Ulrich Zwingli: Swiss Reformer

A rough overview of Ulrich Zwingli, better remembered and known for being the leader of the Swiss Reformation. In this essay I will describe the historical background and theology of Ulrich Zwingli himself. Also I will include how he may have impacted the church and impacted on what it would become today.


1. Ulrich Zwingli

                Ulrich Zwingli (also spelled Huldrych or Ulricht) was born into a peasant family. Though he did not know it at first, Ulrich would later become known to all of history for leading the Swiss Reformation. So, when he was born in Wildhaus, St. Gallon Canton, in Switzerland on the first of January 1484, it would mark the beginning of something incredible. Even as just a kid, Ulrich was extremely talented. Just in his youth, he learned how to play six instruments and master them as well. Although he was third among a group of eight brothers, who were all intellectually inclined, it can be said that Zwingli most certainly stands out the most. Hence, that is why I chose to do a report on him instead of one of his brothers.

                Later in his life, he would also be the author of several books to change the course of history forever. In 1515, he wrote a book entitled The Labyrinth. As I will mention later in further detail, this book would change the mindset that Switzerland had on mercenary work. Another famous work of Zwingli was “Pestlied.” “Pestlied” was an encouragement to those who obtained the plague in Switzerland in 1519. Two other famous books that Zwingli would come to write are Apologeticus Acheteles in 1522 and Commentary on True and False Religions in 1525. All of these would only add to Zwingli’s popularity.

                Before we begin to talk about Zwingli and his life, it is important to know some of the history of Switzerland in the sixteenth century. In the sixteenth century, Switzerland was divided into thirteen cantons, also called states, and they would become known as the Swiss Confederation. Each of these states would have to form an alliance with each other as they were all officially independent from each other. But for this review of Zwingli, it is probably more important to know that the main financial income for these states was to serve as mercenaries. However during this period which Zwingli found himself in, to have a country serve as mercenaries was often an unreliable and costly way to support your nation.  

                At just a mere age of ten, Ulrich was sent to study at the college of Basil by his uncle, Bartholomew, in 1494. It was here where Ulrich would learn to speak Latin as if it was his first language. For three years he would continue to learn Latin until in 1496, he would be sent to Bern. In Bern, Zwingli would learn the very foundations of basic literary work. After he had finished his studies in Bern in 1498, Zwingli would go to the University of Vienna to master the arts of literature. Even though Ulrich Zwingli would be a great scholar, he would never see the day where he would regret being born of his peasant family. It is clearly evident and seen in his earliest of works that his years in studies never changed who he once was.

                Although many, long years were spent in his studies, Ulrich could only reap the benefits of what he had sowed. In the year of 1506 he was invited to become the priest of Glarus. He chose to jump on this opportunity given to him, therefore marking a new chapter in his life. After all those long harsh years spent in his peasant childhood, Zwingli’s future had finally had a light at the end of the tunnel to which he could use to gain hope.

                Eventually, he would see that Glarus was certainly not the place meant for him to be. As the priest, Zwingli would also accompany the mercenaries of Glarus as their personal chaplain. Being a gentle-spirited man that he had always been, he looked upon mercenary work as a fault and sin for all men. In his mind, to kill another life for self-reward was an act of wrongdoing. But Switzerland had a history for its mercenaries in the sixteenth century, and Zwingli’s hate would only continue to grow toward it. Therefore, in 1513 and 1515 the battles of Novara and Marigmo would take place (respectively), and put Ulrich at the “crossroads of destiny.” After witnessing the Battle of Marigmo, Zwingli wrote The Labyrinth. This entire book would be devoted to influence all of Switzerland to stop their mercenary work. So, he came to his decision and decided that in 1516 he would leave Glarus and go to Einsiedeln. Yet even in Einsiedeln Ulrich felt the need to find his own path. So after a short two year stay, he would become the priest at Zurich Grossmunster.

                In Zurich Grossmunster, it is recorded that Zwingli would give his first sermon on the first of January on the year of 1519. He wrote The First and Last Word, and that would be his first outstanding assertion of faith. Despite the fact that the Swiss Reformation could have happened much sooner, Zwingli’s plans would just have to wait. For a plague came to Zurich Grossmunster, and the plans for reformation would have to become sidetracked.

                On the same year Zwingli gave his first sermon, the plague would also strike this city. This event would thus present a great conflict for Ulrich Zwingli. His mind was fluctuating back and forth on what he should do. Should he go and leave the city of Zurich Grossmunster, or should he stay here with the penniless? Leaving the city would have been very possible for him, as he had accumulated enough wealth to afford the journey to leave. With others not as fortunate as he was, would it be right for him to leave Zurich Grossmunster? After thinking about this conundrum placed before him, he would decide to stay and preach to the poor and needy as opposed to the wealthy, which had already made plans for their departure. This plague was no small threat to have dealt with though. In fact, it is said that three out of every ten people who obtained the plague would eventually face their death. It was during this time that Zwingli would write the short hymnal called “Pestlied.” In this short hymnal, Ulrich would suggest that the plague was of God’s will and was meant to be. (As I will quote “Pestlied” at the end) Even Zwingli would come to experience the plague that was going throughout the city. For three antagonizing months he would have the burden of the plague. Almost dying, he was lucky enough to survive.

                After the plague passed throughout the city of Zurich, Zwingli could finally return to preaching out against the Catholic ideas. In 1522 he opposed many ideas of the Catholics including that of the idea of fasting. He also was accredited to writing to the Bishop of Constance, Johannes Faber, with eleven other priests for one reason: the right for priests and nuns to marry. The bishop wrote back in summary that it was not to be allowed on any circumstances. In rebellion against the bishop’s response, Zwingli married Anna, a widow who had already had three children, on that same year in secrecy. Their first four children (including the three of Anna’s) would be named the following: Regula, Wilhelm, Huldreich, and Anna. Eventually however, they would be the parents of six children, and later on the second of April in 1524 Zwingli would make this marriage public.

                Now as the reformation began to grow, the first major dispute of the reformation was ready to begin. On the twenty-ninth of January in 1523 Zwingli posted the Sixty-Seven Theses. This act of his would mark the beginning of the Swiss Reformation. The Sixty-Seven Theses attacked major points of the original Catholic Church. In the theses they stated, that the Bible was more important that the church and the popes, priests and nuns should be given the right and permission to marry, Christ is the only way to salvation, Christ is the only mediator between humanity and God, and that Purgatory simply does not exist.

                The Sixty-Seven Theses would begin the Swiss Reformation, but not until 1523 would major events begin to occur as successes for their reforms. Later that same year, Zwingli outright opposed the idea of the Mass and the Eucharist. His view of the Lord’s Supper is that it is just a memorial feast, and rejected the idea of transubstantiation during the Eucharist. Transubstantiation is “the miraculous change by which according to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox dogma the Eucharistic elements at their consecration become the body and blood of Christ while keeping only the appearances of bread and wine.”

                These two first acts of the Swiss Reformation would be a major success. On October twenty-sixth 1523 the Catholic rule and foothold in Zurich Grossmunster would officially end. With this victory the city of Zurich Grossmunster became the second center for the Swiss Reformation. The first center of the reformation was the city of Wittenburg. After two more years of vigorous reforming, yet another success would come along with the Swiss Reformation. In 1525, the Mass and all other Catholic traditions would come to an end in Zurich Grossmunster. Also, it was in 1525 that Zwingli wrote the book called Commentary on True and False Religions. This book touched and expanded the idea of the true power of God and how He is sovereign of all things in this world.

                The reformation was to continue peacefully, but in 1529 violent action was going to take place. The anger of the five states that opposed this reformation was now boiling. Although Zwingli was always against the mercenary work of Switzerland, he had no problem with defending the Word of God with a sword in hand if it was necessary. The First Kappel War would become a total failure for the five states which the reformation was up against. The city of Zurich Grossmunster raised an army of thirty-thousand men while the five states only managed to get a small nine-thousand. Seeing that they were clearly outnumbered and would lose miserably to their opponents, the five states decided to call a truce. This truce would break the bonds between Austria and the five states; leading to yet another success for the reformers.

                Though in 1529, the Swiss reformers knew that they could not keep their success for long. So, they decided to meet with the Lutherans at the Marburg Colloquy. This formal conversation was meant to bring the two reforms together as one, but unfortunately it would not be as successful as the Swiss reformers meant it out to be. On October first to the third, the leaders of each reform, Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, would meet to discuss their theological views on which their reformation was based upon. At this meeting fifteen points were to be brought up and discussed.

                At the Marburg Colloquy, fifteen points were to be discussed. Of the fifteen points in total, both sides could agree on fourteen of them. Interestingly enough, the last point was about the Eucharist and whether or not transubstantiation was true or just symbolic in nature. Luther believed that it was true during the Eucharist while Zwingli believed that the Eucharist and transubstantiation during it was only symbolic. So, the two were very split on their opinions on the last point of the colloquy. Because of this one difference in the reformations, this would become a failed attempt to bring them together.

                Two years later in the year 1531, the Swiss Reformation’s failure at the Marburg Colloquy would mark the defeat at the Second Kappel War. Unfortunately, this war would not be as successful as the first. During the Second Kappel War, Ulrich would assist the Swiss reformers from Zurich Grossmunster as their chaplain. Again, they would face the forces of Roman Catholics from the five states. So, after days of fighting, the Swiss reformers lost, and on October eleventh 1531 Ulrich Zwingli was found dead on the field.

                Ulrich’s death is recorded by his successor, Heinrich Bullinger. In this following short summary, it will briefly describe how Bullinger recorded the death of his predecessor. After the battle was over Zwingli lay looking up and amongst the dead bodies. Still barely alive Zwingli was told by the Catholics to repent of his sins against God. Though Zwingli refused to do as they had commanded, and so there would be dire consequences to follow. At his disagreement, the Catholics began to curse at Zwingli until Captain Fuckinger of Unterwalden came up with a sword in his hands. The captain stabbed Zwingli thus causing him to die instantaneously. As the Catholics looked upon the casualty of the great Swiss reformer, they rejoiced. Now, what to do with his body? There was a great debate on what was best for this heretic. First, it was suggested that they cut the heretic into five parts and send one part to each of the five states. This idea was overruled when someone asked why they would carry a heretic like that. In the end, it was decided that Zwingli’s body be cut into quarters and then burnt.

                In Myconius’s version of Zwingli’s death, Zwingli takes a spear to the abdomen. It was then recorded that Zwingli stated as his final words, “They can kill the body, but not the soul.” Again, the Catholics rejoice at their defeat, but Myconius adds a very interesting part to the ending. After three days Zwingli’s friends came to the ashes of the burnt pieces. As they looked in the ashes, the heart of Zwingli was found completely untouched by the fire. Surely this is a miracle if it is true, but it is very debatable.

                Zwingli’s theology can be found in three main categories. One is his Sixty-Seven Theses. Two is his own actions. Three is from the people who influence him. You may ask where all of his theology comes from though. Most this came from the influences which can be broken down into three further parts.

                From his Sixty-Seven Theses, Zwingli strongly believed that the Bible was over the church. He also believed that salvation came by faith alone and that the Mass and Eucharist are just symbolic. Finally, he didn’t agree that the saints should be prayed to and that Purgatory doesn’t exist. These beliefs have already been brought to light, so there isn’t much of a need to explain further in detail.

                From Zwingli’s actions we see he was willing to defend the faith with the sword quite literally. He was willing to take necessary action for necessary needs. He also trusted in the belief that God is only at the Eucharist spiritually. This belief ended up costing him the loss of his life, but again we see that he was firm and strong on his opinions. Like Martin Luther, he didn’t follow the orders of the pope or the bishops for that matter. From his rebellion from the Bishop of Constance we see he was extremely self-sufficient. What I believe to be most intriguing of all is that he thought Baptism was a superstitious act when it was taken literally. It’s actually quite understandable if you go into his own eyes. At the time, Baptism was almost required to be officially recognized as being forgiven of your sins. Zwingli’s opposition occurred when people started to believe that the water was like magic. He believed it was actions that determine if a man truly repented as opposed to the routine that was accepted in his time.

                The three main sources that influenced Zwingli in order from greatest to least are the Bible, studying under Augustine, and Marin Luther and his writings. The Bible and studying under Augustine are relatively easy to understand why they would have influenced him the most in his understandings of theology. But Martin Luther played a key role in influencing Zwingli also. One key difference between Martin Luther and Zwingli that I haven’t already brought up is that they were both brought up in different styles or views. Zwingli tended to favor Thomism from Thomas Aquinas while Luther favored the teachings he had received under Occum. The two of them shared many likenesses also, which only helped Zwingli stand firm in his beliefs. Both Martin and Ulrich rejected the authority of the pope, and agreed that Scripture was the only true authority to be followed. Both believed in salvation by faith alone and both rejected the sacrifice of the Mass. Again, most of these have already been discussed about.

                With Ulrich’s acts, he helped the church become more independent and attentive to the world around them. In addition to that, he showed the world to stand up for what is right no matter the cost. With him, the churches were willing to make its own personal understanding of the Bible besides that which was accepted by tradition of the early church. Without a personal understanding of the Bible, it is almost impossible to come to know God because the relationship between God and humanity is personal and unique for each individual. A very common and relatable example of the above claim is found in everyday life. Have you ever needed to talk to others in a different manner than what you would consider normal? This distinct separation is brought up because everyone has a different personality unique to each individual. So, the understanding of the Bible for one may be a completely different understanding for another. 

                Though Zwingli’s acts happened nearly five-hundred years ago, he has still left quite a large impression on the world today. Again, Zwingli definitely helped with the separation of the Catholic Church that Luther had accomplished. In fact, had it not been for Zwingli, Martin Luther’s success might have turned into a failure. Zwingli is even still remembered for his acts and will be for generations to come.



        “Pestlied” By: Ulrich Zwingli

“Thy purpose fulfil:

nothing can be too severe for me.

I am thy vessel,

for you to make whole or break to pieces.

Since, if you take hence

my spirit from this earth,

you do it so that it will not grow evil,

and will not mar

the pious lives of others”.



By: Mitchell A. Kile

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