A Brief Account And Evaluation Of The Early Reformation In Switzerland

(Part 1)

This article by our brother Linus Chua was originally written as part of his church history studies with Whitefield Theological Seminary.

                                                                                                                                                         I.            Introduction

The early period of the 16th century Protestant Reformation is closely tied to two countries in Western Europe, namely, Germany and Switzerland. It is in these two countries that the Reformation first took root and flourished, and it is from these two countries that many of the major Evangelical branches of Christianity today may be traced to. Furthermore, some of the differences among evangelicals today spring from the differences between the German and Swiss reformation. As such, it should be of interest to all who belong to Protestant Christianity to reflect on the history of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. In this paper, we shall only have space to consider the latter although we will make some mention of the former as we proceed.

But before moving on, we should note that it is to France that the honour of being the first country to begin the work of Reformation belongs. In 1512, when Luther was still an unknown monk and Zwingli was still marching with the confederates to fight for the pope, Lefevre was already teaching in Paris those vital truths from which the Reformation would issue. Beza describes Lefevre as the man who boldly began the revival of the pure religion of Jesus Christ and said that from his lecture-room issued many of the best men of the age and of the church.[1] D’Aubigne, writing in the mid 19th Century, said, “If we look only to dates, we must acknowledge that neither to Switzerland nor to Germany belongs the honour of having begun this work, although, hitherto, these two countries alone have contended for it. This honour belongs to France. This is a truth, a fact that we are anxious to establish, because until now it may possibly have been overlooked.”[2]

Unfortunately, while France may have been the first country to taste the Reformation, the work was not established there, largely due to persecution and a lack of protection.[3] Instead, it was in Germany and Switzerland that the great revival of true religion in the 16th century thrived and prospered.

This paper will begin with a brief description of the early reformation in Switzerland by looking at such things as the key persons involved, the major events and developments up till around 1530, and the problems and opposition which the movement faced. It will then evaluate the Swiss Reformation by comparing it with the one in Germany.


                                                                             II.            A BRIEF ACCOUNT of the Swiss Reformation



      The Swiss Reformation may be divided into three periods in which the light of the Gospel spreads successively over three different regions. From 1519-1526, the reformation was located in the German part of Switzerland, i.e. the eastern and Northern parts of the confederation, with Zurich as the main centre. From 1526-1532, the reformation spread to the centre of Switzerland with Berne as one of the key cities. From 1532, after the war of Cappel and the death of Zwingli, the focus of the light shifted south west to Geneva, which was in the French part of Switzerland.



      Just as Luther was the key figure in the German Reformation, so Zwingli was the most prominent figure in the Swiss Reformation until his death in 1531. Ulrich Zwingli was born in a lowly shepherd’s cottage at Wildhaus in the country of Toggenburg on New Year’s day 1484, just seven weeks after the birth of Luther. He acquired the degree of master of arts in 1506 at Basle. Zwingli was ordained to the priesthood by the bishop of Constance and appointed pastor of Glaris, where he ministered from 1506-1516. In 1512, the confederates went to war in Italy against the French and Zwingli was compelled to march with them. On his return from the campaign, he began to study the Greek language and the New Testament in Greek. The next year, he acknowledged the infallible authority of Scripture and that scripture must interpret scripture. Unlike Luther, Zwingli did not arrive at the truth suddenly but by the gradual and peaceful influence of Scripture. According to Latourette, Zwingli never seemed to have had the kind of soul-shaking religious experience which moulded Luther.[4] In 1515, war with the French brought Zwingli to Italy again and this second visit made him see the corruption of the clergy and the need for reform. From that time, he preached the Word more clearly and he himself regarded this period as the beginning of the Swiss Reformation.



      In 1516, Zwingli was called to be a priest at Einsidlen. There, he had more time for study and he also saw more clearly the abuses which had invaded the church. His residence at Einsidlen, with regard to a knowledge of the papal abuses, produced an analogous effect to that of Luther’s visit to Rome. In 1518, a vacancy for a priest appeared in Zurich and through the efforts of Oswald Myconius, who was his good friend, Zwingli was appointed to the post. He began preaching from the Greek text of Matthew’s gospel in a way that all could understand and soon, an ever increasing multitude of all classes flocked to hear him. Zwingli was indefatigable in the work of the ministry. In 1519, when a Franciscan monk named Samson came to Switzerland to sell indulgences, Zwingli preached powerfully against indulgences and through his and Dean Bullinger’s efforts, the council of Zurich refused to allow Samson into the city. Zwingli’s preaching had a powerful effect in Zurich so that many magistrates and people were gained over to the gospel. In 1520, the civil authorities published a decree ordering all the priests and monks to preach nothing that they had not drawn from the scriptures.

Meanwhile, God was raising up other men in Switzerland to do His work such as Myconius in Lucerne, Berthold Haller in Berne, and Wolfgang Wissemburger in Basle. The reformation in Switzerland was progressing. In 1522, Zwingli began to preach about the differences between Biblical and human precepts. He attacked the compulsory abstinence from meat at certain seasons since God had not commanded it. This brought him into conflict with the enemies of the gospel but through this episode, the cause of the Reformation was advanced for it brought the reformers into conflict with Rome in the presence of the people. In June of 1522, Zwingli called for a meeting of gospel ministers at Einsidlen. There, they wrote a petition to the cantons and bishops to permit the free preaching of the Gospel and to abolish compulsory celibacy. Although it was not granted, still, it was a significant event as D’Aubigne writes, “Thus in Einsidlen itself, in that ancient stronghold of superstition…did Zwingli and his friends boldly uplift the banner of truth and liberty.”[5]


      Towards the close of 1522, Leo Juda came to Zurich to pastor St Peter’s Church. Not long after his arrival, he stirred up a great disturbance in the church by opposing the error of an Augustine monk. Zwingli requested permission from the great council to give an account of his doctrine before the deputies of the bishop. The council, desirous of putting an end to these disturbances, convened a conference for the 29th of January 1523, and news of this spread rapidly through the whole of Switzerland. In preparation for it, Zwingli published his sixty-seven theses in which he boldly attacked the Pope and Romish theology. During the conference, an invitation was given to anyone to reprove Zwingli but no one said a word and the council declared that Zwingli might continue to preach. Unable to defeat Zwingli through debate, the champions of the Papacy attempted to win him over by offering honour and wealth but their proposals were ineffective. In October 1523, a second disputation was arranged by the magistrates to settle the question of images and the mass. The meeting lasted three days and again, the enemies of the gospel were defeated. Instead, many were in agreement with Zwingli. This disputation had a great impact throughout Switzerland and the church of Zurich was entirely liberated from the Pope and recovered the privileges that Rome had taken away from her. Myconius, who had been expelled from Lucerne, was invited to Zurich, where each day, he expounded the New Testament before an eager and attentive crowd.

      By June of 1524, the churches of Zurich were purged of all pictures, relics, altars, candles, crosses, ornaments etc in the presence of both Church and State authorities. Even the organs were removed and the Latin singing of the choir was abolished. The next major development came in April 1525 when the mass was abolished and replaced by the Lord’s Supper. The restoration of the Lord’s Supper brought about a restoration of love among the people so that charity and unity prevailed in the city. Nevertheless, there were some, both within and without the city, that opposed Zwingli but their attacks could not stop the reformation which had begun in Zurich and which was beginning to shake all Switzerland. Through their preaching, Haller and Oecolampadius were advancing the reformation in Berne and Basle respectively.



      As in Germany, the Swiss Reformation had to deal with the fanaticism of some of the radical reformers, which threatened the very reformation itself. The radical movement began in Zurich in 1523 and lasted till 1532. One of the leaders was Conrad Grebel, who tried to win Zwingli over and asked him to form a church without sin. Zwingli replied that the tares must grow up alongside the wheat. Being rejected by Zwingli, Grebel found acceptance with other pastors like Rubli and Brodtlein, and they resolved to form an independent congregation where only adults were baptized. The Council of Zurich was alarmed and began to persecute these men, but this only served to inflame their zeal. These men fled to other places and soon Saint Gall was inundated with it. This fanaticism was manifested in terrible disorders, which threatened society itself. The civil authorities, in alarm, took harsh actions against them although Zwingli took no part in these severities.



      The next important development in Switzerland is the conference held at Baden in May of 1526. The friends of Rome sought to use this meeting to oppose Zurich. They secured the services of John Eck. The council of Zurich refused to allow Zwingli to go due to the threats to his life. Oecolampadius led the Protestant camp. The disputation lasted 18 days with Eck speaking with great violence in defense of the Romish doctrines while Oecolampadius with much mildness and yet courage. The Protestants were outvoted by the Catholic majority and the diet then decreed that Zwingli and the other ministers be cast out of the Church. Ironically, the result of this conference was that the cause of Rome was damaged while fresh impulse was given to the Reformation. From that time, Berne, Basle and other cities began to drift further and further away from the Papacy.

      In 1527, the elections at Berne placed many friends of the reform in the Great Council and removed some of the most decided partisans of Rome. A decisive moment had arrived for the city and the government resolved to side with the Protestant majority. A disputation was called in January 1528 and the two sides debated on various doctrines like the mass, tradition, prayers to the saints etc. At the end of the conference, the two councils of the government decreed that the mass should be abolished and that every one might remove the ornaments from the churches. On the 7th February, the council published a general edict of Reform. The Reformation of Berne had a great impact on several canton, e.g. St Gall, Glaris, Wesen, Appenzell, Schaffhausen, Thurgovia, and mostly importantly Basle. The Bernese Reformation also had an impact on many of the Churches in French Switzerland. Farel, with the support of Berne, traveled to that part of the country to preach and had much success at Neufchatel.



      Towards the end of the 1520s, the height of the Zwinglian Reformation had been reached. It was firmly established in the leading cities and cantons of Zurich, Berne and Basel. But the friends of Rome were not about to resign to the success of the reform. They intensified the persecution of evangelicals in their territories and sought an alliance with the Austrians. Those cantons not included in this alliance assembled at Zurich for a Diet. In May 1529 when Jacques Keyer, a Zurich minister, was seized on a preaching expedition and martyred at Schwyz, his death became the signal for war. Zwingli, seeing the cloud gathering around the Reformation, became convinced that political action and war was necessary to save their cause. He participated actively in politics and through his preaching and writing, stirred up the passions of war. In many ways, he played the role of both the pastor of Zurich and the head of state. In June, Zurich declared war and the armies of both parties met at Arau in a standoff. A peace treaty was concluded and both armies were recalled.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Cantons were increasing in their anger and irritation at the progress of the gospel and called for a diet at Baden in January 1531. They continued to persecute the evangelicals among them, stirred up their people against the reform and sought new alliances with the Pope and the Emperor. The evangelical cities met at the Diet of Arau in May 1531 to deliberate the matter. Whereas Zwingli and Zurich called for war, the Bernese suggested a middle course between war and peace and called for an embargo against the Catholic Cantons. Zwingli opposed it but the assembly decided in favour of it. This embargo failed to accomplish its purpose, namely, to allow the free preaching of the Word in the Catholic Cantons. Instead, it stirred them up to war. Eventually, the Catholic Cantons marched on Zurich in Oct 1531. The Zurichers, who were totally unprepared at this time, were badly defeated at Cappel. Zwingli and many other ministers and distinguished men of Zurich went out to fight but were cut down in battle. A peace treaty was made on the 16th November 1531 in which Zurich and its allies could continue in their faith but the common Balliwicks were abandoned to the Catholic Cantons. Following this defeat, Popery was restored in many parts of Switzerland. Protestants were persecuted while the mass, altars and images were everywhere established.

-- continue next week      



[1] J. H. Merle  D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol III  (Sprinkle Publications, 2003), 347.

[2] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol III, 348.

[3] The story of the early French Reformation may be found in D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation Vol 3 Book XII.

[4] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity Volume II (Harper San Francisco, 1975), 747.

[5] D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation Vol II, 395.