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Zwingli, the Pastor (1481-1531)

Andre Gounelle

Translation Canon Tony Dickinson

Less well known than Luther and Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli however followed quite a similar career.  He contributed a great deal to the development of the Reformed Churches in German-speaking Switzerland.  He was also a precursor of the “social gospel”.  

Zwingli is little known and rarely spoken of.  He was more of a Pastor in the parish and closer to the people than Luther and Calvin, at the same time as having a comparable intellectual scope to theirs, even if his written work is not on the same scale.

A Pastoral Career 

After studying at university and serving a mountain parish, Zwingli became a military chaplain on the battlefields of Italy.  He returned from there proclaiming loudly that war is a horror (a “mass murder”) from which young people must be saved.  He then exercised his ministry among the pilgrims to the Abbey of Einsielden and became aware there of the superstitions which were corrupting popular piety.  At the end of 1518 he was appointed parish priest in Zurich (he was called there because of the quality of his preaching, clear, eloquent and practical).  His devotion and his courage during the Great Plague which struck that city in 1519 gave him a considerable aura.

At Zurich Zwingli organised Bible study courses:  they took place in the early morning (at 7 o’clock!);   there people studied the texts in their original language and in various versions.  This work resulted in the publication of a Bible in the local Zurich dialect (before Luther’s translation into “High German”).  He had pictures, statues and relics removed from the churches and suppressed the blessing of salt, of water, and of candles; he combatted devotion to Mary.  He defended parishioners who had eaten sausages in Lent and demanded permission for priests to marry (he himself married in 1524).

In theses published in 1523, he declared that Christ, and not the Pope, is the head of the Church.  His bishop, who lived in Constance, condemned him and removed him from office;   but the city council of Zurich kept him on in his role as parish priest.  Now he was dependant on the Council of his parish and the city and not of the ecclesiastical hierarchy.  In 1529 he met Luther at Marburg;   their differences on the Lord’s Supper prevented them from becoming allies.  In 1531 he was killed in the course of a battle between the Reformed cantons and the Catholic cantons.

Pastoral Ministry according to Zwingli:

If ministers of the Protestant religion today are called “pastor” it is due to Zwingli.  In 1523 he published a little treatise entitled “The Shepherd” (which is the same word as pastor) which developed the ideas in a sermon addressed to former parish priests who had joined the Reformation.  He explained there that pastors certainly have the responsibility to preach and to teach the gospel, but that they also must have a concern for the conditions in which the parishioners live and to protect them against hardship, injustice and exploitation.  “The pastor”, he wrote, “must act not only when the powerful oppose the word of God, but also when they put pressure on the pious beyond what is tolerable.”

In this spirit, Zwingli organised or developed a programme of public assistance (soup kitchens and a wardrobe for the destitute, an orphanage, hospitals);   he brought about the suppression of serfdom and unreasonable forced labour, which improved the situation of the peasants.  The gospel for him was both word and action;   faith was confidence in the heart and also civic action.  In this respect he was an ancestor of the “social gospel”.

Against a monastic or pietistic spirituality absorbed in the state of one’s soul and shut up in the sacristies, Zwingli affirmed with incisive earthiness:  “to offer worship to God is not to fart within four walls.”


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À propos Gilles

a été pasteur à Amsterdam et en Région parisienne. Il s’est toujours intéressé à la présence de l’Évangile aux marges de l’Église. Il anime depuis 17 ans le site Internet Protestants dans la ville.

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