The Spread of the Zwingli Reformation

ULRICH ZWINGLI was the father of the Reformed Reformation in Switzerland but he is the least well remembered of the first generation reformers. He has always been overshadowed by Luther. And the fact that he died in battle has left many unanswered questions about Zwingli’s career.

Zwingli hoped first to establish a church in the Canton of Zurich which would serve as the model for a Swiss National Protestant Church. Once this had been done, he planned to spread his doctrine of reform throughout Europe, so that an international Protestant church would be set up which would preserve the best of the traditions of the universal church of the Middle Ages but, at the same time, would be free of the worst abuses of the old church and no longer be governed by the Pope and his corrupt court at Rome.

The European-wide reformed catholic church which Zwingli envisaged was never founded. Zwingli did succeed, however, in introducing his conception of the proper reformation of the church into the major Urban Cantons, the Cantons dominated by cities of German Switzerland. At Berne, Basel, Shafthausen, and Zurich, Zwingli’s conception of how the church should be reformed was followed. For Zwingli this was, of course, only the first step, and for a while it did seem that Zwingli’s program would be effective elsewhere in Switzerland.

The peace in Kappel in 1529 left the Protestants free to spread their doctrine in the areas of the Swiss Confederacy jointly administered by the original members of the Confederacy. It was left up to the individual congregations of these regions to decide whether or not to accept the Reformation. In theory, the same freedom was to be extended to the congregations of the Forest or Mountain Cantons of the Confederacy: Schwyz, Uri, Niedwald, and Lucerne and their ally, Canton Zug. This solution was, in fact, not acceptable to the Catholics.

Also unacceptable was the desire of the Protestants to put an end to the custom of selling soldiers for mercenary service to the French and the Papacy. Without the money gained from this practice, the Forest Cantons believed they would be unable to purchase the grain necessary to feed the inhabitants of their mountainous states.

To make matters worse, the Protestant Cantons began to blockade the shipment of grain into the Catholic regions, in order to compel them to accept the spread of Protestantism in their territories. Zwingli opposed this policy and asserted that it would be wiser to go to war with the Catholic regions than to subject them to slow starvation.

Driven to desperation, the Catholic Cantons decided to go to war against the Protestants. They launched their attack upon the center of Protestantism in Switzerland, Canton Zurich, in early October, 1531. The Protestant Cantons had signed a military alliance (the Christian Civic Union) to protect themselves from just such a development, but they were not prepared for war, and their were deep internal divisions among the Protestants.

Zwingli’s Dreams Unfulfilled

In the years prior to the outbreak of what is generally termed the Second Kappel War in October, 1531, Zwingli had dreamed of creating a European-wide alliance against the Hapsburgs and had even believed that Catholic France under King Francis I would join this alliance. These schemes were extremely unrealistic and demonstrate the limited understanding which Zwingli had of the diplomatic situation in Europe and how he underestimated the dislike of Catholic rulers like Francis I for the teachings of Protestantism.

In pursuit of these hopes and with the encouragement of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse, he had also sought an alliance with the Protestant princes in Germany. The condition for such an alliance was theological agreement between the Swiss Cantons which were Protestant and the Lutheran territorial states. The Landgrave of Hesse arranged the meeting between Zwingli and Luther at Marburg in 1529, known as the Marburg Colloquy. Zwingli and Luther agreed on fourteen doctrinal points but not on the fifteenth which involved the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. This basic disagreement prevented an alliance with the Lutheran states. Except for Berne, the Swiss Protestants did not make an alliance with Hesse, Strassburg, and Constance which were not part of the Swiss Confederacy, but the Protestant Swiss were in fact isolated at a time when the Hapsburgs stood squarely behind the Catholic Cantons as fellow members of the Christian Alliance.

Zwingli also miscalculated the situation in Switzerland. Berne was the key to the Protestant alliance, the Christian Civic Union, because it was the major military Canton of the old Confederacy. Zwingli had depended upon his friend in Berne, Nicholas Manuel, to keep control of affairs in Berne and to keep the city firmly in the Protestant alliance. Manuel died in March, 1530, and Zwingli lost touch with the situation in Berne. The majority of the Bernese favored a policy of westward expansion at the expense of the Duke of Savoy and an alliance with France. They were also not enthusiastic about going to war with the Catholic Cantons, because they felt this would only strengthen Zurich by adding to her territory and military power.

When the Catholic offensive began, Zurich was at first alone. Before Berne came to her aid, Zurich was defeated by the Catholics. Zwingli died fighting in the second line of the Second Battle of Kappel along with thirty other pastors of the Cantonal church. Zurich and Berne made peace with the Catholics and the further spread of Protestantism was stopped in German Switzerland. Zwingli’s plans for the establishment of an European anti-Hapsburg alliance and a European Protestant church died with him.

The final result of the lost war was that Berne was free to proceed with the conquest of Canton Vaud which was occupied in 1536. This advance spread Protestantism to the borders of the episcopal city of Geneva whose overlord was the Duke of Savoy. As a result of this development, it was possible to introduce Protestantism to Geneva with Bernese aid. Without Berne’s support, Geneva could never have become an international center of Protestantism under the leadership of John Calvin. Indeed, eventually Geneva became more important for the development of international reformed Protestantism than was Zurich.

Bullinger Spreads Zwingli’s Ideas

It was left to Zwingli’s successor as Bishop (artistes) of Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger, who served over four decades between 1531 and 1575, to establish Zurich as a center of international Protestantism. Until the founding of the Genevan Academy in 1556, the Carolinum at Zurich was the only theological college in Europe where students could study Reformed theology. Later both Zurich and Geneva were overshadowed by Heidelberg and the Dutch universities which became the centers of Reformed thought by the early Seventeenth Century. Nevertheless, Bullinger’s leadership made a notable contribution to Reformed Protestantism.

Bullinger’s Decades of Sermons, which began to appear in 1549, were more widely read in some parts of Europe than were Calvin’s Institutes. After 1586 they were required reading for English clergymen who had not taken a university degree. The ships of the Dutch East India Company carried the Decades as far as Java and Sumatra. Bullinger’s Commentaries on the Pauline Epistles went through seven editions and were quite probably more widely disseminated than those of Calvin. The incipient covenant theology present in Zwingli’s writings was further elaborated in Bullinger’s De Testamento and Der alte Gloub. Bullinger’s conception of covenant theology undoubtedly played its role in the development of normative Reformed covenant theology, i.e. the federal theology during the early part of the Seventeenth Century. This theology was brought to North America by the Puritans. Bullinger also deepened Zwingli’s Eucharistic theology which certainly did influence the development of the Anglican doctrine of the Lord’s Supper.

Bullinger also accepted Zwingli’s idea that the control of excommunication should be in the hands of the magistrate. Bullinger’s efforts to spread this doctrine in the Rhineland-Palatinate through his friend and fellow Argauer the physician, Thomas Erastus, ended in failure. Conflict with Geneva over the Genevan concept of excommunication which meant that the church should bar evildoers from the Lord’s Supper overshadowed Bullinger’s final years as Bishop of Zurich. Fourteen years after his death, Erastus’ defense of the Zurich conception of excommunication was published in London with the help of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift.

Bullinger’s relations with England and Hungary were particularly successful. This success was in part the result of the remarkable correspondence which Bullinger carried on with theologians and political leaders in all parts of Europe. It caused him to be one of the best informed men of his day. In February 1567 the first Synod of the Hungarian Reformed Church met in Debrecen, which was destined to become a major Reformed educational center, and accepted Bullinger’s Confessio Helvetica Posterior as their national church’s confession.

Bullinger’s contacts with England broadened the small beginning which had been made towards the end of Zwingli’s life, when the Zurich artistes was asked to give his opinion about the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. By 1538 Bullinger had dedicated his De Scripturae Sanctoe Authoritate and the De Episcoparum qui verbi ministri sunt to King Henry VIII. These early contacts were certainly encouraged by Henry’s Vice-regent, Thomas Cromwell, though there was no direct contact between Bullinger and Cromwell. The third and fourth Decades of Sermons composed by Bullinger were later dedicated to Henry’s son, Edward VI (1547–1553), which is an indication that the ties between Zurich and England deepened as time went on.

Bullinger’s hospitality to a group of Marian exiles between 1553 and 1558 cemented his close relationship to the English Church. The group included the future apologist for the Church of England, John Jewel, later Bishop of Salisbury, and the future Archbishop of York, Edmund Sandys, as well as Cox of Ely, and Parkhurst of Norwich, and the influential second Earl of Bedford. Bullinger worked together with these bishops to keep the followers of Luther’s doctrine of the Lord’s Supper from getting parishes in the Elizabethan Church. He also aided and supported them in every way in their struggle against the Puritans led by Thomas Cartwright, as did his aide, Rudolph Gwalther. The basis for their cooperation was a shared belief that the state should control the external affairs of the church and a conviction on the part of both Bullinger and the English bishops that reformed episcopacy was the proper form of government for Christ’s Church. The English did not adopt the Zurich conception of the role of the magistrate and the clergy in governing Christian society as some have claimed. They had already developed a similar conception before they learned of the way in which the Zurich Church was governed. After Bullinger’s death, the Swiss connection with England came to an end.

Schlatter and Schaff

Two Swiss Reformed pastors have had an important impact upon North American church history. Michael Schlatter (1716–1790) was a native of St. Gall and came to America in 1746 as a representative of the Dutch Reformed classis of Amsterdam. His work in organizing the coetus (synod) of the German Reformed Church in the Middle Colonies was successful. However, his willingness to cooperate with the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Knowledge of God, in order to help the German Reformed, and his difficulty with the radical pietists led by Philip William Otterbein (1726–1813) cast a long shadow over his final years in the colonies.


The second Swiss Reformed pastor and scholar of importance was Philip Schaff (1819–1893), who came from Berlin to Mercersburg in 1843 and along with John Williamson Nevin (1803–1886) developed the Mercersburg Theology. This theology was really the first American theology which took into account the contribution of German theology and biblical criticism to modern religious thought. This fact did not make it popular in America and Schaff’s assertion in his The Principe of Protestantism, as Related to the Present State of the Church that the Reformation reflected a flowering of Medieval Catholicism upset many.

Schaff was really the father of the “scientific” study of church history in America. The work, What Is Church History? A Vindication of the Idea of Historical Development, was of enormous importance to American church historians. Volume 7 of Schaff’s History of the Christian Church: Modern Christianity The Swiss Reformation reminded Americans of the importance of moderation in Zwingli’s theology. Schaff’s picture of Zwingli offered an alternative to the more rigid concepts of Reformed theology presented by the adherents of Calvin and his followers. Thanks to Schaff, Zwingli finally began to play a small role in American religious thought. CH

By Dr. Robert C Walton

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #4 in 1984]

Dr. Robert C Walton is Professor of Modern Church History and History of Doctrine and Director of the Seminar Library for Modern Church History and Doctrine for the Theological Faculty of the Westphalian Wilhelms University in Münster, West Germany.
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