On 11 October 1531, the radical Protestant reformer, Huldreich Zwingli, was killed while attending the wounded and dying in battle. Edward A Gosselin summarizes his life.
Huldreich Zwingli was born in 1484 in the eastern Swiss village of Wildhaus to a family of Alpine shepherds. Zwingli remained proud of his peasant origins throughout his life, and, from a young age, maintained an ardent patriotism and fondness for his fellow Swiss which only increased with his humanist education. In 1500, aged sixteen, Zwingli began his classical studies in Vienna where his circle of friends included other future reformers, some of whom would later become his opponents.
Zwingli returned to Switzerland in 1502 to the University of Basel where he continued his humanist studies. Here he also embarked on a serious study of the Bible under the tutelage of Thomas Wyttenbach of Biel. Wyttenbach impressed Zwingli with his criticisms of scholarly ‘trifling’, Church abuses and the papal doctrine of indulgences. Zwingli attributed to Wyttenbach his interest in becoming a village pastor in the town of Glarus, south-east of Zurich. He continued his humanist studies, and began to learn Greek so that he might better understand the New Testament and to study the Greek Fathers in addition to the Latin Church Fathers.
Zwingli and Erasmus
Zwingli also began to seriously study Erasmus whom he later met in Basel after Erasmus’ Greek New Testament had been published. But as Zwingli deepened his understanding of the New Testament, he lost his enthusiasm for Erasmus because he considered himself to be a man of his people, and he thought Erasmus to be too ‘aristocratic’ and detached from any one place. He felt it important to work directly with his people for their spiritual welfare.
During Zwingli’s tenure at Glarus, he travelled to Italy as chaplain to mercenary troops from his district who fought against the French in the service of Pope Julius II. His experiences as chaplain in the battlefields, including a terrible defeat of the Swiss at Marignano in 1515, crystallized his opposition to the use of mercenaries in war and the evils of war itself.
Zwingli moved to the monastery at Einsiedeln, in 1516, where he continued to garner some notice from the Roman Curia which had granted him a pension for his service in Italy. He began to loudly protest the sale of indulgences in his region, and preached that people should trust only in Christ for salvation.
The ‘People’s Priest’
At the age of thirty-five, Zwingli was offered an opportunity to serve as what was known as the ‘people’s priest’ in Grossmünster in Zurich. He used this powerful position to preach on the life of Christ, directly from the Bible, without interpretation or ‘man-made commentary’. He expressed sympathy for the poor and questioned the morals and motives of political leaders and the upper class. Church attendance increased because of his simple, dynamic, inspiring sermons. It was during this tenure that Zwingli was able to successfully manoeuvre a ban on the use of mercenaries in war to its implementation by the Zurich councils. Zwingli enjoyed support and popularity among the people in his county, but more importantly, among the majority of the priests without whom the Reform could not have happened.
By 1523, Zwingli was facing challenges from separatists within his ranks who had their own interpretations of Scripture and these challenges caused him to reconsider his earlier views on the complete freedom of religion. The Anabaptist movement grew out of these separatist groups, and because Zwingli believed them to be a threat to the civil institutions upon which he and his brethren depended, he came to support their persecution.
Zwingli and Luther
Zwingli had radicalized his new congregation in Zurich by jettisoning all ceremonials, statues and music except for the singing of Psalms which he preferred because of their Old Testament origin and in this way remained distinct from Catholicism’s embrace of the New Testament and the musical liturgy it inspired. Zwingli and Martin Luther accepted the idea that Scripture should be dominant in the formation of Church doctrine, but they were unable to find theological agreement on the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. Hopes that the Lutheran and Zwinglian churches could be united failed as a result of this Colloquy. Scripture was apparently not as clear as both of them had asserted it was. Luther refused to shake Zwingli’s hand at the Colloquy’s end, and they felt that neither would ever receive the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
In 1531, the Catholic cantons (governmental counties) of Switzerland attacked Zurich’s canton and its allies. Though an Erasmian pacifist, Zwingli joined Zurich’s small and hastily raised army as a chaplain at the Battle of Kappel (11 October 1531). Zwingli’s patriotism outweighed his pacifism. Many Zurichers fled the field of battle, while others, gravely wounded, lay dying. Zwingli remained, wounded himself, kneeling over and comforting them, and was eventually found by enemy forces. When identified, he was slain. His last words were reputedly those of Socrates: ‘They may kill the body, but not the soul.’ Zurich’s enemies quartered his body and burnt it to ashes.