Ulrich Zwingli and the Reformation

by Steven Hong

Because of the political climate, and perhaps due in part to the difference in proximity from Rome, the Reformation in Switzerland can be characterized as more radical than the Reformation in Germany. As a confederation of states or cantons, the Swiss lived in a spirit of democracy. Though Roman Catholic influence was still substantial, it wasn’t enough to hold back a more liberal brand of Reformation in Switzerland.

God’s primary agent of reform was Ulrich Zwingli. Born in 1484, Zwingli was born to a family of clergymen. His father decided early on that young Ulrich would enter the clergy too. He was given a proper education in Basel and at Berne, and then was sent to the prestigious University of Viena. After several years of classical scholarship in Italy, he returned to Basel, where he studied theology under Thomas Wyttenbach, an active opponent of indulgences who actually preached that Christ’s blood had covered over sin once for all.

As Zwingli was finishing his M.Div. in 1506, he accepted the pastorate at Glarus, and remained there for ten years, continuing his rigorous studies of the classics, honing his Greek and saturating himself in the Epistles. As he did so, his love for the Word of God grew, and he would declare that the only way to truth was to listen to the Bible expounding itself. Until then, Zwingli had been loyal to the Pope, but as his understanding of the Bible grew, his allegiance to Rome began to fade.

In 1516, Zwingli began to vocalize his convictions against the corruptions of the church. On a trip to Einsiedeln, he was distraught at the crowds worshiping the shrine of the Winking Madonna. He preached, “In the hour of death call upon Jesus Christ alone, who bought you with his blood, and is the only Mediator between God and man” (Lindsay, 63).

Zwingli’s preaching became more vehement, and the Pope became increasingly agitated. The Pope tried to silence Zwingli by promoting him, but the Pope’s advances were refused. Only when Zwingli was invited by a council of citizens in Zurich to be their pastor, did he accept. Zurich would soon become the focus of the Swiss Reformation.

When the preacher of indulgences, Bernhard Samson, came into the Canton, Zwingli publicly opposed him and the practice. He also began a series of sermons on the Doctrines of Grace, expounding the Epistles of Paul he so diligently studied the decade before. The citizens of the Canton were eager to hear Zwingli, who was a gifted speaker.

At the time, the Swiss Infantry was feared by all neighboring states, and were often available for hire in foreign battles. Zwingli, who had been an army chaplain in the past, knew the atrocities of this practice firsthand. Eventually, his preaching would compel Zurich to desist the practice, and again, he would draw the ire of the Pope, who was often a client of the army’s services. In fact, this patriotic resistance raised more opposition than Zwingli’s preaching itself. A mandate had come from Rome, to destroy all books of Lutheran influence that had found their way to Zurich. Though this edict was obeyed in part, the council of Zurich also issued a mandate that all clergymen are, “to preach the Holy Gospels and Epistles agreeably to the Spirit of God, and to the Holy Scritpures of the Old and New Testaments” (Lindsay, 63). It was clear that the Swiss Reformation was picking up steam, and Zwingli’s publications during the period only fueled the fire. He wrote against the forbidding of certain foods during Lent, the celibacy of the clergy and the host of other corruptions in the Church. Though the Pope was unhappy, he was unwilling to come down too hard and too fast on Zurich, for fear of losing the loyalty of other Swiss Cantons. Instead, Zwingli convinced church officials to a series of public discussions, where he would increasingly win the support of Zurich citizens by his reasoning from Scripture.

As the Reformation gained momentum, Mass became abolished, along with idol worship. Services began to be held in the common vernacular, and the Bible was translated for the people several times over. Zwingli’s doctrine began to spread to neighboring Cantons. One of these was Basel, where a young Frenchman from Dauphine, named Farel, was studying. Farel would eventually win over another young Frenchman, named Jean Calvin, to active work in the Reformation.



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