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Martin Bucer

Martin Bucer (1491–1551) was one of the most important sixteenth-century Reformers, who became leader of the Reformed Churches in Switzerland and South Germany after the death of Zwingli.

Bucer (the German form is Butzer) was born in 1491, the son of a cooper, in Schlettstadt (Sélestat) in Alsace. There he received an influential exposure to the new humanist learning, first in Sélestat’s famous Latin school, and then, from 1506-7, in the Dominicans’ house. Early in 1512 he was sent on to their convent in Heidelberg, which he finally left in the first months of 1521.

Obtaining a papal dispensation from his monastic vows, in the summer of 1522 Bucer married Elisabeth Silbereisen, a former nun from Löwenfeld. Elisabeth Bucer stayed at her post during the plague of 1541, which carried her off together with, in a few months, no fewer than five of her children and three other members of the Bucers’ Strasbourg household. Even in her dying she had a care for husband Martin’s needs. Next spring, as she had urged, he married Wibrandis, the widow of Bucer’s close reforming colleague, Wolfgang Capito, who died a fortnight before Elisabeth of the same affliction. Wibrandis was by now something of an expert in marrying leading Protestants. Bucer was her fourth husband, and she outlived him by more than a decade.

But to return to Bucer’s career. During his years as a Dominican he not only became well versed in the order’s favourite theologian, Thomas Aquinas, but also developed into a keen Erasmian. He was well prepared to be deeply impressed by Luther at the disputation of Heidelberg in 1518 at which the Wittenberg reformer expounded his distinctive theology of the cross. Soon Bucer was describing himself as a ‘Martinian’ also. He found Luther’s Galatians commentary ‘a treasury full of the dogmas of pure theology’. His lifelong commitment to the new evangelicalism was soon sealed, and his independence of his Dominican profession was evident many months before he quit the cloister.

There ensued for Bucer two years of uncertainty — encompassing travel, sometimes in flight, short periods of employment and protection (chaplain to Count Frederick of the Palatinate, pastor at Landstuhl in the service of Franz von Sickingen, preacher at Wissembourg), meetings with humanists, printers and Reformers, including Luther, and attendance at the Diet of Worms in 1521 — before he was chased out of Wissembourg’s pulpit in May 1523 and pitched up in Strasbourg, where his father had citizen rights. He had found the sphere of his life’s work.

Within a month the city council permitted him to conduct Bible expositions in Latin (not in German); two months later he was preaching in St Thomas’ Cathedral; by August 1524 he was fully installed as pastor of the parish of St Aurelia (the council having definitively usurped the rights of the Cathedral canons and the bishop), and before long he was acknowledged as the de facto leader of the reform movement in Strasbourg. There he remained until the spring of 1549, when the political and military reverses inflicted on the forces of German Protestantism issued in the imposition of the Augsburg Interim and made it politic for the city authorities to depose Bucer from his pastoral office.

Among a handful of invitations Bucer chose England, where reform was in full spate under King Edward VI and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. After a short period as Cranmer’s house-guest he was appointed Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge. The last two years of his life were by no means his happiest, nor his most successful. Yet he wrote an ambitious, even visionary, charter for a Christian England entitled The Kingdom of Christ; his critique of the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) contributed somewhat to the second (1552); he lectured on Ephesians, left a not insignificant mark on some future leaders of the English church; disputed on justification and other hot topics; agitated incessantly for a reformed and revitalized ministry; and found time to be concerned for the poor of the town.

Bucer died in Cambridge at the end of February 1551, and was buried in the university church, with great state. In 1557 Queen Mary’s commissioners exhumed and burnt his body (along with that of Paul Fagius) and demolished his tomb; it was subsequently restored by order of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Trust publishes Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls (tr. Peter Beale, 2009), from David F. Wright’s ‘Historical Introduction’ to which the above is taken.