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In previous installments of our 10 things you should know series we’ve been looking at the more important figures in the Protestant Reformation. Thus far we’ve examined the life and theology of both Martin Luther and John Calvin. Many are unfamiliar with the name of Zwingli, and yet he was a primary contributor to the emergence of reform in Switzerland. So, here are ten things you should know about his life and theology.

(1) Zwingli was born January 1, 1484, into a wealthy family (just seven weeks after Luther's birth), in Wildhaus, Toggenburg, in the eastern part of Switzerland. He began formal studies in Vienna (1500-02) and later studied at the University of Basel where he received his Bachelor of Arts (1504) and Master of Arts (1506) (Luther received his in 1502 and 1505 respectively).

(2) Zwingli was highly influenced by the Humanist tradition of Erasmus (a man with whom Luther engaged in a bitter theological fight). Erasmus was responsible for turning Zwingli to the study of the original text of Scripture. Zwingli's passion for the Word, apart from the medieval speculations of the scholastic tradition, is due in large measure to Erasmus' influence. Their friendship, however, was short-lived, as Zwingli's embrace of protestant theology turned him against the Catholic humanist.

(3) Zwingli celebrated his first Mass as a priest on Sept. 29, 1506. He became pastor in Glarus and remained there from 1506-16. Of this period he wrote: 

"Though I was young, ecclesiastical duties inspired in me more fear than joy, because I knew, and I remained convinced, that I would have to give account of the blood of the sheep which would perish as a consequence of my carelessness." 

(4) Although philosophically opposed to the military, he served as a chaplain when recruits from his congregation went to Italy in service of Popes Julius II and Leo X. It was while serving as a chaplain during the civil war at Cappel that he was killed in 1531. After being wounded, he was recognized by the Catholics and immediately killed. His body was quartered (the punishment for traitors) and then burned with dung so that nothing would be left of him to inspire other protestants.

(5) Zwingli served as pastor in Einsiedeln from 1516-1518 where he spoke out against the abuse of indulgences (Bernhardin Samson, a Franciscan monk from Milan, called the "Tetzel of Switzerland", first provoked Zwingli in August of 1518). Some have actually suggested that the reformation began there with Zwingli rather than in Wittenberg with Luther. Zwingli's conversion in 1519 was influenced both by his miraculous deliverance from the plague and by his reading of Luther's early works.  

(6) What sparked the reformation in Zurich? Some have pointed to the so-called "Affair of the Sausages." During Lent of 1522, Zwingli was at the home of Christoph Froschauer, a printer who was working on a new edition of the epistles of Paul. Froschauer decided to serve sausages to his weary and hungry workers. "This public breaking of the Lenten fast flouted both medieval piety and ecclesiastical and public authority. The Zurich town council arrested Froschauer, but not Zwingli, who himself had not eaten the meat" (Lindberg, 169). Later Zwingli preached a sermon entitled, "On the Choice and Freedom of Foods" (March 23, 1522), a message almost certainly influenced by Luther's pamphlet, "On the Freedom of the Christian Man." In it, Zwingli argued that Christians were free to fast or not to fast. Although seemingly innocuous enough in itself, the issue stirred public debate over the medieval catholic traditions and the authority of the church in relation to the freedom of the individual believer.

(7) Another factor that accelerated reform in Zurich was Zwingli's practice of expository preaching. He abandoned the Catholic church calendar and on January 1, 1519, began preaching verse-by-verse through Matthew's gospel. For the next several years he expounded the New Testament and awakened in the people an appreciation for the simple truths of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. In other words, by this practice the banner of sola scriptura displaced the authority of the RC church. 

(8) It soon became evident that the challenge to medieval Catholicism had to be publicly addressed. The council of Zurich convened several public disputations to address the matter, in preparation for which Zwingli published his 67 Articles or Conclusions. They resemble Luther's 95 theses but surpass the latter in terms of theological depth.

The first debate occurred on Jan. 29, 1523 (600 attended), the second on Oct. 26, 1523. The latter, which drew a crowd of 900, focused more on the worship of relics and the Mass. Zwingli's articulate defense of the Scriptures won the day. A third debate took place on Jan. 20, 1524 with similar results. The reformation in Zurich was completed in 1525 when the RC Mass was abolished. The movement was confirmed in Bern in 1528 and in Basel in 1529. 

(9) Zwingli apparently struggled early in life with sexual temptation. By his own admission he broke his vow of chastity on several occasions and often spoke of the shame that overshadowed his life. In fact, his appointment to the church in Zurich in 1519 was challenged based on rumors that he had seduced the daughter of an influential citizen. As it turned out, this “lady” had seduced many in Zurich, Zwingli among them. The charge of immorality was finally dropped when it was discovered that Zwingli's only rival for the post openly lived with several mistresses and had six illegitimate children! Zwingli himself lived with a widow, Anna Reinhart, and finally married her in 1524 shortly before the birth of their child.

(10) Zwingli was undoubtedly dependent on Luther for much of his early thinking. In 1540 Calvin wrote to Farel concerning Luther and Zwingli: "If they are compared with each other, you yourself know how greatly Luther excels." Zwingli tried to stress his independence from Luther:

"Why don't you call me a Paulinian since I am preaching like Saint Paul. . . . I do not want to be labeled a Lutheran by the Papists, as it is not Luther who taught me the doctrine of Christ, but the Word of God. If Luther preaches Christ, he does the same thing as I do. Therefore, I will not bear any name save that of my chief, Jesus Christ, whose soldier I am."


"I am not ready to bear the name of Luther, for I have received little from him. What I have read of his writings is generally founded in God's Word." 

Zwingli shared the views of Luther and Calvin on both the sole sufficiency and authority of Scripture and the sovereignty of God in salvation (divine election). In his book On Providence, Zwingli argued for God’s exhaustive providential control over all of life, both good and evil. He advocated the abolishment of all images and furnishings of medieval Catholicism, fearing that they served as obstacles to the simplicity of faith in Christ.