Shepherd of the Churches

Bullinger’s importance for the English Reformation

     Perhaps no Reformer has been so neglected in modern times as Henry Bullinger, though he produced far more sound Christian writings than Luther, Calvin and Zwingli combined. An average of four editions of his works per year were printed in Switzerland alone for a hundred years and over fifty printers in other European countries were turning out countless editions. Reformers such as Miles Coverdale translated Bullinger into English from the 1530s on. Bullinger’s books were internationally treasured because they were said to be free of Calvin’s obscurity and Musculus’ scholastical subtlety and packed much sound, perspicuous doctrine into comparatively little space, making them interesting to read and easy to remember.

     In 1586 Archbishop, John Whitgift, published his Orders for the better increase of learning in the inferior Ministers, ordering all ministerial candidates who lacked a theological education to procure a Bible, a copy of Bullinger’s theological handbook The Decades, which contained five books of ten doctrinal dissertations each, and a note book. They should read a chapter of the Bible every day, making notes of what they learnt. Then a book of the Decades should be read each week, with appropriate notes taken. Once a quarter, the candidates should meet with a tutor to discuss their reading and receive further instruction. Such private study was necessary in the Elizabethan period, as Mary’s evil reign had rid the Church of many of her teachers.

Singing for his supper

     Henry Bullinger, the youngest of seven children, was born in the Swiss town of Bremgarten on 18th July, 1504. His parents Heinrich Bullinger and Anna Wiederkehr shared a common law marriage. Heinrich, the parish priest, had been chosen by his congregation irrespective of the wishes of the church hierarchy.

     In May, 1509, young Henry was enrolled at the town’s Latin school two years earlier than usual because of his obvious abilities. His education was confined to writing Latin compositions and liturgical singing. At the age of twelve, Henry was sent to Emmerich in Germany to further his education. Heinrich told his youngest child that his accommodation and clothing would be provided for but he would have to beg for food so that he might learn to understand the poor. As Henry had a good, trained voice, like Tommy Tucker, he literally ‘sang for his supper’ for the next three years. At Emmerich Henry was encouraged to become a Carthusian monk.

     When scarcely fifteen, Bullinger entered Cologne University. Germany’s largest city, Cologne, called ‘The German Rome’, was the centre of papist power. Here, behind the Cathedral High Altar, resided the supposed bones of the Three Wise Men in a golden casket, so the inhabitants felt that their city was heaven on earth. Cologne was run by the clergy and many of the monks’ orders were established there. The German mystics under Master Eckart and Johannes Tauler had settled in large numbers in Cologne and also Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas. Here, too, John Duns Scotus had breathed his last and was buried. This explains the mystical features in Cologne’s religion and the strife that went on between Aquinians who claimed that religion was a matter of logic and Scotians who made religion a product of the will.

Finding the truth in Jesus

     Cologne was the only university in Germany to burn Luther’s writings but even there, Reformed men were teaching that religion is neither a matter of man’s logic nor man’s will but of God’s will revealed in Scripture. Erasmus initially used his influence to stop the university’s anti-reform stand. When inquisitor Hieronymus Alexander visited Cologne to root out the ‘heretics’ in October, 1520, he expected to be received as a conquering hero, but saw anti-papal posters hung all over the city and was ignored. The city authorities had stopped condemning Luther. Sadly, Erasmus and the magistrates, soon bowed under Rome’s pressure. Luther’s works were again burned on 15th November, the day 16 year-old Bullinger received his Bachelor degree.

     Now Bullinger bought his first New Testament and became critical of Rome’s dogmas. Recognising that Rome claimed her authority from the Church Fathers, he diligently studied their works. He found that they appealed to Scripture, rejected all idolatry and taught quite contrary to the Catholicism he knew. He began to see that justification is by God-given faith alone and that salvation is by God’s good grace and not man’s dubious ‘good works’. All ideas of becoming a monk vanished and Bullinger experienced faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. At the age of 17, Bullinger gained his MA and returned home to Bremgarten after six years’ absence.

     Bullinger wondered how his father would take the news of his conversion. He was determined not to hide his faith but confess Christ. He need not have feared. He was received warmly by his family and encouraged to persevere along the Reformed path. Then Wolfgang Joner, the Kappel Abbot, offered Bullinger a position as a school-teacher, Bullinger gave Joner his testimony and told him that he could not possibly follow Rome. In reply, Joner made Bullinger the superintendent of the abbey school on the spot! Bullinger drew up a Reformed curriculum and the school grew and flourished. For the next six years, the young Reformer expounded through 21 New Testament books at the monastery, using Swiss-German, not Latin so that even the servants could understand him.

The reformation in Kappel and Bremgarten

     By 1526, Bullinger had removed the images from the abbey church, abolished the mass and introduced the Reformed Lord’s Supper. Many monks confessed Christ, some left to become Christian craftsmen and farmers but others stayed on under Bullinger’s ministry. The Kappel monastery now became a seminary for Reformed pastors. From around 1523 onwards, Bullinger became friends with Zwingli and Leo Jud. Most church historians look on Bullinger as Zwingli’s protégé but Bullinger was Zwingli’s equal if not superior in Reformation matters and distinctions between the two men are important. Bullinger trained and sent out Reformed preachers some two years before Zwingli, meeting far less opposition. When, Bullinger wished to publish his views on the Lord’s Supper in 1524, Zwingli begged him not to because he was not ready himself. Zwingli wavered long, slowly coming to a merely commemorative view. Bullinger taught that the Lord’s real presence was to be experienced in the Supper because wherever two or three are gathered in His Name, He is there in their midst. Nevertheless, Bullinger rejected transubstantiation, consubstantiation, indeed, all views that implied Christ’s corporeal presence in the elements. Zwingli was Supralapsarian in his views of election, teaching that God elected some men to salvation and some to reprobation irrespective of the Fall. Sublapsarian Bullinger taught that God ordains some of sinful mankind to eternal life and some He passes by. Zwingli was never truly Reformed on imputation whereas Bullinger taught both the imputation of Adam’s sin to mankind and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the elect. Zwingli rejected the book of Revelation as the Word of God but Bullinger both accepted it and preached from it. Zwingli held to a rigid church discipline and order as a mark of the true church, Bullinger emphasised experimental heart-religion. He believed that order and discipline should be flexible according to the church’s situation. Bullinger, was a man of peace and thus Zwingli often asked Bullinger to mediate in the difficult situations he often placed himself. Bullinger disagreed with Zwingli concerning his involvement in the Kappeler Wars and his trust in Bern’s militant ‘Reformation’ policies.

Anna Adischwyler

       By 1527, Joner and many of the Kappel monks had married and Bullinger received leave of absence from the school to find a bride. Like Luther, he chose a former nun. Anna Adischwyler was his choice. Bullinger wrote a long letter to Anna, telling her that he had not a penny to call his own and yet wanted her to share his calling in Christ’s service. Anna answered in the affirmative. They arranged to marry within two weeks but Mrs Adischwyler, a cook’s wife, wanted her daughter to marry a rich man and contested the engagement in law. The court decided in favour of Henry and Anna but Mrs Adischwyler remained adamant for two years before suddenly dying. The couple were speedily married on 17 August, 1529.

Father and Son together in the faith

     In February, 1529, sixty-year-old Heinrich Bullinger Sen. informed his congregation that he had accepted the Reformed faith and on 31 December, he officially married his beloved wife of forty years according to the new Reformed rites. The town authorities immediately dismissed him, but Heinrich became an itinerant preacher, founding churches at Muri (1529) and Hermetschwil (1530). The Bremgarten congregation demanded his return but as he was now settled elsewhere, the congregation chose his son as pastor. Henry came and preached his first sermon at his home church in May, 1529 on worshipping God in spirit and in truth. The congregation was enormous. There was a tremendous spiritual reaction amongst the church-goers, and, after the service the images and altar were removed from the church building and the united congregation dedicated themselves to God and the new faith.

     Now Bremgarten experienced a glorious Reformation. In the three years that Bullinger remained there, he preached through the entire New Testament, translated thirty Psalms from the Hebrew into Latin and Swiss-German and wrote commentaries on both New Testament and Old Testament books. He also wrote a history of the Reformation inSwitzerland. This ministry was ended abruptly.

The Reformation receives a setback

     Zwingli, assisted by Bern was starving out Five Roman Catholic districts and threatening them with military force instead of allowing them to vote democratically on their faith. Bullinger protested against Zwingli’s un-Christian methods but the Roman Catholics placed the blame for this merciless persecution on the true upholders of the Reformed faith at Bremgarten and not on the inane politics of Zürich and Bern. On 15 May, 1531 the Roman Catholics decided to use force themselves. Bern and Zürich quickly formed a large army, but the Bullingerites told Zwingli that he was foolish to defend God’s Word with chariots and horsemen. Bern and Zwingli blindly placed Sebastian von Diesbach at the head of their forces. He was an avowed opponent of the Reformation and when the Roman Catholic army reached Bremgarten, von Diesbach withdrew his ‘Reformed’ troops and left Zwingli with his smaller army of Zürich men to perish. The new masters in Bremgarten exiled the two Bullingers and the town was forced back under Rome’s yoke.

      Zwingli’s warring nature and Bern’s inhuman politics weakened the Reformation considerably. The papist faction again became strong. Zürich’s faithful now begged Bullinger to become their shepherd. They wanted a man of grace and peace and not law and war. Thus it is said that Zwingli rescued a people from Rome but it was Bullinger who made them into a church.

Initial problems at Zürich

     With Bullinger in Zürich, the Five Communities threatened the city. The Senate responded provokingly. In May, 133, Bullinger called a peace-making Synod who told the Senate that they could not prescribe for Roman Catholic ruled areas what they should believe but they should allow the Zürich pastors to preach the Word of God and allow the Spirit to do the rest. They argued that the Zwingli-inspired policies of the city were provocative, negative and un-diplomatic. Bullinger assured the Roman Catholics that Zürich had no plans for military actions against them. A further war was averted.

     Luther, had not supported Zwingli’s war, protesting that his behaviour reflected his theology and that he was a Catabaptist Enthusiast who had sinned against the Holy Ghost. Bullinger realised that Luther knew little of Zwingli’s overall pioneering theological position and even less about the Kappeler Wars, so he wrote a systematic account of his predecessor’s faith and a history of the wars which helped to allay much criticism, though not Luther’s. Luther advised Duke Albrecht von Brandenburg to ban all Zürich Reformers from his realms.

     Zwingli had treated the Cata-Baptists harshly. He had honestly feared that they were plotting to overthrow the Zürich administration by armed force and thus become their persecutor. Bullinger chose the way of dialogue. During Bullinger’s period of leadership in Zürich, forty Cata-Baptists were executed for their faith in Bern in spite of Bullinger’s protests but none were executed in Zürich.1 Bullinger surprised all by helping the Cata-Baptists legally to maintain their citizens’ rights against discrimination. A number of debtors had, for instance, decided they could borrow from Cata-Baptists without paying them back as they were heretics!

Reforms in church government and education

     Bullinger used church grants to found schools and recruited hundreds of new teachers, authoring the curricula himself. He reduced the prebendaries, abolished pluralities and used canonry funds to pay teachers’ and pastors’ wages and provide student grants, so relieving the city treasury. Students were also sent on bursaries to other cantons,Germany, Holland, Belgium and England. A large number of children were orphaned by the war so Bullinger encouraged his colleagues to adopt them, thus saving public funds. He had a large family himself, but set an example by adopting at least two youngsters. One of these, Rudolf Gualter, became Bullinger’s successor and married Zwingli’s daughter. Bullinger pioneered theological seminaries in the fifteen twenties. England had to wait until the late 40s, Germany the late 50s and Geneva the 60s.

The Second Helvitic Confession

     Bullinger’s best known work is undoubtedly his Second Helvetic Confession. Elector Friedrich III of the Palatine had left the Lutheran Church and approached Bullinger as the leading Continental Reformer to draw up a creed showing that the Reformed faith was the true, apostolic belief. Bullinger sent him his own confession of faith which was accepted and quickly gained wide international influence. It was adopted as a pan-Swiss and French confession and accepted as a standard creed by the Scottish Reformed churches in 1567. In 1571, the Hungarian Reformed Church adopted the confession, then the Poles and Czechs. Indeed, next to the Heidelberg Catechism which developed from it, Bullinger’s catechism became the most generally recognised in the Reformed Church.

Over fifty years of earthly ministry ended

     After recovering from the Black Death of 1564-65, Bullinger was left an old man with acute kidney trouble. Anna caught the disease whilst looking after him and soon died. His daughters Margaretha, Elizabeth and Anna and several grandchildren died within a year with most of Bullinger’s colleagues following them. On 26th August, 1575, Bullinger realised that his pilgrimage was over and called all the ministers and teachers in Zürich to his study for his last farewell. In a long, well-prepared speech, he exhorted his friends and brethren to keep the unity of the Spirit and remain faithful to their testimony, calling and ministry. He then sent a fitting admonition to the magistrates ending with the words:

“The grace of the Father and the blessing of Jesus Christ with the power of the Holy Spirit be with you and gracefully preserve your city and state, your honour, persons and possessions under His divine care and keeping and shield you from all evil.”

     Bullinger fell asleep peacefully in the Lord on 17 September and was buried at the side of his beloved Anna. Rudolf Gualter was immediately appointed to succeed him. The choice had been Bullinger’s own, and, as usual, his choice could not have been better.  Seldom has there been such a great man who made so few mistakes.


  1. The four Catabaptists executed at Zürich were sentenced under Zwingli.