Blood Thirsty Reformers: Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin

But this I confess unto thee, that after the way which they call heresy, so worship I the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law and in the prophets: Acts 24:14

Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: Matthew 23:34

The Ethic of Love

Of tremendous importance throughout the period covered by this study was the ethical challenge on the teaching of Christ on love. The issue over the use of force by Christians, especially in the resistance of evil, or abused power, is a major theme. The fact that Zwingli, for example, can be portrayed with Bible in one hand and massive broadsword in the other, as he is in his Zurich statue, indicates the compromise that was and is possible in this matter. The fact that a church could claim the name Christian did not prevent it from engaging in bloody and revengeful persecutions of those whose consciences would not permit them to retaliate.

For the first and second century church this issue was not a particularly live one, since its members formed a tiny minority in the empire and were never in possession of power. Not until barbarian invasions did any question of conscription arise. But there is, no doubt that the principles were understood, as the following, written one hundred years after the apostolic age, indicates: “How shall he [the Christian] wage war, nay, how shall he even be a soldier in peacetime, without the sword which the Lord has taken away? For although soldiers had come to John and received the form of their rule, although even a centurion had believed, the Lord afterwards, in disarming Peter, ungirded every soldier.”

“Is it right to occupy oneself with the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the soil of peace, for whom it will be unfitting even to go to law, be engaged in a battle? And shall he, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs. adminster chains and imprisonment and torture and executions? The very act of transferring one’s name from the camp of light to the camp of darkness is a transgression.”(1)

When full military conscription was introduced towards the end of the 3rd century, there were Christians who were beheaded for refusing to accept the military badge.


Hubmaier Confronts Catholics and Reformers

Balthasar Hubmaier was famous in Catholic Europe. He was appointed vice-rector of Ingolstadt University in 1515 and then a priest at Regensburg Cathedral the following year. Yet Catholicism was in crisis. The Protestant Reformation was sweeping across Europe and in 1522 Hubmaier publicly identified with the cause of Reform. Expelled from Regensburg he became pastor of a church near Zurich where the Reformation was led by Huldrich Zwingli. By 1525 Hubmaier was identifying himself with a new cause —the Anabaptist movement. Up to this point the Catholic authorities had mostly left him alone, but as an Anabaptist he could no longer be tolerated. Hubmaier was a wanted man. Anabaptists were hunted down, imprisoned, tortured and executed. Hubmaier was not the first or last Anabaptist to die in the flames of religious persecution. Nor was his wife the first or last to die in the waters of a river.


We begin this story with an illustration from the Scriptures that remarkably resembles a similar situation when Jehoshaphat teamed up with wicked Ahab to go to battle. They both knew that they should consult the prophets, but Ahab only gathered the 400 false prophets, but Jehoshaphat knew it was too suspicious that all 400 agreed to go up, so he asked if there was another to ask. Yes there was. A prophet named Micaiah. Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill calls him the 401st prophet. Nobody wants to hard sayings. Back to our story. Christians were killed by two opponents…Catholics, and the Reformers that were protesting Catholicism, except they had one major battle, ‘real Christians’, which they BOTH killed.

Now Jehoshaphat had riches and honour in abundance, and joined affinity with Ahab. 2 Chron. 18:1

Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said unto them, Shall I go against Remoth-gilead to battle, or shall I forbear? And they said, Go up: for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king. [7] And Jehoshaphat said, Is there not here a prophet of the Lord besides, that we might enquire of him? [8] And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of lmlah, by whom we may enquire of the Lord: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil. And Jehoshaphat said, Let not the king say so. 1 Kings 22:6-8

And say, Thus saith the king, Put this fellow in the prison, and feed him with bread of affliction and with water of affliction, until I come in peace. 1 Kings 22:27

And Micaiah said, As the Lord liveth, even what my God saith, that will I speak 2 Chron. 18:13

Ulrich Zwingli and Zurich

On a visit to Zurich in 1523, Hubmaier came into contact with Ulrich Zwingli, the pastor of the Grossmunster church in that city. You might say that Zwingli had organized a house church there, although that was probably not his intent at the time. Zwingli was an advocate of the “humanist method.” a product of Erasmus of Rotterdam who Zwingli had met years earlier. Being a humanist in those days did not mean what it did today—rather, it meant engaging in the study of great works of antiquity by seeking the oldest available copies and learning their original languages. Zwingli had organized a group of bright young men who met with him several times a week. After studying a number of secular works, they soon turned to the New Testament, using Erasmus’ Greek New Testament as their source. It is difficult to understand exactly what transpired as they studied the original text, but from the accounts that have survived it seems that most of them became deeply committed believers with a growing sense that the establishment Christianity of their day was contrary to the true New Testament texts. Through the Zurich city council, which regulated all matters of religion, Zwingli and his group had managed to persuade the city to repudiate the Roman church and install an evangelical church in its place. Martin Luther’s successes may have prepared the soil for this development he had followed a similar path of humanist study, and at this time was in hiding to escape the aftermath of his famous “Here I stand” testimony at the Diet of Worms. After disposing of the Roman church, a gradual schism began to develop in Zwingli’s study group. While Zwingli seemed content to rid Zurich of Catholicism, most of his protégés wanted to press their reformation further. In particular, they wanted to end the practice of the baptizing of infants because the New Testament seemed to suggest that candidates for baptism had to be old enough to understand the nature of the commitment they were making. Hubmaier and Zwingli had agreed that the practice would have to go during his 1523 visit, but Zwingli had changed his mind by 1525. It was in that year that things became unglued, the Zwingli and the city council becoming less and less patient with the agitation of members of the group, which, by this time, no longer included Zwingli. The group was banned from meeting, but that did not keep them from gathering in the evening on the same day that the edict was passed and to put their theology into action by baptizing each other into the ‘true Christian faith” (This meeting at the home of Felix Manz). As things were coming to a boil in Zurich, Hubmaier had moved to pastor the church at Waldshut, in Austria, where he began experimenting with ways to bring that parish into the deeper faith that he had become convinced was necessary to be a true disciple of Christ. He broke the rules of the mass, offering the cup to the common people-and this brought him into conflict with the Bishop of Constance. Despite his popularity among the people at Waldshut, the pressure from the Bishop forced him to seek safety among the many friends he had in Schaffhausen in August of 1524. It was here that he wrote one of his more significant tracts, Heretics and Those Who Burn Them, and hardened his position against infant baptism. He also married at that time, an action that would deepen the tragedy of his life. As Hubmaier and his followers continued to experiment, the reaction from Austrian authorities grew stronger. The Austrian army captured the city in December, 1525, forcing Hubmaier to flee to Zurich where he hoped to find refuge with his friend Zwingli. But Zwingli had read one of his tracts condemning infant baptism and had him seized on the spot. After some persuasion at the hand of Zurich’s torturers. Hubmaier made a partial recantation and was allowed to leave Switzerland. He eventually made his way to Lichtenstein where his Anabaptist evangelism converted many-perhaps over 12,000. He wrote many tracts that were circulated throughout Europe, adding fuel to the Anabaptist reformation.

His Martyrdom

Somehow, around 1527, Hubmaier was seized and taken to Vienna along with his wife. He was tried for heresy, convicted, and taken through the streets to the public square. As he was being prepared for the fire, his wife shouted exhortations to him to hold steadfast to his faith. Three days after his execution, his wife was taken to the River Danube and drowned with a large stone tied around her neck. This is the reflection of historian Henry Vedder on HUbmaier’s life:

Hubmaier was one of the Anabaptists against whom his enemies [could] bring no charge of immorality or unchristian conduct. We may be sure they would have found or invented such charges against him had it been possible. He was eloquent, learned, zealous, a man in every way the equal (to say no more) of Luther. Zwingli, and Clavin. His name has been loaded with unjust reproaches; he has been accused of teaching things that his soul abhorred: but in spite of his weakness at Zurich he stands out one of the heroic figures of his age.


Henry C. Vedder. A Short History of the Baptists (Valley Forge. Judson Press. 1907), 149-157, and Balthasar Hubmaier, The Leader of the Anabaptists [New York Knickerbocker Press. 1905].

Typical of Hubmaier’s attitude until the day of his death was his final appeal:

‘These, brethren, are my opinions which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures. If there is any error in them, I pray and beseech you, by Jesus Christ our only Saviour and the day of his last judgement, to condescend to set me right through the Holy Scriptures in a fraternal and Christian manner. I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better. I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks: I will confess the error, and in accordance with the decision of the divine word I will gladly and willingly submit. I have spoken. It is yours to judge and set me right.” After contrasting the two forms of baptism he concludes: “Now let a Bible be opened as the right, orderly and truthful judge between these two propositions: let it be read with prayerful, humble spirit, and then this disagreement will be decided according to the word of God and finally settled. Then shall I be well content, for I shall always give God the glory, and permit His word to be the sole arbiter — to Him will I surrender, to Him have I devoted myself and my teaching. The truth is immortal.”

Historical Account of How Believer’s Were Baptized:

The earliest Christian churches which archaeology has discovered a baptistry. One at Emmaus is ten feet long, three feet wide and five feet deep with a flight of steps to enable both baptizer and baptized to enter the water. The ground-plan of the earliest churches, moreover, is modelled on that of the large Roman house, the baptistry being a development of the domestic impluvium. This certainly takes us back to the “house-churches” of the first and second centuries when, as the “Pastor of Hennes” informs us, every new member was inducted into the faith by descending into the water to “arise living”. In the first age of the church only adults who entered it consciously and voluntarily were baptized. The recurring symbolism in early Christian writings of death and life in association with baptism reflects both the intensity, of waning with which they invested the rite and also the manner of its performance. As will later appear, those scholars who came to make believers’ baptism a vital issue in the 16th century, were familiar not only with the Scriptural background but with these early patristic writings also.


Dialogue of the Trial

We get some idea of the arguments from Hubmaier’s “Ein Gesprech”, a document of his later Mikulov period. The following dialogue there occurs:

Zwingli: You reject infant baptism that you may set up rebaptism.

Hubmaier: You have not produced a single passage to prove infant baptism is baptism. You should remember what you once said, that truth is clearly revealed in the word of God. If now infant baptism is a truth, show us the Scripture in which it is found.

Zwingli: If everyone adopts such views as he pleases, and does not ask the church concerning them, error will increase.

Hubmaier: We should consult the Scriptures, not the church. The church is built upon the word, not the word upon the church.

Zwingli: The thief on the cross believed, and on the same day was with Christ in paradise; yet he was not baptized with outward baptism.

Hubmaier: A man who has the excuse of the thief on the cross will have the favour of God. But when this excuse is lacking the word of Christ holds true that “he that believes and is baptized shall be saved’.

Zwingli: Matthew 3 says that “all Judaea” went out to John and were baptized. Here one may say that if the whole multitude went out, we should expect that there were children who went out also.

Hubmaier: Might not one also say that we should expect that Annas, Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod went out and were baptized? It matters not what we think or expect. We must be governed by the Scriptures. I appeal to the Scriptures. Let them decide.

He begged the council not to compel him to attend church, but to allow him to practise in law-abiding peace his faith in the way his conscience demanded. Zwingli admitted to a friend: ‘We have accomplished nothing. Some have desisted, not because they have changed their mind, but because they have changed their nerve.” His Gruningen brethren and sisters suffered grievously a few months later and many of them were drowned. This method of execution was intended as a mockery of their baptist practices: Zwingli laconically called it “their third baptism”. In one of his finest and most eloquent passages Hubmaier cries from the heart for love and patience and against the brutalities and cruelties perpetrated in the name of Jesus:

“Christ did not come to butcher, to murder, to burn, but that men might have life and that more abundantly. So long as a man lives, we should pray and hope for his repentance. A Turk or a heretic is to be overcome not with sword or fire but by patience and weeping. We are therefore to wait patiently for the judgement of God. Under pressure from Zwingli, the Zurich government finally made adult baptism a capital offence. An old Roman law of Justinian was revived which made “repeating of baptism” and denial of the Trinity a crime punishable by death. The Brethren were labelled “Anabaptists” (re-baptizers) so that the authorities could bring them under this law, though they consistently rejected the term as being untrue and misleading in their case.

John Calvin: Brutal Murder of Servetus

Calvin never disguised his implacable hatred of Serveto, calling him a dog; when the disposal of his life did come into his power and he had Serveto burned alive, he savagely exults after his execution: “Lest idle scoundrels should glory in the insane obstinacy of the man, there appeared in his death a beastly stupidity; whence it might be concluded, that on the subject of religion he never was in earnest.”

  1. See the series on Servetus in The Christadelphian, 1962.

Calvin’s Resentment

He was no man to cross: like Zwingli, Luther and too many other religious leaders of his day, he could be bitterly cruel. But few could match his flaming and intemperate resentment against any who differed radically from him. So it was that the “Brieue Instruction pour armer tous bons fideles contra les erreurs de la secte commune des Anabaptistes” appeared in 1545. Its cover has a flaming sword and the sinister words in Latin: “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

On October 27, 1553 John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, had Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician, burned at the stake just outside of Geneva for his doctrinal heresies! Hence, the originator of the popular doctrine of “once saved, always saved” (known in certain circles as “the perseverance of the saints’) violated the cry of the Reformation – “Sole Scripture” – by murdering a doctrinal heretic without Scriptural justification. This event was something Calvin had considered long before Servetus was even captured, for Calvin wrote his friend, Farel, on February 13. 1546 (seven years prior to Servetus’ arrest) and went on record as saying:

“If he [Servetus] comes [to Geneva] I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight” Evidently, in that day Calvin’s authority in Geneva, Switzerland had ultimate “weight.” This is why some referred to Geneva as the “Rome of Protestantism” and to Calvin as the “Protestant ‘Pope’ of Geneva.” During Servetus’ trial, Calvin wrote:

7 hope that the verdict will call for the death penalty”

“Calvin had him [Servetus) arrested as a heretic. Convicted and burned to death”

From the time that Calvin had him arrested on August 14th until his condemnation, Servetus spent his remaining days:

“… in an atrocious dungeon with no light or heat, little food, and no sanitary facilities.”

Let it be noted that the Calvinists of Geneva put half-green wood around the feet of Servetus and a wreath strewn with sulfur on his head. It took over thirty minutes to renderhim lifeless in such a fire, while the people of Geneva stood around to watch him suffer and slowly die! Just before this happened, the record shows:

“Farel walked beside the condemned man, and kept up a constant barrage of words, in complete insensitivity to what Servetus might be feeling. All he had in mind was to extort from the prisoner an acknowledgement [sic) of his theological error – a shocking example of the soulless cure of souls. After some minutes of this, Servetus ceased making any reply and prayed quietly to himself. When they arrived at the place of execution, Farel announced to the watching crowd: ‘Here you see what power Satan possesses when he has a man in his power. This man is a scholar of distinction, and he perhaps believed he was acting rightly. But now Satan possesses him completely, as he might possess you, should you fall into his traps.’ When the executioner began his work, Servetus whispered with trembling voice: ‘Oh God, Oh God!’ The thwarted Farel snapped at him: Have you nothing else to say?’ This time Servetus replied to him: What else might I do, but speak of God!’… A wreath strewn with sulfur was placed on his head a piercing cry of horror broke from him. Mercy, mercy!’ he cried. For more than half an hour the horrible agony continued, for the pyre had been made of half-green wood, which burned slowly. Jesus, Son of the eternal God have mercy on me,’ the tormented man cried from the midst of the flames ….”

“Calvin had thus murdered his enemy, and there is nothing to suggest that he ever repented his crime [sic]. The next year he published a defence [sic] in which further insults were heaped upon his former adversary in most vindictive and intemperate language.”

See the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Acts 7:52-8:9 “…. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which sheaved before of the coming of the Just One of whom le have been now the betrayers and murderers: v59 And they storied Stephen, calling upon God and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. so And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep…”

Jerusalem killing the prophets?

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, ….” Matthew 23.37

And he said Woe unto you also, ye lawyers! for ye lade men with burdens grievous to be borne, and ye yourselves touch not the burdens with one of your fingers. [471 Woe unto you! for ye build the sepulchres of the prophets, and your fathers killed them. [48] Troy ye bear witness that ye allow the deeds of your fathers: for they indeed killed them, and ye build their sepulchres 50] That the blood of all the prophets, which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation; [51] From the blood of Abel unto the blood of Zacharias, which perished between the altar and the temple: wry* I say unto you, It shall be required of this generation. [52] Woe unto you, lawyers! for ye have taken away the key of knowledge: ye entered not in yourselves, and them that were entering in ye hindered. Luke 11.46-52