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Huldrych Zwingli: Reformer According to the Word of God

Huldrych Zwingli was a Swiss priest who served most notably in Zürich. His story is not unlike other Reformers. Zwingli came from a prosperous family of farmers from eastern Switzerland.[1] Seeking what they thought was best for him, his family worked to steer him away from the Bern Dominican monastery onto a different path. Instead, Zwingli studied at University of Vienna and the University of Basel where he devoted himself to learning in the humanist tradition and scholastic thought. He returned to eastern Switzerland to become a parish priest in Glarus. Zwingli continued his studies amidst pastoral duties and mastered Greek and some Hebrew.[2] In 1516, he transferred to the parish of Einsiedeln, where he was introduced to Erasmus’ newly published Greek New Testament.

Zwingli did many things to supplement his income, including serving as a military chaplain. In those days, the Swiss would offer mercenaries to powerful nations in need of military support. Switzerland did not have thriving industry, but they had a surplus population they could sell. Zwingli’s experiences alongside these soldiers at war no doubt affected his views about this practice. Though he would later denounce this practice, Zwingli profited from it early on. He secured a papal pension for his service. And in 1518, he also received an honorary papal chaplaincy for dissuading mercenaries from serving the King of France, the Pope’s enemy.

Zwingli was nominated for a new position of “people’s priest” at the Grossmünster (Great Minster, one of three significant churches in Zürich) in 1518 even though he had admitted to some severe moral failings with a young woman in Einsiedeln. This did not kill his candidacy, since the other candidate for the job had done even worse by living openly with a concubine and six resultant children.[3] In this new post, Zwingli carried out pastoral duties and continued to study the Word of God as he preached through Matthew and Acts.

News of the Reformation in Germany made eventually its way to Switzerland, and Zwingli’s convictions were being forged in the midst of his ministry to his new congregation. Though he did not make a public issue of it, Zwingli stopped drawing his papal pension in 1520. He continued to network with influential people in the city and was even appointed a canon and thereby became a citizen of Zürich. The gears of a Swiss Reformation were starting to turn.

On the first Sunday of Lent in 1522, Christoph Froschauer served dinner for his guests. Froschauer was a printer, and after a lengthy work session, he cut up two sausages, fried them, and served them to his workers. Zwingli was the only one present not to partake, but he did not forbid the practice either. Froschauer’s actions were blatantly defiant of standard Lenten practice. He was making a statement that most likely intentionally became public. The city authorities of Zürich found out about this and arrested Froschauer.

Following this Affair of the Sausages, Zwingli preached a sermon on why it was not necessary to obey the church’s laws about eating meat during Lent. He then published this sermon. For Zwingli, the issue came down to the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God. He was convicted that if God’s Word did not command or forbid something, we have no right to bind men’s consciences by commanding or forbidding it. In that sense, it is a matter of freedom. Men are certainly free to refrain from eating meat during Lent, but they cannot force others to do the same. Zwingli called the Bible “The Divine Law.”[4] It represents God’s will and is our only ultimate authority. On that basis, he later took issue with corruption in the Catholic Church, promoted clerical marriage, and sought to reform worship.

Following the Affair of the Sausages and Zwingli’s continued efforts, the Reformation spread throughout the Swiss Confederation. At the time, this confederation was made up of thirteen cantons, or member states. Each canton was a sovereign state with its own military and currency. They were technically part of the Holy Roman Empire, but were functionally independent since 1499, when the Swiss defeated Maximillian. Zwingli was able to form an alliance with several Reformed cantons, but many cantons preferred to remain Catholic. Zwingli’s life came to an abrupt end in 1531 when Zwingli’s alliance tried to block the supply of food to Catholic cantons. In retaliation, the Catholic forces attacked Zürich, who were ill prepared. Zwingli was killed in battle on October 11, 1531 at the age of 47.

Zwingli’s legacy is that of a servant who sought conformity to the Word of God. Who was by no means a perfect man, but a convicted one who by faith stood firm in the face of opposition. This was true not only for his Catholic opponents, but also his brothers in Reformation. Between October 1 and 4, 1529, he famously met with Luther at Marburg Castle for what has come to be known as the Marburg Colloquy. Philipp I of Hesse[5] wanted them to meet to discuss several doctrinal matters pertaining to the Reformation. The two Reformers agreed on many matters, but could not come to terms regarding the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). While at times we might disagree with Zwingli’s exegesis and theological formulations, we can recognize that he always sought to come back to the Word of God. That is surely a lesson we would do well to learn.


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (Viking Adult, 2004), 137.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Oxford, OX, UK; Cambridge, Mass., USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), 164.

[4] MacCulloch, The Reformation, 139.

[5] Philipp I was an influential leader in Germany and strong supporter of the Reformation.

* Listen to our interview with Glen Clary on Zwingli, Sola Scriptura, and the Reformation of Christian Worship. You may also find his article “Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Anabaptists: Sola Scriptura and the Reformation of Christian Worship” in volume 6 of the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.


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