Zwingli, Anabaptism and Calvinism


Zwingli: Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) a Swiss humanist introduced the reformation into Switzerland. He had been ordained a priest, secured an appointment in Zurich by buying off his competitor, but was regarded as a conscientious pastor. He was an astute student of the Bible as well as classical writings. He was an avid reader of Erasmus; and even managed to meet his hero in 1516. He found much to criticize in the church, as had Erasmus, but was much more willing to challenge the authority of the Pope than his hero had been, and soon became an outspoken advocate of reform.


Zwingli read Luther’s writings, but was more influenced by Erasmus, and preached directly from Erasmus translation of the New Testament. His position was that the Bible was the sole authority for Christians, and the Church (meaning the Pope) could not add to or take away from it. Reacting to his words, in 1522 a number of citizens of Zurich ate sausages publicly during Lent, a clear violation of the Church’s prohibition against eating meat during Lent. Zwingli’s position was that there was nothing in the Bible prohibiting the eating of meat, let alone the observance of Lent itself; therefore one was not bound by it

In a public debate with an emissary of the Pope, Zwingli outlined thirty seven “articles of reform” stating his opposition to Church teachings. He spoke against clerical celibacy, fasting, monasticism, pilgrimages, indulgences, purgatory, and the worship of saints, all of which he said were not Biblical. His object, he said, was to return the church to its original “purity” in accordance with the Church established in the Acts of the Apostles.


At Zwingli’s behest, the collection of tithes was ended and choral singing was removed from the churches. Icons were removed from the local churches because, again, they were not biblical; in fact they might be construed as graven images, a violation of the Second Commandment. Zwingli said of them, “the images are not to be endured, for all that God has forbidden, there can be no compromise.”


Zwingli was once accused of merely imitating the work of Martin Luther. He was upset by this, and said, “I began to preach the Gospel of Christ in 1516, long before anyone in our region had heard of Luther.


Two important differences between Luther and Zwingli should be stressed:

 The Marburg Colloquy: A meeting was held in 1529 at Marburg, Germany between Zwingli, Luther, and a number of other Church reformers with the hope of forming a common statement on religion, and also forming a military alliance of like minded communities. The conference was called by Philip of Margrave, who feared that the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, would lead a Catholic crusade to exterminate the reformist religions. The conference went well until the issue of the Lord’s Supper came up. All agreed that both elements (bread and wine) should be given to the laity, (the church had allowed only the clergy to partake of the wine) but Zwingli and Luther disagreed over the presence of Christ at the service. Luther’s position was consubstantiation: Christ was physically present at the time. Zwingli disagreed, and said that the words “This is my body” were only symbolic. Luther objected strenuously, and at one point struck the table with his fist and boomed “hoc est mea corpus,” and stormed from the meeting.


Zwingli attempted to force his ideas on the Catholic portions of Switzerland, and convinced the Swiss Parliament to impose harsh economic sanctions on the Catholic communities. (Swiss political subdivisions were called Cantons. ). The Catholics responded in October, 1531 by attacking with a military force. Zwingli led defending troops into battle, but they were outnumbered 8,000 to 1,500.  At the battle of Kappel, Zwingli fought at the front lines, carrying a sword and battle. He was killed in action, and his soldiers broke rank and fled. Catholic soldiers found Zwingli’s body, quartered and burned it, and scattered his ashes after mixing them with dung. Lutherans and Catholics both said that Zwingli’s death was divine judgment against his radical positions. The subsequent peace specified that each Canton would choose its own religion.


The Rise of the Anabaptists: Anabaptists were the largest of so-called millenarian groups, who believed that the end of the world was near. Anabaptism developed from the work of Conrad Grebel, (1498-1526) a humanist and former student of Zwingli who saw nothing biblical about infant baptism. He noted that in Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist had baptized Jesus as an adult. He believed that the church should be a voluntary community of believers. In this regard, he disagreed with Zwingli, who had advocated state sponsorship of religion. At a meeting in 1523, he suggested that Zwingli abandon political control over religion; but Zwingli wasn’t interested.


Grebel and those who followed him then formed their own church which they modeled after the Church established in the Acts of the Apostles. There was a simple form of worship in private homes, and the Lord’s Supper was considered a solemn remembrance.  They attempted to follow the Sermon on the Mount as closely as possible.


Then, in January, 1525, Grebel caused a tremendous stir when he performed an adult baptism on one George Blaurock, was a former priest, who in turn baptized others. Since the first group baptized as adults had previously been baptized as Catholic children, their enemies called them Anabaptists, from a Greek word meaning “rebaptism. Rebaptism was prohibited by the Catholic Church under penalty of death. The Anabaptists themselves, who believed that they were destined to suffer as Christ and his disciples had suffered, called themselves Christians,” “Saints,” or simply “Brethren.”


An important element of Anabaptist belief was that the law of man had no force over those whom God had served. Faith took precedent over the law. This was a doctrine known as antinomianism. Some even argued that faith took precedence over marital vows.


Anabaptists were pacifists at heart, but were persecuted heavily by both Protestants and Catholics. Luther pronounced them “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Even Zwingli condemned them.  Grebel and his followers were ordered to leave Zurich, and rebaptism was made punishable by death. Grebel was imprisoned, but escaped five months later. He died shortly thereafter of plague. Other followers were burned at the stake, or drowned. Drowning was an intentional irony proposed by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. It was a sort of “third baptism.” Drowning was frequently used to execute women. Even so, the movement grew as others were impressed by the courage of the “suffering saints.”


Michael Sattler, (1490-1527) presided over an Anabaptist meeting at Scheitheim, Germany, and drew up a statement of Anabaptist beliefs:


§         Baptism was for all who repented of their sins. (Obviously, one had to be an adult to do this.)

§         If one should “fall into error,” he should be warned twice in secret; for the third offense he must be publicly excommunicated.

§         One must be baptized before one can participate in the Lord’s Supper.

§         The baptized were to separate themselves from the “evil and wickedness which the devil had planted in the world.

§         A pastor in the Church must have a good reputation in the community outside the church.

§         No member was to bear arms for any cause.

§         No member was to take an oath in any form. Anabaptists would not hold public office or pay taxes.


Shortly after issuing the statement, Sattler was arrested. The authorities were afraid his ideas might spread, and were determined to make an example of him. There was a two-day trial  after which he was tortured by having pieces of his flesh torn away from his body with red hot tongs. He was then burned at the stake. His wife was offered amnesty and a comfortable retirement if she recanted. She refused, and was drowned eight days later.


Anabaptists believed that one was only the steward, not the owner of private property. Christians should be compelled by brotherly love to share with anyone in need.  Among the groups which originated with the Anabaptists were the Hutterites (named for Jacob Hutter) who believe in the “community of goods; and the Mennonites. Modern day Amish follow a similar line of thinking.


In 1532, a radical group of Anabaptists took over the town of Mǖnster, Germany by election. Their leader, one John of Leyden, convinced the town elders to allow polygamy, thereby establishing “endless links of kinship.” He led the way by taking sixteen wives. All books except the Bible were burned; and Lutherans and Catholics were murdered.  After sixteen months, troops sent by Lutheran and Catholic princes stormed the town and tortured the town leaders to death. A number of those tortured were women. Their corpses, mutilated by torture, were placed in an open cage in the church steeple. It remains there to this day.


John Calvin and Calvinism: Jean Cauvin (John Calvin) (1509-1564) was the son of a French Notary.  He studied to become a priest, and read humanist writings until his father decided that he should study law instead. Although he completed all his legal studies, he did not practice law, but returned to Paris to study. He proved to be a brilliant writer and astute scholar; however he was forced to leave Paris when a classmate delivered an address with heretical overtones. Calvin was known to have helped write the address. Fleeing Paris, he traveled to Strasbourg and later Basel, where at age twenty six he first published his Institutes of the Christian Religion, in March, 1536. The Institutes became a life work; he translated it into French and expanded it into numerous editions throughout his life. He benefited from the printing press, as had Luther. Calvin’s Institutes had the same influence on the formation of modern French as Luther’s translation of the New Testament had had on German. Calvin’s French became standard French.


Calvin’s writings reveal a man tortured by anxiety and self doubt. He frequently spoke of the “abyss” over which mankind hovered. The most important element of his  theology was the doctrine of predestination. Calvin wrote that God was sublime, and so overwhelming and awe-inspiring that human beings were insignificant, sinful, and unworthy. Yet God was also a God of love, who planned from the beginning of the universe to the end of time, and selected some human beings, the “elect,” for salvation; others were selected for damnation:


Predestination we call the eternal decree of God by which He determined in Himself what would have to become of every individual of mankind. For they are not all created with a similar destiny; but eternal life is foreordained for some and eternal damnation for others. Every person, therefore, being created for one or the other of these two ends, we say is predestined to life or to death.


Predestination was the area in which Luther and Calvin disagreed most. Where Luther had emphasized reconciliation to God through faith, Calvin emphasized obedience to His will.  Calvin’s position on the Eucharist was between that of Luther and Zwingli. He argued that there was a “spiritual” presence. There was such a close connection between the communion host and the gift of salvation which it symbolizes that one can “easily pass from one to the other. For why should the Lord put in your hand the symbol of his body unless it was to assure you that you really participate in it?”


In July, 1536, Calvin ended up in Geneva, Switzerland. He had been sent for by a fiery preacher who told him that God would punish him if he did not comply. While there, Calvin insisted that the city ordinances comply with religious teaching.  No distinction was made between occurrences which could be considered crimes and those which were simply “un-Christian.” Card playing, “licentious dancing,” theater-going, drunkenness, gambling, and swearing were outlawed. Absence from sermons, criticism of ministers, and family quarrels were punished. Punishment was provided for laughing during a sermon, having one’s fortune told, or praising the Pope. Drinking establishments were permitted, but a Bible must always be present, no lewd songs could be song or cards played, and grace must be said before all meals.


Said one cynic: you can do anything you want in Geneva, as long as you do not enjoy it.”


Serious crimes were punished by civil authorities only, and were allowed to use torture to extract confessions. Between 1542 and 1546, seventy six people were either banished from Geneva or executed for such terrible crimes as blasphemy, adultery, heresy, and witchcraft.


John Calvin had no tolerance for those who dissented from his religious viewpoints. He referred to them as “dogs and swine.”


God makes plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heel all affections of nature when His honor is concerned. The father should not spare his child…nor husband his own wife or the friend who is dearer to him than life. No human relationship is more than animal unless it is grounded in God.”


Calvin left Geneva, but returned in 1541, where he was appointed Pastor, and paid a handsome salary based on a tax on kegs of wine. One member of the town council had the audacity to call Calvin a “wicked man who preaches false doctrine.” Calvin insisted as a condition of his return that the man apologize publicly, and march through the town wearing a hair shirt as a sign of his disgrace.


In 1553, a Spanish scientist, lawyer, physician and amateur theologian named Michael Servetus arrived in Geneva. Servetus was the first person to postulate on circulation of the blood. Servetus had earlier published On the Errors of the Trinity (1531) in which he questioned the divinity of Christ. He also sent Calvin a copy of the Institutes with “corrections” noted in the margin. Servetus tried to convince the people that he was correct, and was arrested for his trouble. During his trial, Calvin was so incensed that that he blurted out, “May little chickens dig out his eyes a hundred thousand times.” Servetus was tried as a heretic and burned at the stake.


Calvin was concerned with the practical effects of reform. His Scottish follower, John Knox, called Geneva “the most perfect school of life that was ever on earth since the days of the apostles.” Streets were clean and there were no beggars. The Church was divided into four orders of officers:



Calvin insisted on rigorous discipline in Geneva over all society. Even the city’s prostitutes were organized. He believed that ministers as well as civil magistrates were agents of God whose purpose was the same:


For the church has not the right of the sword to punish or restrain; has no power to coerce, no prison, nor other punishments which the magistrate is wont to inflict.


Despite his seemingly harsh attitude, Calvin was not a prude. He wrote in the Institutes: “We are nowhere forbidden to laugh or to be satisfied with food or to be delighted with music or to drink wine.”


Calvin on Women: Calvin believed that salvation was open to men and women, and approved of religious education for girls. Women were to read the Bible only in private, but they could sing in church. He did not believe that a woman should speak in church, and was also not to teach, baptize or offer the communion hosts.


Calvin shared the common Protestant thinking of his day that women had stronger sexual desires than men. Marriage was the proper outlet for their sexual needs. Women who were not married were viewed with considerable suspicion, as it was believed that they were fighting their natural desires, and were upsetting the natural order of things.


Calvin also did not think women should involve themselves in politics. In a letter to Heinrich Bulliger of April 225, 1554, he wrote:


About eh government of women, I expressed myself thus: since it is utterly at variance with the legitimate order of nature, it ought to be counted among the judgment with which God visits us…For a gynaecocracy or female rule badly organized is like a tyranny, and is to be tolerated until God sees fit to overthrow it.


Calvin was shrewd enough to not share his feelings with female rulers at the time, since he needed their protection if his ideas were to spread. His disciple, John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church, got into trouble in Scotland when he railed against woman rulers in a pamphlet, Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Queen Elizabeth I was particularly offended (justifiably so, as she and Mary, Queen of Scots were Knox’s targets) and Calvin was forced to apologize to her for Knox’s comments.


The Spread of Calvinism: Calvinism was more aggressive and more organized than Lutheranism, and quickly became one of the most dynamic and successful of the Protestant movements, much more so than Lutheranism. Calvin’s theology was clearly enunciated and easily understood. His churches were well organized, which had enormous appeal. Geneva, where he had worked, was a model of a reform community, and its printing presses furnished tremendous amounts of material for missionary work throughout Europe.


Calvinism found a home in the Netherlands and became part of the nationalist movement when the Dutch declared themselves independent from Spain in 1581.  In 1560, Frederick III, count Palatine of the Rhine and one of the Electors of the Holy Roman Empire, converted and made his area a major center of Calvinism within the Empire. It grew rapidly in Poland, and for a time was the leading denomination in Hungary. It was most significant in England, however, where Calvinist followers wished to “purify” the Church of England of all elements of “Popery.” They were soon known as “puritans.” Under the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, Scotland became Calvinist.


Mary was herself a devout Catholic, and would have returned Scotland to Catholicism had she been able; however the preaching of John Knox prevailed.


In France, Calvinism also was popular, much to the dismay of the reigning Catholic dynasty. In 1547, Henry II became King of France and described it as the “common malady of this contagious pestilence which has infected many noble towns.” A special court, the “Burning Chamber” was created to hear cases of heresy. Those accused were frequently tortured, and if convicted, burned at the stake. Henry II was something of a sadist, and attended many of the executions personally. Despite ruthless efforts to stomp it out, Calvinism still grew in France. By 1560, there were more than 2,000 Protestant congregations in France. They called themselves Huguenot, after Besanςon Hugues, a French reformer in Geneva.