Huldrych Zwingli Biography

Biography (History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: Zwingli led the Swiss Reformation against Roman Catholic ecclesiastical abuses, sharing both the rhetoric and the theology of Germany’s own reformer, Martin Luther, until the two disagreed over the nature of the Eucharist. Overshadowed in church history by both Luther and John Calvin, Zwingli’s most lasting contribution to Church history is his incipient Reformed theology and his recognition of the role that secular government might play in ecclesiastical matters.

Early Life

Huldrych Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, Swiss Confederation, to wealthy, devout parents. Zwingli’s father served as a village magistrate and sought early to train his son in the ways of his Catholic faith—a Catholic faith invigorated by the new Humanism, which recognized and bestowed upon mankind more human responsibility and involvement in divine affairs. His father earnestly desired that Zwingli be educated as a priest and sent the boy at age ten to a Latin school in Basel, where he excelled in grammar, music, and dialectics. In 1498, Zwingli entered college study at Berne, where he came under the tutelage of Heinrich Wölflin, an influential Humanist scholar, who planted the initial seeds of intellectual independence in Zwingli. At Berne, Zwingli, now called Ulrich, distinguished himself as a musician and singer and was urged by the Dominican Order in Berne to join their choir and study music further. Zwingli initially accepted their invitation but abruptly withdrew. He chose instead to continue his theological education and entered in 1500 the University of Vienna, where he spent two years studying Scholastic philosophy, astronomy, and physics.

In 1502, Zwingli returned to the University of Basel, where he continued his classical studies while teaching Latin in the school of Saint Martin. He completed his bachelor’s degree in 1504 and his master of arts degree in 1506 and became known officially as “Master Ulrich.” At Basel, he became friends with Leo Jud, who would later become a chief associate in the reformation efforts in Zurich. Both studied under the famous Thomas Wyttenbach, professor of theology at Basel, whom Zwingli credits with opening his eyes to evils and abuses of the contemporary Church, especially its trafficking in indulgences—the sale of divine favors, such as forgiveness of or license to sin, or immediate entrance into heaven upon death.

Zwingli was ordained in the priesthood by the Bishop of Constance in 1506 and appointed pastor of Glarus, the capital city of the canton of the same name. Zwingli spent ten years in Glarus, occupied by preaching and pastoral duties as well as continuing to advance his knowledge of biblical languages, Greek and Roman philosophy, and the church fathers. Unlike Martin Luther, Zwingli did not in this fallow period seek a doctor of divinity degree, content with work in local pastorates and aiming at no higher church office. In the spring of 1515, Zwingli met the great Humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus, whose writings he had been studying, and was deeply impressed by both his learning and his moderate theological views on inherited sin and his emerging symbolic reinterpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Both Wyttenbach and Erasmus had helped remove the theological naïveté from Zwingli, infusing the spirit of Humanism into his own understanding and response to traditional Catholic teaching and a spirit of skepticism in his relationship with the Church hierarchy.

During this time, Zwingli also served as chaplain to the Glarus mercenaries who served the pope—devout men who he believed were being exploited by an illegitimate foreign power. This experience fueled his Swiss patriotism and compelled him to oppose publicly the mercenary system itself so vociferously that he was forced out of his pastorate in 1516. He subsequently moved to Einsiedeln, where he served as parish priest for three years, continuing his inquiry into the Greek New Testament and the church fathers. There Zwingli crystallized his views on salvation by faith, memorizing the New Testament letters of the apostle Paul and meshing his patriotic fervor with Erasmus’ radical pacifism to take both a theological and a political stance against Rome. In his preaching, Zwingli began to oppose the use of relics in worship and pilgrimages to holy shrines as acts of devotion, regarding them as needless and idolatrous concessions to a religion that had left its eternal moorings.

Life’s Work

Zwingli thus emerged from his early adult life as a clergyman emancipated from blind trust in the wisdom and infallibility of the Church hierarchy and its magisterium—the accumulated body of interpretation of Scripture used as an authority in disputes over the meaning of the Bible. In his slow but inexorable independence from established Christendom, he began to place great value upon his classical learning and great emphasis upon the need for individuals to exercise their faith in God directly—without the help of intermediaries such as relics and images, priests and departed saints. This intellectual ferment prepared him for the greatest task of his life: the reformation of Swiss Catholicism.

In the biographies of all the activists within the Protestant Reformation, the most important aspects of their lives rest as much on their intellectual efforts as on their dramatic deeds. This is the case with Zwingli, although his willingness to engage in armed warfare on behalf of his faith distinguishes him from some of his fellows. Nevertheless, Zwingli is most prominent for his contribution to the theological ferment of his times as well as to the realignments and associations forged in his native land of Switzerland and his adopted city, Zurich. As Luther had Wittenberg and Calvin Geneva, so Zwingli had Zurich, a city in which his great ideals would find incarnation not only in its cathedrals but also in its government structures. His beliefs eventually led him into local and canton politics, as he sought to move the secular city and the City of God into a more symbiotic, merciful status with each other.

In 1518, Zwingli was nominated for the position of people’s priest at the Great Minister Church in Zurich, a prestigious and powerful pastorate. His candidacy was at first opposed in view of Zwingli’s admittedly broken vow of celibacy; a friend intervened, however, and Zwingli assumed his new post on January 1, 1519. His early sermons were practical and ethical rather than doctrinal and divisive. From an unassuming beginning, Zwingli’s pulpit became famous and extremely popular in Zurich; his down-to-earth expositions of biblical texts—as opposed to the dense, allegorical sermons common to the time—opened up the Scriptures to his flock and made Christianity seem present and vital rather than otherworldly and detached. This fresh emphasis on the Bible as an authoritative document that could speak directly to the hearts of people became the scaffolding for the Reformation everywhere, including Switzerland.

As Luther’s reform movement began to shake the Church in Germany, Zwingli could not help but take notice. The war over indulgences that Luther had valiantly won in the German church became only a minor skirmish in Zurich, as the Roman church moved quickly to rectify abuses in Switzerland in an effort to stall the wholesale revolution it feared. Zwingli would engage the war on a different front: the authority of the Bible against the authority of the papal hierarchy. Zwingli’s active involvement in the reform movement may well be located in August, 1519, when a plague broke out in Zurich and swept away one-third of the population and nearly took Zwingli’s life. His experience in ministry to the sick and bereaved brought him renewed faith in God and emboldened him to speak out about the responsibility of the Church to offer grace, not law, to its members. Zwingli suggested that this would be accomplished by restoring Scripture to its rightful place in the authority of the Church and by dismantling the elaborate liturgy of the Mass, replacing it with a more homely and accessible kind of personal worship that would focus on God, not man.

Zwingli also began to see the civil government as an ally in his reform effort. Actively campaigning in the city council, Zwingli persuaded its members to take action against nonbiblically centered preaching in Zurich. In December, 1520, the council ordered...

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