By 1524 Luther and Zwingli had achieved early success by gaining the support of the authorities in their area, but the next five years would be difficult ones. In Zurich, many of Zwingli’s supporters came to the conclusion that the Bible called for more radical reforms. They believed that the Bible did not mandate infant baptism and called for baptism to be administered to adults only. Their practice of baptizing (or re-baptizing) adults who joined their movement led them to be named Anabaptists, from the Latin for “re-baptism.”

In addition, many Anabaptists claimed that the Bible forbade Christians from using force, either personally or as representatives of the government. This was a serious attack on Zwingli (and Luther), who had achieved their reforms by convincing political leaders to use their power for Christian purposes; the Anabaptists said that there was no such thing as a Christian use of political power, which invalidated Zwingli’s methods and results. The Zurich city council persecuted Anabaptists severely, sentencing some to death by drowning.

Meanwhile, Luther faced a challenge from the so called Peasant’s War, which began when a large group of peasants were inspired by Luther’s talk of Christian freedom to demand political freedom for themselves. Luther initially supported their demands (which we would today call political in nature), but the revolt became increasingly violent—and threatening to the nobles who had protected Luther from the Pope and Emperor.

In some places, really radical changes were introduced, such as Mühlhausen, where a pastor named Thomas Müntzer took over the town, rejected baptism completely, allowed polygamy, and turned the city into a theocratic commune. In 1525 Luther denounced the peasants and they were violently suppressed by Catholic and Protestant princes alike—in the next year, it is estimated that 100,000 peasants were killed. Zwingli and the Zurich town council avoided violence because they freed all serfs in their canton, but they began a policy of vicious persecution of Anabaptists. Thus the distinction between the “mainstream” Reformation, carried out mostly with government support, and the “radical” Reformation, marked by anabaptism and refusal to participate in government, was created; soon, the mainstream was also breaking up.

Even as Zwingli’s ideas spread to other Swiss cantons (by 1521, 5 cantons had officially adopted reformed principles, though two allowed Catholics to maintain their own churches), he and Luther got into an increasingly fierce debate (carried out through pamphlets) about the nature of the Eucharist--which, unfortunately, I have to explain in some detail.

The medieval Catholic Church taught that when a priest said Mass, he was appropriating the forgiving power of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross by re-enacting Jesus sacrifice. This power of forgiveness could be channeled toward a particular person or people, and people commonly provided money for priests to say Masses for themselves or their loved ones after death. Furthermore, when a priest repeated the words of Jesus, "this is my body," God's power replaced the "substance," the non-physical essence, of the bread with the body of Christ, without altering its physical characteristics. As the body of Christ, the bread was to be treated with due respect; people bowed and kneeled to it and worshipped it as they would worship Christ himself.

Luther vehemently rejected the idea that the Mass was a sacrifice, since that would imply that a human action could bring about God's forgiveness, but he still believed that the substance of Jesus' body entered the consecrated bread--although he believed that the bread also continued to exist. Thus he validated the marks of respect given to the bread.

Zwingli, on the other hand, discarded all the talk of substance and saw the communion as a symbol that did not change the bread. There was little room for compromise--Zwingli thought that Luther was worshipping a false idol made of bread and Luther thought that Zwingli was denying God's presence on earth. In 1530, when Emperor Charles convened another diet at Augsburg, he asked the Protestants to present their views for consideration.

The Lutherans and the “Reformed” Christians who stood behind Zwingli presented two different statements of faith; and the two churches would never again be fully united. The Lutheran statement, known as the Augsburg Confession, was written by Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s right-hand man and one of the most respected scholars in Europe. It became the standard by which Lutherans defined themselves (and others) and is still the basic Lutheran creed.

The long-term benefits of the Augsburg Confession were outweighed by the short-term consequences. Charles V ordered all Protestants to convert to Catholicism by April 15, 1531. When German Protestant nobles organized to defend themselves, Charles backed down and allowed Lutherans to continue practicing. The Reformed were not given freedom to practice, and Anabaptists were actively persecuted and regularly executed by both Catholics and Lutherans.

For the next 15 years, German Lutherans and Catholics co-existed — not peacefully, but in a situation where neither could dominate the other. The same year, the Swiss Catholic cantons banded together to wipe out Protestant governments in Zurich and elsewhere. Zwingli was killed in battle during this war, but the Peace of Kappel allowed each canton to choose its religion; this guaranteed the survival of the Reformed churches in Switzerland and provided the first example of relatively peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Protestants.

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Next: Reformation History 3: 1531-1547

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