Huldreich Zwingli

The Swiss Protestant reformer Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531) paved the way for the Swiss Reformation. His influence on the church-state relations of the cantons that became Protestant was profound and durable.

An exact contemporary of Martin Luther, Huldreich Zwingli experienced and contributed to the profound changes in religious and intellectual life that, arising in the early 1500s, permanently affected Western ern civilization. He was born on Jan. 1, 1484, in the village of Wildhaus, one of ten children. His experience with ecclesiastical traditions came early, through an uncle who was a priest. Huldreich was destined by his parents for the priest-hood.

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Early Years and Education

Zwingli's education was markedly humanistic. In 1494 he was sent to school at Basel and in 1498 to Bern, where a famous classicist, Heinrich Wölflin, fired a love in him for ancient writers, including the pagans, that he never lost. In 1500 Zwingli entered the University of Vienna to study philosophy, and there too the ideals of humanism were nurtured and deepened in him, for at that time the university boasted the presence of Conradus Celtes, one of the leading scholars of the humanistic tradition. Zwingli also acquired a deep appreciation and understanding of music and learned to play several instruments.

At the age of 18 Zwingli was again in Basel, where he studied theology. In 1506 he received his master's degree and was ordained a priest by the bishop of Constance. After celebrating his first Mass at Wildhaus, he was elected parish priest of Glarus a few miles away. He spent ten years in Glarus, a decade that in several important respects formed the most decisive period of his life. He developed his character as a reformer, his knowledge and love of Greek, his admiration for the great humanist Erasmus, and his bitterness at the corruption in the Church. Zwingli became so enamored of Homer, Pindar, Democritus, and Julius Caesar that he refused to believe that they and other great pagans were unredeemed because they had not known Christ.

By 1516, when Zwingli moved to Einsiedeln in the canton of Schwyz, he was already arriving at doctrinal opinions divergent from those of Rome. He not only attacked such abuses as the sale of indulgences and the proliferation of false relics but also began to speak openly of a religion based only on the Bible. Independently of Luther, Zwingli concluded that the papacy was unfounded in Scriptures and that Church tradition did not have equal weight with the Bible as a source of Christian truth.

Reformation in Zurich

Zwingli's preaching was so impressive that he was asked to become the vicar, or people's priest, of the Grossmünster in Zurich. This city bristled with intellectual activity, and on Dec. 10, 1518, he eagerly accepted the offer. At Zurich, under his leadership, the Swiss Reformation began. He preached against the excessive veneration of saints, the celibacy of the priesthood, and fasting. When his parishioners were accused of eating meat during Lent, he defended them before the city council and wrote a forceful tract on the subject. His stand against the celibacy of the clergy brought down the wrath of the bishop of Constance upon him. In 1523 Zwingli admirably defended his position on this topic with 67 theses presented in a public disputation. The city council not only found itself in accord with him but also voted to sever the canton from the bishop's jurisdiction. Thus Zurich adopted the Reformation.

During the 1520s Zwingli wrote much; not all of his writings were theological. Unlike Luther and John Calvin, the Swiss reformer possessed a profound patriotic element, a quality that caused him to inveigh heavily against the pernicious practice of hiring out soldiers to fight as mercenaries in the wars of other nations. In 1521 he convinced Zurich to abolish this policy.

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Zwingli's Theology

The doctrinal matter that set Zwingli apart from Luther on the one hand and Roman Catholicism on the other was that of the Eucharist. Zwingli denied the real presence of Christ in the Host and insisted that the Eucharist was not the repetition of Christ's sacrifice but only a respectful remembrance.

Since Jesus was God as well as man one performance of the act of redemption was enough. Moreover, the Scriptures contain all Christian truth and what cannot be found therein must be ruthlessly cast from the true Church. Thus the concept of purgatory, the hierarchy, the veneration of relics and images, the primacy of the pope, and canon law must all be cast aside. Zwingli expressed these views in the 67 theses of 1523 and in the tract De vera et falsa religione of 1525. In general, his theology was absorbed in and superseded by that of Calvin.

Zwingli's disagreement with Luther was fundamental, and after the two reformers met at Marburg in 1529 and had a profitless discussion, it became clear that no unification of their movements could result. Zwingli was also unsuccessful in winning over all of Switzerland to his cause. Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Lucerne, and Zug—the conservative forest cantons—remained faithful to Roman Catholicism and formed a league to fight Protestant movements.

Tensions grew, and civil war threatened in 1529 and then broke out in 1531. Zwingli counseled the war and entered the fray as chaplain at the side of the citizens of Zurich and their allies. He was slain at the battle of Kappel on Oct. 11, 1531. His body was abused by the victorious Catholics, who quartered it and burnt it on a heap of manure.

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Further Reading on Huldreich Zwingli

Studies of Zwingli are S. M. Jackson, Huldreich Zwingli (1901), and Oskar Farner, Zwingli, the Reformer: His Life and Work (trans. 1952). The clearest exposition of Zwingli's doctrines is in Philip Schaff, The Swiss Reformation (1892). Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1953), is brief but very helpful. For a charmingly written general account see Preserved Smith, The Age of the Reformation (1920).

Additional Biography Sources

Gabler, Ulrich, Huldrych Zwingli: his life and work, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Swengel, Jean, Threads of time, Shippensburg, PA: Treasure House, 1994.