This Day in History--Zwingli Dies Fighting

On October 11, 1531--485 years ago today--Ulrich (or Huldrych) Zwingli died in battle.

Zwingli was born on New Years' Day, 1484 in Wildhaus, in the Toggenburg Valley of Switzerland, the third child of nine.  His father was a local Amtmann, or magistrate.

Zwingli’s surroundings in childhood, and his early training, were such as to prepare him for his future mission. Reared amid scenes of natural grandeur, beauty, and awful sublimity, his mind was early impressed with a sense of the greatness, the power, and the majesty of God.  GC 171

He was educated by learned relatives at home, but as an early teen was sent to Bern, where the Domincans recognized his giftedness and tried to persuade him to join their order.  Zwingli's father would have none of that, and transferred him to Basel to complete his education. 

After earning his Master of Arts from Basel in 1506, Zwingli entered the priesthood, having studied very little theology.  His first posting was in the town of Glarus, whose soldiers were often hired out as mercenaries.  He served as chaplain for the troops in several campaigns, most of which were on behalf of the pope, but came to see the mercenary system as immoral and wrote against it.

In 1516, Zwingli was invited to Einsiedeln.  There he perfected his study of the biblical languages.  He began to doubt the schoolmen and doctors of the church.  Like Tyndale, he realized that the interpreter of Scripture is Scripture, and that the theology teachers of his day, with their philosophy of the ancient Greeks, were an actual impediment to properly understanding the Scriptures: 

When ... I began to give myself wholly up to the Holy Scriptures, philosophy and theology (scholastic) would always keep suggesting quarrels to me. At last I came to this, that I thought, `Thou must let all that lie, and learn the meaning of God purely out of His own simple word.’ Then I began to ask God for His light, and the Scriptures began to be much easier to me.  . . . The word of God ... cannot fail; it is bright, it teaches itself, it discloses itself, it illumines the soul with all salvation and grace, comforts it in God, humbles it, so that it loses and even forfeits itself, and embraces God.” GC 173

Statue of Zwingli in front of the Wasserkirche in Zurich

Statue of Zwingli in front of the Wasserkirche in Zurich

In 1519, he was posted to Zurich, the most important city in Switzerland. In his sermons, Zwingli began to simply read through the gospels and the epistles, translating them for the people as he went, and providing minimal commentary.  The life of Christ,” he said, “has been too long hidden from the people. I shall preach upon the whole of the Gospel of St. Matthew, ... drawing solely from the fountains of Scripture, sounding its depths, comparing one passage with another, and seeking for understanding by constant and earnest prayer. ”—D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the 16th Century, book 8, ch. 6, quoted in GC 176

Preaching from the Scriptures, he began to base his doctrine on the Bible alone. Zwingli attacked the indolence of the monks, the veneration of the saints, the doctrine of eternal hellfire, the damnation of unbaptized children, and the sale of indulgences. 

Obviously, he came to many of the same conclusions as Martin Luther, but independently:

“If Luther preaches Christ, he does what I am doing. Those whom he has brought to Christ are more numerous than those whom I have led. But this matters not. I will bear no other name than that of Christ, whose soldier I am, and who alone is my Chief. Never has one single word been written by me to Luther, nor by Luther to me. And why? ... That it might be shown how much the Spirit of God is in unison with itself, since both of us, without any collusion, teach the doctrine of Christ with such uniformity.”—D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the 16th Century, book 8, ch. 9, quoted in GC 174.

Zurich gradually became a Protestant city.  In "the affair of the sausages," Zwingli protested against fasting during Lent.  In 1524, he petitioned the bishop to abolish clerical celibacy; he had already secretly married Anna Reinhard, and now had a public marriage ceremony.  The city council decided that all other preachers in Zurich could preach only in accordance with Scripture.  The council next voted for the elimination of the mass and the orderly removal of images from the churches. 

Zwingli suggested the monasteries be changed into hospitals and charitable institutions, and transfer their wealth to a welfare fund. This was done by reorganizing the foundations of the monasteries, and pensioning off remaining nuns and monks. The council secularized the church properties and established new welfare programs for the poor. At one former monastery, Zwingli established a school of prophecy, which was opened on June 19, 1525.  It served to retrain and re-educate the clergy. The Zurich Bible translation, traditionally attributed to Zwingli and printed by Christoph Froschauer, was a product of the scholars at the Prophecy School.

The Reformation of Zurich entirely changed the character of the city.

As the Reformation became established in Zurich, its fruits were more fully seen in the suppression of vice and the promotion of order and harmony. “Peace has her habitation in our town,” wrote Zwingli; “no quarrel, no hypocrisy, no envy, no strife. Whence can such union come but from the Lord, and our doctrine, which fills us with the fruits of peace and piety?”—Ibid., b. 8, ch. 15. quoted in GC 181.

Sadly, the fact that some of the Swiss cantons were Protestant while some remained Roman Catholic led to a series of civil wars, called the Kappel Wars.  One of these wars erupted on October 9, 1531, when the Five States (The alpine cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Lucerne, and Zug, which had remained Catholic) declared war on Zurich. On October 11, Zurich's 3,500 poorly deployed men encountered a Five States force nearly double their size near Kappel.  Many pastors, including Zwingli, were among the soldiers. The battle lasted less than one hour and Zwingli was among the 500 casualties in the Zurich army.  Today, an engraved boulder sits on the spot where Zwingli was cut down.