die doktormäßige Frau', lampooned Pietism as a "women's movement." Yet today, the writings of female Pietists have languished unstudied and often unpublished. My study takes up the challenge of defining what kind of religious and cultural forces these women exercised.

The study thus places women's activism in Pietism in the context of social changes in the period, including the first steps toward modern capitalism and a weakening of the estate system that ranked people generally as either peasants, burghers, or nobility. This caste-like system not only placed people in strict socio-economic strata, but determined nearly every aspect of life in the era. Going beyond the bounds of one's inherited social rank was not just inappropriate, it actually constituted immoral, often illegal, behavior. Through the medium of dissenting religion, Pietists challenged such oppressive hierarchies and coped with turbulent economic and social changes. I contend that Pietism contributed to the Enlightenment and in fact offered women and the non-elite in general opportunities that far surpassed the efforts of the Enlightenment, which concentrated mainly on more freedoms for middle-class males of the burgher estates.

The study thus raises important questions about the relationship between Pietism and Enlightenment. In exploring women's roles in Pietism, the book simultaneously uncovers their contributions to the early development of democracy in Europe. Women Pietists challenged existing social and gender hierarchies to set in motion many of the most important public discussions of the time – especially the era's debates about the intellectual, artistic, and spiritual authority of individuals within the community and the state.