Editor's note: This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and this is one in a series of columns to describe the origins, nature and impact of the events and personalities of the Reformation. Previous articles are online at deseretnews.com/fait
Far less well-known, beyond his homeland, than Martin Luther or John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli — in modern German, “Ulrich Zwingli” — was born on Jan. 1, 1484, near St. Gallen, in northeastern Switzerland.
After schooling at nearby Weesen (where his uncle was a priest and teacher), Basel and Bern, he attended the universities in Vienna and in Basel — the latter a center of Renaissance humanism — receiving his “magister” degree in 1506. Zwingli was something of a humanist himself, corresponding with Erasmus, whom he later met in Basel between 1514-1516. After ordination to the Roman Catholic priesthood, Zwingli served for 10 years as the pastor of the eastern Swiss town of Glarus, where he solidified his mastery of Greek and studied Hebrew.
In Zwingli’s day, the Swiss Confederation consisted of just 13 cantons (states)— compared with today’s 26 — along with some miscellaneous allied areas. Each canton was essentially independent, managing its own domestic and foreign policy.
Many cantonal leaders profited from hiring young Swiss men out to fight in foreign wars — a practice that Zwingli came to oppose as immoral. His controversial political stance obliged him to leave Glarus in 1516, but it failed to end such mercenary service: Able-bodied Swiss continued to be used across Europe long thereafter. Hundreds of them died, for example, during the storming of the Tuileries on Aug. 10, 1792, vainly defending the monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette against the French Revolution. And the Swiss Guards at Vatican City, with their colorful uniforms, are a relic of the practice.
In 1518, Zwingli was appointed priest of the Grossmuenster in Zurich, the city’s largest church. Here, he became an influential preacher. When the plague hit Zurich in 1519, killing 1 in 4 of its residents, Zwingli continued to minister in the city while many fled. However, after his brother fell victim to the disease and he himself nearly died, he seems to have grown much more serious (and less of a humanist). When a salesman of indulgences approached the city in 1519 — Luther had denounced them in his famous “ninety-five theses” in October 1517 — Zurich refused him entry.
But the Swiss Reformation is typically regarded as commencing on the first fasting Sunday of Lent — March 9, 1522 — when Zwingli and others, declaring Lent unbiblical, sliced up and distributed two smoked sausages. Their action is often called, half-humorously, “The Affair of the Sausages.” Zwingli also began to preach against priestly celibacy, having secretly married Anna Reinhard earlier that year. He would eventually marry her publicly on April 2, 1524, just three months before the birth of their first child.
Soon, Zwingli began to reject the veneration of saints and to teach that unbaptized children aren’t damned. (He may also have believed that non-Christians could go to heaven.) The years 1524-1525 saw a flurry of activity, including the removal of images from the Grossmuenster and other Swiss churches and the banning of instrumental music from worship services. Latin mass was replaced by a simple German-language communion service. Monks and nuns were pensioned off, monastic wealth was turned into a welfare fund and monasteries were transformed into hospitals. Zwingli also published a German-language Bible — before Luther’s full translation appeared.
Luther and Zwingli disagreed about communion. Both rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, but, while Zwingli regarded the bread and wine as merely commemorative or symbolic, Luther angrily disagreed, insisting on Christ’s “real presence” at communion.
Zurich’s Reformation quickly spread to neighboring cantons, with Basel, Bern and others joining the cause. However, the five “forest cantons” of Luzern, Zug, Schwyz, Uri and Unterwald remained defiantly Catholic — as they overwhelming do still today — forming an alliance to defend themselves.
Led by Bern, the Protestant cantons declared a food blockade against the forest cantons, provoking them into attacking Zurich at a time when it was unusually vulnerable. On Oct. 11, 1531, Zwingli, aged 47, was killed at the Battle of Kappel. Catholic forces, retrieving the “heretic’s” body, contemptuously burned it. Luther pronounced Zwingli’s death “a judgment of God.” Even Erasmus saw in it “the wonderful hand of God on high.”
Today, while Calvinism and Lutheranism are distinct Christian traditions, no clear “Zwinglianism” exists. Perhaps that’s because he died relatively young. Only in Switzerland is Zwingli even reckoned the founder of a church. But his legacy lives on, and he is generally accounted with Luther and Calvin as one of the trio of great 16th-century Protestant Reformers.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.