Christianity in the Reformation Era 
Early and Radical Reformation

Class 4

Early Reformation in Switzerland

& the Emergence of Radicalism


Deeply influenced by Christian humanism and Swiss urban values, Huldrych Zwingli was the leader of the early Reformation in the Swiss city of Zurich during the 1520s. Hired as a preacher in 1519, Zwingli was instrumental in the elimination of Catholicism and implementation of a Reformed Protestant regime in Zurich between 1522 and 1525. Unlike Luther, Zwingli conceived civic government and the church as two aspects of one and the same Christian community and thought that scripture should be the foundation for its every aspect. The intersection of religious disagreements between Catholic and Protestant with the political independence of the Swiss cantons provoked tension and finally war, in which Zwingli himself was killed in 1531. Zwingli’s longstanding dispute with Luther over the Lord’s Supper, dramatically epitomized in the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, was the beginning of a divisive doctrinal difference between Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism.


After his early education, a strong influence of Christian humanism, and more than a decade as a priest elsewhere, Zwingli was hired as a priest in Zurich.

Zwingli was born in 1484 in the small Swiss canton of St. Gall, part of the Swiss Confederation. His early education took place in the Swiss cities of Basel and Bern, then at the universities of Vienna and Basel.

Zwingli was intimately familiar with the life and institutions of the towns in which he lived, which would be crucial to his reforming career in Zurich.

Zwingli’s outlook was shaped by the politically independent Swiss Confederation and its individual cantons.

Much more so than Luther, Zwingli was deeply influenced by the emphasis on scripture and reform in Christian humanism.

After an initial acquaintance with humanism as a student, Zwingli immersed himself in Greek, scripture, and the Church Fathers after becoming a priest in 1506.

Zwingli met Erasmus in Basel in the mid-1510s and was close to him for several years.

Zwingli held several positions as a priest before coming to Zurich at the beginning of 1519, where he preached directly from scripture in a humanist vein.

From 1506–1516, Zwingli was a priest in Glarus, then went to the pilgrimage town of Einsiedeln from 1516–1518. Like Luther, he was intimately acquainted with Catholic belief and practice.

In 1519, Zwingli began preaching regularly in Zurich, garnering support and provoking resistance.

In 1521, Zwingli became a member of the Zurich city council.

Between 1522 and 1525, the Zurich city council and Zwingli’s leadership combined to eliminate Catholicism and to introduce Protestant worship and institutions in the city.

In 1522, Zwingli preached against traditional Catholic practices, defended the actions of those who had eaten meat during Lent, and appealed to the Bishop of Constance in favor of clerical marriage.

In January 1523, at the First Zurich Disputation, the Zurich city council decided in Zwingli’s favor that all disputed religious issues were to be decided on the basis of scripture.

Zwingli was content to have the city council, whose members he had influenced, make decisions and policies regarding religion.

The city council’s decision implicitly repudiated Catholic claims of authority in religious matters.

In October 1523, at the Second Zurich Disputation, the Zurich city council concurred with Zwingli that the Mass should be abolished and images removed from churches in due course.

Zwingli deferred to the magistrates as to the timing of the changes.

Those critical of Zwingli’s capitulation included future Anabaptists (see Lecture Twelve), who were not content to let the city council determine the pace of reform.

In 1525, the Zurich city council mandated infant baptism, established an evangelical communion service, created a marriage tribunal, and institutionalized biblical study (the “prophecy”), for the study of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.

Throughout his reforming efforts, Zwingli wanted every aspect of life in Zurich to be guided by biblical teaching.

According to Zwingli, civic government and the church were but two aspects of the same Christian community.

The close cooperation of civil and ecclesiastical institutions striving to create a godly polity would be characteristic of the Reformed Protestant tradition (later exemplified in Calvinism).

In the later 1520s, some Swiss cities and cantons accepted Zwingli’s reforms, but others remained Catholic, resulting in opposition and war.

The political autonomy of the Swiss cantons enabled them to accept or reject Zwingli’s changes. The most important to accept them were Bern (1528) and Basel (1529), which together with Zurich, headed a Protestant alliance.

As early as 1524, five rural Swiss cantons rejected Zwingli’s changes and defended the traditional faith, banding together in a Catholic alliance.

An economic blockade of the Catholic cantons by the Protestant cantons led to war in 1531. Zwingli himself was killed at the battle of Kappel on November 11, 1531.

Switzerland’s early division into Protestant and Catholic states prefigured on a small scale the religious divisions of Europe in general in the Reformation era.

Zwingli’s theological differences with Luther, especially over the Lord’s Supper, were highly influential in the subsequent history of Protestantism. 

At the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, Luther and Zwingli sharply disagreed and refused to compromise their respective views of the Lord’s Supper. 

Zwingli taught that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist was only spiritual, whereas Luther affirmed the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The failure of Luther and Zwingli to agree on this doctrine prevented the formation of a political alliance between Zwinglian and Lutheran cities and territories.

The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli is the fountainhead of the distinction in Protestantism of the Lutheran and Reformed Protestant traditions.

The Peasants’ War of 1524–1525

Scope:   The rapid growth of the early evangelical movement fused with longstanding religious, political, and social grievances in the so- called Peasants’ War of 1524–1525, the largest mass movement in European history before the French Revolution. In both rural villages and towns, appeals to “the Gospel” were widely understood to imply an end to feudal hierarchy and a call for fraternal equality, as the Reformation message was appropriated in ways sharply at odds with the social and political conservatism of Luther and Zwingli. The radical apocalyptic preacher Thomas Müntzer, from Thuringia in central Germany, was one of the most important leaders of the “Common Man,” championing a violent overthrow of the oppressive alliance between secular and ecclesiastical authorities. The suppression of the revolts ended the Reformation as a genuinely mass social movement, stigmatizing anything that seemed like religious radicalism during the rest of the century. Consequently, wherever it was accepted after 1525, the Reformation was always introduced by political authorities in a controlled and domesticated manner.


The Peasants’ War of 1524–1525 was a series of regional uprisings that combined longstanding views of village self-determination and late medieval grievances with the extension of a view of reform closer to Zwingli than to Luther.

Central Europe had a long tradition of peasant grievances and revolts, stretching back to the mid-fifteenth century, as peasants resisted efforts of feudal lords to tighten control amidst population growth and economic recovery.

These grievances and revolts centered on the redress of injustices and the preservation of traditional privileges.

The series of Bundschuh rebellions between 1493 and 1513 shows that peasants combined grievances with action in the years just before the Reformation.

In a certain sense, the Peasants’ War radicalized Zwingli’s view of reform, contending that society as a whole should be restructured according to God’s will to serve the common good.

The Peasants’ War went beyond traditional grievances and revolts, because “the Gospel” gave it a stronger, revolutionary imperative.

The Peasants’ War went beyond the early Reformation in urban settings, because it involved many more people, entailed greater unrest, extended the meaning of the “Common Man,” and called for fundamental social and political restructuring.

On the basis of “the Gospel,” the Communal Reformation and Peasants’ War sought an end to injustices, the restoration of traditional privileges, and the abolition of traditional feudal and ecclesiastical hierarchies.

Common folk from different regions articulated dozens of different complaints and demands in 1524–1525, but the most influential were the Twelve Articles of the Upper Swabian Peasants (February 1525).

The Twelve Articles were widely distributed in southern and central Germany; more than twenty editions were published within two months.

The Twelve Articles moved beyond traditional grievances; they called for an abolition of all feudal obligations and the dismantling of all Church property and organization.

Had the Communal Reformation succeeded in its aims, it would have constituted a true revolution, a radical remaking of the social and political order of society, not merely the restitution of traditional privileges or the redress of grievances.

During the Peasants’ War, Thomas Müntzer, a radical apocalyptic reformer, called for the violent overthrow of the established ecclesiastical and political order.

Originally sympathetic to Luther, Müntzer broke with him from 1520 on, developing a socially and politically radical theology.

Müntzer contrasted the “inner word” of genuine faith produced directly by God through suffering with the “outer word” of false faith based on comfortable privilege and mere scripture study.

Müntzer sharply divided the world into the godly, who would usher in God’s kingdom, and the godless, who upheld the corrupt social, political, and ecclesiastical order and would be exterminated.

Müntzer saw in the remarkable growth and increasing militancy of the Reformation movement after 1523 a sure sign that Christ’s Second Coming was imminent.

Unlike Luther’s passive apocalypticism, Müntzer’s active apocalypticism urged peasants to use violent means to help usher in the triumph over the anti-Christian union of ecclesiastical and secular authorities.

In his “Sermon to the Princes” (July 1524), Müntzer urged the princes of Saxony to help usher in the new kingdom of righteousness, lest they be overwhelmed and destroyed.

In Thuringia, Müntzer urged thousands of underarmed peasants to violent insurrection at the battle of Frankenhausen, promising them that God would protect them.

More than 5,000 peasants were killed, with virtually no casualties on the side of the mercenary armies of the combined Catholic and evangelical forces.

Müntzer fled, was captured shortly thereafter, and was executed.

The suppression of the “Common Man” in the Peasants’ War had profound implications for the future of the Protestant Reformation in central Europe.

The suppression of the “Common Man” ended the Reformation as a mass social movement with a major impetus “from below.”

The goals and violent actions of the “Common Man” made any sort of religious radicalism deeply suspect in the eyes of political authorities for the remainder of the sixteenth century and beyond.

Political authorities’ suspicion of unrest associated with religious change ensured that the implementation of the Reformation, wherever it took place, would occur in a controlled, domesticated manner. 

Christianity in the Reformation Era 
Early and Radical Reformation

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