in Strassburg
in Geneva

Reformation in Zürich

A.) The Canton of Zürich within Switzerland

The city of Zürich was located at the northern end of an important trade route across the Alps, linking Swabia (southwestern Germany) with Lombardy. On the markets of Zürich, the mountain valley dwellers of the Alpine Cantons could purchase the products they could not make by themselves, spend the money they had earned as soldiers serving abroad. Zürich also was home to guilds of artisans of numerous crafts. Zürich had acquired the rank of a FREE IMPERIAL CITY in 1218. Ecclesiastically, Zürich was located in the Diocesis of Konstanz (Constance), Archdiocesis of Mainz.
In the 14th century the city of Zürich had acquired territory surrounding the city, thus establishing the Canton of Zürich. In 1351 Zürich joined the Eidgenossenschaft later known as the SWISS CONFEDERATION. Both city and canton of Zürich were ruled by the CITY COUNCIL, which consisted of patricians - the heads of the city's leading merchant families. Both the city's guilds and the entire countryside were not represented in the city council; those who were councilmen were so for lifetime.

B.) The Years 1517 to 1523

Both Luther's 95 Theses and the German bible translation spread quickly. Luther's publications were printed in Basel, thus facilitating their spread throughout Switzerland. Many were convinced that the organization of the Catholic church was corrupt and a genuine reform was needed; however, opinions as to how the reform was to be implemented, differed in a wide range, a fact which took those involved time to realize.
HULDRYCH ZWINGLI was appointed priest at the Grossmünster. He criticized the policy of the Swiss Cantons which permitted foreign entities to enrol mercenaries in their respective territories, a system which brought in pensions to those who ruled, at the expense of the mercenaries and their families. The city council of Zürich, for which the direct revenues the mercenary deals brought in were of relatively little relevance, terminated this practice (1521). Zwingli had gained the respect and trust of influential men in the Zürich city administration.
The Catholic church in Zürich (Zwingli was not the only priest there) showed the first signs of a breakdown of her authority; a number of Zürichers openly broke the fast (1522).

C.) The Reformation in Zürich, 1523-1525

The Zürich city council arranged a public DISPUTATION on reformist theses, on January 29th 1523. Zwingli's opponent was the general vicar of the Bishop of Konstanz (Constance), who declared not to recognize the authority of the assembly to decide in this matter. The Zürich city council, arguing that Zwingli had not been convicted of heresy, he was permitted to continue to preach reform. This event marked the beginning of the reformation in the canton; institutions of the traditional Catholic church were abolished; priests married, nuns left monasteries, iconoclastic riots took place; the necessity of a new order was eminent. A second disputation was held with the result that before old institutions were to formally be abolished, the people were to be instructed of the purpose of the reformation.
Zwingli now implemented the reformation in an organized manner; priest marriages were permitted, the monasteries within the canton abolished, church jurisdiction abolished, replaced by a 'matrimonial court' charged with supervising public morals. All church holidays not mentioned in the bible were abolished. Confiscated church property was dedicated to serve the purposes of education and charity. The funds of the Grossmünster, for instance, were used to support a school for preachers. Elementary education was emphasized. Holy mass was replaced by a simple religious service, consisting of sermon, prayer and eucharist, the latter in both kinds. Even the organ and gospels were abolished.
In 1524-1525 the peasants in southwestern Germany, inspired by Luthers defiance of the corrupt Catholic church organization, rose in armed revolt, one of their demands being the abolition of servitude. The movement also affected the peasants of the Canton of Zürich. Zwingli agreed with their concept that the bible stressed the equality of men and convinced the city council to declare all those serfs free men of whom the city herself was master. Thus the eruption of violence in the canton was avoided.
The new church order implemented by Zwingli alienated some whose ideas of church reform diverged from Zwingli's. A group of radicals, lead by KONRAD GREBEL, FELIX MANZ and GEORG BLAUROCK advocated the abolition of infant baptism, to be replaced by adult baptism. The city council of Zürich arranged for a public disputation between Zwingli and Grebel (Jan. 17 1525), in which the former was declared the winner and the principle of infant baptism was ordered by the city council. The following day, Grebel, in the river Limmat, performed adult baptism on fellow radical Georg Blaurock, thus creating the ANABAPTIST CHURCH. The city council responded by suppressive means.
The reformation in Zürich is characterized by to acts of defiance of traditional authority, the first being the decision taken by the city council in the disputation of January 29th 1523 (such decisions hitherto had only be taken by church authorities), the second the act of adult baptism in the Limmat on January 18th 1525. The fact that the city council prevailed, and with it Zwingli's interpretation of the reformation, has political rather than theological reasons.

D.) Zürich after 1525

At Easter 1525, the process of reformation in Zürich was completed. The Anabaptists were persecuted; in 1526, one of their leaders, Felix Manz, was publicly executed, by drowning. Zwingli now concentrated his effort on spreading the reformation throughout Switzerland, a matter dealt with in the chapter Reformation in Switzerland. In 1531 Zwingli died in battle. He was succeeded as the leading theologian in Zürich by HEINRICH BULLINGER.
Later, in a quiet manner, practices introduced by JEAN CALVIN in GENEVA were taken over by the reformed community of Zürich (in the CONSENSUS TIGURINUS, May 1549), thus reintroducing the organ and gospels into religious service.

Die Zürcher Reformation als eidgenössische Zerreissprobe (The Zürich Reformation as a pull-test of the Swiss Confederation), from Zürich 650 Jahre eidgenössisch (Zürich 650 years Swiss), partially online exhibition by Z. State Archive and Central Library, in German
History of the Zürich Fraumünster, from Frauenzunft, in German, concise, illustrated
Historical Dictionary of the Reformed Church of Zürich, from Zürich reformiert online, in German
Bibliography - recent publications on Zwingli's Reformation, from Institut für schweizerische Reformationsgeschichte, in German
REFERENCE Wolfgang von Wartburg, Geschichte der Schweiz (History of Switzerland), München : Oldenbourg 1951
Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550, New Haven : Yale UP, 1980, pp.318-339; KMLA Lib.Sign. 274.05 O99t

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on January 8th 2003, last revised on November 14th 2004

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