Having dealt in lesson 1 with individual movements and people who can be seen as “forerunners” of the Reformation, we now for the second lesson enter the area of the Reformation itself. However, before turning to the first Reformed Reformer, Huldrych Zwingli, we will briefly examine a few of the backgrounds and contexts.

1. Backgrounds and Presuppositions

The political Situation in Europe and the Situation in the Swiss Confederation

After the death of Emperor Maximilian I, the young Spanish king Charles, and not the French king Francis I (also supported by Rome), was chosen by the Electors to be the German Emperor. In the following decades there were continual military conflicts between the two monarchs because the new Emperor wanted to establish the old Empire again. For the most part France was defeated. Because the Turks as well were conquering wide regions in Southwest Europe, Emperor Charles V was heavily occupied with military tasks and consequently could only concern himself to a small extent with the Reformation that was beginning initially in Germany. This in turn strengthened the power of the German Electors, who partly saw themselves as the real authorities, having indeed chosen the Emperor. The German Reformation also had this “princely appearance” in its consequences because the weak central power of the Emperor and the strength of the current regional rulers led to the latter’s declaring a particular confession to be the confession of the land in their territories, either remaining within the old Roman-Catholic doctrine or introducing the new Lutheran Reformation. The German Reformation is thus also called the Territorial Reformation, differing confessions having become valid in the principalities and dominions of the time. The technical term for this is “cuius regio eius religio” – “he to whom the region belongs defines also the religion.”
In the Swiss Confederation, which then was not yet generally named Switzerland, the situation was totally different. There were no regional rulers, but rather independent towns along with the surrounding countryside belonging to them, which stood for themselves and accepted no rule over them. The governments in these towns were chosen by those who possessed the citizenship. The various towns had formed the Swiss Confederation in which no town had supremacy – the common decisions were made in a kind of parliament (Tagsatzung) but had no power of authority over the individual towns. Each town also decided for itself in religious matters.

The Situation of the Roman-Catholic Church in the first half of the 16th Century

The pre-Reformation movements described in lesson 1 already indicated by their presence a crisis that had existed in the Roman-Catholic Church for a long time. And despite some intentions of reform, the councils in the 14th and 15th centuries could not accomplish any real reforms. The purchasing of church offices, the lack of theological education, and above all the indulgence, were a grave sign of this. Criticism of the Church grew, and above all the moral conditions in the clergy and monasteries and the financial practices gave rise to protest. Next to this, however, a totally different complexion appeared: the piety of the people and religious desire reached untold proportions, particularly in Germany. This is discernible in the innumerable pilgrimages, and in the increase in the number of masses, which meant naturally that more priests were needed. The Roman-Catholic Church thus showed unbroken piety externally. Looked at more closely, however, a build-up of reform was most likely at hand. One could say that the time was ripe for a reformation.

The Reformation must not be identified with Luther

In Germany the Reformation is brought immediately into connection with the person of Martin Luther – and that is indeed correct because the Reformation in Germany began with him. His 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg Church door on 31 October 1517 bear eloquent witness to this. Luther is indeed the most important Reformer. However, he was not the only one, not in Germany and certainly not outside it. One must therefore pay attention to two things. First, the Reformation must not be equated with Luther. It is precisely the Reformed Church which refers to Zwingli and Calvin, without being able to or wanting to place in question the merits of Luther. Second, Luther must not be taken as the measure for what can therefore be valid or not as “Reformed.” For one then obtains too quickly a restricted view and can no longer really appreciate the perceptions and discoveries of other Reformers.