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Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation

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Source: Editor's Introduction to 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).

INTRODUCTION. Ulrich Zwingli and the Reformation in Switzerland


A few individuals with distinctive, complex minds and troubled consciences dominate the early history of the Reformation.* The learning and wit of Erasmus, the personal religious anguish of Luther, the intense, practical efficiency and cosmopolitanism of Zwingli and Calvin, and the social fury of Thomas Müntzer often seem to dwarf not only the hundreds of lesser figures who in fact accomplished the ecclesiastical and social reforms of the sixteenth century, but to detach these men themselves from any recognizable social background and intellectual tradition. Ulrich Zwingli’s career is the history of the personal intellectual and religious growth of one such individual, yet it is also deeply rooted in the urban life of the city of Zürich and the more complex political history of the Reformation in Switzerland. Like Erasmus and Luther, Zwingli influenced the thought of reformers and Catholics alike, and the dissident strains of the Zürich reform movement influenced many communities and touched the reformation of England and Scotland. Yet the novelty of Zwingli’s ideas and the wide appeal some of them held for other reformers sometimes distract attention from his intense regional outlook, his influence on the city of Zürich, his uniquely Swiss career and personality. With Erasmus and Luther, Zwingli represents both traditional and novel strains of religious thought and programs for ecclesiastical and social reform. Far more than they, however, his life was bound up with the structure of a single city, and his importance becomes fully clear only in the context of his theocratic reforms in Zürich.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466(?)-1536) was the greatest scholar of his day.1 His work on the textual criticism of Scripture and the writings of the Church Fathers, his broad and lively secular learning, his scathing attacks on ecclesiastical and social abuses, and his unfulfilled concept of the regeneration of Christian society touched nearly all thinking men of the sixteenth century. Those whom his scholarly works did not or could not reach were stung by his mastery of scornful, withering Latin satire, a vein which was to contribute much to both the vernacular and the Latin literatures of the sixteenth century. Martin Luther (1483-1546), steeped in late medieval scholastic theology and possessed of an extraordinary personal religious sensibility, attacked Church dogma and ecclesiastical practices, not only on the basis of textual inaccuracies and institutional perversity, but also on the strength of his own profound reinterpretation of Pauline theology, firmly rooted in his own religious experience and his study of Scripture.2 The intellectual and institutional world in which these men lived and worked was that of late medieval Christendom. They reflected and extended that world, and the influence of their work helped to change it forever. Erasmus was a former monk released from his vows who practiced the still-novel career of an independent man of letters. Luther was a professor of theology at the new University of Wittenberg in Saxony. His theological development was highly personal, and he concentrated his energies upon the reform of dogma and the eradication of institutional abuses. He became content, as he grew older, to leave the civil framework of reform in the hands of those powers which had ruled his world for several centuries—the princes of the independent German states. Both men’s thought reached out into a wider and more cosmopolitan world. Erasmus was the friend of popes, the emperor’s tutor, a correspondent of kings, prelates, civil servants, and scholars alike. Luther came quickly to the attention of the highest authorities in the Christian world, and only the support of his prince, the Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, and the sluggishness of imperial institutions protected him from these powers. Both Erasmus and Luther began as characteristic types of late medieval culture, and the surroundings in which they lived and worked exerted a considerable influence on the development and the wide impact of their ideas.

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) shared at different times the interests of both Erasmus and Luther, and he too lived and worked in a social setting which was a recognizable type of late medieval society. Born in rural northeastern Switzerland, Zwingli spent his career as a reformer in Zürich, a small, independent city-state ruled by a commercial patriciate and extending its political and economic control across a wide countryside. The reform programs of Erasmus and Luther concentrated upon learning, individual spiritual development, and broad problems of ecclesiology; hence, they appealed to a wide range of thought and could be applied across a broad band of social and political structures. Zwingli, on the other hand, concentrated his reform ideas upon a practical, almost juridical center, and his work shaped the unique social institution created by the Reformation, the urban theocracy. His work in Zürich set the pattern for later reforms at Bern and at Geneva under Calvin.

Zwingli’s penchant for institutional, deliberate, practical reform is illustrated by several contrasts between him and his two great contemporaries. Starting out as a rural scholarly priest who was devoted to Erasmian learning, Zwingli accompanied his parishioners, the Swiss mercenary soldiers, to the wars in Italy in 1513 and 1515. He knew personally Cardinal Matthias Schinner, the papal agent for the recruiting of mercenaries, and himself received a papal pension for his work in recruiting armies and serving as a military chaplain. During these years Zwingli’s intellectual cosmopolitanism was broadened and deepened by his familiarity with warfare and diplomacy on the new sixteenth-century scale, and his earlier intellectual Erasmian pacificism was transformed by his experience into a practical affection for his countrymen and a hatred of the economic and political systems which consumed them in such great numbers in the wars of others.3 When Erasmus complained of war, however articulately, he complained as a philosopher; Zwingli’s complaints were those of a frequent participant. This Zwinglian characteristic of ideas modified by experience and concern for others is also reflected in Zwingli’s relation to the thought of Luther. Although, to be sure, the full development of Zwingli’s theology did not take place until he had begun to read Luther’s works, Zwingli’s life as an urban priest made him acutely sensitive to the social consequences of ecclesiastical reform, and, like most city-dwellers, Zwingli was to prove far more open to compromise and delay in matters of abrupt change, more sensitive to the consciences and the customs of urban and rural society. Both Luther and Zwingli came harshly to reject radical reforms which threatened the stability of their societies and actively to persecute the representatives of these movements. Yet Luther attacked peasants’ rebellions and radical critics of his theology with an enormous hostility, and he was willing to urge the civil authorities to deal savagely with those whom he rejected. Luther had no parishioners. Zwingli, the city priest, deeply rooted in the life of Zürich, was sympathetic to peasant grievances, and could not conceive of personal reform outside concurrent social change. The political powers of Luther’s world were stronger after his reformation than at its beginning. Zwingli’s more deliberate reform program produced the urban theocracy, the Christian city-state ruled by godly magistrates and pastors, the ideal which influenced not only Bern, Strasbourg, and Geneva, but Münster and the early Massachusetts towns as well. In sharing some of the interests and all the intensity of his two great contemporaries, then, Zwingli contributed his own theology and his own concept of the reformed polity. He developed, not only doctrinal change, but the mechanisms for deep-seated urban reforms.

In the selections from his writings printed below, the social aspects of the Zwinglian reformation in Zürich stand out sharply. These works reflect and illuminate the social and political difficulties of early reform movements as much as they do Zwingli’s own development as a theologian, and they thus contribute to our understanding of the increasingly important questions touching the social and institutional history of the Reformation and the impact of Reformation theology upon social, cultural, and political institutions.

To appreciate the complex social and theological dimensions of the Zürich phase of the Swiss Reformation, it is useful to consider the religious, social, and political life of late medieval Switzerland, and the milieu in which Zwinglian theology reached its full development: the city-state, with its magistrates, social strata, and political structure. The Reformation, wherever it occurred, did not touch dogma and liturgy alone. In changing the inner lives of men and women, it changed their social lives as well, the principles according to which they married, raised children, and conceived of themselves as members of ecclesiastical, economic, and political communities. In so doing it helped to shape the theories and institutions of social welfare which so marked the late fifteenth and sixteenth century commonwealths. The city-state of Zürich during the years 1519 to 1531 plays an important role not only in Reformation and general European history, but also in the history of urban life and organization. If the purely confessional interests of many Reformation historians have often clouded that significance, it was not clouded for Zwingli, the citizen-body of Zürich, the magistrates, and the clergy who supported or opposed his reforms. In Zürich, the Reformation meant practical, pragmatic changes in the life and character of the city as well as in its forms of religious belief and expression. Zwingli was the first of the major reformers whose career touches both aspects of Reformation life.


Religion and Society in Late Medieval Switzerland

Until the end of the thirteenth century the rural and urban areas of what is now Switzerland were known to most Europeans as a land of river valleys and difficult mountain passes which afforded the traveller access to the busier and culturally more attractive lands of Italy and France.4 Internally, these areas were ruled by lords spiritual and temporal, cousins of the great feudal nobles, bishops, and abbots who elsewhere ruled so much of Europe. Although technically many of these lords were vassals and subvassals of the Holy Roman Emperor (whose power had been based since 1273 chiefly in southern and southeastern Germany and Bohemia), the diverse regions of Switzerland were much more directly under the rule of the great aristocratic lay dynasties and the powerful ecclesiastical establishments whose foundations ran back to the eighth and ninth centuries. The great houses of Savoy and Habsburg are only two of the most prominent of these, and throughout much of the middle ages the prince-bishops of Constance and the abbots of the monastery of St. Gall controlled as much territory as the lay lords. Zürich itself had once been owned, for example, by the Convent of Notre Dame, the Fraumünster, and Zwingli’s own town of Wildhaus was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Chur, although it belonged to the monastery of St. Gall, which had acquired it from the Counts of Toggenburg.

These princely jurisdictions, however, never successfully managed to prevent the emergence of the strong sentiments of regional independence that were to characterize Swiss political history between the thirteenth and the eighteenth centuries. The origins of this fierce localism are obscure, and the best characterization of its qualities is given by the modern English historian H. S. Offler:

Whatever the origin of this free element—which it is simpler, and perhaps safer, to regard as persisting from the time of the Germanic occupation—its importance, together with the necessity of the co-operation of all in the details of Alpine economy, had early promoted in the valleys the fusion of all the inhabitants into communities which in some sense overrode, though they did not abolish, the ordinary divisions of feudal lordship.5

This “freedom” was, of course, understood in the sense of freedom from excessive jurisdiction and interference on the part of an overlord in internal affairs, not political “freedom” in its later sense. Around the middle of the thirteenth century, as Habsburg dynasticism grew, the regional consciousness of the rural areas of central Switzerland became more articulate, and towns began to grow. Earlier rulers had encouraged the confederations of regions, primarily for commercial purposes, and before the expansion of Habsburg power they had generally left the government of these areas to the regions themselves. In the late thirteenth century the three “forest cantons,” Uri, Schwyz, and Unterwalden—all located around Lake Lucerne—formed a confederation for mutual defense. Between 1291 and 1314 they appear to have remained content with this loose arrangement, but their defeat of the forces of the Duke of Austria at Morgarten in 1315 welded the three cantons into a political unit. The Confederation increased in members throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Zürich joining it in 1351. By the late fifteenth century the Confederation had become involved in the larger quarrels of the principalities and kingdoms surrounding it. The imperial ambitions of the Habsburgs, the expansion and collapse of the great duchy of Burgundy, the recovery of France from the Hundred Years War and its subsequent expansionist designs, and the power of the Visconti and later the Sforza rulers of the duchy of Milan drew both Swiss mercenary soldiers and Swiss leaders into a complex and dangerous diplomatic orbit. The new-found importance of Swiss soldiers in the service of the papacy and other powers, and the consequent economic growth of the Confederation, placed understandable stresses upon the members of the Confederation and a number of internal rivalries developed, some of which were not to be resolved until the eighteenth century. Between 1483 and 1486, for example, the burgomaster of Zürich, Hans Waldmann, attempted to propel the city into a position of domination within the Confederation under his own despotic rule, and in the course of his attempt engineered a constitutional revolution within the city itself whereby the gild masters and merchants rose to a position of dominance over the older urban patriciate.6

During Zwingli’s own lifetime, then, the final stages of the expansion of the Swiss Confederation took place, as did the internal transformation of the city of Zürich. The late fifteenth-century revolution in the city had brought to power a coalition of wealthy gild masters and surviving patricians who ruled the city and the surrounding countryside and dominated appointments to political office. The economic life of the city had also changed in the course of the fifteenth century. The older industries—principally textile manufacturing in silk and wool—had suffered during the political turmoil of the 1440s, and Zürich slowly became a commercial, rather than a manufacturing town. In addition to commerce, much of Zürich’s wealth came from the income of mercenaries and recruiters, a weapons industry, and the lucrative administrative careers of Zürich’s citizens in the affairs of the neighboring rural areas. These areas, together with the city itself and several small towns in the district, had a population of around 60,000, about 5,000 in Zürich proper. Although the city was small and comparable in many respects to other early sixteenth-century towns, its unique place in the Swiss Confederation and its own internal development made it distinctive. It shared with other parts of the Confederation the income from and problems created by the extensive mercenary service of the Swiss, and it maintained contact with perhaps more of the world’s great powers than its size and location might otherwise suggest.

The late medieval city, as other towns besides Zürich show, did not necessarily have to be a proto-industrial, economically progressive, rationalistic urban cimplex in order to be a city. Patricians, gild masters, underemployed craftsmen, soldiers with an unusually high standard of living—but only intermittent employment—and clergy focussed their attention on the problems of the hour and looked to religion for an understanding of forces which they could not otherwise understand.

The ecclesiastical divisions of the Swiss Confederation were older than the political divisions. The six bishoprics of Basel, Geneva, Lausanne, Constance, Sion, and Chur were rendered weaker because of the irregularity of political and ecclesiastical territories. The vast wealth—and much of the temporal power—of the churches, monasteries, convents, and pilgrimage shrines of the Confederation had steadily decreased throughout the fifteenth century, as, indeed, had some of the spiritual prestige attached to them. The vogue of some shrines—such as that at Einsiedeln, where Zwingli was to be the resident priest from 1516 to 1518—continued, however, and the popular veneration of relics, in Switzerland as elsewhere during this period, seems to have increased as the fifteenth century drew to a close. The Great Minster (Grossmünster) of Zürich supported twenty-four canons, and the Fraumünster supported seven. The three city parishes had fifty-seven canons and priests, and the Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian, and Béguine monasteries and convents included around two hundred monks, religious, and nuns. The city of Zürich itself was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Constance, whose power, like that of many other bishops, was great in direct proportion to its proximity. Zürich was largely free of episcopal interference in its day to day affairs. In the matter of personal spiritual life, there is little evidence that Zürich contained many conspicuously troubled consciences in the early sixteenth century. The pilgrimage to Einsiedeln was popular, and the affairs of the spirit appear to have been firmly under the control of the ecclesiastical officials and city magistrates. If the city was not especially troubled by religious doubt, however, its comfortable religion may well have been less than successful in dealing with those troubling social questions which became more acute after 1500—the propriety of mercenary service, the financial demands of the Church, the unrest of workers and soldiers alike whose work was intermittent and whose future was uncertain.

The secular life of Zürich was ruled by two councils. The Great Council numbered two hundred members, and the Little Council numbered fifty. The former was composed of the leaders of the gilds and cooperating patricians and was the real ruling body of the city. The Little Council was composed half of members of the Great Council and half from the remainder of the population. It administered the daily affairs of the city, and, with the Great Council, exerted considerable influence over ecclesiastical affairs as well. Two mayors—burgomasters—were the symbolic heads of the city-state. To a certain extent, this efficient government succeeded in keeping the tensions of the city under control. The issues of mercenary service and town relations with the recruiters of the great powers and underemployment of urban and rural workers remained just beneath the surface of political life, however, and, as was the case with other social problems during the late middle ages, these could not be considered as separable from religious concerns. Traditional tensions among the Swiss cantons were also evident around 1500. The urban and rural members of the Confederation (the word “canton” had been borrowed from France in the fifteenth century to designate the individual member states of the Confederation) differed in economic and political aims, and hence the Confederation as a whole was not as stable as later Swiss history might lead one to believe. Such religious dissent as was present—humanist and Erasmian among the learned and the patricians, and social and evangelical among the uneducated and poor—probably did not seem as dangerous as the political and economic problems which the city officials controlled. It was into this world of the city-state with its intermittent prosperity and social tensions that Ulrich Zwingli entered in 1518 as people’s priest at the Grossmünster.


Ulrich Zwingli’s Early Life and Education, 1484-1518

Zwingli was not born in the city with which his name has long since been associated, but in the small village of Wildhaus in the old country of Toggenburg in the northeastern part of the Confederation. Zwingli was born into a prosperous peasant family, his father later becoming the headman of the village. Of Zwingli’s seven brothers and sisters, two—Jacob and Andreas—also became priests, although they predeceased their brother. Zwingli’s uncle Bartholomew was also a priest, and he later became dean of Wesen. It was this uncle who, with Zwingli’s father, supervised the boy’s early education at home and sent him to Basel to study Latin from 1494 to 1496 and to Bern for literary study from 1496 to 1498. These years prepared Zwingli for his studies at the University of Vienna, which he entered in 1498. Throughout his later life, and in all of his writings, Zwingli never lost the influences of his rural upbringing, in spite of his ambitious course of university study and his later association with the city of Zürich. He took great pride in his social origins, for it was no disgrace in Switzerland to come from a family of prosperous, free peasants, and images of rural life abound in his literary and theological works. Throughout his life Zwingli spoke the dialect of Swiss-German like a peasant, a dialect which, Luther was later to remark, was “a shaggy, tangled German, which makes you sweat before you understand it.”7 Zwingli’s childhood, although doubtless touched frequently by severe rural Christian discipline, seems to have been both happy and normal. His later references to his home life and childhood offer little out of the ordinary to the psychohistorian, and much of his later deliberateness and independence seem to indicate, if anything, a secure childhood and a strong sense of family support.

Zwingli’s studies at Vienna were interrupted in 1499, when he may have been dismissed for a time, but they were resumed and completed by 1502, when Zwingli went to Basel for a Master’s degree. He remained at Basel from 1502 to 1506, studying at a distinguished university in a wealthy, cosmopolitan city, where he soon earned the reputation of a good Latin scholar and seems to have enjoyed the company of a lively group of humanists. Zwingli’s studies at Basel were otherwise of a conventional sort, based upon the old Latin translations of Aristotle, the philosophy and theology of Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and the Sentences of Peter Lombard, a work which had been the standard collection of theological authorities for advanced study since the late twelfth century. The philosophy of Scotus and the lectures of Thomas Wyttenbach on Peter Lombard appear particularly to have influenced Zwingli’s later approaches to theology.

In 1506 Zwingli was invited by the population of Glarus to become its priest. He was hastily ordained and settled down in the small rural town to care for the spiritual needs of its people, continue his own literary and theological studies, and fulfill that unique function of a Swiss rural pastor—serving as chaplain to the men of the town on their military campaigns as mercenary soldiers in the service of other political powers. In 1514 men from Glarus were present under Pope Julius II at the battle of Pavia, although it is doubtful whether Zwingli accompanied them. In 1513 and 1515, however, Zwingli was present at the battles of Novara and Marignano, and he witnessed at the latter the massacre of the outnumbered and divided Swiss. It may have been in the wake of the disaster of Marignano that Zwingli’s revulsion against the mercenary system fully developed. Zwingli’s life at Glarus was marred by one other problem, this one personal. His inability to remain sexually continent had troubled Zwingli during his years at Glarus and was to plague him through his arrival in Zürich. In his sexual appetites—which were probably not very dissimilar from those of other Swiss rural clergy—he saw a problem which he reported to have caused him considerable remorse and which his enemies were later to make much of.

It was during his stay at Glarus that Zwingli first became acquainted with the writings of Erasmus, and with his eloquent and fierce denunciations of abuses in ecclesiastical institutions and in society in general. Much of Zwingli’s personal library has survived from this period, and a large proportion of it is devoted to the writings of Christian humanists, Erasmus being best represented, along with the works of the Church Fathers and the Latin classics. Zwingli met Erasmus in 1515, and the ensuing correspondence between the two men continued until the late 1520s, when Zwingli’s religious views lost Erasmus’ sympathies.

In 1516 Zwingli was offered the benefice at the famous Benedictine monastery of Einsiedeln, one of the oldest and most venerated shrines in Europe. Its miracle-working statue of the Virgin attracted huge pilgrimages, and the post was an important one. Appointing a vicar to perform his ecclesiastical duties in Glarus, Zwingli moved to Einsiedeln, where he remained for two years. During this period he continued his studies, now concentrating upon the Epistles of St. Paul and further developing his Erasmian critique of ecclesiastical abuses. Erasmus and the New Testament seem to have occupied his time and his mind, as his notes in his library volumes indicate.

In 1518 Zwingli was called—over some local objections—to the post of People’s Priest as the Zürich Grossmünster. His reputation as pastor, patriot, and scholar had given him some fame outside of Einsiedeln and Glarus, and some of the most influential citizens of Zürich, including the humanist Oswald Myconius, appear to have been influential in his selection. During the preliminary stages of his candidacy, Zwingli’s sexual lapses at Glarus and Einsiedeln were charged against him, as was his accomplished musicianship. But his supporters carried the day, and on January 1, 1519, his thirty-fifth girthday, Zwingli preached and celebrated Mass as People’s Priest at the Zürich Grossmünster.


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.

E. P.

Bibliographical Note

Zwingli’s complete works are in the series Corpus Reformatorum, as Huldrych Zwinglis Sämtliche Werke, many editors, published at Berlin and Zürich from 1904. In the journal Zwingliana: Mitteilungen zur Geschichte Zwinglis und der Reformation (Zürich, 1904- ) may be found the most contemporary Zwingli-research. A good brief biography in English is that of Oscar Farner, Zwingli the Reformer; His Life and Work, tr. D. G. Sear (New York, 1952). Farner is also the author of the masterful four-volume standard biography, Huldrych Zwingli (Zürich, 1943-1959). See also Samuel M. Jackson, Huldreich Zwingli (New York, 1901). Individual studies of aspects of Zwingli’s career and thought are Charles Garside, Jr., Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven, 1966); Jacques Courvoisier, Zwingli, A Reformed Theologian (Richmond, 1963). The most recent bibliographical study is B. Thompson, “Zwingli Study since 1918,” Church History 19 (1950). More comprehensive studies are: Gottfried W. Lochner, Huldrych Zwingli in neurer Sicht (Zürich-Stuttgart, 1969); Fritz Büsser, Das Katholische Zwinglibild von der Reformation bis zur Gegenwart (Zürich-Stuttgart, 1968); J. V. Pollet, O. P., Huldrych Zwingli et la réforme en Suisse d’apres les recherches recentes (Paris, 1963). A superb volume of Zwingli’s writings, beautifully illustrated with scenes from the life of sixteenth-century Zürich is Ulrich Zwingli. Zur Gedächtnis der Zürcher Reformation. 1519-1919 (Zürich, 1919).

[* ]I would like to thank Professor Werner L. Gundersheimer for his kindness in reading an early draft of this essay and making several helpful suggestions. Any errors and infelicities that remain, however, are entirely my own.

[1. ]A good biography is J. Huizinga, Erasmus and the Age of Reformation (New York, 1957). A convenient selection of Erasmus’ writings is W. T. H. Jackson, ed., Essential Works of Erasmus (New York, 1965). Now standard for general Reformation history are G. R. Elton, ed., The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. II, The Reformation, 1520-1559 (Cambridge, 1962), and H. G. Koenigsberger and G. L. Mosse, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (New York, 1970). See also Owen Chadwick, The Reformation (Baltimore, 1964) and the beautifully illustrated and concise work of A. G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe (New York, 1966). Joel Hurstfield, ed., The Reformation Crisis (New York, 1966) offers the diverse views of a number of scholars, and Hans J. Hillerbrand, The Reformation in its Own Words (New York, 1964) collects in translation a large and widely chosen group of sixteenth-century writings. Lewis Spitz, The Protestant Reformation (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966) offers a smaller anthology of source materials. Most of these works have important sections on Zwingli. The most recent survey of spiritual life is Francis Rapp, L’Eglise et la vie religieuse en occident à la fin du Moyen Age (Paris, 1971).

[2. ]For Luther, see Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York, 1950) and Robert H. Fife, The Revolt of Martin Luther (New York, 1957). A convenient selection of Luther’s works is John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (Garden City, N. Y., 1961). For Luther and Zwingli, see below, note 18.

[3. ]A good survey of the problem of mercenary soldiers during this period is V. G. Kiernan, “Foreign Mercenaries and Absolute Monarchy,” in Trevor Aston, ed., Crisis in Europe 1560-1660 (Garden City, N. Y., 1967), 124-49.

[4. ]See E. Bonjour, H. S. Offler, and G. R. Potter, A Short History of Switzerland (Oxford, 1952).

[5. ]Ibid., 71.

[6. ]The consequences of this revolution are analyzed in A Short History of Switzerland, and the best study of the relation between Zürich’s social and political structure during Zwingli’s lifetime is Norman Birnbaum, “The Zwinglian Reformation in Zürich,” Past and Present, No. 15 (1959), 22-47.

[7. ]Cited by George R. Potter in “Zwingli and Calvin,” Hurstfield, Reformation Crisis, 32-43.

[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).

Last modified April 13, 2016