Heinrich Bullinger and His Influence on the European Reformations

Heinrich Bullinger’s early life was studded with dangers. At the time of his birth, July 18, 1504, his family was still frequently on the move to escape the wrath of his uncles (his mother’s brothers), who were bent on killing his father.  After all, Heinrich Sr. was the local priest, and had taken Anna Wiederkehr in common law marriage (a practice the church had officially forbidden but was in fact allowing, providing the priest could pay a yearly tribute to a bishop).

            Most likely, it was not what the Wiederkehr family had hoped for Anna. Since her two brothers were often at war as mercenary soldiers, the Bullingers had a few moments of respite from their rage. Two years after the birth of young Heinrich, Anna’s brothers died and the family could feel safer in the small Swiss town of Bremgarten.


Bullinger’s Life

            Dangers continued to follow Heinrich Jr.’s life. He almost died twice, first in a plague epidemic and then when a whistle pierced his neck during a fall. He also escaped being kidnapped by a beggar.

            Thankfully, he lived on, and became an excellent student, first in his own hometown, and then in the German town of Emmerich. There, as many students of his day, he sang door-to-door to support his studies – a practice his father considered important in order to teach the boy frugality and compassion for the poor.

            It was during his next course of studies at the University of Cologne that he encountered Reformation teachings (especially Luther’s and Melanchton’s). After much reflection, he concluded they were in greater harmony with the Scriptures and the Church Fathers than Roman Catholic doctrines. By 1522, he was fully convinced.

            Around that time, the Cistercian convent at Kappel, Switzerland, offered 18-year old Bullinger a position as head teacher. Bullinger accepted, providing he wouldn’t have to take monastic vows or attend Mass. There, he lectured and wrote Latin commentaries on the New Testament, with the aid of the Fathers and Reformed writings. Within three years, Protestant worship replaced the Mass. Eventually, the monastery was dissolved and turned into a Protestant parish. Bullinger continued to labor in Kappel as pastor until 1529.

            In 1527, Bullinger traveled to Zurich where he met Huldrych Zwingli, the city’s chief minister. The two became good friends, corresponded frequently, and worked together on several projects, including a document opposing the Anabaptists, in the context of God’s covenantal inclusion of infants into the church.

            Bullinger made the most of his time in Zurich by courting a nun named Anna Adlischwyler, who made him work hard in the pursuit until finally agreeing to marry him in 1529. The couple had eleven children: six boys and five girls (although three boys died in infancy). They also adopted a son, Rudolf Gwalther, who became both Bullinger’s successor and son-in-law.

            In the meantime, a Roman Catholic resistance rose within Switzerland, partially aggravated by Zwingli’s demands to go beyond the common cuius regio, eius religio (each ruler determines the religion of his state). In a field battle against Roman Catholic forces at Kappel, Switzerland, on October 11, 1531, the Protestants were quickly defeated and Zwingli and many others were killed.

            At that point, some regions of Switzerland returned to Catholicism. This included Bremgarten, where Bullinger had taken over his father’s pastorate (after his father’s conversion to Protestantism). Once again, Bullinger found himself in mortal danger, under threats of execution. He fled to Zurich, where the church was trying to cope with their devastating loss.

            In desperate need for a successor to Zwingli, the Zurich church council thought of appointing Johannes Oecolampadius, who declined, and ended up dying five weeks later. The second choice was 27-year old Heinrich Bullinger, who had been working closely with Zwingli but was still fairly unknown. It turned out to be an excellent choice, as Bullinger continued to lead the church in Zurich with wisdom and faithfulness to Scriptures until his death in 1575.


Bullinger’s Influence

            Often neglected in today’s accounts of the Reformation, Bullinger had a great influence on the Reformation, both in Zurich and in other European countries. His role in rebuilding the Zurich church after the disastrous defeat at Kappel cannot be overstated. Through his sermons and leadership, he was able to lift the people of Zurich from discouragement and bring them into closer fellowship with the other churches in Europe.

            His name appears frequently in the surviving letters of his time. He was a regular correspondent of John Calvin, who worked with him on a Protestant agreement on the Lord’s Supper. He also stayed in close contact with the English Reformers – including Peter Martyr Vermigli, who ended up working with him in Zurich – and with both King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I, who appreciated his advice.

            Much of his influence came through his personal contact, as he opened his home to students, refugees, widows and orphans from several countries. Many came to Zurich just to sit under his preaching and receive guidance.

            His most lasting contribution, however, was in his theological writings, starting with his On the Origin of Errors (1528), a history of the liturgical novelties that had corrupted the church. According to historian Philip Benedict, “Perhaps, more than any other work, it stoked the later Reformed suspicion of the least ritual innovations as a dangerous step down the slippery slope to popery.”[1]

            In 1566, thirty years after contributing to the First Helvetic Confession, Bullinger became the main author of the Second Helvetic Confession, which was ratified by all the Swiss Canons as representative of the official position of the Swiss Reformed Church. This confession was also approved in Scotland, Austria, Hungary, and Poland, and circulated in other countries (in seventeen different languages).

            Even more influential, Bullinger’s Decades, a collection of fifty sermons originally written as a teaching aid for pastors, became a catechetical tool for families, earning the title of Hausbuch. These sermons were so valued that the Reformed Synod recommended that they were read on Sundays when a pastor was not available to preach. In England, John Witgift, Archbishop of Canterbury, made the Decades required reading for all clergy, first in his diocese of Lincoln and later in the whole country.

            Largely neglected in the 17th century, Bullinger has gradually regained the interest of historians and theologians alike. He has rightly been called “architect of the Reformation.” He is also considered “the father of covenant theology,” because his understanding of a biblical covenant as unifying element in Scriptures has inspired further, more systematic developments on this subject by new generations of Reformers.

            Bullinger’s writings are worth reading, beginning with the Decades and the multitude of warm and encouraging letters he wrote to fellow Christians all over Europe.

[1] Benedict, Philip, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism,

Simonetta Carr