The Protestant Reformation

The Reformation in its Swiss expression took on different forms than the German Lutheran Reformation. The Zwinglian Reformation was German-speaking, too, but as we shall see, the road to reformation was different for Zwingli than for Luther.

Ulrich Zwingli and Zurich

Early Life

Ulrich (or Huldrych or Huldreich) Zwingli was born January 1, 1484 in Wildhaus, Switzerland. His father was a free peasant and magistrate. Early scholarly gifts caused him to be sent to school, especially at Basel, and he learned to love the classics. He attached himself to the Humanist learning that was sweeping Europe.

He was invited to become priest at Glarus in 1506. He was learning to be a lover of Scripture, but was not so much of an example. Both here and at his next appointment, he was known for liking the ladies. At this time he began to be involved in military matters, and observed firsthand how the Swiss practice of becoming mercenary soldiers for foreign powers (including the pope) was damaging to the nation's morals and a killer of its young men. He began to denounce the practice in his preaching.

In 1516 he took a position in the pilgrimage town of Einsiedeln, where he was to have great influence. There were always out of town visitors, and the convent there had a fine library for continuing his studies. He began to study Greek. He was now a moderate reformer in the style of Erasmus, pointing people toward Christ and away from Church abuses. But he was not yet a Protestant reformer.

Beginnings as a Reformer

In Glarus he began to be noticed by many in that part of Switzerland, and in 1518 he was invited to Zurich to become "people's priest" at the Great Minster. He arrived in town with the announcement that he would begin to preach right through the Gospel of Matthew. This was a departure from the fragmentary reading of Scripture that had prevailed in the medieval Church. After Matthew he preached through Acts and then turned his attention to Paul's epistles.

In 1519, a bout with the plague, and the introduction of Luther's writings into Switzerland, brought Zwingli to a clearer understanding of his mission. He became bolder in his denunciation of, not only abuses, but false practices that he felt cut into true Christianity.

In 1522 came a real break with the past. A group of people gathered at the printer's house on Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent for you Protestants out there), and ate a sausage. It was a ceremonial breaking of the fasting laws which was directly brought about by Zwingli's teaching. Zwingli was present but did not eat the meat, although he preached in favor of the eating three weeks later.

The City Council imprisoned and fined some of the meat-eaters, and initiated an inquiry into the subject of fasts, and many writings flew back and forth. The council announced a disputation to be held in January 1523. In the meantime they forbade the breaking of fasts. Zwingli wrote "67 Conclusions" as the basis for the disputation, and defended them against the representative of the bishop of Constance at the meeting. The council, perhaps by prearrangement, decreed after the diputation that Zwingli was to keep preaching the "Gospel and the pure sacred Scriptures, until he is instructed better. Furthermore, all people's priests, curates and preachers in their towns, territories, and dependencies, are to preach nothing but what can be proved by the Gospel and the pure sacred Scriptures . . ." (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 143)

In October 1523 a second disputation was held, with more far-reaching results. This was truly a Reformation time for Zurich. The council abolished relics and images, and also church organs and singing. But it determined to go slowly and deliberately, with no riotous upheaval. Already there were rumblings in that direction. But, for instance, the council waited eight months to remove the images from the churches.

On Easter in 1525 the first Protestant communion service was held. "Following as closely as possible the observance of the primitive Christian Church, Zwingli took his place at the head of a simple table that was covered with a white linen cloth and on which were placed Communion cups and plates of wood. After praying and reading in German the words of institution and pertinent Scripture passages, Zwingli and his assistants partook of the bread and wine and then distributed these sacred symbols among the people, going from pew to pew" (Grimm, p. 153).

In 1522, eight Zurich ministers had applied to the bishop of Constance for permission to marry. This was denied, but the marrying began, and Zwingli took a wife secretly in that year. On April 2, 1524, Zwingli announced his marriage publicly.

In 1525, the difficulties with the Christians who wished to go further came to a head. It was in that year that the first adult "rebaptism" took place in Zurich. Conrad Grebel, a former admirer of Zwingli, baptized priest George Blaurock. Glaurock then baptised the rest of the little group. By March, 1526, adult rebaptism was a capital crime in Zurich, and four persons were put to death. Parents who did not want their children baptized were banished from the territory.

Political Difficulties and Zwingli's Death

By 1530, Zwinglian reforms had spread through Switzerland and south Germany. But not all of Switzerland rallied to Zwingli. The so-called Forest cantons, the original heart of old Switzerland, resisted and reaffirmed their ancient Catholic faith. In this time period religious reform was a political issue, so the Protestant cantons organized into an alliance. The Catholic cantons allied themselves with Austria.

In 1529 came, as we have seen, the Marburg colloquy, at which Zwingli and Luther failed to come to any agreement about the Eucharist. Religious disagreement meant political fragmentation. The Protestants could not unite militarily unless they united theologically. The Swiss were left hanging, but kept applying pressure to the forest cantons, including a blockade, in the belief that this would keep them with the upper hand. But in 1531 the forest cantons attacked. At the battle of Cappel, October 11, 1531, the Zurichers were defeated, and Zwingli, in military armor, was killed. Hillerbrand says:

But more had died at Cappel than Zwingli and the soldiers. Militarily the battle was an insignificant affair, but politically it was of the utmost importance. For the first time the unsettled questions of religion were to be solved on the battlefield -- a sad event repeated again and again during the next century. At Cappel, Protestants had been defeated at the hands of Catholics. And all of Europe had watched as spectators. When peace was concluded, the advance of the new Protestant faith in Switzerland came to a halt. Protestantism did not have to retreat, but it was kept from advancing further, and thus lost its chance of spreading the Reformation throughout he Swiss confederation. Switzerland was divided into two religious camps. This foreshadowed the future, for such a division was to be the fate of Germany, and indeed of Europe. (Hillerbrand, The Reformation, p. 109)

Zwingli's Theology and Influence

The Lord's Supper

Zwingli's doctrine of the Lord's Supper differed from Luther's, as we saw in the Luther lesson. They attempted, but failed, to work out their differences at the Marburg Colloquy. Zwingli rejected not only the doctrine of transubstantiation (Christ's body and blood replace the substance of bread and wine), but also the Real Presence as held by Luther (Christ's physical body and blood are present in, with, and under the bread and wine, which remains bread and wine).

Instead, he believed that the Lord's Supper was a memorial or remembrance of Christ's death which increased the faith of believers ("For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes," 1 Cor 11:26). When Jesus broke the bread and said, "This is my body," Zwingli believed it was absurd to believe that his body was present in the bread, since Jesus sat before them alive as he spoke the words. Similarly, Jesus is physically now in heaven, having ascended bodily, and while he fills the earth as God at all times, his body remains a human body and is not omnipresent.

This difference was never resolved, and while Calvin was able to move somewhat towards the Lutheran position, the difference remained that Lutherans believed in the Real Presence while Calvinists did not.

The Anabaptists

Anabaptists as a movement are probably older than the Reformation, since they embody ways of looking at Christ and the Christian life which were very present in medieval dissident groups. They are the Protestant version of the medieval sects which were persecuted by Rome, only now they arose in Protestant lands.

Remember that the mainstream Reformers and Rome agreed on one thing: there is only one Church, and it is to find expression as exactly one body in any locality. This often confuses Protestants who believe that liberty of conscience arose full-blown from the mind of Martin Luther. Luther indeed contended for liberty of conscience, but he meant that the individual believer should not be under the power of Roman bishops and the Pope when reading the Bible, which was God's very word. But neither Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin had any intention of there being more than one church in a local jurisdiction. Instead, the rulers -- be they Prince, Duke, or republican body -- were to be won over to the Reformation by preaching, and then the rulers (if they were to be good Christians) should see to the reformation of the church in their area.

At the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which won final tolerance of Lutheranism in the Empire, the concept of cuius regio, eius religio ("whose the region, his the religion") was made the legal standard. Each part of the Empire could only be one religion, either evangelical or Roman Catholic. At least it was stated that if a person disagreed with the religion of his ruler, he was to be allowed to emigrate to a region which practiced his own religion. Again, there were only two legal religions, and in any one region there would be only one.

This being true, there could be only one response to the rising of an Anabaptist movement in a Protestant (or Catholic) region. It must be eliminated. Some localities chose to enforce only the "mild" punishment of banishment, but most employed some form of death penalty. Only a very few places like Strasbourg attempted to find a more humane solution to the problem.

"Reformed" Christianity

Zwingli was the first example of a Swiss reformer, and he was a Swiss German, not a Frenchman like John Calvin. There were differences! Nevertheless, even though Calvin's name will always be connected to Reformed Christianity, it was Zwingli who was the archetype. He was the first to publicly deny the Real Presence; he was the first to bring "Puritan" influences and thorough reform of all outward ceremonies. "The Wittenberger would allow whatever the Bible did not prohibit; Zwingli rejected whatever the Bible did not prescribe" (Shelley, p. 250). In many ways, Lutheranism was defined by justification by faith, which limited it, but Reformed Christianity was defined by adherence to Scripture. The type of Christianity that Zwingli discovered in the Bible became, although with much variety, the faith of most Protestants. Through Zwingli and then Calvin, the Reformed theology became the greatest branch of Protestantism, even though fragmented into many movements. When it merged into the Moravian/Wesleyan/Great Awakening strains, and gave up its love for the Constantinian state church, it became modern Evangelicalism in all its strength.

Back to Church History page


Copyright © 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.