John Bugenhagen: Inside Luther's Inner Circle

4 Min Read


The winds of upheaval were gusting over the province of Saxony in 1521 and they were approaching gale force, all thanks to the parlance of a feisty German monk. By April 1521, Luther had published his 95 theses and clashed with Cardinal Cajetan in Augsburg and Dr. Eck in Leipzig. The Pope, in a fit of rage, had excommunicated him and condemned his work to the flames in January that same year. In a sensational act of defiance, Luther had proceeded to burn the Papal bull under a tree in Wittenberg in front of a small gathering of elated gawkers. As things stood everyone on either side of the Protestant/Catholic line had their game faces on.

In April of 1521, Luther received a summons by the Emperor himself to appear at the Imperial Diet at Worms to answer to the charge of heresy. Things were not looking good for the fiery German monk. The atmosphere in Wittenberg was tense at best with furtive whispers that Dr. Martin might not make it back from Worms alive.

Into this seething pot of fear and uncertainty, there was added, at this very time, a small glimmering grain of hope. It came in the form of a lonely refugee who crossed the Saxon border in search of political asylum, immediately making his way to Wittenberg. He had come in search of Dr. Luther.

His name was Johannes Bugenhagen, a 36-year-old Catholic priest recently plunged into a state of almost frenzied turmoil as a result of his newfound religious beliefs. Originally from the small Island of Wollin in the province of Pomerania, Bugenhagen found himself heading to Wittenberg as a result of a little pamphlet that had made its way into his hands.

Around December 1520 someone handed him a copy of one of Luther’s tracts titled “The Captivity of Babylon”. He scoffed at it, denouncing Luther as a deluded heretic but couldn’t resist the urge to pick it up and take it home with him. After he had read it several times he had a complete change of heart. He now hailed Luther as the harbinger of a new age and was determined to share what he had learned with as many people as he could. He grabbed hold of every lectern he could find with dogged intensity and was soon making waves among the upper echelons of  Catholic hierarchy in Pomerania. Abbots, priests, and deacons all began to be convinced by his preaching and they were converted in droves.

The elation of seeing so many churchmen converted by his efforts was cut short by the stinging wave of persecution that followed. Many who had been converted were imprisoned or put to death. Bugenhagen decided to hit the road and he had a single destination on his mind: Wittenberg, the nerve center of the Reformation and, he hoped, a safe haven for a defector like himself.

When he arrived in Wittenberg, Luther was already making preparations to leave for Worms and Bugenhagen’s arrival offered the reformer some much-needed comfort and encouragement. Needless to say, the welcome was so warm that Luther decided that Bugenhagen would teach the book of Psalms at the University of Wittenberg while he was away. To a man like Bugenhagen who thrived on Biblical exegesis, this arrangement was his very own slice of heaven on earth. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

John Bugenhagen soon became one of Luther’s closest friends and confidantes. He served alongside men like Philip Melanchthon, Nicholas Amsdorf, and Justus Jonas, who formed Luther’s inner circle of advisors. They became a think tank of sorts to help sort through and tackle some of the most pressing issues Luther and the Reformation faced. Issues like how to moderate a response to the venomous public rantings of Henry VIII? Should they even bother to reply? Luther was quite happy to give as good as he got but that wasn’t necessarily the best course of action. A fiery missive from the pen of Dr. Luther would have aggravated an already tense political climate. Bugenhagen and the others had to talk him down and beg him to just let the whole thing go. Then they had to figure out how to help Prince Frederick, the Elector of Saxony fend off the Pope and the Emperor, who were demanding that he hand over Luther and every other Protestant heretic he was sheltering in his realm. How to frame a diplomatic response that essentially said no without coming across as rude, offensive or territorial? Bugenhagen stood on the cutting edge of the reformation as it unfolded dealing with some of its most complex issues in real time. He provided the kind of statesmanship and spiritual guidance that was crucial to the health and success of the fledgling movement. He was an administrative genius with a rare gift for organization and structure. He masterminded the organization of the Protestant Church in Northern Germany and Scandinavia. He was also the pastor of the parish church in Wittenberg. He married Martin Luther and Katy von Bora, baptized their children and delivered an eloquent and heartbreaking eulogy at Luther’s funeral.

The reformation would have been poorer without him and although he stood in the shadow of the great Martin Luther, in many ways, Martin Luther stood in his.

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