Who Was Ulrich Zwingli

By Rev. D. Earl Cripe


 Zwingli (Zwingle, or Zuingli; Lat. Zwinglius or Zuinglius), Ulrich 

Zwingli was the prime mover in the Reformation in Switzerland, nearly as much as Luther in Germany. He was born Jan. 1, 1484 in Wildhans, a village in the upper valley of the Toggenburg, in the Canton of St. Gall.  Ulrich was so zealous in his youth that his father sent him to Basel to be educated. He made remarkable progress in his studies. As soon as his work was submitted and accepted, he had entered at Basel. He was then promoted to Berne, and placed under the guidance of Lupulus, a distinguished scholar of his day, with whom he studied for some time. The Dominican monks recognized his talents and rising reputation and tired to force him into their order; but his father, in order to remove him from the scene of temptation, sent him off to Vienna. There he remained for a brief period and then returned to Basel, where he pursued his theological studies. Under the instruction of Thomas Wyttenback, he was led into a more liberal course of study than theological students were used to pursuing. The charms of the classics were fed to him by his teacher, and were cheerfully substituted for the dry husks of scholastic theology. In 1506 he became a pastor in Glarus, not far from his native village. There he devoted himself most diligently to the study of God’s Word, copying with his own hand the original of Paul’s Epistles and transferring it to memory. During that time he was drawn into the military struggles against the French. Influences, too involved for this brief article, compelled him to leave Glarus. He became a pastor at the Church of the Virgin of the Hermitage in Einsiedeln, a famous spot in popish pilgrimage and superstition, where he preached doctrines which he had drawn from his study of the Holy Scriptures. In 1519, when he was called to the Cathedral Church of Zurich, he proclaimed the same truths which he had preached in back in Einsieden. Great crowds gathered to hear him, attracted by the novelty of the doctrines he taught and his eloquence.  He gave expositions on Matthew and the Epistles of Paul and of Peter. The effect of his preaching of the Gospel soon impacted the city and country, and his character and opinions caused a sensation. 1518 a crisis arose by the arrival of Samson, the seller of indulgences. The traffic in these “Roman wares” infuriated Zwingli. As a consequence he launched an energetic exposure of Samson and successfully resisted him. At the same time Luther’s writings were largely circulated, at the recommendation of Zwingli himself. The plague broke out and Ulrich, though weak from exhaustion, tended to the sick and dying.  His zealous labors grew in number and results and the simplicity of the Gospel was demonstrated by his works as well as his preaching. But the friends of the Popedom were enraged with Zwingli and he was brought up and tried for heresy in January 1523. The trial did not produce the results that Rome had wanted or anticipated. Zwingli presented sixty-seven propositions and defended them from Scripture. Zwingli’s trials forged in him greater courage and determination. In 1524 the Council of Zurich (who looked to him for guidance) remodeled their public worship to reflect Zwingli’s views. Pictures, statues, and relics were removed from the churches and Mass was abolished. Opposition to the Reformed doctrines was meanwhile gathering in the other cantons. The question arose as to whether each canton was free to choose its own form of religion, or whether the Confederation of Reform Churches should interfere; Zurich contended for its individual liberty and independence, but was opposed by the Waldstatter (the primitive democratic cantons of Schwytz, Unterwald, Uri, and Lucerne). The triumph of the Reformation at Benle and other places threw the forest churches into wild confusion.  In loyalty to their views of their federal polity they took up arms for Rome. Zurich, encouraged by Zwingli, called out its troops and put itself into a posture of defense.  Efforts were made to maintain peace but it did not last long. 

After various diplomatic failures, hostilities finally commenced. Zurich had lost some of its earlier evangelical purity as a result of the neighboring states conspiring for its ruin. Through this dire emergency, while the public was alarmed by a series of omens and prodigies, Zwingli maintained tranquility. The war began. Zurich was cowardly, vacillating, and unprepared for the battle. The horn of the enemy echoed among their hills, and the devoted Zwingli mounted his horse, bid farewell to his wife and children, and went forth as a patriot and warrior to share in the common danger. His official position in the army, however, was that of chaplain, according to Swiss custom. The Zurichers marched to meet the Waldstatter, but were defeated at Cappel with great slaughter Oct. 11, 1531. Zwingli was found, after the battle lying on his back and his eyes upturned to heaven, with his helmet on his head, and his battle-axe in his hand.  He had been wounded at the beginning of the engagement. As he staggered and fell he was pierced several times with a lance. According to some accounts he was wounded while stooping to comfort a dying soldier. His last audible words were, “What of that? They can indeed kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.” He was living when he was discovered but the infuriated fanatics soon finished him off.

The next day his dead body was quartered and burned. Ulrich Zwingli died a hero and a martyr. A plain monument in granite, erected in 1838, marks the spot where he died. But the victory for the Protestant was not gained in Zurich alone, nor was Zwingli the only Swiss reformer. Aecolampadius did a good work at Basel. The Reformation was successful in Berne also. The Reformation was not only a religious movement but in some respects a political one. It attracted many supporters who were contending for more liberal opinions throughout Switzerland. Zwingli was a patriot, as were those who were immediately associated with him, and he believed that there could be no influence so potent to reach and transform the characters of his countrymen as the Gospel.

There was substantial agreement between Luther and Zwingli on all the cardinal doctrines of the Protestant faith. On the doctrine of the Eucharist there was, however, a radical difference of opinion.  Luther held to “consubstantiation,” declaring that there were present, in some mysterious way, the body and the blood of the Lord Jesus in the elements administered at the Lord’s Supper; while Zwingli contended that the sacrament was designed to be merely a reminder of the sufferings and death of the Savior. The controversy was a bitter one. Neither party could convince the brother. All that could be done was to lay down fourteen articles of faith which were to be received by both parties on the basis of the Augsburg Confession. But these minor controversies never overshadowed the grave dangers which threatened the very existence itself of the Reformation in Switzerland. Zwingli led the Reform movement in the other German cantons of Switzerland and attended the conference at Berne in 1528, which resulted in the abolition of the Mass. He was invited to a personal conference with Luther and Melancthon at Marburg, September 1529, to adjust the only serious doctrinal difference between them on the Eucharistic Presence.

Zwingli proposed energetic measures for the promotion of the Reformation in his native land, but was defeated by hesitant policy makers. He also entered into bold political trysts with Philip of Hesse for the triumph of the Protestant cause in Germany, and addressed the emperor of Germany and the king of France with a confession of his faith. Zwingli was a bold Reformer, an able scholar, in eloquent preacher, a patriotic republican, and farsighted statesman. He lacked the genius and depth of Luther and Calvin, and the learning of Melancthon and Aecolampadius. But he was their equal in honesty of purpose, integrity of character, heroic courage, and devotion to the cause of Reformation, and surpassed them in liberality. His prominent intellectual trait was clear, strong common-sense. Zwingli’s principal works are Commentary on the True and False Religion (1525):— sermon on Providence (preached at Marburg, 1529):— his Confession of Faith, addressed to Charles V of Germany (1530): —a similar Exposition of Faith, addressed to Francis I of France (July, 1531, three months before his death). This last document is clear, bold, spirited, and full of hope for the triumph of the truth. It warns the king against the slanderous misrepresentations of Protestant doctrines, and entreats him to give free course to the, Gospel, and to forgive the boldness with which he dared to approach his majesty. A few years afterwards (1536) Calvin dedicated, in a most eloquent preface, his famous, Christian Institutes to the same monarch, but with the same lack of success. Zwingli represents only the first stage the history of the Reformed Church. His work was completed after his death by his successor, Bullinger, at Zurich, and still more by Calvin at Geneva.


Writings to Consult:

Zwingli Opera, edit. Schuler and Schulthess. (Zurich, 1828-42, 8 vols); a popular edition of; his Works by Christoffel, (ibid. 1843 sq. 15 vols.); Biographies of Zwingli, by Myconius (1536), Nuscheler (1776); Hess -(1811; transl. by Aikini; Lond. 1812),Schuler (1819), Hottinger (1843; transl. by Themas. C. Porter, Harrisburg,1856) Robins. (in Bibliotheca. Sacra for 1851), Roder (1855), Christoffel(1857; transl. by. John Cochran, Edinburgh, 1858) Gilder (in Herzog Real-Encyklop.1864), and especially Morikoferi (Ulrich Zwinglinach den Quellen. [Leipsic, 1867-69 2 vols.]), on the theological system of Zwingli (see Zeletr, as theol. System Zwingli’s (1583); Siegwart, Ulrich Zwinglider. Charakterseiner Theologie (1855); — Sparri, Zwingli-Studien (1866).Compare also D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, vol. 4; Hagenbach, Geschichte, deer Reformation (1870), p. 183 sq.; and Fisher, The Reformation (1873), p. 137 sq.



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