Even after Luther and the pope condemned each other irreversibly, there did not immediately emerge a Protestant church. Revolt spread episodically and locally, beginning with Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) of Zurich, the only Reformer whose movement did not evolve into a particular church. By accident, his disputations gave rise to the Anabaptist movement in Zurich, another non-church wave of change.
Let’s look first, as we did with Luther, at how the revolt broke out and under which banners.
Zwingli was born in Wildhaus, in an eastern and German-speaking canton of Switzerland, to a family of farmers. His primary schooling was provided by his uncle, Bartholomew, a cleric. When he was 10 he was sent to Basel for secondary education, where he learned Latin. His education completed, he remained a short time in Bern among humanist intellectuals; the Dominicans in Bern saw promise in Zwingli, and he may have been briefly a novice. His father and uncle interfered, however, and enrolled him in the University of Vienna in 1498. He later transferred to the University of Basel, where he received a Master of Arts in 1506.
Zwingli was ordained a priest in Constance, celebrated his first Mass in his hometown in 1506, then became pastor, successively in the towns of Glarus and Einsiedeln, where he perfected his Greek, took up Hebrew, exchanged scholarly letters with a circle of Swiss humanists and began to study the writings of Erasmus. In fact, Zwingli met Erasmus in Basel in this period, and it is believed that his turn to mild pacifism and his focus on preaching were the result of that meeting.
His big break came in 1518, when he was appointed pastor of the Grossmünster (great minister) church in Zurich. This Romanesque church was said to have been founded by Charlemagne when his horse tripped on the spot where it was erected and where the city’s patron saints were buried.
From this lofty pulpit, Zwingli began a series of sermon-lectures, first on the Gospel According to Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles, then on various epistles and finally on the entire Old Testament. He preached against clerical corruption and laziness among monks, criticized certain forms of piety he thought lacked scriptural support and challenged the idea that unbaptized children were punished in the afterlife.
He verged on the controversial and ruffled a few feathers railing against the power to excommunicate and tithing. When the campaign to raise funds for St. Peter’s Basilica by selling indulgences came to Zurich, he joined the city fathers in denying it entry. His critical witticisms amused his bishop, however, and—barely a year after Luther’s Theses—officials in Rome were loath to enter into open conflict over the same matter. At this point Zwingli’s eclectic thinking betrayed some Erasmian and Lutheran influences. In 1519, he contracted the plague and wrote a prayerful and moving poem of preparation for death, his Pestlied, which happily concluded with joyful thanksgiving for recovery.
The Reformation in Zurich broke out in a highly politicized context. Locally, Zwingli contended with the City Council, which had pledged to the bishop of Constance to keep church order. More broadly, the Swiss Confederation was made up of 13 cantons that were nearly independent; although nominally the Confederation formed a part of the Holy Roman Empire, primarily a legal protection against French claims, Zurich had to face other cantons, some of which were more Catholic and some more reformed.
The first public controversy broke out in 1522 during Lent. On the first fasting Sunday, March 9, Zwingli and about a dozen others openly broke the fasting rule by cutting and distributing two smoked sausages. He defended the act in a sermon published about a month later, titled Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods. Known as the Affair of the Sausages, it is deemed the start of the Reformation in Switzerland.
The next step was a petition by Zwingli and other humanists asking the bishop to abolish celibacy for the clergy. It was not an academic exercise: Zwingli had been cohabiting with a widow, Anna Reinhard. In April 1524, he married her publicly, barely three months before the birth of their first child.
Having sated the belly and what is below, Zwingli began his reform full swing and gradually won over the council on many matters. By 1524 several feast days were no longer celebrated in Zurich and processions of robed clergy ceased. Worshippers no longer left church with palms or relics on Palm Sunday and images of saints were covered and most of the clergy rapidly married. When the bishop of Constance tried to intervene, Zwingli wrote an official response for the council, and all ties between the city and the diocese were severed. Effectively, Zwingli established the first of several Protestant theocracies.
Nonetheless, Zwingli’s changes, driven by humanism and fueled by politics, did not satisfy a group of young men for whom reform was not moving fast enough. The City Council sponsored a debate in 1523 on several matters of religious order. When the matter of worship came up, Conrad Grebel stood up to demand, “What should be done about the Mass?” Zwingli said that the council would make that decision. Then, Simon Stumpf, a radical priest from a nearby locality, called out, “The decision has already been made by the Spirit of God.” This was the beginning of the Anabaptist movement.
Grebel (1498-1526), son of a prominent Swiss merchant and councilman, was essentially a learned university dropout who joined a group led by Zwingli that studied the Greek classics and various Latin, Hebrew and Greek biblical texts. In this group he became close friends with Felix Manz and also experienced a religious conversion.
After the incident about the Mass, about 15 men broke with Zwingli and began meeting regularly with Grebel for prayer, fellowship and Bible study. Grebel wrote to Martin Luther and his associate Andreas Karlstadt and to Thomas Müntzer, a German preacher and theologian opposed to both Luther and the Catholic Church. Nothing came of the correspondence.
What severed ties completely between Zwingli and the Grebel group, regarded as youthful radicals, was infant baptism. A public debate was held in 1525 in which Zwingli argued against Grebel, Manz and George Blaurock, a Leipzig University-educated priest, all three of whom asserted that infant baptism was not scriptural, and therefore not valid. The City Council, of course, decided in favor of Zwingli and infant baptism, ordered Grebel’s group to disband, and decreed that any unbaptized infants be baptized within eight days under penalty of exile from the canton.
Grebel had an infant daughter who had not been baptized and he resolutely stood his ground, intending not to have her baptized.
The group met illegally in the home of Manz. Blaurock asked Grebel to baptize him after making a profession of faith, and then Blaurock baptized the others who were present. They pledged as a group to hold the faith of the New Testament and live as fellow disciples separated from the world and left the gathering full of zeal to urge all people to follow their example.
The movement spread rapidly, reaching as far west as Holland, north into Germany and as far east as Moravia (today part of the Czech Republic), although some argue that it sprouted simultaneously elsewhere as part of an emerging evangelical consciousness in Europe.
Anabaptist means “one who baptizes again,” and it was a name given to them by their persecutors, who disapproved of the group’s practice of baptizing those who converted or declared their faith, even if they had been baptized as infants. Anabaptists argued that baptism should follow a free profession of faith of faith, which clearly infants cannot do.
Anabaptism spawned various denominations, including the Amish, Bruderhof, Hutterites, Mennonites, Schwarzenau Brethren and others. This denotes an intricate variety of beliefs, but the common beliefs and practices of 16th century Anabaptists were voluntary church membership and believers’ baptism, freedom of religion and liberty of conscience, separation of church and state, separation from or nonconformity to the world, nonresistance also interpreted as pacifism, and the priesthood of all believers.
Zwingli’s Zurich reformed theocracy persecuted the Anabaptists for at least another century. The last Anabaptist martyred for his faith in Zurich, and indeed in all of Europe, was Hans Heinrich Landes, beheaded in 1614.