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Preachers of Reform 1518-1564

IN 1518, AN INDULGENCE PEDDLER, a priest from France, made his way through one of the twisting Alpine passes that led into Switzerland. He carried with him a supply of bright banners, an impressive-looking copy of Pope Leo’s Declaration of Indulgences and of course, a collecting box. The French priest’s hopes were high, for the little Swiss merchant towns were rich. He did indeed do well at first and his collecting box began to grow heavy with pieces of gold. Then he came to the town of Zurich. As he began to set up his banners, a town official stopped him. “No indulgences here,” the official said.

“I come in the name of Pope Leo and the Holy Church,” the Frenchman replied. “And I,” said the official, “speak for the town council of Zurich and the People’s Priest of our Cathedral who has told us that these indulgences you peddle are no good.”

When the Frenchman began to protest, the official said he would have him driven out of town if he didn’t leave peacefully. The Frenchman rolled up his bright banners and went on his way. The Swiss, he knew‚ had always been too independent and now, with this People’s Priest, whoever he was, they seemed to have found another Martin Luther.

Actually, nothing so annoyed the People’s Priest of Zurich as being called the “other Luther.” Ulrich Zwingli said that his ideas were his own and that he had come upon them long before Luther began to make a stir in Wittenberg. As a young parish priest‚ fresh from the university, Zwingli had studied Greek and Hebrew in order to read the Bible and other early church writings in their original languages. Three times he had gone to Italy, as chaplain to the rugged Swiss soldiers who were hired to fight the battles of cities whose citizens had more gold than courage. He had seen for himself the worldly ways of the Italian churchmen. Of course, he had eagerly read the pamphlets that came from Wittenberg and some of his friends wondered if he might not be a little jealous of Luther and his fame, but Zwingli said that if he and Martin Luther shared the same beliefs, it was only because those beliefs were true.

Certainly the two reformers were unlike in many ways. Luther was stern and obstinate in his ideas; Zwingli was gentle and willing to try to understand other men’s thoughts. Luther had found his new faith in God by struggling to overcome his own sinfulness; Zwingli had begun by worrying about the evil and unhappiness that troubled the people he served as priest. Zwingli was not satisfied merely to tell his people that God was merciful, to set them to reading their Bibles and praying. He also worried about their day-to-day problems. He did what he could to help and won fame for himself by his kindliness and courage.


In 1519, a year after Zwingli had persuaded the town council to drive away the indulgence peddler, Zurich was struck by the plague. Hundreds died as the dreaded disease swept through the city. Shops and businesses were closed, houses deserted. The dying and dead were left untended because no one dared to go near them. Zwingli was away on a holiday and he might have avoided danger by staying away. Instead, he hurried back to Zurich and his people. Day after day, he nursed the sick and buried the dead. Then he fell ill himself. For weeks he tossed on his bed and it seemed certain he would die. When he unexpectedly recovered, the people of Zurich rejoiced and called it a miracle.

Zwingli said only that he lived because God had more work for him to do. But, after the narrow escape from death, he was changed. He had long believed in church reforms and had spoken of them cautiously; now he boldly proclaimed them from the pulpit of the cathedral. God spoke through the Bible, he said, not through the Church or the pope. Fasting, pilgrimages and praying to the saints were useless and indulgences were worse. Priests and nuns should be allowed to marry. The age-old ritual of the mass had too much ceremony and too little meaning. Indeed, churches were altogether too ceremonious and there was too much pretty music. All that a man needed for worship was a quiet place in which to wait for the Holy Spirit to teach him the meaning of God’s Word. These things Zwingli preached Sunday after Sunday until the pope and the local bishop called on the councilmen of Zurich to ban him from the city.


In other countries, a man like Zwingli would most likely have been punished, possibly burned, as a heretic, but in Switzerland‚ things were different. The Swiss obeyed the pope when his commands seemed to make sense and ignored him when they did not. Protected by towering mountains and the toughest soldiers in Europe, the Swiss had always been able to act and think independently. Their separate little city-states, called cantons, were governed by councils and bowed to no monarch. Indeed, the most powerful emperors had failed to force them to join the Holy Roman Empire. The pope had learned that when he wanted something done in Switzerland, it was wise to send a polite request, not an order.

When Pope Leo charged that Zwingli had spoken against the doctrines of the Church, the town councilmen had no doubt that the charge was true. After all, they themselves had heard the sermons in the cathedral. They did not, however, agree that their priest should be immediately condemned. Instead, they asked him to defend his statements in a public “disputation.”

Zwingli was not, like Luther, told to answer only “Yes” or “No” to questions put by an old fashioned churchman. He was given time to explain his ideas. The councilmen found his arguments so convincing that they pronounced him not guilty. In fact, they went even further — they passed a new law ordering all priests in the canton to preach only those ideas that could be proved by words from the Bible. So, quietly, without bloodshed or noisy demonstrations, the Reformation came to Zurich.

Soon Zwingli was made chief priest of the cathedral. He did away with the trappings and ceremonies and music that he thought kept his people from finding the Holy Spirit. He ordered all the statues, pictures and tapestries ordered from the city’s churches. The old relics were buried. Convents and monasteries were turned into poor-houses, hospitals, orphanages and nuns and priests began to marry. In 1524 Zwingli took himself took a wife.

Gradually the people of other Swiss cantons broke their ties with Rome to join the reformers of Zurich. There was talk of a league of German and Swiss Protestants and a German nobleman invited Zwingli and Luther to meet at his place for a discussion.

In October, 1529, the two greatest leaders of the reformers came face to face for the first – and only — time. The talks began well. Luther wrote home that Zwingli spoke with tears in his eyes . . . saying, “There are no people on earth with whom I would rather be at harmony than with the Wittenbergers,” but Luther was stubborn as always and when Zwingli ventured to question any of his beliefs, his temper flared up. There was a sharp disagreement about the meaning and importance of the bread and wine, as used in the sacrament of Communion. Zwingli said that Luther was “impudent and obstinate.” Luther answered that Zwingli did not take religion seriously enough. “How do you know?” Zwingli asked. “Or can you read the secrets of people’s hearts?” Luther paused, then spoke: “You have a different spirit from ours.” The discussion ended and with it the hope for one Protestant church.

Luther returned to Wittenberg, to his pamphlets and sermons. Zwingli went home to war, for the Forest Cantons, a group of five strong city-states that had remained loyal to the pope, had armed themselves against the reformers’ cities. Zwingli had none of Luther’s doubts about defending his faith with swords. He had already formed a military league of Protestants and in October of 1531, when the Forest Cantons made ready to attack, he called on his people to defend themselves. As chaplain of the troops‚ he carried the army’s banner and marched with the men who charged bravely into the battle. Zwingli was struck down, his banner trampled and before he could get to his feet‚ an enemy soldier gave him a death blow. His troops scattered and ran, leaving his body to be burned by the Catholic soldiers.

Later, when there was peace, the Protestants of Zurich set a great boulder on the spot where Zwingli had fallen. They carved in the rock words which he had spoken to them: “They may kill the body, not the soul.”

Spirit as well as life went out of the Reformation in Zurich after Zwingli’s death. For near1y five years, the Swiss heard little about religious reform. Then there was a stir in the city called Geneva and the word went out that a new reformer was at work. He was the stern and brilliant John Calvin.


“The Accusative” was the name that John Calvin’s schoolmates gave him. He was, they said, “all logic and Latin” and had the annoying habit of pointing out their faults. He changed little as he grew up. Always scholarly, he liked things to be organized neatly and he was quick to point out the signs of sin and error in those around him.


As a boy, Calvin studied to become a Catholic priest‚ but turned to law to please his father, a well-bred Frenchman whose friends were country gentlemen and aristocrats. Then, in Paris, where he was studying in the university, he discovered the Reformation. Luther’s writings were being translated into French and Calvin’s friends — students and scholars of Greek and young noblemen from the court — read them as soon as they were printed. For Calvin, the most exciting thing in the new books was the idea that a man might find God in his own way instead of through the rituals of the Church. When he was 21, he did find God — or so it seemed. Suddenly, mysteriously, the feeling that God the all-powerful was near swept through him. It was, he said, as though God had spoken to him, saying, “I have chosen you; you are one of my own.”

This strange experience, which left Calvin half fearful and half joyous, he called a “conversion.” From the moment it happened he dedicated his studies and his life to the new religion. That was a dangerous thing to do in France in the 1530’s, for King Francis I had begun to lose patience with reformers. The king did not mind when students and professors and a few of his courtiers read Luther’s books and argued about them over dinner. After all, young men in the universities always had wild ideas of one kind or another and usually they forget them in a year or two, but the reformers did not forget. They grew bold, they staged noisy demonstrations, and then someone nailed a reform poster on the gateway of the royal palace. King Francis ordered the readers of new books to be quiet or go to prison. Many reformers fled the country, but Calvin stayed on, writing and trying to avoid the king’s police. Twice he was arrested and twice set free and he decided not to try his luck a third time. He slipped out of France and went to the city of Basel in Switzerland.

John Calvin’s mysterious conversion had not changed his love of logic. In Basel, he spent his time working on a book, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which he tried to set the reformers’ beliefs in order, to organize their ideas in a way that would stand up against any argument. He also outlined in his book the way that a church should be organized in order to teach the new doctrines and to make them a part of the everyday life of a city or town. Over the next thirty years, as Calvin put his ideas into practice in actual churches, he rewrote his book many times, though the basic theories were never changed. Other churchmen began to use the book until, in time, it became the guidebook for Protestants in every part of Europe and the New World and the Reformation’s most important book of religious theory. Besides, its clear, forceful style made it a model of good writing which the writers of France tried to imitate for more than 300 years.


In Basel, as he worked at the first version of his book, Calvin was happy. He looked forward to a quiet life of writing and scholarship. Then, in 1536, he visited the city of Geneva and once again he heard the call of God.

By vote of its city council, Geneva was a Protestant city, but Calvin was shocked to discover that the citizens knew next to nothing about the new religion. Each minister seemed to preach a different doctrine, the people behaved as though they had no religion at all and everywhere Calvin looked he saw ignorance, disorder and sin. When one of the reform preachers begged him to stay in Geneva to lead the city toward God, he could not refuse. Indeed, he said, God’s hand seemed to hold him back when he tried to leave. So he stayed and Geneva was never the same again.

To its enthusiastic reformers, Calvin seemed like a prophet who had come to save the city. Though he was a slight, frail man and his health had never been good, he worked tirelessly to bring order and godliness to the town that heaven seemed to have made his responsibility. The churches were but one of his concerns. He also took an interest in the schools, in business and in the city government. He made as many enemies as friends. Geneva had always been carefree and gay; now, suddenly, it was becoming dull. Everything pleasant seemed to be on the new reformer’s list of things that were sinful — dancing, playing cards, going to plays, giving parties and singing any songs but hymns. In the hours after work, and all day on Sundays, almost the only permitted activity was church.

Martin Luther had been satisfied to let people enjoy the things in life that the Bible did not prohibit, but Calvin seemed determined to do away with everything that the Bible did not command. Though he believed that the government should not interfere with religion, he also held that it was the government’s duty to enforce the rules of behavior set by the church. The battle against sin became a matter for the police and even the children of Geneva complained about Calvin’s strictness after he had a law passed forbidding them to skip school.

In 1538, when nearly every form of pleasure had been banished from the city, the Genevans voted for a town council that promised to banish John Calvin. A jeering crowd helped to hurry him on his way. Three years later, however, an even larger crowd welcomed him back. His discipline, they knew, was strict, but it would be better than the disorder and crime that had plagued the city while he was gone.

Calvin stayed in Geneva for the rest of his life. Preachers and councilmen alike bowed to his will as he strove to make life in the city match the logical neatness of his writings. His methods for enforcing good behavior were harsh. A merchant who smiled during a service of baptism was given a prison sentence; so were two other businessmen caught playing skittles and another who dozed off during a sermon. In four years, from 1542 to 1546, 58 Genevans were executed and 76 sent into exile for speaking against the reform beliefs.


At the same time, the city flourished. The new religion prohibited neither hard work nor profits. Among other things, Calvin helped the cloth-weavers establish a rich trade in fine materials and he founded an up-to-date university. Even more important, he taught the reformers a new kind of courage.


Luther had told his followers to find hope in faith. Of course, he said, they could not really decide to be saved and work for it by doing good deeds; first they had to believe. Calvin went even further. Man could do no deciding at all, he said, for man’s will was not free. God had already decided what would happen to every human, beast and insect from the moment that He created the world until the Day of Judgment. God had known from the first (because He had willed it) that Adam would yield to temptation and thereafter all mankind would be filled with sin, fit only for eternal punishment. Calvin insisted that there was nothing a man could do to save himself. In his sermons, he painted a horrifying picture of men and women doomed before birth to suffer the tortures of hell after they died.

Everything was not quite hopeless, Calvin said. God in His mercy had also decided that a few people in every age would be saved and sent to heaven. These lucky few did not owe their good fortune to their own good deeds but to the generosity of God, who had “elected” them. According to Calvin, these chosen ones, the “elect,” always received a sign from heaven. Like a blinding flash of sunlight breaking through the clouds, a sudden feeling of the nearness of God would strike them — a “conversion” of the kind that Calvin himself had felt when he was a young man.

The “elect” made up the congregation of Calvin’s church. They managed the church affairs and chose from among themselves the preachers, teachers, deacons and the rest — all according to a system Calvin had invented. He called the system “congregational,” because the church’s true leaders were the people who belonged to it. Good works were not left out of this system. Indeed, they were the evidence that a man had actually been “elected.” Men who had not felt a conversion worked even harder doing good as proof that they, too, were among the elect but had not yet received the sign.

There was little joy in Calvin’s church, even for those who were certain that they had been elected. The doctrines were harsh, the rules of conduct were strict and the preachers taught the fear of God, not faith or the love of God. Yet the Calvinists had great strength. They feared God, but nothing else and they were certain that no one in the world could stop them. They could “face the wrath of devils and the scorn of men,” suffer misery and death without flinching. Whatever happened was the will of God, they said, and their cause — His muse — could never be defeated.

Most of Calvin’s followers came from the rising merchant class. They grew in numbers as they grew in fearlessness. Geneva, despite its harsh laws, became known as a place of safety for harried Protestants. To the city came refugees from every country in Europe. Young men came there to be trained as ministers in Calvin’s university, the Academy and older men, merchants and traders, came to see for themselves the town that they had heard called “the city of God on earth.” As men of the new “middle class,” neither noblemen nor peasants, they were delighted with the idea of the “elect,” who were better than any lord. They approved of Calvin’s insistence on good behavior, thrift and hard work — the very virtues that set a merchant apart from a peasant.

As people flocked to Geneva, Calvin devoted himself ceaselessly to preaching, teaching and writing. Then came a Sunday morning in February of 1564. Calvin climbed to the pulpit to preach and his eyes burned with their old fire, but he had to struggle to find the breath to finish his sermon. His frail body was worn out. He went home to his bed and never preached again. For three months he lingered on, conferring with the councilmen of the city and advising the young ministers who would carry on his work when he was gone. On May 27, he died.

Many of the refugees, students and visitors who had come to Calvin’s city stayed to live there. Many others returned to their homelands filled with a new determination to fight for their beliefs. Calvinist preachers founded churches in France, the Lowlands, England and Scotland. Wherever they went, they carried with them Calvin’s Zeal to organize and the courage of his God-fearing religion. Their work, like their lives, was not easy, for the leaders of the old Catholic Church were as vigorous as their rivals in the new churches. The pope and the cardinals had begun a great program of reform — a “counter-reformation” — and they had turned against the Protestants all the power and wealth of Catholic Europe. The Calvinists, unafraid, certain that they were right, were difficult men to discourage and impossible to silence. “I had rather meet a whole regiment coming against me with drawn swords, “one of their opponents said, “than one Calvinist convinced that he is doing the will of God.”

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