The Reformers

Ulrich Zwingli

The other center of Protestantism in the first generation was eastern Switzerland. Its leader was Ulrich (also Huldrych) Zwingli. His theology was in many ways similar to Luther's, but his career was quite different, and in the end the two men disagreed on a couple of key points.

Born at Wildhaus on 1 January 1484, Ulrich was the third of eight sons born to a middle class rural family. One of his uncles was a pastor in a neighboring village and Ulrich was sent as a child there for his education. At ten he went to Basel, where he spent four years under the tutelage of Gregory Bünzi;. From there he returned home briefly in 1498, then was sent to Bern, to study under Lupulus (Heinrich Wülflin), a humanist scholar. He was at Bern for two years, then at Vienna for two more years.

From Vienna he went back to Basel (1502). He was now eighteen and old enough to begin earning his own living, which he did by becoming a teacher himself. At the same time he pursued advanced degrees at Basel, earning his B.A. in 1504 and an M.A. in 1506. While studying at Basel Zwingli heard a series of lectures by Thomas Wittenbach that, among other topics, criticized the system of indulgences. This was twelve years before Luther. Zwingli himself says that Wittenbach was teaching in 1505 all on indulgences that Luther would argue twelve years later. We can see by this evidence that reformist ideas were not invented by individual pioneers in isolation, but were widespread and received ready audiences. The tinder, as it were, was being spread widely and sparks were being struck, needing only the right circumstances to spread into a general conflagration.

Zwingli left his formal studies and became pastor in the parish of Glarus in 1506. There for the next ten years he continued his humanist studies, learning Greek and taking a run at Hebrew.


Zwingli and Swiss Nationalism

These years were the heyday of the mercenary system in Switzerland. The Swiss had won renown for their fighting abilities, and fighting had been endemic in Italy since the French invasion of 1494. Whole villages of young Swiss men hired out for military service, often in papal armies, and these armies needed chaplains. Zwingli three times served as chaplain to the contingent sent from his parish of Glarus, seeing action at Ravenna and Pavia in 1512, at Novara in 1513, and at Marignano in 1515. Partly as the result of what he saw there, but even more by the consequences he saw back home, Zwingli became an ardent critic of the mercenary system. He was not opposed to war; rather, he objected to the employment of native Swiss in foreign armies, for foreign causes.

He was also become quite a humanist during these years, finding time to increase his library and entering into correspondence with various figures, including Erasumus, whom he greatly admired. In connection with his language studies he increasingly was looking to Scripture as the authoritative voice in answering certain questions. He was considering whether anyone besides Christ should be prayed to, why there should be variations in the celebration of the Mass (he'd found differences in texts that he had found while in Italy), and whether the communicants should receive communion in both kinds. He was still at the point where he would say not only that he could find no basis in Scripture but also not in the Church Fathers. That is, he had not come yet to sola scriptura, but he was clearly moving in that direction.

His Early Career

In 1516, he left his parish at Glarus (he remained officially priest there, employing a vicar in his absence) and went to Einsiedeln, probably because the church authorities in Glarus were so unhappy with his outspoken condemnation of mercenary activity. Einsiedeln was a major pilgrimage destination, and his new role was more purely that of preacher, so his message was heard by a much wider audience. Even though he was a great success as a preacher, Zwingli now also became a critic of the penance and pilgrimage system. He saw the same papal indulgence sellers that were to outrage Luther, and he shared Luther's opinion of them. At Einsiedeln, too, Zwingli began an intense study of the Bible.

He was invited to Zürich at the end of 1518, largely on the basis of the fame he'd won at Einsiedeln for his preaching, and on the basis of his correspondence with various humanists, including Erasmus. He was named as "people's priest" at the Great Minster, which meant that preaching would be his primary duty. He gave his first sermon on his thirty-sixth birthday, 1 January 1519. He announced that he intended to preach beginning with the Gospel of Matthew, but that he would proceed based on Scripture alone, not taking into account the Church Fathers.

That doesn't sound like much, but at the time it was revolutionary, for it essentially turned the sermon into a Bible study. For many who heard him (as was the case for those who heard other evangelical preachers) this was the first time they had heard the Gospel preached directly and in terms they could understand. Before, all they heard were the words of priests; now they were hearing the Word of God. It was heady stuff and Zwingli attracted not only large audiences but prestigious ones. The city fathers were listening and were persuaded.

Zwingli did even more than this, however. He was the People's Priest, this was his formal title, and he took his duties seriously. In addition to expounding on the Gospel on Sundays at the cathedral, he also gave sermons on Psalms in the town market square on Fridays, which was the town's market day. Thus, not only the townspeople heard the Word of God, so did the peasants from the surrounding countryside.

In 1522 the city council authorized evangelical preaching and ended the practice of sending mercenaries. On Ash Wednesday, some of Zwingli's followers broke the Lenten fast. Zwingli did not break the fast himself, but he defended his parishoners in a sermon "On the Choice and Free Use of Foods". He also married, though secretly.

On 19 January 1523, the city issued sixty-seven articles that represent the first codification of the Swiss Reformed Church. These articles were theses offered for disputation. The Catholic side was represented by Johann Faber, the vicar-general of the bishop of Constance. The date was set for 29 January, but the debate was hardly more than show. The city was already strongly evangelical and the situation was already beyond retrieving for the Catholics.

Six hundred people attended. The evangelical side had a whole team assembled, with three Bibles on a table before them in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. As the disputation began, Faber was furious to find that the debate was going to be in German. The audience would be able to follow the ebb and flow of the debate, turning it into something of a public spectacle.

At first, he refused to participate. He sat in obstinant silence until the debate should be in Latin. The burgomeister declared that if no reply to the evangelical position were forthcoming, then Zwingli would be allowed to continue preaching. Faber was fordced to respond; after all, he'd been sent to Zürich to stop that very thing.

It was far too late. Frustrated by proceedings that appeared to be weighted in favor of the evangelical position, he insisted there must be a judge, to which Zwingli replied, "The Spirit of God out of Holy Scripture itself is the judge." Needless to say, the city fathers ruled in favor of Zwingli.

Reform Takes Root and Grows

Events were moving quickly. That fall, rioters broke into the churches and destroyed paintings, organs, and other "idols." These were removed officially in summer 1524. The Mass was abolished 12 April 1525. New baptismal (infant) rites were instituted in 1525 as well. In May 1525, a civil court was created to supervise marriages. In 1526 the city council took over the power of excommunication.

Feeling threatened by the terms of the Edict of Worms (1529), Zürich formed the Christian Civic League, which by 1530 included Bern, Basel, Constance, Biel, Mühlhausen, Schaffhausen, St Gall, and Strassburg. The League had its own army. Not surprisingly, Swiss Catholic towns and villages themselves formed a league and fielded their own army.

In 1531, at the Second Battle of Kappel, Zwingli died on the battlefield. He was there in the same capacity he'd performed for papal armies, as a chaplain to the troops.

After Zwingli

While we tend to focus on certain individuals in the Reformation – Luther, Calvin, and so on – you should think of them as catalysts for change but not as the sole driver of change. Zürich demonstrates this clearly, for the city never wavered from its course of reform and others stepped in to preach, minister and lead.

The most important figure in the Swiss Reformation after the death of Zwingli was Heinrich Bullinger, who carried on and defended Zwingli's teachings. It was through Bullinger's writings that Zwinglism found its way to England, for Zürich was home to English refugees during the reign of Queen Mary, and it was Bullinger they heard preach, not Zwingli.


Zwingli held a distinctive position in four significant areas: baptism, the Eucharist, the relationship between church and state, and the role of the minister. It was differences over the Eucharist that ultimately caused a split between Zwingli and Luther, despite repeated efforts to find a common ground. It was over baptism that Zwingli and the Anabaptists split. Zwingli also went further than either Calvin or Luther in how he saw the ministry working with the magistracy, which in turn was a significant factor in the outward form of their respective churches.

The Eucharist
"That Christ, who has once offered Himself, is to all eternity the perpetual and redeeming sacrifice for the sins of all believers; therefore it follows that the Mass is not a sacrifice, only the commemoration of the sacrifice and the assurance of the redemption which Christ has shown us."

Zwingli wrote these words in 1523, as part of a series of articles laying out the reform position as he understood it. Throughout his life he would insist that "the Mass is not a sacrifice, only a commemoration." This was an extreme position; neither Luther nor Calvin were willing to go so far.

The Magistracy and the Church

Another point where Zwingli differed from the other reformers was in the role played by secular authority. For him, the constituted public authority, whether city council or worldly prince, had not only a duty to oversee the practice of right religion, but was in fact the proper custodian of right religion. Government is the Church made visible and effective in the world. So he was able to argue that a city council had, for example, the power to excommunicate. The city (or prince, but Zwingli's was a world of cities and cantons) could dictate public practices, oversee and supervise pastors, and from its authority there could be no appeal.

The effect of this position was to give public authority a much greater role in the Swiss Reformed Church than it played elsewhere, especially in the day-to-day regulation of religious life. You might think that Calvin's Geneva is a much better example, but there it was the Church that ran the State, whereas in Zürich it was the State that ran the Church.


While the greatest struggle within the Protestant movement in general was over the Eucharist, certainly the greatest struggle within Zürich itself was with fellow reformers over the issue of infant baptism. Zwingli was very clear on the matter. All sacraments were merely external signs, attestations by the faithful, but without any sacral or supernatural characteristics. Baptism did not wash away sins; rather, it was a community act of accepting someone into the Church. As such, it didn't matter whether it was done in infancy or adulthood; it was purely symbolic. This is where he parted company with Grebel and the other Anabaptists.

Role of the Minister

The fourth area is an area that never concerned the reformers to begin with, but always wound up intruding: the relationship between church and state; or, as it was often stated in Germany and Switzerland, the relationship between minister and magistrate. The question arose as the process of reform began to work itself out in a practical way: who should pay the ministers, what should happen to the monasteries, what should be taught in schools, and so on. In cases of disagreement, should the minister be able to dictate to the magistrate, or vice versa?

It was a very old question. Zwingli, raised in the cities, ultimately came down in favor of the magistrates, but with guidance and advice from the ministers. Viewed in the abstract, Zwingli, Luther and Calvin all held the same position. But each placed emphasis differently, and in practice the relationship worked out differently. Luther never helped rule a city or realm, and his writings defer to the prince without much said about the details. Calvin and Zwingli, though, but had to deal directly with a city council and the ruling elite of a community. Calvin's response was to create an advisory body, the Consistory, to help guide the magistrates, but in practice he and the ministers got their way on disputed matters.

Zwingli created something similar, but in practice the magistracy had greater leeway. This may have been at least partly a matter of temperment and local history, for both Zwingli and his successor Bullinger got along well with the local population and were regarded as one of them, whereas Calvin was always viewed by a faction in Geneva as an outsider.

In any event, the Swiss Reformed Church had a tradition of working hand in glove with the secular authorities, from the days of Zwingli right down to modern times.


There is no Zwinglian Church. The evangelism of the Calvinists gradually made inroads into central Switzerland and the reformers in the two camps eventually reached an accomodation with one another. It's not really right to call the result Calvinist, but more a matter of Zwinglianism with Calvinist influence. In truth, the best way to describe it is by its own name: the Swiss Reformed Church.

Beyond Switzerland, Zwingli's influence came in large part by way of the voluminous writings of Heinrich Bullinger. I've already noted his impact on England, where the main influence was on Anglican thinkers of the later 16th century. In a sense, much of the early Anabaptist movement derived from Zwingli, for the early founders (at least of the Swiss-German wing) came from or through Zürich. After the split with Zwingli, however, Anabaptism developed in directions of which he would not have approved.