Johannes Bugenhagen – Sharing the Gospel and Caring for the Poor

Johannes Bugenhagen – Sharing the Gospel and Caring for the Poor

Known mostly as pastor and church planter during the Protestant Reformation (he has been called “the Apostle to the North”), Johannes Bugenhagen was also an important model in the tradition of Christian love and compassion.

A Wittenberg Man

            Born in 1485 in Wollin, Pomerania (in northern Germany), Bugenhagen followed a typical academic career, fist as student of the classics at the university of Greifswald, then as rector at Treptow, and later – after being ordained priest – as lecturer at a monastery in Belbuck.

            Just two years younger than Martin Luther, he became acquainted with the Reformer’s ideas and wrote to him for guidance. After reading Freedom of a Christian, he left the monastery and moved to Wittenberg to study theology, earning a doctor’s degree in 1533.

            In 1522, he became the first of the Wittenberg reformers to marry. He and his wife Walpurga had three children: Johannes, Martha, and Sara.

            While his marriage prevented him from answering a call to the pastorate in Hamburg (the Hamburg city council disapproved of the marriage of a former priest), it was all in God’s good plan.

            The following year, the pastor of Wittenberg’s city church, St. Mary, retired, and Bugenhagen was called to take his place, becoming, in fact, Luther’s pastor. As such, he officiated at the marriage between Luther and Katharina Van Bora in 1525, and performed Luther’s funeral in 1546, making sure that Katharina received sufficient financial support.

            As professor of theology at Wittenberg, he made important contributions to the theological discussions of his day (including those on Christian freedom and on the nature of the Lord’s Supper).

            His commentaries on most of the Pauline letters, the Gospel of Matthew, Jeremiah, the Psalms, and Jonah became particularly important at a time when pastors were still scarcely educated. He also became known for his administrative abilities in resolving problems and composing church orders to govern ecclesiastical and civil life.

Feeding Souls and Bodies

            Bugenhagen’s administrative talents, together with his linguistic skills, became instrumental in other parts of Europe – particularly in Pomerania, where he was invited in 1534 by dukes Philipp II and Barnim XI, and Denmark, where he worked from 1537 to 1539, assisting Prince Christian III in planting gospel-preaching churches throughout the nation.

            His reforms respect Luther’s principle of freedom in matters that are indifferent. This allowed him to adapt his ordinances to the customs of each nation, creating indigenous local churches. Overall, he wrote more church orders than any other Wittenberg reformer.

            Part of his reformation work included practical matters like the organization of schools for boys and girls, welfare programs for the poor, hospitals, and practical instructions for the moral reform of the clergy.

            The basis of his social reforms were the Scriptural teachings on Christian love, such as Prov. 19:17, John 13:35, Mat. 5:7, 1 Tim. 6:17-18, and Eph. 4:28. He believed that creating an environment where the temporal needs of the poor and indigent are met goes hand-in-hand with the preaching of the gospel and contributes to peace and unity.

            In order to raise sufficient funds, he advocated the use of two “common chests” in the churches: one, already in use, for the maintenance of the church and the spreading of the gospel, and another for the benefit of the poor (what some churches today call “benevolent fund”).

            Because of these efforts, which were apparently successful, he became known as the most influential proponent of programs for the poor at the time of the Reformation. In fact, his church orders provide the most detailed instructions written at that time for the relief of the poor.

            While Bugenhagen referred specifically to “the deserving poor,” this distinction was not as strict as those some of us create today. For him, the deserving poor were all those who could not help themselves, whether by permanent or temporary impediments. This included the elderly, widows, orphans, people with disabilities, the ill, and common workers who, for various reasons, could not earn enough to meet their family’s needs. The only people excluded from this relief program were those who insisted on spending their money on drinking or other harmful habits.

            The program was to help men and women alike. He advocated fair wages for all, and encouraged the grant of a yearly allowance (from the common chest) to midwives, so that poor women could have proper assistance during childbirth without worrying about expenses.

            While recognizing that a Christian has a duty to provide first for his own family (1 Tim. 5:8) and second to “those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10), he reminded believers of their obligation to “gladly serve those who have offended us, if they need us in their need, as Christ teaches us in Mat. 5:44 and as we are often admonished otherwise in Scripture.”[1]

            Bugenhagen’s last days were difficult. His involvement with Melanchthon in the drafting of the Interim, a period of political peace that required some theological compromises, caused several Christians to turn against him. In 1557, this atmosphere of distrust, coupled with his poor health and even poorer eyesight (he had become blind in one eye), led him to stop preaching. By 1558, he became bedridden. He died in April of the same year.

            His commentaries, reforms, and church-planting work continued in the following years. His son Johannes the Younger, who began lecturing in theology at the University of Wittenberg in 1560, was also instrumental in debates about the Lord’s Supper and in the preservation of Luther’s teachings.

[1] Johannes Bugenhagen, Selected Writings, Vol. 1 and 2, ed. by Kurt K. Hendel, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2015, pp. 1382-1383


Simonetta Carr