The Barrel-Maker’s Son: Martin Bucer of Selestat, Alsace, France

Martin Bucer, was born November 11, 1491 into a family of barrel makers. His mother was a midwife. His father and his father’s father were both Coopers, makers of wine barrels for the thriving wine industry of Alsace. Since medieval times, wine from Alsace has had an international reputation for excellence. Coopers still produce wooden barrels for the wine industry today, with most of the world’s wooden wine barrels made from French oak, either common oak (Quercus robur) or white oak (Quercus petraea). The design of wooden barrels hasn’t changed much in a thousand years. A wine barrel or cask is still made of wooden staves forming a cylindrical shape held together by wooden or metal hoops. I believe the design of the wine barrel deeply influenced the life and ministry of Martin Bucer, who may best be understood as a “Cooper of the Church”, working throughout his life to build up the Church by holding together staves of believers with the hoops of faith, hope, and love.

Martin was born and raised in Selestat, France, at that time, a small town of 4000 people. Today, Selestat is still a small town in central Alsace, with a population of just 19,000, located midway between Colmar and Strasbourg, France. In September, 2015, we enjoyed three days in beautiful old town Selestat, staying in a multi-colored 2ne story apartment overlooking one of the old squares in the old part of town within sight of the two churches begun in the 9th century, the churches of St. George and St. Foy. We enjoyed strolling the twisty, cobble-stoned lanes among timber-framed colorful homes with red tiled roofs, among the steeples and bells of the two churches, among locals shopping for their daily lives. From our rented apartment, we could hear both church bells ringing the hours and quarter hours, as well as tolling the times for worship. We attended midweek worship at six in the evening, called to worship by the tolling of the bells of St. Foy.

The name Selestat comes from an old world name meaning “swamp town”, for the town is built along the Ill River, which often flooded the town, turning parts of medieval Selestat into a swamp. Along this waterway, the wine merchants transported barrels of Alsatian wine down to the Rhine to be distributed out to the rest of Europe, enjoyed by kings and common folks alike. Selestat was also home to one of France’s finest Latin grammar schools. Martin Bucer’s father and mother believed their son needed the best education to succeed in life, and thus enrolled him in this famous Latin school of Selestat where Martin learned his letters, and developed his early faith and Christian humanist outlook on life. At the age of 15, in 1506, Martin became a Dominican monk and began his decade long study of theology, first at the University of Heidelberg, Germany.

At the age of 27, in 1518, he met another theologian named Martin, Martin Luther of Wittenberg, just a year after Luther had posted his famous 95 theses marking the beginning of the protestant reformation. Bucer, eight years younger than Luther, was deeply influenced by Luther’s theology and writings. In 1521, Bucer left the Dominican order after studying the writings of Luther and Erasmus. He married a former nun, Elisabeth Silbereisen, and was formally excommunicated by the Church he loved in 1523, when he was 32 years old. That same year, Bucer moved to Strasbourg, a city known for its acceptance of divergent views of theology, where he began preaching and teaching the Bible according to the reformed theology of salvation by Christ alone, through Scripture alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. In 1538, he welcomed into Strasbourg another reformer, John Calvin who had been expelled from Geneva for a few years. While Strasbourg, Calvin was married to a widow of Strasbourg. Between 1524 and 1548, Bucer sought to bring together disparate “staves of the barrel” of the Church, including Lutherans, persecuted Anabaptists, Calvinists and Roman Catholics, meeting often with various parties, and writing letters even more often to Luther and Zwingli, among other protestant reform leaders, as well to leaders within the Roman Catholic Church.

Bucer welcomed to Strasbourg persecuted Anabaptists who had fled other parts of Europe. In 1536, he assisted in drafting the 1st Helvetic Confession, seeking to find common confessional “hoops” among various “staves” of the Church that were at odds with other staves. One of the biggest theological points of contention was the understanding of the mystery of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, also known as the Eucharist. For the sake of the unity of the Church, Bucer sought diligently to bring conflicting parties together to a common confession of unity in Christ, whom Bucer believed was truly present in the Sacraments. But Bucer also believed that Christ accepts our worship even from various views and approaches to the mystery of the sacraments. Our unity is in Christ Jesus, not in how we think about sacraments. Like his mother, Martin Bucer labored to midwife and bring to healthy birth and new life a new reform movement which was one Body, working together in unity in Christ.

In 1548, just three years before his death, Bucer was forced by Charles V to leave Strasbourg. He fled to England at the invitation of English reformer and Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer where he assisted Cranmer on writing the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Bucer also lectured as a professor of theology at Cambridge University. Throughout his life, he sought to unify the Church by the binding “hoops” of faith in Jesus Christ, hope in Jesus Christ, and love for Jesus Christ. Though most of his attempts to unify the Church failed during his lifetime, and though he is often overlooked or overshadowed by other 16th century reformers, Bucer stands today as one of the greatest “Coopers of the Church”, a man who gave his life to bring Christians together in our shared life in Jesus Christ. He also left us a beautiful collection of writings, including a wise book on soul mentoring, Concerning the True Care of Souls. Martin Bucer died in England in 1551 and was buried in Cambridge, far away from the place of his birth, Selestat, France.

Note on Photo Gallery

St. George Church, Selestat, France; Wine Barrel with metal hoops; mural of Erasmus; St. Foy Church towers; St. Foy close up; candles inside St. George Church, Selestat; inside St. George Church; Steeples of St. George Church; Rue Martin Bucer (street named after him) in Selestat, France; medieval and renaissance period houses in Selestat; sculpture of hands joining together at protestant church in Selestat; Humanist Library, place of Latin school where Martin Bucer went in late 1400’s; more images from inside St. George Church; view from our window at night looking out upon old town Selestat and church steeples; houses of Selestat; grape bas-relief in Selestat; tour of old medieval walls of Selestat; steeple of St. George at sunset; Latin writing from 15th century; mural of barrel-maker; old world casks on wooden cart; view from our window in Selestat by day; St. Foy Church steeples and old town homes in Selestat.