Huldreich Zwingli: Swiss Reformer

Huldreich Zwingli was born on the first day in January 1484. Like Martin Luther, his parents were of peasant stock but had risen in the world even as the Medieval period was receding into the past. Zwingli's father was a leader of Wildhaus, a village in the canton of St. Gall, Switzerland. Because of his early interest in books and music, Zwingli was groomed for the church. He went to a series of good schools in Wessel, Basel, and Bern. He entered a monastery at Bern, but his inclination and his father's ambition for him propelled him to go to university in Vienna in the year 1500.

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The university held his attention for two years where his studies included "all that philosophy embraces"1. He then returned to Basel where he began teaching the classics. Basel was a center of Erasmian thinking which focused on church reform. It was critical especially of monasticism and papal indulgences.

At the age of twenty-two (1506), Zwingli became a priest. He was elected parish priest of a town called Glarus. For his support of the Papacy, he was given a small pension. Zwingli spent ten years in Glarus. While there he began a study of ancient Greek so that he could read the Bible in its original language. He became a correspondent of both Erasmus and Mirandola. Zwingli's first public writing was an attack on the Swiss practice of hiring out troops to fight in the various European wars. He also spoke publicly in a negative fashion about Swiss relations to France, which caused a reaction by the pro-French party in Glarus. This influenced him to move to a new position in Einsiedein.

Drawing of Huldreich Zwingli

It was in Einsiedein that Zwingli struck upon the notion that his preaching should be based upon the gospel. He decided that the teachings of the New Testament were all that was necessary (and sufficient) to guide the souls of the people. It was this notion, that the Bible was the only true source of theological thought, that would later be adopted by most of the Protestant churches. At this point in his career, Zwingli was becoming a prominent reformer. In order to keep control on him, the church offered him promotions. He refused.

In the course of his career, Zwingli had made several trips to Italy in the capacity of army chaplain of Swiss mercenaries who fought in the internecine struggles on that peninsula. In this capacity he had concluded that the Pope's use of troops to interfere in the temporal affairs of men was an error. In 1518 he accepted the post of priest in Zurich. In a move reminiscent of Luther, he opposed the entry into his city of a seller of indulgences. Throughout this period he was at pains to make clear that he was NOT a disciple of Luther. He felt he had not only come to conclusions about faith independent of Luther, but BEFORE Luther.

Toward the end of 1519 he contracted the plague. Though it did not kill him, it made him think more deeply about the meaning of his beliefs, especially the notion that all doctrine must be based on passages from the Bible. This led him to vociferously oppose such practices as the celibacy of priests and fasting. In 1523 matters came to a head in Zurich when the Pope asked the city fathers to denounce Zwingli, especially on the matter of celibacy. A public disputation was held. Zwingli prevailed and Zurich effectively voted to separate itself from the Catholic church.

It had become obvious in the struggles of Martin Luther that the success of the Reformation lay not only winning the hearts and minds of the people and the church, but in swaying political institutions. Switzerland was largely governed in a democratic fashion. Thus Zwingli went from town to town, canton to canton, to sway the governing bodies to accept his reforms. He was largely successful, perhaps partly because his vision of church governance looked very much like the Swiss mode of self-governance. He believed that individual congregations would rule themselves and that the hierarchy would play only a minor role.

In line with his belief that clergy could marry, Zwingli married Anna Reinhard in 1524. Meanwhile, war clouds were gathering. Catholic and Protestant countries seemed destined to clash. A league of protestant states was attempting to form. However, the two great protestant leaders in central Europe, Zwingli and Luther, could not agree on the doctrine of transubstantiation. Luther insisted that the body and blood of Christ co-existed with the bread and wine in the ceremony of communion. Zwingli was determined that the ceremony was wholly symbolic. This theological argument was a major bar to diplomatic unity.

In Switzerland matters came to a head in a civil war between Catholic Cantons and the Protestants. At the resulting battle of Kapel (1531) Zwingli himself carried the Protestant banner. He was struck down during the fighting, a violent end for a man who spent so much of his life in active contemplation of religion.

Zwingli was very much a contemporary of Martin Luther. While Luther led the Protestant churches in Germany, Zwingli was the driving force behind the Protestant church in Switzerland. His views went a step beyond those of Luther. His ideas about church hierarchy and government would carry forward to other Protestant churches that would spring up across Northern Europe.

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  1. Britanica Encyclopedia entry for Zwingli

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