It was the Fall of 1531 and war was imminent among rival territories (called cantons) in Switzerland. In October the city of Zurich was attacked. The few troops from Zurich were soon defeated and one of the great Protestant reformers, Ulrich Zwingli was killed in battle. So hated was Zwingli that his enemies cut his body into four pieces and tossed them into a fire. His last words were, “They may kill the body but not the soul.”
Of the major leaders of the Protestant Reformation, Ulrich Zwingli may be the least famous yet Zwingli played a very influential role in the beginning of the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland. A courageous reformer, he confronted falsehood and superstition and challenged people to give their total allegiance to God by forsaking all worthless idols and by being undivided in their loyalty to God.
Born on January 1, 1484, Zwingli lived in a medieval time that was filled with superstition and human reason was downplayed. It was an anti-intellectual period. Influenced by the Renaissance movement which brought a renewed emphasis on the biblical languages and human reason, Zwingli wanted to satisfy his mind as well as his heart to the truth of Christianity.
Zwingli was also influenced by the writings of Martin Luther which were in circulation at this time. While the men met face-to-face in 1529, the men differed on the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli held to a memorial view of the Lord’s Supper. He said that the bread and the wine symbolize Christ’s presence. Luther contended that Christ’s physical body was present for the faithful in the true observance of the Supper.
Two early experiences greatly impacted Zwingli. He lost his brother and he became very sick due to a plague that struck Zurich. Near death he had a very personal and mystical experience with the Lord where he became very conscious of the Lord’s personal presence and strength. Later Zwingli would preach and write much about God’s providence. This providence extended to both the good and unpleasant aspects of life. He said, “Not even the mosquito has its sharp sting and musical hum without God’s wisdom.”
Zwingli’s uncle was a priest and influenced him to become a priest which he did more out of family expectation than for any other reason. This gave him a platform to share his reformed views which were already becoming apparent. His greatest work was carried out as the people’s priest in the Great Minster Church in Zurich, the most recognizable landmark in Zurich today. Zwingli caused a sensation when he announced that he would be preaching the life of Christ from the Gospel of Matthew. The normal practice was to preach the prescribed lessons for the week. Zwingli began to emphasize in his preaching the authority of the Scriptures alone.
For Zwingli, salvation was by faith alone and the sacraments as a means of obtaining grace were unscriptural. Zwingli was strongly critical of the superstitions and traditions of his day that he saw in the Roman Catholic Mass. For Zwingli and the other reformers preaching was central in worship and it was direct, biblically-based, practical, and focused on freeing listeners from the world of superstition and counterfeit religion.
Zwingli’s reform was biblical, intellectual, and it was political. His reform was targeted at reforming all of society. The church and state were intertwined during this period and Zwingli was able to persuade the Zurich government to eliminate the use of images, relics, monasteries, and the traditional observance of the mass. All believers, he taught, were priests before God.
One dark blemish upon Zwingli’s life was his resistance of some of his early supporters who broke away from him over the issue of infant baptism. Zwingli treated the Anabaptists (as they came to be known because they practiced rebaptism) harshly. Anabaptists were imprisoned for their refusal to have their children baptized. And the death penalty by drowning was ordered for those who practiced rebaptism.
In 1531 the Catholic territories saw a weakening of the Protestant cantons and they raised an army to go to war. Yielding a double-headed axe, Zwingli was killed in the battle over Zurich on October 11, 1531 at the age of 47. One of Zwingli’s last admonitions was “Do something bold for God’s sake!” Zwingli saw himself as a prophet and a soldier for the Lord. The year before his death, in 1530 he wrote, “In the business of the Christian religion and faith, we have long since staked our lives and set our minds on pleasing only our heavenly captain, in whose troop and company we have had ourselves enlisted.” These words echo the Apostle Paul’s words to young Timothy, “No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Tim. 2:4).
Today visitors to Zurich can see a statue of Zwingli near the spot where the reformer landed when he first came to his preaching post at the Great Minster in 1519. The pose is striking. Zwingli stands with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other. This posture dramatically symbolizes not only the tension in Zwingli’s career which led to his tragic death but also his desire to bring every realm of life into conformity with the will of God. Then, as now, that was indeed to attempt “something bold for God’s sake.”
Sources: Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George; A Treasury of Great Preaching, Clyde E. Fant, Jr. & William M. Pinson, Jr.