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What’s a Zwingli? Zwingli’s not a “what” but a “who”, a man who was instrumental in the Protestant Reformation, a man largely forgotten by the church in the twenty-first century, a man we would do well to remember as we approach October 31st, the day traditionally acknowledged as “Reformation Day” (not Halloween!).


Huldrich Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, Toggenburg, in the eastern part of Switzerland, on January 1, 1484, just seven weeks after the birth of the much more famous Protestant reformer, Martin Luther. His family was quite wealthy and thus able to provide him with a good education. 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).


Zwingli was highly influenced by the Humanist tradition of Erasmus (a man with whom Luther engaged in a bitter theological fight over the freedom of the will). It was Erasmus who influenced Zwingli to focus on the original text of Scripture apart from the medieval speculations of the scholastic tradition. Their friendship, however, was short-lived, as Zwingli's embrace of protestant theology turned him against the Catholic humanist.


Zwingli celebrated his first Mass as a priest on September 29, 1506. He became pastor in Glarus and remained there from 1506-16. Zwingli had a keen awareness of his responsibilities as a pastor and cared passionately for the people entrusted to his care. 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."


It was during Zwingli’s pastoral ministry in Einsiedeln (1516-1518) that he was initially provoked by Catholic abuses, in particular (and like Luther), the sale of indulgences. A Franciscan monk from Milan, Bernhardin Samson, often called the "Tetzel of Switzerland", stirred Zwingli to action in August of 1518 (Johann Tetzel was the Catholic whose brazen sale of indulgences prompted Luther to post his famous 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenburg). 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.


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 defiance of the Lenten fast was both an affront to medieval Catholic piety as well as a violation of ecclesiastical and public authority. The Zurich town council arrested Froschauer, but not Zwingli, who himself had not eaten the meat.


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.


Another factor that accelerated reform in Zurich was Zwingli's practice of expository preaching. He abandoned the Roman 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 Roman Catholic Church.


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 Roman Catholic Mass was abolished. The movement was confirmed in Bern in 1528 and in Basel in 1529.


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.


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. Later he engaged in fighting Catholic forces at the battle of Cappel 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.


In the next installment, we’ll look briefly at Zwingli’s theology and, in particular, his tragic dispute with Martin Luther.