Zwingli was born to prosperous farming parents in Wildhaus, Switzerland, on January 1, 1484. At age 10, he was sent away for his education to Berne, Switzerland; then Vienna, Austria; and finally Basle, Switzerland, where he studied philosophy and theology. When the main priest for the town of Glarus, Switzerland, died in 1506, his relatives arranged for him to be ordained a priest and assigned to that church.
As was Martin Luther, who was farther north in Germany, Zwingli was interested in the intellectual developments occurring during this time, particularly the writings of Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, which he (and Luther) began reading around 1510.
Erasmus advocated a return to the original languages that the Bible was written in, but also a return to the notion that divine truth most fundamentally resided in the Bible. From 1514 to 1519, Zwingli read many of the works of Erasmus and other humanists, often studying late into the night.
At the same time, he devoted himself to reading the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek. Reflecting back on the time, Zwingli wrote, “In the year 1516 I began to preach in such wise that I never mounted the pulpit without taking personally to heart the Gospel for the day and explaining it with reference to Scripture alone.”
In 1515, Zwingli moved to the church in nearby Einsiedeln. Shortly after moving, he had an affair with a young woman. Zwingli had been struggling with the requirement of priestly celibacy but also knew that many fellow priests were either secretly or openly living with mistresses. In 1518, the city of Zurich, Switzerland, requested Zwingli to serve in the main church of the city, the Great Minster Church.
Rumors of his affair in 1515 caused some difficulty in the decision but were not a serious impediment because of the general acceptance of such behavior. Zurich was one of the principal cities in Switzerland, and Zwingli became increasingly well known and popular as a preacher and leader.
Soon after Zwingli’s move to Zurich, news of the Reformation controversy had spread. Reading Luther’s writings, he found that he agreed with much of Luther’s position, particularly Luther’s approach to the Bible.
From 1518 to 1522, Zwingli did not associate himself with Luther or the Lutherans but did substantial preaching on biblical texts. While such a preaching style was similar to Luther’s, it was not so unusual that it caused substantial problems. Thus Zwingli remained in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church during this time.
In February 1522, some men of Zurich ignored the normal Lenten rule against eating meat on Fridays and had some sausages served to them in a public setting with Zwingli. This raised the eyebrows of some of the town leaders (there was no separation of church and state at this time).
While such occurrences were not rare, Zwingli took it upon himself to preach on the principle of Christian liberty and fasting a few weeks later. Such a sermon looked suspiciously like that of a Protestant-leaning priest and was the beginning of what would brew into a major controversy. Also in March 1522, Zwingli secretly married a widow named Anna Reinhart and petitioned his bishop to allow such marriages (the petition was summarily rejected).
Accused of heresy, Zwingli defended himself with clear statements about the centrality of the Bible and what he viewed as problematic practices in the church. This did not satisfy his opponents, but his response was received well by leading men of the city.
After a few months of charges and countercharges, a date in January 1523 was fixed for a public debate. In preparation, Zwingli published 67 theses, which were similar in character to the Ninety-five Theses of Martin Luther. A few of the theses follow:
1. All who say that the Gospel is invalid without the confirmation of the church err and slander God.
19. Christ is the only mediator between God and ourselves.
49. I know of no greater scandal than that priests are not allowed to take lawful wives but may keep mistresses if they pay a fine.
57. The true Holy Scriptures know nothing of purgatory after this life.
On January 29, 1523, Zwingli made his arguments and the town council decided to support Zwingli, calling on all priests of the territory to preach in a manner similar to that of Zwingli. A time of revolution in the churches in portions of Switzerland had begun. During the next few years, many changes occurred in church practice.
Most visible were the removal of all statues and pictures from the churches. A simplified service was substituted for the Catholic Mass. Monasteries were closed, and clergy were allowed to marry. Much of what can be seen in modern-day Protestant churches (especially those coming from the Reformed tradition) had their origins in these years.
While Zwingli admired Luther, he did not agree with him on many theological points. Luther had criticized Zwingli’s theology in writing and Zwingli had responded in kind. Nevertheless, some princes and political leaders in both Germany and Switzerland hoped for unity between these two leaders, which would support military alliances allowing them to stand against the Catholic emperor Charles V.
One of these, Philip of Hesse (or Philipp of Hessen), persuaded both Luther and Zwingli to travel to Marburg in Germany for theological discussions, hoping for a signed agreement between the two leaders.
Traveling secretly, Zwingli and several other Swiss reformers arrived in late September 1529. From October 1 to October 4, there were discussions and debates on the interpretation of key Bible passages from early morning till late at night.
The tone was often sharp and heated, especially on the nature of the Lord’s Supper or Communion. Zwingli held that the bread and wine used in the Lord’s Supper were intended by Christ as a memorial, whereas Luther held that Christ was actually present in the bread and wine.
The result of the Marburg Colloquy was a simple statement signed by Luther, Philip Melancthon, Zwingli, Johannes Oecolampadias, Martin Bucer, and others. The statement affirmed their agreement on the fundamentals of the Christian faith, including justification by faith, but at the end noted their continued differences regarding the nature of the Lord’s Supper.
By 1531, the political situation in Switzerland had deteriorated. The Protestant cantons began a partial economic blockade of the Roman Catholic cantons, causing all to contemplate war. Many expected the emperor to send troops to aid the Catholic cantons as they contemplated war.
Zwingli took an increasingly political approach to solving the difficulties, negotiating secretly with other cantons and the duke of Milan for support, as well as assuming an ever larger role in Zurich itself. By October, the Catholics began amassing troops outside Zurich in area of the Abbey of Cappel. Zurich sent out a small number of troops, but these were insufficient.
At a council of war on October 11, 1531, in Zurich, Zwingli volunteered to go out to support the troops who had been struggling that day. It is unclear whether he was armed, but he certainly was dressed as a soldier. In the late afternoon, Zwingli was caught in a retreat of the Zurich soldiers as they lost a battle and was mortally wounded.