Ulrich Zwingli was born on New Year's Day, 1484 in Gall, Switzerland.1 He was the 7th of 8 sons and grew up in a prominent middle class family. His father was the chief magistrate of the town and his uncle the priest.
After graduating with a Master of Arts in 1506 (aged 22), he became the priest of the village of Glarus and continued his studies of Greek and humanism.
Humanism was, of course, the raging idea of the times - especially in the academy. Erasmus, one of humanisms main teachers, was writing much and Zwingli was eating it up!
Simply put, Humanism is the idea that truth can be arrived at through mere rational thought - extra revelation is not needed. If man just thinks enough, he can get to the truth of the matter. Early on, most humanists were Christian in name, teaching others that logic and rationalism would lead anyone to Christian beliefs. This is the kind of ethos that Zwingli was immersed in from an early age.
As a side note, rather than embracing Humanism, Luther actually wrote against it! He saw it for the evil it was, elevating man's reason to a place of equal or even superior value to God's revelation. Luther would write of Erasmus' work: "The Freedom of the Will." "...your Book is, in my estimation, so mean and vile, that I greatly feel for you for having defiled your most beautiful and ingenious language with such vile trash; and I feel an indignation against the matter also, that such unworthy stuff should be borne about in ornaments of eloquence so rare; which is as if rubbish, or dung, should he carried in vessels of gold and silver."2 Zwingli did not share these opinions.
Zwingli was also involved in politics and the military from the beginning of his ministry. In 1512 and 1515 he marched with the troops against Italy. Although he later decried the motivations behind these mercenary attacks, he never forsook his belief in the use of the sword.
By 1518 (age 34) he was appointed priest in Zurich, Switzerland. By this time, he had reached similar conclusions to Luther - especially in regard to the abuses of the church and papacy - and was beginning to teach such at the church. But it seems he was rather put out when anyone suggested he was a follower of Luther! He was his own man and he would have it known that he reached his own conclusions in his own way.
By 1520, Zwingli was making choices that clearly put him at odds with the Roman church. He opposed the sale of indulgences in Zurich. He renounced his papal pension, not a small source of his personal income. He urged the city not to send troops in support of papal wars. All in all, these were remarkable and brave things to do at the time.
He followed these actions with more! In 1522, he published his tract attacking the mercenary system. By 1524, the images had been removed from the church, the liturgical language had been changed, convents for both men and women had been emptied and the organ, in fact, all music, had been silenced in the church. (Zwingli was intent on getting rid of the organ. For a while other instruments were used, but being no fan of music he was content when all forms of instrumentation were abandoned. Many of his followers to this day are non-instrumental in worship. But for Zwingli - the big deal was the organ!)
Also in 1524, Zwingli married his long-time concubine. (Which again, points to something of the difference in character between Zwingli and other reformers.) They had 4 children together in the next 6 years.
In 1525, the mass was finally done away with and replaced with a very simple celebration of the Lord's Supper. A wooden table with bread and wine given to all - this was truly remarkable! The break with Rome was clear.
One has to recall though the interwoven relationship between church and state in this time period. Cities became known as either Catholic or Protestant. The church in the city was one or the other - there was no mixing. And so, when a city "went Protestant," political tensions were raised.
In Switzerland, it was an even split - 5 Catholic and 5 Protestant cities. But Zwingli knew that the Catholic Cantons would not long suffer this reformation. Remarkably, he proposed going to war against the Catholics! He could not convince Zurich to join with him, so he was left to wait for the Catholics to come to him.
And they did come.
In October 1531, the 5 Catholics city-states joined together and launched a surprise attack on Zurich. Zwingli was no coward and although they had been caught completely unprepared, he marched out with the first of the troops - and was killed in battle - aged 47.
Two Surprising Events
There are two interesting events in Zwingli's life that bear examination.
1. The Marburg Colloquy
In 1529, Philip of Hesse organized a meeting with the key leaders of the Reformation. Luther and Zwingli were both present and although they agreed on much, they differed quite strongly on the meaning and intent of the Lord's Supper. Interestingly, Zwingli had a much more acceptable view than Luther - seeing the Lord's supper primarily as a symbolic remembrance of the Lord's death and atoning sacrifice. Luther, of course, held on to his consubstantiation - a sort of laser-treated transubstantiation. Luther parted Zwingli with the words, "we are not of the same spirit."
It was only two years later that Zwingli died in battle, so one wonders what relationships would have developed over the years between them. Gonzalez notes that, "sometime later, when the break with Catholics was clearly irreversible, Melancthon (Luther's #2 man) reached an agreement with the reformers from Switzerland and Strasbourg."3
2. The Anabaptists.
As mentioned, Zwingli felt very comfortable in the realm of politics and the military. Thus, when some of his followers, notably Conrad Grebel and George Blaurock, took Zwingli's teaching on things like baptism and the separation of church and state as true... there was trouble.
To separate from the church would be to deny citizenship in the state - and that meant a loss of control. Although Zwingli longed for reform, in many ways it was reform of the meat of the matter, not the skeletal structure.
When Blaurock and Grebel were baptized, he unleashed a fury of persecution against them and their followers - including the drowning of Felix Manz.
Zwingli was not alone in this persecution. Calvin and Luther joined in. And the Catholics hated them too! It was not easy to be a Baptist in this time period. In fact, most scholars agree that more Anabaptists (as they were called) were martyred at this time than all the Christians put to death in the first three centuries of the church before Constantine.
So, what are we to make of Zwingli?
He certainly does not deserve a place with Luther and Calvin. He was not of the same ilk in understanding or action. In fact, many of his views would be counted as unorthodox today. He never seems to have left off the idea that human effort needed to combine with grace to save a man. Nor does he appear to have abandoned his humanism.
His trust in the sword and politics might have been his final undoing. We see nothing of the utter dependence on the Lord's sovereignty that marked so much of Luther's life. Nor is there anything from his pen of the stellar and profound quality of Calvin.
Still, he was used of God to shake many out of their unbelief. That his followers often practiced what he preached, is a testimony to the grace of the Lord in honoring His Word. We can learn from Zwingli, to be careful to ensure that all we think and do is framed by the Word of God - not tradition or expediency!
1 This made Zwingli two months the younger of Luther.
2 The Bondage of the Will, 14.
3 The Story of Christianity, Volume 2., Page 52.