Spener was born in Ribeauvillé in Upper Alsace (now part of France, at the time part of the Holy Roman Empire). After a brief time at the grammar school of Colmar, he went to Strasbourg in 1651, where he devoted himself to the study of philology, history and philosophy, and won his degree of master (1653) by a disputation against the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. He then became private tutor to the princes Christian and Charles of the Electorate of the Palatinate, and lectured in the university on philology and history. From 1659 to 1662 he visited the universities of Basel, Tübingen and Geneva, and commenced the study of heraldry, which he pursued throughout his life. In Geneva especially his religious views and tendencies were turned in the direction of mysticism.
Spener returned to Strasbourg in 1663, where he was appointed preacher without pastoral duties, with the right of holding lectures. Three years afterwards he was invited to become the chief pastor in the Lutheran Church at Frankfurt. Here he published his two chief works, Pia desideria (1675) and Allgemeine Gottesgelehrtheit (1680), and began that form of pastoral work which resulted in the movement called Pietism. In 1686 he accepted the invitation to the first court chaplaincy at Dresden. But the Elector John George III, at whose personal desire the post had been offered to him, was soon offended when Spener condemned the morals of John George's court. Spener refused to resign his post, and the Saxon government hesitated to dismiss him. But in 1691 the Saxon representative at Berlin induced the court of Brandenburg to offer him the rectorship of St Nicholas in Berlin with the title of counsellor of the Marcher Consistory (Konsistorialrat).
In Berlin Spener was held in high honour, though the tendencies of the court and the government officials were rather rationalistic than pietistic. The University of Halle was founded under his influence in 1694. All his lifelong Spener had been exposed to the attacks and abuse of the orthodox Lutheran theologians; with the years, his opponents multiplied, and the movement which he had inaugurated increasingly served as a subject for hostile criticism. In 1695 the theological faculty of Wittenberg formally laid to his charge 264 errors, and only his death released him from these fierce conflicts. His last important work was Theologische Bedenken (1700–1702), to which was added after his death Letzte theologische Bedenken, with a biography of Spener by CH von Canstein (1711).
Highly influenced by Johann Arndt, Lewis Bayly, Jean de Labadie, and Theophil Großgebauer, Spener’s own writings display an emphasis on personal transformation through spiritual rebirth and renewal. It is this focus on individual devotion and piety that places him within the realm of Pietism. Spener wanted to strengthen and renew the church through the development of more knowledgeable and devoted members. In his Pia Desideria, he gave six proposals of how to enact this reform: (1) to more thoroughly acquaint believers with scripture by means of private readings and study groups in addition to preaching; (2) to increase the involvement of laity in all functions of the church; (3) to emphasize that believers put into practice their faith and knowledge of God; (4) to approach religious discussions with humility and love, avoiding controversy whenever possible; (5) to ensure that pastors are both well-educated and pious; and (6) to focus preaching on developing faith in ordinary believers. As these proposals indicate, Spener saw positive change for the church as dependent primarily upon the pious involvement of individual believers.
Though Spener has been called the "father of Pietism," Albrecht Ritschl (Geschichte des Pietismus, ii. 163) maintains that "he was himself not a Pietist," as he did not advocate the quietistic, legalistic and semi-separatist practices of Pietism, though they were more or less involved in the positions he assumed or the practices which he encouraged or connived at. The only two points on which he departed from the orthodox Lutheran faith of his day were the requirement of regeneration as the sine qua non of the true theologian, and the expectation of the conversion of the Jews and the fall of Papacy as the prelude of the triumph of the church. He did not, like the later Pietists, insist on the necessity of a conscious crisis of conversion, nor did he encourage a complete breach between the Christian and the secular life. Spener was one of the godfathers of Count von Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravian Brethren's Community at Herrnhut in Saxony.
Spener was a prolific writer. The list of his published works comprises 7 vols. folio, 63 quarto, 7 octavo, 46 duodecimo; an edition of his chief writings was published by P. Grunberg in 1889. TVG Brunnen Verlag in Gießen, Germany began a new edition of Spener's works in 1996.
- Christopher Clark: "Iron Kingdom", 2006. p 125
- Howard C. Kee et al., Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), 344-45.
- Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1964), 87-122.
- Howard C. Kee et al., Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), 345.
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Spener, Philipp Jakob". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.