Anna Bullinger


Perhaps no one better personifies the spirit of Christian hospitality than Anna Bullinger. As war ravaged Europe, refugees fled to Zurich where they were warmly received into the Bullinger home. To speak of Anna and Heinrich Bullinger is not only to speak of covenant faithfulness to the people of God, but to be introduced to one of the enduring love stories of a couple who lived their faith every day.

Anna Bullinger’s maiden name was Adlischweiler. The date of her birth we do not know, but it was probably 1504. Her father died in battle when she was only eight years old. Her mother, thinking to do God a service, afterwards took her daughter and gave her to the Roman Church by placing her in the cloister at Oedenback, at Zurich, where she became a nun. And as the mother herself was sick with dropsy and desired to be near her daughter, she boarded there, too.

But while they were thus quietly living in the cloister, strange things were happening outside of it in Zurich. The Reformation had come. Zwingli’s preaching had won the town, and the Gospel was preached in the churches, until there was but one place in the town where it was not heard, and that was the nunnery at Oedenbach. Finally the city council of Zurich, unwilling that of all the inhabitants of the town the nuns there should be the only ones shut out from hearing a Gospel sermon, ordered Zwingli in 1522 to go and preach in the nunnery. This call he obeyed with great joy, and he preached a remarkable and impressive sermon on “The Clearness and Certainty of the Word of God.” This sermon had a double effect. Some of the nuns were won by it to the Gospel, but others became very bitter against it.

As a very bitter strife now broke out in the nunnery between the adherents and opponents of Zwingli, the city council at last felt itself compelled to forbid the Dominicans, who before had been the spiritual guides of the cloister, to enter it, and ordered Zwingli and Leo Juda to take the spiritual care of the inmates. Against this the monks and some of the sisters protested, but in vain. The council then gave orders, allowing any of the nuns, who so desired, to leave and to take their property and clothing with them. Many of them took advantage of this, and some who left married. Those who desired to remain were permitted to do so, but were not allowed to wear nun’s garb. Soon Anna was the only nun remaining in the nunnery, except one aged sister. And she would not have remained (for she had been won by Zwingli’s preaching), but for the sake of her sick mother.

Ornate doors at the north and south entrances of the Grossmunster Church depict scenes of the Reformation

Now it happened that Leo Juda, who was chaplain of the nunnery, took with him one day young Henry Bullinger, who was on a visit to him. Bullinger’s heart was touched by the tender influence of love, and he wrote her a marriage proposal. His letter to her is still extant as the first love letter of the Reformers. This letter is a long one, covering fourteen and a half printed pages, and for candor and Christian love it might well be a model to all who desire to make marriage proposals (except that it is too long). In it he describes his physical condition and his means, and eloquently sums it up by saying, “But why are many words necessary! The sum of it all is, that the greatest, surest treasure that you will find in me, is fear of God, piety, fidelity and love, which with joy I will show you, and labor, earnestness and industry, which will not be wanting in temporal things. Concerning high nobility and many thousand gulden, I can say nothing to you. But I know that what is necessary to us, will not be wanting. For Paul says, ‘We brought nothing into the world, and we will take nothing out. Therefore, if we have clothing and food it is enough.’”

Ten days after she received his proposal, Bullinger received her reply, which was in the affirmative. But as her mother was opposed to the marriage, and moreover was quite sick, Anna desired the marriage to be postponed, so that she could stay at the nunnery with her mother. Meanwhile Bullinger utilized the time by preparing her by careful teaching for her future position as his wife. He therefore wrote a small book entitled, “Concerning Female Training, and How a Daughter Should Guide Her Conduct and Life.” Her mother having died, they were married in 1529. During the previous year Bullinger had been licensed by the Zurich Synod as a minister, and had accepted the pastorate at Bremgarten, where his father had been pastor. Two daughters were born to them there, and great was their joy. But it was soon turned into sorrow.

For the defeat of Zurich at Cappel, on October 11, 1531, (in the battle where Zwingli fell) made it dangerous for them, especially for Bullinger, as the Romish armies had little mercy for Protestant ministers. So on the night of November 20, Bullinger fled from Bremgarten, together with his aged father and brother. They had hardly left the town when the Catholic soldiers entered it and plundered Bullinger’s house, and quartered thirty soldiers, who with the two little children had been left behind. She saw she could not provide for them, so she determined to flee, too.

Now she had as her servant a woman, who because of her faithfulness has become a historical character. Her name was Brigette. She had served the family for many years, not for money, but for love, for her yearly wages were four gulden (about two dollars) and a pair of shoes, and yet for this she served the family for thirty-five years. Anna, leaving the care of the house to this faithful servant, fled with her two children, one a year and a half old, the other only six months old. When she came to the gate of the town, she found it closed and the guard was unwilling to open it. But nerved by a mother’s superhuman strength, she wrested the key from him by force, and opened it and fled. Great was the joy of her husband, who was at Zurich, when she arrived safely with her little children, and glad were they to find a refuge at Zurich.

But they were still not perfectly safe, for after the defeat of Cappel and the death of Zwingli, there had come a reaction in Zurich, which had become so strong that Leo Juda, Zwingli’s closest friend, was afraid to go out, and his wife trembled for his life. The church at Zurich was looking for a successor to Zwingli. Bullinger’s friends, Leo Juda and Myconius prevailed on Bullinger to preach in the cathedral. And so able and eloquent was his sermon that the people said he was a Zwingli risen from the dead. The city of Zurich, finding he had calls to Basle, Bern and Appenzell, hastened to elect him, although he was only twenty-seven years old.

Statue of Bullinger on the southern exterior wall of the Grossmunster

Great was the honor shown him, but also great was the responsibility. His new position brought much honor to his wife but also many new cares. Not merely did her family grow almost yearly by the birth of a child until they numbered eleven, but as the wife of the head of the church, she had to receive and entertain many strangers in her house. Thus Bullinger’s father and mother lived with them till they died. Bullinger also with great kindness took into his home the wife and children of his predecessor, Zwingli, and cared for them as he cared for his own family. He also received into his house young Rudolph Gualther and educated him. It was a kindness worthily bestowed, for Gualther afterwards became his successor as antistes. In addition to Gualther, Bullinger took Henry Lavater and Josiah Simler and others into his home, and in 1531 two Polish boys with their tutor.

Thus Anna Bullinger’s family became very large and her cares many. And the wonder is that on the small salary of 700 pounds she was able to do it. Hence great economy was necessary to feed and clothe so many in the family. Very characteristic was the letter Bullinger wrote to his oldest son at Strasburg, December 20, 1553, “Your mother makes big eyes when you already speak of needing another pair of shoes for the winter. It is hardly fifteen weeks since you left us, when you took three pairs with you, the red, the gray and black. At this rate you will need six pairs a year. I have more than enough with two.” But Bullinger afterwards gives his son the advice, “Do not let your shoes go to pieces, but get them mended in time.” And three months after he praises his son for his economy. On his small salary Bullinger could not have provided for all in his house had Anna not guided the household with her economy. Anna could not have borne all the cares had not Bullinger’s mother aided her. And Brigette, too, greatly helped her, as Brigette had become more of a household companion than a servant, for Bullinger in writing to his son Henry in 1556, at Strasburg, says, “Your five sisters greet you, and especially Brigette, who sends to you a present of three groschen.” Brigette might well be called the model servant of the Reformation. Little did she think that she would be spoken of centuries after her tender ministry in Bullinger’s home; but her faithfulness is worthy of it, and her life shows how one in a lowly position, only a servant girl, can gain a great reward by simple faithfulness, serving not for money but for love.

Thus Bullinger assisted by his wife was able to do much with little money. Nor were these things all the cares that came to Anna. Her house was not only a home to the homeless, but became virtually a sort of hotel, for to it came the refugees of every land. Zurich was an asylum to the persecuted Reformed of other lands. This was due to the great friendliness of Bullinger to the refugees. First in 1542 came the Italian Reformed, driven out by the persecutions of the inquisition, Peter Martyr, Bernard Ochino, Celio Curione, all scholarly, eloquent men. Curione writes a letter of thanks, in which he calls Bullinger a bishop according to the description of a bishop given by the apostle Paul, and says, “Your friendliness and your Christian care for us during our stay with you obliges me to give you my inmost thanks. Greet for us very heartily your wife, who showed herself so full of kindly service and love.”

Then came the refugees from Locarno, on the southern borders of Switzerland. Beccaria had there founded a Reformed church, and it had grown to two hundred members. Their prosperity incited their Catholic neighbors against them, and it was decided November 24, 1555, that all who would not return to the Romish faith must leave. So March 3, 1556, they fled over the snowy Alps, and one hundred and sixteen in number arrived at Zurich May 12. There they were gladly received by the people, and especially by Bullinger. He and his wife set the example and led the way. Great was her care and anxiety for those refugees, who had left all for the Gospel’s sake. And when the fires of persecution broke out in England in 1550, under Bloody Mary, Bullinger and the Zurich church gladly received them.

Even before that, as early as 1536, Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, had sent three young men to be educated at Zurich, one of whom Bullinger took into his own house, and the next year he took another. When they left, they kept up correspondence with him, and one of them, Partridge, again and again expressed his thankfulness to Bullinger and to his wife, who had become a mother to him. In 1546, Hooper, later bishop and martyr of the Church of England, came to Zurich, and was received by Bullinger in his own home, where he had a daughter baptized by Bullinger. After his return to England, he wrote to Bullinger, expressing his great thankfulness to him and his wife for their hospitality. When the Marian persecution broke out in England, Bullinger’s table was often filled with refugees, and his wife often had great care and anxiety to know what to do with them, or how to provide for them. Zurich founded a school for them to educate twelve English students as ministers, of whom five afterwards became bishops. All of them afterwards expressed the greatest thankfulness to Bullinger and his wife for the kindness they had received at their house. They also sent presents to Zurich, as a return for kindnesses shown. There are still at Zurich three large polished silver goblets, which three of these returned bishops, Jewel, Horn and Parkhurst, presented to the church of Zurich. And there is also a goblet of fine workmanship, which Queen Elizabeth presented to Bullinger as a token of her thanks. Nor were these all the refugees entertained by Bullinger and his family. When the wars in Germany went against the Protestants, some of them found refuge at Zurich, as Musculus and Cellarius. Musculus, in a letter from Bern, afterwards thanks Bullinger for his hospitality, and also Bullinger’s wife for the comfort of her letter to his wife.

Thus Bullinger’s wife was a ministering angel to the refugees. Many were her cares and responsibilities, to which all these bear witness. In addition to these refugees there came many prominent foreign visitors, as Calvin and Farel from Geneva, also Bucer and Capito from Strasburg, among theologians, Portalis, the ambassador of the king of Navarre, the noble families of Würtemberg and Schaumburg, who were refugees. All these were for a time entertained by Bullinger’s family, or in social relations with it. And not only to foreigners was Bullinger’s home a refuge for foreigners, but also to the poor at home. Thus Fabricius, the reformer of Chur, tells of a distant relative, who found herself poor and helpless at Zurich, and was taken by Bullinger to his own home and kept there for a time as a member of it. A continual stream of beautiful gifts flowed through the hand of Anna Bullinger to the huts of the poor and stilled many a grief. She provided the needy sick with food, drink, clothing, money, in fact everything necessary. She joined with the leading ladies of Zurich, the wives of ministers, as of Leo Juda, Pellican, Peter Martyr and others, in these labors of love. Is it any wonder, in view of all these things, that she was known at Zurich by the name, so descriptive of her character, of “mother.” And in foreign lands, by English, Italians, Dutch and Germans, she was known and addressed by the title of “Zurich-mother.” A good Samaritan was she till her end in 1564. Then her husband sickened of the plague, so that all thought he must die. During his sickness Anna, forgetful of self, nursed him so that he got well. But it was at the cost of her own life. For as he recovered, she sickened and died. Great was the sorrow in Zurich for her. And her memory remains for the Reformed as a beautiful inspiration for deeds of love and charity. “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord from henceforth. Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.”

Excerpted and abridged from Famous Women of the Reformed Church, by Rev. J. I. Good. Originally Published by the Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1901.