October 11 – Ulrich Zwingli
These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.
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Ulrich Zwingli, reformer of the Church
His father was a respected farmer in Wildhaus, St. Gallen. Two brothers became priests and two sisters nuns. Little is known of his early years but he studied in Basel (1494), Bern (1496-98); Vienna (1498-1502). He gained his MA in 1506. Widely read in the Fathers and current humanism, he was deeply attracted by Erasmus and his scholarship. Ordained in 1506, he became parish priest in Glarus till 1516, taking time out in 1513 and 1515 to be a military chaplain. That experience left him strongly opposed to mercenary service. His next position was at the Benedictine Abbey at Einsiedeln, where he did further study of Greek, using Erasmus’ New Testament and further consolidated his reputation as a fine preacher.
That led in 1518 to an invitation to be people’s priest in the Old Minster in Zurich. Beginning on New Year’s Day, 1519, he undertook to preach through biblical books, instead of confining himself to the readings of the lectionary. At this stage, he had no commitment to reform, but a near-death experience from plague in 1519 altered his priorities, both in his personal life and in his ministry. In 1522, he began to live with Anna Reinhart, a widow, while at the same time criticising abuses in the Zurich churches and community.
His critique of fasting led to disregard of these rules.
The Bishop of Constance was concerned at this breach. Disputations on the matter in January and November, 1523 aroused intense interest and led to the civic authorities removing the Minster from the bishop’s jurisdiction and supporting some of Zwingli’s suggestions for change.
Images, pictures and organs were removed, the Mass was simplified and Zwingli established a combined school and seminary. Religious houses were sold and the proceeds used to set up a welfare fund. A marriage tribunal took over the role of the bishop’s court. Zwingli married his de facto wife in April, 1524.
By 1525, sharp differences were emerging about reform. Some clergy believed that Zwingli was too cautious. They set up fellowships outside parish structures and began re-baptising adults who confessed their faith. Zwingli rejected their views on pure churches and underlined the partnership of Council and Church. Some dissenters were exiled. Others were drowned as a punishment. Such were beginnings of the radical reformation.
Zwingli believed that reforming centres should form political alliances. A conference was held in Marburg in 1529 to this end. Much agreement was achieved, but Luther and Zwingli disagreed about the real presence in the Mass. Zwingli sent a version of his beliefs to the meeting in Augsburg in 1530, hoping that a coalition could be created against the Habsburgs. That was not successful. It was not even possible to achieve a union of Swiss cantons. Attempts to preach reform in the Forest cantons led to civil war and Zwingli’s death at the second Battle of Kappel in November, 1531. Catholicism was allowed back into Zurich.
Zwingli did not establish an international reform movement, but his teaching on God’s sovereignty and covenant, the sacraments and church-state relations brought Word and Spirit together in a vital partnership, which was influential in parts of Germany and the British Isles.
G.W. Locher, Zwingli’s Thought, 1981; W.P. Stephens, Theology of Huldrych Zwingli, 1986
by Rev Dr Ian Breward