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Ulrich Zwingli Biography

Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli Believed the Bible is the True Authority

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Ulrich Zwingli Swiss church reformer

Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Swiss theologian and church reformer.

Photo: Henry Guttman / Getty Images

Ulrich Zwingli seldom gets the credit he deserves in the Protestant Reformation, but he was a contemporary of Martin Luther and fought for change even before Luther did.

Zwingli, who was a Roman Catholic priest in the Swiss city-state of Zurich, opposed the sale of indulgences, Catholic pardons that were supposed to free a person's soul from purgatory. In Catholic theology, purgatory is a preliminary state where souls go to be cleansed before entering heaven. Both Zwingli and Luther saw many abuses in the practice, in which Catholic officials sold indulgence documents to raise money for the church.

Years before Luther attacked indulgences in his 95 Theses, Zwingli condemned the doctrine in Switzerland. Zwingli also blasted the use of Swiss mercenaries to serve in church wars, which made the Catholic church richer but killed many young men.

Some believe Zwingli had a sort of awakening when he was struck with the plague in 1520. Nearly a third of Zurich's population died, yet Zwingli somehow survived. After he recovered, Zwingli fought for a simple theology: If it can't be found in the Bible, don't believe it and don't do it.

Ulrich Zwingli Disagrees With Luther

As Luther was leading reform in Germany in the 1500s, Zwingli was at the front in Switzerland, which was made up of small city-states called cantons.

Religious reform in Switzerland at that time was decided by local magistrates, after they heard debates between the reformer and representatives of the Catholic church. The magistrates were partial to reform.

Ulrich Zwingli, city chaplain of Zurich, opposed clerical celibacy and fasting during Lent. His followers scandalously ate sausages in public to break the fast! In 1523, statues and paintings of Jesus Christ, Mary and saints were removed from local churches. The Bible was given priority over church law.

The next year, 1524, Zwingli publicly married widow Anna Reinhard, who had three children. Zwingli said he had married her in 1522 but kept it secret to avoid backlash; others said they had only been living together. The couple eventually had four children together. In 1525, Zurich continued reforms, abolishing the mass and replacing it with a simpler service.

To try to unify Switzerland and Germany under one religious system, Philip of Hesse convinced Zwingli and Luther to meet in Marburg in 1529, in what came to be called the Marburg Colloquy. Unfortunately, the two reformers were at direct odds over what happened during the Lord's Supper.

Luther believed Christ's words, "This is my body" meant Jesus was actually present during the sacrament of communion. Zwingli said the phrase meant "This signifies my body", so that the bread and wine were only symbolic. They had agreed on many other doctrines during the conference, from the Trinity to justification by faith to the number of sacraments, but they could not come together on communion. Luther reportedly refused to shake Zwingli's hand at the end of the meetings.

Ulrich Zwingli Discovers the Bible

Ulrich Zwingli grew up in an age in which copies of the Bible were rare. Born in 1484 in Wildhaus, he was the son of a successful farmer. He attended universities in Vienna, Berne, and Basel, receiving his B.A. degree in 1504 and his M.A. in 1506.

He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1506 and became enamored with the works of the Dutch humanist and priest Erasmus of Rotterdam. Zwingli obtained a copy of Erasmus' Latin translation of the New Testament and began studying it diligently. By 1519 Zwingli was preaching on it on a regular basis.

Zwingli believed that many of the medieval doctrines of the Catholic Church had no basis in Scripture. He also saw that in practice there was much abuse and corruption. Switzerland in Zwingli's day was receptive to reform, and he felt theology and the church should conform to the Bible as closely as possible.

His changes were well-received in a climate where several countries were trying to get out from under the still-powerful political control of the Catholic church.

This political unrest led to alliances which pitted the Catholic cantons of Switzerland against its Protestant cantons. In 1531, the Catholic cantons attacked Protestant Zurich, which was overwhelmed and defeated at the Battle of Kappel.

Ulrich Zwingli had joined the Zurich troops as chaplain. After the battle, his body was found quartered, burned, and defiled with dung.

But Zwingli's reforms did not die with him. His work was carried on and expanded by his protege Heinrich Bullinger and the great Geneva reformer John Calvin.

(Sources: ReformationTours.com, ChristianityToday.com, HistoryLearningSite.co.uk, Christianity.com, and NewWorldEncyclopedia.org)

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