Other than Martin Luther, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin, the most important early Reformer was Ulrich Zwingli. A first-generation Reformer, he is regarded as the founder of Swiss Protestantism. Furthermore, history remembers him as the first Reformed theologian. Though Calvin would later surpass Zwingli as a theologian, he would stand squarely on Zwingli’s broad shoulders.
Less than two months after Luther came into the world, Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in Wildhaus, a small village in the eastern part of modern-day Switzerland, forty miles from Zurich. His father, Ulrich Sr., had risen from peasant stock to become an upper-middle-class man of means, a successful farmer and shepherd, as well as the chief magistrate for the district. This prosperity allowed him to provide his son with an excellent education. He presided over a home where typical Swiss values were inculcated in young Ulrich: sturdy independence, strong patriotism, zeal for religion, and real interest in scholarship.
The elder Ulrich early recognized the intellectual abilities of his son and sent him to his uncle, a former priest, to learn reading and writing. Thanks to his prosperity, Zwingli’s father was able to provide his son with further education. In 1494, he sent the ten-year-old Ulrich to the equivalent of high school at Basel, where he studied Latin, dialectic, and music. He made such rapid progress that his father transferred him to Berne in 1496 or 1497, where he continued his studies under a noted humanist, Heinrich Woeflin. Here Zwingli was given significant exposure to the ideas and Scholastic methods of the Renaissance. His talents were noted by the Dominican monks, who tried to recruit him to their order, but Zwingli's father did not want his son to become a friar.
Universities of Vienna and Basel
In 1498, Zwingli’s father sent him to the University of Vienna, which had become a center of classical learning as Scholasticism was displaced by humanist studies. There he studied philosophy, astronomy, physics, and ancient classics. In 1502, he enrolled at the University of Basel and received a fine humanist education. In class, he came under the influence of Thomas Wyttenbach, professor of theology, and began to be aware of abuses in the church. He also taught Latin as he pursued further classical studies. He received his bachelor's (1504) and master’s (1506) degrees from the school.
Zwingli was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church and immediately purchased a pastorate at Glarus, his boyhood church. Paying money to a prince for a church position was a common practice prior to the Reformation. His time was spent preaching, teaching, and pastoring. He also devoted himself to much private study, teaching himself Greek and studying the Church Fathers and the ancient classics. He became enamored with the pagan philosophers and poets of old. Most significantly, he began reading the humanist writings of Desiderius Erasmus and was profoundly impressed with his scholarship and piety. This sparked a highly prized correspondence with Erasmus.
During his service in Glarus, from 1506 to 1516, Zwingli twice served as chaplain to bands of young Swiss mercenaries. Swiss soldiers for hire were in great demand across Europe and were a major source of income for Swiss cantons. Even the pope had Swiss guards around him. But this practice cost the lives of many of the best Swiss young men. As a chaplain, Zwingli witnessed many of them fighting each other, Swiss killing Swiss on foreign soil for foreign rulers. He was forced to administer the last rites countless times. The Battle of Marignano (1515) took nearly ten thousand Swiss lives. Zwingli came to deplore the evils of this system and began to preach against it.
His final year at Glarus proved to be pivotal. It was at this time that Zwingli came to an evangelical understanding of the Scriptures. Erasmus published his Greek New Testament in that year, and Zwingli devoured it; it is said he memorized Paul’s epistles in the original language. This occurred a little more than a year before Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door. Thanks to his study of the Scriptures, with no knowledge of Luther's ideas, Zwingli began to preach the same message Luther would soon proclaim. He wrote:
Before anyone in the area had ever heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516. . . . I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther's name. . . . Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy Scripture alone.
Popular Preacher at Einsiedeln
Because of political pressures and his sermons against mercenary fighting, Zwingli was forced to leave Glarus in 1516. He served as a priest at the Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln until 1518. Einsiedeln was a resort city that was known for its shrine to the Virgin Mary. This shrine attracted large numbers of pilgrims from all parts of Switzerland and beyond. This wider audience heard Zwingli preach, which expanded his reputation and influence.
Einsiedeln was smaller than Glarus, so his duties were lighter. That afforded him more time for the study of Scripture and the Church Fathers. He read the works of Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Augustine, as well as the writings of Erasmus. Further, he copied by hand Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. As he distinguished himself as a popular preacher, he also began attacking some of the abuses of the church, specifically the sale of indulgences, and his preaching began to take on a stronger evangelical tone. However, Zwingli did not yet see the need for changes in what the church believed. Rather, he felt reform should be primarily institutional and moral. Also, he remained more dependent on the Church Fathers than the Scriptures in his teaching. He was not yet ready for the work of reform.
In December 1518, Zwingli’s growing influence secured for him the office of "people's priest" at the Grossmünster (Great Cathedral) at Zurich. This pastorate was a significant position. Zwingli immediately broke from the normal practice of preaching according to the church calendar. Instead, he announced he would preach sequentially through whole books of the Bible. On January 1, 1519, his thirty-fifth birthday, Zwingli began a series of expository sermons through Matthew that were drawn from his exegesis of the Greek text. He continued this consecutive style until he had preached through the entire New Testament. This ambitious project took six years and prepared the ground for the work of reform that was to follow.
In autumn 1519, Zurich suffered an outbreak of the plague. Two thousand of its seven thousand citizens died. Zwingli chose to stay in the city to care for the sick and dying. In the process, he himself contracted the disease and nearly died. His three-month recovery taught him much about trusting God. This personal sacrifice also increased his popularity with the people.
As Zwingli preached through the Bible, he expounded the truths he encountered in the text, even if they differed from the historical tradition of the church. This kind of direct preaching was not without challenges. In 1522, some of his parishioners defied the church’s rule about eating meat during Lent. Zwingli supported their practice based on the biblical truths of Christian liberty. He saw such restrictions as man-made. That same year, he composed the first of his many Reformation writings, which circulated his ideas throughout Switzerland.
In November 1522, Zwingli began to work with other religious leaders and the city council to bring about major reforms in the church and state. In January 1523, he wrote Sixty-seven Theses, in which he rejected many medieval beliefs, such as forced fasting, clerical celibacy, purgatory, the Mass, and priestly mediation. Further, he began to question the use of images in the church. In June 1524, the city of Zurich, following his lead, ruled that all religious images were to be removed from churches. Also in 1524, Zwingli took yet another step of reform—he married Anna Reinhard, a widow. All of this appears to have happened before Zwingli ever heard of Luther. This was truly an independent work of God.
By 1525, the Reformation movement in Zurich had gained significant traction. On April 14, 1525, the Mass was officially abolished and Protestant worship services were begun in and around Zurich. Zwingli chose to implement only what was taught in Scripture. Anything that had no explicit Scriptural support was rejected. The words of Scripture were read and preached in the language of the people. The entire congregation, not merely the clergy, received both bread and wine in a simple Communion service. The minister wore robes like those found in lecture halls rather than at Catholic altars. The veneration of Mary and saints was forbidden, indulgences were banned, and prayers for the dead were stopped. The break with Rome was complete.
Anabaptists: Radical Reformers
Zwingli also entered into controversy with a new group known as the Anabaptists or Rebaptizers, a more radical reform movement that began in Zurich in 1523. Though Zwingli had made great changes, he had not gone far enough for these believers. For the Anabaptists, the issue of baptizing believers only was secondary to separation from the Roman Catholic Church. The Anabaptists sought an entire reconstruction of the church that was akin to a revolution.
Zwingli saw the Anabaptist proposals as radical excess. In response to the Anabaptist demands for the immediate overhaul of church and society, he urged moderation and patience in the transition from Rome. He counseled that the Anabaptists must bear with the weaker brethren who were gradually accepting the teaching of the Reformers. However, this approach only caused the conflict between Zwingli and the radicals to widen.
An order by the magistrates of Zurich for all infants in the city to be baptized proved too explosive. The Anabaptists responded by marching through the streets of Zurich in loud protests. Rather than baptizing their infants, they baptized each other by pouring or immersion in 1525. They also rejected Zwingli’s affirmation of the city council's authority over church affairs and advocated total separation of church and state.
The Anabaptist leaders were arrested and charged with revolutionary teaching. Some were put to death by drowning. It is not known whether Zwingli consented to the death sentences, but he did not oppose them.
The Lord’s Supper Controversy
Meanwhile, a controversy began brewing between Zwingli and Luther over the Lord's Supper. Luther held to consubstantiation, the belief that the body and blood of Christ were present in, through, or under the elements. There is, he contended, a real presence of Christ in the elements, though he differed from the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, which holds that the elements change into the body and blood of Christ when blessed by the priest during Mass. Zwingli adopted the position that the Lord’s Supper is mainly a memorial of Christ's death—a symbolic remembrance.
In an attempt to bring unity to the Reformed movement, the Marburg Colloquy was convened in October 1529. The two Reformers appeared face to face, along with Martin Bucer, Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Oecolampadius, and other Protestant leaders. They agreed in principle to fourteen of the fifteen items put before them: the church-state relationship, infant baptism, the historical continuity of the church, and more. But no agreement could be reached regarding the Lord’s Supper. Luther said that “Zwingli was a ‘very good man,’ yet of a ‘different spirit,’ and hence refused to accept his hand of fellowship offered to him with tears.” To colleagues, Luther commented of Zwingli and his supporters, “I suppose God has blinded them.”
In one of the strange ironies of history, Zwingli, who earlier had opposed the practice of using mercenaries in war, died on the battlefield in 1531. An escalating conflict between Protestants and Catholics had cantons in arms, and a war soon broke out. The city of Zurich went to battle to defend itself against five invading Catholic cantons from the south. Zwingli accompanied Zurich's army into battle as a field chaplain. Clad in armor and armed with a battle-ax, he was severely wounded on October 11, 1531. When enemy soldiers found him lying wounded, they killed him. The southern forces then subjected his corpse to disgraceful treatment. They quartered him, hacked his remains to pieces, and burned them, then mixed his ashes with dung and scattered them abroad.
Today, prominently displayed at the Water Church in Zurich, is a statue of Zwingli. He is standing with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. The statue represents Zwingli in his towering influence over the Swiss Reformation, strong and resolute. Though his Zurich ministry was relatively short, he accomplished much. Through his heroic stand for the truth, Zwingli reformed the church in Zurich and led the way for other Reformers to follow.
This article is part of the Men of the Reformation collection.