The Life of Heinrich Bullinger

bullingerHENRY BULLINGER, the fifth child of Henry Bullinger and Anna Widerkehr1, was born on the 18th of July, 1504, at Bremgarten, a small town, of which his father was parish-priest and dean, about ten miles west of Zurich. In his childhood he was preserved several times from imminent perils: once from the plague, and risk of premature interment; again, when by a fall in the street a whistle which was in his hand was driven into his neck; and again, when the enticement of a beggar would have stolen him from his home and friends.

His earliest education was commenced in his fifth year in the school of his native place: but such was his fondness for learning, application, and forwardness, that in his twelfth year, June 11, 1516, his father sent him to a grammar-school at Emmerich on the Rhine. There he continued three years, and made rapid advances, especially in his Latin studies. Meanwhile his pecuniary resources were kept so straitened, that he was obliged to beg for a livelihood from one neighbour’s door to another with singing. This severe discipline his father exercised, not out of necessity, nor from covetous ness, but (as he thought) to train his son to moderation in his own habits, and to sympathy with the sufferings of the poor. Nor was this hardship, connected as it was with the superstitious notions of his day, uncongenial with young Bullinger’s own temperament: rather he has left it on record, that he already purposed with himself to become after a few years a Carthusian monk, because it was the most strict of all the orders.

ZwingliBullingerDevotionalBook2From Emmerich Bullinger was removed to the university of Cologne; and entered July 8, 1519, at the college Bursæ-Montis. There the works of the school-divines, and chiefly of Peter Lombard and Gratian, soon engrossed his attention; and, in the providence of God, were converted into instruments for detaching him from the religion of Rome. For in this course of reading meeting with frequent extracts from the fathers, he felt an earnest desire quickened within him to peruse their entire writings. See Vol. III. p. 57. Accordingly, he solicited and obtained admission to a well-stored library of the Dominicans; and there studied with intense ardour several treatises of Chrysostom, Ambrose, Origen, and Augustine. Simultaneously the earlier tracts of Luther, especially his “Babylonish Captivity” and treatise “On Christian Liberty,” with the “Loci Communes” of Melancthon, came into his hands. He procured for himself also a copy of the New Testament2, and devoted days and nights to the perusal of it, with the aid of the Commentaries of Jerome. The result of these pursuits was, that Bullinger’s mind and heart opened gradually to the knowledge and reception of the gospel in its purity.

In this transition state, and having taken his bachelor’s degree in October 1520, and his master’s in February 1522, Bullinger returned in April of the last-mentioned year to his father’s roof at Bremgarten. There he devoted himself to the study of the Bible with still greater eagerness; and joined to it the writings of Athanasius, Cyprian, and Lactantius, and several of Luther’s treatises, especially “On the Abrogation of the Mass,” and “On Vows.” These occupations powerfully promoted, under God, his improved views of christian truth.

the-decades-of-heinrich-bullingerBut his profiting was not to be for himself only. The Cistercian abbot of Cappel, Wolfgang Joner, since his elevation in 1519, had laboured much to improve the moral and intellectual condition of his convent. Having heard therefore of Bullinger’s excellent character, studiousness, and abilities, he sent an invitation to him early in 1523, to become lecturer and teacher of the monks and other students in his monastery; and as the offer was disconnected with any constraint of vows, profession, or observances, that could interfere with his enlightened conscience, Bullinger consented to enter (17th January) upon the proposed duties. The engagement, however, was a farther development of God’s gracious providence toward him; and as it allowed him to discourse on the holy scriptures, with the writings of the fathers and Erasmus and Melancthon, it was a signal means to himself and his hearers of advancement in sound christian doctrine, notwithstanding severe oppositions even to the risk of life. Six years were passed by Bullinger in this useful retirement; where also he composed, principally for his own practice and improvement, more than fifty treatises, mostly on religious topics: of which the larger part remained in manuscript; but some were either published afterwards, or incorporated in his later writings, or distributed among his friends.

During the same interval Bullinger formed an intimate acquaintance with Zwingli and Leo Judæ, and was much influenced by the religious sentiments of the former, especially on the subject of the eucharist. Indeed, in the end of June 1527, he obtained from his abbot leave of absence for five months, to attend Zwingli’s lectures at Zurich; where also he availed himself of the opportunity to perfect his acquaintance with Hebrew and Greek literature.

annabullingerIn December of the same year, the senate of Zurich deputed Bullinger to accompany Zwingli to the important disputation at Berne. On his return he was prevailed on to undertake the pastoral office; and preached his first sermon on Sunday, June 21, 1528, at the village of Husen, near Cappel.

A new sphere of usefulness now opened on Bullinger; and, yielding to the advice of his relatives and patron4, and to the solicitations of the inhabitants, he went back to Bremgarten, June 1, 1529, and by incessant preachings and expositions there and in neighbouring places greatly furthered the spreading cause of the Reformation. On the 17th of August he was united in marriage in the church of Birmenstorf, a small village near Bremgarten, by his brother John, the curè, to Anne Adlischweiler, to whom he had been pledged during his visit to Zurich two years previously, and who had formerly been a nun in the convent of Œtenbach, where daughters of the first families in Zurich were received. During the two years of this residence at Bremgarten, Bullinger composed some of his Commentaries on parts of holy Scripture; and disputed in public often, and largely wrote against the prevailing errors of the anabaptists.

In consequence of the disastrous defeat of the protestant confederates at Cappel, October 11, 1531, Bullinger was compelled to remove with his family and parents into Zurich for safety. There he settled on the 21st of November; and on the 9th of December following (at the same time that the senate of Bale applied for him as successor to Œcolampadius, and the senate of Berne solicited him for a pastor) he was appointed by the authorities of Zurich to supply the vacancy in the preachership of their cathedral, which had been created by the melancholy death of Zwingli. In this important post Bullinger continued for the remainder of his long life, labouring with most assiduous diligence and wide-spread influence. For several years, from 1531 to 1538, his preachings were daily, sometimes twice in the day; his publications, of which many were suggested by passing events, were voluminous and frequent; his pastoral and synodical, civil and ecclesiastical, engagements were unceasing and very various; his correspondence was exceedingly extensive and critical: and his house was always open, and his interpositions ready to shelter and befriend especially refugees from every country where religious persecution raged. And during the protracted efforts to effect a reconciliation between the Lutherans and the church of Zurich on the sacramentarian question, his moderation and sincerity were eminently conspicuous.

In the middle of January 1536 Bullinger was deputed with Leo Judæ to attend the conference of deputies from all the Swiss reformed churches at Basle. There he assisted in drawing up the first Helvetic Confession of Faith, and commenced a personal acquaintance with Calvin. His hospitalities also were liberally experienced at Zurich by Englishmen, John Butler, Nicolas Partridge, and William Woodroofe, in the month of August of the same year. Bartholomew Traheron joined them in September of the year following.

A fatal plague in 1541 deprived Bullinger of his aged mother (August 16) and one of his sons (September 30); and in the next year, of his beloved colleague Leo Judæ (June 19), in the midst of his invaluable labours on the Biblia Tigurina. The preface to this translation, which Bibliander had principally completed, was written by Bullinger in February 1543.

In his extant diary Bullinger has marked March 29, 1547, as the day when Hooper and his wife, in their exile, accomplished their long-cherished desire of visiting him; and March 24, 1549, when they left him for England with their daughter Rachel, his god-child. In the end of May of the last-mentioned year also Calvin and Farell came to Bullinger, and a “consensus” or agreement was completed on the subject of the Lord’s supper, between the churches of Geneva and Zurich. At the same instant, as appeared by various decrees in the year following, the whole weight of the papal party, imperial and ecclesiastical, was combining to condemn Bullinger and all his writings. But nothing turned him aside from his steady course of usefulness; and early in 1554 the largest influx of English refugees enjoyed his sympathy and interest. Among them were Parkhurst, Jewel, Horn, Pilkington, Lever, Humphrey, and Cole. Italian exiles from Locarno also sought and obtained like shelter in Zurich, through his interventions, in the spring of the year following.

From 1556 to 1564 Bullinger’s time and exertions were largely and painfully consumed in combating the errors of Joachim Westphalus, Stancari, George Blandrata, Brentius, and Ochin: while in the last-mentioned year a pestilence deprived him of his wife, and his second daughter, married to Lavater; and in the year following, of two other daughters,—his eldest, the wife of Zwingli jun.; and his third, who had married Josiah Simler. By the same plague he had himself also been brought to the brink of the grave; and not long after his sufferings from the stone commenced, which embittered the remainder of his days. Notwithstanding declining health, family bereavements, and public trials, however, Bullinger’s manifold labours continued unabated; and in the year 1571 he exerted himself most indefatigably in relieving his destitute country people during a very grievous famine.

Early in October 1574, his last and fatal disorder attacked him. In the first instance, indeed, the severity of the seizure yielded so far to the remedies that were applied, that he was able to resume his public duties. But the disease returned on the 24th of May in the year following with excruciating violence, and lasted until the 17th of September: when, after exhibiting a bright example of christian patience, and having taken a touching personal farewell of all his colleagues, and written a letter to the senate of Zurich, to be delivered after his decease—(one object of which was to commend to them Rudolph Gualter as his successor),—he expired, in the exercise of much prayer and in the peace of the gospel, in the 71st year of his age.
His remains were deposited in the cathedral of Zurich, amid the sincere and lively regrets of all classes of his townspeople.*

*The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Fifth Decade. (T. Harding, Ed.) (pp. vii–xiv).

Calvin and Bullinger Got Along Very Well

Indeed, Calvin had incredible respect for both Bullinger’s learning and his faith. Here’s an early letter of Calvin’s to Bullinger: Note the greeting and the second paragraph especially.


Geneva, 21st February 1538.

Grace to you and peace, from God the Father and from Christ the Lord, most respected and learned brother.

Were I to begin to describe to you at length the full narrative of our most wretched condition, a long history must be unfolded by me. For I call ours the trouble which for a long time has pressed, and which now severely presses upon that Church over which the Lord has been pleased to set us. But because there is not enough of leisure at present for explaining everything, and these good men can relate somewhat themselves, I will not trouble you with a larger epistle. Although, indeed, they have not perhaps discerned the very source of the evil, nor perceived whither the attempts of the wicked tended, yet they have forecast pretty clearly the aspect of affairs, how it was likely to turn out.

How I wish that we could have a single day for free communication together, for from such a meeting we could not depart without much advantage! I have some things which can neither be treated safely in a letter, nor determined, until they have been weighed and thoroughly discussed on both sides. This, however, I will venture to throw out in passing, that it does appear to me, that we shall have no lasting Church unless that ancient apostolic discipline be completely restored, which in many respects is much needed among us. We have not yet been able to obtain, that the faithful and holy exercise of ecclesiastical excommunication be rescued from the oblivion into which it has fallen; and that the city, which in proportion to its extent is very populous, may be distributed into parishes, as is rendered necessary by the complicated administration of the Church.

The generality of men are more ready to acknowledge us as preachers than as pastors. There are many other things besides, which, although we desire intensely to see amended, we can find out no means of doing so, unless that can be accomplished by faith, by diligence, and by perseverance on the part of all. Oh, if a pure and sincere accommodation could be agreed upon at length among us! What, then, would hinder the assembling of some public Synod, where individuals might propose whatever they may conceive to be most for the benefit of the churches? A way might be found out of going to work by common deliberation, and if need be, that the cities and princes also should assist in this undertaking by mutual exhortation and counsel, and also confirm by their authority; but in so great perplexity, the Lord is rather to be inquired of, that himself may open up a way.

Pellican has informed us that you have received a kind and friendly reply from Luther, from which Grynée affirms that he entertains much hope of seeing peace established. But of what kind we have not been able to divine, seeing that that church, which, from its near neighbourhood, might most easily communicate with us in all things, has not thought us worthy to receive any intelligence whatever. When occasion offers, you must not grudge to let us at least understand the sum of it.

Farel greets you. Will you salute for me with no common esteem my highly respected brethren in the Lord, your colleagues, Pellican, Leo, Theodore, Bibliander, and besides, Phyrisius? May the Lord keep you all in safety for the promoting of his kingdom.

Yours wholly,

The Oldest Letter From Bullinger that We Possess

Kappel, 24. Juni 1524
Autographe Abschrift: Zürich ZB, Msc K 40, 1r.

Wernhero a suo gratiam precatur et pacem.

Mitto tibi, mi Wernhere, declamationes meas 2 elapsas venus quam diligenter conscriptas. Dedico eas nomini tuo, liberum relinquens, num velis opus hoc, quod tu mihi quasi vi extorsisti, boni consulere. Quod ad me pertinet, non potui quicquam amico tam syncero ac bene faventi denegare; imo animus quidem maiora dedisset, modo licuisset per inopiam. Ceterum quod habemus, id damus. Vale in Christo. Salvum te volunt fratres universi, et tu omnes vicissim salutabis, quotquot Christi nomen induerunt.

Ex academia nostra Cappell, 8. calendas iulii anno ab incarnato Christo 1524.

Henrichus Bull[ingerus],
tuus ex omni parte.

Today With Bullinger

bullinger93On 17 July, 1532 Heinrich Bullinger gave a speech to the Zurich city council concerning recent events in Baden (on 9-10 July of that same year) where the cantons had discussed entering into an alliance with Charles V and Francis I against the Turkish threat.  Bullinger, on behalf of the Zurich Clergy.  Bullinger reminds them of various connivings of those two monarchs and the disastrous results of Swiss involvement in previous wars involving the French and the Holy Roman Empire, including the battle which moved Zwingli to object to all such military entanglements with foreign lords- Marignano in 1515.

In sum, Bullinger, in the name of the others, advised the Zurich-ers to avoid any war.  Those who signed in agreement were

  • Doctor Heinrich Engelhart
  • Leo Jud
  • Doctor Andreas Karlstadt (!)
  • Erasmus Schmid
  • Konrad Pellikan
  • Theodore Bibliander
  • Heinrich Bullinger

Unfortuntely theologians today are too occupied with appearances on tv mockumentaries to send such notices to governments. If they did, well maybe the world would be different. One thing is for sure, they wouldn’t be so disdained by society for their acceptance of the status quo.

A Most Interesting Passage From Heinrich Bullinger on the Bondage of Sin

Now we come to the second part of bondage. The spiritual bondage hath a certain likeness to the bodily servitude. For Adam by his own fault became a bondman; and we of him are all born bondmen He was once at liberty, and had the Lord to be his friend and favourer; but he did disloyally revolt from God, and got himself another master, the devil, a tyrant as cruel as may be, who for his sin having gotten power over him did, like a merciless lord, miserably handle him like a bond-servant.

Now we of our corrupt grandsire are born corrupt and sinners, and for our sin are also under the devil’s dominion; we are in danger of the law, and of the curse thereof: for we are the bond-slaves of sin; we are made subject to sundry calamities by reason of our sin. This therefore is called the spiritual bondage, not because it is only in the mind of man, but because of the opposition whereby it is opposed to the bodily bondage.

For otherwise sin hath made our body also subject to the curse: neither do we sin in mind alone, but in the body also; for every part and all the members of our bodies are subject unto sin, and infected with iniquity. Therefore we serve in most miserable bondage, while, being under the devil’s dominion, we do the things that please the flesh, by the egging on of evil affections, to the bringing forth of fruit, or rather to the making of abortion with peril of our lives, to the devil, our cruel and our rigorous master; for this verily is our hardest and most lamentable servitude and bondage.*
*The Decades of Henry Bullinger: The Third Decade (9th Sermon) (T. Harding, Ed.) (pp. 304–305).