A brief biography:
Having been struck in the head, Zwingli collapsed to the ground. Stunned, he began to pray and to recite Scripture—‘do not fear those who can kill the body but fear him who can kill the soul in hell …’. As the last word passed beyond his lips and into the hearing of the Catholic soldier standing over him, the soldier struck again and this time the blow was fatal. Zwingli’s comrade in arms, hearing his last utterance and seeing the death blow, fled. The troops from Zurich were scattered like sheep without a shepherd and Zwingli died alone on the beautiful meadow near the Monastery of Kappel-am-Albis.
After the rout, the Catholic troops were looting the bodies and piling them for burning when one of them looked at Zwingli and recognized him. Announcing his find to his victorious comrades, incredible rejoicing broke out and many gathered at the place where Zwingli lie. They stripped him of his helmet and his clothing, chopped him into four pieces, threw his body in the fire, and watched gleefully as he burned to ash. So ended the life of the first of Switzerland’s reformers on the 11th of October, 1531; a life that had begun 47 years earlier on the 1st of January, 1484.
Zwingli was born in the little town of Wildhaus to Huldreich and Margarita Zwingli. To this day his birth home remains as both tourist attraction and subtle reminder of the powerful impact his existence made on the life of his beloved Switzerland. His father was the equivalent of a village elder and his rather large family was wonderfully pious. His mother was especially devoted and both of his parents were certain that Huldrych would be well suited to the Priesthood with his quick and witty mind and his native brilliance.
While young, Zwingli learned to love music and became proficient in the use of about 10 instruments. The oft repeated misrepresentation that Zwingli hated music was simply not true. When he engaged in Reform he simply saw so much Church music as self serving on the part of singers and musicians (organists in particular) that it actually distracted from true worship and so he banned it.
At ten years of age Zwingli was sent to Basel to study and then to Bern and Vienna (at around fifteen years of age) where he earned a Bachelor’s degree. By 1506 he had earned a Master of Arts at Basel’s famous University and then shortly after celebrated his first Mass at his hometown before moving to Glarus to take up his priestly office. It was while he was in that picturesque village that Zwingli poured himself into his studies of the Bible, led by the urgings of Erasmus, who was then the leader of learning in Switzerland and across western Europe. According to his own testimony, it was in 1515 that the ‘reformatory’ spirit began to stir in his heart so that when he moved to Einsiedeln (in 1516) to serve the congregation there, he was already pursuing the beginnings of Reformed thought.
At the end of 1518 Zwingli was approached by friends in Zurich who urged him to move there and serve as the Pastor of the largest church in the city, the Grossmünster, the ‘Great Minster’. There was opposition to this move, however by a few of the leaders of the Zurich church who had heard that Zwingli had engaged in inappropriate behavior with ‘a leading citizen’s daughter’. When he learned of the charge Zwingli wrote a fascinating letter to one of the members of the ‘Zurich search committee’ in explanation of the affair on the 5th of December, 1518, the following (excerpted)-
One of the most learned and amiable of our friends [Oswald Myconius] has written to me that a rumor has been spread in Zurich about me, alleging that I have seduced the daughter of a high official, and that this has given offense to a number of my friends. I must answer this calumny so that you, dear friend, and others, can clear my life from these false rumors … First, you know that three years ago I made a firm resolution not to interfere with any female: St. Paul said it was good not to touch a woman. That did not turn out very well.… As to the charge of seduction I needn’t take long in dealing with that. They make it out to concern the daughter of an important citizen. I don’t deny that she is the daughter of an important person: anyone who could touch the emperor’s beard is important—barber forsooth! No one doubts that the lady concerned is the barber’s daughter except possibly the barber himself who has often accused his wife, the girl’s mother, a supposedly true and faithful wife, of adultery, blatant but not true. At any rate he has turned the girl, about whom all this fuss is being made, out from his house and for two years has given her neither board nor lodging. So what is the daughter of such a man to me?… With intense zeal day and night even at the cost of harm to his body, [I] study the Greek and Latin philosophers and theologians, and this hard work takes the heat out of such sensual desires even if it does not entirely eliminate them. Further, feelings of shame have so far restrained me that when I was still in Glarus and let myself fall into temptation in this regard a little, I did so so quietly that even my friends hardly knew about it. And now we will come to the matter before us and I will cast off what they call the last anchor taking no account of public opinion which takes a poor view of open resort to loose women. In this instance it was a case of maiden by day, matron by night, and not so much of the maiden by day but everybody in Einsiedeln knew about her … no one in Einsiedeln thought I had corrupted a maiden. All the girl’s relations knew that she had been caught long before I came to Einsiedeln, so that I was not in any way concerned.… To close: I have written a good deal of facetious chatter, but these people don’t understand anything else. You can say whatever you think suitable to anyone who is concerned. (G.R. Potter’s translation and selection of the letter to Utinger, Z VII, 110ff).
Zwingli’s actions are naturally inexcusable to us, but they are actually quite tame among the practices of many 16th century priests, who were known to have large families, mistresses, and who engaged in various illicit behaviors simply because they had been granted a ‘papal indulgence’. That being said, this isn’t an attempt to justify, but to contextualize. Being ensnared by the village tart is not quite the same thing as pursuing various sexual conquests. Finally on the matter, it so troubled Zwingli that he regretted it his entire life, thoroughly repented of it, and never again engaged in such behavior.
Zwingli was in fact called to Zurich. He moved to the city at the end of December and assumed his duties on the first of January (his birthday), 1519. He immediately set in motion real reforming efforts beginning with abandoning the lectionary and instead preaching first through the Gospel of Matthew and then other New Testament texts. A wind of change had swept Zurich and it would never be the same because the theological landscape was forever altered by the arrival of the First Swiss Reformer.
But before long another wind blew into Zurich. An ill wind. The wind of the Plague, the black death. Up to two-thirds of the population of the city was wiped out between 1519 and 1520 before the disaster ran its course. Zwingli himself fell ill and during the course of his illness he penned one of his numerous songs: the so called ‘Plague Song’, which begins
To thee I cry:
If it is thy will
Take out the dart,
Which wounds me
Nor let’s me have an hour’s
Rest or Repose!
Will’st thou however
That death take me
In the midst of my days,
So let it be!
When disaster struck, Zwingli turned to God in faith and in pious trust. This was the kind of man which the city had called to be the Pastor of the Great Minster.
Reform began slowly but surely, first with worship. Lent was abandoned as a man made tradition in 1522 and by 1523 the Mass itself was replaced with ‘The Lord’s Supper’. Silver ‘Mass utensils’, cups, and bowls were replaced with common wood. Tables were set up in the Sanctuary so that the Supper more resembled a supper. Images were removed, worship was reorganized, and the Reform gained speed and strength through a series of public debates which Zwingli and his colleagues in Reform easily won.
But troubles soon would follow, with Zwingli being attacked from within the city by the ‘re-baptizers’, the Anabaptists, who wanted more change faster than either Zwingli or the city could bear. From without, rising clouds of disharmony within the world of Protestantism would burst into storm clouds when from the north Luther attacked Zwingli’s view of the Supper. And of course there was conflict aplenty with the ‘Old believers’, the Catholics still attached to Rome.
The last years of Zwingli’s life were spent in conflict. On the one hand the Radicals were denouncing him as the ‘great satan’, once marching in protest to his house next to the Great Minster and pummeling it with eggs, crying out ‘away with the dragon’. And on the other Luther spent the years 1526–1529 insulting and denouncing him for his view of the Lord’s Supper. At one point in this period Zwingli became so depressed that he tearfully offered his resignation to the city Council but they wisely refused it.
The rift with Luther over the Lord’s Supper resulted in what is perhaps the most famous gathering of the 16th Century, the Marburg Colloquy. There, at Marburg in 1529, Philip of Hesse summoned Luther and Melanchthon, Zwingli and Oecolampadius (and others less well-known) to discuss and, if possible, come to agreement on their view of the Supper so that ‘Protestantism’ could present a united front against the Catholics. Philip, as a politician, was naturally more interested in consolidating Protestantism for military purposes than he was in solving the problem of Eucharistic disagreement. His effort failed. Miserably. By the end of the three days of discussion, the participants had agreed on a number of issues but concerning the Lord’s Supper there wasn’t, and still isn’t, agreement between the Reformed descendents of Zwingli and the Lutheran descendants of Luther. The resultant document was signed by all participants and states, in its final article:
Concerning the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ
Fifteenth, we all believe and hold concerning the Supper of our dear Lord Jesus Christ that both kinds should be used according to the institution by Christ; also that the mass is not a work with which one can secure grace for someone else, whether he is dead or alive; also that the Sacrament of the Altar is a sacrament of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ and that the spiritual partaking of the same body and blood is especially necessary for every Christian. Similarly, that the use of the sacrament, like the word, has been given and ordained by God Almighty in order that weak consciences may thereby be excited to faith by the Holy Spirit. And although at this time, we have not reached an agreement as to whether the true body and blood of Christ are bodily present in the bread and wine, nevertheless, each side should show Christian love to the other side insofar as conscience will permit, and both sides should diligently pray to Almighty God that through his Spirit he might confirm us in the right understanding. Amen.
That desire for ‘Christian love’ never panned out. When Zwingli died, Luther rejoiced.
The greatest conflict, however, was and would remain with the Catholic Cantons. Reform was anathema to them and they simply refused Zwingli (and others’) attempts to persuade their citizens to leave the Catholic faith to become adherents of the upstarts. Leaders of the Catholic forces went so far as plotting to murder him had he attended a disputation in Baden. Getting wind of the plot, the Zurich City Council forbade him to attend, instead sending his colleague Leo Jud.
The situation with the Catholic Cantons came to a head in 1529 when they met the Reformed Cantons in the field at Kappel-am-Albis in battle. Zwingli was the Chaplain of the Zurich troops and arrived at the site heavy hearted that things had come to such a pass. Fortunately, a diplomatic solution was reached before casualties were suffered.
Two years later, though, the Catholic forces and the Reformed Zurichers returned to the same field with startlingly different consequences. So we return to where we began in this chapter: at the field of Kappel and the death of Zwingli.
Zwingli lived a tremendously full and productive life in spite of its temporal brevity. He wrote hundreds of tractates and books, many hundreds of letters, and preached thousands of sermons. He made incredible contributions to theology and his efforts on behalf of Reform laid the foundation for the work of his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, who can be rightly credited with taking the Reformed movement international.*
*J. West, “Christ Our Captain”: An Introduction to Huldrych Zwingli. Quartz Hill, CA: Quartz Hill Publishing House.