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     Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli

Ulrich (Huldrych) Zwingli

1. Ulrich Zwingli, chief of the Reformers of German-speaking Switzerland, was born on January 1, 1484 in Waldhaus. In 1506 Zwingli was appointed parish priest in the town of Glarus where he remained for the next ten years. During this time he attained proficiency in Greek, began study of Hebrew, and absorbed the writings of Erasmus; he diligently studied the classics, the Bible (from 1516, in Erasmus' edition of the Greek New Testament), and the church fathers; he became an influential preacher and a respected member of a small group of learned northern humanists; and he opposed the employment of Swiss mercenaries, except by the pope, from whom he received a pension in 1513. He accompanied the young men of his parish as chaplain in several Italian campaigns. Zwingli's opposition to foreign military service and his reputation as a preacher and scholar led to his election, in December 1518, by the chapter of the Great Minster church in Zurich as stipendiary priest, an office on which he entered on New Year's Day, 1519. He began at once the verse-by-verse exposition of entire books of the Bible, commencing with Matthew's Gospel, without any recourse to the traditional (Scholastic) interpretation In September 1519, he was brought near to death by the bubonic plague, an experience which promoted serious self-examination and awakened an intense sense of divine mission.

2. Though Zwingli had long been moving in a reformist direction, it was in 1522 that his vigorous reforming work began. It is interesting to note that the question of reform grew not out of a concern for personal assurance of salvation, as with Luther, but out of the conviction that only the Bible, evangelically interpreted, was binding on Christians. In March of that year, certain of the citizens broke with the Lenten fast, citing Zwingli's assertion of the sole authority of Scripture in justification. Zwingli now preached and published in their defense. The bishop of Constance, in whose diocese Zurich lay, sent a commission to repress the innovation. The cantonal civil government ruled that the New Testament imposed no fasts, but that they should be observed for the sake of good order. The importance of this compromise decision was that the civil authorities practically rejected the jurisdiction of the bishop and took full control of the Zurich churches into their own hands.

3. Zwingli believed that the ultimate ecclesiastical authority is the Christian community (Gemiende), the local assembly of believers under the sole lordship of Christ and of the divinely inspired Scriptures that bear witness to redemption through him. This authority is exercised on the community's behalf through the duly constituted organs of civil government acting in accordance with the Scriptures. Only that which the Bible commands, or for which distinct authorization can be found in its pages, is binding or allowable. Hence, Zwingli's attitude toward the ceremonies and order of the older worship was much more radical than Luther's. The situation in Zurich was one in which the cantonal government gradually introduced the changes which Zwingli, as a trusted interpreter of Scripture and a natural popular leader, persuaded that government to sanction, not least on the grounds of its authority would be increased by allowing the proposed changes to religious policy. The city council, accordingly, ordered a public disputation, in January 1523, in which the Bible should be the exclusive reference. For this debate, Zwingli prepared sixty-seven brief articles, asserting that the Gospel derives no authority from the church and that salvation is by faith alone, and denying the sacrificial character of the Mass, the salvatory character of good works, the value of saintly intercessors, the binding character of monastic vows, and the existence of purgatory. He also declared Christ to be the sole head of the church, and he advocated clerical marriage. In the resulting debate, attended by over six hundred persons, the council declared Zwingli the victor over his Romanist opponents, affirming that he had not been convicted of heresy and was no innovator, judged by the spiritual standard. They directed Zwingli to continue his preaching and that all others should preach only what could be supported by the Gospels and Holy Scripture. It was a resounding personal triumph for Zwingli and it effectively secured the Reformation in Zurich, though much had yet to take place.

Sources utilized in these pages may include:
  • Everett Ferguson's: Backgrounds of Early Christianity
  • Walker's: History of Christianity (out of print)

    (These links will take you to book detail pages at

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