In late medieval Roman Catholicism, donating children to a convent or monastery was a respectable way for parents to lighten their load. Families with too many children or not enough money—or in the hope of accruing spiritual merit—would drop off children with the local monks or nuns. So it happened for Anna Adlischweiler.
Anna, born around 1504, was about eight when her father died in battle. Her mother, a pious Roman Catholic, gave Anna to the Oedenbach convent at Zurich. And as Anna’s mother was sick and convents functioned as hospitals, she moved in with her daughter. We do not know what Anna thought of this huge shift in her life, but at least convent routine was predictable for a child whose world had been turned upside down. Soon, Anna herself became a nun.
But God had not planned a life of secluded chastity for her. While she lived quietly in the convent, strange things happened outside of it: the Reformation came to Zurich. Huldrych Zwingli’s preaching won the town and the gospel was preached in all the churches until there was only one place that kept it out: the Oedenbach convent. The Zurich city council wanted the nuns to hear the good news and finally ordered Zwingli to go and preach to them in 1522. He obeyed, and the closed realm opened. Zwingli and Leo Jud took over the spiritual care of the convent. Many nuns took advantage of the situation and left. Only two nuns stayed behind: Anna and her mother. But Anna could hardly be called a nun anymore: the Holy Spirit had used Zwingli’s preaching to convert her. The reason she stayed was so that she could care for her sick mother, who had nowhere to go.
As chaplain, Leo Jud took young Heinrich Bullinger on a pastoral visit to the convent. They met with Anna. Bullinger quickly fell in love and proposed by letter. It is the oldest existing love letter from a Reformer, and it stands out for its length and logic. In it, Bullinger describes his physical condition and means, and then he wraps up his argument by saying, “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.”
Anna accepted the proposal. But as her terminally ill mother was opposed to the marriage, Anna postponed the wedding so that she could care for her in the convent. In 1529, Anna’s mother died; the couple married six weeks later on August 17. Bullinger wrote in his diary, “Anna and I were married in August . . . in the church at Birmenstorf. . . . A dinner reception was held in the chapel of the monastery.”
The quiet wedding began a very public marriage. During the previous year, the Zurich synod had licensed Bullinger as a minister; he accepted the pastorate at Bremgarten, Switzerland, where his father had been pastor. The couple moved there, and there Anna gave birth to her first two daughters, Anna and Margaret.
But the defeat of Zurich in the same battle that killed Zwingli in 1531 made life and ministry dangerous for them, especially for Bullinger, as Roman Catholics had no mercy on Protestant ministers. At the news of approaching Roman Catholic forces, Bullinger fled Bremgarten with his father and brother. With the help of a faithful servant, Anna left her home, taking her two small children, and set out to join her husband. She arrived safely in Zurich where he was staying.
The church at Zurich was looking for a successor to Zwingli; Jud convinced Bullinger to preach in the cathedral. The congregation extended a call and Bullinger accepted. This was a great honor and it came with great responsibility, not only for the preacher but also for his wife. Caring for a busy husband was only one aspect of her calling, and Anna was busier than her husband. Babies arrived almost yearly until there were eleven children in their home, six sons and five daughters. Bullinger’s father and mother lived there until they died. The couple took in Zwingli’s widowed wife and children, caring for them as their own family. Bullinger also had the habit of having interns or other gifted students live in his house.
Anna’s household became very large, often with more than twenty people living in her home. The wonder is that on her husband’s small salary she was able to feed and clothe so many. We have hints of her difficulty in a letter that Bullinger wrote in December 1553 to his oldest son in Strasbourg: “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.”
A large, diverse family were not the only recipients of Anna’s care. Her house was a home to the homeless, for Protestant refugees from all over Europe came to stay with the Bullingers. Zurich was an asylum to the persecuted Reformed, and Bullinger was a good friend to the refugees. First, in 1542, came the Italian Reformed: Peter Martyr, Bernard Ochino, and Celio Curione. Curione wrote a letter of thanks, saying, “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. On March 3, 1556, they fled over the snow-covered Alps. One hundred and sixteen of them arrived at Zurich on May 12. Bullinger and Anna set the example of hospitality for the city and reportedly hosted eighty refugees at once.
When persecution broke out in England in 1550 under Mary I (Bloody Mary), Bullinger and the Zurich church gladly received the refugees. Even before that, as early as 1536, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had sent three young men to be educated at Zurich, two of whom Bullinger took into his own house. One of them would later repeatedly express his thankfulness to Bullinger and to Anna, who had become like a mother to him. Because of the persecutions in England, Bullinger’s table was often filled with refugees, and Anna sometimes worried about what to do with them or how to feed and clothe them all. Somehow, she managed; the Lord always provided. The couple’s care for the English Protestants was so well known that Queen Elizabeth later expressed her thanks. So Anna ended up ministering far beyond the place she lived by loving all of Christ’s diverse people.