Zwingli, Huldrych

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Huldrych Zwingli

January 1, 1484
Wildhaus, Switzerland
October 11, 1531
Kappel, Switzerland

Religious reformer

"Everything that God permits or has not forbidden is proper."

Huldrych Zwingli.

The Swiss Protestant reformer Huldrych Zwingli paved the way for the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. (The Protestant Reformation was a reform movement that resulted in the establishment of a Christian religion separate from the Roman Catholic faith). Zwingli's ideas had a profound and long-lasting influence on church-state relations in Swiss cantons (states in the Swiss Confederation) that adopted Protestantism. A contemporary of Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry), the German priest who initiated the Reformation, Zwingli made significant contributions that permanently affected Western (non-Asian) civilization.

Receives humanist education

Huldrych Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in the village of Wildhaus, Switzerland. He was one of ten children in a prosperous peasant family. His parents were determined that he should become a priest. In 1494 he was sent to school in Basel, Switzerland and in 1498 to Bern, Switzerland. During this time he was introduced to humanism, a literary and intellectual movement devoted to the revival of works by ancient Greek and Roman writers, which initiated the Renaissance. In 1500 Zwingli entered the University of Vienna in Austria to study philosophy. There he came into contact with such humanist scholars as Conradus Celtes (Conrad Pickle; 1459–1508). Zwingli also became an accomplished musician and played several instruments.

At the age of eighteen Zwingli was again in Basel, where he studied theology (religious philosophy and doctrines). In 1506 he received a master's degree and was ordained a priest by the bishop of Constance (the official who headed the church district based in Constance, Switzerland). Zwingli was then appointed parish priest at Glarus a few miles from his hometown of Wildhaus. He spent ten years in Glarus, a decade that was the most decisive period of his life. It was during this time that he developed his views as a reformer, his knowledge and love of Greek, his admiration for the great humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536; see entry), and his bitterness at the corruption in the church. Zwingli gained such an appreciation for pagan figures from Greek and Roman antiquity that he refused to believe that they were unredeemed because they had not known Christ. (It was a common belief that those who lived before the time of Jesus Christ, were not "saved" and therefore not in heaven.)

Begins questioning the church

In 1513 men from Glarus joined a unit in the army of Pope Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21), which was fighting in Italy against France on the side of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Zwingli went to Italy with the unit. After returning home, he recorded his impressions of the campaign in a fable (a story with animal characters that teaches a moral lesson) called The Ox. His message was that, for the security of the Swiss Confederation, it was essential not to sell out to foreign warlords. Rather, Switzerland should remain neutral in the power-plays of European wars. In 1515 the Swiss troops were defeated by the French in the Battle of Marignano. The following year, they signed a treaty with the French king Francis I (1494–1547; see entry), in which they agreed to sign up as mercenaries, or hired soldiers, in the French army—the former enemy—in exchange for economic benefits. When Zwingli's opposition to the treaty became public, he had to leave Glarus.

By 1516, when Zwingli moved to Einsiedeln in the canton of Schwyz, Switzerland, he was already questioning the church. He attacked such abuses as the sale of indulgences (partial forgiveness of sins) by priests to church members, and he criticized the spread of false relics (holy objects), such as pieces of the "True Cross" on which Jesus Christ was supposedly crucified, or locks of Jesus's baby hair. Zwingli also began to speak openly of a religion based only on the Bible (the Christian holy book). Independently of Martin Luther, he concluded that the papacy (office of the pope, the supreme head of the Roman Catholic Church) was unfounded in Scriptures (text of the Bible) and that church tradition did not have equal weight with the Bible as a source of Christian truth. Zwingli then spent three years as a priest at a Benedictine abbey (a monastery run by members of the Catholic order founded by Saint Benedict) in Einsiedeln. His experiences at Einsiedeln increased his dislike of selling indulgences. In addition to taking care of the spiritual needs of the small community, he preached to hundreds of pilgrims (those who go on religious journeys) who had come to do penance (confess their sins) and receive absolution (forgiveness of sins) by paying for indulgences. During his stay at the abbey, he devoted his time to classical studies. He also began reading a translation of the Bible published by Erasmus, which had a profound affect on him. Zwingli had been accustomed to reading the Bible commentaries of church "experts" instead of the text of the Bible itself, and his exposure to the Bible caused him to question the traditional interpretations of the Scripture.

By 1518 Zwingli's preaching skills had been noticed at the Great Minster, the main church in the city of Zurich. Late that year he eagerly accepted the offer to be the vicar, or people's priest, of the church. To better enable his audience to understand the word of God, in 1519 Zwingli began a series of lectures on the Gospel (message of Christ, considered the word of God) according to Saint Matthew (a book in the New Testament, the second part of the Bible). In his lectures he used simple terms and mentioned events in every day life. This was a radical approach because Catholic priests were considered authorities on the Bible and they were not allowed to help their parishioners interpret the Scripture. Despite some opposition from traditional priests, Zwingli's unusual method was soon adopted by his fellow priests at Great Minster.

Expresses revolutionary views

On March 5, 1522, in the home of the printer Christoph Froschauer (died 1564), some of Zwingli's friends and supporters broke the rule not eating meat during Lent by eating sausages. (Lent is a forty-day period prior to Easter, the celebration of Christ' rising from the dead. Christians devote this time to prayer, penance, and reflection. As a sign of fasting and additional penance, Catholics are not permitted to eat meat during Lent.) Zwingli turned this event into a public issue in his sermon, which he followed with a pamphlet. Not only did he support the actions of Froschauer and the others, but he also claimed that it was the right of every individual to choose freely what to eat.

The question of not eating meat during Lent triggered discussion of other issues, including clerical celibacy, the Catholic Church policy that does not permit priests to get married. Many clergymen of northern Switzerland were married, and Zwingli was among them. Secretly, he had married Anna Reinhart and had fathered several children. Together with ten other priests he sent a petition to the bishop of Constance asking for church recognition of their marriages. To strengthen their argument, they pointed out that the "bishops" (founders) of the early Church had also been married men. In addition, Zwingli took a stand against the veneration (worship) of saints (people declared as holy by the Catholic Church), and the practice of asking them for help and favors. Zwingli thought Christians could learn such qualities as humility, faith, and hope from the lives of the saints, but he believed in praying directly to God. Zwingli further questioned the belief that saints worked miracles. He had seen crowds of pilgrims flocking to shrines and praying for miracles, and he felt that the church was taking advantage of their faith to get rich. Zwingli contended that pictures and statues of saints only encouraged idolatry (worship of images, or false gods), so they should be taken down. Many of his most enthusiastic followers took his word literally, and from 1523 until 1525 they stripped decorations, statues, and pictures from all churches in Zurich. They frequently used violent tactics, causing disturbances in cantons that refused to adopt Zwingli's new methods.

In the sixteenth century, public debates (called disputations) were the generally accepted means for settling conflict. In January 1523 Zwingli invited the leading clergy of various cantons of the Swiss Confederation, including the bishop of Constance, to the Zurich town hall to discuss the recent issues. Most of his opponents refused to accept the invitation, and the bishop sent his personal adviser as an observer. Zwingli presented sixty-seven theses, (see accompanying box), which offered solutions to major problems in the church. Since the audience consisted mainly of his supporters, he easily convinced them to accept his plan. Zwingli's sixty-seven theses therefore became an outline for religious reform in Zurich. Among practices no longer considered acceptable were pilgrimages, processions, incense, noisy hymns, and the purchase of prayers and indulgences. Zwingli also advised his audience not to spend their money on such things as gambling and lavish clothing, but instead to use it to feed the poor and support widows and orphans. Additional reforms were decided upon at a second debate held later in the year. Among them were the closing of monasteries and the seizing of church property (land and wealth), which was to be given to the poor. The reformers also wanted to change the interpretation of communion (the ceremony in which bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ). According to Catholic tradition, the bread and wine became the actual body and blood of Christ, a process called transubstantiation. Zwingli and his supporters contended, however, that communion had only symbolic significance, nothing more.

Zurich becomes evangelical city

During the years to come, Zwingli turned Zurich into an evangelical city. ("Evangelical" was a term used to refer to the reform movement in Germany.) Those who disagreed with Zwingli were forced either to comply or to leave. As early as 1524, some of Zwingli's supporters claimed his reforms did not go far enough. Among them were the Anabaptists, who formed their own movement called the Swiss Brethren. They were seen as a threat by the Zwinglians, who

Zwingli's Sixty-Seven Articles

In 1523 Huldrych Zwingli held a conference in Zurich to discuss reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. At the conference he presented sixty-five articles, or proposed reforms, which became the basis of the Reformation in Switzerland. Zwingli's sixty-seven articles became the basis for reform of the church in Zurich and, eventually, all of Switzerland.

Zwingli began the list with this statement:

I, Ulrich Zwingli, confess that I have preached in the worthy city of Zurich these sixty-seven articles or opinions on the basis of Scripture, which is called theopneustos (that is, inspired by God). I offer to defend and vindicate these articles with Scripture. But if I have not understood Scripture correctly, I am ready to be corrected, but only from the same Scripture.

Zwingli touched on nearly every practice of the Catholic Church. In theses twenty-eight through thirty-three, he addressed the issues of marriage of priests (he himself was a married priest), excommunication, and the giving of unclaimed property to the church.

The Marriage of Clergy

28. Everything that God permits or has not forbidden is proper. From this we learn that marriage is proper for all people.

The Impure Priest Should Take a Wife

29. All those who are in the church sin if they do not make themselves secure through marriage once they understand that God has granted marriage to them for the sake of purity.

Vows of Purity

30. Those who take a vow of chastity assume madly or childishly too much. From this is to be learned that those who make such vows are treating godly people wantonly [recklessly].

Of Excommunication

31. No private person may excommunicate anyone else, but the church—that is, the communion of those among whom the one subject to excommunication lives—along with its guardians may act as a bishop.

32. The only one who should be excommunicated is a person who commits a public scandal.

Of Unclaimed Goods

33. Unclaimed goods should not be given to temples, cloisters, monks, priests, or nuns, but to the needy, if it is impossible to return them to their rightful owner.

Source: Mark A. Noll. Confessions and Catechisms of the Reformation. Vancouver, B.C.: Regent College Publishing, 1997, pp. 42–43.

banished Anabaptists from Zurich. In 1526 a Catholic-dominated conference was held in Baden, Switzerland. Zwingli was invited but he did not attend because he feared for his personal safety. The council condemned his reforms as the works of the "Antichrist [enemy of Christ] of the Great Minster."

On January 6, 1528, a disputation was allowed to take place in Bern, Switzerland. The debate lasted until the end of January, leaving no doubt that reforms Zwingli had demanded in Zurich would be carried out in the canton of Bern. One region, the Bernr Oberland, tried to resist, asking the neighboring states of Valais, Uri, and Unterwalden for spiritual and, eventually, military support. To reprimand the rebellious subjects, Bern sent in troops. The Bernr Oberland protestors soon gave up and accepted reforms. Zwingli had reached the summit of his power and influence. He had long dreamed of forming a Protestant Swiss Confederation (an alliance of cantons in Switzerland), but he needed the help of allies in Germany.

Zwingli dies in battle

Zwingli finally met Luther for the first time at a conference in Marburg, Germany, in 1529. The participants drew up fifteen articles that defined the Protestant faith. The Marburg meeting took place between the two Kappel Wars, religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. A truce was signed by both parties in 1529, but neither side seemed completely satisfied. When Zwingli returned home from the meeting, events seemed to develop in his favor. But shortly thereafter he met open resistance from the Catholic cantons, which were joined by opponents in his own ranks. Zwingli proposed a quick military campaign to put down opposition. Soon news reached Zurich that Catholic forces had gathered near Zug. Zurich's troops hurried in from all sides, but it was impossible to form orderly units on such short notice. Facing the well-prepared Catholic troops near Kappel in October 1531, the Protestant army of about fifteen hundred men fought bravely, but with no chance of victory. After only a few days, the Protestant alliance was defeated. Zurich lost about five hundred men in battle, among them its spiritual leader, Huldrych Zwingli. His body was abused by the victorious Catholics, who quartered it (cut it into four pieces) and burnt it on a heap of manure.

After Zwingli's death, his colleague Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) became the pastor at Great Minster and the leader of the reform movement in Switzerland. In 1536 Bullinger played an important role in compiling the First Helvetic Confession, a statement of reform goals based largely on Zwingli's views. In 1549 Bullinger joined the French reformer John Calvin (1509–1564; see entry) in drafting the Consensus of Tigurnius, which moved Swiss reform efforts toward Calvinism (a strict form of Protestantism).

For More Information


Gäbler, Ulrich. Huldrych Zwingli: His Life and Work. Ruth C. L. Gritsch, translator. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

Web Sites

Protestant Reformation. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.

"Zwingli, Ulrich." [Online] Available[email protected]%20Zwingli%20%20Huldreich%20or%20Ulrich, April 5, 2002.

"Zwingli, Ulrich." Zwingli and Luther. [Online] Available, April 5, 2002.