Ulrich Zwingli: Who Was He?
Many Protestants studying church history have heard of Ulrich Zwingli, but who was he and what did he do? Zwingli is considered one of the major reformers. He was born in 1484 in Switzerland and, like Martin Luther and John Calvin, was a pastor. But his story is distinctly different. John Calvin died in peaceable circumstances and Martin Luther succumbed to a stroke. Ulrich Zwingli, however, died a martyr.
If there was a less-than-favorable result of the Protestant Reformation it was that every reformer had slightly different views on important Christian issues. Instead of building on similarities instead of differences, reformers and their followers often struck out on their own, resulting in the Anabaptist, Lutheran, and Calvinist schools of thought, as well as others. Against the powerful might of the 16th century Catholic Church, they might have done better to band together. This proves that even men with good intentions are indeed still men, humans who nurse prejudices and make uninformed decisions. Yet they desired pure Christianity, and their hearts were in the right place.
So what did Zwingli believe and how might his views be classified? Like other newborn Protestant groups, he took only Scripture as his authority. His major differences occur in his opinion of how baptism and Communion should be celebrated. There were two of most volatile differences between various Protestant churches and the Catholic Church in the 16th century. Like John Calvin, Zwingli declared that nothing “supernatural” took place during Communion and that it was merely a symbol of Christ’s presence at the Last Supper and of His ultimate sacrifice.
He disavowed the necessity of special services, believing that man’s one-on-one with God was enough, yet he also advocated strongly for church services that were based only on Scripture. Zwingli attempted to enforce morality, backed by the council of Zurich, and he established the Court of Morals. His personal beliefs and sentiments were outlined in the “67 Articles” of 1523.
So, what shaped Zwingli the man as opposed to Zwingli the reformer? There were a few defining moments in his life that may have served to make him the person he became. He grew up with eight brothers and sisters, a fact which although it may not have shaped his future life and theology, must have been challenging! In 1506 he became a Catholic priest. His ascent to Protestantism was slow and certainly unexpected in the first few years of his life. As a reward for helping to defend Roman principles against France and other dreaded opponents, he received a pension from the pope. His defense of Protestant principles would come far in the future. Seeing the exhortations of reformers such as Martin Luther, he would eventually be driven to do the same.
In 1519, at age thirty-five, Zurich, Zwingli’s current home, was ravaged by the plague. Such diseases were sudden and terrible in the 16th century. The sheer randomness of death for most and recovery for a few was beyond frightening, yet, a firm Christian, Zwingli seemingly showed little fear for his own impending doom. No one but God knows why and how the reformer recovered when his friends were dropping like flies.
Ulrich Zwingli’s family life was complicated. In 1522, after a controversy that involved widow Anna Reinhard, he took Anna as his wife. He became the father of four children. The 1520s and 1530s were full of conflict as he fought restrictions and refused to completely agree with any of his Protestant contemporaries. If you compare his doctrine with other doctrines popularized in the 16th century, you might come to the conclusion that Ulrich Zwingli was a cross between Martin Luther and John Calvin . . . like Calvin, as said, he believed that Communion was symbolic, but unlike Calvin, he did not subscribe to theories such as election and predestination. Likewise, he admired Luther but often found himself ill-at-odds with him.
Time went on. Zwingli and the Lutherans refused an alliance. Neither one could tolerate the Anabaptists, while the Catholics saw all three groups as heretics and rebels. Entire Swiss cities and states took up arms against each other. This resulted in the First Kappel War. In October 1531 Ulrich Zwingli was wounded in battle. Injured and unable to speak, he bore the mistreatment of his enemies. One does not desire to picture what hardships must have been placed upon his shoulders. They demanded that he confess and recant. He refused with all the spur-of-the-moment courage to which Protestants of the 16th century had become so accustomed. “Die, then, stiff-necked heretic,” said his executioner, and the words were turned into deeds.
The world still marks his passing.
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