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The City of Braunschweig and the Reformation

In 2017, thoughts around the world are turning to the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation. The publication of the Martin Luther's 95 theses marks the beginning of diverse and profound changes in church and society. Braunschweig played a considerable role in this context and there is therefore plenty of reason to remember the age of the Reformation in our city, too.

A number of events are taking place in Braunschweig in this anniversary year. The events calendar (German version) and the programme brochure, available here for download in German, provide an overview of what is on offer.

Gemälde: "Bugenhagen proklamiert die Reformation 1528 vom Rathaus zu Braunschweig" (Foto: Städtisches Museum, Dirk Scherer )

First and foremost, the particular role which towns and the middle classes played in spreading the Reformation must be stressed. The towns were centres of commerce, education, innovation and communication on the threshold of the modern age. Citizens saw their urban society, which was firmly anchored in the divine world order, as a kind of "sacred community". The religious attitude was defined by an intense piety and a turning towards questions of belief which, ultimately, were the basis for the success of the ideas inherent in the Reformation. In addition to this, the printing of books, an activity located in the towns, was entirely fundamental to the rapid spread of the immensely successful writings of the reformers. Braunschweig may not have been a centre for this new medium but the writings of the reformers were also available on the banks of the Oker very shortly following their publication.

The beginning of the reformatory events in Braunschweig is linked with the work of the Benedictine monk, Gottschalk Kruse. Kruse, who had studied in Erfurt and Wittenberg and knew Martin Luther personally, started to give public lessons about the Gospel of Saint Matthew at his abbey – lessons which were very well received by the citizenry. The earliest piece of Reformation writing in Lower Saxony stemmed from Kruse's quill and was published in 1522 by the only printer then operating in Braunschweig, Hans Dorn. However, Kruse was not to enjoy lasting success, as the town council and the clergy expelled him from the town in 1523. He later worked as a reformer in Harburg and Celle.

The Reformation was provided with new impetus in the following years by the works of reform-minded curates, those clerics subordinate to the actual priests at the parish churches of the town. In 1527, two of them, Johannes Oldendorp and Heinrich Lampe, carried out the first christening in the German language at the church of St Magnus and gave Communion in both forms. At the same time, the citizenry were making ever more insistent demands on the council to change the entire church structure to the new teachings.

Niederdeutsche Übersetzung der Lutherbibel, 1533, Theologisches Zentrum Braunschweig (Foto: Braunschweigisches Landesmuseum / A. Pröhle)

In deference to Emperor Charles V and the Guelph state sovereign, Henry the Younger, Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel, the council had for a long time held back in this regard. In 1528, it gave up on this reticence and commissioned Johannes Bugenhagen with the drawing-up of a new church constitution.

Bugenhagen was one of Luther's closest confidants and, as parish pastor of Wittenberg, also had the necessary experience for taking the church structure in Braunschweig in a new direction. His wide-ranging church constitution, announced on 5th September 1528, not only regulated questions of church organisation and services but also concerned the town's educational and welfare provision.

Johannes Bugenhagen subsequently continued his reforming activities in Hamburg, Lübeck and Scandinavia, amongst other places. The Braunschweig church constitution most certainly served as a model here. However, the issuing of the church constitution did not mean the complete implementation of the Reformation in Braunschweig. There followed a phase of internal and external validation of the evangelical denomination. Internally, it was important to reach an understanding with those parts of the citizenry who retained the old beliefs and to achieve unity amongst the clergy when it came to interpreting evangelical teaching. Externally, conflict was escalating with Duke Henry the Younger, who was one of the most high-profile opponents to the Reformation amongst the German princes. After several bloody conflicts, agreement was only reached with the peace accord of Wolfenbüttel (1553), in which the validity of the Evangelical denomination in the town was set down in writing. The principality of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel only converted to the Reformation after Henry's death (1568).

The introduction of the Reformation into the town of Braunschweig was, therefore, not a single act, but a process lasting many years. To a great extent, the citizens of the town initiated and helped to shape this process of the transformation of their church structure.