Ulrich Zwingli – The Less Known but Highly Influential Swiss Reformer & Contemporary of Luther

Ulrich Zwingli was one of the most influential early Reformers. Born the same time as Luther, Zwingli rediscovered the “real” Gospel at a parallel time as Luther, but independent of him. Both men took different approaches to causing change that left a lasting impact for future generations. Although largely unknown by most Christians, Zwingli’s Reformation story has much that we can learn from today. What follows is my daughter’s High School paper on Zwingli that provides a quick overview of his life and ministry, including his unique approach to change and the positive as well as negative impacts his leadership had during the early critical years of the Reformation.

—— The following paper is by A. Anderson ——–

It is shocking that in the early 1500’s, those claiming authority over the Christian church justified the torture and murder of fellow Christians, simply because they desired to engage in Believer’s baptism among other similar reforms. As strange as that sounds today, the threat of imprisonment, torture, and death was a clear and present danger for the early German and Swiss Reformers (Estep 43). One of the less known, but significant, reformers was Ulrich Zwingli. Born only six weeks after the famous German Reformer, Martin Luther, Zwingli grew up in the Toggenburg Valley of the Swiss Alps (Prentis 43). Zwingli eventually rose to prominence as a German-speaking priest, having great political influence in Zurich, which became one of the central battlegrounds of the Swiss Reformation (Prentis 52). Even before Luther’s influence reached Switzerland, by 1516, Zwingli had committed himself to preach only the real Gospel of Christ to the people (Opitz 950). Ulrich Zwingli powerfully influenced the growth of the Swiss Reformation, but his unwavering commitment to the Swiss Confederacy, his “moderation” in reform approach, and his abrupt turn against the anabaptists made him complicit in the torture, imprisonment, and death of many Christian reformers.

Zwingli had an unwavering commitment to the Swiss Confederacy, because of the nature of the combined political and social structures of the day that combined church and state into one indivisible unit. Any deviation from the established Catholic church religious system was considered a “treason” against the state (Estep 29-30). Thus, Zwingli sought to gain political influence by convincing the Swiss Confederacy to adopt his reform principles. Zwingli hoped to gain greater consensus politically before any changes were implemented, because he believed political support was necessary to maintain the society’s structure as a whole. Zwingli’s personality and moderate political approach quickly gained him significant influence in Zurich (D’Aubigne 6, 17). For example, Zwingli appealed to those in authority, explained his reforms and demonstrated from Scripture how the changes suggested were not treasonous (Hinkle 239-240). In contrast, Martin Luther directly condemned the Pope, while Zwingi sought only to avoid overtly criticizing the Roman church and sought to gain small concessions over time (Jackson 275). These tactics had some success early on, but the push-back became increasingly violent, causing a split in the Confederacy that eventually led to civil war.

One of Zwingli’s first successful political and social reform efforts was Zwingli’s 67-Theses. Unlike Luther’s 95-Theses, which focused primarily on criticizing and pointing out all the problems within the Catholic church, Zwingli’s 67-Theses sought to focus on speaking boldly against anything that diminished the real Gospel or Jesus as the only way of salvation (Opitz 951). Whereas, Luther outwardly criticized the church, Zwingli kept his focus on gaining the legal right to preach the true Gospel to the people in their own language, while only alluding to the corruption in the Roman church (Jackson 7). Zwingli felt that the real Gospel being preached would eventually cause people to change, which would, over time, cause the corruption to fall away (Jackson 7). Zwingli’s softer political approach, that somewhat ignored the sins of the pope and focused instead on the Gospel, made it harder for his political enemies to attack him (Opitz 957). Zaber (a Gospel hating Catholic vicar-general), was initially unsuccessful in getting the Zurich counsel to come against Zwingli and condemn him publicly, but he did bad mouth Zwingli to the pope (D’Aubigne 102). Zwingli’s enemies increased as Luther’s writings reached Switzerland and unbelieving herdsmen and veteran soldiers, who were enemies of the Gospel, began to call for Zwingli’s death as a “heretic” (D’Aubigne 102). Thus, “while Rome was pursuing Luther with her anathemas, she endeavored to win over the reformer of Zurich by gentleness,” underestimating Zwingli’s commitment to the Gospel and forcing a civil battle to maintain its political control over Switzerland (D’Aubigne 102).

Zwingli’s commitment to the Swiss Confederacy is further revealed when his fear of dividing society forces him to compromise truths he previously taught. After preaching infant baptism was unbiblical for numerous years, Zwingli is unwilling to stand with his convictions before the Council, going as far as to publicly condemn his own students. Regarding infant baptism specifically, Zwingli states, “…one must practice infant baptism so as not to offend our fellow men…but on account of offence I omit preaching this; it is better not to preach it until the world is ready to take it” (Verduin 198-203). Thus, while Zwingli theoretically agreed that infant baptism was wrong and Believer’s baptism was in accordance with what the Bible taught, he publicly condemned those who decided to make a change before the Swiss Council itself approved their “right” to do so. Verduin notes that “It is quite apparent that what restrained Zwingli from introducing believer’s baptism was the consideration that such a baptism would tend to divide society—the one thing that men of sacralist conviction cannot allow” (Verduin 200). Thus, Zwingli’s commitment to the Swiss Confederacy, giving it authority to override Scripture and one’s individual freedom of conscience before God, directly resulted in his having a hand in the conviction of many early anabaptists, who sought to walk out the very thing Zwingli preached concerning Believer’s baptism.

However, it was not simply Zwingli’s commitment to the Swiss Confederacy that was problematic, his commitment to a “moderation in reform” approach proved fatal (Opitz 952). For example, when the priests and monks, who did not know the Word of God, failed to defend from Scripture the use of idols, the council’s decision to reform and remove idol use was one of the first reforms Zwingli led that broke the reformers free from Rome. Rather than wait for a larger Council of Bishops, Zwingli argues that “the church” (by means of its civil authority) is sufficiently “present” in the local council, and therefore, Rome was not needed (Prentis 54). “Many priests” rose “to defend the images,” but since they had no papal decree to stand on, nor could they defend the position from Scripture; “Zwingli and other reformers confuted them by the Bible” (D’Aubigne 109). By the end of this dispute in 1523, the reform areas of Switzerland were for the first time allowed to follow the Word of God, by means of their local councils, and override any ruling from Rome deemed inconsistent with Scripture (Opitz 951). Thus, while “Luther had restored the Bible to the Christian world, Zwingli went further; he restored their rights” (D’Aubigne 111-112). By this D’Aubigne implies that Zwingli helped start the removal of the sole authority of the papacy to determine all faith and practice. However, Zwingli only went as far as to place that authority in political hands of the local councils. This meant anyone going outside that authority, could still be subject to prosecution, imprisonment, torture, and by 1529, certain death at the hands of local councils (Verduin 202).

However, Zwingli’s passion to preach against idolatry matched that of “Luther’s attack on justification by works,” and following Hottinger’s murder, Zwingli brought reform concerning the use of images before the Council (Prentis 55). Hottinger, a zealous reformer under personal conviction about idols, took down a large crucifix at Stadelhofer (D’Aubigne 116). Zwingli responded to Hottinger’s independent decision by banishing him from Zurich (D’Aubigne 116). Hottinger, continued to confess the simple Gospel message and the truths condemning the evil of the pope, the doctrine of the Mass, idols, and other issues (D’Aubigne 116). Upon returning to Switzerland, Hottinger was hunted down by papal supporters, tried, and beheaded for his outspoken faith (D’Aubigne 116). Unfortunately, Zurich stood alone defending the Gospel and men like Hottinger. Soon all other states approved 19 articles against Luther’s writings and anything that sounded like them (D’Aubigne 115). The articles said, “Let the people be forbidden to preach or repeat any new or Lutheran doctrine in private or in public, and to talk or dispute about such things in taverns and over their wine” (D’Aubigne 115). Zurich replied to the diet at Lucerne with 19 Articles of its own, making no concessions concerning the Word of God, and firmly holding to the strength of the church as being found in the people (D’Aubigne 117-118).

Meanwhile, in April 1524, the pope sent a disputation to reign in Zwingli’s reforms in Zurich, commissioning Schaffhousen and Appenzell “to acquaint these states with the firm resolve of the diet to crush the new doctrine and to prosecute its adherents to the forfeiture of their goods, their honors, and even their lives” (D’Aubigne 119). Not long after, a righteous bailiff named Wirth, was handed over to a wicked set of deputies by the Zurich council under false pretenses and threat of civil war with the non-believing Catholic cantons. Bailiff Wirth was brutally tortured along with one of his two sons and another bailiff (D’Aubigne 125). “Deputies of Berne, Lucerne, Uri, Schwytz, Unterwalden, Zug, Glaris, Friburg, and Soleure,” cared only to torture and murder anyone who held to what they believed to be a “heretical” belief taught by Zwingli and Luther (D’Aubigne 123). Zwingli responded to their brutality and deception by attacking the Mass before the Zurich Council (Prentis 57). The Mass given in Latin was abolished in Zurich; thus, “the corporeal presence of Christ” was declared an illusion, altars were removed, and it was all replaced with the simplicity of the Lord’s Supper (D’Aubigne 128). While at first Zwingli had simply opted to criticize the Mass, seeing the brutality and wickedness of those in league with the papacy, by 1525, Zwingli fought to bring the Council in Zurich deeper into the reformation by limiting communion to a quarterly celebration (Prentis 57). At the same time, Zwingli and the Zurich counsel began to rule against other reformers who sought to take the reform further outside the will and authority of the Zurich council.

Zwingli and the Zurich council did not exhibit the same patience and understanding toward the zealous anabaptists as they did toward many unbelieving priests within Zurich. In fact, the first anabaptists were comprised of Zwingli’s own students. In November of 1521, a number of gifted young intellectuals, who desired to study the Greek classics, gathered to learn at the feet of Zwingli (Estep 12). One of the most influential was the son of a member of the Great Council of Zurich named Conrad Grebel (Estep 12). “Less than three years later” these young men’s personal “convictions had driven them far beyond Zwingli” (Estep 12). By 1525, anabaptism (which means re-baptism) was birthed by Zwingli’s own students (Prentis 58). Grebel, Manz, and a dozen other young men, who had learned from Zwingli, gathered in Manz’ home near Grossmunster, and without Catholic clergy present, proceeded to engage in the first restored believer’s baptism (Estep 13-15). These men, led by Grebel, would go on to baptize 500 at the Sitter River, and “taught the absolute necessity of a personal commitment to Christ as essential to salvation and a prerequisite to baptism (Estep 15, 39). Conflict with the anabaptists escalated quickly, “and on 7 March 1526, the council prescribed death by drowning for re-baptizers,” all under Zwingli’s acquiescence (Pentis 59).

Initially, Zwingli’s student, Grebel, took his same approach, writing to the Zurich city council on behalf of the Brethren, seeking to convince the council regarding Believer’s baptism (Estep 39). When Zwingli brought the issue of The Mass and images before the Zurich council, Grebel opposed Zwingli’s need to do so publicly (Estep 15-16). Zwingli rebuked Grebel saying, “the Council” will solely decide what and when to change anything (Estep 15-16). Grebel responded, “Master Ulrich, you do not have the right to place the decision on this matter in the hands of my lords, for the decision has already been made, the Spirit of God decides” (Estep 15-16). Zwingli tried to reason with Grebel concerning the distinction between a truth discovered by the study of Scripture by an individual and the implementation of that truth by the council (Estep 16-17). Grebel’s associate responded, “If my lords adopt and decide on some other course that would be against the decision of God, I will ask Christ for His Spirit, and I will preach and act against it” (Estep 16-17). Zwingli affirmed that he too would “preach” against the council’s decision, but would not act unlawfully against it, trying to impart to the younger men the issue of recognizing the joint religious and civil authority he believed was “necessary” for society itself to function (Estep 17). Thus, “Zwingli, while appealing to the church, was careful to not make it too prominent, and he preferred the representative system to the actual sovereignty of the people” (D’Aubingne 132).

In contrast, Zwingli’s students including Grebel, “resolved to form an independent congregation in the midst of the great congregation, a church within a church” (D’Aubingne 133). However, “anything that resulted in composite society [was] for the sacralist an intolerable evil” (Verduin 200). Thus, Zwingli could not continue with his earlier agreement with the anabaptists regarding their break from infant baptism, because it would result in “faction-making;” thus, “bringing into being a sect and not one faith” (Verduin 200). Men like Zwingli were “mortally afraid of everything that so much as smacked of Rotterei or faction-making—forgetting that the Church of Christ, as set forth in the New Testament, is by definition a faction” (Verduin 200). Grebel was later arrested along with Manz and Blaurock, and sentenced to an indefinite term of imprisonment on November 18, 1525 (Estep 40). In 1529, the Diet of Speier decreed that “every Anabaptist or rebaptized person, of either sex, [was] to be put to death, by fire, or by sword, or by some other means” (Verduin 202).

In the end, “one after the other of [Zwingli’s] erstwhile associates went to the executioner . . .  say[ing] acidly of Zwingli, ‘Today he preaches one thing and tomorrow he takes it all back again; to be specific, for years now he has preached that children must not be baptized but now he tells us that they must be” (Verduin 203). This witness highlights Zwingli’s unwavering commitment to the Swiss Counsel over and against the conscience of the individual believer. Furthermore, Zwingli’s moderate approach to reform that left the authority of all faith and practice in the hands of local governmental councils, under the false belief “that society can hang together only if it is bound together by a common religious commitment,” was fatally flawed (Verduin 250). Zwingli’s well-meaning but unsustainable approach to reform ultimately led to the death of many of Zwingli’s fellow Swiss reformers, and even Zwingli himself. However, his successful reforms also served to replant the real Gospel message in the hearts and minds of many Swiss Christians, which produced a lasting, but often unrecognized, impact equal to that of the more famous German reformer: Luther.

Works Cited

D’Aubigne, Jean H. M. For God and His People: Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss

            Reformation. BJU Press, 2000.

Estep, William R. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth Century

            Anabaptism. 3rd ed., William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Hinkle, William J. editor. Ulrich Zwingli on Providence and other essays. Wipf and

            Stock Publishers, 1999.

Jackson, Samuel M. Ulrich Zwingli: Early Writings. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1999.

Opitz, Peter. “Ulrich Zwingli.” Religion Compass, vol. 2, no. 6, 2008, pp. 949-960.

Prentis, Malcolm. “Doing Something Bold for God: Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich 15-19-

            2019.” Church heritage: journal of the Church Records and Historical Society

            (Uniting Church in Australia-NSW Synod). 21.1 (2019): 42-84. Print.

Verduin, Leonard. The Reformers and Their Stepchildren: The Dissent and

            Nonconformity Series. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964.

3 thoughts on “Ulrich Zwingli – The Less Known but Highly Influential Swiss Reformer & Contemporary of Luther

  1. A scholarly article written with grace and tact. I learned a fresh perspective on the reformation period I had not known before. A delightful read- thank you –

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