October 9: Huldrych Zwingli [1484-1531]

Our post today comes from guest author, Rev. David W. Hall, excerpted from chapter 2 of his book, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding. (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003). That Zwingli was a key figure in the Protestant Reformation is undeniable, and so it seems appropriate to include this account of him here today on the anniversary of his death.

Zwingli: Patriot Reformer of German Speaking Switzerland
by Rev. David W. Hall

William Farel was the pioneer of the Reformation in Geneva, but closer to Germany another fiery minister preceded him by a few years. Huldrych Zwingli (b. 1484), a Swiss reformer immediately prior to Calvin, also recognized that resistance was legitimate if a civil ruler ordered the squelching of true religion (as in Acts 4-5). However, he qualified that such resistance should only occur with the support of the large majority and without murder or war.  Nonetheless, by the Peasants’ War (1525), Protestant extremists scandalized the movement with their sectarian rebellion against the King of Germany. The Peasants’ War slowed the momentum of Protestant support for resistance, and itself was an instance of experience shaping a theology of the state.

Just prior to Calvin’s surge, Zwingli, a contemporary of Luther, began his work in Zurich. Zwingli studied at universities in Basle, Bern, and Vienna. In 1506, he was selected to be the parish priest in confederated Glarus. Whether he was “an out-and-out democrat”  or not, it is certainly the case that he tried to reform all of society from the church outward. He served as a chaplain in the fateful 1515 Battle at Marignano, a turning point for the Swiss psyche, and later accompanied Protestant troops in skirmishes against Catholics, dying a courageous death in a 1531 battle. Despite his unfortunate demise, later American clergymen could draw on his example and would accompany Colonial militias into battle against the British.

Zwingli first served as a pastor in idyllic Einsiedeln (still the home of one of the most ornate monasteries in the world) for two years (1516-1518), prior to beginning his thundering ministry at Zurich’s Grossmunster church on January 1, 1519, making him one of the earliest declared Protestants in the world. Throughout his tenure, Zwingli labored for a political practice that conformed both religion and politics to the precepts of the Bible.  Although he never held civil office, he frequently advised local magistrates and served on numerous commissions to resolve diplomatic or political matters. However, not all Swiss citizens agreed with him. While his colleague Vadianus convinced St. Gallen of the Protestant cause, and while Bern, Basle, and Zurich created a Protestant alliance, interestingly the Forest states (the three original mountain cantons) preserved their allegiance to Catholicism.  An armed conflict between the two alliances was only narrowly averted by the Peace of Cappel, which legitimized the local choice of religion for each Swiss canton from that time on.

Some historians have suggested that Zwingli changed his views over his life. Recent studies, however, have defended the consistency of his thought over time. Robert Walton vindicates Zwingli from the onerous charge of theocrat as it is used in modern times. Certainly, Zwingli expected cooperation between the two distinct jurisdictions of church and state. That cooperation, much like the practice of colonial America, however, is different from assigning the care of both church and state to the same officers. Rather than confusing the terminology, the more helpful way to understand the Swiss Reformer’s position is to ask, as Robert Walton does: What place did Zwingli assign to the magistrate and to the clergy in order to realize the rule of God?  Instead of attempting to combine the spheres of government, Zwingli simply submitted, as Calvin would later, both sacred and secular jurisdictions to transcendental norms.

Certainly Zwingli and Calvin desired the rule of God over government. That is altogether different, though, from confusing the rule of God with the acts of certain politicians. A separation of legitimate jurisdictions (though not an immunization of the state from religion) is as apparent in these Swiss Reformers as it is in Colonial American pastors a century later. They did not endeavor to submit the city government to the church and its officers. If anything, Zwingli sought to deprive the clergy of the secular authority and wealth it had gained since the end of the eleventh century, because he believed that these secular concerns had diverted the clergy from its God-given function, the preaching of the Gospel.  The clergy’s role was to give God’s counsel, lest the city governors lacked the best wisdom. Earlier attempts to castigate Zwingli as a theocrat, who was bent on the clergy ruling political measures dictatorially, stand corrected in view of recent scholarship.

Zwingli hoped to renew the church from within, and subsequently to have the church reform society. Of the inherent overflow of spirituality into ethics, Zwingli claimed, “Christianity has always served the public justice most powerfully.” In later correspondence, Zwingli would contrast the effect of the spread of biblical truths with those of secular reason, boasting of Zurich as the leading Christian municipality in adapting its laws and political officials to the Christian faith. Zurich’s ethical overflow was noted as follows: “each desires to anticipate the other with kindness, to oblige with gentleness, to share the labor of the other, to lighten his burden, for each cares for all as brothers; blasphemy is abominated, piety is esteemed and is increased among all.”  These Swiss Reformers believed that a view of life which included God’s standards would result in humanitarian action by private citizens. The chief calling of the clergy was not to rule the city council but to reform the conscience.

Accordingly, Zwingli distinguished between the inward thrust of the ministry of the church and the outer containment by the secular magistrate. In so doing, Zwingli circumscribed the domain of the civil officer. While he might supportively protect external matters of the church (e. g., church attendance, performance of duty by the ministers, the offering of the sacraments, the architecture of the building), secular officials “could not force one to believe, for the realm of faith, Christ’s kingdom, had nothing to do with the world. The true church obviously did not depend upon the Zurich government, nor was it confined to the limits of the canton; it was universal.”  Thus, he explained, “if your rulers wish to be Christian, they must allow the clear word of God to be preached and afterward let it work.” Importantly, he also distinguished various jurisdictions, noting that “the authority which the government has over our temporal goods and bodies cannot extend over the soul.”

Several of his Sixty-Seven Articles (1523) directly addressed the role of the civil governor. In these articles, he rejected the notion that ministers should command civil matters, maintained that the good governor could promote measures that comported with biblical practices, and encouraged rulers to support “an externally pious Christian city.”

Prior to Zwingli’s arrival at Zurich, the city was governed by a Small Council of 26 and a Great Council of 212, similar to the form eventually adopted in Geneva.  The Zurich councils were involved in many areas of life, and Christian magistrates were to seek the common good. The magistrates were to maintain the faith, and keep it from reverting to Catholic patterns. As early as 1450, Zurich’s counterpart, Basle, stated its purpose similarly: “Above all, the government of each city is to be established for this: to increase and to consolidate the honor of God and to repulse all evil and especially gross sin and misdeed, according to the regulation of the Holy Christian World.”  With similar words, most Swiss cantons that embraced Protestantism should not be tarred and feathered with the theocrat slur, merely for the customary support of religion, especially if the church was to be protected during its reformation.

Zwingli’s preaching was magnetic, exhibited a strong patriotism, and addressed major problems besetting the entire Swiss Confederacy.  With up to a third of the city attending his preaching, his popularity discouraged civil officers from opposing his ideas. Such moral suasion would prove more lasting, for Zwingli and Calvin, than any theocratic imposition. Like Calvin, his ideas would have international impact.

The effect of his preaching is seen in altered treatment of the poor as Reformation ideas began to be implemented in the city. The Zurich city council refused to give assistance to beggars, pimps, drunkards, and adulterers. Moreover, insisting on the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor, failure to attend church and other immoral behavior disqualified a poor person from receiving financial assistance.  However, this was, rightly or wrongly, by order of the magistrate, not by pulpit decree. Zwingli would continue to preach guidance for the city council, but that was different from the pulpit directly wielding the civil sword. Of the moral impact of this Reformation preaching, Zwingli’s successor Bullinger wrote, “Before the preaching of the gospel, Zurich was in Switzerland what Corinth was in Greece.”

As an outworking of the Christian faith, Zwingli also called for the end of mercenary excursions, a longstanding tradition associated with the highly skilled native military. Even though the termination of mercenary service might leave the Swiss vulnerable to the French, as well as introduce negative economic impact (higher unemployment and less income in some cantons), Zwingli led his city to lessen its warring ways—a quite radical step for the time. In his 1522 Godly Admonition to the Oldest Confederates at Schwyz, the Zurich reformer desired to persuade the citizens of Schwyz to abandon mercenary tactics and replace those with the ethics of Christ. In that tract, Zwingli hinted that the early Swiss confederates had a unique covenantal relationship with God, much like OT Israel. Sounding like later Puritan American preachers, he indicated that recent defeats such as Marignano  were providential indicators of God’s curse. In the process, he rebuked greed, bribery, violence, sloth, and wrongful war. Robert Walton summarizes Zwingli’s tenets: “The cantons of the Confederacy stand in a covenant relationship with God; they are the Israel of the present. Political stability and national freedom depend upon the proper obedience to the Lord.”  In a May 1522 response that foreshadowed the historic Swiss neutrality, the canton of Schwyz agreed to avoid foreign alliances for the next quarter century. However, supporters of the mercenary system reversed that agreement in August.  In any event, at this early stage it is evident that Zwingli sought social change by preaching and writing, not primarily by political coercion.

On January 29, 1523, Switzerland, and much of the West through her, entered a new age, thanks to Zwingli’s leadership. In a day when elections were rarities, over 600 people gathered to hear a dispute between Zwingli and a Catholic debater. This meeting (the first of many) introduced a virtually new style of decision making: citizens would have free assembly and free speech, and then they would freely choose which course to pursue. What began as a referendum on religion, i. e., whether to be a Protestant or a Catholic establishment, paved the way for many future civic choices.  Once begun, there was no turning back and the West has a fiery preacher to thank in part.

Robert Walton has correctly observed a delicate balance of power in Zwingli’s thought. He writes: “The division of power between the magistrate and the pastor was based upon his doctrine of divine and human righteousness. The magistrate exercised all secular power and had the right to direct the external affairs of the church. The Christian magistrate . . . made possible the preaching of the Gospel by the pastor. The knowledge of the Gospel that the pastor proclaimed prevented the ruler from becoming a tyrant . . .”  Walton has clarified that the Swiss reformers were not strictly theocrats, but believed in each God-ordained sphere of government performing its own duty—and not usurping the jurisdiction of the other.

Zwingli died in the second battle of Cappel on this day, October 9, in 1531, only 47 years old. He was initially injured while attending a wounded soldier, later pummeled by stones, and finally stabbed with a spear. Upon learning that the flamboyant patriot was wounded, the opposing forces rallied to kill him, only after he was given an opportunity to recant of his Protestantism, which he refused with these words: “They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.”  The same battle took the lives of 500 Zurichers, several pastors, and 10% of Zurich’s ruling Great Council of 200.

Four centuries after his birth, Zwingli’s influence was honored with a bronze statue prominently displayed at the foot of the Wasserkirche in Zurich. The statue, designed by a Roman Catholic sculptor,  commemorated Zwingli with Bible in one hand and a sword in the other. As late as a century ago, a full century after the American Revolution, Zwingli was still revered by his countrymen as a force for education, democracy, and courage. His bold opposition to tyranny was a lasting icon for both American and Swiss patriots, until the rise of an age that thought itself too enlightened to be associated with a brave clergyman who changed the West. In the spring of 1999, the statue was removed from its prominent position, long a tourist site, under a program of “cleansing.” In the process, vestiges of the historical impact of Protestant Christianity on a nation, a continent, and a hemisphere were eradicated.

Walton notes that although Zwingli pursued goals informed by the Bible, he did not seek them by theocratic measures. Both minister and magistrate were to do their own jobs, and the clergy were not to “interfere with the Christian magistrate’s performance of the duties that God had assigned him.”  He is also correct that Zwingli only initiated certain trends. The growth of his ideas, however, was stunted both by military conflict and by counter-reactions. It would remain for William Farel and Calvin to revive reform measures in the French speaking part of the Confederacy a decade later.

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