by Rev. Stephen Preus

If the Reformation is compared to a vine, the work of men like Johannes Bugenhagen may be likened to a trellis. Bugenhagen was a reformer without whom much evangelical fruit would have withered. Most know him as pastor of the city church in Wittenberg, and therefore Martin Luther’s pastor, but he wore many other hats. Most significant was his role in implementing the Reformation in several areas. As a young man he developed a reputation as one with great organizational and administrative skills. These talents God used to propagate the Reformation doctrine and put it into practice.

Bugenhagen (called Pomeranus) was born on June 24, 1485 in Wollin, Pomerania. His childhood was a pious one. “I loved Holy Scripture from youth on,”[1] he reflected. Not much more is known of his childhood. He attended the University of Greifswald and learned Latin so well that he later impressed even the Latin scholar Philip Melanchthon, who referred to him by the nickname grammaticus (grammarian).[2] Quite gifted, at the age of nineteen he was appointed rector of the city school in Treptow. As his reputation grew so did his interest in the study of Scripture and Christian authors. In 1509, having become a popular lecturer on many books of the Bible, Bugenhagen was ordained a priest.

The year 1517 was a momentous year, being the year that Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses. At this time Bugenhagen also believed reform was necessary, especially educational reform. Yet while he stressed the centrality of the Scriptures, his reform efforts were merely ethical in nature, influenced by Erasmus and humanism. Not until 1520 was he “converted,”[3] and this was not seamless. Receiving a copy of Luther’s Babylonian Captivity of the Church, he was asked to review it. His response was not exactly favorable. “There have been many heretics since Christ’s death,” he said, “But no greater heretic has ever lived than the one who has written this book.”[4] However, having examined Luther’s work more carefully he completely changed his position, telling his friends, “What shall I say to you? The whole world lies in complete blindness, but this man alone sees the truth.”[5] Correspondence with Luther ensued, Luther sending him his treatise Freedom of a Christian to help guide his Christian life and thinking.

Through Luther’s writings Bugenhagen’s zeal for the evangelical faith ignited. He moved to Wittenberg in 1521. Unfortunately, his education with the great reformer was delayed since shortly after he arrived Luther was whisked off to the Diet of Worms and spent a year in the Wartburg. During that year Bugenhagen was at first a student at the University of Wittenberg, but quickly became faculty at the behest of Melanchthon after his private lectures on the Psalms became popular, lectures that were, along with others, widely published.[6] Bugenhagen was also opposed to the radical reformers in Wittenberg during Luther’s absence who had gone so far as to say that formal education was unnecessary because the Holy Spirit would give direct knowledge instead. “Both Melanchthon and Luther appreciated Bugenhagen’s constructive role in this early crisis of the Wittenberg Reformation.”[7]

Bugenhagen was a staunch defender of the marriage of priests and was the first of the priests in Wittenberg to undergo nuptials. He and his wife, Walpurga, were married in 1522. With children coming and responsibilities growing, income became an issue. In 1523, however, the pastor at St. Mary’s, the city church in Wittenberg, died. Bugenhagen was elected pastor in his place and remained so for over three decades.

While continuing his lectures at the university, Bugenhagen was a faithful pastor. He was Luther’s pastor, which meant he cared for Luther during the most trying of times. One such occasion was after Bugenhagen had signed the Augsburg Confession and the Apology, along with Luther’s Smalcald Articles in 1537. Luther had gotten so sick that he feared death. Bugenhagen accompanied him home, caring for his soul with the Gospel of Jesus Christ he so faithfully defended. Of course Bugenhagen was also subject to Luther’s criticisms, some of which were quite comical. Speaking of Bugenhagen’s long sermons, Luther wrote: “Every high priest should have his private sacrifices. Accordingly Pomeranus sacrifices his hearers with his long sermons, for we are his victims. And today he sacrificed us in a singular manner.”[8]

The two influenced each other as friends and theologians. Bugenhagen married Luther to his wife Katharina in 1525. Along with Luther he was a constant champion of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper against Zwingli. In fact, he was the first in Wittenberg to criticize the Swiss reformer’s real absence[9] of Christ’s body and blood. He also participated in talks with Luther that led to the Wittenberg Concord in 1536. His work on getting Luther’s translation of the New Testament into Low German was done so quickly that it beat Luther’s own translation to the printers! As Luther’s pastor Bugenhagen also preached his funeral sermon. His opening words tell you much about their relationship:

Dear friends, I am now supposed to preach a sermon at the funeral of our beloved father, blessed Dr. Martin, and gladly do so. However, what should I say and how shall I speak since I probably will not be able to utter a word because of my crying? And who shall comfort you if I, your pastor and preacher, cannot speak? Where can I turn from you? I will, no doubt, cause more crying and mourning with my sermon, for how should we not all mourn sincerely since God has sent us this sorrow and has taken from us the noble and dear man, the venerable Dr. Martin Luther?[10]

In this same sermon Bugenhagen refers to Luther as the angel from Revelation 14 who proclaimed the Law and Gospel “through which all of Scripture is unlocked and Christ, our righteousness and eternal life, is recognized.”[11]

Bugenhagen’s most noteworthy contribution was the organizational work he accomplished for many Lutheran communities. Not only did he help Luther prepare for the Saxon visitations of 1528, he was also called away from Wittenberg several times to help organize the Reformation in various cities. Bugenhagen was a busy reformer with stays in Braunschweig, Hamburg, Lübeck, his homeland of Pomerania, Denmark, Schleswig-Holstein, Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, and Hildesheim. His primary duty in these places was to act as a church administrator, writing and establishing church orders that would govern the church and civil life in Lutheran territories. These church orders demonstrate Bugenhagen’s care for the education of children with Latin schools, his steadfast care for the poor with “poor chests,” as well as his desire for reverence in the liturgy and reform of the clergy. His fame as a church administrator was so great that he was offered several bishoprics (all of which he turned down, though he did accept a superintendent position in 1533). His influence and popularity perhaps reached its pinnacle when he was asked to crown Christian III prince in Denmark, a duty he performed much to the joy of Luther.

Bugenhagen’s influence was great in many ways, and while the final years of his life were spent in controversy, as he spoke well of his friend Melanchthon while also trying to stay faithful to Luther’s doctrine, he is remembered as a steadfast friend of the Reformation. On April 20, 1558 Bugenhagen died in Wittenberg. His body is buried under the altar at St. Mary’s and awaits the glorious day of resurrection.

The Rev. Stephen K. Preus is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Vinton, Iowa

[1] Quoted in Kurt K. Hendel, Johannes Bugenhagen: Selected Writings, Volume I, 3.

[2] Ibid., 6.

[3] Bugenhagen later reflected on his days before Luther: “…how eagerly I wanted to be a Christian then, but it was still the time of error.” Ibid., 13.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] Ibid., 17.

[6] Ibid., 19. “His faculty status was officially recognized in 1533.” It was at that time Bugenhagen received his doctorate.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 54: Table Talk. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 54, p. 179). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

[9] Zwingli taught that Jesus’ body and blood were not in fact present in the Lord’s Supper since they were present instead at the right hand of God the Father. He denied Jesus’ body and blood could be present in more than one place at the same time.

[10] Johannes Bugenhagen Selected Writings Volume I,112.

[11] Ibid., 114.