The Great Beard of Zurich

I came across this somewhat humorous description of Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) when engaged in some random reading about the Swiss Reformation. The reference is apt because if you look at portraits of Bullinger painted from the 1540s onwards he sports the grandest of all the beards of the Reformation, singularly long and full, spreading out over the front of his gown. In the early-16th century beards were a sign not only that a man was married, but among clergymen, it often showed a commitment to the cause of Reform. Bullinger was indeed a married man. He had married Anna Adischwyler, a former nun, after a lengthy engagement due to her mother’s opposition to the match in 1527. Her commitment to reform equaled her husband’s, and she ran the extensive Bullinger household for some 35 years until her death from plague in 1564. The marriage produced eleven children, with the five sons all becoming pastors.[1] It also caught my eye that, in the opinion of probably the greatest scholar of the English Reformation in the 1970s and 80s – Patrick Collinson – Bullinger was one of the two most significant foreign influences on the English Reformation. The other was Peter Martyr Vermigli, who after fleeing Italy lived in Strassburg before moving to England as Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford from 1547 to 1553. Vermigli later taught in Zurich alongside Bullinger. Unlike his colleague, Bullinger exerted his influence on the English theological scene without ever leaving “High Germany.” Indeed, he rarely strayed far from Zurich after 1531 and when he succeeded Zwingli, he was Antistes of the Church.

This discovery has required a bit of readjustment on my part. Previously I would have named Bullinger as one of the top five foreign influences in England, along with Bucer, Vermigli, Melanchthon, and Erasmus, but I would not have accorded him any special pre-eminence as I have always been inclined to regard the English Reformation as something of a team effort. This is the reason we ended up with Anglicanism rather than Cranmerism, or more likely Ridleyism.[2] This lack of a dominating figure – except perhaps for Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth who were not professional theologians – makes it difficult to get to grips with the English Reformation except as a theological movement. The problem of interpretation has two major foci. First, the English Reformation was a protracted and complicated process whose on-again, off-again nature and institutional conservatism make it difficult to define in continental categories. Second, older views of the English Reformation, which remain influential in Church circles, tend to downplay the influence of the Continental Reformers in England regarding them as a blip in the history of a national Catholic Church. However, since the pioneering work undertaken by Collinson, for example in his 1979 biography of Edmund Grindal, it has become increasingly clear that the Church of England was fully involved in the European Reformation, even if some of the outcomes were uniquely English.

So, why was Bullinger so influential?

In part, due to sheer longevity. Luther was active for 31 years; Melanchthon for approximately forty; Zwingli for a mere 13 years; Calvin for not quite 30 years. For comparison, Bullinger was active for 53 years, from 1522 to 1575, starting out as the reforming master of the monastic school in Kappel, ending up not far away in Zurich. He also had that rare combination of firm principles with a conciliatory personality, a capacity for sheer hard work, a capacious memory, and a talent for clear teaching. Above all, he was a teacher with an intellect even more impressive than his beard, which was supported by a vast knowledge of the Scriptures and the Early Fathers. At the beginning of his Zurich ministry, he preached 4 or 5 times a week, but once he had a competent assistant, he reduced this to three times a week, and eventually to two to make time for his other duties. He also conducted a vast correspondence. The University of Zurich estimates that some 12,000 letters survive, which even if spread over fifty years, represents some 240 letters a year. Hardly any of them are routine greetings; indeed, many of them were small theological treatises intended to be shared by interested ministers and scholars. In terms of geographical spread, his correspondents spread from western France to Transylvania and the far reaches of Poland-Lithuania, and from Scotland to Italy. In an age of poor communications, he managed to be a European figure through the printing press and the letter, and this epistolatory ministry helped to bolster his influence. Bullinger’s productivity was, to use a good eighteenth-century word, prodigious.

So, what about Bullinger and England?

Some of his Biblical Commentaries and Sermons had been circulating in England as early as the mid-1530s, so he was known in England, at least in reforming circles, when Henry VIII imposed the Act of Six Articles in 1539. At this point, it became a case of England going to Bullinger. Reform-minded clergy decided it was safer to be elsewhere whilst Henry VIII was proving his Catholic orthodoxy, and one of the places they chose to settle was Zurich. These men returned to England to help with the Reformation under Edward VI, bringing with them the Zurich Reformer’s theology and outlook reinforcing the influence already secured through his writings. Bullinger’s interest in the cause of true religion in England is also shown in his dedication of three of the five volumes of his “Decades” – which appeared 1547‒51 ‒ to Englishmen. The third and fourth Decades are dedicated to Edward VI, and the fifth to Henry Grey, Marquis of Dorset. As a result of this continued interest in England, a second group of exiles settled in Zurich during the reign of Mary I (1553‒58) and these returned to take prominent positions in the Elizabethan Church of England. Edmund Grindal, Edwin Sandys, John Jewel, and Robert Horne were all among the Zurich exiles. Perhaps the best known of these Marian exiles in Zurich is John Jewel, the author of “The Apology of the Church of England” and much of the Second Book of Homilies. Jewel’s theology shows the influence of both Bullinger and of Vermigli, especially in his reliance on the witness of the Early Fathers to the primitive Catholic faith. Among his correspondents were Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I, not to mention Thomas Cranmer, Edmund Grindal, Lawrence Humphrey, Thomas Sampson, and a host of Edwardian and Elizabethan divines and statesmen.

England seems to have returned his regard. Bullinger’s advice was frequently sought in the reigns of both Edward VI and Elizabeth I. This included the disputes that broke out over the use of vestments in 1551 and again in the 1560s when on both occasions he expressed the opinion that whilst he had no great liking for vestments himself, they were lawfully ordered, and it was the duty of Churchmen to obey. This deeply irritated the nascent Puritan party. Bullinger’s writings continued to enjoy wide circulation In England, and were solid sellers throughout the rest of the sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth. This was no doubt assisted by Archbishop Whitgift’s decision to make the “Decades” the official manual of theology for the “dimmer brethren” among the clergy. Eleven years after Bullinger’s death, the Convocation of Canterbury launched a massive clergy education programme to solidify the grip of Protestant theology on the English clergy. In consequence, they ordered any clergyman not having the degree of Master of Arts or Bachelor of Laws[3] to purchase an English Bible, a notebook, and Bullinger’s “Decades.” From these materials they were to read a chapter of the Bible each day, making notes as they went, and one of Bullinger’s “Decades” sermons each week, also making notes. They were also to discuss their findings quarterly with a learned priest who had been appointed their tutor. Whilst it is difficult to estimate the overall effect of such diligent reading of the Decades, a distinct whiff of Bullinger was imparted to English Reformed theology, both Conforming and Puritan, at least until the Great Rebellion.

So why is Bullinger forgotten about today?

Mainly because fashions in theology changed. Between 1625 and 1660 English Puritans tended to abandon Bullinger in favor of Calvin, Beza and their successors, rejecting Bullinger as being too Establishment. High Churchmen tended to turn from Bullinger to an eclectic Anti-Calvinism which had evolved in Cambridge around 1600. However, Bullinger’s language about baptism is often recycled by High Church advocates of baptismal regeneration, and his concept of the spiritual presence in the Lord’s Supper remained a commonplace in English theology. Bullinger’s emphasis on the Bible, and the Early Fathers also endured. Also, would it be too fanciful to suggest that the “moderate Calvinism” of the 18th and 19th century Anglican Evangelicals owes as much to Bullinger as to Davenant’s in its moderate views on Predestination and Election?

Although the Church of England did embrace a good deal of Bullinger’s outlook, there were some noticeable departures, especially in terms of Church-State relations. The Church in Zurich, where the Synod consisted of both Pastors and eight councillors, enjoyed less freedom to order its affairs within the sacral state than the Church of England, where the bishops sat in the House of Lords and Convocation took order for the Church. England retained Church Music, occasionally on an elaborate scale, whereas until after 1600 Zurich’s worship was purely a matter of the spoken word. Then there are the obvious differences of administration – synodical Zurich versus episcopal England. However, when it comes to theology, Bullinger’s influence is center stage in the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church of England, so perhaps the time has come to re-evaluate the contribution of “The Great Beard of Zurich” to the English Reformation.


  1. By odd coincidence, Heinrich Bullinger’s descendant, E. W. Bullinger, the 19th-century Dispensationalist was an Anglican Clergyman.
  2. Contemporary sources tend to identify Nicholas Ridley (1500‒1555) as the theological brains behind the Reforming Party in the Church of England in the 1540s and 1550s.
  3. Bachelor of Laws (LL.B., or B.C.L. depending on university) was a graduate degree at Oxford and Cambridge roughly equivalent to the modern American J.D.


Peter D. Robinson

The Most Rev. Peter D. Robinson is the Presiding Bishop of the United Episcopal Church. He also serves as ordinary of the Missionary Diocese of the East and vicar of Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Waynesboro, Virginia.

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