• Kyle Friesen

Ulrich Zwingli


From the time it was known as Helvetia, being settled by the Celtic Helvetians in 500 BC, to its invasion by Rome during the first century under Caesar, Switzerland has been the scene of many pivotal moments in history. Although small in size, measuring about half the size of the Great Lake Superior, the inhabitants of this small mountain country have repeatedly made a global impression, shifting cultures and paradigms around the world. Culinary controversies have been among those events, and in the year 1522, it was no different. What became known to the world as “The Affair of the Sausages” was ignited by one man, Ulrich Zwingli (also known as Huldrych).

When thinking of pivotal characters of the Christian faith, it is not often that those characters are best known for their involvement in what ends up on people’s plates. However, for the Swiss native, Ulrich Zwingli, he understood that even the ordinary parts of life revealed our character and our beliefs. The season was Lent, a time of setting aside certain things to recalibrate their focus on the supreme object of worship—Jesus Christ.

By the time of the sixteenth century, years of tradition had become the authority for the people of God, and it was prescribed by the Church of Rome that during this season, one was to fast from meat (and eggs, butter, milk and alcohol) as a token of worship. This wasn’t simply a suggestion, but was the requirement of a Christian. For Zwingli, this restriction stirred a notion that had been gaining traction in his life for years now, “On what authority?” It was this notion that put the wind in the sails of his small parish as he proclaimed from the pulpit, on the authority of God’s Word, that his parishioners were free in Christ to eat meat during Lent. The restriction on them, he surmised, was not commanded of them in Scripture and therefore it was only a man-made rule. This act of rebellion against the authority of the church in pursuit of simple obedience to Jesus would send shockwaves across the continent and the world in years to come.

The result of that proclamation was momentous, but it was years in the making. It started on New Year’s Day in 1484 with when Ulrich was born to a peasant farmer family. He was born two months prior to his contemporary, Martin Luther, and so Zwingli would come to be the so-called ‘third man’ of the Protestant Reformation. Born and raised to boyhood in Wildhaus (modern day eastern Switzerland), Ulrich was instructed by the book of nature and learned its lessons as he explored the beauty of the outdoors. When he was 8 years old, he was sent to the nearby town of Wesen to his uncle to be taught the basics of reading, writing and music. Having been instructed in part by his grandmother in the Scriptures at a young age, Ulrich’s eagerness to learn was not diminished as he grew older. In 1494, he was sent to the city of Basel to be educated, and by age 14 he had learned Latin and graduated from an equivalent of modern high school. In 1498 he was sent to the University of Vienna to continue his classical education. From there he went to the University of Basil in 1502 and studied under Thomas Wyttenbach. By 1506 (age 22), he had earned his bachelor and master’s degree from Basel.

By the providence of God, Zwingli had accomplished in a quarter century what often took others thirty-five years to complete. God had made this man for this time, for in a few short years at the age of 47, Ulrich would die as a chaplain on the battlefield. After he finished his formal education, he paid for a church position (a common practice in the medieval church) at his boyhood parish at Glarus.

Twice during Zwingli’s time at Glarus, he served as a chaplain with Swiss mercenaries in the service of international nobles. Here he saw the evils of war, like the Swiss killing their own in the hire of foreigners, and the battle of Marignano where about ten thousand Swiss countrymen lost their lives. He began to despise this evil and preach against it.

Aside from his pastoral, duties he taught himself Greek and spent much time in private study. During this time he grew particular close Erasmus of Rotterdam, a contemporary of his, who influenced him through the production of a complete Greek New Testament during his last year at Glarus (1515). Zwingli ingested this work with great excitement, memorizing many parts of Paul’s letters in the original Greek. Because of the production of this Greek New Testament, Zwingli beliefs on the church its practices began to shift. Although Luther would take the spotlight of the Reformation in Wittenberg a year later, Zwingli had already begun to reject much of the Catholic sacraments in favour of placing the written Word of God at the center of worship. And so he began to preach through whole books of the Bible rather than through the lectionary. Through this, he was forced to teach whatever the Bible said, even if it went against Church tradition.

Until the early 1520s, Zwingli’s attention was not set on reforming the Church, but rather redirecting it. It was only in 1523 that he wrote Sixty Seven Thesis, which outright set itself against the Catholic religion of the day. In it, he rejects such beliefs as the priest’s vow to celibacy, purgatory, forced fasting and the Mass itself. By 1524, in the city of Zurich, the use of images in church as a form of worship was banned. Also in 1524, Zwingli practiced what he preached and, as a priest, married the widow Anna Reinhard.

Up until this point in Zurich, it appears from history that Zwingli had not taken direction from Martin Luther and the Reformation in Germany. The work of reform in Zurich had been independent of the Lutheran movement as Zwingli himself said,

“Before anyone in the area had heard of Luther, I began to preach the gospel in 1516 before ever hearing his name. Luther who I only heard of two years after definitely did not instruct me, I followed the Holy Scriptures alone.”

In the spring of 1525, Mass in Zurich was abolished and Protestant worship began. By the leadership of Zwingli and the authority of the Word of God, everything implemented was only what was explicitly taught in Scripture. Anything that had no Scriptural support was rejected. The Word of God was read and taught to the congregation in their native language, and the whole congregation took part in the Lord’s Supper, not just the priests. The ministers wore simple robes that resembled those of the teachers at the universities. The prayers to the saints, prayers for the dead, and the Catholic tradition of indulgences were all banned. By the end of 1525, it was clear that the church in Zurich had broken from the Catholic Church.

Zwingli’s name is tied to several areas of conflict within the church. The first is with a group birthed from this Reformation known as the re-baptizers (later known as the Anabaptists). According to them, Zwingli had not gone far enough with his reform, particularly in baptism as the name suggests. The Anabaptists insisted that baptism was not for children but only for those who believed by faith, and they began “re-baptizing” themselves in isolation from the church. Zwingli exhorted them to be patient with Rome and bear with their brothers who were beginning to accept the teaching of the Reformers, not to separate themselves. This message was not well received. In 1525, the leaders of the city of Zurich ordered all infants to be baptized in accordance with the tradition of the church. The Anabaptists refused and marched through the streets of Zurich, baptizing themselves to protest the order. The leaders of the Anabaptists were arrested and charged with revolutionary teaching and sentenced to death by drowning. It is unknown if Zwingli agreed with the sentence, but history is clear that he did not oppose it.

All while this was in play, another controversy was stewing between Zwingli and Martin Luther. While Luther argued for the real presence of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper (consubstantiation), Zwingli argued that it was too close to the Catholic teaching of the Eucharist (transubstantiation). Zwingli argued for a symbolic understanding of the meal; that it is mainly a memorial of the death of Jesus. The Marburg Colloquy took place in 1529 and Zwingli met face to face with Luther along with several other Protestant leaders. Although they agreed on fourteen of the fifteen items that were presented, no agreement could be made on the matter of the Lord’s Supper. Luther commented that Zwingli was a good man, but of a different spirit, and later said, “God must have blinded them.” Zwingli longed for unity with his fellow Reformer, but the two continued on separate in their work, unified in their goal.

What had been ignited by Zwingli in Zurich was not immediately realized, but would be continued by those who followed, championing the authority and sufficiency of God and his Word. Zwingli would die in disgrace on the battlefield, be quartered, burned and have his ashes mixed with manure and scattered, but was work would not be wasted. Today, many of his works can be found, and a statue of him remains in Zurich. With Bible in one hand and sword in another, he stands as a product of his time seeking to hold fast to the Timeless One. This indeed is an inspiration to all who know him.


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