Huldrych Zwingli: The Early Swiss Reformer
Born in Wildhaus, Switzerland to an upper-middle class farmer, Huldrych Zwingli was afforded an excellent education and attended both the University of Vienna and University of Basil. Zwingli started his career in service to the Roman Catholic pope as he was ordained to the priesthood, but he ended it in a battle against the Catholics in 1531, as he was acting chaplain to the Protestants.
Zwingli is known as the founder of the Swiss Reformation or the founder of Swiss Protestantism. He is also known as the first Reformed Theologian, though there is some debate on how much he was known as a forerunner of the Reformation compared to Martin Luther.
Zwingli earned his bachelor’s degree in 1504 and his master’s degree in 1506 at the University of Basil. Ordained to the priesthood, he purchased his pastorate at his childhood church in Glarus. Before the Reformation, it was not uncommon practice to pay for church positions within the Roman Catholic Church. He remained in Glarus for ten years and spent his time preaching, pastoring, and teaching. Zwingli also devoted much of his personal time to private study. He taught himself Greek, he studied the Church fathers, and he even read and studied ancient classics. He became active in politics during this time and of course sided with the Roman Catholic papacy in battles and served as chaplain to the soldiers.
Zwingli became fascinated with pagan philosophers and was especially fond of the writings of the Dutch humanist, Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus was the greatest scholar of the northern Renaissance, and he even produced a version of the New Testament in both Greek and Latin.
Zwingli’s final year at Glarus was a turning point as he developed an evangelical understanding of the Scriptures. He devoured the Greek New Testament, published by Erasmus, and memorized Paul’s epistles in the original language. At this time, Zwingli had no knowledge of Martin Luther’s ideas, but because of his study of the Scriptures, he started preaching the same message that Luther would later be professing. His last year at Glarus was a year before Martin Luther would nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door. Zwingli had to leave Glarus in 1516 due to political pressures.
Until 1518, Zwingli served as a priest at the Benedict Monastery of Einsiedelin. This was a smaller church than what he had in Glarus, so he devoted even more of his personal time to study of the Scriptures and church fathers. He corresponded regularly with Erasmus and started to agree theologically with Erasmus and his approach to the Scriptures. It was here Zwingli started rejecting and vocally attacking some of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, specifically the sale of indulgences. An indulgence was payment to the Church that purchased an exemption from penance and punishment for certain sins. Though he did have some arguments regarding indulgences, Zwingli, still at this time, saw no need for reform within the Church. Zwingli’s time at Einsiedelin started forming his theology that would be his major influence as he arrives in Zurich in 1518.
At Zwingli’s arrival, he became the pastor at Grossmünster (Great Minster) in Zurich. It was here that Zwingli decided to go against the normal practices of the Roman Catholic Church, going against the church calendar, and he announced he would be preaching expositionally and sequentially through whole books of the Bible. This was unheard of in a Catholic Mass. January 1, 1519, he started his expositional preaching in the book of Matthew and continued until he had preached through the entire New Testament which took six years to complete. This prepared a foundation for Swiss reform that would soon follow.
During his time at Zurich, there was an outbreak of the plague. About 30% of Zurich’s citizens died during this time, and Zwingli stayed to care for those that were sick and dying. He then contracted the disease himself, and though he almost died, he did not, and his recovery took several months. It was during his recovery that Zwingli learned much about trusting God. During those six years of preaching through the New Testament, he continued pushing forward with truths in the Word of God, despite the church’s traditions.
Zwingli started composing many of the reformation writings. Publications included attacking the sale of indulgences and images in places of worship. He wrote on corruption in the papal hierarchy, authority of the pope, and even promoted clerical marriage. He begins highlighting the doctrines of Sola Scriptura (by scripture alone) and justification by faith. His ideas and writings started to circulate throughout Switzerland.
Zwingli broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1521, and in 1522, Zwingli started working with other leaders to bring about major reform. Though at this time Zwingli certainly had heard of Martin Luther and his ideas, Zwingli said this of Luther:
“Before anyone in the area had heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516…..I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther’s name. Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy Scripture alone.”
In January 1523, Zwingli wrote his sixty-seven theses rejecting certain medieval practices such as clerical celibacy, forced fasting, purgatory, uses of images in the church, and the Mass. Because Zwingli broke from the Roman Catholic church and its restrictions for priests, he married a widow named Anna Reinhard in 1524.
By 1525, the Reformation had advanced significantly in Zurich. On April 14, 1525, the Mass was officially abolished, and Protestant services began in Zurich and surrounding areas. Zwingli taught and preached the Scriptures alone, and anything that proved opposite was rejected. The break from Rome was clearly seen with entire congregations receiving both wine and bread during communion, the ministers wore simple robing, the adoration for Mary and other Saints was banned, and prayers for the dead was ceased.
Zwingli and Luther had many theological and doctrinal comparisons. They agreed on many points, but in 1529, at a meeting in Marburg, Germany, where many came together to politically unite all Protestants, all but one point of doctrine was not agreed upon between the two men: the Lord’s Supper. Though Zwingli thought this as not so significant, something they could overcome, Luther found it so significant and serious that an alliance between the two men never came to pass.
The city of Zurich supported Zwingli and voted to make the city Protestant. Zwingli lived a short life, dying at the age of 47. An army of angry Catholics crossed into the city of Zurich and a battle began between them and the Protestants, though the Protestants were greatly outnumbered.
Zwingli served as the Protestant’s chaplain on the battlefield and he was killed in action. Huldrych Zwingli has been named the Grandfather of Reformed Christianity. He was a faithful preacher of the Gospel. His successors in Switzerland saw him as a martyr and continued his ideas of reform after his death.
Zwingli’s influence in the Reformation remains to this day.
1484 - 1531
Kelly Smith is one of our devotional writers and also a writer for Women’s Hope Project. Kelly is a wife, mother, and grandmother. She works full time as a virtual business manager. Her hobbies include writing and baking. Kelly has a passion for studying the Word of God, doctrine, theology, and sharing what she learns with women around her. Kelly lives in Florence, Alabama, with her husband of 15 years and her rescued fur babies!