Reformation: Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531)

Searching for biographies on Martin Luther will lead you to more than you have time to read—some excellent, some not so excellent. Look for biographies on John Calvin, and you’ll find a smattering of options. Ulrich Zwingli, by contrast, has had relatively little written about his life and legacy. He’s often tossed into the discussion as the “third Reformer” after Luther and Calvin, but available resources on his life are rather scarce. That being said, his life is fascinating on its own merit, and he is a prodigious Reformer.

Birth & Childhood
While Calvin made his mark in Geneva, Switzerland, he was a Frenchman by birth. Zwingli was a Swiss Reformer through and through. He was born at the dawn of the new year, January 1, 1484. His more famous German counterpart, Martin Luther, was born just two months before in late 1483. Zwingli’s home was in the rustic town of Wildhaus, in the foothills of the Swiss Alps.

Though Wildhaus was a small village, the Zwinglis were one of the chief families of the town. Ulrich senior, Zwingli’s father, was a successful farmer and chief magistrate and held a position of good income and respect. Zwingli was one of several children who grew up in a log cabin, topped off by a roof of wooden shingles.

Swiss Mercenaries
While the Alps are beautiful, it wasn’t a simple thing to scratch out a living there. Some men raised cattle, while others became lumberjacks or furniture makers. But the most profitable occupation was soldiering. While the Swiss are noted for their neutrality today, in Zwingli’s day they were noted mercenary soldiers.

The French hired many Swiss soldiers to fight their battles, and the Swiss were noted for being fierce, competent warriors. Pope Julius II hired Swiss soldiers to form the bulk of his army and personal bodyguard. The well-known legend of William Tell (the father who shot the apple off of his son’s head) was a beloved story of the day.

The Alps were the beloved backdrop of Zwingli’s life. He later translated Psalm 23: “In the beautiful Alps, he tends me.”

Though soldiering would have a lifelong effect on Zwingli, he was destined for a different life. His first teacher was his Uncle Bartholomew, and he began his learning in a rustic log cabin. Zwingli quickly distinguished himself as bright and precocious. From his early days in school, he studied the Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible.

When he had learned all he could from his uncle, he went to Basel for further education. There he interacted with other students who were similarly passionate about learning, and his horizons expanded. He was a skilled debater, a discipline that would stand him in good stead later in life. At the recommendation of his teacher, Zwingli next went to the town of Berne for further education. He became known there as a skilled musician and fine singer. His talents led some Dominican monks to attempt to recruit him. At just 13 years of age, Zwingli was still impressionable, but his father had greater plans than a life of poverty in a Dominican monastery.

Therefore, in 1498 Zwingli enrolled in the university at Vienna. Four years later, he returned to Basel at the age of 18 to continue his education and teach Latin. While in Basel, Zwingli grew increasingly wary of papal corruption. The current pope, Alexander VI, had several mistresses and children by the those mistresses. In 1506 he received a Master of Arts degree and became the parish priest in the Swiss village of Glarus. Glarus served as an army base of sorts, funneling men into the pope’s army.

Influence of Humanism
The most famous humanist scholar of Zwingli’s era was Desiderius Erasmus. While the worst of humanism worships humanity and prizes human reason above divine revelation, in many ways the humanists advanced education and the Reformation itself. Humanists emphasized the necessity of studying original sources and of finding the truth. Erasmus’s Greek New Testament was a primary source for the Reformers in their efforts to understand the Word itself.

Army Chaplain
Zwingli went on two military campaigns as a military chaplain—in 1512 and again in 1515. Both were Italian campaigns, as part of the papal army. The campaign of 1512 saw great success, and on June 6, 1513, 13,000 Swiss soldiers routed a French army of 20,000. The second campaign, however, was a far different matter. The Swiss army, as part of the pope’s forces, met a huge French force near Milan. It was a bloodbath, and the French cannon slaughtered the Swiss pikemen. More than 10,000 men died in that Battle of Marignano.

Zwingli suddenly found himself disillusioned with war and the pope. He began to reexamine his life, his reasons for living, and everything he’d ever known. This led him to closer and closer study of Scripture. In 1513, between the two Italian campaigns, he’d begun to learn Greek in an effort to better understand the Word. Now his labor began to come to fruition.

Studying the Word
In 1516 Zwingli purchased a copy of Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. As a priest, he was permitted to possess a copy of the Word, but he then took the rather unusual step of actually studying the Bible. He was so devoted to the Scriptures that he memorized almost the entire New Testament … in Greek.

Though Zwingli began to see the need for a living relationship with Christ, he struggled throughout this period with a desire for human intimacy and fell prey to immorality, even having a relationship with a prostitute. In spite of his personal struggles, Zwingli began to see the truth more and more clearly.

Zwingli’s fame as a powerful preacher continued to grow. He had begun preaching against mercenary fighting and thus forced to leave Glarus in 1516. He served for two years as a priest in a monastery at Einsiedeln and continued to grow in influence. In 1518, therefore, he was appointed to a prestigious position as priest in Zurich, a city of some 5000 people. Some folks opposed his appointment because he openly confessed that he had recently been with a prostitute. His repentance, however, seemed to be genuine, and what he did next was more revolutionary than anything he’d done up to this point.

On New Year’s Day, 1519, Zwingli announced on his birthday—his first sermon in his new pulpit—that rather than preaching through set liturgical readings, he would preach expositionally through the Gospel of Matthew and then continue to preach his way through the New Testament. His preaching began to focus increasingly on the gospel itself, not on church tradition.

Unlike Luther, Zwingli’s reformation wasn’t the result of great personal agony. Rather, it arose from a commitment to study the Scriptures as a humanist would—to see what it said and live according to its teachings. When someone arrived in Zurich to sell indulgences, Zwingli convinced local officials to expel the salesman before he could even begin selling his indulgences.

The Plague
It was later in 1519 that another traumatic event changed Zwingli’s life. The plague, killing thousands throughout Europe, had come to Zurich. Zwingli performed the Requiem, the Mass of the Dead, so many times that year that he began quoting it in his sleep.

His youngest brother, Andrew, was living with him at the time, but Zwingli sent him away to be free of the plague. Eventually Zwingli himself caught to the plague. It seemed that he would die. It was at this time that he penned these words:

Help me, O Lord, my strength and rock;
Lo, at the door I hear death’s knock.
Yet, if thy voice in life’s mid-day,
Recalls my soul, then I obey.
Uplift thine arm, once pierced for me,
That conquered death, and set me free.
In faith and hope earth I resign,
Secure of heaven, for I am thine.

Soon a rumor began to circulate: “Ulrich Zwingli is dead.” Friends and family began to mourn for him. But as the famous American author Mark Twain once remarked, the reports of Zwingli’s death were greatly exaggerated.

Zwingli’s brother Andrew returned to Zurich to nurse his brother back to health. By this time, the plague was receding, and the environment was much safer. It took a great while for Zwingli to recover. Tragically, Andrew’s sacrifice for his brother would cost him his own life. As Ulrich grew stronger, Andrew weakened and died on November 19, 1519.

Zwingli knelt by his brother’s deathbed and sobbed uncontrollably and lapsed into sudden and terrible grief for days. All this took place in the first year of Zwingli’s ministry in Zurich.

Sausage and Lent
Zwingli’s influence continued to grow. In 1520, the Zurich town council decreed that preachers could preach only Scripture, not church tradition. Zwingli’s preaching began to increasingly clash with church dogma. In 1522, he clashed with the Roman church over Lent. The church required that faithful church members eat no meat during Lent. Zwingli preached against and wrote against this fast. A local businessman responded to Zwingli’s teaching by having a sausage feast during Lent. Charges were brought against the businessman and Zwingli. Zwingli’s response? “If you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meat, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter.”

In 1522 Zwingli was secretly married to Anna Reinhard. It was considered a great scandal for a priest to marry, though many priests lived in immoral relationships. Therefore, Ulrich and Anna lived together married but—to external appearances—cohabiting, which, ironically, was considered a less scandalous living situation for a priest than marriage itself. In 1524, Zwingli threw convention to the wind and openly married his wife.

Zwingli wrote a letter to the bishop in behalf of Swiss priests: “Influenced by the Word of God, we are persuaded that it is far more desirable if we marry wives, that Christ’s little ones may not be offended, than if, with bold brow, we continue rioting in fornication.” Though church tradition didn’t change, Zwingli’s thinking continued to grow.

The 67 Articles
In January of 1523 Zwingli engaged in a debate known as the First Disputation. The bishop sent Johann Faber as an official church representative (there was earlier talk of a debate between Zwingli and Johann Eck, Luther’s great opponent), and several hundred folks watched the two men debate. Zwingli wrote his 67 Articles in preparation for the debate. His theses were far more thorough, radical, and Protestant than Luther’s original 95 Theses, which had addressed only the abuse of the sale of indulgences.

Zwingli opened with a prayer: “Deus det nobis suam pacem” (“May God grant us his peace”). He followed with these words: “You know what a revival has taken place among us during these last five years. The decrepit human laws and statutes have finally begun to give way to the gospel of God’s blessed Son, which we have preached from his Word. We have declared that all our true happiness, consolation, and good consists, not in our merits, nor in external works, rather alone in Jesus Christ our Savior, to whom the heavenly Father himself gave witness that we should hear him as his beloved Son. For this preaching I am maligned by many as a heretic, a liar, a deceiver, and one disobedient to the Christian Church. Now, if anyone thinks that my sermons or teachings … are unchristian or heretical, let them speak in the name of God. Here I am!”

To this Faber responded, and the debate was on. Though Faber was smoother and more well-mannered than Zwingli, it was Zwingli who had the more persuasive arguments. The question of the day was this: must people submit to the tradition of the church or to the Word of God itself?

The city council of Zurich rendered an official declaration after the debate: “The city council of Zurich has resolved that Master Zwingli continue as before to proclaim the holy gospel, and the pure holy Scripture, with the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, all priests and preachers in this city and canton shall do likewise and refrain from slander under strict penalty imposed by this council.”

After the debate, Zwingli expanded his 67 Articles into a full-fledged book. There was a Second Disputation in October of 1523, leading to further reforms. Zwingli had carried the day.

The Marburg Colloquy
For some time, the churches in Zurich remained officially Roman Catholic, but in 1525 Zwingli convinced the city council to abolish the Mass and take a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. The following Sunday, rather than standing with his back to the congregation and presenting the Supper to God as a priest, he stood behind the communion table, as a shepherd bringing bread to God’s people.

The Lord’s Supper prove to be a dividing point not only with the Roman Catholic Church but also among the various sections of the Reformation as well.

In 1529, representatives from the Swiss and German Reformation movements met in Marburg, Germany. It was a “who’s who” of Reformers: Luther, Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Philip Melancthon, Johannes, Oecolampadius, and others. Luther and Zwingli led the two sides in a debate and attempted to harmonize their doctrine into a cohesive system of theological thought. Though they agreed on 14 points, they clashed on the 15th: the Lord’s Supper. While both sides rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, they couldn’t agree with each other.

Luther held to the real presence of Christ in the Supper, while Zwingli believed that the Supper was a mere memorial—a way of remembering Christ’s sacrifice. Though Zwingli’s views later morphed to be somewhat closer to Calvin’s spiritual presence of Christ, the two sides could find no agreement.

It was here that some of Luther’s personal weakness displayed themselves. Luther accused Zwingli of being of the devil and a “wormy nut.” Zwingli resented being treated “like an ass.” When Zwingli was later killed in battle, Luther snorted derisively when he heard the news. Luther also said that “Zwingli was a ‘very good man,’ yet of a ‘different spirit,’ and hence refused to accept his hand of fellowship offered to him with tears.”

Though Zwingli was forced to leave Glarus for preaching against mercenary soldiers, Zwingli failed to learn his own lesson. In 1531, Zurich found itself threatened by 5 Catholic cantons. Zwingli went into battle again as a chaplain. He was clad in full armor and armed with a battle-axe. Badly wounded on October 11, 1531, he was later found by enemy soldiers who finished him off. The Catholic armies then cut his body in pieces, burned the remnants, mixed his ashes with dung, and scattered the ashes.

If you visit Zurich today, you can find a statue of Zwingli with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other, a fitting picture of this Swiss Reformer. Though he was a flawed man in a flawed age, he advanced the cause of the Reformation, the authority of Scripture, and the good news that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.


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