The Magisterial Reformation: Part 2

  1. Reasons for the success of the Reformation.
  2. Zwingli, and the beginning of the Reformation in Switzerland.


 Why was the Reformation ‘successful’ in the 16th century? It seems to me there were four main reasons.

  1. Major powers were pre-occupied.

There was a continuing struggle for power and dominance between the powerful Catholic countries of Europe and the papacy. The supremacy of the papacy itself was dented in the 15th century when the Catholic Council of Constance clipped the wings of the popes.

The Italian wars (1494–1559) were a series of violent wars for control of Italy, fought largely by France and Spain but involving the Pope and much of Europe. In 1521, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was allied with England and the Pope against France, and they drove the French out of Milan, defeating and capturing Francis I, the King of France in 1525, and forced him to sign a peace treaty while he was imprisoned. When he was released, however, the King of France denounced the treaty because it had been signed under duress. France then joined an alliance that the Pope had formed with Henry VIII of England as well as others to resist the growing power of the Holy Roman Emperor. In the ensuing war, Charles’s mercenary troops sacked and plundered Rome itself and the Pope came under virtual imprisonment in 1527.

We can see that all this was going on at the very time that the Reformation was breaking onto the scene! (Martin Luther had made his 95 theses public in 1517.) Catholic nations, together with the Catholic Church, were all involved in a struggle for dominance and expansion of territory.

It was during this period that King Henry VIII had asked the pope (Pope Clement VII) for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The Pope refused for several reasons – one being that Emperor Charles V of Spain, who was essentially holding the Pope as prisoner, was Catherine’s nephew.

To add to their woes, there was also the threat from the east from the Ottoman Empire that was expanding westwards.

  1. Resentment towards the Catholic Church.

The wealth, corruption and exploitation of the Church caused growing resentment, as did the lavish and indulgent life-style of its clerics and popes. At the beginning of the 15th century the Catholic Church and its papacy were in disarray when they found themselves with three competing popes! There were all sorts of intrigues and plots in the papal court, and the Catholic Church was trying to bleed people dry of money through the sale of indulgences in order to fund its lavish building enterprises in Rome. The church was also plagued with immorality. Priests and monks were known for their dissolute lives. In a pastoral letter, shortly before the Reformation, one bishop complained of the immorality of many priests who openly kept concubines in their houses, and refused to dismiss them, who gambled, who loved to sit in taverns and get drunk, and who were not averse to using foul language. Feeling secure in their status after so many centuries of being in control, many Catholic priests and monks disgraced themselves openly. Luther himself testified to these things.

Towards the end of the 15th century in a region of southern Germany about 1,500 children were born annually to priests. The church condoned their behaviour by exacting a cradle fee for each child and a mistress fee from each offending clergyman.

European states were not too happy as they watched the papacy enriching itself at their expense, and discontent was rife among many citizens of all classes. The Catholic Church’s opulence, corruption, abuses and immorality was creating discontent and resentment among the peoples of Europe, making them open and ready to embrace a movement that attacked such abuses.

  1. Renaissance Humanism.

Renaissance humanism occurred during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. It was not anti-Christian or like the humanist teaching of today. On the contrary, Renaissance humanists wanted to bring the clear teaching of the Bible to the people. Their efforts went towards making society more moral, Christian and cultured. Renaissance humanism effected every single aspect of society – scientific, artistic, cultural, moral, religious, etc. To put it briefly, it was a movement that saw the traditional mode of teaching and learning of previous centuries as a straight-jacket to free thinking – they particularly wanted to be free from the dogma of the church which had determined so much learning. Renaissance humanism advocated and applied a return to the reading of Greek and Latin ancient literature. With regard to our focus, what was an essential part of the humanist approach was their focus on the return to, and use of ancient sources, and this would mean ancient biblical sources.  

They believed people are best informed on Christian truth by making the Word of God available to them instead of allowing church tradition to dictate what is believed.

This brings us to Erasmus, one of the most famous humanists of that period. He was a Catholic priest and a very notable scholar of the 16th century. He gathered together Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and eventually published a Greek New Testament in 1516. A future edition of this became the basis for the ‘received text’ on which the King James Authorised Version of the Bible is based. In 1516, in his introduction to the New Testament he writes, “If the Gospel were truly preached, the Christian people would be spared many wars.”

Erasmus throughout his career sought to provide Christians and the reformers with a scriptural approach that would enable them to challenge some of the practices and doctrines of the Catholic Church. The Bible becomes the standard by which to judge things. In 1516 Erasmus wrote, “I am delighted to know that my labours, such as they are, find some favour with men of good will. Many are taking this opportunity to read the Scriptures who would never have read them otherwise, as they themselves admit….” (N1)

Erasmus and other Christian humanists paved the way for the reformers that followed by using Scripture to highlight the ecclesiastical abuses of the Catholic Church. However, Erasmus himself sought to reform the Catholic Church from within, not to fight it from the outside or separate himself from it.

Moreover, although Christian humanists like Erasmus pointed out the failings of the Catholic Church, they represented notable theologians from reputable learning centres and their criticisms found favour among many, including at that time the Catholic King of France. Christian humanism itself was finding favour across Europe and, initially, all this lent an air of respectability to the efforts of scholars like Erasmus and thus avoided a severe backlash from the Catholic Church – initially, at least.

What needs to be mentioned here – as has already been hinted at – is that, before appearing on the scene, many of the leading reformers of 16th century were influenced by humanist scholars, like Erasmus and others. Martin Luther, Zwingli, William Farel, Calvin and others had come under the direct influence of such humanists and imbibed teaching – not just with regard to Scripture, but also with regard to classical Greek and Latin works. With a nod to the Humanist movement, some of the reformers changed their names to Latin or Greek alternatives, which were not always easy to pronounce. Thus Philip Schwartzerdt (right-hand man to Martin Luther) changed his surname to Melanchthon, and Johannes Hussgen (the leading reformer in Basel) changed his surname to Oecolampadius.

Another significant humanist was Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455 – c. 1536). He was a French theologian and a leading figure in French humanism, who taught at the University of Paris.

He was a significant forerunner of the Protestant movement in France, and like Erasmus, he too influenced some of the budding reformers with an understanding and application of Scripture with which to challenge Roman Catholic dogma.

Lefèvre had a significant influence on Luther, who made use of Lefèvre’s writings in his lecture preparations. However, though Renaissance humanism gained a foothold in the University of Paris, the conservative Catholic element viewed this new humanism with great distrust, and Lefèvre came under suspicion of being a Lutheran himself, or even being the instigator for the rise of Lutheran thought. The theologian Noël Béda, who was an opponent of Renaissance humanism, and of course of Lutheranism, inveighed against Lefèvre as providing the seedbed for Lutheran thought. He wrote, “Luther is a great heretic, but Lefèvre is the master and Luther the disciple… Lefèvre, Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Oecolampadius are men of their ilk all the same.” (N2)

These comments clearly show the close connection between Renaissance humanism and the development of the thinking of the reformers – at least in the eyes of their adversaries! Lefèvre was seen to be an originator of Lutheranism. There are any number of histories now that show this connection between Reformed thinking and Renaissance humanism.

As I mentioned in Chapter One, you didn’t need special spiritual revelation to conclude that many Catholic doctrines and practices were clearly unbiblical. In just reading the New Testament, common sense and unprejudiced thinking reveal certain Catholic teachings as totally wrong. Renaissance humanism, among other things, just highlighted what was obvious to common sense and furnished the upcoming reformers with biblical teaching and the tools by which to challenge Roman Catholic dogma, and in that sense provided them with the platform and impetus to do so.

As a result of these criticisms, Lefèvre had to flee Paris, though he remained a Catholic throughout his life. Like Erasmus, Lefèvre sought to reform the Church without separating from it.

Not only did Lefèvre come under fire, but also Erasmus himself started to be accused of inspiring Luther. In fact, Martin Luther had been pressing Erasmus to change camps and join him in the Reformation movement. However, as has been noted, Erasmus wanted to stay firmly in the Catholic camp and change things from within. Moreover, Erasmus found the Reformation movement to strident and divisive and also criticised its excesses in violence and iconoclasm. In the end, Erasmus wrote against Luther’s notion of the total inability of man to choose what is right, thus sealing the division between them.

While studying at Paris, John Calvin too was significantly influenced by the humanist teachings of Maturin Cordier, who himself would later be attacked for being a Lutheran.

One could write a lot more about the extent of the influence of humanist teaching on the leading reformers of the 16th century, but I will let the above suffice to show the connection, though it will inevitably be touched upon again as we study the lives of the Magisterial Reformers.

The significance of the above raises the question, to what extent, if any, did the leading reformers come to an understanding of Scripture as a result of a deep spiritual change in their lives at that time, and to what extent was their growing understanding of Scripture – whether gradual or sudden – simply a matter of intellectual enlightenment or development? This whole article is an exploration in an attempt to answer this question.

  1. The growing nationalism and independence of European states and regions.

For me this is probably one of, if not the most important factor that gave opportunity for the reformation to take root and spread. Resentment against the Catholic Church and its abuses had been around for some time.  As we have seen, others, in previous generations had already spoken and written against the superstitious teachings of the Catholic Church, pointing out that the scriptures themselves should alone be our guide in doctrine and practice. And many had risked and given their lives in doing so. They hadn’t succeeded because, in the end, Catholic power was too prevalent and strong, and any such individuals or movements were brutally suppressed.

Also, as we have seen, in the rise and spread of humanist teaching, the reformers found a basis and impetus for clear, biblical and reasoned attacks on the Catholic Church and its superstitions and abuses. But this in itself again would not have been enough for success.

What aided the Reformation was that certain ruling city councils in Switzerland and  some notable princes in the German lands were now ready and in a position to support and protect the emerging reformation. Their motives for doing so, however, were at least to some extent mixed, and related to using the budding Reformation as an opportunity to free themselves from the economic exploitation and political dominance of the Roman Church.

So, it was not that men like the reformers were more courageous in the 16th Century to stand up for the truth against the Catholic Church. Not at all. In fact, as we shall see, the leading reformers compromised the truth and even their own stated allegiance to sola scriptura when they themselves actually came up against the power of the religious state.

When push came to shove, ‘might’ was ‘right’. That is, in the final analysis, it is the state or city power and authority that would decide what would be permissible or not in its dominion concerning religious matters. And this was a decisive factor in the emergence of the Reformation.

Once the Reformation was under way, at the Diet of Speyer in 1526 – a conference between the emerging German Protestant states and the Catholic Church – a significant phrase was coined. In translation from the Latin it reads, “Whose realm, his religion”. This underscores what I have been saying throughout this article. If you get the (religious) state power behind you, yours becomes the religion of the state! In other words, in the last analysis, the secular power, which has the overriding power, decides the religion of their realm.

The wealth, power and exploitative abuses of the Catholic Church had already created a climate where princes in Germany and city authorities in Switzerland were ready to exploit an opportunity to free themselves from Catholic domination and retrieve wealth for themselves instead of it going to Rome and the pope. So when the reformers came along, with their scriptural teaching against the abuses of Rome, political reasons undoubtedly also played a part in leading a state or regional power into supporting the Reformation. The secular authorities could also benefit by freeing themselves from church taxes and confiscating church property.

In other words, it would be difficult to determine how much was religious conviction and how much was political expediency that led a regional power to support the Reformation.

So how did this change in the power balance come about? Apart from other things, in particular:

In Germany, tensions had already existed between German princes and the Holy Roman Emperor. Frederick III, Prince Elector of Saxony in the German lands, had been vying to be chosen as the Holy Roman Emperor but had been bribed by Charles V. Jockeying for power and authority was already a feature in Europe in the 16th century, and German princes were ready to flex their muscles at this time, and it is the support of the German princes and other nobles that would be absolutely decisive for the success of the Reformation in Germany.

Switzerland was within the Holy Roman Empire but in 1499 the Swiss won autonomy for themselves after wars ending in that year. The Swiss Confederation consisted of 13 Cantons or regions, and each one of these could decide its destiny for itself. Again, this would be an absolutely crucial factor for the development of the Reformation in Switzerland. Swiss councils and their magistrates had the final word, and they could decide which direction to take without any interference from Rome.


The Church in Switzerland was corrupt and as much in need of reform as in Germany. The clergy were ignorant, superstitious, and immoral, and set a bad example to the laity. Celibacy made having a concubine a common and pardonable offence.


Zwingli was one of the leading reformers and was responsible for introducing the Reformation to Switzerland. Zurich, where he laboured, was the first Swiss city to go over to the Reformation.

Zwingli was born 1484. He studied in Bern and the University of Vienna (1498), and then went  on to the University of Basel (1502). This University was a centre of literary activity and came under the influence Renaissance Humanism. The Humanist Thomas Wyttenbach taught theology there between 1505 and 1508, and spoke against indulgences, the mass, and the celibacy of the priesthood. Zwingli attended his lectures and learned much from him. Erasmus also spent several years actively working In Basel. Zwingli, like other reformers, was deeply influenced by humanist teachers and modern trends in scholarship.

In about 1506, Zwingli became vicar in Glarus. It was during his stay at Glarus that Zwingli became acquainted with the writings of Erasmus. His library was full of humanist books. Zwingli met Erasmus in 1515, and they continued corresponding until the late 1520s, when Zwingli’s religious views were no longer in tune with those of Erasmus. During his time Glarus, Zwingli became convinced that the Bible had supremacy over all other books.

However, in speaking against a certain practice that was political in nature (the mercenary system and the ‘pensions’ related to that), he was forced to leave Glarus.

In 1516 he moved to Einsiedeln and became chaplain at the Benedictine Abbey there. During this period he continued his studies, and concentrated on the Epistles of St. Paul and started to teach against Catholic superstitions and abuses. By this time Zwingli had resolved to preach nothing but what the scriptures taught. Zwingli afterward stated that he had developed his evangelical understanding of the Scriptures during this period. According to D’Aubigne (History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. 2, Ch. 4), Zwingli dated the beginning of the Swiss reformation to this period – although D’Aubigne makes clear that it was Luther’s public pronouncements that first got the Reformation off the ground.

While at the Abbey, he developed a style of expository preaching – teaching from the biblical text itself rather than from set lessons laid down by Catholic custom. This was a totally new type of preaching and it very much impressed the pilgrims from Zurich, who came in large numbers to see the Black Madonna at the Abbey. As a result of this preaching, his sermons made him well known in the city of Zurich. So, in 1519 he was invited to become people’s priest at the Great Minster in Zurich (1 Jan. 1519).

But why would the Catholic Church invite someone like Zwingli who was showing signs of Lutheranism in his teachings, to be their lead man at the Great Minster?

One of the factors in this might have been that several cantons in Switzerland, being disgusted with the papacy and its clerics, were on the point of breaking with it. As I have already mentioned, politics at least to some extent played a part in all that was happening, both on the part of the Catholic Church and here, on the part of the Zürich Council. So it is possible that the Catholic Church induced Zwingli to take up the appointment in Zürich rather than to oppose him like they had done with Luther. In other words, they sought to get him on their side.

We noted that Zwingli had already embraced reformed views by this time. He had also read Luther in 1519, but maintained that he had already discovered ‘evangelical’ principles by then. However, embracing evangelical principles doesn’t mean the same as being spiritually regenerated. This was revealed by what happened while his appointment to Zürich was being considered. Although he seemed to be getting his ‘reformed doctrine’ straight, it didn’t seem to reform his lifestyle.

During the election process for the appointment to the great Minster in Zürich, Zwingli’s friend, Oswald Myconius, relates to him a rumour that could jeopardise his appointment. Zwingli was being accused of sexual misconduct. Though not all the details of the accusations were true, yet there was substance to them.

So on December 5, 1518, in the middle of the selection process for the appointment in Zürich, Zwingli writes a letter to Heinrich Utinger, who is one of the officials responsible for appointing a priest to the Great Minster. In this letter, though acknowledging sexual misconduct with shame and regret, Zwingli nevertheless seeks to justify himself to some extent. He even states, “I cannot ignore this slander”, which is a curious form of defence, given his guilt.

Zwingli explains that three years earlier – while he was at Glarus – he had made “a firm resolution” to “never touch a woman again”, but that it didn’t exactly end well. In the rumours that were going around, Zwingli had been accused of seducing the daughter of a high-ranking Zurich official. Zwingli admitted that it “does not bode well to openly vilify a woman”, but he claims to have good reasons for doing so. Zwingli clarifies, if not protests, that the woman was a barber’s daughter, and a very loose one at that, whose reputation was well known – “a virgin by day and a wench by night”, as Zwingli put it. He confesses that she might be pregnant by him or by someone else, but claims the parents are not concerned about it! To counter the accusation that he had dishonoured the young woman, Zwingli asserts that he has followed three principles throughout his life: never deflower a virgin, defile a nun or “violate a marriage”. Moreover, he maintained that thanks to his “sense of decency” he had always been highly discreet “in such matters”. Even in Glarus, at his previous position, he had done it “with such secrecy” that even “his closest acquaintances hardly noticed anything”. (Letter-Writing in the Early Swiss Reformation: Zwingli’s Neglected Correspondence. Nigel Harris, Zürich, 7th May 2019 /

The only point in referencing the above is because it relates directly to the question posed by this study. By 1519 Zwingli had already declared that he had embraced evangelical principles and was already preaching along reformed lines. How is it that in his letter to Utinger, Zwingli makes no mention of any spiritual change or experience in his life during those few preceding years? Can one convert to reformed doctrine without being converted? That is the pertinent question. Zwingli’s letter is a mixture of different sentiments, and if he had undergone a true spiritual conversion one would have expected him to write of his repentance in unqualified terms. There would have been not only something like an unqualified admission of guilt, but also of an experience that had now given his life a totally new direction morally. There is none of that. Apart from a resolve to do better – which any (godless) person can do – there is no hint of a Gospel experience in the letter. The point of saying these things is not to judge the man for his failings, but to highlight what seemed to be lacking in the Protestant Reformation, namely, a radical inward transformation.

D’Aubigne writes of the above incident in sympathetic terms: “One man even accused him of seduction. Zwingli was not blameless, and although less erring than the ecclesiastics of his day, he had more than once, in the first years of his ministry, allowed himself to be led astray by the passions of youth. We cannot easily form an idea of the influence upon the soul of the corrupt atmosphere in which it lives. There existed in the papacy, and among the priests, disorders that were established, allowed, and authorised, as conformable to the laws of nature.” (D’Aubigne, History Of The Reformation Of The Sixteenth Century, Vol. 2, Ch. 6.)

D’Aubigne refers to the immorality that was common among Catholic priests – which has already been noted – and proceeds to suggest, probably accurately, that the tide of what was happening around Zwingli was, to some extent, carrying him with it. He seems to be correct in his assessment – but where does that leave the Gospel and the experience of it in Zwingli’s life? We are not here talking about perfection and infallibility, but the experience of the power of the Gospel in a person’s life to which they can give testimony to – a reference to a ‘turning’ point in the reformer’s life that is more than just an advance in doctrine. This seems to be altogether lacking in Zwingli’s letter or conversation with others at this time. Did Zwingli experience the power of the Gospel and the radical change it produces in a life after this period? If so, we know nothing of it. Moreover, his actions toward the Anabaptists would contradict such an experience. One might well ask, what, in fact, did evangelical truth mean to Zwingli?

Nevertheless, as such failings were common among the clerics, it did not prove problematic for Zwingli to get the required votes to install him at the Great Minster in Zürich.

Zwingli In Zurich.

Zwingli’s labours made Zurich one of the main centres of the Reformation in Switzerland.

On 1 January 1519, Zwingli gave his first sermon in Zürich. Deviating from the prevalent practice of basing a sermon on the Gospel lesson of a particular Sunday, Zwingli, using Erasmus’ New Testament as a guide, began to go through the Gospel of Matthew, giving his interpretation during the sermon. This was something altogether new to the hearers. In his sermons he exhorted people to moral improvement and also called for ecclesiastical change, which were well in line with the reforms advocated by Erasmus. He attacked moral corruption and even named the individuals who were guilty of it. Monks were accused of indolence and self-indulgence. He attacked those practices and teachings which had no Scriptural basis and soon became a renowned figure in Zürich. In his preaching he emphasised that salvation and forgiveness was through Christ alone.

Zwingli was dissatisfied with the Catholic Episcopal control over Zurich so resigned his post in November 1521 and accepted a new authorization from the city council. This was a shrewd political move, because his bosses were now not the Catholic Church, but the city council.


By 1522 other men with Catholic backgrounds and a zeal for reform were drawn to Zurich to study with Zwingli. Under him, they began to study the secular Greek classics, as was typical of Renaissance humanists, but also the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew. It is interesting to note, even at this stage, the extent to which the non-Christian humanistic studies were still occupying the mind and time of Zwingli. Two of the names of those that joined Zwingli at this time were Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, who was soon to become the first Anabaptist martyr to be murdered under the reformers. Both Grebel and Manz were educated men and their fathers were notable citizens.

The Lent Affair.

In March 1522, the printer Froschauer served sausages to his workers, who, he claimed, were exhausted from putting out the new edition of the Epistles of Saint Paul. Because the eating of meat during Lent was prohibited, the event caused a public outcry and led to Froschauer being arrested. Zwingli was quick to defend Froschauer from allegations of heresy in a sermon he gave after the incident. The Catholic Bishop of Constance, was so scandalised by Zwingli’s preaching that he called for a mandate to be issued by the council to prohibit the preaching of any Reformation doctrine in Switzerland. However, Zwingli defended his position in writing and, significantly, the council took no further action. This is another example of the inevitable tension between the secular authority and the religious institution. As I mentioned, Switzerland being autonomous meant that the Roman Catholic Church had no overriding say in what happened there. This was decisive in the success of the Reformation in Switzerland.

In this same year Zwingli also wrote against compulsory celibacy, which was part of Catholic dogma.

(Just a note to say that in Swiss cities the government normally consisted of three councils, with the Small Council – which had the least number of members – being the most important, and on which the Magistrates or ‘Syndics’ sat. This was followed by the Council of the 200, and finally a far wider general council. For the sake of simplicity, in this study I will normally just use the word ‘council’ or ‘councils’ when referring to the city authorities.)

The First Public Debate.

All this lead to quite a commotion not only in Zurich but in all of Switzerland, with the Catholic Church concerned that Zurich might follow Luther’s path and separate from the church. So at Zwingli’s suggestion the government  – the small and large councils – orders a public disputation to try and settle the matter. This would be the First Public Debate (29 Jan. 1523) and they would consider the whole question of reform. Zwingli drew up 67 theses; in these he upholds that salvation is through Christ alone, and maintains that the Word of God is the only rule of faith; he rejects and attacks the church hierarchical structure, the Catholic Mass, praying to saints, the merit of human works, fasts, pilgrimages, celibacy, and purgatory, stating they are the unscriptural commandments of men.

600 distinguished and representative citizens gathered in the city hall. The Catholic bishop declined to attend – declaring it was not a secular matter! (Another instance of the inevitable tension between Church and State.) In the bishop’s absence, Zwingli won the support of the council and he was allowed to continue “to proclaim the holy gospel and the pure holy Scripture”, and the council ordered that all preachers should teach in accordance with the same standards. Because the council had the power to do this, they used it!

Zwingli’s ‘67 Articles’ were adopted by Zurich as the city’s official doctrine. The Reformation was happening.

So a city that was Catholic in practice and doctrine becomes ‘Reformed’ by a vote at the council meeting. Is this spiritual renewal, or dare we say revival, or is it just people adopting a different religious outlook for reasons that might not be altogether religious?

Whatever the case may be, here we have a hugely significant example of how the civic authority can not only interfere with, but decide on matters of religious doctrine and practice in a given region. This afterwards became a decisive factor throughout Switzerland and aided the Reformation there. It was by the decision of Swiss city councils through public disputations of this kind that Swiss regions became Reformed. Not only did they become reformed, but working in tandem with the council, the reformers made sure that no other brand of Christianity would or could exist in their regions except that taught by the reformers.

However, at this time, the zealous reformers Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz were working side by side with Zwingli for reforms. But all this continued to create a tremendous stir in the city and further debates, so a second disputation was called.

The Second Disputation took place on 26 October, 1523, and lasted 3 days. 900 were present, with the Roman Catholics in attendance this time to fight their corner. The main discussion related to the nature of the Eucharist, and images in churches. After the debate on the Eucharist, the council was not persuaded to abandon the Catholic Mass so easily – this tradition was still quite ingrained in them. They wanted to carry on with the next topic without making a decision on the Eucharist. However, Zwingli’s associates, Grebel and Manz, who had been labouring with him for reform, were concerned that the Catholic Mass would be allowed to continue and called for a vote on it. Here Zwingli, to the astonishment of the radicals, intervened and insisted it was for the council to decide on these matters. He was then countered by one of the radicals that it is God’s Spirit who decides such matters, not the council. However, Zwingli stood fast with the council, so the Catholic Mass continued to be celebrated under Zwingli’s supervision. Grebel and Manz wanted to restore the sacrament to apostolic simplicity but were shocked to find themselves thwarted by their ally and mentor, Zwingli. At this disputation, no decision was made concerning the Catholic mass and images and the homage paid to them.

It would seem that Zwingli was playing politics rather than being led by his convictions. He could see that the council wasn’t prepared to be pressurised into change regarding the Eucharist. His position and status could certainly be jeopardised if he pushed too hard on this issue. He probably felt that discretion was the better part of valour on this occasion. Again, this is another example of secular power trumping religious conviction and authority. However, this kind of ‘compromise’ on the part of Zwingli would have disastrous results for his erstwhile colleagues.

This now led to a separation between Zwingli and some others who had been associated with him, in particular Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz, and others that I shall shortly mention.

These radical reformers – as they will also now be called – became increasingly frustrated with Zwingli’s hesitancy to implement further reformed changes in Zurich, and also disillusioned with what they considered Zwingli’s abandonment of evangelical principles. Conrad Grebel believed that Zwingli’s failure to stand firm on the word of God in this Second Disputation resulted in the collapse of the Reformation in Switzerland. He wrote the following to his brother-in-law, “On that occasion, the Word was overthrown, setback, and bound by its most learned heralds.” (Letter of Grebel to Vadian, Dec. 18, 1523; Sources of Swiss Anabaptism, p. 276.)

Conrad Grebel kept up a writing campaign on behalf of the radical brethren to the Zurich Council, but it was all in vain. It is not just that Zwingli disagreed with these radical reformers – he now became an opponent and their enemy.

After all their efforts in negotiating with, and writing to Zwingli and the council, the radicals started now to meet together informally in houses for bible-study, particularly in the home of Felix Manz.

Third private discussions

During the course of the next year, 1524, further more private consultations were held in the council to allow additional reforms to be undertaken against medieval Roman Catholic devotion and practices. Images, pictures, candles and altars were disposed of, frescoes were whitewashed and saints relics buried. Eventually, in April 1525 the council did abolish the Catholic mass.

Nevertheless, the rift remained between Zwingli and the radical reformers. And by this date of 1525, the radical reformers had been meeting together for some time and had gone far beyond just wanting to reform Catholic practices and false teaching – they had progressed to a preaching of the Gospel that would result in an inward spiritual change of the individual, through personal repentance, conversion and a baptism that witnessed to that repentance and to their commitment to a Christian life.

However, this new understanding inevitably impinged on infant baptism, which was very much regarded as a sign of being incorporated into the Christian community. One pastor in a neighbouring village to Zürich (Wilhelm Reublin) was among the first to preach against infant baptism, resulting in some families withholding their children from being baptised. This met with an immediate reaction from the authorities. Reublin was imprisoned and then forced to leave Zürich in August 1524. He is the one who would later baptise Balthasar Hübmaier, who was to become one of the most energetic Anabaptist evangelists in southern Germany.

The rejection of infant baptism and the adoption of  believer’s baptism would become a major reason for the persecution of Anabaptists on the part of the reformers.

The main issue that now arose between the radical reformers and Zwingli (the magisterial reformer) together with the civil authorities was infant baptism. Grebel and Manz reminded Zwingli that he had once rejected infant baptism, and they claimed they had derived their own view from him. He responded by saying that there had been a misunderstanding! The radical reformers believed that there was no scriptural basis for infant baptism. They believed in a personal repentance leading to that indidual’s conversion which was demonstrated by a changed life – and it was upon such a testimony that the individual would be baptised. These radicals, or Anabaptists as they would be called (‘anabaptism’ meaning ‘to be baptised again’), rejected the teaching on infant baptism as a means of becoming a member of the church.

As we shall see, such ideas were alien to all the reformers, including Zwingli, and they violently opposed them – particularly as these teachings of the radical reformers directly and fundamentally touched on the nature of the church. The radical reformers believed in a church composed of committed believers, not in the idea of a church made up of the mixed multitude of so-called wheat and tares of the whole community, which was the view of all magisterial reformers, such as Luther and Calvin. The radicals, however, wanted to base their teaching on the Scriptures alone, and they could see that the church was not represented by a ‘Christianised’ community, a community of all those who had been born and baptised as infants in the parish, irrespective of their subsequent conduct! The true church, like that of the apostles, was to be made up only of those confessing Christ as Lord, and then followed by believer’s baptism.

There is an irony here, in that the radical reformers took up the banner of ‘sola scriptura’ against the arguments of the magisterial reformers, which the latter were using against the Catholics in their arguments with them!

This radical ‘reformation’ did not stop with just changing a number of Catholic doctrines and superstitious practices; it had at its foundation the total ‘reformation’, or transformation, of the inward spiritual state of the individual! This is what represented the great dividing line.

This teaching of the radicals struck at the heart of the idea of ‘Christendom’, of the ‘Christianised’ community or nation. Both the secular powers and the magisterial reformers were wedded to the idea that the community is already ‘Christian’ by virtue of infant baptism and by participation in the traditions of the Church. It is certain that the reformers were aware that this would be the immovable positon of the civic authorities, and to what extent the magisterial reformers knowingly compromised previously held convictions or genuinely subscribed to this viewpoint can be a matter of debate. Was is certain is that in the ensuing debates the reformers developed teachings that totally supported infant baptism and that opposed believer’s baptism, and that in fact, denied the notion of  ‘conversion’ experience.

The Anabaptists believed that the church is only for believers who are committed to Christ and whose lives demonstrate that. This logically leads to the understanding that church and state are completely separate, with the state having no say in church matters! There is no way the secular power, the council in Zurich, would tolerate a teaching that threatened the church state model that had been reigning and ruling for the last 1200 years! In the eyes of the political rulers – the city council – and the magisterial reformers, this was tantamount to schism, sedition and treason, and threatened to overthrow both church and state. As we saw in Chapter 1, this had been the belief and outlook of the emerging institutional church from the 3rd century onwards. 

This indeed was radical, explosive stuff – to both the reformers and the Catholics! It would not be tolerated by either.

During this time, the radical reformers continued to make various representations to Zwingli and the council in writing concerning the scriptural validity of believer’s baptism, but it was to no avail – neither Zwingli nor the council would give any ground. In fact, as I said, Zwingli turned against his erstwhile friends, argued against them to the council, wrote against them, and in a short time, under his leadership, it would lead to laws being passed to punish, imprison, banish and even to kill the radical reformers – the Anabaptists.

The commotion that was now being caused led to another public disputation.

The Public Disputation of Jan. 1525

On January 17, 1525, a public disputation was held in Zurich, with Zwingli together with others, including his colleague Heinrich Bullinger who would become the leading reformer in Zurich after Zwingli, facing the radicals, Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, and those associated with them. Though the radical reformers defended their views well, denying that infant baptism had any sanction in the Scriptures, it was Zwingli who argued against them, with the city council ruling in Zwingli’s favour and for infant baptism.

Earlier in his career as a reformer, Zwingli found it difficult to accept the baptism of infants. He wrote, “Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptise children, for I know it ought not to be done.” (N3) He stated that infant baptism had no foundation in Scripture and to follow Scripture means not to baptise anyone until they reach the age of discretion. However, he recognised that the religious culture he was in would not accept such a change, and he was not willing to incur the displeasure or hostility of the council. Zwingli writes, “If however I were to terminate the practice, then I fear that I would lose my prebend.” (Ibid, quoted Verduin, p. 199). In other words, if Zwingli pressed the council to change their stance on infant baptism, he would be ousted – and further reform with him. As I have mentioned, infant baptism was regarded by the religious secular powers as an indispensable foundation to the ‘Christian’ state.

As we shall later see, like Luther, Zwingli was quick to compromise on infant baptism and to abandon the principal ‘by scripture alone’ in the face of opposition from those keeping him in power. It was in this conflict with the Anabaptists that both Zwingli and Luther developed ideas contrary to their original outlook. To begin with, Luther had not believed in the persecution of schismatics or heretics. It was the conflict with the Anabaptists that pushed him in this direction.

So, in this third public disputation with the radicals, or Anabaptists as they would be called, Zwingli rejected their arguments and claimed that infant baptism in the New Covenant took the place of circumcision of the Old Covenant. And as circumcision was a seal to becoming part of God’s people in the Old Covenant so, by extension of the comparison, it would mean that infant baptism makes the child a part of God’s people – the child is incorporated into the Church, into the body of Christ by baptism. And of course, this is exactly the position that Luther and Calvin took in their writings, as we shall see. The Anabaptists regarded this comparison as unbiblical, pointing out that infant baptism is nowhere to be taught or found in the New Testament.  Zwingli responded by quoting Augustine, saying that he is sure that infant baptism had begun at the time of Christ and the apostles, although he concedes that no mention is made explicitly in the New Testament.

It was a hard choice for the magisterial reformers. If they held to their original convictions on infant baptism, they would so alienate the secular authorities that they, the magisterial reformers, would not only lose their position and status, but the Reformation itself would be halted if not banned, throwing the secular authorities back into the lap of the Catholic Church. Should one hold onto the power one has to change at least some things, or lose all such power and influence by holding on to one’s convictions – if such convictions were held? Magisterial reformers like Zwingli and Luther chose the former. Only they would know if their ‘turn around’ on the subject of infant baptism was the result of genuine reconsideration and conviction, or just political expediency. Luther acknowledged that society was not ready at all to do away with infant baptism.

One could wonder if this verse in Hebrews ever crossed their minds in these circumstances: “Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a time.” (Hebrews 11:25). Or to make it more relevant, we could change some of the words to read this, “Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy position and power for a season.” However, this position and power included them becoming the persecutors of believers (the Anabaptists) and the cause of much of their cruel suffering

Or to approach this from another angle one could ask, had the Gospel brought about a deep inward conversion, regeneration that resulted in unshakeable convictions in the reformers – such as the Anabaptists had? Or is Zwingli a person religiously and zealously devout but lacking the courage and conviction that comes from an inward transformation – and thus willing to compromise on the basis of political expediency? Is Zwingli just adjusting and reforming the ‘religious worldview’ of a ‘Christianised’ community, just disabusing them of the superstitions and false teaching of the Catholic Church without bringing about a change of heart in his listeners that would lead to their conversion – a conversion that would make redundant the years it was taking of trying to persuade people to change their religion? Were the reformers like Zwingli, Luther and Calvin just ‘intellectually enlightened’ through Renaissance Humanism concerning some aspects of the Gospel and the false teachings of the Catholic Church? Were they just using the New Testament to preach a higher morality to their listeners, rather than preaching in a way that caused them to know they had never known Christ in truth? This latter approach was certainly true of the Anabaptists.

What we can say is the following: This decision of the magisterial reformers on infant baptism did result in them retaining power and position and securing safety for themselves, but it also turned them into the persecutors of those that disagreed with them, subjecting them to the most unspeakable sufferings!

So Zwingli sides with the secular authorities and keeps his position, which allows reforms to continue at a pace and to the degree that the city council allows. Reforms could be implemented in Zurich because the Catholic Church had no overriding power or threat of physical force in the Swiss confederation to oppose or stop it. As I said, this was a decisive factor in the success of the magisterial Reformation in Switzerland. But now it was the civil power that had supremacy, and reform could only progress as far as this civil authority allowed it to.

After the public disputation of January 1525, the council issued measures banning the meetings of the Anabaptists, and parents were ordered to have their infants baptised within eight days if they had not already done so, on pain of expulsion from the city.

The Anabaptists had either to conform, leave Zurich or face imprisonment.

However, the Anabaptists were undeterred; they were going to follow their conscience and convictions. On January 21, 1525, about a dozen men met at the house of Felix Manz, and in a solemn manner Conrad Grebel, a layman, baptised George Blaurock, an ordained priest. By now George Blaurock had joined the radical reformers in Zürich. After this, they baptised all the others present. Thus on January 21, 1525, as one historian writes, “Anabaptism was born. With this first baptism, the earliest church of the Swiss Brethren was constituted. This was clearly the most revolutionary act of the Reformation. No other event so completely symbolised the break with Rome…The Brethren emphasised the absolute necessity of a personal commitment to Christ as essential to salvation and a prerequisite to baptism.” (The Anabaptist Story, W. R. Estep, 1996; p.14; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge UK).

This was a huge challenge to the state-patronised Reformation promoted by Zwingli, Luther and others.


We will now have a closer look at the radical Reformation by following the lives of some of its prominent figures.


In February of that year, Grebel and Manz went from house to house witnessing, baptizing, and conducting the Lord’s Supper after the new order of the Swiss Brethren. This evangelisation soon spread to neighbouring villages and towns and even further afield in Switzerland.

Two of Grebel’s converts then started to witness in and around another the city (St. Gall) in Switzerland with marked success, so Grebel joined them there. At St. Gall he preached and found great response among the people. This preaching resulted in about five hundred people being baptised in the Sitter River by the Anabaptists on April 9, 1525. However, eventually the authorities in St Gal followed the lead of Zürich and suppressed the movement. From the latter part of April until June, Grebel was forced into hiding in Zurich, as his activities were illegal. Fearing imprisonment at the hands of Zwingli, he became extremely cautious about his movements.

In fact, during this period the Anabaptists were in and out of prison, as they simply kept on preaching and witnessing, whether from house to house, in fields or even churches that initially happened to be open to them.

Grebel then started to evangelise in his home town just east of Zurich, where his father had been a magistrate. Again his efforts met with extraordinary success from the end of June until his arrest on October 8, 1525. The Anabaptists often worked to­gether in an intensive effort to spread the Gospel, and as Grebel, Manz, and a fiery man called George Blaurock, who I mentioned earlier, were preparing for a service in a nearby field, Grebel and Blaurock were arrested by the magistrate and imprisoned in the castle. Three weeks later Felix Manz was seized and thrown into the same prison. Their messages had emphasised the necessity of repentance and faith, all based on the authority of the Scriptures.

They were put on trial, where Zwingli spoke against them, accusing them of sedition. But his charges were based on hearsay accounts rather than on evidence and fact. They were charged with being opposed to all civil government, believing that all things should be held in common, and holding that those who had received believer’s baptism could not sin. This last charge against them was certainly not true. And of course, the charge of sedition, rebellion and threatening to overthrow the state was an accusation labelled against all dissenters from the time of Constantine! Concerning the other charges mentioned, I will not take time at the moment to expand upon these as it is rather involved. But it would be generally true to say that in their attempt to discredit the Anabaptists’ the magisterial reformers would exaggerate or misinterpret (wittingly or unwittingly) the writings of these radical reformers. An excellent book on this topic and on the radical Reformation is Leonard Verduin’s book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. The basis for this book was a series of lectures sponsored by the Calvin foundation in 1963.

Anyway, as a result of the trial, on November 18, 1525, the Anabaptists were condemned to lie in the tower on a diet of bread and water, and no one was permitted to visit them except the guards. During that winter other Anabaptists were imprisoned in Zurich.

In a letter to an acquaintance Zwingli wrote:

“It has been decreed this day by the Council of Two Hundred that the leaders of the Catabaptists shall be cast into the Tower, in which they formerly lay, and be allured by a bread-and-water diet until they either give up the ghost or surrender. It is also added that they who after this are immersed shall be submerged permanently: this decision is now published…I would rather that the newly rising Christianity should not be ushered in with a racket of this sort, but I am not God whom it thus pleases to make provision against evils that are to come, as He did when in olden time He slew with a sudden and fearful death Ananias who lied to Peter, so that He might cast out from us all daring to deceive…”  (Staehelin, Briefe aus der Reformationszeit; Huldrych Zwingli, Letter to Vadian, March 7, 1526, p. 252)

It is amazing, if not a revelation, that he who was called a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland could write with such coldness and murderous intent about those who believed in believer’s baptism! This was no vain threat. It wouldn’t be long before reformed Zurich would have its first martyr at the hands of Zwingli.

After five months of imprisonment, starvation had not worked, so a second trial was held in March 1526. A sentence of life imprisonment was passed on all the defendants. In addition to this, a new mandate was issued on the same day which made the act of performing baptism a crime punishable by death.

However, two weeks later all the Anabaptists managed to escape through the help of a friend. Hounded by the authorities, Conrad Grebel and Felix Manz continued their itinerant ministry in various regions of Switzerland, but Grebel eventually died of the plague that was hitting the region at that time.

However, the preaching of these Anabaptists drew in vast numbers of converts. The academic Tudor Jones in his book ‘The Great Reformation’ writes, “Their preaching was accompanied by spiritual effects of the kind that were to characterise the revivalism of later generations. They created a profound conviction of sin, followed by repentance, conversion and believers baptism. So baptism of these converts was not an academic theological matter; it was deeply embedded in profound spiritual experience.” (The Great Reformation, R. Tudor Jones, p.68; 1997, Gwasg Bryntirion Press, Bryntirion, Bridgend, Wales).

I have nowhere come across statements like these relating to the magisterial reformers. Let me say briefly here, what we will consider in greater depth later. It was not the custom of the magisterial reformers to go out in the highways and byways, preaching the Gospel. They did not preach in the marketplaces or go from house to house exhorting people to faith and repentance so that they might be converted and receive new life. In Switzerland, the magisterial reformers sought to occasion public religious disputations through which they could exploit any disaffection with Roman Catholicism and influence the civic magistrates, and thus lead the latter to impose upon the city the doctrines and practices of the Reformation. It was a change of religion ‘from the top’. It was by a vote of the city council that the whole region declared ‘Reformed’ – not by conversions among the people.

The people sitting in the pews who had been Catholic before the vote, were, after the vote, ‘Reformed’ in doctrine and practice. Just like that! The Catholic priests in that region who did not ‘embrace’ the Reformed traditions normally found themselves without a job. The reformers then preached in churches from pulpits, inculcating in their listeners a switch from one religion to another. There is no account of people weeping or repenting, or crowds of people being converted under Reformation teaching – none that I have come across, anyway. Fundamentally, nor could it be so! The religious worldview of the magisterial reformers was akin to that of the Catholics, to that which had been established in people’s hearts and minds since the time of Constantine; that is, the community, or nation, consists of those who have already been baptised as infants and therefore have already been incorporated into the body of Christ, the church! Why should you convert the converted? In this sense, the magisterial reformers utterly believed in Christendom, as we shall see.


But back to our story. With Conrad Grebel now dead, let us look at some of his fellow Anabaptists who had been working with him; one of these was Felix Manz, mentioned earlier.

He had in vain tried to explain to the Zürich authorities the Anabaptists’ view on believers’ baptism before the great division that happened after January 1525. In referring to Paul’s baptism by Ananias, Manz argued that the passage made clear that baptism was only to be administered to those who had been converted by the word of God and who had had their heart changed, leading to a new life. He argued that a change in the traditional baptism of infants would in no way threaten the stability of the government. Zwingli and the magistrates would not give such a thought the time of day!

Manz was a notable, popular figure and leader who wrote a hymn which is still sung today by some Amish Mennonites and Hutterites. As we saw, Manz managed to continue with his itinerant ministry after escaping from prison – but he was eventually imprisoned and tried again. The Anabaptist movement was a huge thorn in the side of the reformers both in Switzerland and in Germany. A lot of time and energy was taken up in opposing them and writing against them. Now the time had come to enforce the new law.


On January 5, 1527, Manz was sentenced to death at the Council Hall, where he was charged “because contrary to Christian order and custom he had become involved in Anabaptism, had accepted it, taught others, and become a leader and beginner of these things because he confessed having said that he wanted to gather those who wanted to accept Christ and follow Him, and unite himself with them through baptism, and let the rest live according to their faith, so that he and his followers separated themselves from the Christian Church and were about to raise up and prepare a sect of their own under the guise of a Christian meeting and church; because he had condemned capital punishment, and in order to increase his following had boasted of certain revelations from the Pauline Epistles. But since such doctrine is harmful to the unified usage of all Christendom, and leads to offense, insurrection, and sedition against the government, to the shattering of the common peace, brotherly love, and civil cooperation and to all evil, Manz shall be delivered to the executioner, who shall tie his hands, put him into a boat, take him to the lower hut, there strip his bound hands down over his knees, place a stick between his knees and arms, and thus push him into the water and let him perish in the water; thereby he shall have atoned to the law and justice. . . . His property shall also be confiscated by my lords.” (Mennonite Encyclopedia, 3:473. Italics mine.)

Manz, was bound and taken from the prison to the boat. But on the way he witnessed to his faith to those lining the way, and praised God that he was dying for the truth. His mother too, was encouraging him to stay faithful to Christ. As he was then put into a boat and his arms and legs were tied, he cried out with a loud voice, Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit”. He was then plunged into the waters of the river to drown. The budding Reformation in Switzerland was making its impression!

Felix Manz was the first Anabaptist to suffer martyrdom at the hands of the reformers.

The above quote shows that nothing had changed since the time of Augustine. The same accusations of separating themselves from the one true church, and of a sedition that undermines the stability of the state, was brought against the Anabaptists as it had been against the Donatists and others over 1000 years earlier. Christendom continued unabated in its suppression of all dissent. The city councils, in the name of the Reformation and with Zwingli as the religious head, carried on the tradition of suppressing dissent, even if it meant killing their opponents. Some of the reformers’ doctrines may indeed have been different to those of the Catholics, but their deeds and methods of dealing with other Christians who dissented from their beliefs and practices were the same as the Catholics. They carried on the same brutal and dictatorial religious regime that we saw emerging in the fourth century.

Later, in November 1527, the council brought in the death penalty for anyone listening to Anabaptist preaching. And Zwingli was presiding over all this!

A chameleon can change its colour for whatever reason, but it remains a chameleon. Although its colour has changed, its nature remains the same – it hasn’t turned into another creature! So too with the reformers – they had a change of religious outlook and conviction, but were their hearts changed in a way that distinguished them from their Catholic predecessors? This is the question that lies at the heart of what we are considering. In the end, people act according to their nature, not according to their doctrine, and what kind of nature is it that is content to see others killed in order to secure their own form of religion? As we have seen, when push comes to shove, Sola Scriptura has to take a backseat!


We come now to look at George Blaurock. He had been a catholic priest and it was he who asked Conrad Grebel to baptise him on that momentous occasion in January 1525. He could be rather hot-headed though, more than once entering a church and stepping into the pulpit just as the parish priest was about to do so! However, as we shall later see, the reformer William Farel did much the same thing a few years later in the west of the country.

Blaurock was involved with the others in itinerant preaching, being in and out of jail several times as an Anabaptist. On one occasion, after being imprisoned in Zurich (1525) and then released again, he continued witnessing from house to house. The householder, Ruedi Thomann, relates the following, “After much conversation and reading, Hans Bruggbach stood up weeping and crying out that he was a great sinner and asking that they pray God for him. Then Blaurock asked him whether he desired the grace of God. He said he did. Then Manz rose and said, ‘Who will forbid that I should baptise him?’ Blaurock answered, ‘No one.’” (Albert Newman, History of Anti-pedobaptism, 1902, p. 107). Then Manz proceeded to baptise him. Before they left the next morning the whole household turned to Christ and were baptised, except for Rudi’s brother.

Eventually, however, Blaurock was imprisoned with Felix Manz, but as he was not a citizen of Zurich, he was not subject to the death penalty. Instead, on the same day that Felix Manz was executed by drowning, Blaurock was stripped to the waist and beaten with rods publicly till the blood ran down his back.

Blaurock then went with other Anabaptists to the Swiss city of Bern, which at that time was strongly leaning towards the Reformation. A Disputation was held in the council at which Zwingli appeared and argued against them. The reformers did all they could to put out the fires of Anabaptism. As a result, the Anabaptists were expelled from Bern. Blaurock continued to labour successfully but kept getting banished and so left Switzerland.

He then entered Austria and became a pastor there (in the Adige Valley). He witnessed in the region and his preaching was accompanied by great crowds. Believers were baptised and congregations formed up and down the river valleys. On 14 August, 1529, Blaurock and another layman were arrested by the Catholic Innsbruck authorities. Three weeks later Balurock and Langegger were burned at the stake.

As was often the case, the persecution of Anabaptists by the reformers sent them into the hands of the Catholics, who did not hesitate to burn them at the stake.


Lastly I will mention Balthasar Hübmaier (1480 – 1528). Among the other radical reformers who were in Zurich about this time was Hübmaier. He was a Catholic priest and a noted theologian. However, while in Basel, he had come under the influence of Erasmus and he began to change his thinking along reformed lines. On returning to his parish in Regensburg he started to preach and teach from the texts of Scriptures rather than follow the set readings of the Catholic Church. Under his teaching, images and pictures were removed, and not long after, priests were allowed to marry. In other words, he was starting his own Reformation in Regensburg. But he too went further than the magisterial reformers and witnessed to a change of life and started to preach repentance, conversion and believer’s baptism. However he had to flee his town because the Catholic Archduke of Austria threatened to invade Regensburg.

He wrote to some close friends in Regensburg about the change that had occurred in him:

“In the meantime, so great plague and pursuit has befallen those who preach the divine, true and pure word, that I have not dared to venture. Further, I hear with great sadness how in your city of Regensburg more men preach vanity than the pure word of God. That makes my heart ache; for what does not flow forth from the living word is dead before God. Therefore says Christ, search the Scriptures. He does not say follow the old customs – though I did nothing else when I was the first time with you. However, I did it ignorantly. Like others, I was blinded and possessed by the doctrine of men. Therefore I openly confess before God and all men, that I then became a doctor and preached some years among you and elsewhere, and yet had not known the way unto eternal life. Within two years has Christ for the first time come into my heart to thrive. I have never dared to preach so boldly as now by the grace of God. I lament before God that I so long lay ill of this sickness.” (Henry C. Vedder, Balthasar Hübmaier, 1905, pp. 77,78.)

In April 1525 he was baptised by Wilhelm Reublin, who had been driven out of Zürich and sought refuge in Waldshut where Hübmaier was then working. 60 others were also baptised with him. On the following Easter Sunday, Hübmaier baptised 300 people and on the Monday they observed the Lord’s Supper in a simple New Testament manner.

In 1524 Hübmaier wrote a little tract entitled Concerning Heretics and Those Who Burn Them. This is regarded as the earliest work that called for religious toleration. He argued that one should only use the Scriptures to convince others of their errors, and that those who burn heretics were the greatest heretics of all. One would have thought this was clear enough and accorded with the idea of sola scriptura! Hübmaier pleaded the case that true Christians should not use force and the death penalty against heretics, but it was Anabaptists like Hübmaier that were persecuted, beaten and even killed by the magisterial reformers. They obviously did not agree with his writings.

In January 1525, he wrote against infant baptism as having no basis in Scripture. Zwingli responded by writing a pamphlet entitled ‘On Baptism, Anabaptism, and Infant Baptism’. In it he attacked the teaching of believer’s baptism. Hübmaier then publishes a response entitled ‘The Christian Baptism of Believers’.

Hübmaier arrived in Zurich with his wife at the end 1525, fleeing from the Catholic forces that were about to descend on his town. After their arrival, he and his wife were seized and imprisoned. Zwingli maintains he was arrested to keep him from stirring up an insurrection. Hübmaier requests a disputation and in it quotes what Zwingli had previously taught against infant baptism. Zwingli maintained that he had been misunderstood! However, the arguments of the magisterial reformer prevailed with the council and Hübmaier was called upon to recant, which, under threat of further punishment, he did before the Small Council and the Council of 200. He was then told to read the recantation in church before the congregation after Zwingli’s sermon on Friday, December 29. However, once Hübmaier was in the pulpit, he found himself in great anguish, and declared that there was no way he could recant, and actually proceeded to defend believer’s baptism. Hübmaier was immediately placed back in prison. While in prison he wrote the 12 Articles of Christian Belief.  

During this second imprisonment, Hübmaier was stretched on the rack and brutally tortured, which led to him giving the recantation that Zwingli wanted. Zwingli then mocked him for betraying his own beliefs. This was done by the leading reformer in Switzerland in the name of the Reformation and he saw nothing wrong in it! To so torture and mock a man seemed normal and natural to him. Zwingli was comfortable using the torture tactics of the Spanish Inquisition.

This was heart-breaking for Hübmaier and resulted in a genuine repentance and confession as witnessed by his eventual death when he was burnt at the stake by Catholic authorities for his beliefs and for his refusal to recant. Hübmaier went to Nikolsburg in Moravia. Here Hübmaier’s work thrived. Converts were rapidly made, including a Moravian baron who was baptised by Hübmaier. It is said that at least 6000 people were baptised in one year alone through Hübmaier’s work at Nikolsburg. He also continued writing and particularly inveighed against the moral laxity of the Lutherans – something that we shall address later.

But when Moravia came under the jurisdiction of Catholics, Hübmaier was taken prisoner, tortured on the rack once again, and this time burnt at the stake for his refusal to recant. His wife was murdered three days later by drowning. If one were to give the designation, ‘of whom the world was not worthy’, to which group of people would this designation best fit?

We will finish our study of Zwingli with a look at how things ended for him.


Zwingli had been canvassing for an alliance of reformed cities, and as the Reformation spread in Switzerland, in January 1528, eight of the 13 regions of the Swiss Confederation which had become reformed, joined in an alliance called ‘the Christian Civic Union’. In April 1529 the five other Catholic regions felt encircled and isolated, and formed an alliance with Catholic Austria (under Ferdinand), called the ‘Christian Alliance’. So the Swiss confederation of 13 regions broke into two camps – Protestant (8 regions) and the Catholic (5 regions). 

At this time, a reformed preacher, Jacob Kaiser, was captured in one of the Catholic regions and executed. This put Zwingli on a war footing. He recommended to the government that they should go to war against the Catholic regions and gave reasons to justify such an attack. However, Bern, which was also Reformed by this time, was very uneasy about such a hasty violent reaction and urged a more diplomatic approach. They were concerned that such a war could bring in other neighbouring Catholic forces. But Zwingli was adamant and so, along with the Zurich authorities, continued with plans to invade the Catholic regions. As the two armies met at Kappel in June 1529, the Catholic forces were significantly outnumbered. However, war was averted through the intervention of a relative of Zwingli, who managed to get the two sides to negotiate a peace.

So the First Peace of Kappel was agreed on 26 June 1529. However, tensions remained, with the imposition of a food blockade against the Catholics that was then later withdrawn.

Then, in a surprise move, on 9 October 1531, the Catholic Five States declared war on Zürich. This caught Zurich on the hop and they could not gather sufficient men in time. The battle lasted not more than an hour and the Catholic forces were victorious. Many pastors, including Zwingli, were part of the army from Zurich. Among the 500 casualties was Zwingli, who died of his injuries. As Jesus had said, “…all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” (Mtt.26:15).

Zwingli seemed to feel quite at home carrying on the kind of wars that the Catholic religion had waged against dissenters and foes. As someone who believed in ‘the Scriptures alone’, did it not occur to him that Jesus had said that His servants would not fight because His kingdom is not of this world – and that neither are His servants of this world (John 18:36; 15:19)? By his life Zwingli contradicted the words quoted here and placed himself clearly in this world and of its kingdom.


Should the Anabaptists have known better than to challenge the State?

Some might suggest or even maintain that the Anabaptists were unwise if not foolish to ‘challenge’ the authorities in this way. I think it is a legitimate question but it treats the issue far too simply and ignores a number of factors that are involved in the historical context. As was the case with Luther in Germany, so it was in Reformation Switzerland. There were those who started out with the reformers, more or less sharing the same values and outlook. The expectation was growing that there would be great change and liberation in the religious scene. However, once the leading reformers were absorbed within the authority of the secular power, the rate at which things changed, significantly slowed down or stalled completely. More than that, from the point of view of those who had been working together with the reformers, the reformers were now backtracking on certain key points of Scripture. This caused a rift between the emerging ‘magisterial’ reformers and those who had been working with them, who we then come to know as the ‘radical’ reformers.

What we have seen so far, and shall continue to see is that it was not just a case of the secular government persecuting nonconformists. The magisterial reformers not only disagreed with Anabaptist teachings, which would have been one thing, but they themselves became active opponents and persecutors of the Anabaptists, to the point of even urging and inciting the secular power to put down all religious dissent. This will become abundantly clear as we continue this study.

Did some Anabaptists at times act unwisely? Yes, there certainly seem to be instances of that. Was there a lunatic fringe who were also given the name ‘Anabaptists’ who acted in a violent and appalling way, and who erred wildly in doctrine? Yes there was, but this chiefly occurred in Germany and such groups could hardly be compared with the large number of true Anabaptists who neither shared the nature or the teachings of such extremists. I write about this in more detail in Chapter 3.

But much more than all this, a fire had been lit in the hearts of men and women! They had experienced a radical change in their lives. The life-changing power of the Gospel had turned their lives around, and such was the change that they could not forbear but to preach this life-changing Gospel to others. This fire was unstoppable and unquenchable. For all the unspeakable atrocities against them, the Anabaptists continued to flourish and spread.

If laws were passed to make home bible-study and prayer meetings illegal; if laws were passed to make the preaching of the Gospel from house to house, in marketplaces or in the fields illegal; if laws were passed to punish and execute those who baptised others or were baptised by others, what were such believers to do, whose lives had been changed by the Lord Jesus Christ and whose hearts were on fire for the Gospel? Were they now to sit at home and keep quiet? Hardly! No doubt in their own hearts the same words echoed that were spoken by Peter and the apostles to the Pharisees who were persecuting and punishing them, “We ought to obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29).

It needs to be noted or reiterated on the other hand, that during all this time the magisterial reformers did not take a backseat with regards to the persecutions that were going on. They had fully bought into the idea of Christendom with all its cruel intolerance of religious dissenters and nonconformists. They not only colluded with, but urged and directed the civil powers in persecuting the Anabaptists. We have seen this in a small measure but we will see it in greater measure as this study proceeds.

Let me also add that the main purpose of the above is not to support the Anabaptists in what they taught and did – though I find much to agree with and admire – but to reveal the nature of the Reformation through a consideration of how they treated those that held different religious views to them, and the reasons they gave for doing so.

Finally one might ask, but what if the reformers had stuck to their guns and held to their original convictions at the start of their alliance with the secular powers, would not the Reformation have collapsed altogether? One presumes that it would have. But the question is hypothetical. As we shall increasingly observe, in their thinking and outlook the reformers were part of Christendom. They belonged to that entity that is called by that name. They naturally fitted into that type of ‘Christianity’ and state church model that arose at the time of Constantine.

And if it had failed, what difference would it have made to the many thousands of Anabaptists who were persecuted and killed? Presumably, no difference whatsoever. Instead of being cruelly persecuted by Protestants and Catholics alike, they would have been persecuted alone by the Catholics – but indeed, the Catholics might have excelled in cruelty. However, where is the gain in supplanting one cruel intolerant reign for another?

It does seem though that the emergence of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland did provide a window of opportunity for the rise and spread of Anabaptism. Particularly during the period of 1517 to 1525 when things were still in a state of flux and transition, and before the Protestant Reformers had turned against the Anabaptists, the latter had opportunity and relative liberty to preach those things that they had come to believe and experience. However, even under terrible persecution, Anabaptism still grew and spread.

But wouldn’t it have been a terrible loss if the Reformation had ‘failed’? Again, this question is rather hypothetical and depends on your point of view and on your theology. The Protestant Reformation partook of the same religious intolerance that was characteristic of the Catholic Church. This creation of two ‘Christendoms’ led to terrible ‘religious’ wars with huge casualties over a period of more than a century. I touch on this at the end of the book.

‘The word of God is not bound.’ Nor is the Gospel bound. This is the truth. There have always been those who declare it and adhere to it, and there always will be, right to the end. No matter what opposition is encountered or what trials faced, the word of God is not bound and shall have those who declare it.

This study is only the first step towards a consideration of the doctrines of the Protestant Reformation by giving a historical background to those doctrines and the men who formulated them. In this second study I hope to show that they Protestant Reformers erred as much in their doctrines as they did in their cruel conduct.


(N1) Letter to John Fisher, Collected Works of Erasmus, vol. 3: The Correspondence of Erasmus, Letters 298 to 445, 1514 to 1516. Trans. R.A.B Mynors and D.F.S. Thomson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976)

(N2) Noël Béda, Annotationum Natalis Bede Doctoris Theologi Parisensis in Jacobum Fabrum Stapulensem (Cologne 1526), 133r and 146r.

(N3) Quellen zur Geshichte der Taüfer in der Schweiz, I Band, Zürich, von Leonhard von Muralt und Walter Schmid (Zürich, 1952), p. 184. / Quoted in The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, L. Verduin, 1964, p. 198.


Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021