Ulrich (or Huldrych) Zwingli was the founder of reformed Protestantism in Switzerland. Along with Martin Luther and John Calvin, Zwingli was a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation. The ministry of Ulrich Zwingli is an amazing parallel to that of Martin Luther, who was born just two months before Zwingli.
Ulrich Zwingli was born on January 1, 1484, in Wildhaus, a small village forty miles from Zurich, Switzerland. His father was able to provide Ulrich with an excellent education that included bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Basel.
Like Luther, Zwingli was ordained to the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. He bought a pastorate (a common practice prior to the Reformation) at Glarus, his boyhood church. There he busied himself with preaching, teaching, and pastoring. But his love was also for private study of Greek, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the ancient classics. He began reading the humanist writings of Desiderius Erasmus and was impressed with his scholarship and piety. This led to a correspondence with Erasmus that was to greatly influence Zwingli.
At about the time that Luther in Germany published his Ninety-five Theses, Zwingli, who had never heard of Luther, began to preach a gospel-based message similar to that of Luther.
Zwingli began attacking some of the abuses of the Catholic Church of Switzerland, especially the sale of indulgences. Like Luther, Zwingli at first sought to reform the church from within. In December 1518, Zwingli was installed as “people’s priest” at the Great Cathedral in Zurich. There he broke tradition by departing from the church’s schedule for sermons; instead, Zwingli began to preach through whole books of the New Testament, based on his own study of Greek.
In 1522, some of Zwingli’s parishioners ate meat during Lent, and Zwingli supported them. To Zwingli, eating meat was a matter of Christian liberty, no matter what restrictions the church had placed on it (see Romans 14:1–4). About that same time, Zwingli published Sixty-seven Theses, in which he rejected many key Catholic doctrines. In 1524, the city of Zurich removed all religious images from its churches. That same year, Zwingli married, further separating himself from Catholic rules.
By 1525, the Protestant Reformation took firm root in Switzerland. On April 14, 1525, Zurich leaders officially abolished the Mass, and the Bible was read and preached in the language of the people. Zwingli saw to it that the communion service was open to congregation and clergy alike. Venerating Mary, selling indulgences, and praying for the dead were no longer practiced.
Luther and Zwingli finally met each other at the Marburg Colloquy in October 1529. They and the other Reformers present agreed in principle on fourteen of the fifteen issues at hand. The one topic that Luther and Zwingli differed on was communion. Both men rejected the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation, the belief that the elements change into the actual body and blood of Christ when blessed by the priest during Mass. Luther held to consubstantiation, the belief that Christ is mystically present in the elements of communion. Zwingli’s position, that the Lord’s Supper is mainly a symbolic memorial of Christ’s death, was more biblical.
In 1529, Ulrich Zwingli and his colleague Leo Juda finished work on the first edition of the Zürich Bible, also called the Zwingli Bible or the Froschauer Bible, after the name of the publisher, Christof Froschauer. The Zürich Bible was the world’s first Bible in the language of Swiss German.
In 1531 Catholics attacked the city of Zurich, and the Protestants went to battle against them. Ulrich Zwingli joined Zurich’s army as a field chaplain. He was severely wounded on the battlefield, and when enemy soldiers found him, they killed him and proceeded to cut up his body, burn the pieces, and mix his ashes with dung.
Zwingli’s influence in the Reformation cannot be overstated. He stands as one of the greats of the movement that began in Europe and remains today. Protestants throughout the world owe a great deal to Ulrich Zwingli.