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The Reformation in Zurich

A Story that changed the World

Revolution is in the Air

Around the year 1500 the old world is on the move for change. A wildly flourishing religiosity and a mighty Church regulate all aspects of life. But in many places injustice, violence and sickness prevail. To whom is the Church ministering after all? Who has the right and the power to correct abuses in Church and society?

Against the Establishment: a God without Intermediary

From the very beginning of his ministry in Zürich, the Swiss Reformator Zwingli criticized the lucrative mercenary business, the worship of saints, the selling of indulgences and the mass. His arguments against the religious practices of his day were based on the Bible. So Zwingli shakes the established order, dismantles hollow piety, and spoils big deals. Zurich’s rising economic and political elite, striving for self-determination, support him. So do the country folk.

About eating Sausages

In 1522 influential citizens joyfully trespass the Church’s fasting rules: Provocatively, they eat sausage during Lent. Conflict with the Bishop in Constance breaks out openly. Zurich’s Great Council now calls for a „disputation“, a public debate on religion. It is uncommon for a secular power to decide on matters of theology. The main criterion for the debate is also new: Only the Bible counts. At the end, Zwingli is declared winner on all points. The Church of the City and Region of Zurich breaks off from the dominance of Rome and Constance. The ministers are now obliged by the Council to preach biblically. The liturgy is purified to simplicity. The pictures and statues of saints are removed, monasteries dissolved, and the authority of Bishops and Popes is negated completely. Instead of making pious donations for lush church inventory, the city is now investing in social care and education.

Education for everyone – the first German Bible

Zwingli introduced the „Prophezey”: Daily, students and scholars met in the choir of the cathedral to translate the Bible and preach to the people. A School of Theology developed and in the 19th century the University of Zurich was established. This is where the first complete German translation of the Scripture was finished. It was called the „Froschauer” Bible (named after the printer), and was first published in 1531.

The Dark Side of the Reformation

Zurich is also a birthplace of the Anabaptist movement. Some of the initial followers of Zwingli demanded a quicker and more radical Reformation. The common features of this initially disparate community were the rejection of child baptism as a sign of entry into the Christian civic community, as well as the refusal to conduct the oath of allegiance to the local government authorities and the law. When the Council feared that the Anabaptist movement could eventually lead to a general revolution it started threatening its followers with increasingly harsh sanctions. Felix Manz was the first Anabaptist to be sentenced to death and drowned in the Limmat River on January 5th 1527.

Reformation and Politics

The Reformation in Zurich was a political process. Many important decisions were made at the City Hall. The Small Council, the cabinet, as well as the Large Council, the parliament, held sessions here during Zwingli’s years. The councils were composed mostly of guild representatives who belonged to the upper class. Following the „Wurstessen“ (sausage eating) incident (when Froschauer and his friends broke their fast during Lent), the Council organized a disputation here in January 1523. Zwingli was told to explain himself and lay out his teachings. A second disputation took place here in fall 1523 where issues concerning idolatry and the abolishment of the mass were discussed. The Zurich Reformation was a reformation of civic and church government. Zwingli was aware of this and tried to balance out positions.

Struggling with Poverty: a new Welfare System

Zurich had 7000 inhabitants at the time of the Reformation. This figure was reduced to 5000 following an outbreak of the black plague. In those days the Church possessed benefices and real estate both within and outside the city limits. Tributes for their upkeep as well as for the upkeep of monasteries were a heavy burden on the people. In addition, church edifices were regularly rebuilt or modified. They housed costly relics, worshipped by the people, as well as precious altars, insignia and liturgical vestments. During the Reformation there were a few isolated incidences of iconoclasm, but usually the pictures and statues of saints and the altars were removed in an orderly fashion. Monasteries were closed and the buildings were dedicated to other purposes. The Reformation led to a reorganization of poverty relief in Zurich. The poor were fed from the „Mushafen” (a large pot of mush). Money that was no longer needed for church decoration was given to the needy.

A Story about Love

The young widow Anna Reinhart lives next door to Ulrich Zwingli. She nurses him back to health when the Black Plague strikes him shortly after his arrival. Soon after recovering, the priest feels attracted to her. In those days, many of his colleagues are living together with their unofficial families in the houses surrounding Grossmünster Cathedral. They pay a regular fine to the Bishop, so that they can carry on doing so. However, Zwingli wants to live out his marriage officially and honestly. In 1522 he asks the Bishop to allow him and his fellow priests to marry. The Bishop says no. Anna and Ulrich ignore his prohibition and get married publicly two years later. Zwingli finds, «Nothing tastes more delicious than love».

Woman in the front Pew

Since ancient times, the Abbey of Our Lady’s Church (Fraumünster) has held Zurich’s city rights, as well as many possessions. In 1524, during the hottest phase of conflict, Abbess Catherine von Zimmern closes down her monastery and passes all rights and possessions over to the Council. In her letter of dedication she states that she has decided freely; the time is ripe. By doing this, the nun saves Zurich from a civil war, and ensures the success of the Reformation.

Death on the Battlefield

In his later years, Zwingli becomes a man driven by the change he himself has triggered. He fires an aggressive policy against Swiss regions remaining with the Roman faith. In 1531 Zwingli goes to battle and dies on a field near Kappel. His corpse is quartered and burned.

The Movement goes on

Henry Bullinger becomes Zwingli’s successor. In a softer tone of voice, the scholar further develops the Reformation in Zurich and other places. He tends to stay out of politics, but makes Zurich the flourishing center of a European network. He connects with John Calvin, reformer of Geneva. The Swiss «Reformed» unite to form one common confession. Their understanding of faith, life and Church radiates throughout Europe, and later throughout the entire world. Worldwide, about 80 million people belong to a «Reformed» church with Swiss roots.

Here you can find further information about the Reformation in Zurich and a Wikipedia Summary of the Swiss Reformation.