Who was Zwingli?

The Reformation was launched by men of humble birth. Luther was born in a miner’s cabin in Saxony and a few weeks later Zwingli, champion of the Swiss Reformation, was born in a herdsman’s cabin in the Alps. Commenting on this pattern, Ellen White writes  “The leading Reformers were men from humble life—men who were most free of any of their time from pride of rank and from the influence of bigotry and priestcraft. It is God’s plan to employ humble instruments to accomplish great results. Then the glory will not be given to men, but to Him who works through them to will and to do of His own good pleasure”

Zwingli was surrounded by godly influences while young and this coupled with the unspoiled beauty of the Alps firmly fixed in his mind a love and reverence for God. His father was ambitious that he should gain an education and at the age of 13, he was sent to Bern.

Filled with youthful vitality, Zwingli was intelligent, well spoken and a master of poetry and music, making him the perfect monastic recruit. The Dominican and Franciscan orders were fierce rivals and always on the lookout for means by which they could outdo the other. Zwingli’s talent and brilliance were looked upon as a rare commodity that could boost the popularity of the order that managed to snag him.

Zürich, Switzerland

Efforts were made for his enlistment but his father, being providentially warned of the situation, immediately called him back home. From there he went to Basel to complete his education and while at Basel, Zwingli was influenced by Wittenbach, one of his professors, who introduced him to the truth of righteousness by faith. This was to have a profound impact on his life and ministry.  

He was then called from Basel to the Chaplaincy of the parish of  Einsiedeln, not far from where he had been born.Though a contemporary of Luther, Zwingli was not influenced by his work. Commenting on this he wrote “If Luther preaches Christ, he does what I am doing. Those whom he has brought to Christ are more numerous than those whom I have led. But this matters not. I will bear no other name than that of Christ, whose soldier I am, and who alone is my Chief. Never has one single word been written by me to Luther, nor by Luther to me. And why? … That it might be shown how much the Spirit of God is in unison with itself, since both of us, without any collusion, teach the doctrine of Christ with such uniformity.”

A vacancy at the Cathedral Church of Zurich led to Zwingli’s removal from Einsiedeln to Zurich and here he spearheaded the work of reform in Switzerland at the turn of the 16th Century.  From the outset, it was Zwingli’s purpose to preach the gospel to everyone who came to hear him speak and this he did earnestly. He also spoke against the sale of indulgences in Switzerland, opposing Samson, the monk appointed to peddle them, as vehemently as Luther opposed Tetzel in Germany. Speaking of the impact that Zwingli made in Switzerland the historian Wylie says “towns and hamlets came out of the darkness and stood forth in the light. The great centers, Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen, St.Call abandoned Rome and embraced the gospel…from the gates of Geneva to the shores of Constance did the light spread”

Rome was infuriated and tried in vain to silence the reformer. When informed of their plottings Zwingli responded: “Let them come on; I fear them as the beetling cliff fears the waves that thunder at its feet.” When all their efforts at antagonism failed, Rome changed tactics and called for a disputation at Baden on the 16th of May 1526. The Council of Zurich advised Zwingli against attending, knowing that to do 

so was to invite certain death. Instead, they dispatched Oecolampadius and Haller to represent the reformers while Rome chose the “best swordsman she then had at her service”, Dr. Eck, to represents its interests. Letters were sent between  Zwingli and his disciples, via couriers who hid the letters under baskets of poultry on their heads, giving Zwingli an opportunity to remotely direct the proceedings. Oecolampadius was not one for open combat,  yet gentle though he was he stood unflinchingly for the right. Eck and his entourage appealed to the authority and customs of the church, while the reformers appealed to Scripture. “Custom,” Oecolampadius said, “has no force in our Switzerland, unless it be according to the constitution; now, in matters of faith, the Bible is our constitution.” The contrast between the modest Oecolampadius and the haughty Eck was unmistakable. After eighteen days of debate, Rome declared that the church was triumphant and the cause of the Reformation vanquished but history records the disputation at Baden as a catalyst to the spreading of Protestantism throughout Switzerland.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Wilkerson, B.G. (1944) – Truth Triumphant
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, the Reformation and the Rise of Nations –  Professor Andrew C. Fix (Lafayette College)