The Reformation in Switzerland

The Swiss Milieu. The Reformation is Switzerland progressed in a different way from Germany. Where Germany had no central monarch or government, Switzerland already had a republic in essential operation via the Old Swiss Confederacy. Their governance was an odd rotating administration of the common lands which was alternately a cause of tension and a source of “we need to figure this out.”

Where the German world was rife with imperial entanglements, Switzerland already had the Holy Rome Empire, Duke of Savoy, the French, and other “interested parties” at arm’s length because all these political entities were clients of the Swiss Mercenary system.

Where the Catholic Church controlled 30% of all land and a great deal of income from Germany, the Swiss had already established degrees of control over the Church. Certain Swiss cantons and larger independent cities such as Zürich, controlled the churches, assigned the priests, and staffed the Catholic schools. And the Swiss Guard was established in 1503, extending the mercenary influence into the Vatican itself.

There were many reasons to leave the Swiss alone.

In the 1520s, Catholics formed the “League of Five Cantons”; “The Christian Alliance” was counter-formed by Protestant Reformers, but in the end:

  • There was no real Swiss religious war, revolt of the peasants, or such
  • There were two battles of Kappel which quickly settled into an uneasy peace
  • The Swiss fought on both sides of the French Wars of Religion (mercenaries)
  • The Swiss completely avoided the 30 Years War that so devastated Germany.

The Catholic Church in Switzerland Before the Reformation

Despite existing “controls,” many of the problems of the Church also existed in the Swiss Confederacy. Many a cleric as well as the Church as a whole enjoyed a luxury lifestyle in stark contrast to the conditions of the large majority of the population. This luxury was financed by high church taxes and abundant sale of indulgences. Many priests were badly educated and spiritual Church doctrines were often disregarded. Many priests did not live in celibacy but in concubinage. The new reformat ideas thus fell on the same fertile ground that was found everywhere in Europe

There was also not a central authority (per se) in the Swiss Catholic Church. There were

  • dioceses with a metropolitan,
  • dioceses reporting directly to Rome,
  • canton-land churches answering to the canton government, and
  • city-state churches answering to the city council.

There was no consistent or focused Catholic response to the Reformers

The Reformers – While the story is more complex, what is clear is that the energy for reform and the theological “horsepower” to drive it all came from:

  1. Zürich under the initial leadership of Ulrich Zwingli followed by the consolidating and unifying leadership of Heinrich Bullinger. The Zürich school, theologically was surpassed by Geneva, but the legacy of the church (ecclesial) organization in itself and in relation to the State is the enduring contribution.
  2. Geneva under the leadership of John Calvin (in his theology he is most noted for his ideas on predestination and for the deconstruction of sacramental theology)

What the two centers of reformed theology had in common was that all was to be based on (a) Scripture and (b) justification in and by Christ alone. These two schools disagreed with Martin Luther over the Eucharist with both Swiss centers holding that there was no real presence of Christ, but only a symbolic presentation. The two schools disagreed with the more radical reformers who rejected infant baptism and practiced re-baptism of adults.

Bullinger led Zürich from 1532 until 1575. He was the lead author of the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 which became the model and standard for reformed theology across Europe.

The Swiss Radicals – As part of the reforms in Zürich in 1522, Zwingli worked with younger men who were eager for more rapid reform. This group reached out to the German reformers Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer (he of the Peasant Revolt fame) – both of whom held that baptism was a sacrament but only for adults who could “make a decision for Christ.” By 1525 the Swiss debate and dissent was at a boiling point. On the evening of January 21, 1525 George Blaurock was baptized again (anabaptizo) by Conrad Grebel. The Anabaptist movement was born.

Spread_Anabaptists_1525-1550Zürich began to actively persecute the Anabaptists, resorting to torture and execution in attempts to curb the growth of the movement with Felix Manz of Zurich becoming the first martyr in 1527. The Tudor regime, even the Protestant monarchs (Edward VI of England and Elizabeth I of England), persecuted Anabaptists as they were deemed too radical and therefore a danger to religious stability. The persecution of Anabaptists was condoned by ancient laws of Theodosius I and Justinian I that were passed against the Donatists, which decreed the death penalty for any who practiced rebaptism.

The persecutions drove Anabaptists to France, the Low Countries, England, the south of Germany and a number of places. What is very distinctive about the Anabaptist movement is that they were equally prone to be of either mystical or charismatic bend – and were generally the clarion call of all the apocalyptic cries of the 16th and 17th century. Their legacy in the United States is seen in the Amish, Brethren, Quakers, and Mennonites.

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