The Swiss Reformer
IN the choice of instrumentalities for the
reforming of the church, the same divine plan is seen as in that for the planting of the
church. The heavenly Teacher passed by the great men of the earth, the titled and wealthy,
who were accustomed to receive praise and homage as leaders of the people. They were so
proud and self-confident in their boasted superiority that they could not be molded to
sympathize with their fellow men and to become colaborers with the humble Man of Nazareth.
To the unlearned, toiling fishermen of Galilee was the call addressed: "Follow Me,
and I will make you fishers of men." Matthew 4:19. These disciples were humble and
teachable. The less they had been influenced by the false teaching of their time, the more
successfully could Christ instruct and train them for His service. So in the days of the
Great Reformation. The leading Reformers were men from humble life--men who were most free
of any of their time from pride of rank and from the influence of bigotry and priestcraft.
It is God's plan to employ humble instruments to accomplish great results. Then the glory
will not be given to men, but to Him who works through them to will and to do of His own
A few weeks after the birth
of Luther in a miner's cabin in Saxony, Ulric Zwingli was born in a herdsman's cottage
among the Alps. Zwingli's surroundings in childhood, and
his early training, were such as
to prepare him for his future mission. Reared amid scenes of natural grandeur, beauty, and
awful sublimity, his mind was early impressed with a sense of the greatness, the power,
and the majesty of God. The history of the brave deeds achieved upon his native mountains
kindled his youthful aspirations. And at the side of his pious grandmother he listened to
the few precious Bible stories which she had gleaned from amid the legends and traditions
of the church. With eager interest he heard of the grand deeds of patriarchs and prophets,
of the shepherds who watched their flocks on the hills of Palestine where angels talked
with them, of the Babe of Bethlehem and the Man of Calvary.
Like John Luther, Zwingli's
father desired an education for his son, and the boy was early sent from his native
valley. His mind rapidly developed, and it soon became a question where to find teachers
competent to instruct him. At the age of thirteen he went to Bern, which then possessed
the most distinguished school in Switzerland. Here, however, a danger arose which
threatened to blight the promise of his life. Determined efforts were put forth by the
friars to allure him into a monastery. The Dominican and Franciscan monks were in rivalry
for popular favor. This they endeavored to secure by the showy adornments of their
churches, the pomp of their ceremonials, and the attractions of famous relics and
The Dominicans of Bern saw
that if they could win this talented young scholar, they would secure both gain and honor.
His extreme youth, his natural ability as a speaker and writer, and his genius for music
and poetry, would be more effective than all their pomp and display, in attracting the
people to their services and increasing the revenues of their order. By deceit and
flattery they endeavored to induce Zwingli to enter their convent. Luther, while a student
at school, had buried himself in a convent cell, and he would have been lost to the world
had not God's providence released him. Zwingli was not permitted to encounter the
peril. Providentially his father received information of the designs of the friars. He had
no intention of allowing his son to follow the idle and worthless life of the monks. He
saw that his future usefulness was at stake, and directed him to return home without
The command was obeyed; but
the youth could not be long content in his native valley, and he soon resumed his studies,
repairing, after a time, to Basel. It was here that Zwingli first heard the gospel of
God's free grace. Wittembach, a teacher of the ancient languages, had, while studying
Greek and Hebrew, been led to the Holy Scriptures, and thus rays of divine light were shed
into the minds of the students under his instruction. He declared that there was a truth
more ancient, and of infinitely greater worth, than the theories taught by schoolmen and
philosophers. This ancient truth was that the death of Christ is the sinner's only ransom.
To Zwingli these words were as the first ray of light that precedes the dawn.
Zwingli was soon called from
Basel to enter upon his lifework. His first field of labor was in an Alpine parish, not
far distant from his native valley. Having received ordination as a priest, he
"devoted himself with his whole soul to the search after divine truth; for he was
well aware," says a fellow Reformer, "how much he must know to whom the flock of
Christ is entrusted."--Wylie, b. 8, ch. 5. The more he searched the Scriptures, the
clearer appeared the contrast between their truths and the heresies of Rome. He submitted
himself to the Bible as the word of God, the only sufficient, infallible rule. He saw that
it must be its own interpreter. He dared not attempt to explain Scripture to sustain a
preconceived theory or doctrine, but held it his duty to learn what is its direct and
obvious teaching. He sought to avail himself of every help to obtain a full and correct
understanding of its meaning, and he invoked the aid of the Holy Spirit, which would, he
declared, reveal it to all who sought it in sincerity and with prayer.
said Zwingli, "come from God, not from man, and even that God who enlightens will
give thee to understand that the speech comes from God. The word of God . . . cannot fail;
it is bright, it teaches itself, it discloses itself, it illumines the soul with all
salvation and grace, comforts it in God, humbles it, so that it loses and even forfeits
itself, and embraces God." The truth of these words Zwingli himself had proved.
Speaking of his experience at this time, he afterward wrote: "When . . . I began to
give myself wholly up to the Holy Scriptures, philosophy and theology (scholastic) would
always keep suggesting quarrels to me. At last I came to this, that I thought, `Thou must
let all that lie, and learn the meaning of God purely out of His own simple word.' Then I
began to ask God for His light, and the Scriptures began to be much easier to me."--
Ibid., b. 8, ch. 6.
The doctrine preached by
Zwingli was not received from Luther. It was the doctrine of Christ. "If Luther
preaches Christ," said the Swiss Reformer, "he does what I am doing. Those whom
he has brought to Christ are more numerous than those whom I have led. But this matters
not. I will bear no other name than that of Christ, whose soldier I am, and who alone is
my Chief. Never has one single word been written by me to Luther, nor by Luther to me. And
why? . . . That it might be shown how much the Spirit of God is in unison with itself,
since both of us, without any collusion, teach the doctrine of Christ with such
uniformity." --D'Aubigne, b. 8, ch. 9.
In 1516 Zwingli was invited
to become a preacher in the convent at Einsiedeln. Here he was to have a closer view of
the corruptions of Rome and was to exert an influence as a Reformer that would be felt far
beyond his native Alps. Among the chief attractions of Einsiedeln was an image of the
Virgin which was said to have the power of working miracles. Above the gateway of the
convent was the inscription, "Here a plenary remission of sins may be
obtained."-- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 5. Pilgrims at all seasons resorted to the shrine of
the Virgin; but at the great yearly festival of its consecration multitudes came from all
parts of Switzerland, and even from France and Germany. Zwingli, greatly afflicted at the
sight, seized the opportunity to proclaim liberty through the gospel to these bondslaves
"Do not imagine,"
he said, "that God is in this temple more than in any other part of creation.
Whatever be the country in which you dwell, God is around you, and hears you. . . . Can
unprofitable works, long pilgrimages, offerings, images, the invocation of the Virgin or
of the saints, secure for you the grace of God? . . . What avails the multitude of words
with which we embody our prayers? What efficacy has a glossy cowl, a smooth-shorn head, a
long and flowing robe, or gold-embroidered slippers? . . . God looks at the heart, and our
hearts are far from Him." "Christ," he said, "who was once offered
upon the cross, is the sacrifice and victim, that had made satisfaction for the sins of
believers to all eternity."-- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 5.
To many listeners these
teachings were unwelcome. It was a bitter disappointment to them to be told that their
toilsome journey had been made in vain. The pardon freely offered to them through Christ
they could not comprehend. They were satisfied with the old way to heaven which Rome had
marked out for them. They shrank from the perplexity of searching for anything better. It
was easier to trust their salvation to the priests and the pope than to seek for purity of
But another class received
with gladness the tidings of redemption through Christ. The observances enjoined by Rome
had failed to bring peace of soul, and in faith they accepted the Saviour's blood as their
propitiation. These returned to their homes to reveal to others the precious light which
they had received. The truth was thus carried from hamlet to hamlet, from town to town,
and the number of pilgrims to the Virgin's shrine greatly lessened. There was
off in the offerings, and consequently in the salary of Zwingli, which was drawn from
them. But this caused him only joy as he saw that the power of fanaticism and superstition
was being broken.
The authorities of the church
were not blind to the work which Zwingli was accomplishing; but for the present they
forbore to interfere. Hoping yet to secure him to their cause, they endeavored to win him
by flatteries; and meanwhile the truth was gaining a hold upon the hearts of the people.
Zwingli's labors at
Einsiedeln had prepared him for a wider field, and this he was soon to enter. After three
years here he was called to the office of preacher in the cathedral at Zurich. This was
then the most important town of the Swiss confederacy, and the influence exerted here
would be widely felt. The ecclesiastics by whose invitation he came to Zurich were,
however, desirous of preventing any innovations, and they accordingly proceeded to
instruct him as to his duties.
"You will make every
exertion," they said, "to collect the revenues of the chapter, without
overlooking the least. You will exhort the faithful, both from the pulpit and in the
confessional, to pay all tithes and dues, and to show by their offerings their affection
to the church. You will be diligent in increasing the income arising from the sick, from
masses, and in general from every ecclesiastical ordinance." "As for the
administration of the sacraments, the preaching, and the care of the flock," added
his instructors, "these are also the duties of the chaplain. But for these you may
employ a substitute, and particularly in preaching. You should administer the sacraments
to none but persons of note, and only when called upon; you are forbidden to do so without
distinction of persons."-- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 6.
Zwingli listened in silence
to this charge, and in reply, after expressing his gratitude for the honor of a call to
this important station, he proceeded to explain the course which
he proposed to adopt.
"The life of Christ," he said, "has been too long hidden from the people. I
shall preach upon the whole of the Gospel of St. Matthew, . . . drawing solely from the
fountains of Scripture, sounding its depths, comparing one passage with another, and
seeking for understanding by constant and earnest prayer. It is to God's glory, to the
praise of His only Son, to the real salvation of souls, and to their edification in the
true faith, that I shall consecrate my ministry."-- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 6. Though some
of the ecclesiastics disapproved his plan, and endeavored to dissuade him from it, Zwingli
remained steadfast. He declared that he was about to introduce no new method, but the old
method employed by the church in earlier and purer times.
Already an interest had been
awakened in the truths he taught; and the people flocked in great numbers to listen to his
preaching. Many who had long since ceased to attend service were among his hearers. He
began his ministry by opening the Gospels and reading and explaining to his hearers the
inspired narrative of the life, teachings, and death of Christ. Here, as at Einsiedeln, he
presented the word of God as the only infallible authority and the death of Christ as the
only complete sacrifice. "It is to Christ," he said, "that I desire to lead
you--to Christ, the true source of salvation." -- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 6. Around the
preacher crowded the people of all classes, from statesmen and scholars to the artisan and
the peasant. With deep interest they listened to his words. He not only proclaimed the
offer of a free salvation, but fearlessly rebuked the evils and corruptions of the times.
Many returned from the cathedral praising God. "This man," they said, "is a
preacher of the truth. He will be our Moses, to lead us forth from this Egyptian
darkness."-- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 6.
But though at first his
labors were received with great enthusiasm, after a time opposition arose. The monks set
themselves to hinder his work and condemn his teachings.
Many assailed him with gibes
and sneers; others resorted to insolence and threats. But Zwingli bore all with patience,
saying: "If we desire to gain over the wicked to Jesus Christ, we must shut our eyes
against many things." -- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 6.
About this time a new agency
came in to advance the work of reform. One Lucian was sent to Zurich with some of Luther's
writings, by a friend of the reformed faith at Basel, who suggested that the sale of these
books might be a powerful means of scattering the light. "Ascertain," he wrote
to Zwingli, "whether this man possesses sufficient prudence and skill; if so, let him
carry from city to city, from town to town, from village to village, and even from house
to house, among the Swiss, the works of Luther, and especially his exposition of the
Lord's Prayer written for the laity. The more they are known, the more purchasers they
will find." -- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 6. Thus the light found entrance.
At the time when God is
preparing to break the shackles of ignorance and superstition, then it is that Satan works
with greatest power to enshroud men in darkness and to bind their fetters still more
firmly. As men were rising up in different lands to present to the people forgiveness and
justification through the blood of Christ, Rome proceeded with renewed energy to open her
market throughout Christendom, offering pardon for money.
Every sin had its price, and
men were granted free license for crime if the treasury of the church was kept well
filled. Thus the two movements advanced,--one offering forgiveness of sin for money, the
other forgiveness through Christ,-- Rome licensing sin and making it her source of
revenue; the Reformers condemning sin and pointing to Christ as the propitiation and
In Germany the sale of
indulgences had been committed to the Dominican friars and was conducted by the infamous
Tetzel. In Switzerland the traffic was put into the hands of the Franciscans, under the
control of Samson, an Italian
monk. Samson had already done good service to the church,
having secured immense sums from Germany and Switzerland to fill the papal treasury. Now
he traversed Switzerland, attracting great crowds, despoiling the poor peasants of their
scanty earnings, and exacting rich gifts from the wealthy classes. But the influence of
the reform already made itself felt in curtailing, though it could not stop, the traffic.
Zwingli was still at Einsiedeln when Samson, soon after entering Switzerland, arrived with
his wares at a neighboring town. Being apprised of his mission, the Reformer immediately
set out to oppose him. The two did not meet, but such was Zwingli's success in exposing
the friar's pretensions that he was obliged to leave for other quarters.
At Zurich, Zwingli preached
zealously against the pardonmongers; and when Samson approached the place, he was met by a
messenger from the council with an intimation that he was expected to pass on. He finally
secured an entrance by stratagem, but was sent away without the sale of a single pardon,
and he soon after left Switzerland.
A strong impetus was given to
the reform by the appearance of the plague, or Great Death, which swept over Switzerland
in the year 1519. As men were thus brought face to face with the destroyer, many were led
to feel how vain and worthless were the pardons which they had so lately purchased; and
they longed for a surer foundation for their faith. Zwingli at Zurich was smitten down; he
was brought so low that all hope of his recovery was relinquished, and the report was
widely circulated that he was dead. In that trying hour his hope and courage were
unshaken. He looked in faith to the cross of Calvary, trusting in the all-sufficient
propitiation for sin. When he came back from the gates of death, it was to preach the
gospel with greater fervor than ever before; and his words exerted an unwonted power. The
people welcomed with joy their beloved pastor, returned to them from the brink of the
grave. They themselves had come from attending upon the sick
and the dying, and they felt,
as never before, the value of the gospel.
Zwingli had arrived at a
clearer understanding of its truths, and had more fully experienced in himself its
renewing power. The fall of man and the plan of redemption were the subjects upon which he
dwelt. "In Adam," he said, "we are all dead, sunk in corruption and
condemnation." --Wylie, b. 8, ch. 9. "Christ . . . has purchased for us a
never-ending redemption. . . . His passion is . . . an eternal sacrifice, and
everlastingly effectual to heal; it satisfies the divine justice forever in behalf of all
those who rely upon it with firm and unshaken faith." Yet he clearly taught that men
are not, because of the grace of Christ, free to continue in sin. "Wherever there is
faith in God, there God is; and wherever God abideth, there a zeal exists urging and
impelling men to good works."--D'Aubigne, b. 8, ch. 9.
Such was the interest in
Zwingli's preaching that the cathedral was filled to overflowing with the crowds that came
to listen to him. Little by little, as they could bear it, he opened the truth to his
hearers. He was careful not to introduce, at first, points which would startle them and
create prejudice. His work was to win their hearts to the teachings of Christ, to soften
them by His love, and keep before them His example; and as they should receive the
principles of the gospel, their superstitious beliefs and practices would inevitably be
Step by step the Reformation
advanced in Zurich. In alarm its enemies aroused to active opposition. One year before,
the monk of Wittenberg had uttered his No to the pope and the emperor at Worms, and now
everything seemed to indicate a similar withstanding of the papal claims at Zurich.
Repeated attacks were made upon Zwingli. In the papal cantons, from time to time,
disciples of the gospel were brought to the stake, but this was not enough; the teacher of
heresy must be silenced. Accordingly the bishop of Constance dispatched three deputies to
the Council of Zurich, accusing Zwingli of teaching the people to
transgress the laws of
the church, thus endangering the peace and good order of society. If the authority of the
church were to be set aside, he urged, universal anarchy would result. Zwingli replied
that he had been for four years teaching the gospel in Zurich, "which was more quiet
and peaceful than any other town in the confederacy." "Is not, then," he
said, "Christianity the best safeguard of the general security?"--Wylie, b. 8, ch. 11.
The deputies had admonished
the councilors to continue in the church, out of which, they declared, there was no
salvation. Zwingli responded: "Let not this accusation move you. The foundation of
the church is the same Rock, the same Christ, that gave Peter his name because he
confessed Him faithfully. In every nation whosoever believes with all his heart in the
Lord Jesus is accepted of God. Here, truly, is the church, out of which no one can be
saved."--D'Aubigne, London ed., b. 8, ch. 11. As a result of the conference, one of
the bishop's deputies accepted the reformed faith.
The council declined to take
action against Zwingli, and Rome prepared for a fresh attack. The Reformer, when apprised
of the plots of his enemies, exclaimed: "Let them come on; I fear them as the
beetling cliff fears the waves that thunder at its feet."--Wylie, b. 8, ch. 11. The
efforts of the ecclesiastics only furthered the cause which they sought to overthrow. The
truth continued to spread. In Germany its adherents, cast down by Luther's disappearance,
took heart again, as they saw the progress of the gospel in Switzerland.
As the Reformation became
established in Zurich, its fruits were more fully seen in the suppression of vice and the
promotion of order and harmony. "Peace has her habitation in our town," wrote
Zwingli; "no quarrel, no hypocrisy, no envy, no strife. Whence can such union come
but from the Lord, and our doctrine, which fills us with the fruits of peace and
piety?"-- Ibid., b. 8, ch. 15.
The victories gained by the
Reformation stirred the Romanists to still more determined efforts for its overthrow.
Seeing how little had been accomplished by persecution in suppressing Luther's work in
Germany, they decided to meet the reform with its own weapons. They would hold a
disputation with Zwingli, and having the arrangement of matters, they would make sure of
victory by choosing, themselves, not only the place of the combat, but the judges that
should decide between the disputants. And if they could once get Zwingli into their power,
they would take care that he did not escape them. The leader silenced, the movement could
speedily be crushed. This purpose, however, was carefully concealed.
The disputation was appointed
to be held at Baden; but Zwingli was not present. The Council of Zurich, suspecting the
designs of the papists, and warned by the burning piles kindled in the papal cantons for
confessors of the gospel, forbade their pastor to expose himself to this peril. At Zurich
he was ready to meet all the partisans that Rome might send; but to go to Baden, where the
blood of martyrs for the truth had just been shed, was to go to certain death.
Oecolampadius and Haller were chosen to represent the Reformers, while the famous Dr. Eck,
supported by a host of learned doctors and prelates, was the champion of Rome.
Though Zwingli was not
present at the conference, his influence was felt. The secretaries were all chosen by the
papists, and others were forbidden to take notes, on pain of death. Notwithstanding this,
Zwingli received daily a faithful account of what was said at Baden. A student in
attendance at the disputation made a record each evening of the arguments that day
presented. These papers two other students undertook to deliver, with the daily letters of
Oecolampadius, to Zwingli at Zurich. The Reformer answered, giving counsel and
suggestions. His letters were written by night, and the students returned with them to
Baden in the morning. To elude the vigilance of the guard stationed at the city gates,
these messengers brought baskets of poultry on their heads, and they were permitted to
pass without hindrance.
Thus Zwingli maintained the
battle with his wily antagonists. He "has labored more," said Myconius, "by
his meditations, his sleepless nights, and the advice which he transmitted to Baden, than
he would have done by discussing in person in the midst of his enemies."--D'Aubigne,
b. 11, ch. 13.
The Romanists, flushed with
anticipated triumph, had come to Baden attired in their richest robes and glittering with
jewels. They fared luxuriously, their tables spread with the most costly delicacies and
the choicest wines. The burden of their ecclesiastical duties was lightened by gaiety and
reveling. In marked contrast appeared the Reformers, who were looked upon by the people as
little better than a company of beggars, and whose frugal fare kept them but short time at
table. Oecolampadius's landlord, taking occasion to watch him in his room, found him
always engaged in study or at prayer, and greatly wondering, reported that the heretic was
at least "very pious."
At the conference, "Eck
haughtily ascended a pulpit splendidly decorated, while the humble Oecolampadius, meanly
clothed, was forced to take his seat in front of his opponent on a rudely carved
stool."-- Ibid., b. 11, ch. 13. Eck's stentorian voice and unbounded assurance never
failed him. His zeal was stimulated by the hope of gold as well as fame; for the defender
of the faith was to be rewarded by a handsome fee. When better arguments failed, he had
resort to insults, and even to oaths.
Oecolampadius, modest and
self-distrustful, had shrunk from the combat, and he entered upon it with the solemn
avowal: "I acknowledge no other standard of judgment than the word of God."--
Ibid., b. 11, ch. 13. Though gentle and courteous in demeanor, he proved himself able and
unflinching. While the Romanists, according to their wont, appealed for authority to the
customs of the church, the Reformer adhered steadfastly to the Holy Scriptures.
"Custom," he said, "has no force in our Switzerland, unless it be according
to the constitution; now, in matters of faith, the Bible is our constitution."--
Ibid., b. 11, ch. 13.
The contrast between the two
disputants was not without effect. The calm, clear reasoning of the Reformer, so gently
and modestly presented, appealed to minds that turned in disgust from Eck's boastful and
The discussion continued
eighteen days. At its close the papists with great confidence claimed the victory. Most of
the deputies sided with Rome, and the Diet pronounced the Reformers vanquished and
declared that they, together with Zwingli, their leader, were cut off from the church. But
the fruits of the conference revealed on which side the advantage lay. The contest
resulted in a strong impetus to the Protestant cause, and it was not long afterward that
the important cities of Bern and Basel declared for the Reformation.