Zwingli’s First Mate
Anna Zwingli began life as Anna Reinhard of Zurich. Her father was a middle-class landowner which meant that she grew up in a comfortable but ordinary home. Her pedestrian lifestyle didn’t last forever though because somewhere between her 19th and 20th birthday she managed to attract a significant amount of excitement.
Anna caught the eye of the dashing and impossibly wealthy John von Knonau. The von Knonau family were the oldest and most prominent family in Zurich and John’s father had high hopes for his son. He sent him away to receive a flashy private school education and arranged for him to marry a high-born Austrian heiress.
John was happy to take the flashy private school but not so excited about the Austrian heiress. He had fallen in love with the decidedly less pedigreed but doubly more enchanting Anna Reinhard and no amount of Austrian aristocracy or wealth could derail his plans to marry her.
Anna and John were secretly married in 1504 and had to briefly contemplate living on love, fresh air, and sunshine when John’s father disowned him and cut off his inheritance. Without his trust fund, John and Anna were left to fend for themselves. John got a job as a town councilman and Anna produced three children, one of whom died in infancy.
As it turned out a town councilman didn’t earn quite enough to support a family of five and John decided to try a more lucrative career in the military. Pope Julius II had declared war on Louis XII of France and there was good money in fighting for the Pope. At the end of the war, John came home to Anna and the children, exhausted and broken in health. He died shortly after leaving Anna not only devastated
but desperate as well. One thing Anna Reinhard had to learn very early on in life was to grieve and to do it with such strength of character so as not to allow it to completely engulf her and reduce her to ash.
In 1518 Ulrich Zwingli sailed into town bursting with new-fangled ideas he had recently mined from the Bible. He had been transferred to Zurich soon after reading a copy of Erasmus’ translation of the New Testament and it radically altered his perspective of truth; what it was, where it came from, who monopolized it.
Anna and the children lived near the Cathedral and every week the von Knonau widow and her children would sit in the church listening to Pastor Zwingli preach his radical discourses straight from the Bible. It electrified the entire congregation and Anna was no exception.
Zwingli for his part began to notice Anna mostly because he noticed Anna’s son Gerold. Gerold was a little whizz kid and Zwingli took the boy under his wing, tutoring him in Latin and Greek and finally packing him off to boarding school in Basel at his own expense. Anna was grateful that someone was looking out for her boy and Zwingli was happy to step into the gap that John von Knonau’s death had created in the family.
Eventually, Zwingli came to realize that he had fallen in love with Anna which in and of itself wasn’t a bad thing except for the fact that he was still, technically a Catholic priest who had taken a vow of celibacy. However, by this time Zwingli had read enough of the Bible to know that celibacy was not a divine requirement but he was also afraid of making waves that would result in any unwanted backlash.
And so it was in 1524 Anna Reinhard took part in her second secret wedding ceremony. Zwingli was the first reformer to marry and Anna became the first, first lady of the Reformation.
Anna Zwingli took on her role as the first lady of the Swiss Reformation with grace and panache. She opened the door of her home wide to a flood of parishioners, guests and Protestant refugees from all over Europe. She also doubled as her husbands personal Secret Service detail and was acutely aware of the slightest hint of danger. Her hypervigilance paid off and she was able to deter several assassination attempts on his life.
Anna drew the little parish around their home in a tight and protective circle, nurturing the weakest and most vulnerable among them and championing social justice in her care for the poor and sick. In every respect, she was the perfect helpmate to her busy and prominent husband.
In 1531 Anna again experienced the bitter penetrating ache of grief when both Gerold and her beloved Zwingli died in battle. This time the grief was crippling though not incapacitating. She limped forward with the help of Zwingli’s disciple Bullinger and his wife, who took her into their home as a mother and cared for her and her remaining children.
In her poem “Watches of the Night” Kristyn Getty writes “I have cried upon the steps that seemed too steep for me to climb and I’ve prayed against a burden I did not want to be mine. But here I am and this is where you’re calling me to fight, and you I will remember through the watches of the night”. In many ways, these words capture the essence of Anna Zwingli’s story.
A story that highlights the enduring faith and strength of a woman who faced terrible trials throughout her life and yet was able to rise from the ashes of her sorrow to continue her journey upwards, not once but several times over. May God grant us the strength to rise as she did, not once, but as many times as is needed.
- VanDoodewaard, R. (2017) – Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures who shaped Christianity’s rebirth.
Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.