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Today in Church History

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October 11

Ulrich Zwingli

On this day in 1531, the body of Ulrich Zwingli lay dead on a battlefield near the northern Swiss city of Kappel. This servant of Christ and minister of the Reformed church died defending his city—Zurich.

Just days earlier, the Catholic alliance had declared war on Protestant Zurich. A hastily assembled force of 3500 went to Kappel to oppose a Catholic army twice their size. After a brief battle the Catholic forces routed the Protestants. Among the dead were twenty-five pastors, including the great reformer Ulrich Zwingli.

Zwingli had been ordained as a priest in 1506. At this time a young Martin Luther was an unknown monk residing in an Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, Germany. In those days Luther still viewed Christ not as a Savior and Comforter, but as “the jailor and hangman” of his poor soul.

For Zwingli, the next ten years were spent ministering in the Swiss town of Glarus. It was there he began in earnest to study theology, as well as mastering Greek and Hebrew. During this decade he had his first taste of politics, and came to believe that the system of Swiss mercenaries was immoral.

Zwingli spent the next two years in Einsiedeln before being called to be the People’s Priest at the Grossmunster in Zurich. Though this post provided little financial remuneration and even less political influence, it opened new opportunities for preaching and teaching the word of God.

January 1, 1519 was Zwingli’s first official sermon at the Grossmunster and he preached from Matthew 1. This was a revolutionary move as Zwingli introduced the method called “lectio continua”—preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible. This approach broke with the nearly universal practice of preaching the assigned gospel reading from the church lectionary. Week by week Zwingli preached through the Scriptures, laying a foundation for the Swiss Reformation from the very pages of God’s word.

Later in 1519 the dreaded plague broke out in Zurich. Though many citizens fled the city, Zwingli courageously remained in order to carry on his pastoral duties. He himself contracted the plague and nearly died, yet God was not yet finished with his servant.

An interesting dispute broke out about three years later in what came to be known as “The Affair of the Sausages.” Certain citizens of Zurich had the audacity to deliberately eat smoked sausages during lent, which violated the ecclesiastical rules of Rome. The public was outraged and the Roman church demanded punishment for these offenders. Zwingli defended the practice of these men, arguing that “Christians are free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent.” Many see this as the beginning of the Swiss Reformation.

The years that followed saw the progress of the Reformation in Switzerland. In 1524 the Mass was abolished and the veneration of images was challenged. During this period Zwingli also carried on disputes with the radical Anabaptists over the propriety of infant baptism. Also, in 1529 the Marburg Colloquy brought together the Swiss and German Reformers for a fruitful, albeit frustrating discussion of similarities and differences. Though Zwingli was willing to engage with the Lutherans, Martin Luther refused to extend the right hand of fellowship to Zwingli and the Swiss. The main disagreement centered on understandings of the Lord’s Supper.

At the same time, political tensions heightened. The five Catholic cantons formed an alliance against the Reformation. The Protestant cantons then banded together in their own Civic Union. This led to the first Kappel “war,” though a compromise prevented actual battle. The peace between Catholics and Protestants lasted only until October 9, 1531 when the Catholics declared war on Zurich. Thus God used Ulrich Zwingli to advance the Reformation, and then called him home to his eternal rest.

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