Huldrych Zwingli

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Huldrych Zwingli

  • Zwingli's birth - 1484
  • Zwingli priest in Glarus - 1506
  • Zwingli as chaplain - 1516
  • Luther's 95 theses - 1517
  • Charles V becomes German emperor - 1519
  • Zwingli priest in the cathedral of Zürich - 1519
  • Pope bans Luther - 1521
  • New Testament translated to German - 1522
  • Adrian VI new pope - 1522
  • Zwingli marries - 1522
  • Zwingli publishes his first reformatory tract
  • Reformation wins in Zürich - 1523
  • Clement VII new pope - 1523

Huldrych (or Ulrich) Zwingli (January 1, 1484October 10, 1531) was the leader of the Swiss Reformation and founder of the Swiss Reformed Churches. Independent from Luther, who was doctor biblicus, Zwingli arrived at similar conclusions by studying the scriptures from the point of view of a humanist scholar.

Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, St. Gall, Switzerland to a prominent family of the middle classes. He was the third of eight sons. His father Ulrich was the chief magistrate in town and his uncle Bartolomeus the vicar.

Zwingli's Reformation was supported by the magistrate and population of Zürich and led to significant changes in civil life and state matters in Zürich. The reformation was spread from Zürich to five other cantons of Switzerland, while the remaining five sternly held onto the Roman Catholic faith.

Zwingli was killed at Kappel am Albis in a battle against the Catholic cantons.


Zwingli's contribution to Reformation


While a wealth of information related to the theology of Martin Luther, John Calvin, and others exist, relatively much less is available with relation to Huldrych Zwingli. Because Zwingli's lifetime coincided with that of Luther's, and because Zwingli's renunciation of the Roman Catholic priesthood came only a few years after that of Luther's, Zwingli may have been overshadowed by Luther's and Calvin's contributions to the Reformation.

Another reason for Zwingli's less noticeable career may have been caused by his own theological differences with respect to that of Luther's. Some believe that because of these differences, historical writers and religious zealots more sympathetic to Luther's doctrinal views may have aided in suppressing Zwingli's doctrinal views. They hold that the side who wins in history is the side who writes the history; the other side of the story is either forgotten or suppressed.

Theology: sacraments and covenants (Zwingli versus Luther)

Two major differences in theological opinion between Zwingli and Luther is that of grace versus works as it relates to the Christian sacraments. Many consider Luther to have been the originator of the belief that God's covenants to man are unconditional; Zwingli, on the other hand, proposed that God's covenants were just that--spritually binding contracts between God and man that were vulnerable to man's relapse into the sinful life that could eventually lead to an annulment of God's part in the contract.

In E. Brooks Holifield's "The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New Testaments" (1570-1720, New Haven, Conn.: Yale University press, 1974, 6), Holifield states, "When Luther called the sacrament a covenental seal, he meant that baptism visibly ratified and guaranteed God's promises, as a royal seal authenticated a government document on which it was inscribed. Only secondarily was baptism a pledge of obedience by men. For Zwingli, however, the sacrament was primarily 'a covenant sign which indicates that all those who receive it are willing to amend their lives to follow Christ."

For both Luther and Zwingli, the sacrament of baptism was a sign or symbol of God's new Gospel covenant. Their theological differences arise in the relationship between baptism and mankind. While Luther believed that God's grace was sufficient for man's salvation thereby defining baptism simply as a sign of having received a divine guarantee of this grace, Zwingli taught that God's grace in addition to man's work was necessary for salvation thereby defining baptism as a covenant between God and man. This covenant/contract involved two parties wherein both were given specific responsibilities; if one party did not comply with said agreements, the opposite party was relinquished of all responsibilities detailed in the contract.

Zwingli was also known for his belief that the Christian sacrament was similar to a military oath or pledge in order to demonstrate an individual's willingness to listen and obey the word of God.

Music in the Church

Zwingli was one of the first Christians to abandon the use of instruments during worship services. He found instruments to be unnecessary for church services, and thought a better use for an organ would be to sell it and give the money to the poor. Some people believe Zwingli thought of the elaborate Roman Catholic music as an example of "good works", which Zwingli and Luther agreed were not the cornerstone to salvation.

Music is now accepted in nearly all Christian churches, with at least one exception. The Churches of Christ, part of the Restoration Movement, refuse instruments in worship because they are not specifically mentioned in the New Testament. Because the Old Testament advocates the use of instruments, these Christians believe that the use of instruments is part of the "old way" which was abolished at the time of Christ's death.

Zwingli’s life


Zwingli got his early education at Weesen under the guidance of this uncle Bartolomeus, who had moved away from Wildhaus. Before going to the University of Vienna Zwingli completed his studies in Berne. He enrolled in Vienna in 1498, and after having been expelled for a year Zwingli continued his studies there until 1502, at which time he transferred to the University of Basel, where he took his B.A. degree 1504, and M.Div. in 1506.


Just before winning his theological degree Zwingli became pastor at Glarus, and stayed there for ten years. It was during his stay in Glarus that Zwingli perfected his Greek, and also took up the study of Hebrew. Apart from studying the languages of the Scripture, he also read Erasmus, which gave his thinking a humanistic perspective.

The use of Swiss mercenaries was more than common in Europe of the 16th century and this was something that Zwingli opposed, unless commissioned by the pope. Nevertheless Zwingli took on the job of chaplain on several occasions, as the youth of his parish went to Italy as mercenaries. Still, Zwingli's opposition to foreign military service and his growing reputation as a fine preacher and learned scholar led to his election in 1518 to priest in the Great Minster church in Zürich. He had then been a priest in Einsiedeln for two years.

Zwingli's willingness to leave Glarus greatly increased due to stronger pro-French sentiment there, given the fact that Zwingli at this period in his life was strongly on the side of the pope. Zwingli's literary production while still in Glarus made Swiss cardinal Mattias Schinner his friend, and rendered him an annual pension from Rome.

Alienation from the Church

It was not until he was a priest of the Great Minster church that Zwingli publicly started questioning the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. He himself claimed to have done so earlier, but this is not corroborated by facts. Zwingli always claimed to be ignorant of what Luther wrote, and that he took part in starting the Reformation in Switzerland independently of Luther. When a preacher of indulgences appeared in Zürich in 1519, Zwingli opposed him. This was two years after Luther had refuted the practise of indulgence with his 95 Theses.

It was only in 1520 that Zwingli renounced his papal pension. He then attacked the mercenary system, and convinced Zürich, alone of all the cantons, to refuse the alliance with France on May 5, 1521. On January 11, 1522, all foreign services and pensions were forbidden in Zürich.

Owing to Zwingli's success as a politician, which had been boosted by his social efforts during the plague of 1520, his prestige and importance increased. From 1522 on he was on track of reforming the church and Christian faith. His first reformatory work, "Vom Erkiesen und Fryheit der Spysen", was published in the midst of a dispute over the ecclesiastical law of fasting. Zwingli declared the fasting provisions to be mere human commands, not in harmony with the Scriptures, and by now Zwingli was convinced that the Bible was the sole source of faith; this he asserted in "Archeteles."

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Greatminster Cathedral in Zürich: View from rooftop, overlooking church steeple and city. Recent.


When their intimacy passed the bounds of propriety is unknown, but from the spring of 1522 Zwingli and Anna Reinhard were living together in what was called a "clerical marriage." Such concubinages were not uncommon at the time, as it was assumed that without an extraordinary supply of divine grace it was not possible for a priest to live in absolute purity; and in fact, very few did. Zwingli eventually married Anna, on April 2, 1524. Between 1526 and 1530 the couple had four children.

The Reformation in Zürich

After three years of preaching, Zwingli prepared 67 theses ("Schlussreden"), intended for a more popular audience than Luther's and covering all the points of the "Gospel," as he called it. In accordance with the religious policy of the Swiss at that time, there had to be a public debate before radical measures were taken in religious matters. A meeting was called in Zürich January 29, 1523, presided over by the mayor. All the clergy were invited. There was no real debate, only a dialogue between Zwingli and the vicar-general of Constance. The decision of the magistracy was that the doctrines Zwingli had preached should be enforced in the Canton of Zürich.

Zwingli's radical followers made the most of the situation. They removed the images and pictures out of the churches, made changes in the liturgic language of the religious services, and stripped the mass of all its incrustations, as far as possible bringing it back to basics. By the end of 1524 the convents for both men and women had been abolished, and music had been silenced in the churches. The mass stood more or less unaltered, since Zwingli hesitated in changing something so wrapped up with the life of the people, before the people were fully prepared to accept a substitute.

At last it was decreed that on Thursday of Holy Week, April 13, 1525, in the Great Minster the "Lord's Supper" would be for the first time observed according to the liturgy Zwingli had composed. On that eventful day men and women sat on opposite sides of the table which extended down the middle aisle, and were served with bread on wooden platters and wine out of wooden beakers. The contrast to the former custom was shocking to many, yet the new way was accepted. With this radical break with the past the Reformation in Zürich was completed.

The political phase

The new doctrines were not introduced without opposition. The first opponents of the Reformers were from the ranks of their own party. The peasants could find no reason in the Bible, the sole principle of faith, why they should contribute to their lords' taxes, tithes, and rent, and they refused to do so. Civil unrest spread everywhere, and was only quelled after long negotiations and some concessions by the Government.

The Anabaptists were not so easily silenced. From their interpretation of the Bible, which Zwingli had placed in their hands, they opposed infant baptism and refused to join Zwingli's state church. Zwingli thus persecuted them mercilessly with imprisonment, torture, banishment and death; one of their leaders Felix Manz was drowned. The war against the Anabaptists was more serious for Zwingli than that against Rome.

In St. Gallen mayor Vadian (Joachim von Watt) worked successfully in Zwingli's interest — in Schaffhausen, Dr. Sebastian Hofmeister did the same; in Basle it was Johann Oecolampadius. Zwingli himself came to Berne, in January, 1528. The new doctrines were then introduced as sweepingly into Berne as they had been at Zürich, and many places and counties which had previously wavered followed its example. Zwingli could also point to brilliant successes in 1528 and 1529. He ensured the predominance of his reforms through the "Christian Civic rights", agreed upon between Zürich and the towns of Constance (1527), Berne and St. Gall (1528), Biel, Mulhausen, and Schaffhausen (1529).


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Statue of Zwingli in Zürich

Reformation swept across Switzerland. The cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, Lucerne, Zug, and Fribourg remained however true to the old Faith, and offered determined opposition to Zwingli. They could not see that Zwingli was more favoured by God than the ancient saints and teachers. This did not mean that the catholic cantons were wholly satisfied with conditions prevailing in the Catholic church. They strove to abolish abuses, and issued a Concordat of Faith in 1525 demanding important reforms, this, however, never found general recognition. From 21 May to 8 June, 1526, they held a public disputation at Baden, to which they invited Dr. Johann Eck of Ingolstadt. Zwingli did not appear.

At Baden, a famous watering-place, only twelve miles northwest of Zürich, there was a disputation between the Old Church representatives and the Zwingli party from May 21 to June 8, 1526. Though not present in person, Zwingli had close connections with those from Zürich who spoke for him, and gave them daily instructions. Of course each side claimed the victory.

To compel the Catholic cantons to accept the new doctrines, Zwingli even urged civil war, drew up a plan of campaign, and succeeded in persuading Zürich to declare war and march against the Catholic territories. The Catholic districts had by then strengthened their position by forming a defensive alliance with Austria (1529), the "Christian Union." At this juncture, however, they received no assistance. Berne showed itself more moderate than Zürich, and a treaty of peace was arranged, which, however, was very unfavourable for the Catholics.

Dictator of Zürich

In Zürich, Zwingli was now the commanding personality in all ecclesiastical and political questions. He was "mayor, secretary, and council" in one. His ever-growing self-confidence prevented an agreement with Luther regarding the doctrine of the Lord's Supper, when a disputation was arranged between the two Protestant leaders at Marburg in October, 1529.

As a statesman, Zwingli embarked in secular politics with ambitious plans. "Within three years", he wrote, "Italy, Spain and Germany will take our view". By prohibiting any compromises with the Catholic cantons Zwingli may have compelled them to resort to arms. On 9 October, 1531, they declared war on Zürich, and advanced to Kappel on the frontiers. That day proved to be fateful for Zwingli.

Civil war and Zwingli's death on the battlefield

See Kappeler Kriege, Reformation in Switzerland.

The Swiss Confederation wasn't a centralized state, but many different states or cantons that were only united on a few issues, primarily wanting independence from Germany. When the Catholic cantons took steps towards an alliance with Charles V, Zwingli recommended that the Protestant cantons begin to take military initiatives before it was too late. Zwingli was preparing for war, but his beliefs weren't shared by all of the other Protestant cantons. Instead, the other Protestants took economic measures towards the Catholic cantons. In October of 1531, the five Catholic cantons joined together for a surprise attack on Zürich. The Protestants were nearly unable to defend themselves because of no advanced warning, but when their army gathered together, Zwingli marched out with the first soldiers and was killed in battle. In Kappel, the army of Zürich was defeated, and slightly more than a month later, the Peace of Kappel was signed.

Zwingli's successor

Zwingli's successor, Heinrich Bullinger, was elected on December 9, 1531, to be the pastor of the Great Minster at Zürich, a position which he held to the end of his life (1575). He did not replace Zwingli as the political head man of the canton. The pastor of the Great Minster continued to exert political influence, but the time of theocracy was passed for Zürich.

Other notables in Swiss Reformation

Literary production

  • Rhymed fables of the ox, c. 1510
  • "De Gestis inter Gallos et Helvetios relatio", 1512
  • "Zwingli's The Labyrinth|The Labyrinth", c. 1516
  • "Vom Erkiesen und Fryheit der Spysen"
  • "Archeteles"
  • "Vermahnung an die zu Schwyz, dass sie sich vor fremden Herren hutend]]", 1522
  • "De vere et falsa Religione", 1525
  • "Opera D.H. Zwingli" (Title in full: "Opera D.H. Zwingli vigilantissimi Tigurinae ecclesiae Antistitis, partim quidem ab ipso Latine conscripta, partim vero e vernaculo sermone in Latinum translata: omnia novissime recognita, et multis adiectis, quae hactenus visa non sunt", published by Zwingli's son-in-law Rudolf Gwalter)
  • Zwingli's collected works, (edited by Melchior Schuler and Johannes Schulthess, 8 vols., Zürich, 1828-1842)
  • New critical edition of Zwingli's Collected Works ( (In progress, University of Zürich)cs:Ulrich Zwingli

de:Ulrich Zwingli es:Ulrico Zuinglio eo:Zvinglo fr:Ulrich Zwingli it:Ulrich Zwingli ja:フルドリッヒ・ツヴィングリ nl:Huldrych Zwingli no:Ulrich Zwingli pl:Ulrich Zwingli pt:Ulrich Zwingli ru:Цвингли, Ульрих sk:Ulrich Zwingli sv:Huldrych Zwingli


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