A visit to the birthplace of Huldreich or Ulrich Zwingli suggests the not invariable rule that great men are born in small houses. The most rational and unsuccessful of the Reformers began life (January 1, 1484) in a tiny cottage in the mountain valley village of Wildhaus, fifty miles southeast of Zurich, in the present canton of Saint-Gall. A low gable roof, walls of heavy boards, little mullioned windows, floors of massive planks, low ceilings, dark rooms, creaking stairs, sturdy beds of oak, a table, a chair, a shelf for books: this historic home bespeaks an environment in which natural selection was rigorous, and supernatural selection seemed an indispensable hope. Ulrich’s father was chief magistrate in that hidden hamlet, and his mother was the proud sister of a priest. He was the third of eight sons, who competed for the admiration of two sisters. From his boyhood he was destined for the priesthood.
His uncle, dean of the church at near-by Wesen, shared with his parents in his education, and gave Zwingli a humanistic bent and breadth that sharply distinguished him from Luther and Calvin. At ten the boy was sent to a Latin school at Basel; at fourteen he entered at Bern a college headed by an outstanding native classicist; from sixteen to eighteen he studied in the University of Vienna in its humanist heyday under Conrad Celtes. He lightened his labors by playing on the lute, harp, violin, flute, and dulcimer. At eighteen he returned to Basel, and took theology under Thomas Wyttenbach, who, as early as 1508, attacked indulgences, clerical celibacy, and the Mass. At twenty-two (1506) Zwingli received his master’s degree, and was ordained priest. He celebrated his first Mass at Wildhaus amid joyful relatives, and, with a hundred guilders raised for him, bought appointment5 to a pastorate in Glarus, twenty miles away.
There, while zealously performing his duties, he continued his studies. He taught himself Greek to read the New Testament in the original. He read with enthusiasm Homer, Pindar, Democritus, Plutarch, Cicero, Caesar, Livy, Seneca, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, and wrote a commentary on the skeptical humorist Lucian. He corresponded with Pico della Mirandola and Erasmus, called Erasmus “the greatest philosopher and theologian,” visited him reverently (1515), and read him every night as a prelude to sleep. Like Erasmus, he grew a sharp nose for ecclesiastical corruption, a genial scorn for doctrinal bigotry, and an ardent refusal to think of the classical philosophers and poets as burning in hell. He vowed that he “would rather share the eternal lot of a Socrates or a Seneca than that of a pope.” 6 He did not let his sacerdotal vows exclude him from the pleasures of the flesh; he had some affairs with generous women, and continued so to indulge himself until his marriage (1514). His congregation did not seem to mind, and the popes paid him, till 1520, an annual pension of fifty florins for supporting them against the pro-French party in Glarus. In 1513 and 1515 he accompanied the Glarus contingent of Swiss mercenaries to Italy as their chaplain, and did his best to keep them faithful to the papal cause; but his contact with war at the battles of Navarro and Marignano turned him strongly against any further sale of Swiss valor to foreign governments.
In 1516 the French faction in Glarus won the upper hand, and Zwingli moved to a pastorate at Einsiedeln in the canton of Schwyz. His preaching there took a Protestant tinge even before Luther’s rebellion. In 1517 he called for a religion based exclusively on the Bible, and he told his archbishop, Cardinal Matthäus Schinner, that there was scant warrant in Scripture for the papacy. In August 1518, he attacked abuses in the sale of indulgences, and persuaded Benedictine monks to remove, from their lucrative shrine of the Virgin, an inscription promising pilgrims “full remission of all sins in guilt and punishment alike.”7 Some pilgrims from Zurich brought to their pastors an enthusiastic report of his preaching. On December 10, 1518, he accepted a call to be vicar or “people’s priest” at the Grossmünster, or Great Minster, of Zurich, the most enterprising city in Switzerland.
He was now approaching maturity in morals and mind. He undertook a series of sermons expounding, from the Greek text, all the New Testament except the Apocalypse, which he disliked; he had little in him of the mysticism that shared in forming Luther. We have no portrait of him from life, but his contemporaries described him as a handsome, ruddy-faced, fullblooded man, with a melodious voice that captured his congregation. He did not rival Luther in eloquence or exegesis; yet his sermons were so convincing in sincerity and clarity that soon all Zurich responded to his influence. His ecclesiastical superiors supported him when he resumed his campaign against the sale of indulgences. Bernhardin Samson, a Franciscan friar from Milan, had crossed the Saint Gotthard Pass in August 1518, to become the Tetze] of Switzerland. He offered Pope Leo’s indulgence to the rich on parchment for a crown, to the poor on paper for a few pennies; and with a wave of his hand he absolved from the pains of purgatory all souls that had died in Bern. Zwingli protested; the bishop of Constance seconded him; and Leo X, learning something from events in Germany, recalled his lavish apostle.
In 1519 plague struck Zurich, taking a third of the population in half a year. Zwingli stayed at his post, toiled night and day in the care of the sick, caught the infection himself, and came close to death. When he recovered he was the most popular figure in Zurich. Distant dignitaries like Pirkheimer and Dürer sent him felicitations. In 1521 he was made head priest of the Grossmünster. He was now strong enough to proclaim openly the Reformation in Switzerland.