Zwingli’s Love of Music Led Him To Abandon it in Worship

Simply put, because he loved God more.

Zwingli's House, Zurich

Zwingli’s House, Zurich

The most radical change which Zwingli made in the Church service at Zurich was to do away with both instrumental and vocal music. This action was the more strange since Zwingli himself was a very accomplished musician, being able to play upon different instruments and also to sing well; yet in the course of the year 1525 he suspended the choir-singing and on December 9, 1527, had the organ of the Great Minster broken up and insisted that similar action should be taken by the other churches in the city and canton.

His motive was twofold; first, because all this music was inseparably connected with the Roman Church worship and he desired to remove as far as possible the Reformed congregations from all association with the past; and second, because the words of the music were in Latin and therefore unintelligible to the people and he desired to have every part of the Reformed worship in the vernacular.*

If music doesn’t serve worship it doesn’t belong in the Service. Modern churches could, and should, learn from this important theological principle. Indeed, if people were honest they would admit that most music in churches has more to do with entertainment or the self aggrandizement of the musicians than it has to do with the Glory of God.

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*Samuel Macauley Jackson, Huldreich Zwingli: The Reformer of German Switzerland (1484–1531) (Heroes of the Reformation; New York; London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons; Knickerbocker Press, 1901), 290.

7 thoughts on “Zwingli’s Love of Music Led Him To Abandon it in Worship

  1. This is interesting! My friend Richard is cantor in an Amsterdam church. Much though I like to hear him sing, and much though I appreciate the effort of the other singers, I always think that Gregorian chant (because it is in Latin), is an obstacle between the people and God. It’s a point on which we can agree to disagree.

    On the other hand, I think there was nothing wrong when President Obama sang for Reverend Clementa Pinckney. On the contrary.

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  2. Zwingli scores one more! And not a music score!
    This is supremely appropriate for this season when churches incorporate secular Christmas songs (and symbols) in what they call “Christmas Pageant”
    Sharing on F.B. so my half a dozen of 4 or 5 readers may be informed!

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  3. Fascinating insight, if only we could think in the same way today. I hear so often that it’s because we love music that we need the bands etc

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  4. “His motive was twofold; first, because all this music was inseparably connected with the Roman Church worship and he desired to remove as far as possible the Reformed congregations from all association with the past…”
    Jim, allow me to re-comment, adding this: This phrase demonstrates how superior was Zwingli’s ideas about reforming the Church, than that of Luther’s. He really wanted nothing to do with which I call the “step-mother ship”, or his contemporary Roman Catholic Church. That’s a REFORMER in my book!

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    • in the first volume of his gigantic multi-volume Oxford History of Western Music (ISBN 978-0-19-518-481-9) Richard Taruskin mentioned Luther, Calvin and Zwingli on the subject of music and pointed out that we have to understand their objections were not to music in some generalized sense (an all too popular misconception people in the arts sometimes promote in more pop-level music writing), they were all rejecting what they saw as an artistic tradition with roots so deeply enmeshed in the legacy of the votive mass and the system of indulgences that bankrolled that art that the corrupt patronage system.

      I’m sure there’s room for theologians, pastors and historians of religion to disagree with what Taruskin says in pages 754-755 of Volume 1 about their favorite Reformers, but he’s clear that they objected not to music in general but the ars perfecta style bankrolled by what they regarded as a corrupt, opulent and out of touch Catholic clergy. His brief comments on how the votive mass and associated musical traditions were predicated on the indulgences system is on pages 314-315. The problem wasn’t Palestrina’s music in and of itself, it’s what system bankrolled his masses.

      With the current ban on congregational singing in Washington state many churches may find they won’t have a choice but to take a more Zwinglian approach to music in church services for a while.

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  5. There was no music in the weekly synagogue meeting during the 2nd Temple Era, as I understand it. The needs of the weekly Christian meeting was styled along the lines of the synagogue as seen by 1Tim. 4.13. Churches would do well to reinstitute weekly observance of the Supper to remember the Lord in place of much of the music.

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