Reformation in Switzerland part 1: Zwingli

I’m in Reformation country here.  I’ve spent the last couple of weeks just absorbing the history, trying to pull together some of the loose threads and make connections through my reading and experiences around the city and countryside.  I hope that through a few posts, I can introduce you to Zurich’s role in the church we have today.

When you think reformers, you probably think Martin Luther and John Calvin.  Huldrych  Zwingli doesn’t come to mind for most people.  He certainly wasn’t on my radar before I came here.  But he’s a key player in church history, and he ministered right here in Zurich.

This is Grössmunster cathedral.  It’s one of those “postcard” attractions in Zurich, right on the waterfront.  You can’t miss it.  It’s old, 1090 old.  Tradition says the church was founded when Charlemagne’s horse miraculously bowed down on the spot where three Christian martyrs buried themselves.  Apparently, they had climbed a hill while carrying their own heads and dug their own graves after being beheaded. Yeah, a bit hard to believe, I know.

It’s important to the Reformation because Zwingli preached here from 1518 to 1531.  A year before he took up his post at Grössmunster, a priest in Wittenburg, Germany was causing a stir with his 95 theses.  Zwingli was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and the men were born within weeks of each other (Luther was older).

Today, Chari and Chris took me to Wildhaus, Zwingli’s home town, to see where he was born.  The house, built in 1450 (freaking old, I know), still stands.  I love how the windows look like the bottoms of bottles, but I bet it got pretty dark in there, especially in winter when you couldn’t open the shutters.

Zwingli was very vocal from his Grössmunster pulpit with his revolutionary new ideas which challenged the Catholic Church on such topics as clerical celibacy, fasting during lent, the use of images during worship, and papal power and control.  Needless to say, he got a reprimand.  The church sent representatives to shut him up, but the people of Zurich backed up their beloved pastor.  Zurich was the first city in Switzerland to embrace the Reformation (1525), and not long after, many other cities followed.  Calvin was Zwingli’s successor in Switzerland, working in Geneva, in the west and French speaking part of the country.  He took over the reform movement in Switzerland in 1536.

Stay tuned for more church history from Switzerland in the coming days.


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  1. Doesn’t all that Reformation history come to life when you stand in the places that it happened? I wish someone (you for instance…) would write a novel based on the Swiss part of the story. I mean seriously, the reformers were so passionate they burned down towns even. Hard to imagine such a thing happening among the cool and calm Swiss of today.

    I do LOVE that “carried their own heads” part of the story. A crypt with a view is what they were going for.

    AL: My hosts have shown me a historical work of fiction callled Fire in the Zurich Hills based on the Anabaptists and the reform period persecutions. It seems like a bit of an obscure book, but I did notice some used copies on Amazon. Haven’t read it yet, so it doesn’t come with my recommendation! We’ll see if I can read it before I take off (literally). Maybe you have it in your own library?

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