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Ulrich Zwingli, Swiss Reformer

For those here just to write a report for school or college, Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli was born January 1, 1484 in Wildhaus, Sankt Gallen, Switzerland. He died in battle with Roman Catholic "cantons" on October 10, 1531. A "canton" is a state/county in Switzerland. The page is sectioned by periods in his life, so it should be easy to skim the page for the information you need.

For those wanting more details, Zwingli is the least known of the three primary Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin being the other two. Zwingli lived and taught at the same time as Luther and preceded Calvin's reforms by 20 years.


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Ulrich's uncle, Bartholomew Zwingli, was pastor of Wildhaus when Ulrich was born. In 1487, he moved to Walensee, where he both pastored and was the dean of the school in Wesen. He taught Ulrich as a child.

Ulrich moved on to a school in Basel at age 10, then Bern at age 15. He was such a skilled musician that the Dominicans tried to recruit him as a monk. His father and uncle talked him out of it. Instead he moved on to the University of Vienna, though records should that he was turned down in 1498 before finally being enrolled there in 1500.

In 1502, he returned to Basel, where Thomas Wyttenbach would strongly influence Zwingli to study theology. Zwingli graduated Basel in 1506 with a Master of Theology degree.


It is probably important to mention "humanism" here. Wyttenbach, just mentioned, was a humanist, and Ulrich Zwingli is also considered a humanist. The definition of a humanist has surely changed over time, but in the 16th-century a humanist was a person who embraced Renaissance ideas. Specifically:

  • A focus on classical learning
  • An emphasis on the individual (rather than the Catholic Church or local society)
  • A rejection of scholasticism, which is an emphasis on abstract, speculative theology. Humantis preferred a more practical education.
  • Promotion of the liberal arts
  • Aesthetic and cultural revival
  • A desire for reform and progess

Source: ChatGPT

Shortly after his graduation in 1506, Zwingli was appointed priest in Glarus.

Priest at Glarus (1506-1516)

Zwingli remained in Glarus from 1506-1516. Though he was not still in university, he surely learned as much about practical theology and ministry from his interactions with Erasmus, Heinrich Loritit ("Glareanus"), and Joachim von Watt ("Vadian") in Glarus as he ever did at the various schools he attended. All 3 of those men are famous in their own right, though Erasmus, who remained Roman Catholic his whole life (and who "laid the egg that Luther hatched"), is the most well-known.

His time at Glarus was eventful. He was still Roman Catholic—as was everyone else because the Reformation had not yet begun—and he was chaplain for two Italian campaigns in 1513 and 1515 in which Catholics, using Swiss mercenaries, drove the French out of Novarra and Marignan.

Seeing the bloodshed there, he began to denounce the use of mercenaries. Zwingli's biography at the Zwingli United Church of Christ's web site (ZCoC) says he was forced out of Glarus because of this, but the Catholic Encyclopedia says that he could not bear French influence in the city (CE). My other sources report simply that he left.

While in Glarus, he wrote a rhymed book called "Fables of the Ox," and two other books titled "De Gestis inter Gallos et Helvetios relatio" and "The Labrynth". These can be read at

Priest in Einsiedln (1516-1518)

Whatever caused his departure, Zwingli moved to Einsiedln in Zurich. He left Glarus with a Latin translation of Erasmus' Greek text and began devouring it. He would later become proficient in Greek and preach directly from the Greek text (translating on the fly, I assume?). His own report of leaving Glarus was:

Before anyone in the area had ever heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel of Christ in 1516 . . . . I started preaching the gospel before I had even heard Luther’s name . . . . Luther, whose name I did not know for at least another two years, had definitely not instructed me. I followed holy Scripture alone. (GC)

Martin Luther was still an Augustinian monk when Ulrich came to Glarus. A year later he would post his 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral. Most historians date the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to this event, which happened on October 31, 1517 (prompting some modern Protestants to celebrate "Reformation Day" rather than Halloween). A year earlier, though, Zwingli was already preaching from the Scriptures alone, book-by-book through the New Testament. In that sense, he was the first to embrace sola Scriptura, though we must not assume that he had our version of "the Scriptures only" in mind.

We will see something more like sola Scriptura in Zurich, where he went in 1519. Before we address his time in Zurich, the period which made him famous, we should look at a paragraph from the Catholic Encyclopedia. Surprisingly, the Catholic Encyclopedia's article on Zwingli was the longest and most thorough I found. I did verify details with other sites that are more reliable sources for information on Protestant reformers.

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. (CE)

The point of that quote is to show that modern Catholics do not deny that the Catholic Church in Europe was in desperate need of Reform. In fact, the Protestant Reformation sparked a "counter Reformation" among the Catholics that culminated in the Council of Trent, which took 18 years to draw to a conclusion, meeting from 1545 to 1563.

At Zurich, which we will address in a moment, Ulrich's warm relationship with Erasmus would cool. Erasmus wanted to work within the Catholic Church, but Ulrich would wind up outside it.

Reform in Zurich (1519-1531)

We need to be clear that the "Protestant" reformers, across the board—Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others—saw themselves as reformers of the Catholic Church. They did not start new churches until the Catholic Church, which was in desperate need of reform, rejected their reforms.

Ulrich's preaching was popular, and on January 1, 1519 (happy 35th birthday!), he was appointed priest of the Grossmünster in Zurich, its main church. He begain preaching from the original Greek and Hebrew (per ZCoC, but others say he was only preaching through the New Testament). He was popular and drew crowds to the Grossmünster.

By 1520, Zwingli persuaded the Zurich city council to ban all teachings not found in Scripture. Keep in mind that in 16th-century Switzerland, city councils ruled the cantons, which were independent of one another. They were almost like city-states that ruled over the surrounding countryside, so the council's decisions were law for the citizens of the whole canton.

In 1522, Ulrich created a "school of the prophets," which is now the University of Zurich. There the students studied the Old Testament in Hebrew in the morning, and the New Testament in Greek in the afternoon. Afterwards, one of the students would preach in German.

The same year, Ulrich worked up the courage to take a bold stand for his reforms. He and a few prominent citizens of Zurich ate a sausage dinner during Lent, violating the no-meat fast the Roman Catholic Church mandates during the 40 days leading up to Passover (Easter*).

* Note: I have been unable to find out when Passover began to be called Easter, but Christian churches have celebrated Passover on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover since as early as historians know. (The exception was the church in Ephesus and the surrounding churches, who celebrated Passover on the same day as the Jews.) Today, we have forgotten that Easter used to be Passover, but we still celebrate it on the day decreed for all churches back in AD 325 at the Council of Nicea.

The meal drew the ire of the bishop of Constance, who demanded the council get their city under control. The council requested a trial, which occurred in January, 1523, and was attended by Catholic magistrates. There, Ulrich presented his "67 Articles". The council sided with Ulrich, removed themselves from the oversight of the bishop of Constance and adopted the 67 articles as Zurich's official doctrine. These articles include:

  • A strong emphasis on Jesus Christ as head of the church.
  • Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ saves; the confirmation of the church is not needed. (1—first article)
  • If Jesus is the head of the church, then no one should step in to impose rules on his body that he has not implemented. This is directly stated to refer to the pope and the Catholic Church. (9-13)
  • Only Jesus is High Priest; no others can be. (17)
  • Jesus is our only mediator; no one else is. (19)
  • The mass is not a sacrifice, but the remembrance of a sacrifice. ("Mass" is the Roman Catholic word for their Sunday morning liturgical meeting. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1323, says, "At the last supper ... instituted the Eucharist sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages" (reference). Though they mean that they are participating in the perpetual sacrifice of Christ, to this day the Roman Catholic Church teaches that every mass is a sacrifice.) (18)
  • Only the works Christ does through us are good; not our own works. (22)
  • "Those who attract wealth to themselves in [Jesus'] name slander him terribly.(23)
  • Only God can forbid food, "from which one learns that the decree about cheese and butter is a Roman swindle." (24)

I gave a link to the 67 Articles, so I won't continue to list highlights. These are enough for us to see that Ulrich Zwingli was making a strong effort to return to the Bible and the Bible alone. We also see that he knew he was rejecting the Roman Catholic authority in doing so.

Reforms followed swiftly. The History Learning Site lists some of those:

  • "Preaching and Bible readings – known as prophesyings – were made more frequent"
  • Priests were allowed to marry.
  • Monasteries were closed, and their wealth was used for education and the poor.
  • The mass was simplified, and both bread and wine were used. (To this day, the Catholics only give their congregants bread on holy days, no more than 3 or 4 times per year.)
  • The Eucharist was understood as giving grace to the congregation, not the bread and wine. Thus, the Catholic doctrine of transubstantion was rejected because it was the people, the body of Christ, who were changed by communion, not the bread nor the wine. (This teaching would anger Martin Luther in a 1529 conference every bit as much as it angered the pope.)

I thought this was an interesting thing to add about the Grossmünster, where Ulrich was pastor.

The reforms initiated by Zwingli and continued by his successor, Heinrich Bullinger, account for the plain interior of the church. The iconoclastic reformers removed the organ and religious statuary in 1524. These changes, accompanied by abandonment of Lent, replacement of the Mass, disavowal of celibacy, eating meat on fast days, replacement of the lectionary with a seven-year New Testament cycle, a ban on church music, and other significant reforms make this church one of the most important sites in the history of the reformation and the birthplace of the Swiss-German reformation. (Wikipedia)

In 1524, Ulrich married Anna Reinhold, "a widow with whom he lived openly" (ZCoC). Only the Catholic Encyclopedia mentions that she was pregnant at the wedding.

Don't be too shocked by this. As early as AD 325, the Council of Nicea forbad church leaders from keeping a "subintroduca" in their house unless she was a sister or mother of the cleric. The point was obvious. Even then, bishops and elders, who were not yet forbidden to marry, considered it holy to avoid sex, even in marriage. Many did not marry, and all clerics were forbidden to remarry, even if he were a widower. The result of this was not great holiness, but widespread use of a female assistant in the cleric's house.

Self-control in the sexual area may have been greatly honored, but it was, obviously, not greatly practiced. What was occasional in 325 became the norm by the late Middle Ages. This behavior is reported by Protestant and Catholic historians alike. Wikipedia, quoting Bruce Gordon's introduction to Bullinger in Architect of Reformation (published by Baker Academic), reports this about Ulrich's successor, Heinrich Bullinger:

Heinrich Bullinger was born to Heinrich Bullinger Sr., a priest, and Anna Wiederkehr, at Bremgarten, Aargau, Switzerland. Heinrich and Anna were able to live as husband and wife, even though not legally married, because the bishop of Constance, who had clerical oversight over Aargau, had unofficially sanctioned clerical concubinage by waiving penalties against the offense in exchange for an annual fee, called a cradle tax.

We must remember that Reformation churches were not modern churches. Just as the Roman Catholic Church was aligned with emperors, kings, or important Italian families, and priests with local mayors and sherrifs (or city councils in Switzerland), so Reformation churches aligned themselves with German lords and Swiss city councils. The Zwingli Church of Christ reports, "Under the Reformation, Zurich became a theocracy ruled by Zwingli and a Christian magistrate."

1525: The Anabaptists

Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were at least acquaintances, perhaps pupils, of Zwingli and part of the reforms in Zurich. The 1523 debate with the Catholic magistrates did not please them, however, as much as it pleased the Zurich council. Grebel and Manz felt that Zwingli was limiting his reforms in order to please the council.

At first, this was only on the subject of abolishing the mass. Zwingli wanted to do so, and he taught against the mass, but the Zurich council was not ready to take such a step. Zwingli was understanding, and he continued to officiate at mass each Sunday at the Grossmünster.

To Grebel and Manz, this was compromise. Zwingli was looking practically at reform in Switzerland and was willing to wait for the council. Grebel and Manz saw no place for the opinions of a secular government in obeying the Scriptures.

Things came to a head in 1524 and 1525 when the subject of infant baptism came up.

It is important to understand that if Zwingli had declared or even suggested that the baptism of infants is invalid, he would have aroused the ire of every religious person in Europe. Catholics and Reformers alike baptized infants, and everyone or almost everyone in 1520s Europe had been baptized as a baby. Today, we can discuss paedo- vs. credo-baptism (infant vs. believer's baptism) as a theological issue. Grebel and Manz would go on to prove that opposing infant baptism in 1520s Europe was a matter of life and death!

On January 17, 1525, Grebal and Manz, joined by another radical reformer named Georg Blaurock, debated Zwingli before the council. The council decided against the radical young men (of course), and Conrad Grebel's daughter, along with any other unbaptized children, were ordered to be baptized. Conrad Grebel's father, Jakob, was on that council, though he was executed by the council in October, 1526 for "receiving illegal funds from foreign rulers" (Wikipedia).

Far from complying, the radicals met in Felix Manz' home just 4 days later. Georg Blaurock asked Conrad Grebel to baptize him, which he did by pouring water over his head. Blaurock then baptized Manz and about a dozen others. They and their followers became known as Anabaptists ("rebaptizers") and would be fugitives for the next 2 centuries. Blaurock was chased out of Zurich by citizens who beat him with sticks as he ran. The council had Manz drowned, a "death by baptism" as it would come to be known, on January 5, 1527.

Since this article is about Ulrich Zwingli and not Felix Manz nor the Anabaptists, it seems worth passing on this quote from the Gospel Coalition's 9 Things You Should Know About Ulrich Zwingli".

As Ligon Duncan has said, “Zwingli . . . was constantly personally involved in political, economic, and military discussions and alliances in order to gain an advantage for the gospel.”

The Marburg Colloquy: Conflict with Martin Luther

While these things were happening in Zurich, the Reformation was bursting into full bloom in Germany. Luther was excommunicated at the Diet of Worms, fled, gained the support of German Lords, translated the New Testament into German, and both his Bible and his teachings spread throughout northern Europe and even into Switzerland.

It is obvious that it would have been a good thing for Luther and Zwingli to join forces. In 1529, Philip I of Hesse called Zwingli, Luther, and other reformers together for a meeting in hopes of uniting them.

It is interesting that just as at the Council of Nicea, 1200 years earlier, a ruler was calling church leaders together for the sake of political unity. In 325, the Roman Emperor Constantine called the bishops of his empire together to resolve the Arian Controversy in order to avoid division in the eastern empire. Now, in 1529, another head of state was calling Christian reformers together to unite German lords and Swiss cantons against the Roman Catholics.

The meeting is known as the "Marburg Colloquy" because it was held in Marburg in Hesse, one of the German states. There Zwingli and Luther agreed on 14 points of doctrine, but Luther, who had become a notorious hothead after his battles with Rome, refused to unite with the Swiss reformers because of Zwingli's teaching on the Lord's Supper. Luther would later refer to Zwingli as "of the devil" and a "wormy nut" (GC).

While Martin Luther rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantion, which teaches that the bread and wine of communion actually become the physical body and blood of Christ, a claim which can be proven to be false scientifically, he did believe in what we now know as the "real presence" of Christ in the bread and wine—Christ is in the bread and wine, but mystially.

Zwingli, on the other hand, taught that the grace of communion (or the Eucharist) was for the church, the body of Christ, not for the bread and wine. Thus, the partakers of communion would receive grace by eating and drinking, but the bread and wine are unaffected.

1529-1531, War with the Catholic Cantons says that Ulrich spread his reforms to 5 other cantons, but does not list them. The the Christian History Institute lists only Bern, Basel, and Schafthausen. Oddly, after searching the internet, I found no sites that resolve the difference between and the Christian History Institute, though all agree that Bern and Basel, important cantons, were with Zwingli. Some of the confusion may be because Switzerland, both then and now, spoke German in the east and French in the west. It is possible that French cantons might have been sympathetic to Zwingli, but refused to be involved in the wars of 1529 and 1531.

There were 13 cantons in Switzerland in the early 16th century, and whether 4 or 6 were reformed, the Catholic and reformed cantons went to war in 1529. Wikipedia does list the Catholic cantons by name: "Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Zug" (WoK). These were able to drive back the reformers, then established the "Christian Union" to resist Zwingli's reforms.

In 1531, the Protestant cantons tried, unsuccessfully, to blockade shipments of grain to the Catholic cantons, and the Christian Union responded with an attack directly on Zurich. Zwingli was officially only the chaplain and flagbearer for the Protestant forces, but he died in armor and carrying a sword. This is known as "the Second Kappel War," the 1529 battles being the First Kappel War.

"9 Things You Should Know About Ulrich Zwingli" reports:

Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s son-in-law and the pastor who succeeded him in the pulpit, wrote that Zwingli was found wounded on the battlefield. When Zwingli refused last rites by a priest an enemy captain "drew his sword and gave Zwingli a thrust from which he at once died." His enemies cut off his head, hacked his body and burned the pieces, and then mixed them with pig entrails to prevent his remains from being used as a relic.

The Christian History Institute explains how Zwingli's defeat in Zurich nonetheless made John Calvin's reforms in Geneva, Switzerland possible.

The final result of the lost war was that Berne [which never got involved with the war against the Catholics, but was instead in favor of westward expansion towards France] was free to proceed with the conquest of Canton Vaud which was occupied in 1536. This advance spread Protestantism to the borders of the episcopal city of Geneva whose overlord was the Duke of Savoy. As a result of this development, it was possible to introduce Protestantism to Geneva with Bernese aid. Without Berne’s support, Geneva could never have become an international center of Protestantism under the leadership of John Calvin. Indeed, eventually Geneva became more important for the development of international reformed Protestantism than was Zurich.

Zurich, though, remained under the influence of Heinrich Bullinger, Ulrich's successor and son-in-law. He served in Zurich from 1531 to 1575, and through his efforts Zurich remained influential in the Protestant Reformation.

Switzerland remains part Catholic and part Protestant to this day, as does Germany. I lived in Germany for 9 years, 5 of those because both my father and I served in the US Air Force. One interesting, though perhaps sad, thing about Germany is that many villages have both a Catholic and Lutheran church, each with prominent steeples that can seen from outside the village (especially because Germany is very hilly). Over the centuries since the Reformation, the Protestants and Catholics often disputed with other not by war, but by building the higher steeple in a village.

"9 Things You Should Know About Ulrich Zwingli" provides a great wrap-up to Zwingli's story:

The theology of Zwingli—sometimes known as Zwinglianism—was mostly a Swiss phenomenon. Despite being a co-creator of the Protestant Reformation, Zwingli’s influence has been eclipsed by Luther (who outlived him) and by second-generation Swiss reformers such as Calvin and Bullinger. Still, his influence—especially on the Lord’s Supper and preaching from the Bible rather than a lectionary—is felt today in many denominations.


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