In the context of the history of civilization, the idea of an inner, personal spirituality is a fairly new thing. For many thousands of years, religion and religious events existed in the public realm, guided by priests and other religious leaders. This was true long before Christianity arose, for example in the religious of ancient Egypt and Greece. Even in the so-called mystical religions of the east, including Hinduism and Buddhism, private spirituality the way we understand it today did not exist. It is true that Buddhist monks engage in many long hours of silent meditation, but this is often a communal activity that takes place in a monastery under the guidance of a practiced teacher. Although hermetic monks and religious ascetics have existed throughout history, they were rare exceptions to the tradition of public worship.
Luther's 95 Theses
Private spirituality in which individuals can explore notions of divinity, prayer, and worship on their own without the help of an organized religious ceremony or a religious authority, had its beginnings in the Protestant Reformation, which began in Europe in the early 16th century. The event that is commonly cited as the beginning of the Reformation is Martin Luther's 1517 declaration, 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. This document directly protested the activities of the Catholic church and questioned the authority of the Pope and the priesthood. Luther's dissent led to the formation of a Protestant sect of Christianity, called Lutheranism.
Following Martin Luther's ideas, Lutherans believe that the act of prayer allows the faithful to engage in direct contact and spiritual dialog with God. This view eliminates the necessity for church leaders to act as intermediaries between worshippers and God. Another central tenet of Lutheranism is that any individual who can read the Bible can understand and interpret its message, so the Pope does not have ultimate authority over the interpretation of holy texts. Although Lutheranism was and is still an organized religion, the ideas it introduced led directly to the notion of private spirituality.
A Personal Connection with God
On the Lutheran view, anyone can communicate with God through prayer and reading the Bible. From this idea, it is only a short step to the idea that it isn't necessary to attend church in order to have a meaningful relationship with God. This allows people to explore spirituality on their own time, in their own homes, and in whatever way suits them best. The open form of spirituality that is so popular today, which is embodied in various practices, including some borrowed from Christianity and others borrowed from eastern religions, is directly descended from the personal religious freedom Luther and his followers wanted for everyday people.
Deism and Natural Theology
A few other movements in the history of religion were instrumental in paving the way for the acceptance of personal spirituality that we enjoy today. In Europe, the Renaissance and, later, the Scientific Revolution gave rise to a more secular society in which daily life did not revolve around religion to the extent that it previously had. In this context, the philosophy of deism was created. Deism is not a religion and bears many similarities to the private spirituality of today. By the middle of the 1600s, essayists, scientists, and philosophers, including Isaac Newton and John Locke, were advocating for a non-specific spiritual approach due to the perceived weaknesses of Christian theology. Such thinkers preferred a naturalistic approach to God, believing that the natural world was more important evidence of divinity than so-called sacred texts.
The Rise of "Spirituality"
In the United States, deism was popular among the Founding Fathers and influenced their decision to separate government and religion in structuring the nation after the Revolutionary War. Indeed, the United States has a robust tradition of personal spirituality, including, prominently, the Transcendentalist thinkers of the 19th century. The writer Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of the first to distinguish between religion and spirituality, which have remained, at least in the United States, distinct ever since. Spirituality is a relatively new idea, but although many Americans still practice organized religion in public ways, the idea that spirituality can be a private, personal journey, whether among those who are churchgoers or among those who are not, is an important tradition in U.S. history.