Reformer Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich in a 1549 portrait by Swiss painter Hans Asper. Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons

Luther, Luther, Luther: He didn't reform Christianity as much as this guy did

(RNS) — A few weeks ago Martin Marty, the religious historian, argued in an RNS column that Calvin deserves mention along with Luther during this “Reformation Jubilee Year” of 2017. And, sure, Calvin is important.

But the fact is, in terms of theological “win,” it’s Zwingli who deserves top billing.

Not as famous as Martin Luther or John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli is often treated like the red-headed stepchild of the Protestant Reformation. But Zwingli was neither late to the game nor insignificant in its playing.

All year, we’ve been subjected to talk of Luther. I’ve read essays, blog posts, news reports and magazine pieces about Luther. The same tired myths were bandied around about Luther nailing theses to doors in 1517 and hurling ink wells at unseen devils and uttering sentences about standing in some place or other.

By mid-September, I kept hearing “Luther, Luther, Luther,” in my head, as in the ’70s sitcom “The Brady Bunch,” when Jan complained, “Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!” about her sister getting all the attention at a party. Soon a part of me was wishing that no one but specialist historians had ever heard of Luther.

Now I simply am driven by historical truth to inform readers that Zwingli won.

Won what? Won the battle of the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Won the central conflict of 16th-century theological warfare. How? By winning more people to his view than Luther or Calvin were able to win to theirs.

Baptists, the spiritual heirs of Zwingli in terms of their understanding of the Lord’s Supper, far outnumber both Lutherans and Presbyterians in the United States. Indeed, there are more Baptists than Lutherans and Presbyterians combined.

Zwingli, it turns out, is far more important to modern Christianity than Luther or Calvin. But you hardly ever hear his name anymore because Luther was more bombastic and Calvin more dictatorial.

Zwingli, the spiritual father of Baptists, was born on Jan. 1, 1484, in Wildhaus, Switzerland. In 1515, he served as chaplain to the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano. That battle changed his life and his theological perspective. He began to question everything that the Roman Catholic Church taught, including the Mass, church practices like the music used in worship and the inclusion of women in the liturgy, and the mercenary sale of Swiss youth to foreign powers to conduct their wars.

By the time he arrived in Zurich to become chief priest of the Great Minster in 1519, he was already reforming. Before anyone had heard of Luther or his squabble with the pope, Zwingli was already changing the structure of worship and the underlying theology of the Lord’s Supper.

The most contentious theological issue of the burgeoning Reformation was the question of the meaning of Communion, or Lord’s Supper. Was Christ literally present in the bread and wine, or was he not?

The Catholic Church, Luther and — to a certain extent — Calvin all accepted the notion that Christ was indeed physically present in the elements of the Supper. Zwingli disagreed. For him, Jesus was present in the Supper spiritually — not “merely spiritually,” but rather fully, utterly, really there, in the Spirit.

A flurry of pamphlets was exchanged between Luther and Zwingli and a meeting called to heal the rift concerning the Supper’s meaning between the Reformers in Marburg, but by the end of the Marburg Colloquy in 1529, it all had come to nothing.

Luther, always contemptuous of anyone who disagreed with him, left the meeting refusing to shake hands with the Swiss delegation led by Zwingli. Zwingli left with tears in his eyes.

By early 1531, Zwingli was suffering immensely from the years of conflict to which his cheerful soul had been subjected. But his zeal for the Gospel never flagged, and he so desired the unification of the Swiss under the banner of the Gospel that he was willing to go to war against the Catholic Cantons.

The Reformed army met the Catholic army on the field of battle at Kappel am Albis on Oct. 10, 1531. Zwingli was there, serving, once more, as a chaplain to the troops of Zurich. He was struck down the next day by advancing Catholic forces, who at the time had no idea who he was.

Zwingli was dead. But his Reform was just getting started. And it continues today in the theology of the majority of American Protestants.

Baptists, like Zwingli, believe that in the Supper Christ is really present spiritually. Jesus’ words “Do this in remembrance of me” are the core of their understanding of the Supper: It is a memorial meal at which Christ is present spiritually with his gathered worshippers.

Zwingli won because his theology has proved itself victorious for centuries and will continue to be victorious — even over the bellicose old Luther — as long as there are Baptists in the land.

(Jim West is pastor of Petros Baptist Church in Petros, Tenn., and a lecturer at Ming Hua Theological College in Hong Kong and Charles Sturt University in Australia. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)


  1. Baptists don’t make much of the Eucharist/Holy Communion. It’s rarely done, and when done, done quickly. Raised Catholic I had come to the same conclusion as Zwigli, without knowing of him until Catholic high school. Transubstantiation, like the prohibition of contraceptives, is based on incorrect Aristotelian, naive versions of physics and biology.

  2. It’s natural to want to take a victory lap for your tribe. Zwingli was an important thinker whose writings helped shape a large portion of the Protestant world. But truth is not dependant on the number of people who believe it. There was a time when Arianism held sway in the Christian community. Today there are far more Roman Catholics than Baptists; does that make transubstantiation true?

  3. I think not. There are more Roman Catholics, more Eastern Orthodox, more Anglicans, more Lutherans and more Methodists world wide than there are Baptists. In the United States Roman Catholics vastly outnumber Baptists. Zwingli is important. But his followers in Eucharistic theology pale in comparison with those who politely disagree with him.

  4. I need more information. I’d heard the name, of course, but all this is unfamiliar.

  5. The notion of the “real presence” requires a kind of doublethink that no mind should have to perform.

  6. It may be that Baptists like Zwingli and his teaching on Holy Communion today, but Zwingli certainly did not like Baptists and their distinctive doctrine of “believers baptism” in his day. Zwingli and his followers found the rejection of infant baptism such a threat to society and the church that Baptists who re-baptized people were subject to execution. It was determined that the fitting punishment for Baptists was death by drowning. Many were drowned in Lake Zurich. Another unfortunate chapter from the Reformation era.

    I was baptized in a church directly descended from Swiss Reformed Church in the U.S., namely the Evangelical and Reformed Church – now part of the United Church of Christ. In the Swiss part of Wisconsin there are several churches named Zwingli UCC.

  7. I urge anyone interested in knowing where we Protestants came from to check out the History of Protestantism by John Wylie. This $3 ebook contains 24 volumes of extremely eye-opening history. Written in the 18th century, it shines bright a light on people and issues of which the vast majority of Protestants are totally ignorant.

  8. I too had preferred Zwingli to either Calvin or Luther. But I gave up on him because he was no different when it came to murdering Anabaptists.

    And so I preferred Anabaptists to Zwinglians, Calvinists and Lutherans.

    Until, that is, I discovered something awful about Anabaptists. That was during my schooling years, and so I don’t remember what it was that decided for me to give up on the Reformation entirely.

    Now I just stick to that very thin book those Deform… I mean Reformers called the New Testament.

  9. If Michel Foucault was right that Knowledge = Power, then yes, “transubstantiation [is] true” by virtue of the knowledge-based power of Catholicism. The Lord’s Supper has become meaningless in Evangelical churches, by comparison. So, yeah, “truth IS … dependant on the number of people who believe it.” The number of Evangelicals in this case is 0.

  10. If only in the absence of scriptures that conjure up the notion of Real Presence.

    Have you read the scriptures backing up The Catechism of the Catholic Church? No, right? Well, I have studied them. You’ll be amazed by how illiterate and ill-advised these Catechists are when it comes to scriptures.

    So, no, it’s not the fault of their “doublethink”. But all, rather, due to no-think on their part.

  11. So traumatic, this, and the
    rest of the whole lie that is the Reformation, that that must be why what you wrote and this article are news to me all over again.

    But what of all the good stuffs from this whole lie? Y’know, all them theological breakthroughs-praise-God?

    Blood money. Blood heavenly treasures.

    Nah, I’ll just stick to those few pages in Jesus’ gospels, epistles & revelation.

    Thanks for the Munster expose.

  12. Münster was quite the exception, and had Peasant War class conflict and apocalyptic origins. I am thankful that today’s decedents of the Anabaptists are pacifist Mennonites, Amish, and other Peace Churches and that they continue the that witness. Most American and British Baptists are decedents of John Smyth (early 17th century), an English Puritan who embraced believer’s baptism, but none of the the other teaching of the Anabaptists. Most of today’s Baptists are anything but pacifists.

  13. I took that route once upon a time, you know, finding descendants of historical Protestant churches. And did too, actually. They could trace back to Reformation Era. Went through the whole motion of going to church at these churches. And OMG have mercy on Your people – the deadness, the staleness, the coldness – everywhere. I know, it could’ve been just me. Never came back, though. Decided that that was then, this is now. Game Over Man!

  14. Truth is not measured by popularity. This is the dumbest argument I have heard in quite some time. All I hear here is an expression of sour grapes.

  15. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley et al, founders of Christian-based religions, also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of “pretty wingy thingie” visits and “prophecies” for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (bloody eucharists, resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immaculate conceptions).

  16. So your idea is to pit one reformer against another? You’re pathetic. The Reformation was the work of many men reforming belief in tradition back to Biblical truths. It is alive and well today and is carrying on the work of Jesus Christ against the Beast (Papal system of the pope),image to the Beast (the USA political power), and the false prophet (Protestantism tn USA and the world given over to following the Beast.

  17. Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox are a loose blend of paganism, tradition and Christianity. The rest Protestantism come part way to Bible truth.

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