Zwingli, Huldrych (1484-1531)

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Huldrych Zwingli, born in Wildhaus, Switzerland, on January 1, 1484, was a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. Unlike Martin Luther's movement, however, Zwingli's efforts did not result in the formation of a distinct church. The son of a free peasant who became a village magistrate, Zwingli grew up in comfortable surroundings. His uncle Bartholomaus Zwingli, the priest of Wildhaus and later the dean of Wesen, had a strong influence on his nephew's interests. Because Zwingli had a natural gift for music from an early age, the Dominicans attempted to recruit him, but his father and uncle persuaded him to pursue university studies in Vienna (1498) and then Basel (1502). After graduating in 1504, he supported himself by teaching, and it was during this time that he became acquainted with the writings of the reformer Thomas Wyttenbach. Two years later Zwingli was ordained a priest and began studying Hebrew and Greek in earnest. He also became increasingly attracted to classical studies and the theological writings of the church fathers.

Zwingli soon became a strong proponent of Renaissance humanism and took up an important correspondence with Erasmus. In 1518, Zwingli was made the people's priest at the Grossmünster in Zurich. Two years later he began writing a series of expositions on the New Testament that closely paralleled the works of other reformers of the time and helped to spark the Swiss Reformation. Among the practices he criticized were fasting, the selling of indulgences, and clerical celibacy.

Around 1525, in response to his growing fear that Catholic princes might attempt to invade Protestant strongholds, Zwingli attempted to unite with other reformers such as Luther to plan a common defense. Ultimately, however, the parties remained divided militarily and theologically. Zwingli's view on justification by faith was not unlike that of Melanchthon, but the two men disagreed sharply on the doctrine of the Eucharist. Zwingli argued that the bread and the wine were simply symbolic of the body and blood of Christ; the Savior was with the believer in spirit when partaking of the Eucharistic elements. Luther, on the other hand, felt bound by Scripture to accept that "this is my body" meant that the elements of Christ's blood and body were "in, with, and under the bread and wine." This view has often been called consubstantiation to distinguish it from transubstantiation, the Catholic doctrine according to which the bread and wine retain their appearances but are changed in substance into the very body and blood of Christ by the priest once he utters the words of consecration. This dispute over the Eucharist significantly weakened the Protestant ranks. In 1531, Zwingli encouraged the Protestant cantons to attack the Catholic cantons to prevent them from mounting an offensive. The canton of Bern, however, opted instead for economic sanctions that incited the Catholics to attack Zurich in October of that year. Zwingli accompanied the troops and was killed during a battle near Kappel on October 11, 1531. The spot where he fell is marked by a boulder on which his name and dates are inscribed.


Works by the Author

Bromiley, G.W., trans. Zwingli and Bullinger. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953.

Works about the Author

Stephens, W.P., Zwingli: An Introduction To His Thought. England, Clarendon Press; New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.


The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.

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