Birthplace: Wildhaus, Sankt Gallen, Switzerland
Location of death: Kappel am Albis, Switzerland
Cause of death: War
Remains: Buried, St. Peter's Church, Zürich, Switzerland
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Swiss-Protestant Reformation
Swiss reformer, born on the 1st of January 1484, at Wildhaus in the Toggenburg valley, in the canton of St. Gall, Switzerland. He came of a free peasant stock, his father being amtmann of the village; his mother, Margaret Meili, was the sister of the abbot of Fischingen in Thurgau. His uncle, Bartholomew Zwingli, afterwards dekan or superintendent of Wesen, had been elected parish priest of Wildhaus. As he was keen at his books and fond of music he was destined for the Church, and when eight years old was sent to school at Wesen, where he lived with his uncle, the dean. Two years later he was sent to a school in Basel, where he remained three years, passing thence to the high school at Bern, where his master, Heinrich Wölflin, inspired him with an enthusiasm for the classics. After some two years there the boy took up his abode in the Dominican monastery. But his father had no thoughts of letting him become a monk, and in 1500 he was sent to the University of Vienna, where he remained for another two years and "included in his studies all that philosophy embraces." He then returned to Basel, where he graduated in the University and became a teacher of the classics in the school of St. Martin's church.
The circumstances and surroundings of Zwingli's early life were thus dissimilar from those of his contemporary, Martin Luther. Zwingli, moreover, never knew anything of those spiritual experiences which drove Luther into a cloister and goaded him to a feverish "searching of the Scriptures" in the hope of finding spiritual peace. Zwingli was a humanist, a type abhorred of Luther; and he was far more ready for the polite Erasmian society of Basel than for a monastery. Luther never quite shook off scholasticism, whereas Zwingli had early learned from Dr. Thomas Wyttenbach that the time was at hand when scholastic theology must give place to the purer and more rational theology of the early Fathers and to a fearless study of the New Testament. He heard from this same teacher bold criticisms of Romish teaching concerning the sacraments, monastic vows and papal indulgences, and unconsciously he was thus trained for the great remonstrance of his maturer life.
At the age of twenty-two Zwingli was ordained by the Bishop of Constance (1506), preached his first sermon at Rapperswyl, and said his first mass among his own people at Wildhaus In the same year he was elected parish priest of Glarus, in spite of the pope's nomination of Heinrich Goldli, an influential pluralist of Zürich, whom Zwingli found it necessary to buy off at an expense of more than a hundred gulden. The Holy See, much dependent at that time on its Swiss mercenaries in the pursuit of its secular ends, expressed no resentment on this occasion. Zwingli indeed seemed still to be devoted to the pope, whom he styled "beatissimus Christi vicarius", and he publicly proclaimed the mercenary aid given by the Swiss to the papal cause to be its dutiful support of the Holy See. The Curia, following its accustomed policy, rewarded his zeal with a pension of 50 gulden.
The ten years which Zwingli spent at Glarus laid the foundations of his work as a reformer. He there began the study of Greek that he might "learn the teaching of Christ from the original sources", and gave some attention to Hebrew. He read also the older Church Fathers and soon won for himself fame as a student, while his skill in the classics led his friends to hail him as "the undoubted Cicero of our age." He had an unbounded admiration for Erasmus, with whom he entered into correspondence, and from whom he received a somewhat chilling patronage; while the brilliant humanist, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola taught him to criticize, in a rationalizing way, the medieval doctrines of Rome. His first publications, which appeared as rhymed allegories, were political rather than religious, being aimed at what he deemed the degrading Swiss practice of hiring out mercenaries in the European wars. His convictions on this matter were so much intensified by his later experiences as army chaplain that in 1521 he prevailed upon the authorities of the canton of Zürich to renounce the practice altogether. Especially did he oppose alliances with France; but the French party in Glarus was strong, and it retaliated so fiercely that in 1516 Zwingli was glad to accept the post of people's priest at Einsiedeln. He always in later days dated his arrival at evangelical truth from the three years (1516-19) which he spent in this place. There he studied the New Testament in the editions of Erasmus and began to found his preaching on "the Gospel", which he declared to be simple and easy to understand. He held that the Bible was the sufficient revelation of the will of God, and he threw away the philosophy and theology of the later Roman Church, whereas he declared that the early Church Fathers were helpful, though still fallible, interpreters of the Word. In his definite recognition of the theological place of Scripture he showed, says Dr. T. M. Lindsay (History of the Reformation), clearer insight than the Lutherans, and Zwingli rather than Luther was in this matter John Calvin's guide, and the guide of the reformed churches of Switzerland, France, England and the Netherlands. All these set forth in their symbolical books the supreme place of Scripture, accepting the position which Zwingli laid down in 1536 in The First Helvetic Confession, namely, that "Canonic Scripture, the Word of God, given by the Holy Spirit and set forth to the world by the Prophets and Apostles, the most perfect and ancient of all philosophies, alone contains perfectly all piety and the whole rule of life."
Zwingli began to preach "the Gospel" in 1516, but a contemporary says that he did it so cunningly (listiglich) that none could suspect his drift. He still, to use his own words, hung his new exposition on to "the old doctrines, however much they at times pained me, rather than on to the purer and clearer"; for he hoped that the reformation of the Church would proceed quietly and from within. The papal curia had no wish to bring things to a quarrel with him. The Swiss, who furnished them with troops, were to be treated with consideration; and the pope sought to silence the reformer by offers of promotion, which he refused. He held himself, as did the Swiss in general, very free of papal control. They had long been used, in their orderly democratic life, to manage their own ecclesiastical affairs. Church property paid its share of the communal taxes, and religious houses were subject to civil inspection. Zwingli looked rather to the City Fathers than to the pope, and as long as he had them with him he moved confidently and labored for reforms which were as much political and moral in character as religious. He had none of Luther's distrust of "the common man" and fear of popular government, and this fact won for his teaching the favor of the towns of South Germany not less than of Switzerland.
As yet he had preached his Gospel without saying much about corruptions in the Roman Church, and it was his political denunciation of the fratricidal wars into which the pope, not less than others, was drawing his fellow-countrymen, that first led to rupture with the papal see. Three visits which he had paid to Italy in his capacity of army chaplain had done much to open his eyes to the worldly character of the papal rule, and it was not long before he began to attack at Einsiedeln the superstitions which attended the great pilgrimages made to that place. Zwingli denounced the publication of plenary indulgence to all visitors to the shrine, and his sermons in the Swiss vernacular drew great crowds and attracted the attention of Rome. His quarrel was turned more immediately against the pope himself when in August 1518 the Franciscan monk Bernardin Samson, a pardon-seller like Johann Tetzel, made his appearance in Switzerland as the papally commissioned seller of indulgences. Zwingli prevailed on the council to forbid his entrance into Zürich; and even then the pope argued that, so long as the preacher was still receiving a papal pension, he could not be a formidable adversary, and he gave him a further sop in the form of an acolyte chaplaincy.
Zwingli had never meant to remain at Einsiedeln long, and he now threw himself into a competition for the place of people's priest at the Great Minster of Zürich, and obtained it (1518) after some opposition. He stipulated that his liberty to preach the truth should be respected. In the beginning of 1519 he began a series of discourses on the Gospel of Matthew, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistles of Paul; and with these it may be said that the Reformation was fairly begun in Zürich. He had made a copy of St. Paul's epistles and committed them to memory, and from this arsenal of Scripture he attacked the unrighteousness of the state no less than the superstition of the Church. His correspondence of this year shows him jealous of the growing influence of Luther. It was his claim that he had discovered the Gospel before ever Luther was heard of in Switzerland, and he was as anxious as Erasmus to make it clear that he was not Luther's disciple. Towards the end of September he fell a victim to the plague which was ravaging the land, and his illness sobered his spirit and brought into his message a deeper note than that merely moral and commonsense one with which, as a polite humanist, he had hitherto been content. He began to preach against fasting, saint worship and the celibacy of priests; and some of his hearers began to put his teachings into practice. The monasteries raised an outcry when people were found eating flesh during Lent, and the Bishop of Constance accused them before the council of Zürich. Zwingli was heard in their defense and the accusation was abandoned. His first Reformation tract, April 1522, dealt with this subject: "Von Erkiesen und Fryheit der Spysen". The matter of the celibacy of the clergy was more serious. Zwingli had joined in an address to the Bishop of Constance calling on him no longer to endure the scandal of harlotry, but to allow the priests to marry wives, or, at least, to wink at their marriages. He and his co-signatories confessed that they had lived unchastely, but argued that priests could not be expected to do otherwise, seeing that God had not seen fit to give the gift of continence. Pope Adrian VI interfered and asked the Zürichers to abandon Zwingli, but the reformer persuaded the council to allow a public disputation (1523), when he produced sixty-seven theses and vindicated his position so strongly that the council decided to uphold their preacher and to separate the canton from the Bishopric of Constance. Thus legal sanction was given in Zürich to the Reformation. In 1522 Zwingli produced his first considerable writing, the Architeles, "the beginning and the end", in which he sought by a single blow to win his spiritual freedom from the control of the bishops, and in a sermon of that year he contended that only the Holy Spirit is requisite to make the Word intelligible, and that there is no need of Church, council, or pope in the matter.
The progress of the Reformation attracted the attention of all Switzerland, but there was a strong opposition to it, especially in the five Forest Cantons: Lucerne, Zug, Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden; and the Zürichers felt it necessary to form a league in its defense. They were especially anxious to gain Bern, and Zwingli challenged the Romanists to a public disputation in that city. No less than 350 ecclesiastics came to Bern from the various cantons to hear the pleadings, which began on the 2nd of January 1523 and lasted nineteen days. Zwingli and his companions undertook to defend the following propositions:
(1) That the Holy Christian Church, of which Christ is the only Head, is born of the Word of God, abides therein, and does not listen to the voice of a stranger; (2) that this Church imposes no laws on the conscience of people without the sanction of the Word of God, and that the laws of the Church are binding only in so far as they agree with the Word; (3) that Christ alone is our righteousness and our salvation, and that to trust to any other merit or satisfaction is to deny Him; (4) that it cannot be proved from the Holy Scripture that the body and blood of Christ are corporeally present in the bread and in the wine of the Lord's Supper; (5) that the mass, in which Christ is offered to God the Father for the sins of the living and of the dead, is contrary to Scripture and a gross affront to the sacrifice and death of the Saviour; (6) that we should not pray to dead mediators and intercessors, but to Jesus Christ alone; (7) that there is no trace of purgatory in Scripture; (8) that to set up pictures and to adore them is also contrary to Scripture, and that images and pictures ought to be destroyed where there is danger of giving them adoration; (9) that marriage is lawful to all, to the clergy as well as to the laity; (10) that shameful living is more disgraceful among the clergy than among the laity.
The result of the discussion was that Bern was won over to the side of the reformer, who apprehended the whole struggle of Protestantism as turning directly on the political decisions of the various units of the Confederation. He had enunciated in his theses the far-reaching new principle that the congregation, and not the hierarchy, was the representative of the Church; and he sought henceforward to reorganize the Swiss constitution on the principles of representative democracy so as to reduce the wholly disproportionate voting power which, until then, the Forest Cantons had exercised. He argued that the administration of the Church belongs, like all administration, to the state authorities, and that if these go wrong it then lies with Christian people to depose them.
On the 2nd of April 1524 the marriage of Zwingli with Anna Reinhard was publicly celebrated in the cathedral, though for some two years already he had been living with her as wife. Many of his colleagues followed his example and openly made profession of marriage. In the August of that year Zwingli printed a pamphlet in which he set forth his views of the Lord's Supper. They proved the occasion of a conflict with Luther which was never settled, but in the meantime more attention was attracted by Zwingli's denunciation of the worship of images and of the Roman doctrine of the mass. These points were discussed at a fresh congress where about 900 persons were present, and where Vadian (Joachim von Watt, the reformer of St. Gall) presided. It was decided that images are forbidden by Scripture and that the mass is not a sacrifice. Shortly afterwards the images were removed from the churches, and many ceremonies and festivals were abolished. When a solemn embassy of rebuke was sent to Zürich from a diet held at Lucerne, on the 26th of January 1524, the city replied that in matters relating to the Word of God and the salvation of souls she would brook no interference. When a new embassy threatened Zürich with exclusion from the union she began to make preparations for war.
It was at this moment that the controversy between Luther and Zwingli took on a deeper significance. In March 1525 the latter brought out his long Commentary on the True and False Religion, in which he goes over all the topics of practical theology. Like others of the Reformers he had been led independently to preach justification by faith and to declare that Jesus Christ was the one and only Mediator between sinful man and God; but his construction rested upon what he regarded as biblical conceptions of the nature of God and man rather than upon such private personal experiences as those which Luther had made basal. In this Commentary there appear the mature views of Zwingli on the subject of the Elements of the Lord's Supper. He was quite as clear as Luther in repudiating the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, but he declined to accept Luther's teaching that Christ's words of institution required the belief that the real flesh and blood of Christ co-exist in and with the natural elements. He declared that Luther was in a fog, and that Christ had warned His disciples against all such notions, and had proclaimed that by faith alone could His presence be received in a feast which He designed to be commemorative and symbolical. Efforts to reach agreement failed. The landgrave of Hesse brought the two Reformers together in vain at Marburg in October 1529, and the whole Protestant movement broke into two camps, with the result that the attempt made at Schmalkalden in 1530 to form a comprehensive league of defense against all foes of the Reformation was frustrated.
But the close of Zwingli's life was brought about by trouble nearer home. The long-felt strain between opposing cantons led at last to civil war. In February 1531 Zwingli himself urged the Evangelical Swiss to attack the Five Cantons, and on the 10th of October there was fought at Kappel a battle, disastrous to the Protestant cause and fatal to its leader. Zwingli, who as chaplain was carrying the banner, was struck to the ground, and was later despatched in cold blood. His corpse, after suffering every indignity, was quartered by the public hangman, and burnt with dung by the Romanist soldiers. A great boulder, roughly squared, standing a little way off the road, marks the place where Zwingli fell. It is inscribed, "'They may kill the body but not the soul': so spoke on this spot Ulrich Zwingli, who for truth and the freedom of the Christian Church died a hero's death, Oct. 11, 1531."
Zwingli's theological views are expressed succinctly in the sixty-seven theses published at Zürich in 1523, and at greater length in the First Helvetic Confession, compiled in 1536 by a number of his disciples. They contain the elements of Reformed as distinguished from Lutheran doctrine. As opposed to Luther, Zwingli insisted more firmly on the supreme authority of Scripture, and broke more thoroughly and radically with the medieval Church. Luther was content with changes in one or two fundamental doctrines; Zwingli aimed at a reformation of government and discipline as well as of theology. Zwingli never faltered in his trust in the people, and was earnest to show that no class of men ought to be called spiritual simply because they were selected to perform certain functions. He thoroughly believed also that it was the duty of all in authority to rule in Christ's name and to obey His laws. He was led from these ideas to think that there should be no government in the Church separate from the civil government which ruled the commonwealth. All rules and regulations about the public worship, doctrines and discipline of the Church were made in Zwingli's time, and with his consent, by the council of Zürich, which was the supreme civil authority in the state. This was the ground of his quarrel with the Swiss Anabaptists, for the main idea in the minds of these greatly maligned men was the modern thought of a free Church in a free state. Like all the Reformers, he was strictly Augustinian in theology, but he dwelt chiefly on the positive side of predestination -- the election to salvation -- and he insisted upon the salvation of infants and of the pious heathen. His most distinctive doctrine is perhaps his theory of the sacrament, which involved him and his followers in a long and, on Luther's part, an acrimonious dispute with the German Protestants. His main idea was that the sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not the repetition of the sacrifice of Christ, but the faithful remembrance that that sacrifice had been made once for all; and his deeper idea of faith, which included in the act of faith a real union and communion of the faithful soul with Christ, really preserved what was also most valuable in the distinctively Lutheran doctrine. His peculiar theological opinions were set aside in Switzerland for the somewhat profounder views of Calvin. The publication of the Zürich Consensus (Consensus Tigurinus) in 1549 marks the adherence of the Swiss to Calvinist theology.
Zwingli's most important writings are: Von Erkiesen und Fryheit der Spysen (April 1522); De Canone Missae Epichiresis (September 1523); Commentarius de Vera et False Religione (1525); Vom Touf, vom Wiedertouf, und vom Kindertouf (1525); Ein klare Unterrichtung vom Nachtmal Christi (1526); De Providentia Dei (1530); and Christianae Fidel Expositio (1531).
Father: Ulrich (peasant)
Mother: Margaret Meili
Wife: Anna Reinhard (m. 2-Apr-1524)
University: University of Vienna
University: MA, University of Basel (1506)
Expelled from School University of Vienna (1499), unproven
Ordained by the Roman Catholic Church Konstanz, Baden-Württemberg, Germany (1506)
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