Who was he: Huldrych (also Ulrich) Zwingli was a Catholic priest, theologian and Protestant reformer in Switzerland who opened the door for the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland. A contemporary of the better known Martin Luther, his ideas had a major influence on Church-State relations in the Protestant cantons of the Swiss Confederation.
In comparing the economic and political aspects of the invention of the Gutenberg printing press and subsequent Reformation with today's growing Internet Reformation, Zwingli makes a unique contribution. Huldrych Zwingli was intimately involved in politics, military affairs and in planning for secular institutions to replace some functions formerly controlled by the Catholic Church. As an example, he recommended replacing monasteries with hospitals just as we today must hope free-market entities can replace the services many Americans have been educated to believe are government functions and programs.
Background: Huldrych Zwingli was born east of Zurich in the mountain town of Wildhaus, Switzerland on January 1, 1484, the third of nine children. He was well educated, first by his uncle who was a cleric and eventually at both the University of Vienna as well as the University of Basel in Switzerland.
Upon ordination in 1506, Huldrych Zwingli first served for ten years as priest in the canton of Glarus, where he first became involved in politics. Zwingli lived during a time of rising Swiss patriotism as independent cantons began to support confederation and increasing opposition to the Swiss Mercenary system whereby soldiers were hired out by the local governments to fight for outside nations and government entities. A relic of this practice continues today; the famous Swiss Guard protects the Pope in Vatican City.
Zwingli was initially on the side of the Roman See and served as chaplain during several military campaigns in Italy. As the canton began to favor the French more than the Pope, Zwingli also became strongly opposed to the mercenary service and wrote against it. For two years he served as pastor in the religious center of Einsiedeln, located south of Zurich, entirely withdrawn from politics, studying Greek and Hebrew and the works of humanist Erasmus, and he eventually embraced pacifism. In 1518 Zwingli was called to pastor the leading church in Zurich, the Grossmunster, where he began to preach on reforming the Catholic Church. He spoke out against fasting during Lent, the veneration of Saints, the theology of damnation of unbaptised children, excommunication and corruption in the Church and in favor of marriage for clerics. Zwingli was particularly outspoken against the deception perpetrated around the issue of indulgences, as was Martin Luther
In 1524, five cantons formed an alliance opposing Zwingli's Reformation, "the Five States," which eventually banned Zwingli and his writings. Likewise, an alliance of Reformed cities developed and when a Reformed preacher was captured and executed, war very nearly broke out between the two alliances. The question as to the right to preach unhindered in the Catholic states was not answered in the peace treaty, and in 1531 Zwingli's alliance determined to carry out a food blockade against the Catholic cantons. In response, the Five States declared war. Many pastors were among the soldiers, and in a battle lasting less than one hour Zwingli was one of the 500 casualties. Although killed at the relatively young age of 47, Zwingli's legacy continues today in the confessions, liturgy and orders of the Reformed churches.
Although Zwingli is not particularly well known outside of Switzerland, his views on Renaissance humanism built upon scholarship and universal values played an important part in building Swiss national consciousness and the Swiss Confederation today. Before this time most Swiss thought of themselves and their government as local or cantonal in nature rather than national in scope. This can be compared to the young American nation where before the Civil War many citizens considered themselves citizens of their home state in "these United States" rather than a citizen of the United States.
Zwingli led the opposition to outside control by Rome in a religious context during a time similar to today, when confidence, respect and loyalty to existing institutions are collapsing because of the free flow of information about incompetence and corruption. Zwingli was ahead of his time promoting the somewhat modern religious belief that "Everything that God permits or has not forbidden is proper." As a humanist and scholar, Zwingli made a substantial contribution to the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Enlightenment.