Zwingli and The Swiss Reformation

9 Min Read


While the German Reformation was gaining traction under the influence of such thought leaders as Luther and Melancthon, the Swiss Reformation rose as a parallel movement, the two being joined together by similar ideologies and yet having very little actual contact with each other. The man at the helm of the Swiss Reformation was Ulrich Zwingli, born in the small village of Wildhaus in 1484, the third son of the parish Bailiff.

Zwingli’s father Huldrych was a shepherd during the summer months and his sons helped him lead the sheep to green pastures high up in the Swiss Alps. When winter rolled around no work could be done because of the inclement weather conditions and the Zwingli home was a gathering place for many of their neighbors on cold winter evenings. The men would huddle around the fire and tell stories of Swiss history.

As they spun their colorful tales young Zwingli would sit transfixed listening to these stories. These seasons built a deep love for his country in his heart which would later fuel his work of reform. While these stories of the heroes of his homeland beguiled him a more powerful narrative was opened to his young mind through the agency of his grandmother, who would call him to her side and tell him stories from the Bible.





PSALMS 8:3-4

These times of learning left a deep impression on the mind of the young Zwingli and coupled with the unspoiled beauty of the Alps among which he lived created in his heart a deep love and reverence for God. It was this time, in his home, learning the Bible at his grandmother’s side, employed in useful labor on the mountains, that laid the foundations for the work that he would go on to perform as one of God’s light bearers to the world.


Zwingli’s father being an ambitious man and wanting his son to have a good education, scraped together what money he could spare to send Zwingli to his Uncle, the Dean of Wesen who sent him to school there for a period of time, from Wessen they sent him to Basel and from Basel at the age of 13 to Bern. Zwingli excelled academically, was a good orator and was well versed in the arts, making him a perfect monastic recruit.

The  Dominican and Franciscan monastic orders were fierce rivals and always on the lookout for means by which they could outdo the other. Zwingli’s talent and brilliance made him a rare find and a priceless asset that could boost the popularity of the order that managed to snag him. Tireless efforts were put forth to lure him into enlisting as a monk but his father, who had a great distaste and distrust of monks in general, being warned of the situation called for his son to return home.




Zwingli obeyed the wishes of his father and returned home without delay but he was restless to return to his education and it wasn’t long before he went back to school first in Vienna and then later in Basel where he was influenced by some of the brightest minds of the Renaissance, among whom were Erasmus, Oecolampadius, and Wittenbach. Wittenbach was one of his professors at the University of Basel and had a profound impact on his thinking, as did Erasmus, who was a Dutch, Renaissance humanist, scholar.


After he finished his education in Basel, Zwingli was offered the opportunity to pastor the parish of Glarus, which he accepted and he embarked on this new chapter of his life in 1506 when he was 22 years old. While at Glarus Zwingli immersed himself in Greek and Latin classical literature, poring over Demosthenes, Cicero,

Seneca, and Scipio with an avid interest, however, he was yet to discover the beauty of the word of God. His immersion in classical literature and his pastoral duties were rudely interrupted by Pope Julius II declaring war on Louis XII of France and calling the priests and bishops of the church to join him in his holy war. The men of Glarus engaged in the battle under the leadership of their Cardinal-Bishop decked out in a coat of mail and armor.

Whatever line of investigation we pursue, with a sincere purpose to arrive at truth, we are brought in touch with the unseen, mighty Intelligence that is working in and through all. The mind of man is brought into communion with the mind of God, the finite with the Infinite. The effect of such communion on body and mind and soul is beyond estimate.

{Ed 14.2}

Zwingli reluctantly followed the soldiers to war, but instead of taking up arms he functioned in the capacity of chaplain to the Swiss soldiers fighting in Italy. He continued in this capacity from 1512-1515 and then returned to Switzerland to take up work as the parish priest in Einsiedeln in 1516. While at Einsiedeln, Zwingli picked up a copy of Erasmus’  Greek New Testament and as he read the word of God it has a profound and lasting impact on his life. As he read he was thoroughly convinced of the truth of God’s word, of its infallible authority and of the fact that Scripture is its own interpreter.

He slowly but surely came to the realization that many of the teachings of the church were directly opposed to Scripture and this realization was the catalyst that started him on the path of reform. Up to that point, Zwingli had been heavily influenced by Renaissance humanism, which taught that man could achieve favor with God through a system of scholastic and rational enlightenment, drawing heavily upon the works of the great Greek and Latin philosophers for inspiration and direction. However, as he immersed himself in the Word of God Zwingli found himself turning away from this ideology to embrace the word of God as the sole authority and the only means through which man might gain a proper concept of Salvation.

He also paid a visit to Rome, which proved to be yet another turning point in his life as he saw the avarice, pride, and vice that flourished in that city, which professed to be the heartbeat of Christendom. This gave him a greater desire to not only study the scriptures but to set in motion a reformation of the church by educating the people with regards to the truths of Scripture and contrasting them with the teachings of the church.


In 1518 he was elected as a Canon of the Cathedral in Zurich and it was here that he began his work of reformation in earnest. Here he preached a series of sermons on the New Testament that were based solely on the Bible and made no reference to a scrap of church doctrine or dogma.

This was an act of defiance against the church that professed to be the only authority that could interpret scripture and it was also an act that most likely drew heavily upon the ideas of Erasmus who believed that the essence of Christianity was to emulate the life of Jesus as described in Scripture. As Zwingli’s ideas of reform matured his goal became to use the Scriptures as a guide for not just religious and moral life but also for social and political reform as well, thus setting the tone for the Swiss Reformation and laying the groundwork for the social reform that would be propagated by Calvin in the future.


Zwingli’s first open challenge to the authority of the church came in 1522, first over the church’s imposition of fasting and second over the issue of Celibacy. In the first instance, he refused to keep a church-appointed fast, calling it unscriptural and in the second instance, he, a Roman Catholic priest, openly married.  In 1523 Zwingli and representatives of the Catholic church were invited to an open debate by the Zurich city council, who declared that the winner would determine the religious course that the city would take. Zwingli argued eloquently for the supremacy of the Bible over the word of Popes, Prelates or church councils and the City of Zurich rejected Catholicism and embraced the Reformation as a whole,  declaring that all future preaching in Zurich should be based on the Bible alone.

He also spoke against the sale of indulgences in Switzerland, opposing Samson, the monk appointed to peddle them, as vehemently as Luther opposed Tetzel in Germany. Speaking of the impact that Zwingli made in Switzerland the historian Wylie says “towns and hamlets came out of the darkness and stood forth in the light. The great centers, Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen, St.Call abandoned Rome and embraced the gospel…from the gates of Geneva to the shores of Constance did the light spread”

Rome was infuriated and tried in vain to silence the reformer. When informed of their plottings Zwingli responded: “Let them come on; I fear them as the beetling cliff fears the waves that thunder at its feet.” When all their efforts at antagonism failed, Rome changed tactics and called for a disputation at Baden on the 16th of May 1526. The Council of Zurich advised Zwingli against attending, knowing that to do so was to invite certain death. Instead, they dispatched Oecolampadius and Haller to represent the reformers while Rome chose the “best swordsman she then had at her service”, Dr. Eck, to represents its interests.

Letters were sent between  Zwingli and his disciples, via couriers who hid the letters under baskets of poultry on their heads, giving Zwingli an opportunity to remotely direct the proceedings. Oecolampadius was not one for open combat,  yet gentle though he was he stood unflinchingly for the right. Eck and his entourage appealed to the authority and customs of the church, while the reformers appealed to Scripture. “Custom,” Oecolampadius said, “has no force in our Switzerland, unless it is according to the Constitution; now, in matters of faith, the Bible is our constitution.” The contrast between the modest Oecolampadius and the haughty Eck was unmistakable. After eighteen days of debate, Rome declared that the church was triumphant and the cause of the Reformation vanquished but history records the disputation at Baden as a catalyst to the spreading of Protestantism throughout Switzerland.

After the dispute at Baden other cities through Switzerland embraced Protestantism as wholeheartedly as Zurich had and the Catholic cantons banded together to form a military alliance against the Protestant cantons. This led to an outbreak of war in 1531 and Zwingli himself went into battle with the Protestant forces and was killed in the Battle of Kappel.

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