Unsung Heroes of the Protestant Reformation
Three Reformers You've Never Heard Of - But Should Know
By Josh Smith
If I came up to you and asked you to name one of the Protestant Reformers, chances are that you would name Martin Luther, and rightfully so! He is credited with being the spark that set the world on fire. In 1517, the landscape of Christendom quaked and shifted under the steadfast and faithful leadership of Luther.
If I followed up that initial question by asking you to name a few more Protestant Reformers, you might think of leaders from the Swiss Reformation: John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. You might come up with some of the reformers from the island of Great Britain: John Knox in Scotland and William Tyndale in England.
If I started to press you even more in naming some of the Protestant Reformers, some of you might name the pre-reformers: John Wycliffe and John Huss. You might name Luther’s right-hand man (Philip Melanchthon), Calvin’s successor (Theodore Beza), or Zwingli’s ally (Heinrich Bullinger).
At this point, however, many of us have exhausted our knowledge of who the Protestant Reformers are. However, the Protestant Reformation was a world-changing event that could not have been completed without help. There are hundreds of faithful Christians who contributed to the Protestant Reformation that are never talked about even though their stories are available to us. More than that, there are thousands of faithful Christians who were martyred, pastored churches, and served the Bride of Christ that we will never know about until we are with them in Glory.
In honor of Reformation Day this Sunday, October 31, I’d like to take a minute and introduce you to three unsung heroes of the Reformation who led, inspired, and supported the Protestant Reformation in numerous ways.
Johannes Bugenhagen (1485-1558)
The writings and contributions of men like Martin Luther and John Calvin were primarily theological. The church, however, isn’t simply a bastion of orthodoxy (although it is that); the church is inherently practical as well. Some churches overemphasize theology to the degree that they make no practical contribution to people’s lives, and vice versa. For Bugenhagen though, they were not separate pursuits; for Bugenhagen, practical ministry was an outworking of a robust theology.
In many ways, Bugenhagen was the pastor of the Protestant Reformation. After going into ministry in 1509 as a priest, Bugenhagen’s love for the Scripture led him to accept many of the teachings of the Protestant Reformation. This love of Scripture drove him to write no less than six commentaries and two books on how to study the Bible.
His love of scripture also led him to be the first reformer to marry. This was a practice not practiced by priests because they would take a vow of celibacy. By getting married, Bugenhagen was aligning himself with Reformation doctrines.
On top of this, Bugenhagen was the pastor of Martin Luther. For 35 years (beginning in 1523), Bugenhagen served in various roles at the church in Wittenberg, Germany – the very church where Luther nailed his theses six years earlier. In this role, Bugenhagen officiated the wedding of Martin Luther himself in 1525.
Bugenhagen’s greatest contribution, though, was his ability to administer the affairs of the local church. For years, Bugenhagen served as a counselor and overseer to pastors across Germany. For a few years in his ministry, Bugenhagen also traveled to the region of Pomerania and the country of Denmark to lead churches in reform.
Bugenhagen’s administrative talents were used by many churches who wished to establish a method of “doing church.” For these churches, Bugenhagen wrote Church Orders. These orders were, in essence, policies for local ministry. They encompassed everything from churches to schools to mercy ministries and became a model for newly reformed churches to use across all of Europe.
While he didn’t have a large following, a dramatic story, or a heroic martyrdom, it is not an overstatement to say that Bugenhagen’s efforts became the framework on which the Reformation was built. Apart from his systematization and organization of Reformation doctrines into a practical church environment, the Protestant Reformation might have ended as abruptly as it was started. However, Bugenhagen was greatly used by God to make the Reformation reproducible throughout the Christian world.
Lady Jane Grey (c. 1537-1554)
Not all reformers were pastors and theologians. Some were aristocratic princesses. This was the case with Lady Jane Grey. Because of this, the account of Lady Jane Grey has inspired young women to remain faithful to Christ for centuries.
Growing up in a family of aristocrats in England, Lady Jane Grey’s life was planned for her. As was the case in many aristocratic families of this time, her family wanted to be as close to the throne as possible. At the time, Lady Jane Grey’s parents’ only hope for accomplishing this audacious goal was to make Lady Jane as attractive and educated as possible. If this happened, there was a chance that the future king might take notice of her and take her to be his wife. If this happened, the Grey family would skyrocket to the top of English society.
So, Lady Jane was put through a rigorous educational process. Of all the subjects she was taught, the most important were, by far, Greek and Hebrew. As a result of this, Lady Jane was able to study the Word of God in their original languages.
When the time came for her to be married to the chief minister of the King of England, Guildford Dudley, Lady Jane was sent to the court of King Henry VIII to prepare. King Henry VIII, though, was a Protestant king. His wife, Queen Katherine Parr, explained Reformed doctrines to Lady Jane. Because Lady Jane was well-versed in Scripture, Reformed theology made sense to her! As a result of Queen Katherine’s witness, Lady Jane became a Reformed Christian. However, King Henry VIII and Queen Katherine Parr weren’t always on the throne.
King Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI, took the throne at the age of nine, however, he passed at the age of 15. Days before his death, Edward VI named Lady Jane Grey as heir to the throne, seemingly bypassing his half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth. This decision did not go undisputed. After Edward VI’s death, Lady Jane was forcibly removed from the succession plan and replaced by his Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor.
Infamously, Mary Tudor would go down in history as “Bloody Mary.” And for good reason. Shortly after she seized the throne, Bloody Mary began to persecute the Protestant reformers in England and sought to subdue the spiritual revolt taking place. Just under a year after Bloody Mary ascended to the throne, she called for the execution of her Protestant adversary, Lady Jane Grey.
Bloody Mary thought the only way to be saved was through the Catholic church, and even though the execution was set to take place, Bloody Mary sent a Catholic theologian to try to persuade Lady Jane to come back to Catholic doctrine and be saved. John Feckenhmam came to Lady Jane in prison to convince her that salvation was by faith and works. Lady Jane, however, remained steadfast. Salvation was by faith alone.
So, Lady Jane was taken to the place of her execution. From the platform, she reportedly declared to the crowd: “I do look to be saved by no other mean, but only by the mercy of God, in the blood of his only Son, Jesus Christ.” After this, Lady Jane placed her head on the execution block and, in the words of Jesus, said, “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.”
Lady Jane was martyred for her belief that salvation was by faith alone at the young age of 17. She was not the only Reformed martyr in England, let alone all of Europe. But her courage and faithfulness stand as a testimony to us all.
Robert Estienne (1503-1559)
While Bugenhagen was a pastor and Lady Jane a princess, Robert Estienne was simply a man that worked for a living. Specifically, Estienne was a printer – one of the most successful printers in Europe. Being a printer, Estienne worked with books on a regular basis. In the spirit of the Renaissance, Estienne loved to read old texts and learn the languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.
One of the things Estienne is most known for is completing the work of dividing the Bible into chapters and verses. Over the years, Estienne worked for the king of France, printing whatever he needed in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.
Throughout his life, Estienne also printed numerous editions of the Latin Vulgate and the Greek and Hebrew testaments. As such, Estienne was well-versed in the contents of Scripture. This led to the realization that the Catholic’s Latin Vulgate was not always accurate in its translation of the original Greek and Hebrew. So in 1545, Estienne published an Interlinear Bible with the text of the Latin Vulgate on one side and his own translation of the Greek and Hebrew on the other. In this volume, Estienne also included study notes that called into question the accuracy of the Latin Vulgate in various passages.
This caused an uproar in Catholic France. With news of Luther’s Reformation well-known at this point, Estienne was rumored to be a heretic, just like Martin Luther. As a result, Estienne had to flee France in 1550. From Paris, Estienne fled to Geneva, Switzerland – where none other than John Calvin was pastor.
In Geneva, Estienne became an open supporter of the Protestant Reformation and became the most effective printer for the Reformation’s cause. Three years after he arrived, Estienne printed a copy of the Bible in the French language. The Reformation was known for getting the Bible into the hands of the common people. Estienne’s efforts in producing a French Bible were a large contribution to this cause.
Furthermore, John Calvin was the most prolific, nuanced, and articulate writer of the Protestant Reformation. This would not have been possible had Estienne not been Calvin’s personal printer. Over the years, Estienne published Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, as well as a plethora of Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible. If that wasn’t enough, Estienne printed more Bibles and the writings of other Reformers as well.
Due to Estienne’s efforts, the Protestant Reformation spread far and wide. The printed word focused the lenses with which people viewed scripture. Because of Estienne’s incredible printing ministry, we still have many of the books that clarified and recovered the doctrines of the Reformation.
The Protestant Reformation would not have been successful if Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, and Tyndale were the only ones who fought for it. If there had not been other people who had supported, stood up for, and reproduced the doctrines of the Reformation, the big-name Reformers would have crumbled.
The Reformation taught that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to Scripture alone, and to the glory of God alone. No matter who you are or what you are doing, the examples of Bugenhagen, Lady Jane, and Estienne should spur us on to do whatever we can to see the gospel of Jesus Christ go forth in emboldened clarity. Use what you have and where you are to make salvation in Christ known to the world. God uses the ministry of everyday people to fulfill the Great Commission. May this be true of your life.