1484 -- 1531
The most accomplished musician of the Reformation era, he trashed
the grand organ in Zurich's cathedral when he discovered that the music there was nothing
more than "high-brow" entertainment devoid of gospel-significance. Superbly
educated in Renaissance humanism (including the glories of fine art), he directed the
demolition of priceless icons as soon as he saw that they were superstitiously venerated
as magic. Sickened at the slaughter of Swiss youth in foreign wars, he helped mobilize
military forces in defense of his native land and perished in battle himself.
Zwingli was born on New Year's Day, 1484, seven weeks after
Luther. University studies at Berne and Basel equipped him with the "new
learning" then capturing younger scholars throughout Europe. When Erasmus, a gifted
linguist, sifted and sorted and finally assembled several manuscript-fragments to form a
usable Greek testament (without which there would have been no Reformation), Zwingli
hand-copied Erasmus's entire Greek text and memorized all of Paul's epistles.
Luther had come to gospel-conviction when tormented by his
conscience: "How can an unrighteous sinner get right with the all-holy God?"
Zwingli, on the other hand, came to the core of scripture when distressed not at himself
but at the plight of his people, defenceless as they were on all life's fronts. Ordained
to the priesthood in 1506, he was sent as assistant to a church in the province of
where he continued his humanist studies and produced his first book, a biblical critique
of the social distresses prevalent in Switzerland.
The year 1513 found him accompanying Swiss soldiers-for-hire to
Italy. Sickened at the carnage of Switzerland's most able-bodied, and appalled at the
greed, coarseness and cruelty fostered in young men who pillaged civilians remorselessly,
Zwingli determined that the iniquitous practice of mercenaries would end. He remained
undeterred despite opponents who protested that the mountainous regions of Switzerland had
to export soldiers in order to acquire the money needed to purchase grain and avert
Now Zingli's preaching took on a decided
Luther's influence seeped into him. Soon his bishop transferred him to Zurich, the city
where he would remain for the rest of his life and to which his name would be fixed as
surely as Luther's was to Wittenberg and Calvin's to Geneva. As there grew in Zwingli the
conviction that scripture is the normative witness to Jesus Christ and the primary source
of Christian understanding and discipleship, he put aside the mediaeval practice of
delivering snippet-sermons from a few prescribed texts (the lectionary) and instead
preached straight through the New Testament -- in the course of seven years!
His preaching bore much fruit. One aspect of it was the
gospel-freedom that led several parishioners to reject Rome's prohibition of meat during
Lent. These people embodied their convictions by eating sausages immediately prior to
Easter. Zwingli's bishop, formerly a supporter, now denounced him. Zwingli in turn
petitioned a nation-wide church conference to authorize unimpeded preaching of the gospel
together with all the implications of the gospel -- chief among which now wasn't
sausages but clergy marriages. When the conference dawdled over the last point Zwingli
sought to move it along by reminding delegates of what they could expect if the clergy
weren't allowed to marry: another 1500 children born to "celibate"
priests in one year in one province of Switzerland! (Frustrated at the conference's
slowness, Zwingli secretly married Anna Reinhart, a widow with three children.
Subsequently Anna and Ulrich had another four. They were publicly "married"
several years later.) The city council, long nurtured by the ferment of reform
effervescing everywhere in Europe, officially declared Zurich to be Protestant. In yet
another of his political victories at this time the city council decreed that none of its
citizens could be mercenaries under any flag.
A huge controversy exploded over the nature of Christ's presence
in the Lord's Supper. Summoned to the castle in Marburg (1529) Luther and Zwingli squared
off in a formidable debate that settled nothing. Luther foamed, "Before I drink mere
wine with the Swiss I shall drink blood with the pope." Little did he know that
Zwingli never advocated "mere wine". Luther feared having the living
person of Jesus Christ disappear from the Lord's Supper. Zwingli feared the superstition
of suggesting that Christ's people bite their Lord and chew on him during the communion
service. Luther accused Zwingli of an empty celebration. Zwingli accused Luther of
cannibalism. They simply talked past each other. In addition, Luther failed utterly to
appreciate the ecclesial dimension of Zwingli's eucharistic understanding: the Lord's
Supper bespeaks not only the presence and power of Jesus Christ but also the transformed
fellowship of believers, a fellowship characterized by love, mutual concern and service.
When Emperor Charles V, supported by Austrian troops, threatened
Protestant Switzerland, Zwingli rescinded his condemnation of war and insisted that the
citizens of Zurich be protected. He helped organize the defensive forces, even
accompanying them into the conflict. Wounded terribly at the battle of Capel, an enemy
soldier recognized him as Zurich's leader and leapt to impale him with a sword-thrust.
The 47-year old had spent his life on behalf of the people he
loved, much more involved politically than the other Reformers. No aspect of the city's
communal life had escaped him. He worked as tirelessly to procure foodstuffs as he did to
have divorces granted on the grounds of wife-beating, desertion, mental cruelty and sheer
His love for his people shone most brightly when plague overtook
the city and he spent himself self-forgetfully on behalf of the sick and the dying, only
to be plague-infested himself. When he had survived the pestilence he wrote his
"plague-hymn", with its first stanza,
Help me, O Lord,
My strength and rock;
Lo, at the door
I hear death's knock.
When death knocked at his door in 1531 his memorable watchword
was still on his lips: "Not to fear is the armour!"
Victor A. Shepherd