Front Page Titles (by Subject) IV.: Zwingli and Zürich: Theology and Theocracy, 1518-1531 - Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
IV.: Zwingli and Zürich: Theology and Theocracy, 1518-1531 - Huldrych Zwingli, Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli 
Selected Works of Huldrich Zwingli, (1484-1531) The Reformer of German Switzerland, translated for the First Time from the Originals, ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1901).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Zwingli and Zürich: Theology and Theocracy, 1518-1531
Zwingli’s appointment proved to be extremely popular with all ranks of Zürich society. One reason for this popularity may well have been his introduction of the practice of preaching about the text of Scripture and interpreting it directly without availing himself of the standardized readings which had long since constituted the main staple of medieval preachers. Zwingli’s humanist scholarship, his direct acquaintance with Pauline theology, and his growing dissatisfaction with practices and institutions for which he was able to find no Scriptural precedent or justification, all governed his preaching and soon made his name renowned throughout the city. The character of Zwingli’s technique and subject-matter may be learned from the remarks of his friend and successor Heinrich Bullinger:
He wanted to interpret the Scripture, and not the opinions of men, to the honour of God and His only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as to the true salvation of souls and the edification of pious and honorable men. . . . Soon many people, especially from the common folk, came to hear Zwingli’s evangelical proclamation. He praised God the Father, and taught men to trust only in the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as Saviour. He vehemently denounced all unbelief, superstition, and hypocrisy. Eagerly he strove after repentance, improvement of life, and Christian love and faith. He rebuked vice, such as idleness, excesses in eating, drinking and apparel, gluttony, suppression of the poor, pensions, and wars. He insisted that the government should maintain law and justice, and protect widows and orphans. That people should always seek to retain Swiss freedom.8
Zwingli himself commented on his intentions:
After the Gospel according to Matthew I continued with the Acts of the Apostles to show to the church in Zürich how and through whom the Gospel had been planted and propagated. Then came Paul’s First Letter to Timothy. It seemed especially profitable for the sheep of my flock, as it contains guiding principles for the Christian Life. Since some possessed only a superficial knowledge of faith, I omitted the Second Letter to Timothy until I had expounded the Letter to the Galatians. . . . Accordingly I also interpreted the two letters of Peter, the Prince of the apostles, to show them that the two apostles proclaimed the same message, moved by the same Spirit. Afterwards I dealt with the Letter to the Hebrews so that the work and honour of Christ would be more clearly recognized. . . . Thus I planted. Matthew, Luke, Paul, and Peter watered, but God in wonderful manner gave the harvest.9
Zwingli’s preaching thus not only revealed—to many for the first time—the essential principles of Scripture, but attacked ecclesiastical and social abuses in an Erasmian vein. Not only did Zwingli reject the prepared readings in favor of direct explanation of the New Testament, but he began to challenge long-standing ecclesiastical customs, such as the payment of tithes, on the grounds that they had no Scriptural precedent. Throughout this early period in Zürich, Zwingli’s response to his critics remained adamant: “The Word of the Bible must prevail, whether it suits us or not.” The hostility of the clergy who feared the abolition of many of their economic prerogatives—indeed, in many cases, of the basis of their livelihood—could not counter the wide-ranging social response to the new preacher. Tithes, indulgences, claustral vows, the practice of indiscriminate hiring-out as mercenary troops to any paymaster, the social and moral abuses generated by the crises of urban life, all these became the targets of Zwingli’s sermons, and they were further assaulted by his minute barrage of Scriptural references. In 1522 Zwingli was present at the second stage of Zürich reform, at the house of the printer Christoph Frohschauer when a number of Zürich citizens ate sausage on Ash Wednesday, later justifying their action on the ground that abstinence and fasting were no part of God’s will for hard-working men and women and nowhere in Scripture were such practices prescribed. A few weeks later, news of Zwingli’s preaching and the episode of the breaking of the Lenten fast reached the Bishop of Constance, who sent a committee of episcopal visitors to Zürich to investigate both problems (below, Selection One).
Zwingli, who had contracted plague when the epidemic swept through Zürich in 1519, had earned a secure place in popular esteem for his heroic service among the stricken populace. His personal and intellectual reputation enhanced his standing in the eyes of all social groups. This widespread official and popular support of himself and his reform suggestions was to complement another source of encouragement, his discovery, in 1518, of the writings of Martin Luther. The necessity of Scriptural justification of ecclesiastical institutions and practices, his increasing attacks on the sacerdotal authority of the clergy, and his earliest approaches to sacramental theology thus derived from his own experience of different reform movements, his own studies, and the support of the population of Zürich. Among Zwingli’s earliest attempts at reform was the petition which he and ten other priests sent to the Bishop of Constance in 1522 for the permission to marry, on the grounds that clerical celibacy was not justified by Scripture (below, Selection Two). To those critics who complained that unlearned men were not able to interpret properly the complex directives of Scripture, Zwingli replied with his sermon of 1522 entitled “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” which was twice reprinted with three years.10
In 1523 Zwingli and the city officials participated in a public discussion of certain key questions which his own reforms and the work of Luther had raised. Present at this disputation were officials of the Bishop of Constance. The First Zürich Disputation of 1523 (below, Selection Three) centered upon the recent ecclesiastical reforms in the city and Zwingli’s theories concerning dogma and the nature of Christian society, summarized in his “Sixty-Seven Conclusions” (below, Selection Three). The public character of the disputation, the presence of official episcopal visitors including the Chancellor Johann Faber, and the city government’s decision, “that Master Zwingli shall continue to proclaim the Holy Gospel as hitherto, according to the spirit of God,” constitute one of the most dramatic moments in Reformation history. Also in 1523 Zwingli published his treatise “On the Education of Youth,” and his outline of a Christian policy, “On Divine and Human Justice.”11 In 1524 Zwingli himself married the widow of a Zürich patrician, and in 1525 there occurred the abolition of the Mass and the institution of an evangelical service in its place.
The year 1525 also witnessed the institution of the Marriage Court, one of Zwingli’s most influential social innovations. In establishing this court the city magistrates and pastors institutionalized their responsibilities of supervising the moral life of the town. The powers of the court were later greatly extended, and this institution may in fact be considered the foundation of the theocratic community in Zürich (below, Selection Four). The dissolution of religious establishments and the appropriation of tithes and other ecclesiastical financial resources by the city enabled Zürich to create one of the most effective bodies of Poor Law of the sixteenth century. The complex association of ecclesiastical reform movements with social welfare in the sixteenth century is considerably illuminated by the Zürich Poor Law and its influence. The same financial resources enabled Zwingli to establish a theological college attached to the Grossmünster as well. As a sign of the civic character of the Zürich reformation, Zwingli resigned his episcopal appointment as People’s Priest and was given in its stead a commission from the city itself. The consistent and enduring relation between Zwingli and the rulers and people of Zürich directed that the ecclesiastical reforms of 1522-25 would imperceptibly become urban reforms as well. By 1525 Zürich was fast becoming the first urban theocracy of the Reformation. The social divisions of the city and its surrounding countryside had begun to divide along religious lines as well. As Norman Birnbaum has remarked,
The Reformation in Zürich entailed an alliance of a new mercantile and productive élite with a large group of lesser artisans, against the patricians (mercenaries and rentiers) and certain artisans, very possibly concentrated in the more traditional sectors of the economy.12
Zwingli was not, of course, completely unopposed during these years. Several attempts on his life were made, and the enduring hostility of some segments of the population persisted, the reasons for this opposition having been analyzed most convincingly by Birnbaum. But social and political opponents did not constitute the only opposition to Zwinglian reform. Some ecclesiastical reformers with views more pronounced and more extreme than Zwingli’s were concerned that the Reformation would not go far enough, and from these men the opposition was more articulate and more intense. Among his reforms, Zwingli had attacked certain articles of sacramental theology, including the character of baptism. In the case of the latter, Zwingli had come to a position which maintained that although baptism had no sacramental efficacity, it could and should be considered a public demonstration of a covenant and a public promise of a Christian upbringing; therefore, the city magistrates might legitimately require infant baptism, not as a sacrament, but as a commitment to a Christian life. In 1525 Zwingli explained his views in a tract entitled “On Baptism.13
Zwingli’s position brought to a head the opposition of a substantial group of reformers led by Conrad Grebel, Balthasar Hubmaier, and Felix Manz. These men as well as, to a lesser extent, Zwingli himself, are now considered under the broad designation of “Radical Reformers,” their movements the “Left Wing of the Reformation,” and by far the most important recent studies of Reformation history deal with this movement and its various manifestations.14 On the whole, the Radical Reformers commonly accused other Reformers of not going far enough, and it is in their proposals and actions designed to accomplish what according to them would be “true” reform that they themselves divided and created the splinter sects of the mid-sixteenth century. In many cases, they attacked specifically the reforms in their own districts; thus in Zürich they criticized Zwingli and the city government, and their attacks centered upon the question of infant baptism.
This controversy was the last stage in the deterioration of the relations between Zwingli and the radicals, a process which many historians have seen as having begun with Zwingli’s resolution in 1523 to accomplish reform gradually with the cooperation of the city government. By 1525, the radicals had come to the conclusion that only an understanding, consenting, instructed adult should be permitted to be baptized, since understanding and consent implied a valid and profound commitment to a true Christian life. Zwingli, as has been noted above, agreed with the radicals about the symbolic significance of the baptismal act, but he—and the city government with him—retained infant baptism and rejected the adult-baptism approach of his opponents. In the period 1525-27 the opposition between Zwingli and Zürich, on the one hand, and the Anabaptists—as the radicals were now called—on the other, increased. In 1527 Zwingli produced his “Refutation of the Tricks of the Catabaptists” (below, Selection Five). The essence of Zwingli’s concept of reform—close cooperation with the civil authorities—provided the stumbling-block in his dealings with the Anabaptists, with whom he had otherwise very much in common. Several of the radicals proposed now a new principle of reform: the total severance of the believers’ church from the institutions of urban government, not only on doctrinal grounds (which Zwingli himself might have agreed to in other circumstances) but on institutional grounds as well. They proposed rebaptism of once-baptized adults who felt that the original ceremony was invalid. In 1525-27, city ordinances were proclaimed against assemblies of the Anabaptists, and by 1529 Anabaptist beliefs were declared a capital crime.
Zwingli’s commitment to institutional support of ecclesiastical life, so attractive in other respects, does not distinguish his memory in this. In some ways similar to Luther’s response to the radical ecclesiological demands during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1525, Zwingli’s attack of the Anabaptists was savage and successful. Several reform centers of the early Reformation often turned upon those reformers who would have carried reform even further, and persecuted them mercilessly. Luther and Zwingli, so divergent in other aspects of their thought, shared a common hostility to the radical movement which appears in Luther’s tracts against the peasants and his treatment of such radicals as Thomas Müntzer and Zwingli’s approval of the persecution of Anabaptists in Zürich. The radical movement was weakened only in Zürich, however, for the Anabaptists successfully proselytized elsewhere, the movement coming to an early and terrible triumph in Münster in 1534.15
Having weathered the crisis of the radicals’ critique of his reforms in Zürich, Zwingli faced others, less articulate and organized, perhaps, but more socially oriented. The means of instituting reform in the city did not always succeed in the countryside, and the rural areas around Zürich were both more conservative and more extreme in their response to the city’s lead. Peasants often violently repudiated the hated ecclesiastical tithes, often sympathized with the Anabaptists, and lacked the articulated social institutions which had guided the pace and the character of reform in the city. Although Zwingli was deeply concerned with the justice of many peasant grievances and did not in this respect share Luther’s attitude toward them, the penetration of reform into the countryside was irregular, and the course of reform in the city often encountered the social and economic dissatisfaction produced by any revolution whose result appears to many not to have fulfilled its promise.
The embodiment of this new Word in a Church, then, called into play the balance of forces in Zürich society and, to some extent, altered it. The divisions within the society and the explosive potentialities of religiously legitimated dissent were too great: a disciplined State Church had to be constructed. Its masters were the new men engaged in a struggle for control of the state; they used the Marriage Court, devised as an instrument of moral discipline, as an instrument of political rule. The Biblical promise of Zwingli’s teachings was unfulfilled, and Evangelical freedom remained a vision pursued in despair by the persecuted Anabaptist conventicles. Meanwhile, more sacrifices were demanded of the ordinary artisan and peasant than rewards were offered to them; an outer discipline was imposed. In later generations this was to result in the modern Protestant personality.16
By 1527 the Reformation in Zürich had thus assumed its unique shape in response to the social, economic, and political configurations of the late-medieval city-state and the personality and thought of Ulrich Zwingli. Two major crises were to emerge between that date and Zwingli’s death in 1531, one theological, the other political. Zwingli’s theology had centered on an anti-hierarchical view of the church and a firm belief in man’s inability to acquire meritorious grace through sacramental acts. Baptism, for instance, although it could be required by the new ecclesiastical authorities for infants, was covenantal, not sacramental. In the case of the Eucharist, the consecrated host which Catholic belief stated was the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ, Zwingli stated that transubstantiation did not take place and that the ceremony of communion was purely symbolic and commemorative. Zwingli’s views on baptism had drawn down upon him the opposition of the Anabaptists, and his views on the Eucharist and the Communion service drew down the more formidable and articulate opposition of Martin Luther. Zwingli’s treatise “On the Lord’s Supper” appeared in 1527 and led to the famous dispute with Luther over the question of the “real presence” of Christ in the Communion wafer.17 In 1529, the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, painfully aware that dissension in the Protestant ranks might well precipitate political and military troubles from Austria and other Catholic forces, offered his castle at Marburg for a discussion between Zwingli and Luther in the hope that an agreement might be reached between them which could afford the Protestant states a degree, however tenuous, of theological homogeneity. The Marburg Colloquium of 1529, although it did settle many points of contention between Lutherans and Zwinglians, broke down over the question of the Eucharist and alienated Luther from Zwingli forever.18
The second crisis of Zwingli’s last years arose from the traditional tension between the city of Zürich, now reformed, and the old forest cantons to the south—Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—which had remained Catholic. Reform in Switzerland had made its greatest headway in the northern and western cities of the Confederation. Berne, Basel, Constance, and Zürich had reformed their churches more quickly and thoroughly than the conservative rural cantons.19 These recent differences, of course, exacerbated older tensions between city and country. Zürich’s leadership in the movement away from mercenary military activity, the old ambitions of the city to dominate the Confederation, and the religious homogeneity between the forest cantons and the rest of Catholic Europe heightened the stresses of the early sixteenth century. In certain specific areas relations broke down quickly and emphatically. The unique Swiss phenomenon of shared jurisdictions—areas within the Confederation in which justice was supervised jointly by two or more members—immediately raised the question of ecclesiastical conflict. Catholic officials from the forest cantons continued to persecute Protestants in these areas, and Protestant governments retaliated in kind. In 1529 relations had so far deteriorated that the three forest cantons of Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden and their fellow Catholic cantons—Zug and Lucerne—formed a “Christian Union” with Frederick, Duke of Austria, to protect the Catholic faith. It was the formation of the Christian Union that prompted Philip of Hesse to attempt the reconciliation of Zwingli and Luther at the Marburg Colloquium of 1529.
Throughout 1529 and 1530 the tensions grew between Zürich and the Union. The first armed conflict between the two sets of forces proved abortive, however, and the First Peace of Kappel of 1529 attempted to resolve the causes of conflict, but without—as Zwingli himself predicted—much success. The continued refusal of the Catholic cantons to allow the reformed faith to be preached in their territories and in the territories of shared jurisdiction remained adamant. Zwingli then adopted a policy of economic blockade, hoping to cut off the flow of cheap provisions to Zürich’s enemies and thus force them to acquiesce. The Catholic cantons managed to circumvent the blockade, however, and took advantage of Zürich’s military unpreparedness by suddenly declaring war on the city in 1531. Zwingli himself hastily mustered a force from the city and encountered the cantonal army at Kappel on October 31, 1531. The Zürich army, poorly led and outmanned, was defeated and Zwingli was killed in battle. Zürich then capitulated in the Second Peace of Kappel, and the Swiss reformation was contained for a time within its old boundaries. The death of Zwingli plunged Zürich into internal and external crises, and the passing of the guiding genius of the Swiss Reformation marked the end of the first phase of the religious transformation of Europe.
In any study of Zwingli, the theologian and urban reformer often overshadow the individual man. Zwingli was the object of bitter and grossly insulting invective during his own life and for a century after, so that much of what one knows of him is often based upon the attacks of his enemies. His personality comes through best, perhaps, in his literary work, although the most lively parts, the sermons, have largely been lost. His constant references to his rural origins, however, the descriptions of his contemporaries, his occasional poetry and the traces of his conversation reveal a lively, learned mind, doctrinaire, certainly, once it had been convinced, but exceptionally conscious in most cases of the need for caution and deliberation in effecting institutional reform. Zwingli’s greatest biographer, Oscar Farner, cites a characteristic touch in the reformer’s translation of the first line of the Twenty-Third Psalm in his Zürich Bible: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me rest in lovely Alpine pastures.”
Switzerland enters the wider world of European affairs in the late fifteenth century and holds its place as a center of Protestant reform through the rise of Geneva to the Counter-Reformation. Yet the reform movement which gave Switzerland this European prominence cannot be fully understood without a consideration of the social and political events of the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries. Zwingli, a great figure of the Reformation, is inescapably a Swiss figure, tied to the characteristic—and in many ways unique—Swiss world of city and rural canton, political diversity, regional independence, and relations with the powers which surrounded it. The Battle of Kappel in 1531 not only ended Zwingli’s life and Zürich’s expansionist aims, but it also marked a deep and long lasting rift among the elements of the Swiss Confederation, a rift which was not to be healed for several centuries.
[8. ]Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation in Its Own Words (New York, 1964), 118.
[9. ]Ibid., 119, with a slight revision.
[10. ]Eng. tr. in G. W. Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger, Vol. 24 of The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, 1953), 49-95.
[11. ]“Of the Education of Youth” is in, Zwingli and Bullinger, 96-118.
[12. ]Birnbaum, “The Zwinglian Reformation in Zürich,” 39.
[13. ]Eng. tr. in Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger, 119-75.
[14. ]The most comprehensive recent study is George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, 1962). See also Gordon Rupp, Patterns of Reformation (Philadelphia, 1969).
[15. ]On Zwingli and the Anabaptists, see Hans J. Hillerbrand, “The Origin of Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism,” Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte 53 (1962), 152-80, and Peter Classen, “Zwingli and the Zürich Anabaptists,” in Gottesreich und Menschenreich. Ernst Staehelin zum 80. Geburtstag (Basel and Stuttgart, 1969), 197-210. Texts from the Anabaptist movement may be found in G. H. Williams, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, Vol. 25 of The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, 1957). See also Claus-Peter Clasen, Anabaptism, A Social History, 1525-1618 (Ithaca, 1972).
[16. ]Birnbaum, “The Zwinglian Reformation in Zürich,” 44.
[17. ]Eng. tr. in Bromiley, Zwingli and Bullinger 176-238.
[18. ]The texts of these debates may be found in Donald J. Ziegler, ed., Great Debates of the Reformation (New York, 1965), 35-108 and in Carl S. Meyer, Luther’s and Zwingli’s Propositions for Debate (Leiden, 1963).
[19. ]The best recent study of Zwingli’s influence in Zürich is Robert C. Walton, Zwingli’s Theocracy (Toronto, 1967). For a wider-ranging sociological interpretation, see Guy Swanson, Religion and Regime: A Sociological Account of The Reformation (Ann Arbor, 1967).