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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 8 — History of Protestantism in Switzerland From A.D. 1516 to Its Establishment at Zurich, 1525

Chapter 13 — Dissolution of Conventual and Monastic establishments

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Zwingli's Treatise – An After-fight – Zwingli's Pulpit Lectures – Superstitious Usages and Payments Abolished – Gymnasium Founded – Convents Opened – Zwingli on Monastic Establishments – Dissolution of Monasteries – Public Begging Forbidden – Provision for the Poor.

VICTORY had been gained, but Zwingli was of opinion that he had won it somewhat too easily. He would have preferred the assertion of the truth by a sharp debate to the dumb opposition of the priests. He set to work, however, and in a few months produced a treatise on the established ordinances and ceremonies, in which he showed how utterly foundation was lacking for them in the Word of God. The luminous argument and the "sharp wit" of the volume procured for it an instant and wide circulation.

Men read it, and asked why these usages should be longer continued. The public mind was now ripe for the changes in the worship which Zwingli had hitherto abstained from making. This is a dangerous point in all such movements. Not a few Reformations have been wrecked on this rock. The Reformer of Zurich was able, partly by aid of the council, partly by the knowledge he had sown among the people, to steer his vessel safely past it. He managed to restrain the popular enthusiasm within its legitimate channel, and he made that a cleansing stream which otherwise would have become a devastating torrent.

Faber took care that the indignation his extraordinary arguments had awakened in the Zurichers should not cool down. Like the Parthian, he shot his arrows in his flight. No sooner was the Vicar-General back in Constance, than he published a report of the conference, in which he avenged his defeat by the most odious and calumnious attacks on Zwingli and the men of Zurich. This libel was answered by certain of the youth of Zurich, in a book entitled the Hawk-pluckings. It was "a sharp polemic, full of biting wit." It had an immense sale, and Faber gained as little in this after-fight as he had done in the main battle. [1]

The Reformer did not for a moment pause or lose sight of his grand object, which was to restore the Gospel to its rightful place in the sanctuary, and in the hearts of the people. He had ended his exposition of the Gospel of St. Matthew. He proceeded next to the consideration of the Acts of the Apostles, that he might be able to show his hearers the primitive model of the Church, and how the Gospel was spread in the first ages. Then he went on to the 1st Epistle to Timothy, that he might unfold the rules by which all Christians ought to frame their lives. He turned next to the Epistle to the Galatians, that he might reach those who, like some in St. Paul's days, had still a weakness for the old leaven; then to the two Epistles of St. Peter, that he might show his audience that St. Peter's authority did not rise above that of St. Paul, who, on St. Peter's confession, had fed the flock equally with himself. Last of all he expounded the Epistle to the Hebrews, that he might fix the eyes of his congregation on a more glorious priesthood than that of the Jews of old, or that of Rome in modern times–on that of the great Monarch and Priest of His Church, who by His one sole sacrifice had sanctified for ever them that believe.

Thus did he place the building which he was laboring to rear on the foundations of the prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone. And now it seemed to him that the time for practical reformation had arrived. [2]

This work began at the cathedral, the institution with which he himself was connected. The original letter of grant front Charlemagne limited the number of canons upon this foundation to thirteen. There were now more than fifty canons and chaplains upon it. These had forgotten their vow, at entry, framed in accordance with the founder's wish, "to serve God with praise and prayer" and "to supply public worship to the inhabitants of hill and valley." Zwingli was the only worker on this numerous staff; almost all the rest lived in downright idleness, which was apt on occasion to degenerate into something worse. The citizens grumbled at the heavy rents and numerous dues which they paid to men whose services were so inappreciable. Feeling the justice of these complaints, Zwingli devised a plan of reform, which the council passed into a law, the canons themselves concurring. The more irritating of the taxes for the ecclesiastical estate were abolished. No one was any longer to be compelled to pay for baptism, for extreme unction, for burial, for burial-candles, for grave-stones, or for the tolling of the great bell of the minster. [3] The canons and chaplains who died off were not to be replaced; only a competent number were to be retained, and these were to serve as ministers of parishes. The amount of benefices set free by the decease of canons was to be devoted to the better payment of the teachers in the Gymnasium of Zurich, and the founding of an institution of a higher order for the training of pastors, and the instruction of youth generally in classical learning.

In place of the choir-service, mumbled drowsily over by the canons, came the "prophesying" or exposition of Scripture (1525), which began at eight every morning, and was attended by all the city clergy, the canons, the chaplains, and scholars. [4] Of the new school mentioned above, Oswald Myconius remarks that "had Zwingli survived, it would not have found its equal anywhere." As it was, this school was a plant that bore rich fruit after Zwingli was in his grave. Of this the best proof is the glory that was shed on Zurich by the numbers of her

sons who became illustrious in Church and State, in literature and science.

Reform was next applied to the conventual and monastic establishments. They fell almost without a blow. As melts the ice on the summit of the Alps when spring sets in, so did the monastic asceticism of Zurich give way before the warm breath of evangelism. Zwingli had shown from the pulpit that these institutions were at war alike with the laws of nature, the affections of the heart, and the precepts of Scripture. From the interior of some of these places, cries were heard for deliverance from the conventual vow. The council of Zurich, 17th June, 1523, granted their wish, by giving permission to the nuns to return to society. There was no compulsion; the convent door was open; the inmates might go or they might remain. Many quitted the cloister, but others preferred to end their days where they had spent their lives. [5]

Zwingli next set about preparing for the dissolution of the monastic houses. He began by diffusing rational ideas on the subject in the public mind. "It has been argued," said he, "that a priest must in some way distinguish himself from other men. He must have a bald pate, or a cowl, or a frock, or wooden shoes, or go bare-foot. No," said Zwingli, "he who distinguishes himself from others by such badges but raises against himself the charge of hypocrisy. I will tell you Christ's way: it is to excel in humility and a useful life. With that ornament we shall need no outward badge; the very children will know us, nay, the devil himself will know us to be none of his. When we lose our true worth and dignity, then we garnish ourselveas with shorn crowns, frocks, and knotted cords; and men admire our clothes, as the children stare at the gold-bespangled mule of the Pope. I will tell you a labor more fruitful both to one's self and to others than singing matins, aves, and vespers: namely, to study the Word of God, and not to cease till its light shine into the hearts of men."

"To snore behind the walls of a cloister," he continued, "is not to worship God. But to visit widows and orphans, that is to say, the destitute in their affliction, and to keep one's self unspotted from the world, that is to worship God. The world in this place (James 1:27) does not mean hill and valley, field and forest, water, lakes, towns and villages, but the lusts of the world, as avarice, pride, uncleanness, intemperance. These vices are more commonly to be met with within the walls of a convent than in the world abroad. I speak not of envy and hatred which have their habitation among this crew, and yet these are all greater sins than those they would escape by fleeing to a cloister... Therefore let the monks lay aside all their badges, their cowls, and their regulations, and let them put themselves on a level with the rest of Christendom, and unite themselves to it, if they would truly obey the Word of God." [6]

In accordance with these rational and Gospel principles, came a resolution passed by the council in December, 1524, to reform the monasteries.

It was feared that the monks would offer resistance to the dissolution of their orders, but the council laid their plans so wisely, that before the fathers knew that their establishments were in danger the blow had been struck. On a Saturday afternoon the members of council, accompanied by delegates from the various guilds, the three city ministers, and followed by the town militia, presented themselves in the Augustine monastery. They summoned the inmates into their presence, and announced to them the resolution of the council dissolving their order. Taken unawares, and awed by the armed men who accompanied the council, the monks at once yielded. So quietly fell the death-blow on the monkish establishments of Zurich. [7]

"The younger friars who showed talent and inclination," says Christoffel, "were made to study: the others had to learn a trade.

The strangers were furnished with the necessary travelling money to go to their homes, or to re-enter a cloister in their own country; the frail and aged had a competent settlement made upon them, with the condition attached that they were regularly to attend the Reformed service, and give offense to none either by their doctrines or lives. The wealth of the monasteries was for the most part applied to the relief of the poor or the sick, since forsooth the cloisters called themselves the asylums of the poor; and only a small part was reserved for the churches and the schools."

"Every kind of door and street beggary was forbidden," adds Christoffel, "by an order issued in 1525, while at the same time a competent support was given to the home and stranger poor. Thus, for example, the poor scholars were not allowed any longer to beg their living by singing beneath the windows, as was customary before the Reformation. Instead of this a certain number of them (sixteen from the canton Zurich, four strangers) received daily soup and bread, and two shillings weekly. Stranger beggars and pilgrims were allowed only to pass through the town, and nowhere to beg." [8]

In short, the entire amount realised by the dissolution of the monastic orders was devoted to the relief of the poor, the ministry of the sick, and the advancement of education. The council did not feel at liberty to devote these funds to any merely secular object.

"We shall so act with cloister property," said they, "that we can neither be reproached before God nor the world. We might not have the sin upon our consciences of applying the wealth of one single cloister to fill the coffers of the State." [9]

The abrogation of the law of celibacy fittingly followed the abolition of the monastic

vow. This was essential to the restoration of the ministerial office to its apostolic dignity and purity. Many of the Reformed pastors took advantage of the change in the law, among others Leo Juda, Zwingli's friend. Zwingli himself had contracted in 1522 a private marriage, according to the custom of the times, with Anna Reinhard, widow of John Meyer von Knonau, a lady of great beauty and of noble character. On the 2nd of April, 1524, he publicly celebrated his marriage in the minster church. Zwingli had made no secret whatever of his private espousals, which were well known to both friend and foe, but the public acknowledgment of them was hailed by the former as marking the completion of another stage in the Swiss Reformation. [10]

Thus step by step the movement advanced. Its path was a peaceful one. That changes so great in a country where the government was so liberal, and the expression of public opinion so unrestrained, should have been accomplished without popular tumults, is truly marvellous. This must be ascribed mainly to the enlightened maxims that guided the procedure of the Reformer. When Zwingli wished to do away with any oppressive or superstitious obdervance; he sifted and exposed the false dogma on which it was founded, knowing that when he had overthrown it in the popular belief, it would soon fall in the popular practice. When public sentiment was ripe, the people would go to the legislative chamber, and would there find the magistrates prepared to put into the form of law what was already the judgment and wish of the community; and thus the law, never outrunning public opinion would be willingly obeyed. In this way Zwingli had already accomplished a host of reforms. He had opened the door of the convents; he had suppressed the monastic orders; he had restored hundreds of idle men to useful industry; he had set free thousands of pounds for the erection of hospitals and the education of youth; and he had closed a fountain of pollution, only the more defiling because it issued from the sanctuary, and restored purity to the altar, in the repeal of the law of clerical celibacy. But the Reformation did not stop here. More arduous achievement awaited it.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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