Zurich Reform under Zwingli

Ken Curtis, Ph.D.

Zurich Reform under Zwingli

Born in Wildhaus, Switzerland, on New Year's Day in 1484, Zwingli received a good education in the classics and was ordained a priest in 1506. He served as parish priest in Glarus from 1506 to 1516.

Opposing "blood for gold"
A key event during that period aroused his patriotic fervor and perhaps began to undermine his confidence in the Roman church. One of the major industries for the Swiss then was mercenary service. They would hire out their young men to fight in others' wars, including battles for the pope. (You can still see the Swiss guard today policing the Vatican in their colorful uniforms). Zwingli accompanied the Swiss troops as chaplain in September of 1515, and saw 6000 of his young countrymen slaughtered in the service of the pope at the battle of Marignan in Italy. He returned home determined to abolish this mercenary practice of "selling blood for gold." It would cost him his parish at Glarus but helped pave the way for his call to Zurich later.

The year 1516, was decisive for him. He moved on to become priest at Einsiedeln, apparently put a sexual affair with a barber's daughter behind him, and met the great scholar Erasmus. He immersed himself in the Greek New Testament published by Erasmus. (He actually hand copied out of this edition all of Paul's epistles and learned them by heart.) His preaching began to take on a decidedly evangelical tone.

On January 1, 1519, his 35th birthday, he became pastor at the central church in Zurich. Here he was able to work toward the prohibition of mercenary service. As soon as he arrived, he announced that, rather than preach from the prescribed texts of the lectionary, he was going to preach through the Gospel of Matthew. This was a bold step in that day.

The dreaded plague arrived in Zurich the same year as Zwingli. He did his best to minister to his people. More than one-fourth of the 9,000 people of the city fell victim. Zwingli caught the plague, too. In his three-month recovery, he learned life-changing lessons of dependence on God that made his trust in God's Word rock-solid.

A city council debates theology
The rituals and doctrines of the Church did not square with his reading of Scripture. He preached what he found in the Bible--even when it meant going against long-accepted church teachings. As a result, controversy spread. A public debate was held on disputed matters of faith and doctrine by the Zurich city council. On January 29, 1523, the council issued a ruling backing Zwingli and issued a decree that he and the other pastors in the region were "to preach nothing but what can be proved by the holy gospel and the pure holy scriptures."

Reforms were implemented, Catholic images removed, the mass replaced with a simple service emphasizing preaching, and communion celebrated more as a "spiritual" reception of Christ.

Resistance from within and without
Despite this vote of confidence, Zwingli could expect that the Catholic loyalists would resist him, and they did. He did not expect that perhaps his greatest trials would come from within--some of his closest followers did not think he was pressing the reforms fast enough. These became known as Anabaptists. They were particularly agitated over infant baptism, which they rejected. Another public debate was called to consider the issue. The Zurich council ruled against the Anabaptists, so these "radicals" defied the council. They "re-baptized" themselves as adult believers. When they continued to defy the council, some of the radicals were put to death.

Hacked to pieces
This tragedy from within was compounded as civil strife intensified between Catholic and Protestant areas. Zwingli's reform movement did take hold in major urban centers of German-speaking Switzerland and eventually would find reception in Geneva, paving the way for Calvin's work there. But Catholic resistance, particularly in rural cantons, could not be overcome. Fighting broke out. Zwingli joined the Zurich troops as an armed soldier against the Catholics in what is known as the second Kappell War. The same Zwingli who had worked so hard to eliminate the mercenary service and had earlier even condemned war itself now took up arms, convinced it was necessary in the service of God and the Gospel. He was killed in battle on October 11, 1531, his body hacked to pieces and disgraced by his enemies.

Wars of religion would continue in Europe for well over a century after the Reformation. All of the major power centers calling themselves Christians--Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed alike--would look to the power of the state and the sword to preserve and advance their interests.

Giants unable to agree
Luther and Zwingli meet at the Colloquy of Marburg, October 1529 The reforms under Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland had many parallels, and the two agreed on most essential points of doctrine. Philip Landgrave of Hesse was eager to join their movements in political, military, and religious unity, thereby strengthening the Protestant front against the growing Catholic pressure. He brought the two of them together to meet in doctrinal discussion at Marburg. Fifteen articles of faith were on the agenda and agreement was quickly reached on fourteen of them. But on the remaining item--the Eucharist--no concord could be reached and the trading of insults turned ugly.

Zwingli interpreted the presence of Christ in the Eucharist in a more spiritual and metaphorical way than Luther could accept. Thus a significant opportunity for expanded unity within the Protestant movement ended in division. Argument over the Lord's Supper--a sign of the oneness of God's people, rather than bringing together these two stalwart defenders of Scripture, instead drove a mean wedge between them.

  • Editors' Picks

    Stop Trying to Read the Bible in a Year!
    Stop Trying to Read the Bible in a Year!
  • The God of All Weather
    The God of All Weather
  • Does Islam Promote Violence?
    Does Islam Promote Violence?