Ulrich Zwingli was a leader of the Swiss Reformation. The son of a
prosperous peasant, Zwingli studied music, scholastic philosophy, and humanistic subjects in Vienna, Bern, and Basel.
Zwingli was deeply influenced by the spirit
of liberal humanism. In 1506 he was ordained and assigned to the town
of Glarus as a parish priest. Glarus then was well known as a center for
recruiting mercenary soldiers for Europe's armies. On two occasions
Zwingli served as chaplain with Glarus troops during bloody fighting on
foreign soil, and these experiences led him to denounce the mercenary
system publicly. In retaliation certain town officials conspired to make
his position at Glarus untenable. In 1516 he accepted an appointment
at Einsiedeln, southeast of Zürich.
During his ministry at Einsiedeln, Zwingli began to entertain doubts about certain church practices. In 1516 he read a Latin translation of the Greek New Testament published by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus, which he later transcribed into notebooks and memorized verbatim. On the basis of these and other scriptural readings, Zwingli charged in sermons that church teachings and practice had diverged widely from the simple Christianity of the Holy Writ. Among the practices cited by Zwingli as unscriptural were the adoration of saints and relics, promises of miraculous cures, and church abuses of the indulgence system. His forthright affirmations of scriptural authority won him wide popular repute, and on January 1, 1519, he was appointed priest at the Gross Münster (German, "Great Cathedral") in Zürich.
Zürich was a center of humanist belief, with a tradition of state limitation on the temporal power of the church. Zwingli quickly attracted large audiences to the cathedral by expounding the original Greek and Hebrew Scriptures chapter by chapter and book by book, beginning with the Gospel of Matthew. These oral translations of the original Scriptures broke sharply with church tradition. Previously priests had based their sermons on interpretations of the Vulgate and on the writings of the Fathers of the Church. In 1519 an admirer placed a printing press at the reformer's disposal, and his bold new ideas spread far beyond the confines of Zürich.
During the same year Zwingli read for the first time the writings of his contemporary, Martin Luther. Heartened by Luther's stand against the German hierarchy, Zwingli in 1520 persuaded the Zürich council to forbid all religious teachings without foundation in the Scriptures. Among these teachings was the church stricture against eating meat during Lent. In 1522 a group of his followers deliberately broke the rule and were arrested. Zwingli vigorously defended the lawbreakers, who were released with token punishment.
Pope Adrian VI, angered by Zwingli's behavior, then forbade him the pulpit and asked the Zürich council to repudiate him as a heretic. In January 1523, Zwingli appeared before the council to defend himself. He asserted the supremacy of the Holy Writ over church dogma, attacked the worship of images, relics, and saints, and denounced the sacramental view of the Eucharist and enforced celibacy as well. After deliberation, the council upheld Zwingli by withdrawing the Zürich canton from the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constance; it also affirmed its previous ban against preachings not founded on the Scriptures. By taking these steps the council officially adopted the Reformation. Zwingli in 1524 marked his new status by marrying Anna Reinhard, a widow with whom he had lived openly.
Under the Reformation, Zürich became a theocracy ruled by Zwingli and a Christian magistrate. Sweeping reforms were instituted, among them the conversion of monasteries into hospitals, the removal of religious images, and the elimination of Mass and confession. Eventually Zwingli taught that devout Christians have need of neither pope nor church.
During 1525 a radical Protestant group called the Anabaptists challenged Zwingli's rule. In a disputation, however, held before the council on the following January 2, Zwingli defeated the Anabaptists, whose leaders were then banished from Zürich.
In 1529 friends of Martin Luther and Zwingli, concerned over doctrinal and political differences that had developed between the two Protestant leaders, arranged a meeting between them. At this meeting, held in Marburg an der Lahn and known since as the Marburg Colloquy, Luther and Zwingli clashed over the Lord's Supper; Zwingli denied any real connection between the bread and wine and the body and blood of Christ. He believed that at the celebration of the Supper, which recalls to worshipers the words and deeds of the Lord, Christ is with them by the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Zwingli, the bread and wine recall the Last Supper, but no metaphysical change takes place in them. The conference failed to reconcile the two leaders.
Meanwhile, Zwingli carried his crusade to cantons other than Zürich. In all, six cantons were converted to the Reformation. The remaining five, known as the Forest Cantons, remained staunchly Catholic. The antagonisms between Catholic and Protestant cantons created a serious split within the Swiss confederation.
In 1529 the hostility between the cantons flared into open civil war. On October 10, 1531, Zwingli, acting as chaplain and standard-bearer for the Protestant forces, was wounded at Kappel am Albis and later put to death by the victorious troops of the Forest Cantons. After Zwingli's death the Reformation made no further headway in Switzerland; the country is still half Catholic, half Protestant.
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