October 11, 1531

For us here in the US, history started in one of several discrete moments. For those of us with Viking ancestry, it begins in Vinland — Newfoundland — around 1000 CE meaning Newfoundland should properly be called, “Nearly-newfoundland.” For others it began in 1607 in Jamestown or 1620 at Plymouth Rock. Yet, events in Europe that occurred long before the colonies began to succeed and endure affected the culture than emerged in America.

One of these was the Second War of Kappel, a world-changing event that happened in Kappel am Albis near the border between Canton Zürich and Canton Zug in Switzerland, a brief, bloody rout in which 500 soldiers from Protestant Zürich were killed by an army from the five nearby Catholic Cantons. Never heard of it? That’s OK…

Zürich had not been Protestant long — in fact, nowhere had been Protestant long. The conversion of Zürich was led by a charismatic preacher, a priest, by the name of Huldrych Zwingli.

Portrait of Zwingli by Albrecht Dürer

When we think of the Reformation, we usually think of Tudor England and Martin Luther, but it was a far more complex event with many more “players.” You know how history is written by the winners? I would add it is written by the survivors.

Luther and Zwingli were contemporaries and knew each other. They debated over doctrine publicly several times, and possibly hoped to find a way to bring their two movements together. Their efforts fell apart over the question of whether the bread and wine changed to the body and blood of Christ during communion. For Luther it did; for Zwingli, no. The two men, from then on, led rival reforms, each in his own city, with more or less support from local princes and city leaders.

Each of these reforms increased in size and power until the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor convened a council in the Imperial city of Speyer in 1529 and declared all reformed religions heresy. Those who practiced these religions — and any other of the emergent non-Catholic religions — were declared heretics.

Luther had tremendous support and protection from nobles, Zwingli somewhat less, but the two were able to unite with representatives of fourteen cities of the Holy Roman Empire as well as princes of surrounding regions who supported them. They all signed a document protesting (from which we got the term, “Protestant”) the Diet of Speyer. They vowed to take up arms against any act of violence taken against them.

After many incidents of persecution on both sides, Catholic and Zwinglites, war broke out in 1529 in what is known now as the First War of Kappel near Kappel am Albis, an ecclesiastical village in Canton Zürich, near the border of Canton Zug, a Catholic canton.

The First War of Kappel ended peacefully in the two sides sharing milk soup and bread, but two years later, on October 11, 1531, in the same location, Zwingli’s forces of 2,000 men, many of whom were pastors, met 7,000 trained Papal troops and mercenaries from the five neighboring Catholic cantons. Though other Protestant cantons were supposed to have come to Zürich’s aid, none did. Zürich’s army had no chance against the trained forces of the Pope’s army. Within hours, 500 of Zwingli’s “forces” were dead, twenty-four of them pastors and one of them Zwingli himself.

Second War of Kappel (Chronicon Helvetiae)

The Catholic forces tried Zwingli’s corpse for heresy, found him guilty, cut him into pieces and burned him.

It’s impossible to know what would have happened to Zwingli’s reforms if he had not been killed just a few years after he had begun them and, instead, had lived a long life as did Martin Luther. But John Calvin picked up Zwingli’s ideas, and they have since spread across the world into many of today’s major Protestant religions:

“…across Switzerland and southern Germany, to France among the Huguenots, Holland, England and Scotland among the Congregationalists and Presbyterians, across to the New World among the Congregationalists of New England and the Presbyterian, Dutch and German Reformed Churches of the Middle Colonies” (John B. Payne, “Zwingli and Luther: The Giant vs. Hercules”)

Among those at the Second War of Kappel were two members of my own family, both characters in The Brothers Path. Their ultimate fates are known and make up part of the scaffolding of facts on which the story is draped. But I can’t tell you here. 😉

Abbey Church, Kappel am Albis, Switzerland. Photo by Lois Maxwell

Early this past summer, I spent a week in the valley from which my Swiss ancestors came. Because I was dealing with an injury to my Achilles tendon, I was not as mobile as I would like to have been and I regret that. One of the many things on my list to do and see was the battlefield. I didn’t make it; in fact, I just didn’t bother. Pain is a great dampener of pleasure and killer of plans, but I did make it to the town of Kappel am Albis and saw the old abbey church. I also experienced the atmosphere of this valley — now so peaceful and sweet — but for centuries the setting of battles over territory and beliefs. This valley also became a bastion for Anabaptists, a word that means “re-baptizer.”

Among Zwingli’s firsts is that he was the first Protestant to execute Protestants, specifically Anabaptists. Anabaptist beliefs — most notably beliefs in believer’s baptism and refusing to take up arms against anyone — put them at odds with the Zürich government which had adopted Zwingli’s reforms. The pattern of torture and execution of Anabaptists would continue in this valley for the next two hundred years. It was not until 2004 that the Zürich government took responsibility for its treatment of Anabaptists and installed a plaque in memory of the execution of Felix Manz, early Anabaptist leader, by Huldrych Zwingli in 1527.

The Anabaptists were on everyone’s hit list. The 1529 Diet of Speyer set aside a particular punishment for them.

“…each and every rebaptizer and rebaptized person, man or woman, of an accountable age shall be brought from natural life to death with fire, sword, or the like according to the circumstances of the persons without previous inquisition of spiritual judges. Against the preachers and leaders of the sect as well as those who persisted in the same or fell back into it no mercy shall be exercised but the threatened penalty shall be ruthlessly performed. Those who confess their error, recant, and beg for mercy may be pardoned. Whoever does not have his children baptized shall be considered an Anabaptist. No pardoned person shall be permitted to emigrate, so that the authorities can see to it that he does not backslide. No prince shall receive the subjects of another who have escaped. This mandate shall in all points be most strictly performed by all in order to perform the duties and oaths to the emperor and empire and to avoid the serious displeasure and punishment of the emperor…”

The Anabaptists were regarded as “radicals” mostly, it seems to me, because their beliefs put them in conflict with common civil law by refusing to baptize infants (the traditional way of maintaining a census), take vows, or carry arms in defense of the state.


Today Anabaptist groups include the Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites. The ancestors of my maternal grandmother were Mennonites from Affoltern am Albis. They arrived in Pennsylvania in 1743 on the ship Francis and Elizabeth, and established their home near Lancaster, PA.

To learn about Zwingli’s death from his friend, contemporary and successor at the Grossmünster Cathedral in Zürich, Heinrich Bullinger, look here.

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