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In this lesson, we will meet two famous Reformation leaders, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. We will examine their lives and their doctrines, and explore their impact on Christianity.

Zwingli, the Reformer

Born in Switzerland in 1484, Ulrich Zwingli took the path of many young men of his era and social class. He received a good education and became a Catholic priest. Little did anyone know that Zwingli would eventually become one of the most outspoken Protestant reformers of his age.

Not long into his priesthood, Zwingli became critical of the Catholic Church. He noticed some abuses, and his interpretations of the Bible led him to believe that Catholicism was wrong in some of its doctrines and practices. Zwingli, who was a very popular and charismatic preacher, soon convinced many people that he was right.

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Eventually, he attained an influential position in the major Swiss city of Zurich, and from there continued to preach reform. He also became heavily involved in Swiss politics. In January of 1523, Zwingli presented his Sixty-seven Articles to Zurich’s city council. In them, he argued for a new system, a reform of Christianity, and essentially, a break with the Catholic Church.

Zwingli’s Doctrine

What exactly did Zwingli teach in those sixty-seven articles? First, he objected to the pope as the leader of the church.

He also opposed Catholic practices and doctrines like fasting, purgatory, indulgences, veneration and intercession of the saints, celibacy for the clergy, and monasticism. For Zwingli, salvation came through faith alone. Human works didn’t count for anything.

Moreover, everything a Christian needed to know came from the Bible. Catholic tradition was unnecessary.Zwingli also attacked the Catholic sacraments and the Mass. He claimed that instead of seven sacraments, there were really only two: Baptism and the Eucharist. He further taught that the Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, was merely a symbolic remembrance, and Jesus Christ was in no way present in it at all. Zwingli argued strongly against the Catholic Mass. He desired simple worship, singing only psalms in church services and removing all images from church buildings.

He believed that he was restoring the church to the ‘purity’ of the church of the first apostles.

Zwingli’s War

Zwingli’s reforms soon took hold in Zurich and began to spread to other parts of Switzerland. The reformer and his political allies tried to force Catholic regions of the country to accept Protestantism by slapping them with economic sanctions that prohibited trade in basic necessities like wheat, salt, and iron. Not surprisingly, the Catholics fought back.In October of 1531, Catholic forces marched on Zurich. When Zwingli himself led Protestant troops out to meet them, he was quickly killed, and his forces scattered.

The Catholics didn’t pursue the fight, but the defeated Protestants lifted the sanctions and allowed their neighbors to retain their own religious beliefs.

Calvin, the Reformer

Zwingli’s younger contemporary, John Calvin, built on his elder’s teachings. Born in France in 1509, Calvin studied theology and law, but was forced to flee France in about 1534 after becoming involved with a group of university students who were circulating Protestant ideas. He settled in Strasbourg, where he joined a group of reformers who helped him formulate and solidify his ideas. Later, he moved to Basel where, in 1536, he published the first edition of his masterpiece, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a book he continued to edit and expand throughout the rest of his life.In The Institutes and his other writings, Calvin developed his famous doctrine of predestination.

This doctrine stated that ‘God, by His sovereign will, determined that some people were destined for Heaven and others for hell,’ and there was nothing anyone could do about it. God simply decided who was a member of the saved elect and who was a part of the lost reprobates, and that was that.Calvin agreed with Zwingli that nearly everything Catholic had to be purged from the church. There would be no Mass, no images, no saints, no purgatory, no indulgences, no clerical celibacy, and no monasteries. Worship would consist of sermons and psalms. The Lord’s Supper, Calvin believed, did contain a certain presence of Christ, but only a spiritual one.

Calvin’s Government

Calvin further insisted on a strict morality that was to be enforced by both the church and the state working in partnership. Discipline would be applied equally to everyone from the lowest ranks of society to the highest. Calvin got a chance to put his ideas into action when he moved to Geneva, Switzerland in 1536.Working closely with the local government, Calvin reformed the Geneva church according to his doctrine and instituted strict ordinances against card playing, theater, gambling, swearing, dancing, and drunkenness, as well as against greater offenses like stealing, assault, fornication, and adultery. Needless to say, Geneva’s upper classes were not too pleased about the changes, and they forced the city council to expel Calvin in 1538.The reformer toured around Europe for a while before returning to Geneva in 1541 to finish creating ‘God’s city’ on Earth. This time the government promised him respect and support, and the strict discipline resumed.

A few people still opposed Calvin’s efforts, including the so-called Libertines led by Ami Perrin, who tried to take back their city in 1555. They failed, and Perrin barely escaped with his life. He was lucky; many people who disagreed with Calvin’s brutally intolerant regime were executed.After Perrin’s revolt had been put down, Calvin was finally secure in Geneva, which soon became a center of the Protestant world. The city sent out missionaries who spread Calvin’s doctrines throughout Europe. Calvin himself died in 1564, but his reformation ideology lived on, traveling far and wide.

Lesson Summary

Protestant reformers Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin were active in the Swiss cities of Zurich and Geneva in the 1500s.

They both called for the reform of church doctrines and practices, and advocated the elimination of many elements of the Catholic faith and worship. Calvin added the doctrine of predestination and disagreed with Zwingli about the Lord’s Supper. Zwingli claimed that Christ was not present at all in the sacrament; Calvin believed He was spiritually present.Zwingli promoted his reforms through Sixty-seven Articles, while Calvin wrote The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Both reformers blended religion and politics, and worked closely with the governments of their respective cities to enforce their reforms and, especially in Calvin’s case, moral discipline. The reformation ideas of Zwingli and Calvin spread far and wide as the years passed, and Christianity would never be the same.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Recall the basic reformation work of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin
  • Identify Zwingli’s elimination of most Catholic doctrines in Zurich
  • Recognize Calvin’s intolerant reformative ideology in Geneva

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