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Radical reformer, inspired by Luther

Ulrich Zwingli, painting by Hans Asper, 1531 (Photo: epd-bild/ akg-images)

Ulrich (properly ‘Hyldrych’) Zwingli was born in Wildhaus on January 1, 1484. His wealthy father organised his education by private tutors in Basle and Berne. The family sent Zwingli to the secular University of Vienna in 1498 in order to prevent him from entering the Dominican Order in Berne. Zwingli received his master’s degree from the philosophical faculty at Basle in 1506.

Public criticism of the Roman-Catholic church

He initially worked as a preacher in Glarus and was then chaplain to Swiss mercenaries in Northern Italy for several years. Zwingli was invited to serve as a parson at Zurich’s Grossmünster church in 1519. His sermons soon revealed a strong influence by Martin Luther's writings. Encouraged by the Protestant reformers’ success in Wittenberg, Zwingli publicly criticised the Roman Catholic Church, tithing, and the prohibition against priests’ marriage. Zwingli caused a significant controversy by condoning a sausage dinner given during Lent in 1522 – despite the fact that it was forbidden to eat meat in this season of fasting.

The city council confirmed Zwingli’s sixty-seven theses on January 29, 1523, and thus cleared the way for the Reformation. In an effort to prevent violence, Zwingli sought to abolish traditional religious customs step by step and to gradually introduce the new liturgy. At the same time, he worked toward the Reformation’s expansion beyond Zurich to Berne, Basle, Schaffhausen, and Mulhouse. He also composed one of his most famous writings at this time: the 'Commentary on True and False Religion' of 1525.

Zwingli met with Luther at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529. The Reformation was to be consolidated throughout Europe by means of an alliance between the two influential Protestant reformers, but the attempt failed because of a disagreement regarding the nature of the Eucharist. 

Radical reformer

Zwingli began to institute the proposed changes in a more radical manner in 1529. An ordinance of the city council compelled all citizens to attend church services. Opponents were banned from the city, Baptists were executed, and communities that remained loyal to Rome were threatened with war.

The peace treaty that was settled – supposedly over a traditional milk soup – with five central Swiss communities loyal to Rome proved short-lived in this context. Zwingli urged the alliance of Protestant communities to wage war against those loyal to Rome in summer of 1531and initiated an unsuccessful blockade of their food supply.

The Protestants suffered a devastating defeat on October 11, 1531, near Kappel. Five hundred citizens of Zurich lost their lives, including Zwingli. He died as a military chaplain with his sword in his hand.