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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 4 — Zwingli's birth and school-days

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One Leader in Germany – Many in Switzerland – Valley of Tockenburg – Village of Wildhaus – Zwingli's Birth – His Parentage – Swiss Shepherds – Winter Evenings – Traditions of Swiss Valour – Zwingli Listens – Sacred Traditions – Effect of Scenery in moulding Zwingli's Character – Sent to School at Wesen – Outstrips his Teacher – Removed to Basle – Binzli – Zwingli goes to Bern – Lupllus – The Dominicans – Zwingli narrowly escapes being a Monk.

THERE is an apt resemblance between the physical attributes of the land in which we are now arrived, and the eventful story of its religious awakening. Its great snow-clad hills are the first to catch the light of morning, and to announce the rising of the sun. They are seen burning like torches, while the mists and shadows still cover the plains and valleys at their feet. So of the moral dawn of the Swiss. Three hundred years ago, the cities of this land were among the first in Europe to kindle in the radiance of the Reformed faith, and to announce the new morning which was returning to the world. There suddenly burst upon the darkness a multitude of lights. In Germany there was but one pre-eminent center, and one pre-eminently great leader. Luther towered up like some majestic Alp. Alone over all that land was seen his colossal figure. But in Switzerland one, and another, and a third stood up, and like Alpine peaks, catching the first rays, they shed a bright and pure effulgence not only upon their own cities and cantons, but over all Christendom.

In the south-east of Switzerland is the long and narrow valley of the Tockenburg. It is bounded by lofty mountains, which divide it on the north from the canton of Appenzell, and on the south from the Grisons. On the east it opens toward the Tyrolese Alps. Its high level does not permit the grain to ripen or the vine to be cultivated in it, but its rich pastures were the attraction of shepherds, and in process of time the village of Wildhaus grew up around its ancient church. In this valley, in a cottage which is still to be seen [1] standing about a mile from the church, on a green meadow, its walls formed of the stems of trees, its roof weighed down with stones to protect it from the mountain gusts, with a limpid stream flowing before it, there lived three hundred years ago a man named Huldric Zwingli, bailiff of the parish. He had eight sons, the third of whom was born on New Year's day, 1584, seven weeks after the birth of Luther, and was named Ulric. [2]

The man was greatly respected by his neighbors for his upright character as well as for his office. He was a shepherd, and his summers were passed on the mountains, in company with his sons, who aided him in tending his flocks. When the green of spring brightened the vales, the herds were brought forth and driven to pasture. Day by day, as the verdure mounted higher on the mountain's side, the shepherds with their flocks continued to ascend. Midsummer found them at their highest elevation, their herds browsing on the skirts of the eternal snows, where the melting ice and the vigorous sun of July nourished a luxuriant herbage. When the lengthening nights and the fading pasturage told them that summer had begun to decline, they descended by the same stages as they had mounted, arriving at their dwellings in the valley about the time of the autumnal equinox. In Switzerland so long as winter holds its reign on the mountain-tops, and darkens the valleys with mists and tempests, no labor can be done out of doors, especially in high-lying localities like the Tockenburg. Then the peasants assemble by turns in each other's houses, lit at night by a blazing fire of fir-wood or the gleam of candle. Gathering round the hearth, they beguile the long evenings with songs and musical instruments, or stories of olden days. They will tell of some adventurous exploit, when the shepherd climbed the precipice, or braved the tempest, to rescue some member of the fold which had strayed from its companions. Or they will narrate some yet braver deed done on the battlefield where their fathers were wont to meet the spearmen of Austria, or the steel-clad warriors of Gaul. Thus would they make the hours pass swiftly by.

The house of the Amman of Wildhaus, Huldric Zwingli, was a frequent resort of his neighbors in the winter evenings. Round his hearth would assemble the elders of the village, and each brought his tale of chivalry borrowed from ancient Swiss ballad or story, or mayhap handed down by tradition. While the elders spoke, the young listened with coursing pulse and flashing eyes. They told of the brave men their mountains had produced of old; of the feats of valor which had been done upon their soil; and how their own valley of the Tockenburg had sent forth heroes who had helped to roll back from their hills the hosts of Charles the Bold. The battles of their fathers were fought over again in the simple yet graphic narratives of the sons. The listeners saw these deeds enacted before them. They beheld the fierce foreign phalanxes gathering round their mountains. They saw their sires mustering in city and on mountain, they saw them hurrying through narrow gorge, and shady pine-forest, and across their lakes, to repel the invader; they heard the shock of the encounter, the clash of battle, the shout of victory, and saw the confusion and terrors of the rout. Thus the spirit of Swiss valor was kept alive; bold sire was succeeded by son as bold; and the Alps, as they kindled their fires morning by morning, beheld one generation of patriots and warriors rise up after another at their feet.

In the circle of listeners

round his father's hearth in the winter evenings was the young Ulric Zwingli. He was thrilled by these tales of the deeds of ancient valor, some of them done in the very valley where he heard them rehearsed. His country's history, not in printed page, but in tragic action, passed before him. He could see the forms of its heroes moving grandly along. They had fought, and bled, centuries ago; their ashes had long since mingled with the dust of the vale, or been borne away by the mountain torrent; but to him they were still living. They never could die. If that soil which spring brightened with its flowers, and autumn so richly covered with its fruits, was free–if yonder snows, which kindled so grandly on the mountain's brow, owned no foreigul lord, it was to these men that this was owing. This glorious land inhabited by freemen was their eternal monument. Every object in it was to him associated with their names, and recalled them to his memory. To be worthy of his great ancestors, to write his name alongside theirs, and have his exploits similarly handed down from father to son, became henceforward his highest ambition. This brave, lofty, liberty-loving nature, which strengthened from year to year, was a fit stock on which to graft the love of a yet higher liberty, and the detestation of a yet baser tyranny than any which their fathers had repelled with the scorn of freemen when they routed the phalanxes of the Hapsburg, or the legionaries of France.

And betimes this liberty began to be disclosed to him. His grandmother was a pious woman. She would call the young Ulric to her, and making him sit beside her, would introduce him to heroes of a yet loftier type, by reciting to him such portions of sacred history as she herself had learned from the legends of the Church, and the lessons of the Breviary. She would tell him, doubtless, of those grand patriarchal shepherds who fed their flocks on the hills of Palestine of old, and how at times an August Being came down and talked with them. She would tell him of those mighty men of valor from the plough, the sheepfold, or the vineyard, who, when the warriors of Midian, crossing the Jordan, darkened with their swarms the broad Esdraelon, or the hordes of Philistia, from the plain by the sea-shore, climbed the hills of Judah, drove back the invading hosts, and sent them with slaughter and terror to their homes. She would take him to the cradle at Bethlehem, to the cross on Calvary, to the garden on the morning of the third day, when the doors of the sepulcher were seen to open, and a glorious form walked forth from the darkness of the tomb. She would show him the first missionaries hurrying away with the great news to the Gentile world, and would tell him how the idols of the nations fell at the preaching of the Gospel. Thus day by day was the young Zwingli trained for his great future task. Deep in his heart was laid the love of his country, and next were implanted the rudiments of that faith which alone could be the shield of his country's stable and lasting independence.

The grand aspects of nature around him – the tempest's roar, the cataract's dash, the mountain peaks–doubtless contributed their share to the forming of the future Reformer. They helped to nurse that elevation of soul, that sublime awe of Him who had "set fast the mountains," and that intrepidity of mind which distinguished Zwingli in after-years. So thinks his biographer. "I have often thought in my simplicity," says Oswald My-conius, [3] "that from these sublime heights, which stretch up towards heaven, he has taken something heavenly and sublime." "When the thunder rolls through the gorges of the mountains, and leaps from crag to crag with crashing roar, then it is as if we heard anew the voice of the Lord God proclaiming, 'I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.' When in the dawn of morning the icy mountains glow in light divine, so that a sea of fire seems to surround all their tops, it is as if 'the Lord God of hosts treadeth upon the high places of the earth,' and as if the border of his garment of light had transfigured the hills. It is then that with reverential awe we feel as if the cry came to us also, 'Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.' Here under the magnificent impressions of a mountain world and its wonders, there awoke in the breast of the young Zwingli the first awful sense of the grandeur and majesty of God, which afterwards filled his whole soul, and armed him with intrepidity in the great conflict with the powers of darkness. In the solitude of the mountains, broken only by the bells of his pasturing flocks, the reflective boy mused on the wisdom of God which reveals itself in all creatures. An echo of this deep contemplation of nature, which occupied his harmless youth, we find in a work which, in the ripeness of manhood, he composed on 'The Providence of God.' [4] 'The earth,' says he, 'the mother of all, shuts never ruthlessly her rich treasures within herself; she heeds not the wounds made on her by spade and share. The dew, the rain, the rivers moisten, restore, quicken within her that which had been brought to a stand-still in growth by drought, and its after-thriving testifies wondrously of the Divine power. The mountains, too, these awkward, rude, inert masses, that give to the earth, as the bones to the flesh, solidity, form, and consistency, that render impossible, or at least difficult, the passage from one place to another, which, although heavier than the earth itself, are yet so far

above it, and never sink, do they not proclaim the imperishable might of Jehovah, and speak forth the whole volume of his majesty?'" [5]

His father marked with delight the amiable disposition, the truthful character, and the lively genius of his son, and began to think that higher occupations awaited him than tending focks on his native mountains. The new day of letters was breaking over Europe. Some solitary rays had penetrated into the secluded valley of the Tockenburg, and awakened aspirations in the bosom of its shepherds. The Bailiff of Wildhaus, we may be sure, shared in the general impulse which was moving men towards the new dawn.

His son Ulric was now in his eighth or ninth year. It was necessary to provide him with better instruction than the valley of the Tockenburg could supply. His uncle was Dean of Wesen, and his father resolved to place him under his superintendence. Setting out one day on their way to Wesen, the father and son climbed the green summits of the Ammon, and now from these heights the young Ulric had his first view of the world lying around his native valley of the Tockenburg. On the south rose the snowy crests of the Oberland. He could ahnost look down into the valley of Glarus, which was to be his first charge; more to the north were the wooded heights of Einsiedeln, and beyond them the mountains which enclose the lovely waters of Zurich.

The Dean of Wesen loved his brother's child as his own son. He sent him to the public school of the place. The genius of the boy was quick, his capacity large, but the stores of the teacher were slender. Soon he had communicated to his pupil all he knew himself, and it became necessary to send Zwingli to another school. His father and his uncle took counsel together, and selected that of Basle.

Ulric now exchanged his grand mountains, with their white peaks, for the carpet-like meadows, watered by the Rhine, and the gentle hills, with their sprinkling of fir-trees, which encompass Basle. Basle was one of those points on which the rising day was concentrating its rays, and whence they were radiated over the countries around. It was the seat of a University. It had numerous printing-presses, which were reproducing the master-pieces of the classic age. It was beginning to be the resort of scholars; and when the young student from the Tockenburg entered its gates and took up his residence within it, he felt doubtless that he was breathing a new atmosphere.

The young Zwingli was fortunate as regarded the master under whose care he was placed at Basle. Gregory Binzli, the teacher in St. Theedore's School, was a man of mild temper and warm heart, and in these respects very ulike the ordinary pedagogues of the sixteenth century, who studied by a stiff demeanor, a severe countenance, and the terrors of discipline to compel the obedience of their pupils, and inspire them with the love of learning. In this case no spur was needed. The pupil from the Tockenburg made rapid progress here as at Wesen. He shone especially in the mimic debates which the youth of that day, in imitation of the wordy tournaments of their elders, often engaged in, and laid the foundation of that power in disputation which he afterwards wielded on a wider arena. [6]

Again the young Zwingli, distancing his schoolmates, stood abreast of his teacher. It was clear that another school must be found for the pupil of whom the question was not, What is he able to learn but, Where shall we find one qualified to teach him.? [7]

The Bailiff of Wildhaus and the Dean of Wesen once more took counsel touching the young scholar, the precocity of whose genius had created for them this embarrassment. The most distinguished school at that time in all Switzerland was that of Bern, where Henry Woelflin, or Lupullus, taught, with great applause, the dead languages. Thither it was resolved to send the boy. Bidding adieu for a time to the banks of the Rhine, Zwingli re-crossed the Jura, and stood once more in sight of those majestic snowy piles, which had been in a sort his companions from his infancy. Morning and night he could gaze upon the pyramidal forms of the Shrekhorn and the Eiger, on the tall peak of the Finster Aarhorn, on the mighty Blumlis Alp, and overtopping them all, the Jungfrau, kindling into glory at the sun's departure, and burning in light long after the rest had vanished in darkness.

But it was the lessons of the school that engrossed him. His teacher was accomplished beyond the measure of his day. He had traveled over Italy and Greece, and had extended his tour as far as Syria and the Holy Sepulchre. He had not merely feasted his eyes upon their scenery, he had mastered the long-forgotten tongues of these celebrated countries. He had drunk in the spirit of the Roman and Greek orators and poets, and the fervor of ancient liberty and philosophy he communicated to his pupils along with the literature in which they were contained. The genius of Zwingli expanded under so sympathetic a master. Lupullus initiated him into the art of verse-making after the ancient models. His poetic vein was developed, and his style now began to assume that classic terseness and chastened glow which marked it in after-years. Nor was his talent for music neglected.

But the very success of the young scholar was like to have cut short his career, or fatally changed its direction. With his faculties just opening into blossom, he was in danger of disappearing in a convent. Luther at a not unsimilar stage of his career had buried himself in the cell, and would never have been heard of more, had not a great storm arisen in his soul and compelled him to leave it. If Zwingli shall bury himself

as Luther did, will he be rescued as Luther was? But how came he into this danger?

In Bern, as everywhere else, the Dominicans and the Franciscans were keen competitors, the one against the other, for public favor. Their claims to patronage were mainly such as these–a showy church, a gaudy dress, an attractive ceremonial; and if they could add to these a wonder-working image, their triumph was almost secured. The Dominicans now thought that they saw a way by which they would mortify their rivals the Franciscans. They had heard of the scholar of Lupullus. He had a fine voice, he was quick-witted, and altogether such a youth as would be a vast acquisition to their order. Could they only enrol him in their ranks, it would do more than a fine altar-piece, or a new ceremonial, to draw crowds to their chapel, and gifts to their treasury. They invited him to take up his abode in their convent as a novitiate. [8]

Intelligence reached the Amman of Wildhans of the snares which the Dominicans of Bern were laying for his son. He had imagined a future for him in which, like his uncle the dean, he would be seen discharging with dignity the offices of his Church; but to wear a cowl, to become the mere decoy-duck of monks, to sink into a pantomimic performer, was an idea that found no favor in the eyes of the bailiff. He spoilt the scheme of the Dominicans, by sending his commands to his son to return forthwith to his home in the Tockenburg. The Hand that led Luther into the convent guided Zwingli past it.

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