Life & Soul Life and Soul

Heretic of the week: Ulrich Zwingli


Ulrich (or Huldrych) Zwingli (1484-1531) is considered to be, alongside Luther and Calvin, one of the three “Fathers of the Reformation”. Yet although we have Lutherans and Calvinists, few if any would describe themselves as “Zwinglian” today. The reason for that odd fact lies in Zwingli’s life and his manner of leaving it.

Zwingli was born to a large family of well-to-do Swiss farmers. His schooling was heavy on languages but light on theology, and he was ordained in 1506. For the next 10 years he was pastor at Glarus, a prime recruiting centre for mercenaries in the papal service; this divided the town into French, imperial and papal political factions, and Zwingli was very much on the papal side. But a decisive defeat of the papal army destroyed Zwingli’s political position in Glarus, and he was forced to move to the abbey of Einsiedeln. There he concluded that mercenary service was evil.

In late 1518 he was able to get a new position at Zürich’s Grossmünster through family connections. A year later, he began attacking the veneration of the saints and immorality among the clergy. Over the next few years, Zwingli assumed control of the Church in Zurich, progressively throwing out fasting and abstinence and Transubstantiation and by 1525 substituting a rite of his own. The Church’s feasts were abolished, and the city council happily seized the property of religious orders. In 1529, Zwingli went to Marburg to meet Luther and attempt to align the (then) two wings of the revolt. But they fell out violently over the Real Presence, with Luther holding to some form of it and Zwingli denying it completely. After the peace in Switzerland broke down in 1530, Zwingli was killed in action leading Protestant troops.

The reason why the “third man of the Reformation” had little further influence after his death may be attributed to the rise of Calvin. With Zwingli out of the way there was no one with the ability to oppose his relatively quick takeover of Swiss Protestantism.