Bugenhagen 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.
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.