Huldrych Zwingli

Deeply influenced by Christian humanism and Swiss urban values, Huldrych Zwingli was the leader of the early Reformation in the Swiss city of Zurich during the 1520s. Hired as a preacher in 1519, Zwingli was instrumental in the elimination of Catholicism and implementation of a Reformed Protestant regime in Zurich between 1522 and 1525. Unlike Luther, Zwingli conceived civic government and the church as two aspects of one and the same Christian community and thought that scripture should be the foundation for its every aspect. The intersection of religious disagreements between Catholic and Protestant with the political independence of the Swiss cantons provoked tension and finally war, in which Zwingli himself was killed in 1531. Zwingli’s longstanding dispute with Luther over the Lord’s Supper, dramatically epitomized in the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, was the beginning of a divisive doctrinal difference between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism.

Zwingli was born in 1484 in the small Swiss canton of St. Gall, part of the Swiss Confederation. His early education took place in the Swiss cities of Basel and Bern, then at the universities of Vienna and Basel. He was deeply influenced by the emphasis on scripture and reform in Christian humanism.  After an initial acquaintance with humanism as a student, Zwingli immersed himself in Greek, scripture, and the Church Fathers after becoming a priest in 1506. He met Erasmus in Basel in the mid-1510s and was close to him for several years.

In 1519, Zwingli began preaching regularly in Zurich, garnering support and provoking resistance, becoming a member of the Zurich city council in 1521. In 1522, he preached against traditional Catholic practices, defended the actions of those who had eaten meat during Lent, and appealed to the Bishop of Constance in favor of clerical marriage.  In January 1523, at the First Zurich Disputation, the Zurich city council decided in Zwingli’s favor that all disputed religious issues were to be decided on the basis of scripture. The city council’s decision implicitly repudiated Catholic claims of authority in religious matters. The council also agreed that the Mass would be abolished, and images removed from churches. In 1525, the Zurich city council mandated infant baptism, established an evangelical communion service, created a marriage tribunal, and institutionalized biblical study, for the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. According to Zwingli, civic government and the church were but two aspects of the same Christian community.

By 1931, Catholic forces had formed to defend their faith, breaking out in a bloody war in which Zwingli was killed. Switzerland’s early division into Protestant and Catholic states prefigured on a small scale the religious divisions of Europe in general in the Reformation era.