European Reformers.


Ulrich Zwingli (1487-1531)

It was Ulrich Zwingli  who was mainly responsible for the introduction of a stern almost Puritan type of Protestant theology into Switzerland. Zwingli`s early work was later developed by Calvin, in much the same way as Philip Melancthon formulated Martin Luther`s ideas of a more elaborate and ceremonial form of Protestantism.

Born of peasant stock in the valley of the Tockenburg the young Ulrich had early contact with the Bible through his grandmother who regularly read it to him. As he grew up he became more and more enthused with the Scriptures and convinced of  the cardinal rule that the Bible alone was the truth. He also developed an intense dislike of war and especially the way the Swiss at that time were a principal supplier of mercenaries to fight the battles of others in Italy and Spain.  As a patriot, Zwingli had been chaplain  to Swiss mercenaries at the battles of Novara (1513) and Marignano (1515).Deeply influenced by the Humanist Erasmus whom he met in 1515, he was sickened and angered  by the sight of thousands of widows and orphans left destitute; or whose bread winner was incapable of work, because of wounds and limbs that had been cut off.  In this respect he was an early advocate of neutrality.

Zwingli  began to reflect on evangelical beliefs and the abuses in the Church  and became minister at the Great Minster, Zurich. Working with the council he preached the New Testament and began to reform the people. Zwingli was soon under attack from the papists with the usual allegations of heresy. His appointment to the cathedral of Zurich placed him on centre stage for Protestantism where, using his acknowledged eloquence, he brought light into the peoples lives. The response was great and gratifying with other Swiss towns taking up the Reformed creed - Bern (1528) Basle (1529), St Gall (1528), and  Schaffhausen  (1529).

Zwingli `s position was not exactly helped by the arrival in Zurich of Thomas Munzer, allegedly an Anabaptist who recruited two Swiss disciples - Conrad Grebel and Felix Manx. They came to Zwingli seeking assistance to create a new church - an `heaven on earth` . Zwingli rejected them and their twisted creed. Eventually, as their excesses got stranger, the magistrates ordered a debate on 15 January 1525, which Zwingli easily won. Tougher measures ensued against the Anabaptists ( who were not the true followers of re-baptism) . Zwingli strongly counselled restraint and to allow settlement by peaceful means and the word of God to overcome them. But the excesses took on the form of sedition and overturn of government which could not be tolerated, and led to the execution of Felix Manx by drowning. Zwingli had no part in these proceedings.

He continued to be assailed by the legions of Rome  and twice overcame the bishop of Constance in debates. Finally  In 1526,he was challenged to debate with Dr Eck, Vice Chancellor of Ingoldstadt - a man of  undoubted learning and renowned for his volubility. He was also a vain and a greedy man, who was well paid for his services. Bullinger said of him " he loved the wages of unrighteousness."  The papists tried to set the debate in their own backyard at Baden where the intention was to seize Zwingli and proceed with charges of heresy. But Zwingli  and the Council of Zurich saw the dangers and declined.

On the appointed day representatives from the twelve Cantons attended along with the bishops in all their richness and splendour. The Protestant clergy of basle who took on the debate, were assisted by John Oecolampadius from Basle and Heller from Bern who were not yet committed to the Reformation. In a crude attempt at censorship, official  note takers were appointed by the papists and prohibition placed on any other records being made. However, students arranged a system of note taking by an accomplished young man, Jerome Walsch, who listened attentively and wrote notes afterwards. They also organised messengers to take the information to Zwingli in Zurich, who in turn overnight, wrote comments and advice which was relayed back for the next day`s debate. Eck knew he was beaten but not unexpectedly the papist adjudicators ruled that the Zwinglian heresy had been crushed. But the conduct and behaviour of the papists had lasting effect on the representatives from Bern and Basle whose cities soon became Reformed.

In Bern there were already doubts about papacy, and being the strongest of the Swiss Confederacy, in November 1527 they proposed a debate on the theme "Unhappy Helvetia". The papists supporters again ranted and raved and sought  deferral of the debate. The Emperor himself, Charles V, sent word of his opposition to it and that they ought to await a General Council to decide ( in his and the Pope`s favour). None of the leading debaters, such as Eck or the Catholic bishops, appeared for the debate.  But over 350 priests, pastors , scholars and councillors from Switzerland and Germany assembled in the Church of the Cordeliers on 6 January 1528. Ten propositions, a statement of the Protestant faith, were put down for discussion which continued until the 27th January. It was a resounding success for the Reformers not least because the debate was based on the Scriptures and not papist dogma. Subsequently the Bern magistrates declared for the Reformation in a decree issued on 7 February 1528 which included ( as in Zurich) a prohibition on foreign military service.

In Basle there was serious confrontations between the two camps, each crying they were prepared to die for their beliefs. Several times the city Senate sought to pacify the sometimes bloody meetings but were undecided which they supported. The night of 8th February  1529 was a tense one as the Senate deliberated the demands of the reformers, Regrettably a group of citizens feared the intrusion of Austrian troops and panicked. This led to the breaking into the Cathedral and the breaking up of many images and statues they found. The iconoclasts rampaged through the city destroying as they went, but their action did cause the Senate to decide to join the Reformation and ceded all demands. An edict followed on Friday 12 February 1529.

  Having failed to stop Zwingli the papists eventually resorted to their customary last gasp method of the sword. Increasingly concerned at Zwingli`s success, the five Forest Cantons of Switzerland leagued with Austria in a treaty of 23 April 1529. The Austrians promised 6000 troops with 400 horse and artillery. In the cantons Reformers were attacked and a leading minister Pastor Keyser was burnt at the stake. The Forest Cantons then decided to take their cleansing rage into the other regions precipitating civil war. The response from Zwingli was a plan to form a union of the Reformed cantons and cities which came into being at the end of 1529. Meanwhile Zurich declared war and sent some 4000 picked soldiers to do battle but after a fortnight of negotiations a peace was patched up. A period of relative peace ensued with several discussions of Zwingli`s proposal for a union of Reformed countries, not just the cantons of Switzerland.

 In October 1531 the Forest Cantons sent and army of 8000 against the Reformed states, seizing the passes through the Alps so that Zurich was not alerted. A further 12,000 papists troops spread through the other cantons inflicting terror and death. Zurich belatedly sent two councillors to investigate what was happening and too late sent a vanguard of 600 men to Kappel to await support. Further delay meant that a total of about 700 were forced into battle. Overwhelming force and a tactical blunder that allowed the papists to attack through the forests was the end of a brave defence. Zwingli himself was injured by a flying stone and when recovered he was recognised by two camp followers and killed by an officer named Bockinger from Unterwalden. So ended Zwingli on the 11 October 1531.

 In his work he was ably assisted by John Oecolampadius (1482-1531) a retiring individual, but a brilliant linguist in Greek and Hebrew, for which he was greatly valued and respected by the likes of Erasmus. Latterly the leadership role was taken by Johann Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1576). In forming his creed he reached deadlock with Luther over the eucharist and subsequently lost the support of the German princes. He was the first of the Reformers to believe  that Christ was spiritually present  at the eucharist and that the secular ruler  had a right to act in church matters. These beliefs set him apart from other Reformers, but did not diminish the Protestant cause.

John Calvin.

Martin Luther.


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