The Forgotten Reformer—Ulrich Zwingli

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As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation’s beginning, many articles will focus on Martin Luther and his nailing of the 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This event is often (and rightly so) attributed to lighting the fuse that started the Reformation. Of course mentions of earlier Reformers such as Jan Hus, Peter Waldo, and John Wycliffe are appropriate, as they were influential to the 16th century Reformers; but many were either martyred or excommunicated before their movements could spread much beyond their immediate homelands. There will also be mentions of John Calvin, Philipp Melanchthon, William Tyndale, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Cranmer, and later reformers such as John Knox, the Huguenots in France, and the Anabaptists in Switzerland. All of whom were maligned or persecuted or martyred for their faith.

But, strangely, one of the leaders of the Reformation, often called the “Third Man of the Reformation” (behind Luther and Calvin) is often omitted. That man was Ulrich Zwingli (sometimes spelled Huldrych Zwingli). Due to his death early in the Reformation, he seems to have been largely forgotten or relegated to passing mentions in books covering this time period. This is unfortunate, as Zwingli had (and still has) a profound effect on Protestant theology. The Reformers’ aim was to point people back to the authority of Scripture, to encourage the translation of the Bible in the common tongue of the people, and to reject any tradition or man-made teaching that contradicted Scripture. Zwingli was passionate for these principles.

Ulrich was born in Wildhaus, Switzerland, on January 1, 1484. His father was a fairly wealthy farmer and merchant, so Ulrich received a good education. His uncle Bartholomew1 (who was a priest in Wildhaus) also taught him some Latin and encouraged him in his studies, first at Basel and then at Bern. Zwingli then studied in Vienna before returning to Basel for his bachelor’s and master’s in liberal arts.

At the age of 22 Zwingli was ordained as a priest and accepted a vicarage at Glarus (near his hometown). Zwingli held this position from 1506 to 1516. While at Glarus (and years before Luther’s 95 theses were written) Zwingli decried many of the same abuses Luther did. He railed against indulgences and also against the taking of bribes by the clergy. He stated that tithes were not a Divine right of the Church and should not be mandatory.2 He also was extremely (and vocally) critical of the Swiss hiring themselves out as mercenaries for foreign armies. In fact, this may have led to his unpopularity in Glarus, a leading center for mercenary hiring.3

Reading Scripture quickly brought him to the realization that the gospel was not being taught in churches.

Zwingli, who had taught himself to read Greek in the previous few years, quickly bought Erasmus’ Greek New Testament when it was published in 1516 and read it over and over. Reading Scripture quickly brought him to the realization that the gospel was not being taught in churches.

He spent two years as the rector of Einsiedeln and continued his outspoken criticism of church abuses. However, in December of 1518 Zwingli was offered the position of cathedral priest at the Grossmünster in Zürich, a much larger and more prestigious church. Zwingli preached his first sermon there on his 35th birthday, January 1, 1519. Instead of preaching prescribed homilies or expositions that had been traditionally preached, he announced that he would preach sequentially starting with the book of Matthew. This kind of biblical teaching was unprecedented in Switzerland at the time, and the people flocked to hear Zwingli preach.

That same year, in August 1519, an episode of the plague broke out in Zurich; many became sick and about 2,500 died. Many of the wealthy left town to escape the plague, but Zwingli stayed and ministered to plague victims. He eventually contracted the disease and was deathly sick for three months.4 But once he recovered enough strength to get out of his bed, he continued to preach. It seems that during this time Zwingli became aware of Luther’s reforming work in Germany. Indeed, in June of 1520, upon hearing of an intended papal bull excommunicating Luther, Zwingli wrote to a friend that he intended to petition the papal legate in Switzerland to not carry this out.5 But unknown to Zwingli at that time, Pope Leo X had issued the excommunication against Luther on June 15, 1520.

During the years of 1520–1523, Zwingli continued his expository preaching and teaching, and it was not long before his congregation began to see that the Word of God contradicted many of the man-made religious rules and regulations that had governed their lives. Soon they began to denounce and then defy traditional teachings, such as not eating meat during Lent and the enforced fasting on certain holy days and the veneration of icons. Many also started to question the celibacy of the priesthood. In fact it was because of the growing popular dissent with these regulations that a council convened in 1523 in Zürich.

Much of the city had heard and been influenced by Zwingli’s preaching, and he also made public statements supporting the rights of the Swiss to be governed by Scriptural principles, not man-made regulations.6 On January 29, 1523, the First Zürich Disputation (an assembled council of the mayor and city and provincial councils) issued several decrees, the first of which was to settle whether Zwingli should continue his preaching at the Grossmünster. The Council declared,

Master Zwingli . . . has in the past been much attacked and accused. Yet no one opposed him after he had stated and explained his articles nor did anyone disprove them on the basis of sacred Scripture. Several times he challenged those who have accused him of heresy to step forward, but no man proved any heresy in his doctrine. Therefore Mayor, Council and Great Council of Zürich, in order to do away with disturbance and discord, have upon due deliberation and consultation decided and resolved that Master Zwingli should continue as heretofore to proclaim the Gospel and the pure sacred Scriptures, until he is instructed better.7

At the Second Zürich Disputation, held October 26–28, 1523, practical reforms of the church had already been discussed which arose out of Zwingli’s biblical preaching, which had been officially approved in January. Some of the reforms were adopted, notably the abolition of icons, saint veneration, monasticism, and the doctrine of purgatory.8

During this Second Disputation, Zwingli gave special emphasis to two themes: the absolute importance and primary authority of the Scriptures as the Word of God, and the nature of the ministry, namely our human answer and responsibility to this Word. He also repudiated transubstantiation, universal papal authority, and mandatory tithing, and stressed the brotherhood of all believers in Christ. It turned out that Zwingli’s view of the Lord’s Table would prove to be the single point of contention when he met with Martin Luther.

In 1529, Phillip I, the Landgrave of Hesse arranged a meeting between Luther and Melancthon and Zwingli and Oecolampadius (at what came to be called the Marburg Colloquy) with the hope of seeing a league formed between these protestant leaders. From October 30 to November 5, the two sides drafted 15 articles and agreed on 14 of them. But Luther remained firm on his consubstantiation view of the Lord’s Table,9 while Zwingli stood firm in his belief that the Lord’s Table was commemorative and symbolic only.10 Although the agreement of the 14 articles showed that they essentially shared a common faith, this one issue kept them divided. There would be no Protestant league between Switzerland and Germany.

By 1531 tensions had risen in Switzerland between Catholic and Protestant provinces (called cantons). The different cantons were mostly autonomous, but had mutual alliance pacts which joined them together, especially in the cases of foreign invasions. In early 1531 the Duchy of Milan attacked the Grison canton in eastern Switzerland. Only the Protestant cantons responded to requests for help. After the Duchy of Milan was defeated, the Protestant cantons imposed a food embargo on the Catholic cantons in retaliation. This caused the Catholic cantons to declare war on the Zürich canton on October 9. Two days later, the Zürich canton declared war and marched on the Catholic cantons. The main battle was fought that day at Kappel, and Zwingli was present as the army chaplain. The battle was a severe loss for the Zürich canton, and Zwingli was killed on the battlefield.11

News of Zwingli’s death had a profound effect on the surrounding areas, and many provinces of southern Germany who had been noncommittal toward a Protestant league joined with Luther in formally accepting Lutheranism.12 Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger, continued Zwingli’s teaching. As persecution of protestant teaching spread, Zürich became a haven for those seeking safety and asylum.

Shortly after Zwingli’s death, John Calvin, who was influenced by Luther, Melancthon, and Heinrich Bullinger, began his ministry in Geneva Switzerland in 1536. Thanks in large part to the groundwork laid by Zwingli, Calvin was received into an environment that had heard the true teaching of the gospel and had been exposed to the Scriptures in their own language. Due to his early death, Zwingli is overshadowed by Luther and Calvin. But many of the different Protestant faiths owe much of their theology and perception of church ordinances to Zwingli.

Some of the things taught by both Luther and Zwingli are integral to Protestant faith—that all which God allows or has not forbidden is right; therefore it follows that marriage is proper for all; that man may at any time eat any sort of food; that Christ died for us (and as Zwingli stated) “so He should be appealed to as the only mediator and intercessor between God the Father and us believers, consequently all other mediators and intercessors besides now appealed to are to be repudiated by us on the ground of Scripture.”13 The “five solas” of Luther were the same five espoused by Zwingli: Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Sola Fide (faith alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone).

The most striking carryover from Zwingli is his teaching that the communion table is commemorative only.

But the most striking carryover from Zwingli is his teaching that the communion table is commemorative only (and in this, his position was revolutionary), even Calvin’s views were that there was a mystical union of the bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ.14 The majority of Protestant believers, who today hold that the bread and wine (some use grape juice) is only symbolic, non-salvific, and to be observed in memory of Christ’s sacrifice, may not be aware that this is due to Zwingli’s convictions (based on what he read in Scripture). So when you celebrate the Reformation this year on its 500th anniversary, don’t forget to thank God for all the men he providentially moved and directed to recover the central doctrines of the faith, including Ulrich Zwingli, the “third man of the Reformation.”


  1. Thomas Lindsay, A History of the Reformation: The Reformation in Germany, vol. 1, 3rd ed., (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), 348.
  2. Samuel Macauley Jackson, Huldreich Zwingli: the Reformer of German Switzerland (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901), 156 (Accessed online),
  3. Ibid., 159.
  4. Ibid., 131.
  5. Ibid., 147–149.
  6. Unlike Luther’s situation in Germany, the Swiss were much more independent; they did not have a centralized government, but rather mayors and local councils; and the Swiss were the main suppliers of guards for the Pope. This gave them much more autonomy, and even caused the papal legates to generally have a hands-off policy in regard to enforcing church rules. Consequently, Zwingli did not face the persecution and excommunication threats which engulfed much of Europe during the Reformation. He was in a unique position to be extremely vocal against any policy not supported by Scripture.
  7. De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1981), 83.
  8. Ibid., 84.
  9. Consubstantiation is the doctrine that the substance of the bread and wine coexists with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Lutherans believe that the bread and the wine are present in a natural manner in the Lord’s Supper and Christ’s true body and blood are present in a supernatural manner.
  10. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation: The Reformation in Germany, vol 1, 353–357.
  11. De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe, 86.
  12. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation: The Reformation in Germany, vol. 1, 374.
  13. Ibid., 282.
  14. Keith Mathison, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper,” Ligonier Ministries,


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