Zwingli and the Urban Reformation

By Mullett, Michael | History Review, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Zwingli and the Urban Reformation


Mullett, Michael, History Review


Huldrych Zwingli born, a few months after Martin Luther, on new year's day 1484 in the village of Wildhaus in the canton of St Gallen in German-speaking eastern Switzerland. His father was a prosperous farmer and local notable. Like Luther and Calvin, Zwingle came from a family of upwardly mobile people of middling rank in society, keen on education. His uncle was a local priest and he himself was groomed for a priestly career. His education at the universities of Basel and Vienna took in the `new' learning of Christian humanism -- the study of ancient classical texts, focussing on the `Fathers' (the early theologians of the Church), and on the Bible, read in its original languages of Greek (the New Testament) and Hebrew (the Old Testament). His affiliation with Christian humanism drew young Zwingli towards the acknowledged leader of this movement, Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), whom he met in 1515 or 1516.

Zwingli was ordained priest in 1506, taking up the benefice of Glarus, whence he moved in 1516 to become priest in residence at the popular pilgrimage centre of Einsiedeln, where his light duties allowed him to deepen his Christian humanist studies, concentrating on the Fathers and continuing to study Greek. His next career move came in 1519 when he became Leutpriester, or town preacher, at the Great Church in Zurich, the leading city of the Swiss Confederation. Here,in this preaching appointment, Zwingli found the opportunity to popularise the biblical viewpoints that he had been developing during his years of Christian humanist study.

When Zwingli came to it, Zurich was a thriving commercial city with a population be between five and seven thousand and a rural hinterland of about 50,000 inhabitants. The self-governing city has a republican constitution based on two ruling councils, a structure designed to ensure that power was rotated. The government exercised considerable control over religion in the city and its countryside. When he took up his appointment in the city, the Reformation in neighbouring Germany was about to reach a further decisive stage, with Luther's intellectual divorce from Catholicism made clearer than ever at the Leipzig debates of 1519. What was the religious orientation of Zwingli's preaching at that time and to what extent was he a follower of Luther?

Zwingli's ideas

The first point to make about Zwingli's preaching is that it was based on Scripture, aligning him in that respect with Luther. He preached his way through the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of the New Testament. He broke with the traditional Catholic custom of following prescribed readings for each day and went through the Scriptures in an orderly sequence, one section after another. Zwingli was essentially a populariser of the Scriptures, carrying out the programme announced by Erasmus of taking the Bible to the common people in their own language -- in this case, the Swiss German of the Zurich area. He delivered his sermons probably extempore, simply and without rhetorical flourish, and was proud of his popular success.

Was Zwingli a Lutheran, either when he took up his post in Zurich or at any point thereafter? The evidence is conflicting. Certainly from 1518 onwards Zwingli acclaimed Luther as `a new Elias', a `David' of a `Hercules' and helped to import Luther's writings into Switzerland. Yet Zwingli was also anxious to establish a clear dividing line between himself and Luther, and when he wrote that `Luther propelled me to an eagerness' he was emphasising the German reformer's catalytic rather than initiating effect on his own rapidly maturing evangelical theology. By 1522 Zwingli was expressing his independence from Luther even more vehemently: `I do not want to be called a Lutheran, for I did not learn the teachings of Christ from Luther, but from the word of God'. As far as Zwingli was concerned, he and Luther had come to similar conclusions based on the same source, the Bible, so that both his and Luther's ideas were, as he wrote in 1523, `found in the word of God and based upon it'. …

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