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Reformation History

The Reformed Church in Switzerland

Source: The Historical Handbook of the Reformed Church, 1902, James I. Good, Electronic version, © 2004, The Synod of the Reformed Church in the U.S.

A SUNRISE on the Alps is a never-to-be-forgotten sight. The traveler who sees it from the top of the Rigi mountain, will never forget the scene. After he has waited breathlessly for the first sign of the coming day, suddenly one of the snow-capped peaks will be tipped with golden light. Then far distant from it another will be touched; then another near the first; then another and another until the sun seems to play a game of hop, skip and jump among the snow-capped mountain tops. And when at last the sun appears, lo! those snow-capped peaks stand around like lighted torches to welcome the bridegroom of the new day, as he again begins to circle the earth. Then slowly the sunlight creeps down the mountain side of the Rigi until at last the dark lakes and cities, 5‚000 feet below, are bright with the light of another day.

But grand as is the sunrise on the Alps, still grander was the sunrise of the Gospel in Switzerland in the days of the Reformation. It rose first on the top of one of the lower Alps in the upper valley of Einsiedeln, where Zwingli began preaching. Then it descended to light the city of Zurich with the brightness of the Gospel. Then from city to city and canton to canton it spread its light-Basle, Schaffhausen, {6} Berne, Neuch‰tel and Geneva were, one after the other, lit with its glorious light, until almost all Switzerland had received it. Let us study this sunrise, in Switzerland, the birthplace of our Reformed Church.

Zwingli, the Founder of Our Church

Ulric Zwingli, the founder of our Church, was born January 1, 1484, at Wildhaus, a little village in one of the upper valleys of the Alps in northeastern Switzerland, about 40 miles east of Zurich. A New Year’s boy, he was destined to usher in a new year to the world-the Reformation. He was reared as a shepherd boy; but his father soon saw that he was too bright a boy for the mountains, so he took him, when nine years of age, to Ulric’s uncle, the priest of Wesen, about 12 miles further south, where the boy could attend school. But his uncle soon said, “Wesen can do no more for him.” So the next year he was sent to a high school at Basle (situated at the northwest corner of Switzerland). There he gave promise of future, greatness, for he excelled all his classmates in debate. And when not yet 13 years of age, he was sent to the school at Bern (located at the center of Switzerland). Providentially Bern had one of the new teachers called Humanists (who were progressive in their ideas), named Lupulus. He introduced Zwingli to the classics, especially the Latin language. This was his first step toward becoming the future reformer- his contact with the classics or Humanistic studies. In a year or two he attracted so much attention there, that the Dominican monks, admiring his musical talents, tried to get him to join their order. But Ulrich’s {7} father had no liking for monks, so he was taken away from Bern and sent to Vienna to study philosophy. But his studies here seem to have been largely a return to the old scholastic philosophy. Had Zwingli’s education stopped here, he would have remained a scholar, but never could have become the reformer. But in the providence of God (because he was yet too young to enter the priesthood), he went to Basle, where while teaching and attending the university, he met a decidedly religious and spiritual influence, which led him, ten years later, to become the reformer. For Thomas Wyttenbach here became his teacher. He it was who gave Zwingli the impulse toward the study of Greek, which Zwingli began six years later. Wyttenbach especially impressed him with the keynote of his future preaching. “The time is not far distant,” he said, “when the scholastic theology will be swept away, and the old doctrine of the Church established in its room on the foundation of God’s Word. Absolution is a Romish cheat, the death of Christ is the only payment for our sins.”

The year 1506 finds Zwingli entering his first pastorate at Glarus, about 35 miles southeast of Zurich. Here, for about 10 years, he continued the faithful priest of the people. No sign of his becoming the future reformer appears at Glarus. Nevertheless, there were certain influences being brought to bear on him that loosened the hold of Rome on him. Thus he saw some of his members go as soldiers hired to fight in the French and Roman armies and either shed their blood for foreign princes on the battlefield, or come home morally corrupt to demoralize the parish. Against this Zwingli wrote his work, “The Labyrinth” (1510). He himself went as a chaplain with {8} the army to Italy and his eyes were there opened to the corruption of the papacy. He also happened to discover an old liturgy at Mollis, the next village north of Glarus, which said the priests formerly gave the cup as well as the bread to the laity at the Lord’s Supper, and it suggested a question to his mind why that could not still be done.

While certain influences were thus loosening the hold of Rome on him, others were tightening the hold of truth upon him. It was especially the influence of Humanism, which led him to take up the study of the Greek language, for it was Greek that prepared him to read the New Testament a few years later. Picus Mirandula, an Italian freethinker, and Erasmus of Basle, the leader of the Humanists, both greatly influenced him.

In 1516 two events tended to prepare him to make his break with the papacy. One was the publication of the Greek New Testament by Erasmus. Before that, he had been able to get at the Greek of the New Testament only by the roundabout way of reading it as found in scattered verses in the homilies of the early church fathers. Now he could get it directly from the Testament. And so enthusiastically and earnestly did he read it, that he learned whole epistles of Paul by heart.

The other was his call to Einsiedeln, his second charge, a little mountain abbey in an upper Alpine valley, about 20 miles southeast of Zurich, and 16 miles west of Glarus. As this Abbey had no congregation connected with it, he could spend his whole time in study. Here, set aside from the world before entering on his great mission, like Moses and Paul, he studied and prayed. And here he started the {9} Reformation, as he says, in 1516. This was one year before Luther nailed his famous theses on the church-door at Wittenberg in Germany, Oct. 31, 1517, which began the Lutheran Reformation. Here the old instruction of Wyttenbach, given ten years before, came to fruitage, and he preached that “Christ is the ransom for sin.” “Not the Virgin Mary (whose sign was over the doorway of the monastery) can forgive sin, but Jesus Christ.” The thousands of pilgrims, who came to do honor to the black virgin of Einsiedeln, as the patron saint of that abbey was called, were astonished at this new doctrine, and some took it to their homes as they scattered over Switzerland, saying with him, “Christ alone saves and he saves everywhere.”

A third event, which occurred a little later, also came to lead Zwingli away from Rome, namely, the sale of indulgences. In 1518 Samson appeared in Switzerland to sell them. Zwingli boldly lifted up his voice against them. “Can your gifts save you?” he said. “No, Jesus is the only sacrifice, the only gift, the only way.”

It however soon became evident that his little mountain eyrie was too small a place for so great a man. The center of northeastern Switzerland has always been Zurich. To this larger field Providence called him at the close of 1518. On New Year’s day, 1519, when he began preaching in the great cathedral in Zurich, it was indeed a new year, such as they had never seen there. For he began preaching the Gospel to which they had been strangers, and announced that he would preach on the Gospel of Matthew, chapter after chapter. The people crowded the church to hear this novelty. “We never heard it after this fashion,” they said. Some mocked, but {10} most were impressed and blessed by it. Soon, however, overwork so broke him down so that he was compelled to go away for his health to the baths of Ragatz Pfaffers, about 40 miles southeast of Zurich. But, like a faithful shepherd, when he there heard that the plague had broken out in Zurich, he hastened home to comfort the sick and bury the dead. Laid low himself by it, he sank to death’s door. But God in His providence brought him health again. However his sickness deepened his religious experience, so that afterward his humanistic learning and his eloquence were consecrated more fully to God. This baptism of fire gave him Pentecostal power.

The first idea of the reformers in the Reformation was to reform the Catholic Church of its errors and abuses. Hence they were then called Reformed. But it soon became evident that they could not do this, and they were compelled to leave that Church. Their name “Reformers” or “Reformed,” however, clung to them. At first both Lutherans and Zwinglians were called Reformed, but later the name clung to those who were followers of Zwingli and Calvin. So Zwingli and Zurich were compelled to break from the Romish Church. They could not reform the old Church, which now turned against them, so they left it. One event after another occurred to cause the final breach. On January 29, 1523, a great disputation took place in the council hall of Zurich. Just as Luther had nailed 95 theses on the church door at Wittenberg, so Zwingli brought 67 theses before this council meeting. At a table in the middle of the room he sat, with the Bible in Latin and Hebrew before him. For it, he claimed supreme authority. The disputation resulted in a complete victory for the {11} Reformed, so that the council ordered that nothing should be taught in the churches except what was founded on the Bible. Soon after it took another step. In October 1523, some of the Catholic customs were brought to the attention of the council, which ordered that images should be cast out of the churches. The publication of Zwingli’s marriage to Anna Reinhard, in 1524, still further widened the breach with Rome. Finally, on April 13, 1525, the Reformation was completed at Zurich, as the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, not after the Catholic fashion, but by giving the cup as well as the bread to the communicants. Thus Zurich and its canton became Reformed.

But the Reformation did not stop there. It spread from city to city. Oecolampadius, the twin-worker with Zwingli, introduced it into Basle (1528). A great conference was held at Berne (1528), the capital of the central and the largest canton of Switzerland. Here Berthold Haller had been trying to introduce the Reformed doctrines amid great difficulties. At this conference the Reformed gained a great and signal victory. For while Zwingli was preaching in the cathedral against the mass, a priest came into the church to celebrate mass at one of the side altars. But Zwingli’s words so impressed him that he cried out, “This is in contradiction to the mass.” He threw off his priestly robe, saying, “Unless the mass rests on a more solid foundation, I can celebrate it no longer.” His conversion caused a profound impression and proved the forerunner of the conversion of that great canton of Bern to the Reformed faith. Thus almost all of northern Switzerland became Reformed. {12}

And now an attempt was made to extend the influence of the Reformed still farther, even into Germany. Landgrave Philip, the ruler of Hesse, was anxious to unite the Lutherans and the Reformed, so that when united, they might be stronger against the Pope. He arranged a conference at Marburg, October 1, 1529. There Luther and Melanchthon appeared for the Lutherans, and Zwingli and Oecolampadius for the Reformed. Their discussion was mainly about the Lord’s Supper. It continued for three days, when the appearance of the sweating sickness broke up the conference. Landgrave Philip, finding that the Lutherans and Reformed would not agree to unite to form one Church, urged Luther and Zwingli to acknowledge each other as brethren. Zwingli, bursting into tears, held out his hand. The two Churches of the Reformation were about to become one. But no, Luther refused the proffered hand, and ever since the two denominations have remained separate. Two more years of life remained to the founder of our Church. They were years of anxiety and prayer. The five Catholic cantons of the upper Alps, southeast of Zurich, plotted against Zurich. The first Cappel war broke out in 1529 but providentially closed without bloodshed. Zwingli, while on this campaign, wrote his hymn:

Do thou direct thy chariot, Lord,
And guide us at thy will;
Without thy aid our strength is vain
And useless all our skill.
Look down upon thy saints brought low,
And prostrate brought beneath the foe.

Send down thy peace and banish strife,
Let bitterness depart;
Revive the spirit of the past
In every true Swiss heart,
Then shall thy Church forever sing
The praises of her heavenly King.

But the peace was only temporary. In 1531 hostilities broke out again. Suddenly news came to Zurich that the army of the Five Cantons was approaching. A small army was hurriedly gathered together, among it, however, the bravest soldiers of Zurich. Zwingli went along as its chaplain. The two armies met at Cappel, about ten miles south of Zurich. The Zurich army was completely defeated. Zwingli, while stooping to minister to a fallen soldier, was struck with a stone. As a lance sent him reeling to the ground, he exclaimed, “What evil is it? They may kill the body, but they cannot kill the soul.” He died under a pear-tree (Oct. 11, 1531). His body was burned and its ashes mixed with those of swine because his conquerors considered him a heretic. So died the martyr of the first great quartette of the reformers, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Oecolampadius. He was a brave patriot, an eloquent preacher, a brilliant scholar, and a faithful pastor. And now more than twenty millions of Reformed and Presbyterians in all parts of the globe look to him as their founder.

From Zurich to Geneva

The workers die, God’s work does not. God’s work depends on no single individual. For though the workers die, God’s work goes on. They are {14} mortal, but it is immortal. Other workers come to take the places of those who drop out of the ranks by death. And so when Zwingli died, two men arose to take his place in Switzerland, so that the Reformation went on with greater power than ever before.

Henry Bullinger

He was born at Bremgarten, July 18, 1504. When a boy, his life was twice remarkably preserved. The first was when he had been so ill with the plague that they supposed he was dead, and were assembled for the funeral, when suddenly, to the astonishment of all, he came back to life and recovered. God’s providence preserved him for great purposes. He early showed great precocity of mind and inclination to spiritual things. When 12 years old, he was sent to Emmerich, in northern Germany, to one of those schools which were the forerunners of the Reformation-founded by the Brethren of the Common Life. These had been founded by Gerhart Groot a century and a half before, and their brightest ornament had been Thomas à Kempis, who wrote The Imitation of Christ. Their aim was to disseminate the knowledge of the Bible by education, and they thus prepared some of the leading reformers for their work in the Reformation. At Emmerich, Bullinger studied Latin, and, like Luther, sang hymns in the streets so as to get money to gain an education. At the age of 15 he went to the great Catholic University at Cologne in order to study for the priesthood. There, while reading dogmatics, he discovered that they referred constantly to the early church fathers, and found Chrysostom’s Homilies on Matthew and other works of the fathers. From them he began reading Luther’s writings. These led {15} him still further to the root of things, so that he did not stop with the fathers until he went to the source whence they drew their authority, namely, the New Testament. Day and night he thus studied (1521-1522). The result was that he gave up the idea of becoming a priest and became a Protestant instead.

Meanwhile strange changes were taking place in his native land of Switzerland, under Zwingli. So when he went home he at once found a school ready for him in which he could teach, at Cappel, where Zwingli afterwards was killed on the battlefield. Here he became greatly influenced by Zwingli’s teachings.

In 1529 he was called to be assistant to his aged father, pastor of the church at Bremgarten. But in 1531, when Zwingli was killed at the battle of Cappel, the war drove both Bullinger and his father from Bremgarten, and they fled to Zurich. Here everything was in confusion after Zwingli’s death. There was danger of a reaction toward Catholicism. To prevent this, the Reformed were anxiously looking about for a leader. They first invited Oecolampadius, of Basle, to come and take Zwingli’s place, and meanwhile asked Bullinger to preach in the cathedral. His preaching astonished every one. Though so young a man (only 28) he revealed just the qualities they sought for in their leader. And so, as Oecolampadius declined, he was elected to this important position (Dec. 9, 1531) just two months after Zwingli’s death. He proved to be the man for the hour. His learning, eloquence, common sense and earnest piety enabled him to fill that difficult office with success. By his wisdom he destroyed the hopes of the Catholics and by his firmness he rallied the power of the Reformed. He soon was known all over Europe as the worthy {16} successor of Zwingli. During his life Zurich became the asylum for all Reformed refugees. There English bishops and Italian refugees from Locarno rejoiced at his kindly reception. He had taken the wife and family of Zwingli into his own home after Zwingli’s death, and cared for them as his own. The same kindness he showed to the persecuted foreigners, even starting an English theological seminary for the young English students for the ministry who were there. His kindness was so appreciated by the English, that Queen Elizabeth afterwards presented him with a goblet as a token of the appreciation of the English people. He wrote many theological works, the most important being the “Second Helvetic Confession,” which was adopted by all the Swiss Reformed churches as their creed. Frederick the Third, of the Palatinate, was so pleased with this creed that he incorporated it in his will. His writings were in great favor, especially among the English, his “Ten Decades” being for many years the leading theological textbook in England. But his most important work was to unite the two Reformed churches of Switzerland, the Southern or French Reformed, and the Northern or German Reformed. This he did by uniting with John Calvin in the Zurich (Tigurine) Confession (1549). He died at Zurich honored near and far by all, Sept. 17, 1575.

John Calvin

If Zwingli was the founder of our Reformed Church, John Calvin was its organizer. He was the greatest commentator and most acute theologian of the Reformation. He was a Frenchman, born at Noyon, in Northern France, July 10, 1509. He was destined {17} for the priesthood, and studied at Paris and Bourges in France. At the latter place he met a German, Wolmar, who did for him what Wyttenbach had done for Zwingli-he led him to Christ (1535).[1] Called to preach first at Bourges, Calvin then became pastor of the rapidly increasing Reformed Church of Paris. But because of an inaugural address favoring Protestantism, which he prepared for the rector of the university, he was compelled to flee. For two years he was a fugitive under assumed names. He spent some time in the library of his friend du Tillet, at Angouleme; at another time he was at Poitiers. There he did a braver thing than ever the Black Prince of England had done in battle there, centuries before. Calvin gathered a few Reformed together in a cave, still called “Calvin’s Cave.” Behind it were the ruins of a Roman aqueduct; below it flowed the river. There he assembled them to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and pledged them to go out and save France for Protestantism-an act which led some of them to martyrdom. Calvin again went to Paris, but was again compelled to flee. On his way to Strasburg he was robbed of all that he had. But Strasburg was the asylum of all God’s saints, and good mother Zell, the wife of the first reformer there, gave him a welcome to their home. He then went to Basle, where he wrote his immortal “Institutes,” the finest work on doctrine that appeared in the Reformation. It was a wonderful creation for a young man of only 27 years of age, but it is to be remembered that the Reformation made men precocious. Then he went to northern Italy, to {18} the court of the Duchess Renee at Ferrara, who sympathized with the Reformation. So even in Italy, the Pope’s country, he bore witness for the truth. But the Inquisition did not allow him to remain there long undisturbed, and he fled. There is a pass over the Southern Alps to Switzerland called the St. Bernard pass, famous now for its large and intelligent dogs. At the southern end of it, at Aosta, is a place still shown as “Calvin’s Farm,” where he stayed temporarily in his flight to Switzerland.

And now we come to one of the most dramatic scenes in Reformed Church history-the call of Calvin. It and the defense of our Heidelberg Catechism by Elector Frederick III at Augsburg, in 1566, are the two greatest dramatic scenes in our history. The bravest of all the early reformers was William Farel. “He never feared man, only God.” Like Calvin, he was a Frenchman, and had been driven out of France for his Reformed faith. But as he could not save France, he would save French Switzerland. So, disguised as a schoolmaster, he appeared in the southern part of the canton of Bern and began teaching the people the Gospel. This caused a commotion. Then he crossed the Lake of Neuchatel one December day in a little boat. Not great Caesar of Rome in his boat in a storm carried a greater destiny with him than did Farel in his boat, for he came to save the canton of Neuchatel and French Switzerland. Forbidden to preach in the churches, he made a pulpit of the stone in the cemetery of the church at Serrieres and proclaimed the evangelical gospel. Soon they called on him to come to the neighboring city of Neuch‰tel, where he preached at a fountain. And at last they took him by main force from this fountain and hurried him {19} up the steep hill to the cathedral of Neuch‰tel. Here from the pulpit Farel preached the Gospel and that day they cast all images out of the church. The traveler who visits Neuch‰tel today will see in that church the inscription, “On October 23, 1530, idolatry was overthrown and removed from this church by the citizens.” But Farel had his eye on the conquest of a greater city than Neuch‰tel, namely, Geneva. To it he stole and privately began holding services. The Papists became alarmed at him and tried in every way to get rid of him. They tried to shoot him, but the gun failed to go off and the intrepid reformer said, “I fear your gun no more than if it were a popgun.” They tried to poison him, but providentially he did not eat of the poisoned soup, although the poison almost carried off his young helper and reformer, Viret. In spite of all these obstacles, the Reformation continued to gain power in Geneva, and Farel soon felt that the work was becoming too great for him.

Just as Farel was praying for God to send someone to help, Calvin came to the city. He expected to stay only over night, but in the providence of God he was led to stay there almost a whole lifetime. Farel heard of his arrival and a voice seemed to say to him, “This is the man whom you are seeking.” “Stay with me,” he said to Calvin, “and help me.” Calvin refused. He wanted to study, to travel, to rest. He was not strong enough to undertake so great a work as to reform Geneva. Farel reminded him of the fate of Jonah fleeing from his duty. Calvin was shaken by the struggle going on within him like an oak assailed by the tempest. Suddenly Farel, fixing his eyes of fire on him, placing his hands on Calvin’s head, exclaimed in a voice of thunder, “May God curse your {20} repose and your studies if in such a necessity you refuse to give us help.” Calvin trembled in every limb and finally yielded and stayed at Geneva. His reforms, however, were so severe that a reaction took place. And when he refused to introduce the church customs of Bern, he and Farel were compelled to leave Geneva (1538). He found a refuge, as before, at Strasburg, and Farel found a home at Neuch‰tel. Calvin’s stay at Strasburg was very important, for it brought him in contact with the German reformers and also enabled him to counteract some of the Catholic designs in Germany. There Melanchthon became his warm friend. He also found a wife, Idelette de Bure, whom he married in 1540.

But Geneva could not get along without Calvin. Matters went from bad to worse, until in 1541 the city was glad to recall him. And from that time until his death he was the great reformer of Geneva. By his strict moral code it became the model city of that age, and his fame drew many scholars to it. An unfortunate event occurred when Servetus, for his pantheizing unbelief was burned at Geneva, Oct. 27, 1553. Calvin has been charged with having caused his death. But this does not seem to have been true, for Servetus’ judges were Calvin’s political enemies.[2] But his extraordinary labors as preacher, pastor, professor, and leader, proved too great for his frail body. His health began to give way, until he was confined to his bed. On April 30, 1564, he gathered the city council of Geneva before his deathbed and addressed them, thanking them for their kindness, asking pardon for his occasional impatience, and exhorting them to continue in the true doctrine of Christ. They were moved {21} to tears by his remarks. His last days were spent in prayer. With the setting of the sun he fell asleep May 27, 1564. Great was the grief of Geneva, in which she had the sympathy of Protestants all over Europe. In the cemetery at Geneva is a stone marked J. C., which is said to mark the grave of Calvin, but this is not probable, for he, with his characteristic modesty, desired that his grave be unknown. His better monument was the city of Geneva and the Calvinistic churches which since his day have spread all over the world.

Development of the Reformed Church of Zurich

It was providential for Zurich that when such great minds as Zwingli and Bullinger had passed away, she still had a minister of the first rank, intellectually, to put into their place as antistes.[3] The third antistes was Rudolph Gualther (1575-1585). He was the son-in-law of Zwingli. For Bullinger had noticed this precocious youth and taken him into his family, where he already had the family of Zwingli. So that Gualther grew up with, and married, Zwingli’s favorite daughter, Regula. Soon after he became pastor at Zurich he created a great sensation by preaching a sermon against the Pope as Anti-Christ. The Catholics, who had been plotting against Zurich ever since Zwingli’s death, made an effort to have him punished by the Swiss government. Failing in this, they resorted to treachery. One day as Gualther was going to morning service at the cathedral a stranger met him and warned him that if three young men, clothed in white, came to see him, he should not admit them {22} to his house or read their letters, for they wanted to assassinate him. Gualther put his family on their guard. Fifteen days after, while he was at dinner, one of the students who boarded with him admitted three young men dressed in white. Gualther arose from his seat with his dinner knife in one hand and a dagger in the other. The strangers seeing him and the students who were boarding with him so well armed, went away, leaving letters with him. When he searched for them at the hotel where they said they stopped, he could not find them. And it was found afterwards that they had horses secreted near the town, so as to escape when they had assassinated him. Thus the Lord spared his life and made him finally the head of the Zurich Church, worthy of his predecessors. “Zwingli,” says a writer, “excelled in his excellent reforms, Bullinger in his commentaries, and Gualther in his sermons and homilies.”

The seventh antistes (the fourth from Gualther) was also a great man, John Jacob Breitinger (1613-1645). He was educated at Zurich and also in Holland, where he formed many acquaintances who afterwards greatly influenced his life, as at the synod of Dort. Having returned to Zurich, he became pastor there. In 1610 occurred an event that made him the most hated and the most loved man in Zurich. That summer he quietly went on a vacation trip to southern Switzerland. Hardly had he gone before the plague broke out in Zurich with terrible violence. At once the rumor started that he had fled from his post of duty because of fear of the plague. So great was the feeling against him that his wife hardly dared go out of the house. In the meanwhile, all oblivious of this, he continued his tour. When he returned he at once set {23} to work to allay the prejudice by faithful visitation on the sick. He was instant in season and out of season, visiting the sick morning, noon, and at midnight. His pastoral visits became so popular that he was sent for from every part of the city. Often at night five or six persons would be waiting at his house to take him to their sick. Mercifully his health was spared, although the plague carried off 6,000 in Zurich. Through this plague he became the most popular minister there. And when there was a vacancy he was elected antistes (1613).

It was providential for Zurich that she had so great a man in the antistes’ chair at that time, for two storms, one political, the other religious, were gathering over her. The first was the awful Thirty Years’ War; the second was the Arminian controversy in Holland. It needed both a very profound theologian and a very wise manager to carry the Church safely through the storms that then threatened her. Providentially Breitinger was the man for the hour. In 1618 the Dutch government and theologians sent an invitation to the Swiss Reformed churches to send delegates to the Synod of Dort (in Holland) which was to decide the controversy that had arisen between the Calvinists and Arminians in Holland.[4] At first the Swiss held back from accepting the invitation because they did not want to become involved in what seemed to them a foreign controversy. But Breitinger’s early student friends in Holland appealed to him to use his influence in their favor. They urged that Zurich, as the mother Church of the Reformed, ought to be represented at the synod, so as to declare the doctrine of early Reformed Church. So {24} Breitinger, with six other Swiss delegates, was sent to the synod. But he was the leader of the delegation, although Diodati, of Geneva, was also prominent. Fortunate it was for Zurich that she had so able an antistes at that time, who could exert such a commanding influence at Dort and bring credit to herself. When he arrived at Dort, he was received with great honor by the Dutch because he was the representative of the mother Church of the Reformed and the successor of Zwingli. At this synod (1618-1619) he took sides against the Arminians, but did not favor the severe civil measures that were used by the Dutch government against them. When he returned home from Dort the Dutch government rewarded him very handsomely, and when he again came within the bounds of the canton of Zurich he was received with so much honor that his course was like the triumphal entry of a conqueror.

After Breitinger’s death, it became noticeable that the strongest thinkers were not in the antistes’ chair, but were outside of it, in the professors’ chairs. The most brilliant mind that Zurich then produced was Prof. John Henry Hottinger, who was professor at Zurich (1653-1667). So great was his talent for languages that he became the foremost Hebrew scholar in his day. The Elector (prince) of the Palatinate in Germany borrowed him for a few years to teach in his university at Heidelberg. There is a story told that a Jewish rabbi with his son, called to see him there. The rabbi had for a long time been trying with little success, to train his son to speak Hebrew. When the rabbi heard with what ease Hottinger spoke Hebrew, he suddenly fell into a great rage and began beating his son severely, saying, “You clown, {25} how long have I taught you Hebrew and you let yourself be outdone by this Christian.” The Elector tried to retain Hottinger at Heidelberg, but Zurich called him home. His fame, however, had become too great for Zurich to retain him. The University of Leyden in Holland, which was the foremost Reformed University of its day, called him twice. The second call he accepted, and he was about to leave Zurich when he was accidentally drowned there in the Limmat River, to the great sorrow of the Reformed of Zurich and of all Europe.

The most able theologian of Zurich was Prof. John Henry Heidegger. Like Hottinger, he was educated in Holland as well as at Zurich, but returned home, where he was made professor in Hottinger’s place. His fine theological abilities led to his appointment to draw up the new Creed, the Helvetic Consensus, in 1675. The Swiss Church had before adopted the Second Helvetic Confession, but in the seventeenth century a triumvirate of theologians-Gernler of Basle, F. Turretin of Geneva, and Heidegger of Zurich-desired a new creed, which should be directed against the school of Saumur, in France, which held lower views on predestination. Heidegger drew up the creed with great care and ability. After Heidegger the only antistes of any note was the thirteenth, Klingler, who was a strong leader for the Church.

In 1722 the King of Prussia requested the Swiss Churches to cast off the new creed, the Helvetic Consensus, because its high Calvinism prevented Church union. In this movement he was aided by the Archbishop of Canterbury in England. A new triumvirate of Swiss theologians-Werenfels of Basle, Osterwald of Neuch‰tel, and A. Turretin of Geneva-aided in {26} securing its rejection by the Reformed Churches of the different Swiss cantons. Basle, Geneva, and Neuchatel cast aside its authority, but Zurich and Berne retained it, in spite of all influence brought to bear on them. Zurich recognized its authority as late as 1741, when it declared for the old creeds over against the rationalism which had entered the Church through Antistes Wirz and Professor Zimmerman.

After rationalism had blighted the Church of Zurich for well-nigh half a century (1741-1795), a reaction took place back to orthodoxy. Two men became especially prominent in this movement. The first was J. Casper Lavater, probably the most eloquent preacher of his day in Europe, who astonished the Zurich Church in 1779 by coming out boldly against rationalism. Even in the first year of his ministry (1762) he showed the braveness of his heart. A Zurich magistrate, Grebel, was known for his corruption and bribes, yet because he was of an influential family, everyone feared to bring accusations against him. Not so Lavater. Although so young a man, he brought charges against the magistrate. At first the magistrate laughed at him, but soon he fled from the town. This natural boldness of Lavater, which led him so early to attack this magistrate, led him just as boldly to attack rationalism. He was called to the largest and wealthiest Church in Zurich, St. Peter’s. Here with great eloquence, from 1778 to 1801, he attacked rationalism and preached the Gospel of Jesus. And he was as bold politically as he was theologically. His denunciation of the French, who conquered Switzerland at the close of the last century, made them his bitter enemies, and finally led to his death. When the battle of Zurich was taking place (1799), he was {27} about to perform a kind act to a French soldier on the street near his home when one of them shot him. Severely wounded, he lingered for about a year in great pain and then died (January 2, 1801), rejoicing in hope. His deathbed was a transfiguration scene.

The second was John Jacob Hess, the eighteenth antistes (1795-1828). He was less brilliant than Lavater, but a more practical man. In his character he reminds one of Breitinger. Indeed it may be said that Zurich had, in all, five great antistes: Zwingli, Bullinger, Gualther, Breitinger, and Hess. Fortunate it was for Zurich that she had a man, at once so wise and so able as Hess to lead the Church through the dangerous days of the French occupation. He was a man of superb poise of character and self-control, a genius of common sense. When the French were bombarding Zurich in 1802, he kept on writing his sermon as if nothing were happening around him. He was the calm John of that age as Lavater was the impulsive Peter. The one complemented the other, but both were true disciples of Christ against rationalism. He is famous for his “Life of Christ,” the first of its kind. Providence blessed him with long life, so that in his old age he was privileged to preside over the tercentenary of the Reformation at Zurich, January 1, 1819. Although eighty years of age, he made an able address, which for its ability and adherence in the old faith made many think he was a “Zwingli risen from the dead.”

This sketch of the Zurich Church is important for us because it reveals the origin of our Reformed Church in the days of the Reformation and because so many of our early ministers, who organized our Church in America came from northeastern Switzerland, whose theology and thought, for the last three centuries, were dominated mainly by Zurich. {28}

[1]Le Franc, in his late work, claims that Calvin’s parents were Protestants and that he was a Protestant before he went to study at these universities.

[2] See Presbyterian and Reformed Review, July, 1893.

[3] Antistes is the head minister of the canton.

[4] The Arminians gave up the doctrine of predestination.