Ulrich Zwingli

"For God's sake, do not put yourself at odds with the Word of God. For truly it will persist as surely as the Rhine follows its course. One can perhaps dam it up for awhile, but it is impossible to stop it."

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) was a contemporary of Martin Luther and a leader in the Swiss Reformation movement. Luther tacked his 95 theses on the door of the Castle church in 1517; six years later Zwingli, influenced by Luther’s Reformation movement, proposed his own changes to the church in 67 theses. His first thesis read: "All who say that the gospel is invalid without the confirmation of the church err and slander God."

Early Years

Ulrich Zwingli was born to a successful farmer and his wife in 1484 in Wildhaus, Switzerland, five years after the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition. He graduated from the University of Basel in 1506 with a Master of Arts degree and became a parish priest in Glarus, conducting his priestly duties with great sincerity and reverence. Reflecting on his time as a young priest, he wrote: "Though I was young, ecclesiastical duties inspired in me more fear than joy, because I knew, and remain convinced that I would give an account of the blood of the sheep which would perish as a consequence of my carelessness."


Responsibility for his people led to a deeper interest in the Bible. After purchasing a copy of Erasmus's New Testament Latin translation, he began teaching himself Greek and memorizing long passages in the Bible. He preached his first sermon on January 1, 1519. Rather than teaching a gospel lesson, as was the practice, he began preaching through the book of Matthew every week, and continued book by book. This practice helped form his theology.

In his first year of ministry, the plague broke out and 1 in 4 people died. While many fled the city, Zwingli remained to care for the people. He became ill, but survived and wrote his Plague Song (Pestlied), pledging to follow truth, whatever the cost. This verse reveals his strong commitment to Christ:

Thy purpose fulfil: nothing can be too severe for me. I am thy vessel, for you to make whole or break to pieces. Since, if you take hence my spirit from this earth, you do it so that it will not grow evil, and will not mar the pious lives of others.

Zwingli committed to preaching truth from the Bible, but he knew challenging long-held doctrines and taking a stand against the powerful Roman empire, not just a church structure but a political one as well, could be very dangerous. Like Luther, and others before him, he could be charged with heresy which carried a sentence of death. Responsibility to his flock and complete dependence on the Bible left him no choice but to preach truth from the Bible and question long-held doctrines based on tradition rather than the Bible.

Questioning Doctrine

Zwingli’s sermons questioned Catholic doctrines and attacked moral corruption in the church.  He accused monks of laziness and living well off the church. He rejected veneration (great reverence) for the saints, questioned hellfire, the power of excommunication, and stipulated that unbaptized children were not eternally lost. He challenged tithing and the practice of indulgences which impacted the economic interests of the church. These attacks on the doctrines of the church came from his deep study of Scripture.

Knowing he survived while others died, along with the influence of the German Reformation, spurred Zwingli to actively and publicly challenge the teachings of the church. He agreed with Luther that one was declared righteous by grace alone through faith, and not through good works. This meant the only guide for a Christian was the Bible, not rules invented by a church system.  

Sausage Affair

The Catholic Church prohibited eating meat on Fridays -- especially during Lent, a religious observance beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending Easter Sunday. The Bible did not prohibit the eating of meat or mandate fasting periods -- Christians had the freedom to fast or not during Lent. In 1522, Zwingli was present at the eating of sausages at the home of a local printer. Since eating meat during Lent was forbidden by the church, a public outcry arose and the printer was charged with heresy. Zwingli defended him and later preached publicly in favor of eating sausages during Lent.

If you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice. If you are a person of leisure, you should fast often and abstain from food that excites you; the worker moderates his desires by hoeing and ploughing in the field … If you would be a Christian at heart, act in this way. If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbour the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded.

Not everyone welcomed an attack on the deeply entrenched traditions of the Catholic church. The Bishop of Konstanz called for a prohibition of any preaching of Reformation doctrine in Switzerland. It was too late. Zwingli’s preaching was popular and reform was welcomed by the people.

Reform in Zurich

The Sausage Affair opened the door to more reforms in Zurich. At the Zurich City Council in January 1523, and again that October, Zwingli brought his propositions before the Council of Zurich. He was a popular citizen of Zurich and had many strong allies. Unlike Luther, who believed the Gospel was the only tool for change, Zwingli believed political force, even war, could bring about change. Through much debate, preaching, and political pressure, reforms were carried out, though gradually.

Zwingli stressed the Bible was to have preeminence, and images of Jesus, Mary, and the saints should be removed from the churches. The Mass (Christ’s body becoming literal blood and flesh) would be replaced with Holy Communion as a symbolic remembrance.

Zwingli believed clergy had the right to marry. He knew the biblical model is Christ and his bride, the church. He admitted having an affair as a young priest and was secretly married in 1522. To illustrate his point, Zwingli wedded his wife in a public ceremony in 1524, three months before the first of his four children were born.

These reforms, like forbidding organ music in church services and removing the artifacts and images from the churches, cemented Zwingli’s break from the Catholic church. But, it wasn’t a complete break. He did not relinquish all teachings and traditions of the Catholic church in his doctrine, like infant baptism.


Infant baptism was standard practice in all of Europe, after Constantine, with the idea being one was baptized into Christian society. Infant baptism cannot be found anywhere in the New Testament, but it was mandated by church and state. Pastors were imprisoned for preaching against infant baptism. The Anabaptist or re-baptizer movement began when men baptized as infants were re-baptized as a profession of their faith in Christ. They went from house to house teaching, baptizing, and performing communion. “The Anabaptists were a threat to the medieval order that unified the church and state” Rescuing the Gospel, E.W. Lutzer).

The Anabaptists were not embraced by the reformers or by Zwingli. They were seen as radicals. Both the Protestants and the Catholics, along with the Zurich City Council, decreed in 1526 that anyone baptized in full immersion should be put to death! Zwingli’s good friend and mentee, Felix Manz, was drowned as a re-baptizer while Zwingli stood on the shore and watched. Zwingli’s unwillingness to break with all of the doctrines of the Catholic Church made reconciliation between the reforms in Switzerland and Germany extremely difficult.

Uniting the Reformation

As reform spread, the idea that Catholics would go to war to retrieve Lutheran lands was a major concern. Philip of Hesse, a leading champion of the Protestant Reformation and one of the most important of the early Protestant rulers in Germany, attempted to unite the German and Swiss movement by bringing the leaders of the two movements together.

In 1529, Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther met in Marburg to discuss uniting the Swiss and German Reform movements. Called the Marburg Colloquy, the goal was to “politically unite all Protestants in an effort to stand together as a united federation against Roman Catholic rule” (lutheranreformation.org). Luther drew up a confession of faith: The 15 Marburg Articles. He and Zwingli agreed on 14 points of doctrine but disagreed about the Lord’s Supper.

Zwingli insisted the sacrament was symbolic, but Luther insisted on the actual presence of Christ in the sacrament, based on Christ’s omnipotence. Each presented their side, but eventually civil discussion broke down, tempers flared, and words became heated. At one point Luther said, “Zwingli was of the devil and that he was nothing but a wormy nut.”  Zwingli resented Luther's treating him "like an ass." Luther insisted that Jesus’ words: “This IS my body” did not mean signify or represent. After ten longs days of heated rhetoric, each hoping to convince the other their position was the correct one, they could not agree. The opportunity to combine the two movements was lost.

Zwingli and the Swiss, extended the hand of friendship to the Lutherans, to acknowledge them as Christian brothers, but Luther knew if they showed unity with the Swiss they could never reconcile with the Catholics. He declined. Luther did not really believe the Swiss were brothers in Christ. Zwingli believed it was permissible to fight when attacked by the Catholics, but Luther believed Christians should only fight on their knees, in prayer. Luther thought the Swiss were too radical, and they were wrong about critical matters, like the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli returned home to increasing tensions between the Catholics and the Lutherans.

Death in Battle

On October 11, 1531, Zwingli was killed on the battlefield of Kappel, Switzerland, while serving as a chaplain in a conflict between Protestant and Catholic forces. When economic sanctions were enacted on the Catholics, 8000 Catholic soldiers advanced on Zurich. Zwingli went out to battle armed with a sword and helmet. With only 1500 men to fight, the Swiss were quickly routed, and Zwingli was captured. He was executed, his body quartered, and his ashes scattered to the wind. The Swiss maintained their gains, but the Lutherans had to leave Catholic lands, and the movement ceased to spread.

There is a statue of Ulrich Zwingli in front of the Water Church in Zurich. He is commemorated as the leader of the great reform movement in Zurich, Switzerland. Like Luther, he challenged the powerful Catholic church risking his life to bring major reform to the church. He died defending his beliefs.