It was early on the morning of October 11, 1531. The first rays of the morning sun filtered through dew-laden pine trees, and between the stone and wood buildings surrounding the city square called “charity.” Typically, the square would have come to life gradually, the way a person likes to wake up when he has no plans for the day. But on this early morning the usually quiets streets of Zurich Switzerland teemed with frantic activity. An angry and hungry army of several thousand Roman Catholics—half starved by an unfortunate Protestant embargo—had crossed into the Protestant state of Zurich, Switzerland two days earlier.
Now, men, horses, and cannon, crisscrossed the damp cobblestones. The crisp air resonated with the mingled sounds of shuffling leather, jangling steel, whinnying horses, and barking dogs. The shuffling sound came from thousands of boots marching through the narrow, winding streets. The boots were worn by men donning the best military equipment they could muster on short notice—thus the jangling steel. Most of the bearded, rough-looking men carried pikes—sturdy poles easily three times as tall as the men fitted with an iron spearhead. Though they hoped not to need them, the pikemen also wore either halberds—a cross between a staff and an axe at least as tall as the men who carried them—or longswords, both of which would be used in close combat.
The previous night, alarm bells had pealed from every tower in the Zurich state beginning at the center of the city with the same name. A volunteer army began to assemble to halt the advancing enemy. At full day light the city streets resembled what happens moments after a curious boy disrupts an enormous ant hill. Some of the citizen-soldiers raced to the city arms-locker to find weapons. Others, increasingly clustering into small groups, returned with what weapons they could find. Their faces showed warrior determination, even if their hearts were filled with fear of the unknown. Most of the activity led to various cobblestone squares where small groups formed into larger ones. Between the bands of men roamed horses, their hooves clattering at the prodding of their riders. Cannon, borne on iron-clad wheels bounced rhythmically across the stone streets.
Wives and children embraced their husbands and fathers amidst tears and last goodbyes. Women held their children in their doorways; more courageous children ventured into the streets. Army captains, only recently given marching orders, desperately lobbed commands into the mounting confusion.
“Men, we must march!” As the husky shout left the mouth of the company commander—also the town butcher—he turned on his heels toward the rising sun and marched down the steep alley that led to the narrow northern tip of Lake Zurich.
As if on cue, the solid wooden door of the stone house that still cast a shrinking shadow on the remaining soldiers swung open. Three children tumbled down the steps and sped toward the curly-red-haired man who was dismounting his horse to meet their embrace.
“Papa! Don’t go, Papa!” Seven year old Regula struggled to catch her breath after blurting out the words between violent sobs. William and young Ulrich, two and four years younger than their sister, nearly knocked her over as they flew to clasp their father’s legs.
The soldier, a minister by calling, removed his helmet to look into his children’s faces one last time. For nearly the first time since meeting each of his children on the days of their birth, the preacher was lost for words. As he looked up to gather his thoughts, and be relieved of the unbearable pain etched in his children’s faces, the door of his house opened a few more inches. His “two Annas” wrapped in a cream-colored shawl seemed to glide toward him without touching the ground. His baby, only a year old, squirmed in her mother’s arms, her face set between a smile and a scream. His wife wore a similar expression.
“Goodbye, Ulrich…” she started, then faltered. She bit her quivering lip. Her eyes squeezed shut, repelled by the painful scene.
Ulrich scooped up Regula and nearly dragged his sons on his legs to cover the last few paces that separated himself from his bride of only seven years. For a second the confusing scene that had been swirling around the family seemed to freeze as they locked their heaving bodies.
Everyone waited for the father to speak.
“The hour has come that separates us. Let it be. It is God’s will.” He tightened his arms as emotion tightened his throat.
The words of her pastor and spiritual friend strengthened Anna. “We shall all see each other again if it is God’s will.” Thinking of the children, she added, “And what will you bring back when you come?”
“Blessing after dark night,” he replied.
Ulrich pressed his family to his heart for as long as he dared. As he pulled away, he forced his best smile before donning his helmet to shroud his tears and his contorted face. As horse and rider turned the corner of the street Ulrich turned back for one last look and a wave.
Regula broke free of her mother’s arms. Love and fear began forming a word on her wiggling lips. The father turned his face away just before her shrill voice pierced the noise of the crowd. “PAPA!”
Ulrich’s chain-mail shirt jingled with each step of his horse. “My God, we will never return!” he said to himself as he passed abandoned cannon discarded when not enough horses could be found to pull them. The ill-equipped soldiers he passed looked up when they heard Ulrich praying aloud as he rode.
“You had better pray!” jeered some of the Zurichers, many of who had always despised Ulrich’s reformation. “Before day’s end you will stand before God with our blood on your hands. How will you protest then?
Tears blurred Ulrich’s vision.
Over and over his daughter’s last word to him rattled in his brain as his halberd rattled at his side: “Papa! Papa!”
Between prayers, and tears, he remembered.
He easily recalled the pain of his father’s firm spankings from almost half a century earlier. Always, the father’s strong arms would embrace him during discipline, assuring his son of his steadfast love. “Again,” he thought, “my Father is disciplining me for my sin. I have depended too much on the powers of men. I have forgotten about the might of God’s word. Let me not squirm out of this discipline now,” he prayed, “But embrace his rebukes as from a loving and wise Father.”
How often had he and his brothers staged mock-battles in the grass-covered hills of his childhood home? War then was always so glamorous. The good confederates had always repelled the invading armies. The “slain” warriors had always picked themselves out of the grass when their mothers had called them in for supper. One of his favorite lines from his now-estranged friend Erasmus crossed his lips: “War is exciting only for those who have never known its misery.” The chaplain of the Zurich army was almost overtaken by despondency.
Suddenly the rattling armor of his hopeless army brought to mind words he had memorized years ago, as he was copying St. Paul’s epistles into his own notebook from Erasums’ Greek New Testament.
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Ephesians 6:10-13).
Ulrich’s horse lurched, surprised by its rider’s voice now shouting near his ears. “Men, this is our ‘evil day.’ The battle which will shortly commence may be so heated that he who rests for a moment will be destroyed. Be sober, be vigilant. Your enemy will prowl about you seeking to devour you. Listen to my words: Quit you like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13).
By this time all of the soldiers who could hear him were listening intently.
“Do you not here in these words, brothers, our calling also as Christians? The Christian life is a battle, so sharp and full of danger that effort can nowhere be relaxed without loss. We know not how God will decide the conflict on this sacred ground today. Many of us may not be standing in the flesh by nightfall. And yet we can stand in God’s power. The Christian life is always a lasting victory, for he who fights wins if he remains loyal to Christ the head. My brothers, listen to Saint Paul. ‘For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s’” (Romans 14:8).
Amidst the spontaneous praying and preaching of their minister the ragtag army of only a few thousand untrained and disorganized men marched out of step into the heat of the day. Before noon, the Zurich army crested the range of hills that separated the city from the battlefield.
Again, their spirits sank.
Greatly outnumbered, the several hundred Zurich troops which had deployed the previous day had dug in on high ground; but they were nearly trapped from behind by a water-filled ditch, and surrounded by marsh. Between them and their vast enemy was a forest which could easily cover a surprise attack by the Roman Catholics.
“We should wait here until more reinforcements come from Zurich,” one of the generals suggested. “The numbers are certainly against us.”
“Dear sir,” argued Ulrich, “We cannot sit here while our fellows are dug in to fight. If the attack begins will we watch the massacre? We must move into position. Perhaps we were fools to not make peace when we could. But our enemies will now settle for nothing but blood. They will attack. We must not shrink back now when our friends need us most. To talk in glowing terms of bravery when danger is far away, is weak and despicable; but to be steadfast and undeterred when confronted with danger, that is the only sign of a brave heart.”
The troops marched on.
By mid-afternoon, the uneven battle began. It was short. Soon the road back to Zurich was crawling with the wounded and deserting.
Those who would never return to their homes littered the marsh grass. A few small bands of resolute soldiers continued to fight a losing battle. Among these, lingering to shout encouragements to his brave friends, was the most famous gospel minister in the country.
The Roman Catholic army swarmed the remaining Protestant soldiers until there were none left standing.
As dusk descended on the muddy battle-swamp, Ulrich Zwingli, leaning against a small bush and breathing heavily, fought to remain conscious. His legs were thrust through with spears; his helmet crushed by a large rock. Ulrich pressed his hands to his forehead as pain rippled down his face. He drew his hands back in front of his eyes; blood streamed down his wrists.
His thoughts were drawn to his beloved Savior. An ancient chant with ancient words sang through his mind.
“O sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns, Thine only crown;
O sacred Head, what glory,
What bliss till now was thine!
Yet, though despised and gory,
I joy to call Thee mine.
In the chaos—blasting muskets, groaning men, screaming horses, mud-slurping boots tromping through the marsh, pain, loss of blood—the suffering of Christ seemed to mingle with Ulrich’s suffering. As never before, if only for a fleeting moment, he understood Jesus’ words in Mark 8: Deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me. Don’t fear to lose the world if at least you gain your soul—nothing is as valuable!
With his last strength he voiced his victory: “They can kill the body but not the soul!”
William Boekestein pastors Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This story is adapted from his Young Adult biography of Ulrich Zwingli,