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Reformation in Switzerland Essay

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Updated: Jul 20th, 2021


Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin were both mighty political and social figures who shaped history and set the development path of Switzerland for many years ahead. The Reformation period in Switzerland is a multifaceted cultural and historical period of time where a variety of events, their succession, and reaction to them were deeply interrelated, which is why it is paramount to retrospectively assess and discuss the key figures, parties, and their actions. This paper will compare and contrast the roles of Zwingli and Calvin in the period of Reformation in Switzerland, the reactions of church and common people, and the interconnectedness of military, political events, as well as different religious groups.

Church’s Reaction to Reformers

By the end of the middle ages, the authority of the Roman Catholic Church was to a large extent undermined by the corruption which surfaced in many instances. The representatives of the church enjoyed their position of power, wealth, and privileged position, which determined their negative predisposition against all attempts of changing their way of life to a more modest one. The reforms proposed by Zwingli and Calvin also faced criticism from all the ranks of Catholic officials. In the case of Zwingli, who had the power of the city council of Zurich and other cities in Switzerland, the discontent of the Catholic church took the form of military actions between the two conglomerates of cantons.1

At that time, it was possible to be killed for one’s religious beliefs that contradicted the Catholic doctrine, which affected both the followers of Zwingli and Calvin.2 The rejection of Zwingli’s reforms was arguably more pronounced than that of Calvin’s. Calvinist churches were established with almost no physical resistance, although secretly at first.3 This process was probably due to the nature of Calvinist ideas that favored the concentration of political power in the hands of the clergy.4 Thus, the reaction of the Catholic church was harsher in instances where its power was substantially reduced and privileges regulated.

Common People’s Reaction to Reformers

Both Zwingli and Calvin had a substantial influence on the lower classes’ life. The state of a common person’s life had been dismal long before the Reformation. The ideas of Zwingli, as well as Luther, and Calvin had an impact on the way peasants expressed their ideas about change. The Twelve Articles of Memmingen, composed by revolutionary peasants, demanded the right to exercise control over the election and dismissal of pastors along with abolition of practices incompatible with “pure gospel.”5 Nevertheless, Zwingli was still perceived as a member of the corrupt clergy, and his reforms rarely found overwhelming support from the members of the public.

Calvinism, on the other hand, appealed to many people, especially merchants, artisans, and other members of a “middle class.” The ideas of predestination were based on the assumption that the fate of a person is predetermined, while good deeds serve as eligibility criteria for salvation in the afterlife.6 The notion of God’s mercy being earned rather than granted by the representatives of the clergy for a sum of money was, presumably, one of the reasons why Calvin’s ideas were so popular.

The occupations that were God-ordained in accordance with the Catholic beliefs were either of a warrior, peasant, or a clergyman. The art of trade or craft was not recognized as godly before Calvin, which brought him the support of the urban dwellers. In addition to that, proclaiming the rule of the divine over the rule of the mortal, Calvinism allowed for the resistance against the tyranny of the rulers.7 Thus, the popularity of Calvin’s ideas over Zwingli’s was noticeable among the cities with strong clergy, while the latter were popular among the nobility and urban population.

Military and Political Situation in Relation to the Reformation Movement

The religious disputes were at the time easily transformed into political and ultimately led to military conflicts. As it was noted above, adherence to one of the confessions was often the question of life and death. Switzerland was divided into cantons that supported either the Catholic, Lutheran, or Zwinglian church.8 Yet, even if the Reformation had been taken out of the equation, the political and social tensions within the country and across Europe were ongoing due to the dynasty or economic issues. Therefore, it could be argued the Reformation was merely an important catalyst of the military actions rather than the sole reason. In certain instances, however, the religious debates indeed became the starting point of hostilities and even weakened the political unity of Switzerland.9

Zwingli’s opposition to the mercenary army system challenged the traditional structure of the country, which invoked the battle between cantons and brought the further dissolution of Switzerland’s integrity. It is hard to argue with the proposition that provided there was stability across European states, there would have been no room for the Reformation. Logically, a reformation occurs when there is a sufficient reason to change the state of existence as a person and as a citizen. Such a reason arose due to the changes occurring in the economy and religion, namely, the emergence of new classes, occupations, and the empowering of the clergy.

Those alterations dictated the need for a new paradigm of thought that would have allowed the shift in power in favor of the stronger civil territorial governance. Thus, the role of the Reformation was that of a catalyst and the conductor of change, the emergence of which was based on the political, social, and spiritual needs. Military and political actions were initiated primarily to gain power, while the Reformation gave some authority to question the traditional balance.

Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Hutterites

Zwingli followers and Catholic believers agreed that each canton is free to choose their allegiance to faith. That, in conjunction with the encouragement for everyone to read the Bible, gave rise to the emergence of new confessions. Anabaptists formed in Zurich proposed that a person should be allowed to choose their confession upon reaching maturity rather than being baptized at birth.10 There were several understandings or emphases in the framework of this theological teaching. Mennonites, the branch of the Anabaptists who were more centered on salvation through Jesus and non-violence, were also prosecuted and banned across Switzerland.

The Hutterites were more centered on the belief in the Church Invisible and followed a specific set of rules for Christian living that involved community seclusion.11 Such radical views, at the time, were considered intolerable, and the followers were banned from the cities across Switzerland.12 The response of the conventional church was a measured response because the simultaneous existence of a multitude of confessions undermined the authority of the main one. Such a broad understanding of freedom of religion was too progressive at the time.


The Reformation in Switzerland was an eventful and meaningful period that re-shaped the minds of all social strata. The philosophies and deeds of the core theologists, Zwingli and Calvin, have both similarities and differences. While Zwingli’s views can be considered more radical, Calvin’s beliefs were moderately liberal. The latter was more acceptable to the masses and pro-monarchic rulers, while Zwinglianism was, essentially, a theocracy that was preferable for the clergy.


Anabaptists. Web.

Calvin, John. “On Predestination.” Fordham University. Web.

Calvin, John. “On Civil Government and Resistence” Fordham University. Web.

Linder, Robert Dean. The Reformation Era. London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008.

Payton, James R. “Calvin and Eastern Europe: What Happened?” Religion in Eastern Europe 30, no. 2 (2010): 10-19.

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E. Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.


  1. Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 1450-1789, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 180.
  2. Ibid., 180.
  3. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 179.
  4. John Calvin, “On Civil Government and Resistance” Fordham University. Web.
  5. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 179.
  6. John Calvin, “On Predestination,” Fordham University. Web.
  7. James R. Payton, “Calvin and Eastern Europe: What Happened?” Religion in Eastern Europe 30, no. 2 (2010): 12.
  8. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 181.
  9. Ibid., 182.
  10. “Anabaptists: The Schleitheim Confession,” Anabaptists. Web.
  11. Robert D. Linder, The Reformation Era, (London: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), 91.
  12. Wiesner-Hanks, Early Modern Europe, 181.
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