Rev Dr Martyn C Cowan
Martyn Cowan studied philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast (BA and MA) and went on to se…View all articles
In August 1519, whilst Zwingli was visiting the spa town of Bad Pfäfers, news came to him that the plague which was sweeping through the Swiss Confederacy had arrived in Zürich. Zwingli had only been ministering in the city for a matter of months, having been installed as the Leutpriester (People’s Priest) in the Grossmünster in January. The Black Death of the fourteenth century had long passed, but across sixteenth-century Europe there were still devastating waves of bubonic plague. The symptoms included painful swollen lymph nodes (buboes) which gave the disease its name. Often those with the means to leave the city would have retreated, but Zwingli immediately returned to the city in order to minister to the sick and the dying. By mid-September, when the epidemic had taken some 2,500 lives, Zwingli and his brother Andreas contracted the disease and fell seriously ill. Over the course of several months, Zwingli battled the disease and he made a slow recovery by the spring of 1520. Altogether, the Zurich plague claimed the lives of over 7,000 people, a quarter of the population, including Andreas.
Unsurprisingly, the whole experience had a significant effect upon Zwingli and his future ministry. According to Charles Garside, ‘Perhaps no other experience in his life was to affect him quite so profoundly or quite so completely’. We are given an insight into this through the Pestlied (Plague Song) which he penned; Hilf, Herr Gott, Hilf (1520). It covers his experience from the time when the plague first struck, through the period when he himself was close to death, until the time of his own recovery.
Help, Lord God, help in this trouble! I think death is at the door.
Stand before me, Christ; for you have overcome him!
To Thee I cry: If it is Thy will, take out the dart, which wounds me,
Nor lets me have an hour’s rest or repose!
Will’st Thou, however, that death take me in the midst of my days, so let it be!
Do what Thou wilt; me nothing lacks.
Thy vessel am I; to make or break altogether.
In this poem, Zwingli testifies to his conviction that in both life and death he was under the providential care of a sovereign God to whom he submitted himself. This experience of suffering bore fruit in his own ministry; as he put it, he saw himself as a ‘vessel’ or instrument in God’s hand. For example, Zwingli would go on to articulate this high view of divine providence in De Providentia (1530), a significant treatise on the doctrine of providence. This experience was also deeply formative for Zwingli’s preaching ministry. After the plague, as Farner notes, Zwingli’s preaching ‘reached the heights of absolute clarity and determination’. In particular, as Campi observes, after this profound experience Zwingli ‘began to emphasize more strongly both human sinfulness and salvation through God’s grace alone’. As he put it in the concluding words of the Pestlied, ‘my lips must Thy praise and teaching bespeak more than ever before’.
Zwingli’s experience, so poignantly captured in the Pestlied, demonstrates how harrowing experiences of suffering, such as a devastating epidemic, can be used by God to shape and mould individuals for effective Christian ministry. This reminder from history exemplifies how the fruit of affliction can be growing and maturing even in the most painful and trying of days.
 Charles Garside Jr., Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven, 1966), 23.
 Zwingli, ‘A Christian Song Written by Huldrich Zwingli when He was Attacked by the Pestilence’, in Samuel M. Jackson (ed.) Ulrich Zwingli: Early Writings (Eugene, 1999), 56.
 W. Peter Stephens, Zwingli: An Introduction to His Thought (Oxford, 1992), 48.
 W. Peter Stephens, ‘Election in Zwingli and Bullinger: A Comparison of Zwingli’s Sermonis de Providentia Dei Anamnema (1530) and Bullinger’s Oratio de Moderatione Servanda in Negotio Providentiae, Praedestinationis, Gratiae et Liberi Arbitrii (1536)’, Reformation and Renaissance Review, 7 (2005), 42-56.
 Oskar Farner, Zwingli the Reformer: His Life and Work (Hamden, 1968), 34-7.
 Emidio Campi, ‘The Reformation in Zurich’, in Amy Nelson and Emidio Campi (eds), A Companion to the Swiss Reformation (Leiden, 2016), 70.