The Reformation had split the Confederation, and seemed destined to destroy it. Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen, Appenzell, and the Grisons favored Zurich; the other cantons were hostile. Five cantons—Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Zug—formed a Catholic League to suppress all Hussite, Lutheran, and Zwinglian movements (1524). Archduke Ferdinand of Austria urged all Catholic states to united action, promised his aid, and doubtless hoped to restore the Hapsburg power in Switzerland. On July 16 all the cantons except Schaffhausen and Appenzell agreed to exclude Zurich from future federal diets. Zurich and Zwingli responded by sending missionaries into the Thorgau district to proclaim the Reformation. One of these was arrested; friends rescued him, and led a wild crowd that sacked and burned a monastery, and destroyed images in several churches (July 1524). Three of the leaders were executed, and a martial spirit rose on both sides. Erasmus, timid in Basel, was alarmed to see pious worshipers, aroused by their preachers, come out of church “like men possessed, with anger and rage painted on their faces .... like warriors animated by their general to some mighty attack.” 16 Six cantons threatened to leave the Confederation if Zurich were not chastised.
Zwingli, enjoying his new role of war leader, advised Zurich to increase its army and arsenal, to seek alliance with France, to build a fire behind Ferdinand by fomenting revolution in Tirol, and to promise Thorgau and Saint-Gall the properties of their monasteries in return for their support. To the Catholic League he offered peace on three conditions: that it yield to Zurich the famous abbey of St. Gall; that it renounce the Austrian alliance; and that it surrender to Zurich the Lucerne satirist Thomas Murner, who had written too pungently of the Reformers. The League scorned these terms. Zurich ordered its representatives in Saint-Gall to seize the abbey; they obeyed (January 28, 1529). In February the tension was raised by events in Basel.
The Protestant leader in that “Athens of Switzerland” was Johannes Hausschein, who had Hellenized his name, meaning house lamp, into Oecolampadius. He wrote Latin poetry at twelve, mastered Greek soon afterward, and rose to rank second only to Reuchlin as a Hebraist. In his pulpit at St. Martin’s Church and in his chair of theology at the university, he made a name for himself as a reformer and moralist, humane in everything but religion. By 1521 he was attacking the abuses of the confessional, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the idolatry of the Virgin. In 1523 Luther acclaimed him. In 1525 he adopted the Zwinglian program, including the prosecution of Anabaptists. But he rejected predestination; salus nostra ex Deo, he taught, perditio nostra ex nobis—” Our salvation comes from God, our damnation from ourselves.”17 When the Basel Council, now predominantly Protestant, proclaimed freedom of worship (1528), Oecolampadius protested, and demanded the suppression of the Mass.
On February 8,1529,800 men, assembled in the church of the Franciscans, sent to the Council a demand that the Mass should be forbidden, that all Catholics should be dismissed from office, and that a more democratic constitution should be put in force. The Council deliberated. On the following day the petitioners came in arms to the market place. When by noon the Council had still reached no decision, the crowd moved into the churches with hammers and axes, and destroyed all discoverable religious images.18Erasmus described the affair in a letter to Pirkheimer:
The smiths and workmen removed the pictures from the churches, and heaped such insults upon the images of the saints and the crucifix itself, that it is quite surprising there was no miracle, seeing how many always used to occur whenever the saints were even slightly offended. Not a statue was left either in the churches, or the vestibules, or the porches, or the monasteries. The frescoes were obliterated by means of a coating of lime. Whatever would burn was thrown into the fire, and the rest was pounded into fragments. Nothing was spared for love or money.19
The Council took the hint, and voted full abolition of the Mass. Erasmus, Beatus Rhenanus, and nearly all professors in the university left Basel. Oecolampadius, triumphant, survived the outbreak by only two years, dying soon after Zwingli’s death.
In May 1529, a Protestant missionary from Zurich, attempting to preach in the city of Schwyz, was burned at the stake. Zwingli persuaded the Zurich Council to declare war. He drew up the plan of campaign, and led the canton’s troops in person. At Kappel, ten miles south of Zurich, they were stopped by one man, Landemann Aebli of Glarus, who begged an hour’s truce while he negotiated with the League. Zwingli suspected treachery, and favored immediate advance; he was overruled by his Bernese allies, and by his soldiers, who readily fraternized, across the cantonal and theological border, with the soldiers of the enemy. For sixteen days negotiations continued; finally the good sense of the Swiss prevailed, and the First Peace of Kappel was signed (June 24,1529). The terms were a victory for Zwingli: the Catholic cantons agreed to pay an indemnity to Zurich, and to end their alliance with Austria; neither party was to attack the other because of religious differences; and in the “common lands” subject to two ox more cantons the people were to decide, by a majority vote, the regulation of their religious life. Zwingli, however, was dissatisfied: he had demanded, and not received, freedom for Protestant preaching in Catholic cantons. He predicted an early rupture of the peace.
It lasted twenty-eight months. In the interim an effort was made to unite the Protestants of Switzerland and Germany. Charles V had patched up his quarrel with Clement VII; both were now free to join forces against the Protestants. But these were already a powerful political force. Half of Germany was Lutheran; many German cities—Ulm, Augsburg, Württemberg, Mainz, Frankfurt-am-Main, Strasbourg—had strong Zwinglian sympathies; and in Switzerland, though the rural districts were Catholic, most of the towns were Protestant. Obviously self-protection against the Empire and the papacy required Protestant unity. Only theology stood in the way.
Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, took the initiative by inviting Luther, Melanchthon, and other German Protestants to meet Zwingli, Oecolampadius, and other Swiss Protestants in his castle at Marburg, north of Frankfurt. On September 29, 1529, the rival factions met. Zwingli made generous concessions; he dispelled Luther’s suspicion that he doubted the divinity of Christ; he accepted the Nicene Creed, and the dogma of original sin. But he would not withdraw his view of the Eucharist as a symbol and commemoration rather than a miracle. Luther chalked on the conference table the words ascribed to Christ—“This is my body”—and would admit none but a literal interpretation. On fourteen articles the parties signed an agreement; on the Eucharist they parted (October 3), and not amicably. Luther refused Zwingli’s proffered hand, saying, “Your spirit is not our spirit”; he drew up a theological profession in seventeen articles, including “consubstantiation,” and persuaded the Lutheran princes to reject alliance with any group that would not sign all seventeen.20 Melanchthon agreed with his master. “We told the Zwinglians,” he wrote, “that we wondered how their consciences would allow them to call us brethren when they held that our doctrine was erroneous”;21 here in one sentence is the spirit of the age. In 1532 Luther admonished Duke Albrecht of Prussia not to allow any Zwinglian in his territory, on pain of everlasting damnation. It was too much to ask of Luther that he should pass at one step from the Middle Ages into modernity; he had received too profound an impress of medieval religion to bear patiently with any repudiation of its fundamentals; he felt, like a good Catholic, that his world of thought would collapse, the whole meaning of life would fade away, if he lost any basic element of the faith in which he had been formed. Luther was the most medieval of modern men.
Crushed with this failure, Zwingli returned to a Zurich that was becoming restless under his dictatorship. Strict sumptuary laws were resented; trade was hampered by the religious differences among the cantons; artisans were dissatisfied with their still small voice in the government; and Zwingli’s sermons, cluttered with politics, had lost their inspiration and charm. He felt the change so keenly that he asked the Council’s leave to seek a pastorate elsewhere. He was prevailed upon to stay.
He gave much of his time now to writing. In 1530 he sent his Ratio fidei to Charles V, who gave no sign of receiving it. In 1531 he addressed to Francis I a Christianae fidei brevis et clara expositio. In this “brief and clear exposition of the Christian faith” he expressed his Erasmian conviction that a Christian, on reaching paradise, would find there many noble Jews and pagans: not only Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Isaiah .... but Hercules, Theseus, Socrates, Aristides, Numa, Camillus, the Catos, the Scipios; “in short, there has not been any good man, nor any holy mind, nor any faithful soul, from the very beginning of the world even to its end, whom you will not see there with God. What could be imagined more joyful, pleasing, and noble, than this sight?”22 This passage so shocked Luther that he concluded that Zwingli must have been a “heathen”;23 and Bishop Bossuet, agreeing for once with Luther, quoted it to prove that Zwingli had been a hopeless infidel.24
On May 15, 1531, an assembly of Zurich and her allies voted to compel the Catholic cantons to allow freedom of preaching in their territory. When the cantons refused, Zwingli proposed war, but his allies preferred an economic blockade. The Catholic cantons, denied all imports, declared war. Again rival armies marched; again Zwingli led the way and carried the standard; again the armies met at Kappel (October 11, 1531)—the Catholics with 8,000 men, the Protestants with 1,500. This time they fought. The Catholics won, and Zwingli, aged forty-seven, was among the 500 Zurichers slain. His body was quartered and then burned on a pyre of dung.25 Luther, hearing of Zwingli’s death, pronounced it the judgment of heaven on a heathen,26 and “a triumph for us.”27 “I wish from my heart,” he is reported to have said, “that Zwingli could be saved, but I fear for the contrary, for Christ has said that those who deny Him shall be damned.” 28
Zwingli was succeeded in Zurich by Heinrich Bullinger, and at Basel Oswald Myconius carried on after Oecolampadius’ death. Bullinger avoided politics, superintended the city’s schools, sheltered fugitive Protestants, and dispensed charity to the needy of any creed. He approved the execution of Servetus, but, barring that, he approached a theory of general religious freedom. He joined with Myconius and Leo Jud in formulating the First Helvetic Confession (1536), which for a generation was the authoritative expression of Zwinglian views; and with Calvin he drew up the Consensus Tigurinus (1549), which brought the Zurich and Genevan Protestants into one “Reformed Church.”
Despite that protective accord, Catholicism regained in later years much of its lost ground in Switzerland, partly through its victory at Kappel; theologies are proved or disproved in history by competitive slaughter or fertility. Seven cantons adhered to Catholicism—Lucerne, Uri, Schwyz, Zug, Unterwalden, Fribourg, and Solothurn; four were definitely Protestant-Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Schaffhausen; the rest remained poised between the two faiths, uncertain of their certainties. Zwingli’s successor at Glarus, Valentin Tschudi, compromised by saying Mass in the morning for Catholics, and preaching an evangelical—purely Scriptural—sermon in the evening for the Protestants; he argued for mutual toleration, and was tolerated; he wrote a Chronicle so impartial that no one could tell from it which faith he favored. Even in that age there were Christians.