Ulrich Zwingli, who was born 500 years ago on January 1, 1484, is the unknown, sometimes forgotten, “third man of the Reformation.” Yet it can be claimed with some accuracy that he left his touch on the whole evangelical world outside the Lutheran family—a touch still felt today.

Unlike Luther, Zwingli possessed an even temperament, and unlike Calvin, he did not hound his enemies. He was an amiable, outgoing person who made friends easily. Brought up piously in a Swiss mountain home, he early discerned something of God in his world of marmots, sheep, and eagles. At age 22 he became a Roman Catholic priest, but he seems never to have undergone a deep conversion experience. He received an excellent European education, composed music, read Pindar and Ovid, and made the old Zurich Grossmünster ring with laughter at his Toggenburg valley humor. When he died at 47, it was on the battlefield with a sword in his hand, fighting his fellow countrymen.

Though today, after five centuries, Zwingli is unknown or forgotten, in German Switzerland many consider him the nation’s greatest hero after the legendary William Tell. There the five-hundredth anniversary of his birth is being observed. A popular attraction will be the Zurich museum where his sword and broken helmet—recovered from the battle at Cappel—are displayed.

But few churches around the world will mark this anniversary as they did Luther’s. Baptists and Mennonites have not forgotten that Zwingli defended the national church and strenuously opposed the Anabaptist views on infant baptism. Knowledgeable Lutherans remember that Luther branded Zwingli a “gross heathen” and “the devil’s martyr.” Calvinists are aware that Calvin, a Frenchman, disliked Zwingli (whom he never met) and called his death a sign of God’s displeasure. Pope Clement VII considered Zwingli a heretic worse than Martin Luther and excommunicated him. The sheriff of Lucerne burned his corpse, then mixed his ashes with those of a pig and scattered them in the air.

Why Remember Zwingli?

Why should Christians bother to bring back the memory of this man? Is it because he was a warm and reasonable human being in a day of religious infighting and fanaticism? (But Zwingli’s hands were not totally clean. Must we go back to our spiritual roots when they are embarrassing?) Or is it because he was such a marvelously effective person, an eloquent preacher and writer, a remarkable student of the Scriptures, an astute ecclesiastic, a sincere patriot, and a powerful politician?

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If there is an answer, it does not seem to lie in these directions. And yet, there were inspirational elements in the man’s life that we need desperately to recall today. Consider this: Zwingli took his stand on the Bible, bucked a hostile system, and won. And he did it virtually alone, with the help of a few strategic friends.

Many contemporary sociologists say that the corporate structures of society are impersonal: they conform to scientific laws, and no matter how much good will individuals have, they are powerless to alter them. Therefore, we need revolution. That means, of course, merely exchanging the shah for the ayatollah. But in sixteenth-century Europe, when a man in Germany stood up and opposed the social structure, it was a massive, dictatorial, and formidable structure. The same thing happened in German Switzerland, and today, after five centuries, we can see that the changes Ulrich Zwingli brought about still stand—from Switzerland to Korea to southern California.

Perhaps we can learn something from this man after all.

Zwingli’S Early Years

At the age of 7, young Ulrich (Huldrych in the vernacular) trudged over the Amden ridge to Wesen on Lake Wallenstadt to attend a Latin school conducted by his uncle, the parish priest. When he was 10, he was sent to Basel where his musical gifts were discovered; he soon could play any instrument. At 15, as the Renaissance was making itself felt in the Swiss cities, Ulrich went to Berne, where he was tutored by the poet Lupulus, a noted “humanist” scholar. The Dominican monks, impressed by the boy’s voice, invited him to join their order, but his parents intervened and shipped him off to the University of Vienna instead.

In Vienna, already a center of culture, the youth learned natural history, mathematics, physics, astronomy, poetry, and above all, philosophy. He read in Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, Valerius Maximus, and the Greeks in translation. He fell in love with the new learning and changed his name to Zwinglius. Returning to the University of Basel, he took a master’s degree and began teaching at the Church School of Saint Martin. But the scholastic theology of the church did not appeal to him; he felt like “a spy in the enemy camp.”

Then, in November of 1505, Thomas Wyttenbach came to Basel. During the six months that Zwingli sat under him, the young man’s outlook changed: Wyttenbach taught that Holy Scripture, not Rome, was the supreme authority on man’s salvation. He taught that the sale of “papal indulgences” was a cheat and a delusion, that Christ paid the only price for the remission of sins on the cross and was the only mediator between God and man, and that forgiveness does not come by the keys of Peter or of the church but by the key of faith.

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Once the seed was planted, it began to sprout.

The following year, Zwingli accepted a call to the parish at Glarus. In his ten years there and the two that followed at Einsiedeln monastery, the young scholar’s eyes were opened to the corrupt state of the church in Switzerland. He paid a visit to the great humanist Erasmus in Basel. He accompanied mercenary troops to Italy as a chaplain and watched them fight for the pope. He also taught himself Greek, and copied out the letters of Paul by hand from Erasmus’s edition of the New Testament. He read with mounting excitement the writings of a German Augustinian monk named Martin Luther. But by that time, as he later declared, he had for some time been preaching an evangelical gospel at Einsiedeln. The wind was up.

Proclaiming The Word Of God

The Grossmünster cathedral in Zurich, still a landmark of that city, was in 1518 the center of life for a busy city of 9,000. When the position of people’s priest (pulpit preacher) became vacant, the search for a good man was on. But where to look? At the time, priests, monks, and nuns were practicing unchastity openly or covertly. The bishop of Constance was absolving priests of incontinence at the rate of four guilders for each child they sired. In one year in his diocese—which included Zurich—he gained 7,500 guilders from this source!

As chaplain of the Einsiedeln monastery, Zwingli himself had sought and obtained the sexual favors of a local barber’s daughter, and he admitted as much to the cathedral chapter. But his chief rival for the Zurich vacancy held a worse record: he had fathered six boys! Zwingli promised to reform, and the chapter elected him, 17 to 7. One of his first acts on being installed was to petition the bishop of Constance for permission to marry. Eleven priests signed the document, which was sent and, in due course, ignored.

During his two years at Einsiedeln, Zwingli had already begun instituting some church reforms: indulgence money was turned over to the poor; Samson, a salesman of papal indulgences, was driven off the grounds; a sign offering to Black Madonna pilgrims “full remission of all sins from guilt and punishment” was taken down; nuns were instructed to read the New Testament in Swiss German, and were permitted, if they chose, to return to private life.

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On January 1, 1519, his first Sunday in the Grossmünster pulpit, Zwingli shocked his listeners by announcing that instead of following the liturgy and expounding the gospel and epistle selections of the day, he would preach through the Gospel of Matthew, the first book of the New Testament, beginning with chapter one—the begats.

During the 12 years that followed, Zwingli continued to preach his way through the New Testament. And meanwhile, he turned the city and canton of Zurich completely around, though he held no portfolio other than his Grossmünster pulpit. He broke the hierarchical power of the established church in the canton and set up a presbyterian system of democratic, representative church government. This was the same system that Calvin adopted. Zwingli changed the pattern of worship, and he turned monasteries into hospitals and convents into soup kitchens for the poor. His influence soon spread to other cities in Switzerland, and to Germany, Holland, England, and Scotland. Ultimately, it would also spread to America. It all began with Zwingli’s regular, faithful proclamation of the Word of God.

At first the Roman authorities sought to calm their zealous priest with favors. He was given a pension “to buy books.” But when at Zwingli’s urging the democratic city council ordered all preachers in the canton to preach “only what they could prove from the Word of God,” ecclesiastical opposition arose in earnest. The conflict was on.

To describe in detail the controversies between the factions would be tedious. Seen after five centuries, however, the achievements of the Swiss Reformation are astonishing. Unfair tithes were abolished first. Then the practice of hiring Swiss men as mercenary troops was forbidden, and Lenten fasting was eliminated. Within three years, pastors—including Zwingli—were marrying wives, and Zwingli was challenging the Catholic practice of praying to the saints and to the Virgin Mary.

To explain and establish the reforms, Zwingli began turning out essays and commentaries on Scripture. His “Sixty-seven Conclusions,” which went beyond Luther’s famous “Ninety-five Theses,” questioned the whole Catholic system, including the pope, the mass, pilgrimages, priestly celibacy, indulgences, the confessional, and penance. “A clergyman,” he wrote, “should not be recognized by his tonsure and his clothing, but by his love for all men, his sympathy in their need, his zealousness in preaching the Word of God, and his readiness to help wherever he is needed.”

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During those early years in Zurich, Zwingli overhauled his personal life for the better. The death of a younger brother affected him deeply and brought on a spiritual crisis. When the plague known as the Black Death struck the city, sweeping away one quarter of the population, Zwingli ministered faithfully to his flock until he fell ill himself. He wrote three poems during that long and near-fatal illness that show a new humility and spirit of devotion that matched the momentous changes taking place within the city’s walls.

In the summer of 1524, a committee consisting of Zwingli, two other pastors, 12 councilmen, the city architect, smiths, carpenters, and masons paid routine visits to the churches of the city. They removed all the pictures, statues, images, and ornaments, and even took out the organs, while the masons covered the frescoes on the walls with a coating of lime. Little did they dream that when they limited the house of God to bare interiors and necessary furniture they were setting a continuing pattern for the character of worship in evangelical Christianity. Meeting houses around the world—whether chapels, churches, store fronts, classrooms, or movie theaters—have faithfully followed a tradition first adopted in sixteenth-century Zurich.

Standing Against Opposition

Long before he arrived in Zurich, Ulrich Zwingli faced opposition. He was driven out of Glarus by the dealers in mercenary soldiery. At Einsiedeln, his early reforms were challenged, and when his name was proposed to the Grossmünster cathedral chapter, some of the priests strongly disapproved his coming.

Once the Reformation began in earnest, a tremendous outcry erupted from the religious community (one quarter of the city’s real estate was owned by the church). Delegations began arriving from Constance to protest the changes. Neighboring cantons voiced their alarm and threatened armed invasion. This opposition eventually cost Zwingli his life, though at the time his reforms were unimpeded. He easily bested the bishop’s representatives in argument, and since he knew his Bible better than anyone else, the councilmen accepted his authority and backed his demands.

But now attacks came from other quarters. The Anabaptists, as they were called, began pressing for an even more radical Reformation. They sought a free church, which meant severing all connection with the cantonal government, and they insisted on the abolition of infant baptism. At first Zwingli sided with their views. Soon, however, he realized his gains were in jeopardy, and so he stayed with his allies in the cathedral and the city council and composed a tract justifying infant baptism as a continuation of Old Testament circumcision. But his opponents would not be silenced. The controversy raged until Zwingli admitted that “all the earlier battles were child’s play compared with it.” The city council banned the Anabaptists from Zurich and then, with grisly humor, ordered one of them, Felix Manz, drowned in the Limmat river. Though Zwingli could have stopped it, he didn’t. The results were pure tragedy.

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More far-reaching in its devastating consequences was the conflict that arose between Zwingli and Luther and their respective Reformation parties. Zwingli desperately wanted a reconciliation, and said to Luther, “Let us remember that we are brethren.” But Luther replied, “You have a different spirit from ours.”

I once asked ten American Christian leaders, five Lutheran, five from the Reformed tradition, what they would have done had they been at the famous debate in Marburg where Luther and Zwingli disagreed. All five Lutherans agreed with Luther; all five of the Reformed (including Reinhold Niebuhr) sided with Zwingli. The impasse remains.

Zwingli’s hopes (which Luther resisted) were for a political as well as religious alliance of the Reformed elements in Switzerland and Germany to oppose the Hapsburg emperor. Meanwhile, Zwingli was himself being burned in effigy in the Swiss Catholic cantons, and evangelical preachers were being martyred at the stake. When an economic blockade was imposed (against Zwingli’s advice), the Catholics responded with military action. At the battle of Cappel in October 1531, a badly organized, last-minute army of 2,700 Zurichers faced 8,000 troops from the Catholic cantons. Zwingli accompanied the troops as chaplain and was killed, flattened by a stone as he stooped to console a dying soldier.

Influencing Generations

The victory of the five Catholic cantons broke the growing power of Zurich in the Swiss Confederation. Worse, it dealt a crushing blow to the cause of reform, and for a while it seemed as if all of Zwingli’s work would be lost. In time, other leaders appeared to take up the struggle: Bullinger, Calvin, Beza, Knox, Cranmer, and many others who were influenced by Zwingli’s writings made their stand on the Scripture. The biblical seed of the Reformation was preserved, took root, and multiplied. The harsh rift between the Reformed and Lutheran churches also was softened in time. As for Zwingli’s democratic system of church government, it became the norm in many sections of Europe, and in the following century it took root in America. Today it is in place in many, if not most, evangelical and mainline churches around the world.

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Yet, none of the leaders who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli seemed to have the popular support of the masses and the combination of brilliant and charming personal qualities that characterized the Reformer of German Switzerland. I like to recall Zwingli’s incredible achievements: his breaking of the “system,” the ecclesiastical monolith that had held his country in its grip for centuries; his abolition of serfdom; his establishing of a school that is now the University of Zurich; his dashing off erudite discourses on theological issues that were in daily dispute; and all the rest.

But more, I like to remember how he played the lute for his children in their pleasant home; that he wrote a book for his 14-year-old stepson; how he composed the music for a play of Aristophanes; the way he browsed in the classics in the midst of the Reform uproar; that he had compassion for the poor who came to his door; how brave he was when his life was threatened; and the fact that he provided an island home for Ulrich von Hutten when that discredited Reformer was driven out of his native Germany and was dying of syphilis.

But perhaps most of all, I wish I could have sat in the ancient Grossmünster and listened to one of Zwingli’s magnificent sermons. They affected Thomas Platter so much that he wrote, “I felt as if someone were lifting me off the ground by my hair!”

Tim Stafford is a free-lance writer living in Santa Rosa, California. He is a distinguished contributor to several magazines. His latest book is Do You Sometimes Feel Like a Nobody? (Zondervan, 1980).

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