Ulrich Zwingli

Ulrich Zwingli was a Swiss theologian (1484-1531). He was a major figure in the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli’s reforms were not only religious in nature, but also had a wide social and moral impact. He paved the way for the Swiss Reformation by Calvin and his followers.

Zwingli’s Life

 Zwingli was born into a free peasant family in St. Gallen, Switzerland. He studied humanities and theology at universities in Vienna and Basel. He was influenced by the humanism of his time.

 Zwingli began his ecclesiastical career: in 1506, he was ordained a cleric in Glarus. He served as a military chaplain during the Italian expedition. In 1519, he became a cleric in Zurich.

 While pursuing his ecclesiastical career, Zwingli was also deeply influenced by humanism. He came into contact with Erasmus, a prominent humanist of the time. Zwingli would play a role in the spread of the Renaissance in Switzerland.

 The Swiss Reformation

 While Zwingli was working in Einsiedeln, Luther launched the Reformation in Germany in 1517. Zwingli had read Luther’s writings and sympathized with his criticisms of the Catholic Church. He also started church reforms by himself. Zwingli was also a biblicist.
He was antagonized by supporters of the Catholic Church, so he began trying to establish a new church system with the support of the local government.
This would form part of the Reformations. Zwingli gradually became popular and influential as a preacher.

 In 1523, Zwingli participated in a public debate on religious policy in Zurich. At this time, Emperor Karl V had banned Lutheranism and defended Catholicism in Germany. It was against this background that Zurich decided on its own policy. The main issues were celibacy for the clergy, the use of statues in churches, and the tithes. Freedam of preaching was granted to the Protestantism in Zurich. The tithe was abolished. Religious rites were simplified and celibacy for the clergy was abolished. The city authorities also became major players in this Reformation movement.

 Zwingli became increasingly critical of the Catholic Church. In the context of the above-mentioned public debate, it is important to note the criticism of Catholicism as idolatry. In the Old Testament, idolatry is prohibited by God. Therefore, the Catholic Church did not consider itself an idolater. On the other hand, the worship of saints became so important in the medieval Catholic Church that it occupied its central place. In doing so, they produced countless statues of saints (many of which can still be seen today inside European museums and churches). Zwingli criticized this veneration of statues in the Catholic Church as idolatry. He said the Catholic Church was an idolater.

 ”Idolatry” became a popular term under Protestantism as a general condemnation of unreformed churches. As a result, Protestants began regarding statues of saints and other figures of the Catholic Church as symbols of ecclesiastical corruption, which would cause iconoclasm. This further infuriated the Catholic princes and churches, and led to the intensified repression of Protestants and the aggravation of conflicts.

 While Zwingli was trying to Protestantize Zurich, his supporters were trying to spread similar reforms in the surrounding Swiss cities. Zwingli’s movement gained support in Bern and Basel. Both of these cities formed a league to oppose Catholicism. However, the Zwingli movement was suppressed in Lucerne and other Catholic cities. At the same time, another Protestant group, the Anabaptists, emerged in Switzerland. The Zwingli and Anabaptist groups were at odds with each other in rural areas.


 Cooperation with other Protestant groups

 Switzerland was divided between Protestants and Catholics. The same was true of neighboring Germany. Zwingli began to seek cooperation with German Lutherans. However, he did not intend to cooperate with the Anabaptiss.

 Therefore, in 1529, the Marburg Conference was held. In order to cooperate, Zwingli and Luther tried to eliminate doctrinal discord between each other. However, this attempt failed on major issues such as Eucharist. While Luther insisted on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Zwingli saw it as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.

 Another attempt was made the following year, but it was unsuccessful. Thus, cooperation between the two factions failed.

 Nevertheless, Zwingli’s influence spread to southern German cities such as Strasbourg and Augsburg through his writings and sermons.

Death in War

 Zwingli failed to cooperate with Luther, as noted above. There was a possibility that Emperor Karl V would attack the Protestant forces in Switzerland. In such a situation, Zwingli tried to count on French help. He tried to get the help of François I of France, who was hostile to Karl V. But this attempt also disappeared.

 In the midst of all this, a war with Catholic forces in Switzerland began. This was the Kappel War. Zwingli was a clergyman, but as was the custom in Switzerland at the time, he took part in the Second Kappel War. He was killed in 1531. A peace treaty was signed soon after. It granted each canton the freedom to choose between the Catholic and Zwingli faiths.

Recommended or Selected References

森田安一編『スイスの歴史と文化』刀水書房, 1999

Ulinka Rublack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformations, Oxford University Press, 2015

F. Bruce Gordon, Zwingli : God’s armed prophet, Yale University Press, 2021