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Ulrich Zwingli

Huldrych Zwingli

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General Information

Ulrich (Huldreich) Zwingli, b. Jan. 1, 1484, d. Oct. 11, 1531, was a leader of the Swiss Reformation. The son of a prosperous peasant, Zwingli studied music, scholastic philosophy, and humanistic subjects in Vienna, Bern, and Basel. He became a priest in Glarus (1506 - 16) and accompanied Swiss mercenary troops as chaplain on various Italian campaigns, becoming convinced that the mercenary system was a great evil. From Glarus, Zwingli went to Einsiedeln as parish pastor, where he continued his studies of the Bible, church fathers, and the classics. He was strongly influenced by Desiderius Erasmus in favor of church reform.

In 1519, Zwingli began his duties as the people's priest of the Grand Minster in Zurich, where he preached powerful sermons based on the Scriptures, denounced the mercenary trade, dropped his own papal subsidy, and attacked ecclesiastical abuses. Trouble developed with the bishop of Constance in 1522 when several of Zwingli's associates ate meat on a fast day. Moreover, Zwingli married and thus broke his priestly vow of celibacy. In 1524 iconoclasts removed religious statuary from the church, and the next year the Catholic mass was replaced with a Zwinglian communion using both bread and wine as symbols of Christ's body and blood. Zwingli's Sixty - seven Articles (1523) for disputation became a basic doctrinal document for the Swiss reformed church.


Zwingli was active in extending the reform to other Swiss cities, such as Basel, Sankt Gallen, and Bern. He was involved in controversy not just with Catholic opponents, but also with the Lutheran reformers because he denied Christ's real presence in any form in the Eucharist. The effort to reconcile the views of Zwingli and Luther at the Colloquy of Marburg (1529) failed. Zwingli also opposed the Anabaptists in Zurich who rejected infant baptism. He was killed on the battlefield of Kappel in 1531 when the Catholic cantons of southern Switzerland attacked Zurich.

Lewis W Spitz

O Farner, Zwingli, The Reformer: His Life and Work (1952); S M Jackson, Huldreich Zwingli, The Reformer of German Switzerland (1901); G R Potter, Zwingli (1976); W P Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (1985); R C Walton, Zwingli's Theocracy (1967).


Ulrich Zwingli

General Information



Huldreich Zwingli or Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), was a Swiss theologian, leader of the Reformation in Switzerland.

Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in Wildhaus, Sankt Gallen. He was educated at the universities of Vienna and Basel.


Early Influences

During his formative years, Zwingli was deeply influenced by the spirit of liberal humanism. In 1506 he was ordained and assigned to the town of Glarus as a parish priest. Glarus then was well known as a center for recruiting mercenary soldiers for Europe's armies. On two occasions Zwingli served as chaplain with Glarus troops during bloody fighting on foreign soil, and these experiences led him to denounce the mercenary system publicly. In retaliation certain town officials conspired to make his position at Glarus untenable. In 1516 he accepted an appointment at Einsiedeln, southeast of Zürich.

During his ministry at Einsiedeln, Zwingli began to entertain doubts about certain church practices. In 1516 he read a Latin translation of the Greek New Testament published by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, which he later transcribed into notebooks and memorized verbatim. On the basis of these and other scriptural readings, Zwingli charged in sermons that church teachings and practice had diverged widely from the simple Christianity of the Holy Writ. Among the practices cited by Zwingli as unscriptural were the adoration of saints and relics, promises of miraculous cures, and church abuses of the indulgence system. His forthright affirmations of scriptural authority won him wide popular repute, and on January 1, 1519, he was appointed priest at the Gross Münster (German, "Great Cathedral") in Zürich.


Adoption of the Reformation

Zürich was a center of humanist belief, with a tradition of state limitation on the temporal power of the church. Zwingli quickly attracted large audiences to the cathedral by expounding the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures chapter by chapter and book by book, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew. These oral translations of the original Scriptures broke sharply with church tradition. Previously priests had based their sermons on interpretations of the Vulgate and on the writings of the Fathers of the Church. In 1519 an admirer placed a printing press at the reformer's disposal, and his bold new ideas spread far beyond the confines of Zürich.

During the same year Zwingli read for the first time the writings of his contemporary, Martin Luther. Heartened by Luther's stand against the German hierarchy, Zwingli in 1520 persuaded the Zürich council to forbid all religious teachings without foundation in the Scriptures. Among these teachings was the church stricture against eating meat during Lent. In 1522 a group of his followers deliberately broke the rule and were arrested. Zwingli vigorously defended the lawbreakers, who were released with token punishment.

Pope Adrian VI, angered by Zwingli's behavior, then forbade him the pulpit and asked the Zürich council to repudiate him as a heretic. In January 1523, Zwingli appeared before the council to defend himself. He asserted the supremacy of the Holy Writ over church dogma, attacked the worship of images, relics, and saints, and denounced the sacramental view of the Eucharist and enforced celibacy as well. After deliberation, the council upheld Zwingli by withdrawing the Zürich canton from the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constance; it also affirmed its previous ban against preachings not founded on the Scriptures. By taking these steps the council officially adopted the Reformation. Zwingli in 1524 marked his new status by marrying Anna Reinhard, a widow with whom he had lived openly.

Under the Reformation, Zürich became a theocracy ruled by Zwingli and a Christian magistrate. Sweeping reforms were instituted, among them the conversion of monasteries into hospitals, the removal of religious images, and the elimination of Mass and confession. Eventually Zwingli taught that devout Christians have need of neither pope nor church.


Conflicts Among Protestants

During 1525 a radical Protestant group called the Anabaptists challenged Zwingli's rule. In a disputation, however, held before the council on the following January 2, Zwingli defeated the Anabaptists, whose leaders were then banished from Zürich.

In 1529 friends of Martin Luther and Zwingli, concerned over doctrinal and political differences that had developed between the two Protestant leaders, arranged a meeting between them. At this meeting, held in Marburg an der Lahn and known since as the Marburg Colloquy, Luther and Zwingli clashed over the question of consubstantiation versus transubstantiation, and the conference failed to reconcile the two leaders.

Meanwhile, Zwingli carried his crusade to cantons other than Zürich. In all, six cantons were converted to the Reformation. The remaining five, known as the Forest Cantons, remained staunchly Catholic. The antagonisms between Catholic and Protestant cantons created a serious split within the Swiss confederation.


End of the Swiss Reformation

In 1529 the hostility between the cantons flared into open civil war. On October 10, 1531, Zwingli, acting as chaplain and standard-bearer for the Protestant forces, was wounded at Kappel am Albis and later put to death by the victorious troops of the Forest Cantons. After Zwingli's death the Reformation made no further headway in Switzerland; the country is still half Catholic, half Protestant.

Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr


Ulrich Zwingli (1484 - 1531)

Advanced Information

After Luther and Calvin, Zwingli was the most important early Protestant reformer. Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, St. Gall, Switzerland, and showed early promise in education. He studied at Berne and Vienna before matriculating at the University of Basel, where he was captivated by humanistic studies. At Basel he also came under the influence of reformer Thomas Wyttenbach, who encouraged him in the directions that would eventually lead to his belief in the sole authority of Scripture and in justification by grace through faith alone. Zwingli was ordained a Catholic priest and served parishes in Glarus (1506 - 16) and Einsiedeln (1516 - 18) until called to be the people's (or preaching) priest at the Great Minister in Zurich.

Sometime around 1516, after diligent study in Erasmus's Greek NT and after long wrestling with the moral problem of sensuality, he experienced an evangelical breakthrough, much like Luther was experiencing at about the same time. This turned him even more wholeheartedly to the Scriptures, and it also made him hostile to the medieval system of penance and relics, which he attacked in 1518. One of the great moments of the Reformation occurred early in 1519 when Zwingli began his service in Zurich by announcing his intention to preach exegetical sermons beginning with the Gospel of Matthew. In the final decade of his life he shepherded Zurich to its declaration for reform (1523). He wrote numerous tracts and aided in the composition of confessions to promote the course of the Reformation (e.g., the Ten Theses of Berne, 1528); he established solid relationships with other Swiss reformers, including Oecolampadius in Basel; he inspired and then broke with the rising Anabaptist movement; and he had a momentous disagreement with Luther over the Lord's Supper (expressed most sharply at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529). Zwingli lost his life while serving as a chaplain to Zurich troops engaged in warfare with other Swiss cantons.

Zwingli's Protestantism was a more rationalistic and biblicistic variation of Luther's theology. His discussions with German Protestants about the Lord's Supper led him to doubt Luther's belief in a sacramental real presence of Christ in Communion, and even Martin Bucer's belief in a real spiritual presence, in favor of a nearly memorialistic view. To Zwingli the Lord's Supper was primarily an occasion to remember the benefits purchased by Christ's death. In his approach to theology and practice Zwingli looked for strict and specific scriptural warrant, even through this led him into embarrassment when early Anabaptists demanded proof texts for the practice of infant baptism. Zwingli's strict adherence to the Bible led him in 1527 to remove the organ from the Great Minister, since Scripture nowhere mandated its use in worship (and this in spite of the fact that Zwingli was an accomplished musician who otherwise encouraged musical expression). He was strongly predestinarian in his theology, but did not display the consummate sense of Scripture's thematic relationships which Calvin employed in the discussion of election.

Zwingli had no qualms in seeking reform through the authority of the Zurich council. Even after his death the Zurich city government under his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, exercised a dominant role in church affairs. This model of churchstate relations eventually appealed to England's Queen Elizabeth, even as reformers Calvin and John Knox fought for the autonomy of the church over its own affairs

Zwingli's noble character, his firm commitment to scriptural authority, and his diligent propagation of evangelical reform, even more than his writings, marked him as one of the Reformation's most appealing leaders.

Mark A Noll
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

G W Bromiley, ed., Zwingli and Bullinger; G R Potter, Zwingli; G R Potter, ed., Huldrych Zwingli; O Farner, Huldrych Zwingli; C Carside, Zwingli and the Fine Arts.


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