Called the “bishop of Lower Saxony” by Luther, Urbanus Rhegius served as an evangelical preacher in Augsburg after the start of the Reformation and finished the remainder of his career as superintendent and reformer in the Saxon duchy of Lüneberg. A trained humanist and conciliatory voice within Protestantism, he prioritized unity in the gospel over theological controversy amongst reformers. His most significant contributed to the Reformation, however, remains his much reprinted manual for clergy, which expressed his ongoing concern for pastoral reform.
Born Urban Rieger in May 1489 at Langenargen on Lake Constance, he was the son of a priest, Conrad Rieger, and his concubine. From 1504 to 1508, he attended the Latin school in Lindau before studying arts at Freiburg, where he was first exposed to humanism and eventually earned his bachelor of arts in 1510. At Freiburg, he befriended future reformer Wolfgang Capito, but he also became a devoted student of Luther’s future opponent, John Eck. He followed Eck to Ingolstadt in 1512, earning his master of arts in 1516 before teaching on the arts faculty the next two years. Along the way, he was named poet laureate by Emperor Maximilian. Around this time, he dropped his German name for its Latin equivalent, Urbanus Regius, which he would change to Rhegius in 1525.
The young student had become acquainted with Johann Fabri (Faber), future Catholic bishop of Vienna, and stayed with him at Constance in 1519. Through Fabri’s influence, Rhegius studied theology briefly at Tübingen and was ordained to the priesthood in 1519. He was named cathedral preacher at Augsburg in late 1520, succeeding humanist Johannes Oecolampadius, who had left the post in order to consider joining the reform movement. Though already proficient in Greek and Hebrew, a condition of Rhegius’s appointment was that he earn his doctorate in theology, which he received in 1520 from Basel. That same year, he also wrote his first two works, treatises on the dignity of the priesthood and on pastoral care, both reflecting his own provenance as the son of a priest. Like Oecolampadius before him, Rhegius would embark upon his personal journey toward Protestant theology at Augsburg as the polemical war over Luther’s early reforms reached its zenith. In 1521 and 1522, he published a number of short pamphlets, among them three pseudonymously titled defenses of Luther. Soon thereafter he became embroiled in a conflict with the cathedral canons over his criticism of indulgences and his seemingly Protestant preaching, which led to their election of another candidate to replace him as preacher.
Though he was not officially dismissed from his post, Rhegius returned home briefly to Langenargen before proceeding to Hall in the Tyrol, where he would serve as preacher until late 1523. Like Augsburg, he left the pulpit suspected of preaching evangelical doctrine. At roughly the same time, however, the city council in Augsburg invited him back to serve as preacher at the Carmelite church of St. Anne, where he would remain until 1530. During this period, Rhegius made his Protestant ideas known and preached them regularly from the pulpit. His earliest theological works of this period, treatises on Scripture and the Apostles’ Creed were more oblique, but by 1526 he wrote a defense of Protestant doctrine against charges that it was novel, entitled Nova doctrina. He brought these theological convictions to bear upon his pastoral practice and his personal life, as well. As preacher, he led the first Protestant mass in Augsburg in 1525. Earlier that year, he also married—the same month as Luther wed Katherine von Bora, no less. In 1529, he penned Seelenartznei, a pastoral manual for evangelical clergy on comfort for the sick and the dying.
Rhegius was soon conscripted into the broader political and theological debates within Protestantism. His entre concerned the rise of the Anabaptists, whom he opposed. He wrote three works against them in 1527 and 1528. He also found himself torn between the Eucharistic theologies of Luther and Zwingli. A humanist by training, he took a conciliatory approach to theology, seeking to find room for disagreement amongst fellow Protestants. Consequently, he argued that differences in the Eucharist should take a subordinate role to agreement on the gospel, a position which led him to neutrality over the 1529 Marburg Colloquy. His peacemaking efforts earned for him a friend in Philip of Hesse, which would prove profitable to the Protestant cause at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Not only did Rhegius collaborate on the drafting of the Augsburg Confession, but he was also able to convince Philip of Hesse to the sign the document, an important move for the Protestant party.
After the conclusion of the Diet of Augsburg, Rhegius finally met Luther at Coburg and the encounter would prove formative for the remainder of his career, as he became increasingly more committed to the Lutheran vision of theology and reform. He would stay active in broader Protestant circles, later contributing his signature to both Luther’s Smalcald Articles and Melanchthon’s Treatise on Power and the Primacy of the Pope in 1537 at the Schmalkalden assembly. Following the 1530 Reichstag, however, Rhegius chose to leave the politically contentious Augsburg to aid in bringing about reform in the duchy of Lünberg under Duke Ernst. With tensions rising over acceptance of the Protestant confession in Augsburg, he opted to join Duke Ernst’s efforts in Lower Saxony and moved to Celle later in 1530. From there until the end of his life, Rhegius would serve as the superintendent of Lüneberg. He helped reform monasteries, visited churches throughout the duchy, wrote church orders (one for Lüneberg, one for Hannover), and steadily led the introduction of Protestant reform, first at Lüneberg in 1531 and then at Hannover between 1535 and 1537.
Rhegius continued to practice conciliation in ecclesiastical and political affairs, most notably by urging toleration of the Jews in Braunschweig. His crowning achievement of the period, however, was a handbook for preachers he first published in Latin in 1535, and a year later in German. The Formulae quaedam caute served as a theological confession of Protestant doctrine that would help preachers craft evangelical sermons, but also introduce the Reformation to their hearers. Serving the dual purpose of pastoral manual and doctrinal statement, it was incorporated into later church orders in Lower Saxony (Lüneberg and Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel), reprinted repeatedly both during Rhegius’s life and after his death, and translated into numerous other languages, including Polish and Swedish. After attending the religious colloquy at Hagenau in 1540, he would return ill and never recover, dying on May 27, 1541 in Celle.