Ulrich Zwingli

Author: Catholic Encyclopedia

Ulrich Zwingli (Also, Huldreich)

Founder of the Reformation in Switzerland, born at Wildhaus in Switzerland, 1 January, 1484; died 11 October, 1531. Zwingli came from a prominent family of the middle classes, and was the third of eight sons. His father Ulrich was a district official of the little town of Wildhaus, and a cousin of his mother, Margaret Meili, was abbot of the Benedictine monastery in Fischingen in Thurgau. A brother of the elder Zwingli, Bartholomew, was pastor of Wildhaus until 1487, but then became pastor and dean of Wesen on the Walensee. Zwingli received his early education at Wesen under the guidance of this uncle, by whom he was sent, at the age of ten, to Gregory Bunzli of Wesen who was studying at Basle and also teaching in the school of St. Theodore, which Zwingli henceforth attended. For his higher studies he went to Berne, whither the celebrated Swiss Humanist Schuler was attracting many students for Classical studies. Zwingli's name is entered on the roll of the University of Vienna for the winter term of 1498-99, but he was excluded from the university. The reason for his exclusion is unknown. Zwingli appears, however, to have overcome the difficulty, for he was again matriculated in 1500. Two years later he returned to Basle, where, among others, Thomas Wyttenbach encouraged him to devote himself to the serious study of theology. In 1506 he completed his studies and received the degree of Master of Theology. Shortly before his graduation the parish of Glarus had selected him as its pastor, although he had not yet been ordained priest. Apart from his exclusion from the University of Vienna, his student life presents no unusual features, though his later friends and followers relate much that is laudatory about this period. His studies at Berne, Vienna, and Basle, where Humanism was eagerly cultivated, made Zwingli one of its zealous supporters.

As pastor of Glarus from 1506 to 1516, the continuation of his humanistic studies was one of Zwingli's chief occupations. He studied Greek, read the Classics and the Fathers of the Church, and entered into familiar intercourse with the Humanists of the time, especially with Heinrich Loriti (Glareanus), Erasmus,and Vadian. He also engaged in teaching, and the later chroniclers Aegidius and Valentine Tschudi were his pupils. In public life he was chiefly conspicuous for his political activity, in this respect following the example of many ecclesiastics of his day. In the Italian campaigns of 1513 and 1515, when the Swiss won the victories of Novara and Marignan, he acted as army chaplain. His earliest literary attempts - the rhymed fables of the ox (about 1510), "De Gestis inter Gallos et Helvetios relatio" (1512), "The Labyrinth" (1516?) - are all concerned with politics. These works, which reveal Zwingli as the devoted adherent and champion of the papal party, won him the friendship of the powerful Swiss cardinal Matthew Schinner and an annual pension of fifty gulden from the pope. So zealously indeed did he then espouse the cause of the pope that his position in Glarus became untenable when the French party became predominant there in 1516. Diebold von Geroldseck, the administrator and sole conventual in the Benedictine monastery at Einsiedeln, entrusted him with the position of a secular priest there, and at the end of 1516 Zwingli left Glarus.

As secular priest at Einsiedeln, the celebrated place of pilgrimage for Switzerland and South Germany, Zwingli's chief office was that of preacher. For the fulfilment of this task he devoted himself to the study of Holy Writ, copied the Epistles of St. Paul, and learned Hebrew, but did not meanwhile neglect the Classics, a fact which won him flattering praise from the Humanists. Erasmus was keenly aware of the laxity of ecclesiastical life (the abuses in external worship, the degeneracy of a large proportion of the clergy), and rightly agitated a reform within the Church, impressing its necessity on the ecclesiastical authorities. Zwingli worked in the same spirit at Einsiedeln from 1516 to 1518. In disputing Luther's priority, Zwingli later claimed (and most historians have supported his claim) that while at Einsiedeln he already preached against the old Faith. His claim is, however, negatived by the facts that he continued to draw his pension, that at the end of 1518, at his own petition, he was appointed by the pope acolyte chaplain of the Roman See (cf. the document in "Analecta reformatoria", I, 98), and that his friendly intercourse with Cardinal Schinner still continued when he was engaged at Zurich in 1519.

Towards the end of 1518, when the post of secular preacher at Münster became vacant, Zwingli applied for the vacancy at the invitation of Oswald Myconius (a friend of his youth), who was engaged as teacher in the monastery school of that place. Like many other clerics, Zwingli was suspected of offences against celibacy. These reports, which were current even in Zurich, made his position there difficult. When his friend Myconius questioned him on this point Zwingli wrote from Einsiedeln that it was not, as had been asserted, a respectable girl, but a common strumpet with whom he had been intimate. His friends in Zurich succeeded in suppressing these reports, and on 11 Dec., 1518, the chapter elected Zwingli by a great majority. He was then thirty-five years old, "in body a handsome and vigorous person, fairly tall, and of a friendly aspect". In his intercourse with others he was an agreeable companion, of pleasant address and gay temperament, a good singer and musician, and a skilled orator. Accused by his contemporaries of no slight moral offences, he made no attempt to clear himself of the charges. As a scholar he was a Humanist rather than a theologian. Under the influence of Erasmus, he saw clearly the defects of ecclesiastical life, but could not himself claim to be spotless, and his talents led him to engage rather in disputes concerning secular affairs than to devote himself to clerical reforms. So far he had no intention of introducing doctrinal innovations; such an idea occurred to him first in Zurich after 1519. Luther had already hung up his ninety-five theses against indulgences at the church of the castle in Wittenberg, 31 Oct., 1517.

On 1 January, 1519, Zwingli preached for the first time in the cathedral at Zurich. He began with the exposition of the Bible, taking first the Gospel of St. Matthew, and by going back to the sources showed himself especially a Humanist. Of doctrinal innovation he had still scarcely any thought. Even his stand against the indulgence preacher, Bernhardin Sanson, at the beginning of 1519, was taken with the consent of the Bishop of Constance. The transformation of Zwingli the Humanist and politician into a teacher of the new faith was faciliated by the ecclesiastical and political conditions of the people and public authorities at Zurich and in and in Switzerland in general. The populace displayed great religious zeal externally, e. g., in pious foundations and pilgrimages. This zeal, however, was insufficient to counteract the decay of morals, which resulted especially from the mercenary army system. The clergy to a great extent neglected their obligations, many of them lived in concubinage, and joined in the shameless pursuit of spiritual prebends, thus damaging their prestige. Worthy clerics, however, were not wanting. The Bishop of Constance, Hugo von Hohenlandenberg, was a man of stainless conduct; he endeavoured to do away with abuses, and issued various mandates, but unfortunately without permanent results. This failure was due to the lack of co-operation on the part of the civil rulers, who then enjoyed in eccleslastical matters very extensive rights acquired, especially by Zurich and Berne, from the popes and bishops in consequence of the Burgundian, Swabian, and Milanese wars (1474- 1516). Rome, like France, had endeavoured to secure, by the outlay of much money, the services of Swiss mercenaries. In Zurich, the "foremost and supreme place", the council espoused the cause of the pope, and opposed the French party. Zwingli did the same and came into prominence first as a politician, a fact which makes his case essentially different from that of Luther. It was only in 1520 that he voluntarily renounced his papal pension. He then attacked the ruinous mercenary system, and through his efforts Zurich alone of all the cantons refused to enter the alliance with France on 5 May, 1521. However, 2000 mercenaries entered the service of the pope. On 11 Jan., 1522, all foreign services and pensions were forbidden in Zurich. By the publication, 16 May, 1522, of his "Vermahnung an die zu Schwyz, dass sie sich vor fremden Herren hutend", Zwingli succeeded in extending his influence beyond Zurich, although only temporarily.

Owing to his success as a politician his prestige and importance increased. From 1522 he came forward as sponsor of the religious innovations. His first reformatory work, "Vom Erkiesen und Fryheit der Spysen", appeared when the bookseller Froschauer and his associates publicly defied the ecclesiastical law of fasting, and a controversy concerning fasts broke out. Zwingli declared the fasting provisions mere human commands which were not in harmony with Holy Writ; and the Bible was the sole source of faith, as he asserted in his second writing, "Archeteles ". Through the medium of a delegation the Bishop of Constance exhorted the town to obedience on 7 April. On 29 Jan., 1523, the council, on whose decision everything depended, held a religious disputation at Zwingli's instigation, and agreed to base its action on the result of the debate. In sixty-seven theses (his most extensive and important work) Zwingli now proposed a formal programme for the innovations; according to his view the Bible with his interpretation was to be the sole authority. The arguments brought against this view by the most important champion of the old Faith, the vicar-general Johann Faber of Constance, who appealed to the teaching and tradition of the early Church, were disregarded; the council in whose hands Zwingli reposed the government of the Church, forthwith declared in favour of the innovation.

A second religious disputation in Oct., 1523, dealt with the practical institution of a state church, the veneration of the saints, the removal of images, good works, and the sacraments. No notable representative of the ancient Faith was present. Zwingli urged the adoption of his doctrines so successfully that even his devoted adherent, Commander Schmid of Kusnacht, warned him against the too sudden abolishment of ancient customs and usages. The first steps having been taken in 1522-23, the reforms were carried into effect in Zurich in 1524-25. About Easter, 1524, indulgences and pilgrimages were abolished, the sacraments of Penance and Extreme Unction rejected, and pictures, statues, relics, altars, and organs destroyed, regardless of their artitic value. Sacred vessels of great value, such as chalices and monstrances, were melted into coin. Church property was seized by the State, which gained most by the suppression of the monasteries; the Fraumünster Abbey, founded in 853, was voluntarily surrendered to the secular authorities by the last abbess. Celibacy was rejected as contrary to Holy Writ, and monks and nuns were married. As early as 1522 Zwingli with ten other ecclesiastics as sembled at Einsiedeln and addressed a petition to the Bishop of Constance and to the diet asking freedom for priests to marry "Your honourable wisdom", they declared, "has already witnessed the disgraceful and shameful life we have unfortunately hitherto led with women, thereby giving grievous scandal to everyone." From 1522 the marriage of priests in Zurich became ever more frequent; Zwingli himself on 2 July, 1524, married Anna Reinhard (the widow of Hans Meyer von Knonau), who bore him his first daughter on 31 July. A new marriage law of 10 May, 1525, regulated these innovations. In the spring of 1525 the Mass was abolished; in its place was introduced the memorial service of the Last Supper.

The new doctrines were not introduced without opposition. The first opponents of the Reformers were from the ranks of their own party. The peasants could find no reason in the Bible, the sole principle of faith, why they should contribute to their lords' taxes, tithes, and rent, and they refused any longer to do so. The greatest unrest prevailed everywhere, and was only quelled after long negotiations and some concessions by the Government. The Anabaptists were not so easily silenced. From the Bible, which Zwingli had placed in their hands, they had deduced the most marvellous doctrines, much more radical than Zwingli's and questioning even the authority of the state. Zwingli persecuted them mercilessly with imprisonment, torture, banishment and death; their leader Felix Manz was drowned. The war against these visionary spirits was more serious for Zwingli than that against Rome. At first Rome allowed itself to be soothed by evasive words; the "Lutheran sects" were aimed at and the Zwinglians clung to the word of God, was the information supplied to Clement VII by Zurich on 19 August, 1524. Soon, however, the breach with the ancient Church was too plain to be doubted. The cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Lucerne, Zug, and Fribourg remained true to the old Faith, and offered determined opposition to Zwingli. They could not see that Zwingli was more favoured by God than the ancient saints and teachers; in his clerical life he was not superior to others, and he was inclined rather towards disturbance than towards peace.

The Catholic cantons, however, also strove to abolish abuses, issuing in 1525 a Concordat of Faith with important reforms which, however, never found general recognition. From 21 May to 8 June, 1526, they held a public disputation at Baden, to which they invited Dr. Johann Eck of Ingolstadt. Zwingli did not venture to appear. The disputation ended with the complete victory for the old Faith, but those who believed that the teaching of Zwingli could be driven out of the world by disputations deceived themselves; it had already taken too deep root. In St. Gall the Humanist and burgomaster Vadian worked successfully in Zwingli's interest - in Schaffhausen, Dr. Sebastian Hofmeister; in Basle, (Ecolampadius. For Berne which, notwithstanding the efforts of Berchtoid Haller, had previously maintained a non-committal attitude, the religious disputation held at Zwingli's suggestion, in Jan., 1528, was decisive. Zwingli himself came to the city, and the Catholic cause was but weakly represented. The new doctrines were then introduced as sweepingly into Berne as they had been at Zurich, and many places and counties which had previously wavered followed its example. Zwingli could also point to brilliant successes in 1528 and 1529. He ensured the predominance of his reforms through the "Christian Civic rights", agreed upon between Zurich and the towns of Constance (1527), Berne and St. Gall (1528), Biel, Mulhausen, and Schaffhausen (1529). To compel the Catholic cantons to accept the new doctrines, he even urged civil war, drew up a plan of campaign, and succeeded in persuading Zurich to declare war and march against the Catholic territories. The Catholic districts had endeavoured to strengthen their position by forming a defensive alliance with Austria (1529), the "Christian Union." At this juncture, however, they received no assistance. Berne showed itself more moderate than Zurich, and a treaty of peace was arranged, which, however, was very unfavourable for the Catholics.

In Zurich Zwingli was now the commanding personality in all ecclesiastical and political questions. He was "burgomaster, secretary, and council" in one, and showed himself daily more overbearing. His insolence indeed prevented an agreement with Luther regarding the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, when a disputation was arranged between the two heresiarchs at Marfurt in October, 1529. As a statesman, Zwingli embarked in secular politics with ambitious plans. "Within three years", he writes, "Italy, Spain and Germany will take our view". Even the King of France, whose greatest enemy he had previously been, he sought to win to his side in 1531 with the work "Christianae fidei expositio", and was even prepared to pay him a yearly pension. By prohibiting intercourse with the Catholic cantons he compelled them to resort to arms. On 9 Oct., 1531, they declared war on Zurich, and advanced to Kappel on the frontiers. The people of Zurich hastened to oppose them, but met a decisive defeat near Kappel on 11 Oct., Zwingli falling in the battle. After a second defeat of the Reformed forces at Gubel, peace was concluded on 23 Oct., 1531. The peace was of long duration, since the Catholic victors displayed great moderation. Zwingli's death was an event of great importance for all Switzerland. His plan to introduce his innovations into the Catholic cantons by force had proved abortive. But even Catholics, who claimed the same rights in religious matters as the people of Zurich, regarded him as the "governor of all confederates". Zwingli is regarded as the most "liberal" of all the Reformers, and was less a dogmatist than Calvin. His statue, with a sword in one hand and the Bible in the other, stands near the municipal library at Zurich, which has also a Zwingli museum.

Heinrich Bullinger (1504-75), Zwingli's successor, undertook the internal development of the new doctrines. His father (also named Heinrich) who was pastor at Bremgarten and embraced the Reformation early, sent Bullinger to Emmerich and Cologne, where he received a thorough Humanistic training. Even from his earliest activity as teacher in the Cistercian monastery near Kappel (1523- 29) and later as pastor in Bremgarten (1529 31), Bullinger proved himself a zealous lieutenant of Zwingli's. In 1528 he accompanied the latter to the religious disputation at Berne. On 9 Dec., 1531, he was chosen as Zwingli's successor, pastor of the Grossmünster at Zurich, a position which he held to the end of his life (1575). Bullinger regarded union with Luther on the question of the Lord's Supper as his chief task. For this purpose he composed in 1536, with Myconius and Grynaeus, the "First Helvetic Confession", a profession of faith which was recognized by the Evangelical towns of Switzerland. In the same year also appeared the "Wittenberg Concordia". When Bullinger refused to subscribe to this agreement, which was brought about by Butzer, Luther burst out into abuse of Zwingli. The attempt to bring about an agreement between Bullinger and Calvin on this question at Geneva was more successful, the "Consensus Tigurinus" being concluded between them in 1545. As the expression of his personal religious conviction Bullinger composed the "Second Helvetic Confession", which was printed in 1566, and was recognized by all the Evangelical churches except that of Basle.

Besides discharging the office of preacher, Bullinger displayed great literary activity. He carried on a large correspondence with several crowned heads, with Lady Jane Grey in London, Vadian, Graubundenn, and many others. More than 100 sermons and theological treatises from his pen are known, as well as one drama, "Lucretia and Brutus". His "Diarium" and his extensive history of the Reformation are still valuable. It is an undecided question how far his history is independent and how far a compilation of other writings. In character Bullinger was particularly hospitable, and many fugitives from England and France found refuge with him. Although less overbearing than Zwingli and Luther, he was still intolerant; he approved the the execution of Servetus at Geneva. He died on 17 September, 1575.

Zwingli's works were first collected and published by his son-in- law, Rudolf Gwalter, and entitled: "Opera D. H. Zwingli vigilantissimi Tigurinae ecclesiae Antistitis, partim quidem ab ipso Latine conscripta, partim vero e vernaculo sermone in Latinum translata: omnia novissime recognita, et multis adiectis, quae hactenus visa non sunt" (4 fol. vols., Zurich, 1545; reprinted, 1581). The first complete edition was edited by Melchior Schuler and Johannes Schulthess (8 vols., Zurich, 1828-42). Volumes VII and VIII, containing Zwingli's correspondence, are especially important. A new edition of his complete works prepared by Emil Egli (d. 1908), George Finsler, and Walther Kohler is appearing in the "Corpus Reformatorum", LXXXVIII (Berlin, 1905); three volumes I, II, and VII, have already (1912) appeared.

WIHELM JOS. MEYER Transribed by Tomas Hancil and Joseph P. Thomas


From the Catholic Encyclopedia, copyright © 1913 by the Encyclopedia Press, Inc. Electronic version copyright © 1996 by New Advent, Inc.

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