Reformation City Greifswald
“You are highly honoured”
The university seat and Hanseatic city of Greifswald lies on the Baltic Sea between the islands of Rügen and Usedom in far the north-eastern corner of Germany and belongs to the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.
In 1250, the Lübisch law (constitution of the imperial city of Lübeck) issued by the ruler of the Duchy of Pomerania made Greifswald one of the most important Hanseatic cities in the Baltic region. However, the Hanseatic influence gradually waned from the 15th century on.
Founded in 1456, Greifswald University is one of the oldest in northern Europe. The boom of its founding era was followed by times marred by many setbacks. This was mainly due to the conflicts between rulers, the nobility, clerics and cities, in which the university was also embroiled as a result of its diverse connections with parties to the disputes. These quarrels overlapped with economic and political struggles for power within the city before the backdrop of the spreading Reformation movement.
As happened in many Hanseatic cities, the divisions between the councillors’ families of wealthy, important merchants, on the one side, and the shopkeepers and tradesmen, on the other, also came to a head in Greifswald. The latter demanded a say in governing the city and controlling its purse strings. The rulers exploited these divisions to help expand their influence over the city, often siding with the opponents of the city’s authorities. The social unrest was fanned by the advance of Luther’s doctrine. While parts of the population, particularly the tradesmen and shopkeepers, were attracted to the new doctrine, the ruling circles held fast to the traditional Church.
The Reformation movement started to take hold in Pomerania during the early 1520s, with the cities in the Duchy at the forefront. While an indignant crowd of townspeople had succeeded in instating Protestant preaching in its fellow Hanseatic city of Stralsund in 1525, Greifswald still swam against the tide of the Reformation under the imposing influence of its council, clergy and the university’s faculties. “Greifswald, you are highly honoured,” they sang in Stralsund – a song of praise to Greifswald’s loyalty to the traditional Church. Greifswald was considered a bastion of the old faith, underpinned by nearby Eldena Abbey, the cathedral chapter of St Nicholas’ Church and the university.
In 1531, the supporters of the old doctrine lost their most important protector with the death of Duke George. On 16 July that same year, Johann Knipstro gave the first Protestant sermon in St Nicholas’ Church in Greifswald at the insistence of the trades and its citizens. Knipstro had been an early advocate of Luther’s Theses and played a role in establishing a new church structure in Stralsund from 1525 on. Now, Knipstro appointed Protestant preachers to Greifswald’s three city churches – St Nicholas’, St Mary’s and St. Jacob’s.
At the behest of the Diet of Treptow on the Rega, in 1534 Protestantism was declared the authoritative doctrine for all of the Duchy of Pomerania. Work began on constructing a Lutheran church organisation that would be independent from the ruler. Johann Bugenhagen, one of Luther’s companions who had studied at the Faculty of Arts at Greifswald University between 1502 and 1504, drew up the new church order. Ownership of Eldena Abbey was transferred to the Dukes of Pomerania. The Franciscan abbey (Grey Abbey) was taken over by the city of Greifswald – and nowadays houses the Pomeranian State Museum. The Dominican abbey (Black Abbey) was handed to the university and turned into halls of residence for professors and students.
The university was re-launched as a Protestant university in 1539 after teaching had almost completely ceased there from 1527 during the disputes over the introduction of the Reformation. Johann Knipstro was appointed its first professor of Protestant theology. The chair of theology was linked to the office of General Superintendent. With the aid of the rulers’ increasing authority over higher education, the Pomeranian State University soon regained pan-regional importance.