corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 11 — Protestantism in Switzerland From Its Establishment in Zurich (1525) to the Death of Zwingli (1531)

Chapter 6 — League of the Five Cantons with Austria — Switzerland divided

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

The Light Spreading — The Oberland in Darkness — The Gospel Invades the Mountains — League of the Five Cantons with Austria — Persecution Begun — Martyrdom of Pastor Keyser — The Christian Coburghery — The Breach among the Swiss Cantons Widening — Dean Bullinger — The Men of Gaster — Idols that won't March — Violence of the Popish Cantons — Effort of Zurich to Avert War-The Attempt Abortive — War Proclaimed — Zwingli's Part in the Affair — Was it Justifiable?

IT is a great crime to force an entrance for the truth by the sword, and compel unwilling necks to bow to it. It is not less a crime to bar its path by violence when it is seeking to come in by legitimate and peaceable means. This was the error into which the five primitive cantons of Switzerland now changed. Their hardy inhabitants, as they looked down from under the overhanging glaciers and icy pinnacles of their great mountains, beheld the new faith spreading over the plains at their feet. It had established itself in Zurich; the haughty lords of Bern had welcomed it; Schaffhausen and St. Gall had opened their gates to it; and even Basle, that abode of scholars, had turned from Plato and Aristotle, to sit at the feet of apostles. Along the chain of the Jura, by the shores of the Leman, to the very gates of a city as yet immersed in darkness, but destined soon to become the brightest luminary in that brilliant constellation, was the light travelling. But the mountains of the Oberland, which are the first to catch the natural day, and to flash their early fires all over Switzerland, were the last to be touched with the Reformed dawn now rising on Christendom. With the light brightening all round, they remained in the darkness.

The herdsmen of these cantons saw with grief and alarm the transformation which was passing upon their country. The glory was departing from it. They felt only horror as messenger after messenger arrived in their mountains and told them what was transacting on the plains below; that the altars at which their fathers had worshipped were being cast down; that the images to which they had bent the knee were being flung into the flames; that priest and monk were being chased away; that the light of holy taper was being extinguished, and that silence was falling on those holy orisons whose melodies welcomed the morn and greeted the departure of the day; that all those rites and customs, in short, which, were wont to beautify and sanctify their land were being abolished, and a defiling and defiant heresy was rearing its front in their stead. The men of the Forest Cantons learned with yet greater indignation and dismay that this pestilent faith had come to their very gates, and was knocking for admission. Nay, it was even penetrating into their grand valleys. This was not to be borne. They must make haste, for soon their own altars would be overturned, their crucifixes trampled in the mire, and the light of their holy tapers extinguished. They resolved to oppose the entrance of the Reformation as they would that of the plague; but they could oppose it by the only means of resistance which they understood the faggot and the sword.

Their alarm was intensified when they learned that Protestantism, performing a flank movement, was attacking them in the rear. It had crossed the Alps, and was planting itself in Italy. There was at that time (1530) a little band of Carmelite monks in Locarno, on the fertile and lovely shores of Lake Maggiore, who had come to the knowledge of a free salvation, and who, under the protection of Zurich, whose suzerainty then extended to that part of Italy, were laboring to initiate the Reformation of their native land. The men of the Five Cantons saw themselves about to be isolated, shut up in their mountains, cut off even from Italy, the cradle of their faith. They could sit still no longer.

But whither shall they turn? They could not wage war themselves against the Reformed cantons. These cantons were superior in men and money, and they could not hope to cope successfully with them. They must seek other allies. By doing so they would break the league of brotherhood with the other cantons, for they had resigned the right of forming new alliances without the consent of all the other members of the Federation; but they hoped to conduct the negotiations in secret. They turned their eyes to Austria. This was the last quarter from which a Swiss canton might have been expected to seek help. Had they forgotten the grievous yoke that Austria had made them bear in other days? Had they forgotten the blood it cost their fathers to break that yoke? Were they now to throw away what they had fought for on the gory fields of Morgarten and Sempach? They were prepared to do this. Religious antipathy overcame national hatred; terror of Protestantism suspended their dread of their traditional foe. Even Austria was astonished, and for awhile was in doubt of the good faith of the Five Cantons. They were in earnest, however, and the result was that a league was concluded, and sworn to on both sides, the 23rd of April, 1529, at Waldshut. [1] The Switzer of Unterwalden and Uri mounted the peacock's feather, the Austrian badge, and grasped in friendship the hands of the men with whom his fathers had contended to the death. The leading engagement in the league was that all attempts at forming new sects in the Five Cantons should be punished with death, and that Austria should give her aid, if need were, by sending the Five Cantons 6,000 foot-soldiers, and 400 horse, with the proper complement of artillery. It was further agreed that, if the war should make it necessary, the Reformed cantons should be blockaded, and all provisions

intercepted. [2]

Finding Austria at their back, the men of the Five Cantons had now recourse, in order to defend the orthodoxy of their valleys, to very harsh measures indeed. They began to fine, imprison, torture, and put to death the professors of the Reformed faith. On the 22rid May, 1529, Pastor Keyser was seized as he was proceeding to the scene of his next day's labor, which lay in the district between the lakes of Zurich and Wallenstadt, and carried to Schwitz. He was condemned; and although the cities of Zurich and Glarus interceded for him, he was carried to the stake and burned. When he heard his sentence he fell a-weeping; but soon he was so strengthened from above that he went joyfully to the stake, and praised the Lord Jesus in the midst of the flames for accounting him worthy of the honor of dying for the Gospels. [3]

Thus did the men of the mountains fling down their defiance to the inhabitants of the plains. The latter had burned dead idols, the former responded by burning living men. This was the first-fruits of the Austrian alliance. You must stop in your path, said Unterwalden to Zurich, you must set up the altars you have cast down, recall the priests you have chased away, rekindle the tapers you have extinguished, or take the penalty. The Forest Cantons were resolved to deal in this fashion, not only with all Protestants caught on their own territory, but also with the heresy of the plains. They would carry the purging sword to Zurich itself. They would smother the movement of which it was the center in the red ashes of its overthrow. Fiercer every day burned their bigotry. The priests of Rome and the pensioners of France and Italy were exciting the passions of the herdsmen. The clang of arms was resounding through their mountains. A new crusade was preparing: in a little while an army of fanatics would be seen descending the mountains, on the sanguinary but pious work of purging Zurich, Bern, and the other cantons from the heresy into which they had sunk.

Zwingli had long foreseen the crisis that had now arisen. He felt that the progress of the religious Reform in his native land would eventually divide Switzerland into two camps. The decision of the Forest Cantons would, he felt, be given on the side of the old faith, to which their inhabitants were incurably wedded by their habits, their traditions, and their ignorance; and they were likely, he foresaw, to defend it with the sword. In the prospect of such an emergency, he thought it but right to themselves and to their cause that the Reformed cantons should form a league of self-defense. He proposed (1527) a Christian Co-burghery, in which all the professors of the Reformed faith might be united in a new Reformed federation. The suggestion approved itself to the great body of his co-patriots. Constance was the first city to intimate its adhesion to the new state; Bern, St. Gall, Mulhansen, Basle, Schaffhausen, and Strasburg followed in the order in which we have placed them. By the end of the year 1529 this new federation was complete.

Every day multiplied the points of irritation between the Reformed 'red the Popish cantons. The wave of Reformed influence from Bern had not yet spent itself, and new towns and villages were from time to time proclaiming their adhesion to the Reformed faith. Each new conversion raised the alarm and animosity of the Five Cantons to a higher pitch of violence. In Bremgarten the gray-haired Dean Bullinger thus addressed his congregation from the pulpit, February, 1529: "I your pastor have taught you these three-and-thirty years, walking in blind darkness, what I myself have learned from blind guides. May God pardon my sin done in ignorance, and enlighten me by his grace, so that henceforth I may lead the flock committed to me into the pastures of his Word." The town council, which a year before had promised to the Five Cantons to keep the town in the old faith, deposed the dean from his office. Nevertheless, Bremgarten soon thereafter passed over to the side of Protestantism, and the dean's son, Henry Bullinger, was called to fill his father's place, and proved an able preacher and courageous champion of the Reformed faith. [4]

The men of Gaster, a district which was under the joint jurisdiction of Popish Schwitz and Protestant Glarus, in carrying out their Reform, threw a touch of humor into their iconoclastic acts, which must have 'brought a grim smile upon the faces of the herdsmen and warriors of the 0berland when told of it. Having removed all the images from their churches, in the presence of the deputies from Schwitz sent to prevail on them to abide in the old religion, they carried the idols to a point where four roads crossed. Setting them down on the highway, "See," said they, addressing the idols, "this road leads to Schwitz, this to Glarus, this other to Zurich, and the fourth conducts to Coire. Take the one that seems good unto you. We will give you a safe-conduct to whatever place you wish. But if you do not move off we tell you that we will burn you." The idols, despite this plain warning, refused to march, and their former worshippers, now their haters, taking them up, threw them into the flames. [5]

The deputies from Schwitz, who had been witnesses of the act, returned to tell how they had been affronted. Schwitz haughtily commanded the men of Gaster to abandon the heresy they had embraced and re-establish the mass. They craved in reply to have their error proved to them from the Holy Scriptures. To this the only answer was a threat of war. This menace made the Protestants of Gaster east themselves for help on Zurich; and that protection being accorded, matters became still more embroiled between Zurich

and the Five Cantons.

These offenses on the side of the Reforming cantons were altogether unavoidable, unless at the expense of suppressing the Reform movement. Not so the acts in which the Popish cantons indulged by way of retaliation: these were wholly gratuitous and peculiarly envenomed. Thomas Murner, the ribald monk, whom we have already met at Bern, labored zealously, and but too successfully, to widen the breach and precipitate the war in which so much blood was to be shed. He published daily in his "Black Calendar" lampoons, satires, and caricatures of the Protestants. A master of what is now known as "Billingsgate," he spared no abusive epithet in blackening the men and maligning their cause. The frontispiece that garnished his "Calendar" represented Zwingli suspended from a gallows; underneath which were the words, "Calendar of the Lutheran-Evangelical Church Robbers and Heretics." The followers of the Reformation were compendiously classified in the same elegant publication as "impotent unprincipled villains, thieves, lick-spittles, dastards, and knaves;" and he proposed that they should be disposed of in the following summary fashion, even "burned and sent in smoke to the devil." [6] These insults and ribaldries, instead of being discouraged, were hailed by the Five Cantons and widely diffused, although in so doing; hey were manifestly scattering "firebrands, arrows, and death."

Zurich and the Reformed cantons saw war at no great distance, nevertheless they resolved to make another effort to avert it. In a Diet (21st April, 1529) held in Zurich, without the Five Cantons, it was resolved to call on these cantons to with. draw from their league with Austria, to cease murdering the Reformed pastors, and to silence the shameful vituperations of Murner. They appointed further an embassage to proceed to these cantons, and entreat them not to violate the federal compact. The deputies as they went the round of the Five Cantons with the olive-branch were only scoffed at. "No preaching!" shouted the men of Zug. "We wish the new faith eternally buried," said those of Uri. "Your seditious parsons," said Lucerne, "undermine the faith as erst in Paradise the serpent swung his folds round Adam and Eve. We will preserve our children, and our children's children, from such poison." "We," said they in Unterwalden, "and the other Wald towns, are the true old confederates, the real Swiss." As he was leaving the place the deputy saw on the house of the town-clerk a gallows painted, on which the arms of Zurich, Bern, Basle, and Strasburg were suspended. At Schwitz only did the council admit the ambassadors to an audience. [7] Thus the proffered conciliation of their brethren was rudely and arrogantly put away by the Five Cantons.

Everywhere the Reformed deputies were insulted and sent back. It was evident that the Popish cantons were bent on quarrelling. But we shall mistake if we suppose that they were animated by a chivalrous and high-minded attachment to the faith of their fathers. A greed of the foreign pensions, quite as much as devotion to the "Holy Father," swayed them in adopting this course. The deterioration of manners consequent on the foreign service was visible in every part of Switzerland, in Zurich as well as Unterwalden; but it was in the Five Cantons that this corruption was the deepest, because these were the cantons most addicted to this disgraceful warfare. The preaching of the Gospel revealed the evils and iniquities of this practice, and threatened to put an end to it, and of course to the gold that flowed from it; hence the fierce hostility of the men of the Oberland to the Reformation. [8] Not only their idols and altars, but their purses also were at stake.

The patience of the Reformed cantons was well-nigh exhausted. There was no end of insults, provocation's, and lampoons. The maltreatment and murder of their brethren in the faith, the return of their deputies shamefully used, and now the burning pile of Keyser — here was enough to fill up the cup. Zwingli thought that, the question of religion apart, the public order demanded that these outrages should be stopped. He was told, moreover, that the mountaineers were arming, that the Austrian auxiliaries on the frontier were enlisting soldiers, that war was determined on the Popish side, and that it would be wise in the interests of peace to strike the first blow. Let us, said Zwingli, attack the Five Cantons on several points at once. Let us convince them that resistance is useless. Our present peace is only war, with this difference, that it is the; blood of one side only that is being sprit. Our war will be peace. Zwingli hoped thus the campaign would be bloodless. The Council of Zurich on the 3rd of June resolved on war, proclaiming it in the first instance against Schwitz. [9]

The Reformer's conduct in this affair has been much criticized. Some historians of great name have blamed him, others have not less warmly defended him. Let us look a little at what he did, and the reasons that appear to justify and even necessitate the line of action he adopted. While taking a leading part in the affairs of the State at this crisis, he continued to labor as indefatigably as ever in preaching and writing. He sought, in doing what he now did, simply to take such means as men in all ages of the world, and in all stages of society, guided by the light of reason and the laws which the Creator has implanted in the race, have taken to defend their lives and liberties. The members of that Confederation were Christians, but they were also citizens. Christianity did not annihilate, it did not even abridge the privileges and powers of their citizenship. If while they were Romanists they had the right to defend their lives, their homes, and their possessions against all assailants, whether within or without Switzerland; and if, further, they had the right of protecting their

fellow-citizens who, guilty of no crime, had been seized, and in violation of inter-cantonal law were threatened with a cruel death, surely they retained the same rights as professors of the Reformed faith. But it may be said — nay, it has been said that it was Church federation and not State federation that ought to have been had recourse to. But at that time the State and the Church were inextricably mingled in Switzerland: their separate action was not at that moment possible; and, even though it had been possible, pure Church action would not have met the case; it would have been tantamount to no action. The Forest Cantons, impelled by their bigotry and supported by Austria, would have fallen sword in hand upon the professors of the Gospel in Helvetin and rooted them out.

Besides, does not the Gospel by its Divine efficacy rear around it, sooner or later, a vast number of powerful and valuable forces? It nourishes art, plants courage, and kindles the love of liberty. For what end? For this among others, to be, under the providence of God, a defense around itself.

When Christians are utterly without human succor and resource, they are called to display their faith by relying wholly on God, who, if it is his purpose to deliver them, well knows how to do so. Then their faith has in it reason as well as sublimity. But if means are laid to their hand, and they forbear to use them, on the plea that they are honoring God by showing their trust in him, they are not trusting but tempting God, and instead of exercising faith are displaying fanaticism.

Zwingli, it has been further said, was a pastor, and the call to combine and stand to the defense of their liberties now addressed to the Reformed cantons ought to have come from another than him. But Zwingli was a citizen and a patriot, as well as a pastor. His wonderfully penetrating, comprehensive, and forecasting intellect made him the first politician of his country; he could read the policy of its enemies better than any one else; he had penetrated their purposes; he saw the dangers that were gathering round the Reformed cantons; and his sagacity and experience taught him the measures to be adopted. No other man in all Switzerland knew the matter half so well. Was he to stand aloof and withhold the counsel, the suggestion, the earnest exhortation to action, and let his country be overwhelmed, on the plea that because he was in sacred office it did not become him to interfere? Zwingli took a different view of his duty, and we think justly. When the crisis came, without in the least intermitting his zeal and labors as a minister, he attended the meetings of council, he gave his advice, he drew plans, he thundered in the pulpit, he placed even his military experience acquired in Italy at the service of his countrymen; combining, in short, the politician:, patriot, and pastor all in one, he strove to kindle the same ardent flame of patriotism in the hearts of his fellow-citizens that burned so strongly in his own, and to roll back the invasion which threatened all that was of value in the Swiss Confederation with destruction. The combination was an unusual one, we admit, but the times and the emergency were also unusual. That Zwingli may have always preserved the golden mean when the parts he had to act were so various, and the circumstances so exciting, we are not prepared to maintain. But we do not see how his policy in the main can be impugned, without laying down the maxim that when civil liberty only is at stake is it right to have recourse to arms, and that when the higher interests of faith and religious liberty are mixed up with the quarrel, we are bound to do nothing — to stand unarmed and inactive in the presence of the enemy.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology