Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Forgotten Man

Ulrich Zwingli is sometimes called the forgotten man of the Reformation, being eclipsed by Martin Luther to the east and in the next generation, John Calvin to the west. Zwingli was the leader of the Reformation in Zurich, Switzerland, and developed the tenets of his teaching from Scripture, not from Luther. As he pointed out, the fact that he and Luther grasped the same teachings from the Bible quite independently of each other only underscores their common Source.

Jean Henri Merle d'Aubigne was a Swiss pastor and church historian in the early 1800's. He is best known for his tremendous History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (published in five volumes from 1835-1853), a work I read a few years ago. Merle - the latter name was adopted in tribute to his ancestors - wrote that work in a chronological style, so the reader sees the parallel development of the Reformation in several places and several leaders. One consequence, though, is difficulty for the reader to follow a single place or person from start to finish. Mark Sidwell edited the History to extract a very readable biography of Luther, The Triumph of the Truth, and he has done the same for the forgotten Zwingli.

For God and His People: Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation is a useful volume but admittedly not as easy a read as Triumph of the Truth. The organization of the Swiss Confederation with its cities, cantons, and city-states sharing the same name, plus the fluid democratic nature of Swiss politics and the entanglements caused by the tradition of Swiss mercenary service, make the situation hard to follow. In Switzerland, while Zurich and Berne were ultimately able to secure a treaty recognizing their Protestant faith, it was from the position of defeat; at the battle of Kappel the Catholic cantons, with much support from foreign troops, decisively whipped the unprepared and poorly manned militias from the Protestant cantons and caused the death of Zwingli himself.

Zwingli is a difficult character in some respects, as well. While he was not the only reformer to confuse the jurisdictions of church and state (the reason, for example, that Anabaptists were treated with such harshness in many places), Zwingli cuts a sharp profile, even starker than Oliver Cromwell, who was much more the soldier and politician. Merle, a Swiss himself, is equally sharp in his criticism of Zwingli's transition from yielding the sword of the Lord to that of man. It is a remarkable providence of God that the Swiss were not totally overwhelmed in a military Counterreformation, suffering the battlefield death of Zwingli and the death by plague of Oeccolampadius shortly afterward; had Myconius and Bullinger not been spared, northern Switzerland may have returned to the papal fold even before the death of Luther.

Some of my ancestors left Zurich to come to America in the mid-1700s, settling in the districts of central South Carolina in the districts opened to German Protestants by the Hannoverian King George III. Two of them were pardoned by the king later, for their participation in the Regulator movement which tried to establish independent law and order when the authorities in Charleston were unresponsive to pleas from the inland back country. One of them later provided supplies and provisions for the Revolutionary effort, and his descendents, very distant cousins of mine, are still active in state politics (though on the Democratic rather than Republican side). I can only speculate whether the villagers who departed from the country around Zurich were the great grandchildren of men who heard Zwingli and Myconius with gladness and maybe had their share in the fields of Kappel as well.

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